Tag Archives: Theology

From Avatar to theories of the atonement

I went with some friends to see Avatar on Friday.  I had been pretty annoyed that it got so many Academy Award nominations, but I had not actually seen the film, so my annoyance was based on absolutely nothing.  I no longer feel that way.  It is an absolutely stunning film, in terms of immersive special effects–James Cameron has created a beautiful, convincing world, which, quite frankly, I wouldn’t object to living in.  And the film entertains: it’s nearly 3-hours long, but it doesn’t feel that long for a moment.  It deserves the nominations for these reasons alone.

Story-wise, however, it’s nothing special.  But you’ve probably heard that.  You may even have seen this hilarious Avatar Plot Fail:

epic fail pictures
see more Epic Fails

I’ve never seen Pocahantas, but that sounds about right.  I saw a lot of Dances with Wolves (and therefore also The Last Samurai) in the film.  I made a prediction based on the Dances with Wolves Connection, but thankfully it did not happen.

(I am now also put in mind of a film I saw as a child, in which a First Nations boy is hustled to the top of a mountain by a group of other  boys from his tribe. On the mountaintop, they stick eagle feathers into him–actually piercing his skin–and then he either jumps off the cliff or is pushed off.  But instead of falling to his death, he turns into an eagle.  Does that sound familiar to anyone?  I have no idea what that it could be.  But I digress…)

Critiques: “Unobtainium”?  Really?  We are on this planet to mine for this highly profitable mineral.  However, we are not able to get access to the most concentrated stores, due to the presence of the Na’vi people.  This mineral, which we are unable to obtaindue to these people, is called…er…”Unobtanium”.

Momentary de-suspension of disbelief: During the final fight scene, when the huge robot operated by the general loses his gun and then HE PULL A BIG KNIFE FROM A SHEATH!  Seriously? Am I crazy to think that in the future, knives will not be standard issue for combat robots?

That aside, I heartily suggest that you watch this film in theatres and in 3D.  In fact, I’ll go one step further than suggesting: I urge you to see it in theatres and in 3D.  But only because of the captiviating 3D world.

After the film I opined to my companions that the solution to violence and oppression in both film and reality is inevitably more violence.  Can the Na’vi (essentially a representation of the First Nations people before the arrival of Europeans) ever return to their peaceful, in-tune-with-the-natural-world lifestyle after experiencing a battle of high-tech weapons of if-not-mass-then-still-pretty-big destruction?

I suggested that what was unique about the story of Christ’s efforts against the forces of oppression and suffering was that he did not meet them on their terms, but on entirely different terms. One of my companions was intrigued in a “I’m not sure about that” kind of way.  I agreed that there was a lot of violence in the Gospels–the crucifixion being its ultimate example–but suggested that it was one-way.  My companion wondered about the wrath of the Father poured out on the Son.  And for the first time in my life, I think, I was really hit by the fact that there is not one Theory of the Atonement, but several theories, and that I really have no clue about what they all are.

I started writing something here about why I’m uncomfortable with the penal substitutionary atonement theory, but I quickly realized that if I continued I would be blowing a lot of hot air, because I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about.  Happily, I notice that for the next two weeks, we will be discussion atonement–or more accurately, “soteriology”–in my theology class.

Metamorphosis

Just a thought I had as I was ruminating on these words of Jesus: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which people may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (John 6:49-51a).

I’m gonna throw this thought out there; if you like it, you can take it, and if you don’t, you can send it right back:

I’ve wondered before about the possibility of there being death prior to the “fall” of humans–possibly even death as a part of the created order.  I’ve considered this from a somewhat scientific angle (so far as my limited scientific capacity allowed), but not from a theological or ontological angle.  (This is all speculative, of course.)

What if death was originally meant to be a sort of metamorphosis in the process of creation and that, prior to the fall, humans would naturally come out on the other side of death in a sort of resurrection into the final form of the physical life?  That is, what if creation (or human development specifically) is not complete until a human had passed through death into new life?  This came to mind as I was reading this passage because while Jesus promises eternal life (“not die,” “will live forever”), his disciples still died.  People of faith around the world die natural deaths every day.  It’s a question I’ve had for a while.

Today, however, it occurred to me that Jesus’ death was necessary in order for him to enter into the eternal life.  That doesn’t sound very profound, but listen:  Jesus’ resurrected body is completely physical, but in a way which we have not experienced.  He eats and drinks and can be touched, but evidently he also walks through walls.  Could the transition between our physicality and “resurrected physicality” be made without dying?

