By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Christian Universalism gives the moral teachings of Jesus precedence over exclusivist mystical beliefs that condemn unbelievers. Thomas Jefferson emphasized that priority in his Jefferson Bible, which has been recognized by New Testament scholars as a seminal work that separates “the real teachings of Jesus from the encrustations of Christian doctrine.”
A resurrection of Christian Universalism is needed to liberate the teachings of Jesus from exclusivist church doctrines. Those universalist teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. (Luke 10:25-37) It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
The disarray of Christian morality testifies to the need for a Christian reformation to conform its mystical beliefs and moral imperatives to the teachings of Jesus. And the moral teachings of Jefferson’s Jesus provide universalist standards of legitimacy that foster interfaith dialogue among Christians and Muslims as a common word of faith in pluralistic democracies.
The teachings of Jesus are found in the four Gospel accounts. The three Synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are closest to a historical account of the life and teachings of Jesus. The Gospel of John came much later and is a more symbolic account of Jesus Christ as the mysterious Logos, or word of God.
Mark’s gospel is the first, shortest, and the least embellished of the four gospels. It opens with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, where Jesus saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11).
Jesus was a radical Jewish rabbi who, in the prophetic tradition, taught God’s will; but he never promoted any religion, not even his own. Jesus called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him; and he preached a gospel of love over law (Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; 7:14-23). Jesus angered religious leaders who taught that Mosaic Law was God’s standard of righteousness.
When the mother and brother of Jesus came looking for him early in his ministry, Jesus told those around him: Who are my mother and my brothers? ...Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother. (Mark 3:3-35) In this passage Jesus described spiritual kinship in a universal family of God that had no religious boundaries for all who followed his teachings.
Exclusivist Christian beliefs that condemn unbelievers are based on man-made church doctrines, not the teachings of Jesus. Jesus taught that salvation--transcending our depraved human nature to experience our eternal spiritual nature--comes through the transforming power of God’s love; and that love is reciprocal--we must give it to others to receive it. (Luke 6:36-38)
Christian Universalism can resurrect the teachings of Jesus from exclusivist church doctrines and make them the foundation for religious and political reconciliation in a world where increased religious diversity has made such reconciliation essential to world peace. Even so, universalism will be opposed by Christianity and Islam, since those religions promote their popularity and power with the exclusivist belief that all unbelievers are condemned to hell.
The scriptures cited above on the teachings of Jesus are compared with comparable teachings of Muhammad in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, an interfaith study guide posted at https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3gvZV8mXUp-aTJubVlISnpQc1U/view, in Resources on the home page of http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/p/resources.html.
The role of Jefferson’s Jesus in the study guide is described in the Introduction at pp. 10-15.
On the greatest commandment at Mark 12:28-33, see pp. 25-29.
On “who is my neighbor?” in the story of the good Samaritan at Luke 10:25-37, see pp. 223-225.
On give, and you will receive God’s love, see Luke 6:36-38 at pp. 212-214.
On love over law, see Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; and 7:14-23 at pp. 31-37.
On the universal family of God at Mark 3:31-35, see pp. 21-24.
The Universalist Church of America has a rich history beginning in the 18th century, up to its 1961 merger with Unitarians to form Unitarian Universalists. Concepts of Christian Universalism remain in other Christian groups, including evangelicals, charismatics and more liberal progressive Christians. See Wikipedia on Christian universalism at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_universalism.
Christian universalism should be distinguished from the universal aspiration of traditional Christianity to convert the world to exclusivist Christian beliefs. “Universalism is the theological doctrine that all souls will eventually find salvation in the grace of God” (Webster), while traditional Christians believe that salvation is limited to those who believe in exclusivist Christian doctrines. Universalism and exclusivist religious beliefs are diametrically opposed, but the two views are often confused. See Joran Slane Oppelt’s answer of to the question Is a universal community under one religion possible? at Progressing Spirit at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxvzKkvdMlrnTlWFvjNXftgTwGrL. Christian Universalism is not about religious conformity, but compatibility in a world of increasing religious diversity.
On universalism generally, see Universalism: A theology for the 21st century, by Forrest Church, November 5, 2001, at http://www.uuworld.org/articles/universalism-theology-the-21st-century.
See also, https://christianuniversalist.org/.
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/4/15): Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation in the Family of God
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(8/30/15): What Is Truth?
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Different
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/22/17): Hell No!
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(2/17/18): Musings of a Maverick on Money, Wall Street, Greed and Politics
(3/3/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Holy War
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_24.html
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(5/26/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Mysticism and Morality in Religion and Politics
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
(6/23/18): Musings on the Separation of Church and State and Christian Morality in Politics
(6/30/18): Who Are We? Musings on How Our Faith Shapes Our Politics and Who We Are http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/06/who-are-we-musings-on-how-our-faith.html.
(7//7/18): Whose America Is This? Musings on Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/07/whose-america-is-this-musings-on.html.
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(7/21/18): Musings on America’s Moral and Political Mess and Who Should Clean It Up
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
(8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics
(8/25/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Moral Priorities in Religion and Politics
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads
(9/15/18): Who Put Jesus on the Cross and Trump on the Throne? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/09/who-put-jesus-on-cross-and-trump-on.html.
(9/22/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Losing Religion and Finding Faith