24 February 2007

"What about those who have never heard about Christ? Is is fair they be 'damned' just because they were never exposed to Christianity?"

If you find these questions seem to be odd from a Unitarian Universalist perspective, then you're probably wondering why I've used them for the title of this blog article.

These questions are the topic for next Wednesday's meeting for my congregation's Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship Bible Study Group (this group is one of our congregation's "covenant groups"). Our local UUCF group is hosting a multi-week forum on "Questions and Concerns About Christianity" and these two questions will be discussed next week.

I'm surprised to know that these questions are current concerns for modern-day Unitarian Universalist Christians because I thought they were discussed in-depth during the 1800s and we have moved on to other aspects of Christianity in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.

Our Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist heritage is rooted in the Protestant Chirstian tradition and our tradition has looked at these questions in depth.

The early 1800s Unitarian view was one of "salvation by character." Rev. Jane Rzepka (Senior Minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship) describes "salvation by character" using the following words in her 2003 General Assembly CLF Worship Service:
"We are Unitarian Universalists, and our salvation comes not in the rapture but, historically at least, in 'salvation by character.' We believe there is something wonderful inside us -- you could call it inherent dignity and worth -- that allows us to work toward good character, wholeness, healing, and all that is good. We have within us a little core of natural hope -- Thoreau's bug in the sixty year old table metaphor could work here [refers to reading] -- some little bit of hopeful life that lies waiting to spring into action. And even better, most UUs don't just sit for sixty years waiting, we act to realize that hope, that life, that wholeness. In spite of the difficulties in our own experience and of life in the larger world, we do what we can. Therein lies our Unitarian Universalist salvation."
The early 1800s Universalist view was one of "salvation irrespective of character." That is best described using the words of Hosea Ballou in the address he gave to the 1851 Universalist General Convention in Boston (as recorded in his online biography page):
"In homely language, he summed up his belief in a God who, as a Father, loves all his children: 'Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?"
A recent summary of the origins of modern-day Unitarian Universalist soteriology (theology of salvation) can be found in "Unitarian Universalist Identity" curriculum for young adults by Katie Tweedie Erslev:
UU Soteriology: Raising the Roof
"Once again, in contrast to the predominant foundation of the theology of Calvinism, our roof was raised by the 19th century Universalists. Universalism gave us a roof that saved us all. They said that what saves us is the power of creative love made viable to us in the person of Jesus.

Do we need to be saved from Hell? The Universalists said that we create heaven and hell on earth. We need to be saved from the Hells that we create."
So ... I guess that many Unitarian Universalists would view Jesus, his teachings, and the example he set during his pre-Easter life on Earth as one example of creative love saving others.

But I don't think that we would say that Jesus is the only example of creative love saving others.

These questions may be important for Christian newcomers to our congregation who are dealing with concerns about competing claims over Christian exclusiveness and religious pluralism.

But while this theology is an important part of our heritage that we should celebrate, it's not an urgent theological concern for most Unitarian Universalists today.

If one doesn't believe in Hell other than the hells we create in the here-and-now, is there any point in talking about it or wondering if those who have not heard about Christ are possibly condemned to hellfire and damnation?

And that's why I would find the discussion questions for this group's next meeting to be odd from my Unitarian Universalist perspective.


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Anonymous said...

The same could be asked of Islam and Buddhism (given that the Buddha way is proclaimed as 'unsurpassable').

But ultimately you are putting the question to a straw man.

Philocrites said...

Sounds to me like a question members of the group might encounter from non-UU friends who identify as Christians. It's definitely a question Evangelicals and Fundamentalists ask, and so a UU Christian who is trying to talk about their faith with Evangelicals would want a way to respond.

Steve Caldwell said...

On 24 February 2007, Philocrites wrote:
"Sounds to me like a question members of the group might encounter from non-UU friends who identify as Christians."


That's something that I considered and acknowledged in my original post.

However, the interesting thing about the ongoing "Questions and Concerns About Christianity" from their materials is no discernable connection to prior Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist theological work (based on the materials from the workshops that I've seen so far).

This past week's discussion looked at "Do all paths lead to the same God?" and other related questions.

I would have thought that the Transcendentalist movement and its role in 19th century Unitarianism would have been relevant here. This is a part of our shared UU heritage and it's certainly relevant to this topic.

Theodore Parker's views on the possibility of divine revelation beyond Jesus would also be relevant here.

Should there be some connection between UUCF groups and the wider UU movement and heritage?

Paul said...

I suppose a lot of it's rooted in the New Testament - lots of passages, say in John, showing Jesus as telling everyone who doesn't believe he's the Christ that they're going to hell.

But even there, the text is presenting Jesus as offering his fellow Jews the opportunity to believe him and they turn him down. There's nothing at all in the text showing Jesus going "And woe to all those around the world who never heard of me!"

It does seem like a silly question.

Ron said...

>Should there be some connection between UUCF groups and the wider UU movement and heritage?<

Steve, belated post here. Philocrites comments were the first thing that came to my mind too, but also that ongoing revelation in our heritage means of course not that issues once raised are decided forever but that there is an openness to theological inquiry and lately, I would say the last ten years, there have been a lot of revisiting of older questions and issues as the UUCF circle has expanded not only to include more liberal and liberationist and Jesus-Seminar type Christians but also those coming into our circle from a decidely Universalist Christian arena where such issues are a hot topic of debate in the neo-evangelical world. Even issues such as the Restorationist-Death&Glory debate among Universalists in the early 1800s has been still evident and I think rising again in some ways among us, as evident the UU Christian vol. 60 special issue on Universalism Then and Now; there are still Restorationists among us.
So, on a practical side to your question about the connections, UUCF related groups are open to explore what issues are burning to them in their local area, and many are reaching out to the wider area where these issues are still current as well even though they might not be for the majority of people already UUs. Actually, now that I think of it, it isn't a bad evangelistic tool.
thanks for the post, and blessings, Ron