Going back to the result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Genesis 3, then, this idea would mean that the result of this disobedience was not death in itself but a specifically permanent death–that is, death which is not passed through, but one which is permanent, without resurrection into a new physical reality.

Interesting idea.  But possibly crazy.

Of course. He keeps them in a box.

Conversation I had with Luke and Madeline tonight:

Luke: How big is God?

Me: I don’t know. It’s hard to say.

Madeline: He’s bigger than the universe.

Marc: In a sense he is, I suppose.

Luke: Who is God?

Marc: Well, he’s the creator of the universe and the whole world.

Madeline: And he created you and me.

Luke: How did he make me?

Madeline: Out of dirt.

Me: Yyyyyyyyyes.

Luke: How did he make our face? How did he make our eyes?

Marc: I don’t know. I’m not sure how God created everything.

Luke: I know! He had a box with eyes. And they had names on them, so that he could put them in our face.

Infant baptism

I grew up in Baptist circles, where baptism is only for those who have made a conscious decision to follow Christ–“believer’s baptism” it is called.  Infant baptism is a no-no in that group–it is invalid, non-binding, what have you. I now belong to a denomination in which both infant baptism and believer’s baptism is practiced. If a parent decides they want to baptize their infant, our pastors will do so; if the parents would rather dedicate their infant (“dry baptism”, according to infant baptizers), that’s acceptable, too. I’m okay with this. I’ve never heard a convincing argument against infant-baptism, as the argument from silence (i.e. the Bible never explicitly mentions it) is always unconvincing, and for reasons given below.  I may have heard good arguments in favour of infant baptism, but I don’t remember them. So I choose to remain agnostic and let someone else make those decisions for me.  And I happen to find myself in a denomination which walks the middle ground: they do both.

A couple of days ago I was having a conversation with someone in which “the sinner’s prayer” came up, and it suddenly dawned on me that the anti-infant-baptism position of the churches of my youth is rather inconsistent. As far as I recall, all the churches attended prior to joining our current denomination were non-sacramental.  That is, to them things like the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, communion) or baptism have no efficacy, they are not “an outward sign of an inward grace”–Jesus is in no way present in the Lord’s Supper, but is simply remembered through it; baptism is not a means of grace, nor is it the path to membership in the body of Christ, but simply a public declaration of one’s faith (it is this declaration, rather than the baptism itself, which marks one’s joining the body of Christ).

Even during the communion service at my mom’s church this morning, while the pastor repeatedly asserted that Jesus is actually always with us, when we consumed the bread and juice, he declared that we remembered Jesus as we did so. That seemed strangely incongruous to me. Perhaps he meant that we remember Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but in using the term “remember” we do mean something that has happened, something in the past, rather than something in the present. Perhaps I digress.

For churches that see things like communion and baptism merely as symbolic acts with no intrinstic effect or deeper meaning, they seem to be remarkably adamant about who can be baptized and how they are  to be baptized. If it’s merely a symbolic act, what difference does the who and how really make?  The problem is probably precisely the fact that baptism is seen as non-sacramental. If it is a declaration and nothing more, how can an infant make such a declaration?

Still, there is the dry baptism–the baby dedication. Is it much different than an infant baptism?  I don’t know; I haven’t witnessed an infant baptism. I suspect, however, that the difference between a baptism and a dedication is mostly in how much water is used (some vs. none), though some of the wording might also be different.

And then there’s the classic Toddler Point of Conversion. If you grew up in a Christian family, you might be familiar with it.  It was quite common among my church-going peers to say something like, “I became a Christian when I was four years old.” (Age four really does seem like the magic year.) This inevitably means that they said “The Sinner’s Prayer” some time that year. The Sinner’s Prayer (for a four-year-old) in summary: you say you’re sorry for your sins and you ask Jesus to come into your heart so that you can go to heaven. I quite clearly remember my Point of Conversion, and from what I can recall and what my mom recounts, I did in  avery simplistic way understand what that prayer was all about. What that meant in my life immediately afterwards, I don’t know, but I suspect very strongly that it had less to do with me and more to do with the Spirit of Christ. But I digress again.

