Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Heresy, Universalism and Christian Mud-Slinging

Textbook definitions:

Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. 

Universalism refers to salvation or life after death irregardless of religious beliefs (Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, etc) or denominational affiliation. 

Social definitions:

Heresy refers to what "the Other" believes, and by implication, that one's personal dogma is the Truth.  Common insult in interdenominational arguments. 

Universalism is a dirty word referring to the novel idea that progressive, interfaith, ecumenical, or emergent congregations are making a break with traditional religious and/or denominational dogma prescribing one way to salvation.  (ie., their way)

The link below discusses the backlash to author and Pastor Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  It bears mention that this book is not even released yet, (March 29) and is already getting people talking.  And engaging in Christian mud-slinging. 

What is a heretic exactly in the evangelical church?

Rob Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI.  I have had the privilege of attending this church and meeting Rob Bell, and I am reasonably sure that he is not a godless heathen or a heretic directly imbued with the power of hell.  His books are thought-provoking, and perhaps more importantly, conversation-provoking.  But there will always be people who are frightened by the questions that tear open the very core of their belief systems. 

In the promotional video Bell refers to the nonviolent Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, and asks, "Gandhi's in hell? He is?"

"And someone knows this for sure?" Bell continues. "Will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that's the case how do you become one of the few? "

The Christian mud-slinging came swift and strong. 
In a post from Justin Taylor, on the conservative Christian blog, The Gospel Coalition, comes the first criticism:

"The New Testament is pretty clear if someone preaches a false gospel… that we are to reject that and have nothing to do with them.

We’re talking about the big things here, things that have been historically defined as orthodox, " he said. "I have a high degree of confidence in what God is saying and what we can understand.

I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay his cards on the table about universalism. It seems that this is not just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism."
The outcry was taken up by several other predominant conservative evangelical leaders, and a full-blown controversy was born.  I am perplexed by the idea that anyone can have a "high degree of confidence in what God is saying".  Dear Mr. Taylor, were you there?  Can you really ever know?  Faith by its very definition means holding something to be true without necessarily having a high degree of confidence. 
What gets under my skin is the idea that conversation between faiths and denominations is a bad thing, and that by opening up to the perspective of the other or even entertaining the idea of universal salvation, we are on a slippery slope to hell ourselves.  This argumentative fallacy has been used for hundreds of years to shut down conversation that questions established doctrine or the powers that be.   It has perpetuated power structures, marginalization and outright hate in the name of religion. 
I think that anything that invites genuine conversation and a willingness to listen is a great idea.  My personal beliefs are not entirely relevant here (although I have been accused of being a universalist and don't believe in hell).  What is relevant is not shutting down the discussion without even considering the fact that we could learn from one another.  This is something I struggle with too, and it is on the forefront of my consciousness daily.  Just as firmly as conservative critics believe Rob Bell to be wrong, I believe them to be wrong.  But why can't we meet in the middle and have a civil conversation? 

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