Religious Historian Michael McClymond on Christian Universalism

Universalist

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Indiana (Wikimedia Commons)

St. Louis University religious historian Michael McLymond recently published a two-volume, 1376 page history of Christian universalism with Baker Academic titled The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism.  I have learned a great deal from McClymond’s previous books on Jonathan Edwards and American revivalism, but I am afraid I will not get around to reading this one despite my interest in the subject.  The book is too long and too expensive ($90.00).  Perhaps one day I will find an affordable used copy and add it to my library for reference purposes.

I am thus glad that McClymond has summarized some of his findings in a recent piece at First Things titled “Opiate of the Theologians.”  Here is a taste:

Today’s universalist theology immanen­tizes Christian knowing by diminishing the eschatological tension between the now and the not yet. The Apostle Paul wrote that we know in part and see through a glass darkly. Hart labors under no such limitations: He fully knows the eschaton, transparently perceives it, and declares with assurance what will certainly happen. Hart thus affirms a total luminosity of human eschatological understanding, banishing all shadows of doubt regarding God’s future ways and works. This trait marks Hart not as Catholic or Orthodox but as an Enlightenment thinker. Apophatic reserve evaporates.

How differently the Church’s acknowledged mystics approached the theme of heaven and hell. According to Denys Turner and Bernard McGinn, ­Julian of Norwich has been often, but wrongly, read as a universalist. Interpreted in the context of her other statements, Julian’s famous phrase that “all shall be well” did not mean that “all shall be saved,” but instead it was her affirmation of the ultimate rightness of God’s ways. It was a statement made in faith, shot through with epistemic and eschatological tension, since she did not presume to be able to state exactly how it is that finally “all shall be well.”

To observe the link between universalism and rationalism, one only needs to consider the developments of the last two or three centuries. The theological devolution of modern universalism into Unitarianism was not an accident. Once human reasoning had deconstructed the divine mysteries of election and eschaton, it applied its tender mercies to the Trinity and Incarnation as well. ­Unitarian-universalist rationalism spread like a virus, infecting the sinus, the lungs, the circulatory system, and then the whole body of Christian theology. No election, no hell, no atonement, no divine Son, no divine Spirit, and no Trinity—all that remained was moral uplift and human solidarity, or, as one wit put it, the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston. As one saying went, the universalists thought God was too good to damn them, while the unitarians thought they were too good to be damned. Here was an early version of the religion of humanity: deity and humanity reconstructed on a model of total divine-human and human-human solidarity, minus the mystery of the Incarnation.

Read the entire piece here.

The Collapse of Evangelicalism’s Cultural Center

Lifeway

Over at Slate, Ruth Graham writes about the decline of the Christian bookstore.  Here is a taste of her piece:

The Christian publishing industry, and its distribution arm in Christian bookstores, plays a central role within evangelical culture, even for those who don’t read “Christian books.” Since evangelicalism has no central authority, the publishing industry’s self-defined borders have a huge impact on the people, ideas, and practices that get publicly promoted—and eventually accepted—as “true” Christianity. “Publishers have been really central to granting authority within evangelical culture … and for evangelical celebrities to be created,” said Daniel Vaca, a historian at Brown University whose book Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America will be published later this year. “Publishers have provided a cultural center for evangelicalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

This is so true.  As I read Graham’s piece, I was reminded of how little evangelical churches do to help their congregations navigate the evangelical culture–books, videos, television shows, movies, “Jesus junk,” and music–that they encounter online and in Christian stores.  A lot of evangelical churches have libraries, but they are usually not curated very well and have limited access to funds.  (There are exceptions to this rule!).

These Christian bookstores served as evangelicalism’s “cultural center” in the sense that they connected local believers to a broader evangelical world shaped by booksellers and other market-oriented forces.  The curators of this world brought us Joel Osteen, Paula White, Beth Moore, Rick Warren, Hal Lindsey, Josh McDowell, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, Frank Peretti, Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado, Dave Ramsey, Lee Strobel, Eric Metaxas, Ben Carson, T.D. Jakes, David Jeremiah, Sarah Young, John Eldridge, Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, Kay Arthur, Anne Graham Lotz, Andy Stanley, and Joni Eareckson Tada, to name a few.

The evangelical world created by Christian publishing and bookstores largely centered on personal piety, Bibles and bible studies, self-help, and products that fused evangelical Christianity with the American dream.  (I have actually read and benefited from a few authors on the list in the previous paragraph, but I find that most of this stuff does not feed my soul or help me navigate my world in a thoughtful way).  In other words, these Christian bookstores rarely had large sections devoted to serious theology, biblical scholarship or books on how to bring serious Christian thinking–the kind produced at Christian colleges and seminaries–to social issues.  (This is why places like Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania or Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan are so important).

Now that the Christian bookstores are going away, and since it is unlikely that the church will replace the publishing industry’s curating function, the Internet and social media will become the cultural center of evangelicalism.  (One could probably argue that this has already happened).  In some ways, this is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  Individual websites, tweeters, and “influencers” will now serve as curators, resulting in the increasing fragmentation of American evangelicalism.

Christian Universalism

mcCLymondChristianity Today is running an informative interview with Saint Louis University theologian and religious historian Michael McClymond on Christian universalism.  The interview, conducted by Paul Copan of Palm Beach Atlantic University, is based on his new book The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism.  Here is a taste of the interview:

What prompted you to write on the topic of universalism?

There were several stages in the process. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I had a religious studies professor—the late Dr. Edmund Perry—who insisted that Paul taught universal salvation in Romans and 1 Corinthians. I was taking Greek at the time, and the professor’s claim did not seem credible to me. When I attended Yale Divinity School, I wrote a comparative essay on the eschatologies of Origen and Karl Barth—a short piece that I now recognize as the tiny seed from which The Devil’s Redemption later sprang.

Another factor is a dream that I had about a dozen years ago. Without going into too much detail, this was an unnerving encounter in which I saw God’s coming judgment arriving in the form of an overpowering storm; people in the path of the storm were pleasantly chit-chatting when they ought to have been seeking cover. The dream left a lasting impression. It suggested to me that we’re unprepared—both inside and outside of the church—for the return of Christ.

When Rob Bell came out with Love Wins in 2011, what struck me was not so much the book itself, with its well-worn arguments, but rather the widespread approval the book elicited, together with the collective yawn of indifference on the part of most who didn’t approve. I came to the conclusion that Karl Barth’s affirmation of universal election in the 1940s (in the second volume of his massive Church Dogmatics) had inaugurated a widespread turn toward universalism in mainstream theological circles, that this trend had gained momentum over the last half-century, and that the time was overdue for a wide-ranging appraisal of this teaching.

Read the entire interview here.   You can buy the book, in two volumes, from Baker Academic at the whopping price of $90.00.

Fun at Baker Book House in Grand Rapids

I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan this weekend with my daughter and we could not resist a brief stop at the famed Baker Book House!  As some of you know, Baker published my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  Here are some pics (with captions)

Happy that my book is shelved just above A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jesus
At the front door
I heard the foreword to this book is pretty good.  

An interesting juxtaposition  (read pp 73-78 in Why Study History to learn why)