But is a four-year-old asking Jesus into his or her heart and thereby being declared “saved” much different than a baby being baptized and thereby being declared a member of the body of Christ? Ah, you say, but the four-year-old has made his or her own decision to follow Christthere’s the difference. To which I respond, firstly, has he or she really made his or her own decision? How informed can a four-year-old really be? And secondly, isn’t this business of making one’s own decision decidedly modern and individualistic? Sure, we must all choose at some point–but is it the personal decision what gives conversion its efficacy? What makes us think we can do this on our own anyway? What if the decision isn’t exclusively mine? What if I never really make a “decision for Christ” but merely find myself in and with him?

To that end, I like Lauren Winner’s community-oriented perspective on the question of baptism:

Sometimes people wonder how babies can be baptized; indeed, that very wondering is the genesis of the Baptist church. Baptists believe babies shouldn’t be baptized. They say there’s no scriptural precedent for it, that Jesus and John were both baptized as adults. Hannah, who’s a Baptist, often says that a baby can’t promise to do everything one promises in baptism. I have never found this a very persuasive argument. It strikes me as too individualistic. The very point is that no baptismal candidate, even an adult, can promise to do those things all by himself. The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf. It is for that reason that I love to see a baby baptized. When a baby is baptized, we cannot labor under the atomizing illusion that individuals in Christ can or should go this road alone. When a baby is baptized we are struck unavoidably with the fact that this is a community covenant, a community relationship, that these are communal promises. (Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God, 80)

“The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf.” I like that. We do the same thing when we dedicate a baby, of course, but we skip the water. I’m not sure why.

I wonder if all this “Jesus is your personal saviour” business, even if it is true, is undermining our sense of community, of being part of the body of Christ, of being inextricably linked to each other through Christ, that we are all in this together, not just a bunch of individually saved people who happen to meet together on Sunday mornings and occasionally mid-week.

It’s strange, now that I think about it, how we don’t like this idea of making a promise on somebody’s behalf, which is what both baptism and dedication are. We don’t like it because we think we should make all of our own choices–no one should make them for us, and if they do, they are invalid promises and I don’t have to honour them.

On behalf of someone. On behalf of people. Isn’t that precisely the story of Christ’s death and resurrection? Why are we so afraid, so resistant to this idea of doing things on behalf of others when this is precisely what Christians believe about the cross? Doesn’t this resistance move us away from the cross, even to the point of saying, No thanks, Jesus. You can’t do that on my behalf. You’re infringing on my right to choose for myself. Stay out of my business, thanks.

I don’t know.  There’s much more that could be said.  As I was writing this I began to realize that the theological rabbit hole goes deep and I’ve only skimmed the surface. But there you have it, for now.

You are accepted.

The word of the day is “Hunkered”, as I have been hunkered down in a private study room in the library for most of the day.  I’m working on a paper for Christian Ethics. Actually, it’s a letter written to my church tradition (which happens to be a a mutt) as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, drawing exclusively from his Ethics. Ethics is a rather deep book–you might say it’s meaty, like a thick steak.  It’s loaded with promise, but I’ve felt like I’ve just been on the borders of understanding it for most of the semester.  My task is difficult not only because the format for this paper is unusual, but also because of the nature of this particular book and this particular theologian.

But: the coffee I made before 10a.m. this morning is still hot in the Thermos, I’ve got some soft classical music playing on BBC Radio 3, and I’m making some headway.  I think. At least, I’m beginning to fill the allotted space, which at this point in the semester, quite frankly, is all that I ask for.

And so I offer you this tasty morsel from Bohoeffer’s magnum opus:

In the [physical] body of Jesus Christ, God is united with humankind, all humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled to God. In the body of Jesus Christ, God took on the sin of the world and bore it. There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, hat has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God. Whoever perceives the body of Jesus Christ in faith can no longer speak of the world as if it were lost, as if it were separated from God; they can no longer separate themselves in clerical pride from the world. The world belongs to Christ.

…in the body of Christ [i.e. the church] all humanity is accepted, included, and borne, and that the church-community of believers is to make known to the world by word and life. This means not being separated from the world, but cfalling the world into the community of the body of Christ to which the world in truth already belongs…. The church-community is separated from the world only by this: it believes in the reality of being accepted by God–a reality that belongs to the whole world–and in affirming this as valid for itself it witnesses that it is valid for the entire world. (Ethics, p. 66-68)

You–whoever you are–are accepted by God.

Death in Creation

A couple of years ago, I pondered the meaning of physical death in terms of the predicted result of eating the forbidden fruit. Given that in the Genesis story Adam and Eve lived on several centuries after eating the fruit, the prediction seemed wrong unless it was spiritual death of which God was speaking.

