Why I am a Universalist, Part 6: Thanatocentrism and the Fetish of the Thin Red Line

In the last chapter of my online book Freud's Ghost I made the argument that death transcendence in faith is only possible if its soteriology is non-thanatocentric.

A thanatocentric faith is one where the fulcrum of one's destiny occurs at the death-event. That moment in time becomes the focal point. It is the moral singularity of life. All that happens before and all that happens after is defined at that moment.

As you might guess, I have some issues with thanatocentric faith systems.

First, death is an arbitrary event. Some of us will live a long life, with many opportunities to take stock of our moral lives. Others of us will have very short lives, ended by accident or physical failure or disease. Given the arbitrary nature of our demise, why do theological systems focus so much on this instant of moral development?

For it seems unfair to judge the life of a person who has had longer to live alongside someone who has died prematurely. Someone perhaps who did not get the opportunity to dwell upon the natural consequences of a sinful life. Should one benefit while the other is judged?

But my biggest problem with thanatocentric systems is how death becomes the ever-present trump card in Kingdom living. Perhaps an example will help illustrate this.

In my faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, there has been a historical tension between social justice and evangelism. Specifically, since the Church of Christ is generally thanatocentric, "saving souls" via evangelistic outreach has chronically trumped efforts to help the poor in our communities. Whenever local momentum was built to act in the name of Jesus to "give a cup of cold water" to the "least of these" that momentum was often dampened by a refrain common in my heritage: "Clothing the naked or feeding the hungry is of little use if these people are going to hell."

This sentiment is what I mean when I say that death functions as a trump card in thanatocentric systems. So let me be clear, if a faith community is thanatocentric--truly believing in an eternal separation from God at death--that community will struggle mightily to act in the name of Jesus in the larger world. Ultimate, eschatological issues (determined at the time of death) will keep intruding into the ministry equation. Spiritual formation in these communities will be crippled as the community will first seek to claim and then vigilantly monitor the status of "Saved."

This is such a thin and impoverished view of the Christian life. But can you really blame these people? If you preach and teach a thanatocentric system this is the predictable outcome.

This often strikes me as ironic. Many ministers of my acquaintance have thanatocentric systems. And yet these same ministers lament the thin view of spiritual formation and salvation ascendent in their churches. The irony is that they think these two issues--their thanatocentrism and their spiritual formation efforts--are unrelated. As I psychologist I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Thanatocentrism and spiritual formation are intimately related. How could they not be? If there is a hell, as traditionally understood, then there is a thin red line running through life, separating the Saved from the Damned. And how could this line not be the preeminent preoccupation of the spiritual journey? Ministers are unwittingly causing their faith communities to fetishize this line, to watch it, obsess over it, clarify it, monitor it, protect it, and defend it.

The only clear way to treat this fetishization is to decisively dismantle the thanatocentric system. Death must be displaced from the center of the believer's concerns and investments. Because if death is at the center of my life concerns, then I am at the center of my life concerns. Thanatocentrism makes us ego-centric and focused on self-perservation (as ultimately understood). Only when death is displaced will I allow the Other to be my focus of ministry.

Of the three main soteriological systems--Calvinism, Arminianism, and universalism--only universalism is non-thanatocentric. Universalism claims the biblical testimony that death has been defeated. That death has no sting. If you reflect on it, death retains its sting in both Calvinism and Arminianism. At the very least, death retains its power to distract and thus becomes the fetish of faith communities.

If you have been reflecting with me, you'll see I'm making a pragmatic argument, an argument from ministerial effectiveness. In short, even if universalism were not true, universalism is, from where I sit, the most effective way to get a faith community to focus on the Kingdom of God right here and right now. This does not, by default, make universalism true. It is only an argument that universalism, by removing the fetish of the thin red line, is the soteriological system best suited to mold a community of believers into the image of Jesus.

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6 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Part 6: Thanatocentrism and the Fetish of the Thin Red Line”

  1. Dr. Beck –

    I have been reading and rereading this series for a while and am completely fascinated by the fresh insights that universalism brings to the tired and problematic theological pursuits we have been trying to rework and reframe for years. For its theological coherence in tying together the multiple biblical priorities I find your arguments quite stimulating if not a good bit challenging.

