I AM AN UNIVERSALIST

William Barclay wrote in his book “A Spiritual Autobiography” on page 56 ff.  “But in one thing I would go beyond strict orthodoxy – I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God.”  I join him in that conviction.  In the end all persons will be gathered into the love of God.  We can resist that love and resist it we do, but at some point God gets what God wants.  In the First Letter of Timothy we read about a God “who desires all persons to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  My theory is that God gets what God wants.  (In this method of communication, I refer you to the story of FRED in another thread.)

While I have hinted at this position most of my life, I remember preaching it during my month at Hana, Maui, Hawaii, in 1981.  It was March and the church was located next to a very fancy resort/hotel.  A woman in his 80’s came out of church and shook my hand, saying:  “Young man, you just preached me back into the church.”  Pretty heady stuff.

Such ideas were so foreign to some of the saints in Nome, I spared them a dose of this theology from the pulpit, but I went after it at my next church in Anchorage. Finally an active layperson took me aside and said:  “John, we all agree with you.  Why don’t you move on to another subject.”  Words of wisdom.  When I went to the church in Sitka, I mentioned my views to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee in the introduction process.  Two members decided they needed to think about it overnight and then they decided it would be good for them to be exposed to some new ideas and they voted to allow me to be their pastor.  Life was good there and in Spokane, but when I went to Stanwood, there was some attempt to fire me after one year as the pastor there.  When this effort failed, several families left the church.  I actually published a three sermon series on my views at Spokane and it remains a good tool for introducing persons to the concept that when God says “ALL”, God means “ALL”.

Now for a more complete quotation from William Barclay.

Permission to quote on the Internet was granted for up to 400 words, provided that the source is credited by author, title, copyright date, and publisher.

“A Spiritual Autobiography – a Joyous Affirmation of Life and Faith by one of the world’s most beloved and respected authors: William Barclay. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company edition published 1977.”

Here is what he wrote and I affirm:

“But in one thing I would go beyond strict orthodoxy – I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men (sic) will be gathered into the love of God…

“First, there is the fact that there are things in the New Testament which more than justify this belief. Jesus said: ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men (sic) to myself.’ (John 23:32). Paul writes to the Romans: ‘God has consigned all men (sic) to disobedience that he may have mercy on all.’ (Romans 11:32). He writes to the Corinthians: ‘As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.’ (I Corinthians 15:22); and he looks to the final total triumph when God will be everything to everyone (I Corinthians 15:28). In the First Letter to Timothy we read of God ‘who desires all men (sic) to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,’ and of Christ Jesus ‘Who gave himself as a ransom for all’ (I Timothy 2:4-6)   The New Testament itself is not in the least afraid of the word all…

“Second, one of the key passages is Matthew 25:46 where it is said that the rejected go away to eternal punishment, and the righteous to eternal life…Eternal punishment is then literally that kind of remedial punishment which it befits God to give and which only God can give…

“Third, I believe that it is impossible to set limits to the grace of God. I believe that not only in this world, but in any other world there may be, the grace of God is still effective, still operative, still at work. I do not believe that the operation of the grace of God is limited to this world. I believe that the grace of God is as wide as the universe.

“Fourth, I believe implicitly in the ultimate and complete triumph of God, the time when all things will be subject to him, and when God will be everything to everyone (I Corinthians 15:24-28)…

What is forgotten is that God has eternity to work in. It is not a question of God, as it were, rushing a man (sic) into heaven. It is a question of God using an eternity of persuasion and appeal until the hardest heart breaks down and the most stubborn sinner repents.

As I see it, nothing less than a world is enough for the love of God.”

I am honored and pleased to affirm these scriptures and this outstanding biblical scholar.  Here I Stand!

My journey to becoming a public universalist got a big bump when I wrote a letter to the editor of a magazine that claims the names of “Good News”  (at times it seems like “Bad News”) objecting to some of the negative things they were saying about universalism. The magazine purchased my comments and then did a feature article titled “Will Everyone Be Saved”.  I took the affirmative and they got a leading theologian by the name of J. I. Packer to present an opposing view. There was no dialogue or contact between myself and Dr. Packer. The editors put a picture of Hitler right next to my comments, along with John Wesley, Gandhi and Mother Theresa without identifying them.  It would be of interest that many right-wing believers would put Gandhi in the same hell with Hitler, but I digress. They also left out my own affirmation of faith in the living Christ. Perhaps that was an oversight or an unethical revision of my remarks. We will never know.

I wrote that we are not all “drifting” toward universalism. Some of us are “rowing in that direction”.

For the next two issues, the letters to the editor attacked my viewpoint.  Three in the first issue and two in the second one. I was motivated to write another letter that was actually treated as a letter. As would be plain to the reader, I was and am working for inclusion of individuals in God’s reign that many try to exclude (that is, non-Christians).

Some of the letter writers proved my point about exclusion. My right to preach is questioned and my right to be an United Methodist was challenged. I pointed out that my position was held by William Barclay (see the quote above in this article), Leslie Weatherhead and Harry Emerson Fosdick. “Pretty good company, if I do say so myself.”

Then I quoted a letter written by a friend of mine (when I shared the “great debate” with him) who I did not feel comfortable naming at the time, but the letter was from the late Dr. Harrell Beck, the Old Testament professor at Boston School of Theology, who taught the scriptures to Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.