Bob Robinson recently posted on this topic, quoted two preeminent evangelical scholars (N.T. Wright and Douglas Moo), both of whom believe that physical death was a part of the original created order–or, at least, that if humans were immortal it was by grace and conditional (i.e. obedience to God prerequisite), rather than something innate or essential to humans.

Robinson refers to the seasons, which are a cycle of death and rebirth, and to the food chain of carnivorous animals. Some might argue that the seasons and carnivores would not have existed prior to the fall, so this may not be the best example.  But the point is that death appears to be essential to creation as we know it, including elements of creation which would not have changed after the fall.  I’m thinking, for instance, of reproduction.  I’m not well-versed in biology, but it seems to me that there is a pattern in nature of death preceding or accompanying new life: for example, a fruit must die and decay in order for its seed to be able to germinate and grow into a new plant, or for every sperm that successfully reaches its destination, millions die.

If I’m wrong on my biology, please correct me.  And I suppose, too, that the question must be asked, What is life?  Theologically, is it only those things which have breath that can properly be said to die or is life broader than that? Interesting topic, at any rate.

This Thursday the Providence College Lectures will be given by Dr. Glen Klassen, with the topic, “A Scientist Reflects on How God Makes the World”: “He will be exploring topics on how traditional ideas of creation are challenged by the scientific approach and will ask the question, “is there any middle ground between Creationism and Darwinism?”  Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to most of the day’s seminars.

The Doors of the Sea

Some of you might have noticed the question I posted on Twitter and Facebook yesterday: how do you reconcile the existence of a good God with suffering? Some of you even responded.

I asked this question out of sheer frustration with my multiple failed attempts at expressing my thoughts in response to David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? The assignment was to articulate whether or not I thought that Hart provided a satisfactory answer to the question of how we reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of evil and suffering.

Much of the first half of the book is spent undermining the various theodocies articulated by both Christians and atheists shortly after the tsunami which occurred on New Year’s Eve 2004. I won’t go into more detail than simply saying that Hart dismisses them (with arguments, mind you).  According to Hart, the only real challenge to the Christian understanding of God is provided by the character Ivan in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.

He willingly grants, he says, that all wounds will at the last be healed, all scars will disappear, all discord will vanish like a mirage…and that such will be the splendor of the finale of all things, when that universal harmony is established, that every heart will be satisfied, all anger soothed, the debt for every crime discharged, and everyone made capable of forgiving every offense and even of finding justification for everything that has ever happened to mankind; and still rejects the world that God has made, and that final harmony with it…[because] the terms of the final happiness God intends for his creatures are greater than his conscience can bear” (38-9)

And then Ivan presents his interlocutor (Alyosha) with “a grim, unremitting, remorseless recitation of stories about the torture and murder of (principally) children — true stories, as it happens, that Dostoyevski had collected from the press and from other sources” (39). Ivan’s examples are truly heartbreaking and I could not–indeed still cannot–remove them from my mind as I tried to write my response.

He tells of Turks in Bulgaria tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs with daggers, or flinging infants into the air to catch them on bayonets before their mothers’ eyes, or playing with babies held in their mothers’ arms — making them laugh, enticing them with the bright metal barrels of pistols — only then to fire the pistols into the babies’ faces. He tells the story of two parents regularly savagely flogging their seven-year-old daughter, only to be acquitted in court of any wrongdoing. He tells the story of a…couple who tortured  their five-year-old daughter with constant beatings, and who — to punish her, allegedly, for fouling her bed — filled her mouth with excrement and locker her on freezing nights in an outhouse. (39)

And then, perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all:

…he invites Alyosha to imagine that child, in the bitter chill and darkness and stench of that place, striking her breast with her tiny fist, weeping her supplications to “gentle Jesus,” begging God to release her from her misery, and then to say whether anything…could possibly be worth the brutal absurdity of that little girl’s torments (39-40).

Indeed.  Indeed.

This is the only real challenge to Christian thinking because it is a complaint that is deeply rooted in Christian thought (Dostoyevski was a man of intense faith). Hart’s final answer seems to be no answer–at least, no rational answer.  I’m fine with that.  That’s my response, too.

But before he gets there he argues for the distinction between what God wills and what God permits and how that relates to created human freedom.  God is not culpable, ultimately, in Hart’s view, and he then points us to God’s final victory–the thing Ivan believes in but ultimately rejects.

I don’t believe God is culpable either, and I, too, believe in the victory of God.

