Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Universalism is a religious concept based on universal salvation.  It rejects exclusivism—the concept that salvation is limited to one religion and that all others are condemned to hell.  The teachings of Jesus are universalist and provide accountability to God and man with values and moral standards of legitimacy based on altruistic love.  They allow free will, political freedom and democracy, and promote religious and political reconciliation rather than division.

            Universalism originated within Christianity, and while most Universalists are now Unitarians, there is a remnant of Christian Universalists who believe in universalist principles based on the teachings of Jesus.  There are also Jews, Muslims and Unitarians who share belief in the teachings of Jesus as the word of God but do not accept the divinity of Jesus.  It is belief in Jesus as co-equal with God in the Trinity that makes Christianity exclusivist.

            Muslims consider Jesus a prophet born of a virgin who taught the word of God and who will return on the last day.  That is provided in the Qur’an, which Muslims consider the perfect and immutable word of God.  But while the Qur’an accepts Jews and Christians as believers, it condemns all Christians who believe in the Trinity as blasphemers, since the Trinity conflicts with the unitarian nature of God that is explicitly provided in the Qur’an.

            Mustafa Akyol has presented an Islamic Jesus who was not divine, but a messenger of God’s word, much like Muhammad.  In fact, Jesus never taught that he was divine.  His divinity is based on Paul’s atonement doctrine, which evolved into the holy Trinity and made Jesus a co-equal with God.  Jesus taught his disciples to follow him, not to worship him, and his teachings provide timeless and universal values and moral standards based on the altruistic love of others.

            Religious fundamentalists believe in the divine perfection of their holy books, including their religious laws.  When Islamist fundamentalists seek to enforce ancient apostasy and blasphemy laws, they are not only exclusivists but political oppressors who deny the freedoms of religion and speech.  Religious standards of legitimacy must be voluntary moral standards rather than religious laws in order to be consistent with freedom and democracy. 

            Progressive Christians and Muslims believe that their scriptures should be interpreted as consistent with freedom and democracy.  Over 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson, who was a Unitarian deist and a child of the Enlightenment, asserted “the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in our Declaration of Independence, and he also asserted that the teachings of Jesus were “the sublimest morality that has ever been taught.” 

            Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion, not even his own.  He taught that all who did the will of God were his spiritual brothers and sisters in a universal family of God. (Mark 3:33-35).  Jesus taught the greatest commandment was to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves; and when asked who is my neighbor? he told the story of the good Samaritan in which an apostate Samaritan was a good neighbor to a Jew. (Luke 10:25-37) 

            The teachings of Jesus rejected rigid religious laws and opened the door to the libertarian values of the Enlightenment, and Western religions have since conformed their doctrines with individual rights and democracy.  But Christianity and Islam continue to be exclusivist, perhaps because rejecting their unique claims to salvation would eliminate negative incentives that are needed to retain their believers and their worldly power.

            Both Christianity and Islam accept the universalist teachings of Jesus as the word of God.  Christians and Muslims should reject their exclusivist and divisive doctrines, and as universalists who follow the teachings of Jesus they can then promote religious and political reconciliation.    


On universalism generally, see Universalism: A theology for the 21st century, by Forrest Church, November 5, 2001, at

On Christian Universalism, see the website at

On Mustafa Akyol’s Islamic Jesus (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017), see; Akyol has also affirmed the importance of fundamental freedoms in Islam (see; and Akyol has suggested that an Islamic Enlightenment might follow the model of the Jewish Enlightenment (see 

Thomas Jefferson embraced the moral teachings of Jesus but considered the church an obstacle to freedom.  He wrote Henry Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man."  Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379.  See also, Introduction to The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at page 10, note 2, posted at

The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy is a study guide for interfaith groups that compares those teachings of Jesus selected by Thomas Jefferson with comparable provisions of the Qur’an and hadith, with commentary.  It is posted at

Related Commentary posted at

(12/8/14) Religion and Reason
(12/15/14): Faith and Freedom
(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
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
(9/20/15) Politics and Religious Polarization
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
(1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(2/27/16): Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Faith, Freedom and Politics
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(5/27/17): Intrafaith Reconciliation as a Prerequisite for Interfaith Reconciliation
(6/10/17): Religious Exclusivity and Discrimination in Politics
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter?
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/8/17): Hell No!

No comments:

Post a Comment