Universalism is the new Christian orthodoxy
In a First Things combox discussion about Catholics who become Baptists, Terry Mattingly asks:
On your second point: Is it safe to say that the post-Vatican II Church is functionally Universalist? Might that play a role? This would apply to most Mainline Prots as well. Yes, also far too many Orthodox parishes.
Sherry Weddell, the terrific Catholic educator and catechist, responds:
I’d estimate that 95 – 98% of all the Catholics – including pastoral leaders – that I’ve ever worked with are functional universalists. Meaning that concerns regarding the personal salvation of anyone never cross their mind or affect their pastoral decisions and priorities. Roughly the same number are de facto Pelagians.
Step back for a second and think of that. Sherry was a Baptist who became a Catholic, and founded the St. Catherine of Siena Institute to help lay Catholics understand their faith and to create discipleship programs in their parishes. She’s been at this for 14 years. And she’s saying that nearly every Catholic she’s worked with is a functional universalist.
“Universalism” in this context means that all paths to God are equally valid, and that everyone will eventually be saved. It is a basic assumption of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
People who work in ministry, and who study religion professionally, are probably not going to be shocked by universalism’s prevalence in American religion today. People who live in bubbles of relative religious orthodoxy will be. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam relates a telling anecdote in his book “American Grace.” Research shows that the vast majority of American Christians agree with the view that anybody who is a good person may go to heaven (the implication being that belief in Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation — a point of view completely at odds with the Gospel and with Christian tradition). Putnam tells of giving a presentation before a group of Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors, and passing that information on. They reassured themselves that the LCMS faithful don’t believe any such thing. Putnam immediately produced the data point showing that 86 percent of LCMSers did, in fact, believe just that. Said Putnam, “The theologians were stunned into silence. One wanly said that as teachers of the Word they had failed.”
Now, to be fair, I would probably answer “yes” to that question, but only with the strict qualification that if anyone who is not a Christian is saved, then he will only have been saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and by the extraordinary mercy of God the Father, who judged him based on what he knew. That’s why we must never say that anybody is in Hell; we just don’t know. But we must also say that we will be held responsible by God in the final judgment, and that Hell does exist.
Having said that, it’s a thin and porous line between believing that all may be saved, and that all will be saved. You can see why taking the position that commitment to Jesus Christ is not required for salvation would weaken the church in all kinds of ways. This is why I posted the other day wondering if it was possible to maintain a culture of religious orthodoxy in a broader culture that is not only heterodox, but is heterodox in such a way that it cannot conceive that there’s any such thing as orthodoxy to oppose. What does it mean even to talk about orthodoxy among Christians who don’t even believe there is a such thing, or a need for one?