Why I am a Universalist, Interlude: On Reading the Bible and Moral Coherence

My posts on universalism have been getting me involved in conversations on how I read the bible. So, an interlude to lay my cards on the table.

Generally, theologians talk about seeking God's Truth via the following:

1. Scripture
2. Experience
3. Tradition
4. Reason

I'd like to add a fifth criteria (it could go under #4 but I think it is distinct enough and requires different skills):

5. Moral coherence

At the root of how I read the bible (and come to see within its pages the argument for universal reconciliation) is my attempt to read the bible to achieve a morally coherent vision. If asked directly why I believe in universalism my simple response would be: "Moral coherence."

But here's the deal. Everyone (well, practicing Christians) reads the bible to achieve moral coherence. Perhaps a few examples will illustrate this. First, here's a rather simplistic example:

Matthew 15: 21-28
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession." Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes, Lord," she said, "but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted." And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Okay, Jesus calls this lady a "dog." In bible classes I've attended I've heard all kinds of reasons for why Jesus addressed this woman in such a rude manner:

He said it with a twinkle in his eye. He was only joking.

He is testing the women.

He's using her to make a point to his disciples.

The one reason that never comes up is this:

Jesus was being a jerk.

Why don't we read the story in this last interpretation? It is a perfectly legitimate reading of the text, the most obvious reading of the text. So why don't we read it that way? Answer: Moral coherence. Given our commitment to see Jesus as loving and sinless we don't read the text in this manner. But the text sure does look rude. Thus, moral coherence forces us to reconcile the text with the vision of a loving, sinless Jesus. Moral coherence makes us adopt a non-obvious, but not unreasonable, reading of the text.

Okay, Example #2, which is more serious. In the Old Testament we read this:

Exodus 20: 13
You shall not murder.

So, how do you reconcile that command with this:

Joshua 6: 20-21
When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

I could have picked other OT passages of a genocidal thrust, but this one will suffice. How do we read passages such as this? How do we reconcile the command not to murder or the vision of Jesus in the gospels with passages like Joshua 6?

Well, there have been lots of ways, here are two radical ways:

1. God is morally developing over time. He was barbaric in the OT but learning to be more "good." This is the view of the Process Theologians.

2. These genocidal commands are not the voice of God but the nationalistic voice of Israel who claim religious justification for their violence. A lot of post-modern deconstructions of the text reach this conclusion.

Most conservative Christians don't like these resolutions, so they seek other ways to make the reconcliation.

But here's my point. Right now, I don't care much about the HOW. I'm keen to note the WHY? That is, no matter where you end up on those genocidal OT passages we are all driven by a unified motive: To achieve moral coherence, to reconcile the text with our notions of God's love, forgiveness, and goodness.

And again, I'm keen to note, everyone is engaged in this process of reconciliation. Everyone. But people bring to the text different experiences and moral sensibilities, they have differing notions of justice, love, punishment, and forgiveness. Thus, people achieve different readings of the text.

So, when I read the texts about hell, I'm trying to make them morally cohere with the vision of a good and loving God. Just like we all do when we read Matthew 15 or Joshua 6 or a host of other passages (e.g., "women be silent...", "Masters provide for your slaves..."). And I bring to those texts notions of justice, love, punishment, and forgiveness. And if you share my notions of justice, love, punishment, and forgiveness you'll resonate with a universalist reading of the biblical text. If you share different notions, you'll feel that the universalist reading is "off" or "wrong." But the universalists feel the same way about you.

Which reading is correct? I cannot say. My guess is that the reading must, at least, be cruciform, cross-centered, in the sense of emphasizing that salvation is found by following the path of servanthood, love, and humility epitomized by Jesus. I think the universalist reading supports this vision. And thus, in the end, I conclude that it is a legitimate way to achieve a morally coherent vision of reading the bible.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

3 thoughts on “Why I am a Universalist, Interlude: On Reading the Bible and Moral Coherence”

  1. That's pretty good. Lot's of interesting conversations happen over pizza in college.

    Einstein used to walk and talk eating an ice cream cone when he lived at Princeton. That's more my speed.

Leave a Reply