OVERVIEW OF RELIGIOUS UNIVERSALSM AND RELATED BELIEFS

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[Disclaimer: I am not a scholar on these topics but I have had to study them for my ministry in order to better understand the New Age in relation to these areas, and to answer questions. This article makes general rather than detailed statements about the beliefs (except for the New Age). It is sometimes hard to make distinctions in these beliefs as they may overlap.]

 

Let us start with an example.

 

Richard Rohr is often referred to as a universalist. Technically, he could be put in that category but the term “universalist” is too broad for Rohr because his beliefs are more specific and follow Perennial Wisdom. The term “universalism” also does not do justice to his heresies of the Christian faith. Therefore, I think it may be misleading to label Rohr a universalist since it obscures his Perennial Wisdom, which is his main belief and which should be addressed rather than universalism. Explaining this led to the writing of this article.

 

First, there is a distinction between Christian Universalism and non-Christian Universalism.

 

Christian Universalism

Christian Universalism usually holds that the atonement of Jesus is necessary but knowledge of Jesus or belief in him is not required since his death on the cross in effect saves everyone. Bible passages using the word “all” as in Romans 5:18 are applied literally (and incorrectly; it must be taken in context).

 

Christian Universal Reconciliation is a form of Christian Universalism. One view is that those who do not know Christ go to hell but then are repeatedly given opportunities to believe. Usually, the belief is that Satan and his angels can be saved as well. Rob Bell has espoused this view and William P. Young (author of “The Shack”) apparently holds to it.

 

Madeleine L’Engle, due to her love of non-Christian beliefs and seeming endorsement of them, as well as her view that Satan and the demons should be or may be saved, may have held to some form of  Christian Universalism.

 

Another idea under this belief is that hell is remedial and corrective in order to restore the person, so hell is not eternal. This is similar to the purgatory beliefs of Roman Catholicism although the term “purgatory” is not used.

 

Non-Christian Universalism

Universalism outside of Christianity teaches that the atonement of Christ is not necessary. All humanity will go to a good place after death regardless of beliefs and regardless of anything Christ did, which was not necessary. Usually, there is no belief in a hell.

 

This view is found as a core belief of the Unitarian-Universalist Church, a church made up of the Universalist Church which merged with the Unitarians in 1964. Neither church was ever recognized as Christian. The Unitarian church began as a denial of the Trinity, which is an essential of the Christian faith (Unitarians may say they are a form of Christianity but their beliefs are contrary to the historic Christian faith).

 

Universalism is a very broad view and may be held by many people in various religions with variations on it. For example, the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist, teaches that although escape from this world can only be accomplished through Buddhism, through rebirth all will eventually become Buddhist and become enlightened. This is not salvation but awakening and liberation, but is the Buddhist equivalent of salvation.

 

Inclusivism

Close to Christian Universalism but still distinct is inclusivism, the belief that people in non-Christian religions can be saved by belief in their god/s and/or because they can find Christ in other religions. The belief is that one can be saved by general revelation as opposed to special revelation.

 

This view does teach some people go to hell but inclusivism has more in common with universalism than with historic Christianity. (Many believe the Christian writer and philosopher C. S. Lewis was an inclusivist).

 

Pluralism

Pluralism is not technically universalism since it has to do with the truth of religions rather than where people go after death. However, it is related since pluralism teaches that all religions have truth and lead to God (or however God may be conceived, if there is a God, which there is not in some beliefs such as Taoism and Buddhism).

 

Universalists might be pluralists but not necessarily, and vice-versa. However, the two views overlap in many ways.

 

Perennial Wisdom, or The Perennial Philosophy

Perennial Wisdom and Pluralism can sound very similar. Perennial Wisdom (or the Perennial Philosophy) comes from a belief that there was originally one belief that all religions came from, so all religions have a common root and core. The external differences (exoteric) make the religions appear different from each other, but in the deeper aspects (esoteric) of the beliefs, the common core can be found.

 

Perennialists do not advocate for all religions to merge since they believe that the variety of beliefs allows for more people to be able to seek the truth. Followers of Perennial Wisdom usually identify with one religion and participate in it although they believe they are going beyond that. There are Hindu Perennialists, Jewish Perennialists, Sufi Perennialists, Christian Perennialists, and others.

 

Perennial followers tend to use the word “tradition” as in, “I am following the Christian tradition,” or the word “wisdom,” as in “I follow the Christian wisdom tradition.” Using these phrases does not make it a certainty that the person is a Perennialist, but this language is an indication that it could be the case.

 

Followers believe that one must go on an inward journey in order to “awaken” to this truth of a Perennial Wisdom in all religions. Therefore, mystical practices of Contemplative Spirituality are always advocated and followed, and are a primary focus (followers of Perennial Wisdom Richard Rohr, David G. Benner, and John Philip Newell advocate strongly for contemplative and mystical practices). Mysticism is believed to be the bridge that connects all religions. Contemplatives’ beliefs and teachings tend to exhibit the hallmarks of Pluralism and/or Perennial Wisdom.

 

Some may be following the ideas of Perennial Wisdom unaware, without knowing about Perennial Wisdom or being familiar with the term.

 

Universalism can be viewed (see image) as all the religions in a circle or standing equally side by side, whereas Perennial Wisdom is illustrated with all religions emanating from one core belief. So while Perennial Wisdom is not in direct conflict with universalism, they are not one and the same, and I would put them in different categories, with universalism being an umbrella term with a broader sweep in meaning.

 

Perennial Wisdom sounds very loving at first. However, to accept these beliefs, one must deny any judgment of God on sin. In fact, the God in Perennial Wisdom is not offended by sin and the concept of sin may not even be present (especially in non-Christian forms of Perennial Wisdom).

 

Christian Perennial Wisdom

Christian Perennial Wisdom has a focus on Christ, which other varieties of Perennial Wisdom do not. Richard Rohr teaches is own brand of Perennial Wisdom, positing a Universal Christ who is distinct from the historical Jesus.

 

However, since the Perennial view is that man has come from God and is in God, then man has never been separated from God. Sin does not separate man from God in Perennial view, contrary to the Bible which teaches that man is innately sinful and needs reconciliation with God.  Therefore, there is no need for salvation, only awareness of and awakening to the Perennial truth.

 

Perennial Wisdom and the New Age

Although Perennial Wisdom beliefs may sound similar to the New Age, these are two distinct belief systems with distinct histories and teachers. In fact, some Perennialists, like Richard Rohr, do not agree with the basics of New Age beliefs, especially its distinction between spirit and matter, which is very Gnostic.

 

The panentheism of Perennial Wisdom teaches “an embodied spirituality,” that the material world is divine due to being a container for spirit. Rohr often points out that Jesus, being God and man, is an example of this fusion between matter and spirit (although after the resurrection, the Universal Christ was no longer tied to Jesus but started work on drawing all creation to a final point of perfection).

 

The New Age may believe that there is divine energy in creation, but they usually make a distinction between this energy and creation. Creation may be a manifestation of this energy, but material creation (including our bodies) is ultimately only a vehicle which will be transcended. The material is a conduit for the divine rather than being an eternal amalgam of matter and spirit as in Perennial views.

 

It is crucial to consider context and meaning of words when trying to identify any of these views.

 

Further Information

Greg Koukl’s article, “Was Paul a Universalist?” responding to Rom. 5:18

 

Got Questions: Is Universalism Biblical?

 

Check on Theopedia for articles on universalism, pluralism, and inclusivism.

 

Short link for article: https://tinyurl.com/56u87bna

 

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