    At the same time, as much as I find myself nodding as I read your posts, I find myself in an awkward position. Six weeks ago I moved to the Czech Republic with six other friends to commence work as a long-term missionary and since our first year will focus almost exclusively on learning the Czech language I have ample time to read, to think, and to feel out our purposes in this city. As I’ve reflected through your post on thanatocentrism, I keep throwing glances over my shoulder to the history of missions and the rather imperial nature with which we (missionaries) have conducted ourselves in foreign lands. More specifically, the process of developing relationships has all appearances of being a one-sided project: with our emphasis on crossing that “thin red line” we seem to place a teleological sights on all our friends and contacts. In other words, since our career has revolved historically around “making converts” it seems that our purposes for making friends and establishing relational rapport have been, to a degree, somewhat duplicitous. We want that convert so we can put their name and picture in a letter back home to prove that what we are doing is worthwhile. That seems somewhat unethical, and I’m squirming a bit as I write it.

    But if we blow that model apart to recenter our theological emphases on manifesting the Kingdom of God already in our midst, then our intentions for developing friendships no longer need to target their eventual conversion but rather move toward finding ways to enrich others’ lives as living embodiments of the work of God and the Spirit within us. Becoming a Christian takes on a different hue as we reorient our lives to being blessings in the world around us. Thus, we concern ourselves with testifying about the claims of salvation, but not without sacrificing the very real responsibilities of social justice, selfless love to our neighbors, and our own kenosis. To this I give hearty assent.

    But the rub of it for me emerges as I consider my own career choice in light of universalism’s horizon, namely that at some final point in the timeline of eternity, all will be drawn up into the graces of God. I love this theological conclusion and see it aligning more and more with the Pauline sketches of the eschaton, but I guess my question is this: What then becomes the point of doing evangelism? If, as universalism claims, all are eventually saved anyway (and if hell ain’t such a bad place anymore), then what’s the harm in someone living out hedonistic pleasures for now and working out the repentance postmortem? Do you see where I’m going with this? It just seems that universalism compounds the difficulties for evangelism if the consequences for bad choices now fade away along with the traditional idea of hell. Believe me, I’m all for reworking the whole archaic notion of fire and brimstone, but – from an outsider’s perspective – what would give a nonbeliever enough motivation to forsake their selfish desires right now in order to live out a life of humility and service?

    Thank you for giving all of us new lenses and new hope.

  2. Graham,
    Your comment here has both moved and humbled me. Your sincere question has posed for me THE challenge to my universalism. I don't have an answer per se, but some reflections.

    First, I do think it is possible to be a universalist and be a passionate evangelist. Paul seemed to be this way. I think he was able to do this because he held his universalism (if I'm reading him right) lightly, as a mystery, as a hope. My universalism is also held lightly. That is, I would be very prideful to declare that my couple of blog posts ARE HOW THINGS ARE. I don't know how things are. My universalism is more a hope than a conviction. It's a sense that somehow, someway God will do right by everyone. And if that means God will have to fudge with death then so be it. That is, my universalism is more about dislodging death from the center of our concerns than about anything else. I want Christ to be the center of our concerns. For who He is, not what He can do for us (e.g., save me from hell).

    But you are right, there are costs to this position. Just as penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), when pushed too far, looks heinous, so universalism, when pushed too far, can break down. So, you're right, a universalist, even a soft-universalist, will need to capture a sense of urgency. Death has typically provided that urgency for missionary efforts. Can something else, of equal emotional potency, be found to replace it?

    Second, I don't think this is a problem unique to universalism. I think we are moving into a post-PSA world for Christianity. All over the place PSA is being attacked, dropped, or reformulated. Historically, PSA fueled evangelism because it was thanatocentric and centered on status-shifting (the kind of evangelism you speak of in your comment). But if PSA wanes how will evangelism fare? For example, read Scott McKnight's speech here (http://www.emergentvillage.com/weblog/scot-mcknight-on-the-emerging-church) about the emerging church. If you go to page 26, you see McKnight expresses his own concerns about evangelism in this post-modern context.

    The point is, this is an open and ongoing conversation. That doesn't answer your question, but it should make you feel less alone. Lots of people are struggling with and talking about this very issue. I think what you and I are experiencing is the great concern of our age. People are looking for fresher formulations but are concerned with some of the implications of those formulations. For example, McKnight clearly likes and identifies with the emerging conversation but he also, as an evangelist, has some concerns as well. I guess what I'm saying is that you are situated not to receive answers from someone like me, but to create your own answers. We are all looking for some good answers.

    Maybe, in the end, all my posts will do for you is make you more aware of how death concerns sneak into our ministry. And you can use this awareness to consciously displace death, placing Christ at the center of our concerns. Maybe, given that we are only hopeful universalists, our most pragmatic choice is to act as if this life is our only chance. Maybe it isn't our only change but we act as if were the case. Again, this is more about our behavior (energetic! passionate! urgent!) and less about our beliefs as we stand by the graveside for someone we didn't "reach." We try with every drop of sweat to "save" people this side of the grave. But if we fail we just hand the person to God, trusting in his love to do what is right.