“It is our love for Jesus Christ which mandates our love for persons in whatever tradition or condition. Can’t people get that? Universal salvation is a term which scares people, in part because the church has so often had to have some prey, to be vindictive. What is this psychic need among so many of us? Isn’t it enough to know God’s love, to be grateful for it, and to exercise it as fully as we are capable of doing? And I wonder, whether in the eyes of the Perfect One there is all that difference between those who have made confession/profession, and those who have not. Of course I sense the importance of making our profession but not if it cripples us…”

Sadly, the debate goes on. But I continue to believe that we need to build bridges of understanding and respect between different religions and between people of faith and people of no faith. I have tried to do my part.

CHINA 1975 and 2014

We spent a good portion of May 2014 in China.  I had been there in 1975 and Barbara went in 1979.  This time we went together.  On our first venture there, one had to be part of a group and then “invited” to come.  Now one can go on one’s own or as part of a travel group.  When I went in 1975, I was part of an educational group and one of the requirements was writing a summary of the experience which was 33 typed pages, single spaced.  As a result of the educational focus, we visited many schools.

This time it was a bit more touristy and while we repeated some things like The Great Wall, The Forbidden Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, there were new experiences, such as the Olympic Park and climbing to the top of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower in Beijing. In ancient times, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower helped people with time.  No access to cheap watches then.

Our tour group was Odysseys and the name of the tour was “China In Depth”.  Since we arrived early, we took the time to see Mao’s Mausoleum and the National Museum.  We learned later that Mao’s body was just a duplicate, but the guards still make us march quickly through the facility.

We did lots of climbing.  A cable car took us to the top of the Great Wall, but we got lots of exercise once we reached the top.

The highlight of the trip was the Terra Cotta Warriors (7000 plus) in Xi’an.  Did not realize that most, if not all, of them were damaged shortly after they were built. Today experts carefully reconstruct them. Guaranteed lifetime employment for those selected to work there.

The Three Gorges Dam was impressive and cruising the Yangtze River brought us some wonderful views. At Fengdu or was it Shibaozhai, we climbed to a Temple that was up 441 steps?  Yes, we counted them.

Chongqing was the largest city (34 million) but it was the place where we were privileged to observe the indulged life of a Panda Bear.  A boat trip on the Li River at Guilin was pleasant.  Landscape artists have been inspired by this scenery. We were able to observe traditional cormorant fishermen. We also went through Reed Flutes Cave (cool at last) and a traditional village.

We flew on five different Chinese airlines to get from city to city. It was 93 in Hong Kong.  Need I say more?

Now for a few contrasts.

1.  In 1975, Chinese citizens had to work very hard to get permission to travel.  Today travel is encouraged and everywhere we went there were many Chinese tourists, seeing their own country.

2. And they have learned how to be pushy.  In 1975, we probably had handlers making sure that people gave us the best views of historical sights.  That is no longer true.  It is every person for themselves.  On our last flight, we were in a line and 30 people went in front of us instead of going to the end of the line. In this case, airline personnel requested that they go to the end of the line.

3.  In 1975 there were no “hawkers” in China and they were awful in Hong Kong. This time there were hawkers everywhere in China.  At the Great Wall it was like a gauntlet we had to pass through.  Now it appears that hawkers are illegal in Hong Kong.  We were approached by watch salespersons and tailors (in Hong Kong), but it was very low key compared to mainline China.

4.  In 1975, adults wore plain clothing.  Now there is great variety and the shops are very upscale in Shanghai. I felt like we were in New York City.

5.  I had the impression that people were very afraid to speak out in 1975.  Now they may be cautious, but individuals are willing to speak their mind about many subjects. The society is much more open.  Newspaper articles were slanted, but then that is true everywhere in the world.

6.  In 1975, I had the feeling that we were the first white persons that many Chinese people had ever seen.  Some individuals would press their faces against our bus windows to stare at us.  There was none of that now. A few high school or college students asked us to stand with them for photographs with their phones, but only a few. In 1975 no one had cameras.  Now everyone has some piece of electronic equipment.

7. This would summarize what we saw in each city:  Skyscrapers and high rise apartment buildings. Even in what we might consider the suburbs.  One municipality had the population of thirty-three million.  A bit misleading, as it would have taken eight hours to drive across the city, so it would have been a wee bit like combining Portland and Seattle into the same municipality.  One jokester said that the national bird was the “crane”, as in cranes for building tall buildings. There was some evidence that many of these buildings are not being utilized fully: no visible evidence of people.

8.  In 1975 we were actually allowed into the operating room in a cancer hospital where the surgery was done with acupuncture.  We didn’t have access to that sort of thing in 2014, but several of us did experience “foot massages”.

9.  Food was bountiful in 1975 and 2014.  Too bountiful, but we got to experience several items that bring pride to Chinese cuisine. During most of meals, we barely touched the last dishes delivered to our tables.  I found Peking Duck to be less exciting than I remembered.  Breakfasts were special.  Tipping was not encouraged.  When I tried it once, the waiters tried to give the money back to me. We adjusted.

10, China is in the midst of an economic boom. I have no understanding as to how they are doing it, but the contrast between 1975 and 2014 was stark. Their experiment with capitalism seems to be working.