And yet, and yet, and yet…there is still that girl beating her tiny fists against her breast.  How can any response be made in the face of that image?  How can we do anything but be silent in the face of such suffering, as Hart, ironically, suggests would have been the most appropriate response to the 2004 tsunami?  My beef with Hart’s response–so far as it is one–is that no matter how you cut it, there is still that suffering little girl.

I struggled intensely with articulating my thoughts in this paper, and I think now it was because the theological and philosophical and ontological tension inherent in the question of evil had made its way into not only my head but also my heart.  While his belief that death and suffering and evil have no meaning or function in God’s economy (i.e. they are an anomaly), I was not ultimately not satisfied with Hart’s attempt at theodicy (reconciling a loving God with the existence of evil) because ever and again the image of that little girl crying and pounding her fists come to mind.  And yet I still share the same belief and hope as Hart: that God will one day make all things new.  But how to I reconcile that?

If there’s one thing I don’t have a solid grasp on in terms of faith, it’s the Christian notion of the victory of God now, rather than just at some point in the future. When Christ said on the cross, “It is finished,” he wasn’t talking about his life, but about the victory of God.  And yet evil appears to carry on apace. Again, how do we reconcile the two?  I asked this question in class today and my prof quoted Karl Barth (I think–it may have been Martin Luther), who said, “The old Adam is drowned, but the bastard keeps swimming” (that was what he said to me in private–in class he said, “the bugger”, which, depending on where you come from, is no less vulgar).  I approached him after class and asked if Barth’s statement (“the one about the swimming bugger”) wasn’t a contradiction–if he’s drowned, the bastard most certainly shouldn’t be swimming.  In response, my prof made another comparison: a chicken with its head cut off will still run around for a couple of minutes–it’s dead, but in a way it doesn’t realize it yet (or it’s in denial), so it tries to keep on with what ever it has been doing.

This made sense to me, but still isn’t satisfying. I guess I just want all suffering to stop–what sane person doesn’t?–and the fact that it hasn’t yet drives me nuts.  I don’t like that tension. But I realized that I’m a typical modern(ist?) evangelical, and my prof concurred, who likes to have everything neatly packaged and arranged and explained and spelled out.  We want answers and explanations. We want an apology (in the sense of apologetics).  There is not much place for mystery in the evangelical mind.

I was going to link to a .pdf of my paper, but it occurred to me that it won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book and there’s no need to trouble people with out-of-context ideas.  I can’t say I haven’t marvelled at not falling into total despair, perhaps even rejecting God the way Ivan does.  But I don’t think this is the obvious or natural answer to the question.  Somehow–by the grace of God, I guess–I still believe that all shall be well, while at the same time recognizing that suffering is real and that there is no appropriate response to suffering in the moment of suffering other than silence or weeping.

I guess I’ll have to learn to live with that tension for now.

That’s *A*moral (coupla things…)

I read a remarkable essay by William T. Cavanaugh for my Ethics class: “Discerning: Politics and Reconciliation“.  As it happens, that entire essay is available for preview at Google Books (it’s found in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics).  That’s not the best format for reading the essay, but it’s the only online version I could find.  I’d like to cover it in depth here, but I don’t have time.

In a nutshell, Cavanaugh briefly traces the rise of liberal (small-l) political theory (the foundation of our representative governments) and how it is based the autonomy of the individual and the inevitable conflict that rises between autonomous individuals.  Some form of political authority (ultimately representative government) is necessary as an enforced reconciler or peace-keeper.  Liberal political theory is based on the inevitability of conflict (and possibly the necessity of war with other nati0ns) and the continual suppression of this conflict–a forced peace, if you will.  Violence, in other words, is the norm in liberal political theory.  It is a tragic theory and true reconciliation is never realized.

The Biblical story on the other hand argues that conflict and violence is not “the state of nature”, it is not natural or foundational to being human.  The Biblical story, particularly in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, shows that the way things are now is not the way they’ve always been.  Our current plight is not the norm, not the way things ought to be. The Christian story, in other words, allows for true reconciliation to be realized.

He then goes on to argue that the Church’s liturgy (that is, its gathering to worship) is a way of enacting this reconciliation.

I haven’t done justice to Cavanaugh’s essay, so I urge you to read it for yourself.  It’s quite something.

(I see that there is a Christian Century interview with Cavanaugh available online: “Liturgy as Politics: An Interview with William Cavanaugh“.  I haven’t read it, but it sounds like it might cover similar ground.)