    Maybe it is as simple as that: Work as hard as you can in this life, with passion and joy, and leave the saving (in this life or the next) to God.

  3. Dr. Beck, I think your last line sends out some pretty awesome reverberations as we (all of us concerned Christians) struggle to reshape evangelism for this post-everything world. I think you’re absolutely right that our past labors at evangelism and theology-making have clutched the death event as far too paramount in the life and goal of salvation, which has consequently raised our evangelistic blood pressures as we race to figure out the best way “to win as many as possible” before the clock runs out. Before reading your posts I had not considered how pervasive is the fear of death in so many dimensions of (and the language we use to speak about) our faith, so even if universalism does lose some footing in maintaining a degree of urgency, at least it gives proper homage to the lives we are given to live until our ends do come. For one thing, it gives us permission to sit back and chew on what Paul means when he affirms that we are now the Adams and Eves of a new creation, and not worrying about ‘wasting time.’ As stewards of a new cosmic vision, what does it look like for us to bear the imago dei along a new soteriological horizon? I’m not exactly sure just yet, but at least it frees me to figure it out without worrying about my ultimate ‘status’ before God.

    And so I wonder about our emphasis on this thing we have deemed as so urgent. A few semesters ago in his graduate Christian Ethics class Fred Aquino challenged us all to articulate our beliefs not in terms of what we DON’T think or believe but what we DO. Granted, this pertained more specifically to a paper we were writing, but I think the same point carries here, too. The New Testament is adamant that what we have to proclaim is GOOD News, and from the opening chapters of Acts these early believers set about building a positive image of what the power of the Kingdom of God could do when lived out in a community of broken but healing people. Faith, they argue, is a constructive process, leading us toward complete self-surrender (Phil. 2) and complete redemption (giving a nod to the concept of shalom). The NT confirms over and again that death has been consumed by the cross’s victory so that we may shift our attention away from that unknown, final event and toward the pressing needs of the world around us. We know full well the weaknesses and brokenness of our world, but God has trained us, through Jesus, to develop a community that overflows with the blessings of peace, rest, friendship, and family. It may not ever be perfect, but if its priorities truly do focus on restoring people to spiritual and emotional wholeness, then I can’t imagine this NOT being attractive to an outsider. The aroma would simply smell too sweet to resist.

    So then what we may find as urgent may be in the end the eager desire for others to taste the firstfruits of the Kingdom and see that the Lord is indeed good. The urgency still remains, I suppose, but this one animates us with a vastly different aim. And this, I feel pays much more respect to the talents and spiritual gifts we each possess naturally. In other words, no longer must we try to cram what we like to do or feel gifted doing into the narrow list of ‘orthodox’ spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. Whatever promotes the Kingdom, do it, and do it in the name of the Lord.

    I don’t know, Dr. Beck, some might see this rephrased sense of urgency as too touchy-feely and lacking in the appropriate sting to really convince someone to change his or her life, but it leaves me feeling a lot better about why I should reach out to someone with the Good News. This fills me with a joy that I could long to pass on.

    Thank you for such an honest and open reply - it means a lot.

  4. Graham,
    Blessings in your ministry. Thanks for posting here. I think your questions, insights, and reformulations will minister to a lot of people. They have to me.

  5. I enjoyed reading your old blog entry concerning Universalism. I note that in 2006 you were still not sure of how to reconcile your understanding of Universalism with evangelism. For this to be a true problem one would have regard sin as something other than cancer within the body. The question asked; why not simply live sin to the fullest, disregards the pain and trauma involved in the removal of sin so deeply ingrained that it is perceived by the patient as a part of themselves. Evangelism is the appeal to the sick to seek early treatment.

  6. Allow me to comment here (although it's two years after the original entry was posted) on the question of what would drive evangelism for universalists.
    Well I can see you've taken the trouble to write this series, so I suppose you may already have some idea.

    To me, the entire point is that hell is very real, both pre and post mortem. Sin results in pain, a lot of it, and that pain is enough to move me to try and help the people afflicted with it.
    Shouldn't this simple idea be enough to move us to evangelise? Maybe the thing that is most wrong in our thinking is how we view sin as pleasurable. Yeah sure, it has a savage kick to it, but it is without a doubt, very painful and destructive, that out of pity alone we can evangelise.
    Besides that point, there's the Good News concept already mentioned in Garaham's comment above... The Apostles preached because they ha good news, and wanted all to share in it.
    One last thing, is the idea that lovers can't help but talk about their Beloved... "because he's just so amazing", you know?.
    I know this might be too romantic for some people, but I believe that evangelism is a reaction to love, not an action we have to initiate ourselves.

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