* * *

Also watch the IdeasExchange podcast page at Aqua Books for last Saturday’s talk by Dr. Chris Holmes, my ethics and theology professor.  The title of his presentation is “‘Christianity is Basically Amoral:’ Reflections on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Principle-free Christianity”.  I’m not sure how long it will be before it’s posted (it’s not up yet), but look for ‘Christopher Holmes 10.24.2009’.

In the meantime, here’s a Bonhoeffer quote from his talk and from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which we are working through in Christian Ethics:

Behold God become human, the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world.  God loves human beings.  God loves the world. Not an ideal world, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world.  What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. God establishes a most intimate unity with this. God becomes human, a real human being. While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human, real human beings. (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 84)

Faith

…faith was for Paul [the apostle] not a particular spiritual exercise of moving through self-trust to despair to confidence in the paradoxical goodness of the judgment of God; faith is at its core the affirmation which separated Jewish Christians from other Jews, that in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah had come. A Jew did not become a Christian by coming to see God as a righteous judge and a gracious, forgiving protector. The Jew believed that already, being a Jew. What it took for him or her, to become a Christian was not some new idea about his or her sinfulness or God’s righteousness, but one about Jesus. The subjective meanings of faith for the self-aware person, and its doctrinal meanings for the believing intellect, build upon this prior messianist affirmation.  They cannot precede or replace it.

– John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (p. 215-6, emphasis mine)

I read this to mean that, in Yoder’s view (of Paul), the primary element of faith, or perhaps the beginning of faith, is not a recognition of God’s holiness or my own sinfulness (as we tend to focus on), but first and foremost a recognition and confession that Jesus is Lord.  Everything else naturally follows.

Universalism defined

Perhaps I’ve done this before, but this kind of thing develops over time.  I was thinking about this post on the way home from class this morning and started thinking about the definition of the universalism I refer to from time-to-time on this blog.  There isn’t just one universalism; there are many.  What I am talking about is specifically Christian universalism.  By way of comparison, let me reduce the universalisms to two:

1.  Universalism (or perhaps General Universalism): everyone is “saved” regardless of their beliefs, faith or religious affiliation.  This is a kind of pluralism or relativism of sorts, because every way is a valid way to salvation.  Of course, what salvation means in this context is uncertain, because each faith system will have their own vision of what that might be (and “salvation” may not even be an appropriate term for certain belief-systems) — whether it be nirvana or heaven or simply ceasing to exist altogether or nothing.  So, in a way, all ways are valid ways, but all ways are also non-ways, because none of it really matters and the result is uncertain.

2.  Christian universalism (or, perhaps, Universalism in Christ): everyone is saved regardless of their beliefs, faith or religious affiliation (so far it’s the same as General Universalism) through Christ (that’s the clincher).  The key element in Christian universalism is that the saving agent is still Christ (and “salvation” is meant specifically in Christian terms)–Christ’s work is effective for all people (which is the orthodox belief) regardless of belief (the universalist distinctive).  I suppose you might say that Christian Universalism takes the Bible very seriously when it says that every knee will bow before Christ and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (assuming I’m understanding the intent of those passages correctly — Phil 2:8-11; Isaiah 45:23; Rom. 14:11)

This might sound coercive–you mean everyone will be *forced* to worship Jesus?–but that’s not the case.  The argument goes that when faced with the crucified and risen Christ we will not wish to do anything other than worship him–rather like being presented with a convincing, irrefutable argument in a debate, except that we wouldn’t stubbornly or pridefully refuse to admit it, as we might in a debate.  It will be a willing confession of lordship when the risen Christ is met.

If you think about it, Christian universalism is essentially theologically identical to your standard orthodox soteriology (if I may insert a fancy theological term for “the study of salvation”) with this one exception: that the best before date, if you will, is extended to beyond death to the culmination of all things.  Note that everyone will confess Jesus as Lord–they are not saved in spite of confession someone or something else as lord, but everyone will willingly confess specifically Jesus as lord (or, to put it in the terminology with which I was brought up, everyone will choose, willingly, to say the “Sinner’s Prayer”, although I don’t personally like that approach or terminology anymore).

Now this second definition–Universalism through Christ– just my (working) definition of the term universalism, as I use it on this blog.  This isn’t any kind of “official” definition, but one I’ve cobbled together.  (And it doesn’t address the issue of what this means for Christ’s command to make disciples.)