A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Philosophical Critique of the New Universalism

James K. A. Smith, whose book Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? is a must-read, approaches the currently fashionable "new universalism" from a philophical perspective. Smith writes,
Let's attend to these two specific sorts of claims. I would note that both of these intuitions are fundamentally anthropocentric strategies--outcomes of what Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) calls "the anthropocentric turn" in modernity. A couple of thoughts:

1) The "I-can't-imagine" strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects "upwards," as it were, to a conception of God. While this "imagining" might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the "I-can't-imagine" argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities--including how I "imagine" the nature of love, etc. The "I-can't-imagine" argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of "my" imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards' radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)

2) The "at-least-I-hope" strategy might seem less problematic. Doesn't it just name what all of us secretly desire? Indeed, wouldn't we be quite inhuman if we didn't hope in this way? (Then you get Winner's obnoxious suggestion that any of those who continue to affirm divine judgment are really trying to "guard heaven's gate," taking a certain delight in exclusion, as if they saw heaven as a country club. I won't dignify that with a response.)

But whence this hope? Can our hopes ever be wrong? Let's try an analogous example: I love my wife dearly. She is the best thing that ever happened to me, and our marriage has been an incredible means of grace in my life. I can't imagine life without her; indeed, I don't want to imagine life without her. And I want to hope that we will share this intimacy as a husband and wife forever.

But then I run into this claim from Jesus: "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven" (Matt. 22:30). Should I nonetheless hope that marriage endures in eternity? Should I profess that I can't know this (since Scripture seems to suggest otherwise), but nonetheless claim that somehow hoping it might be true is still faithful? Or should I submit even my hopes to discipline by the authority of Scripture?

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren't gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.
You can read James K. A. Smith's entire post, "Can Hope Be Wrong? On the New Universalism," here.

See also Ross Douthat's editorial in The New York Times, "A Case for Hell."

What do you think? All comments and perspectives are welcome.


Ken Schenck said...

One caveat with Smith is that he may look quasi-Arminian from time to time (e.g., with his Christian Imaginary approach that can seem Pietist) but he is fully Reformed in his own mind. He is thus quite comfortable with a view of God that looks like God arbitrarily consigns the majority of humanity to hell. The standard response of such is to say, "How do we know God's processes are arbitrary?" But I am reminded that, nevertheless, Smith is comfortable with a picture of God here that I consider incoherent.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I see your point, but I do not think this post is so much about Smith's "incoherent view of God" as much as it is raising the questions of what is philosophically behind some (certainly not all) accounts of universalism.

Craig L. Adams said...

But, Allan, the "incoherent" part (if I'm understanding Ken correctly) is the part where God "consigns the majority of humanity to Hell." If the "new universalism" can be critiqued philosophically, so can the "old Augustinianism."

P.S. Thanks for posting this, and linking to his article. I also appreciate your recommendation of his book.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I get the point, but let me push back a little. Yes, all of us can fall into the two philosophical "traps" Smith outlines, but any position should not be based fundamentally on either one. Yes, we all can't imagine certain things and we can hope for certain things, but those things should spring from other convictions with grounding in Scripture, tradition, a coherent logic, etc.

I do not believe that everyone who promotes universalism can be characterized in the way Smith does, just as those who would embrace the "old Augustinianism," though some do. But the point is, shouldn't there be something more informed?

What am I missing here?

aka Wyatt said...

I would never claim to have the philosophical wisdom of some of you here but I am finding agreement with Craig. There does seem to be a free pass given to not only "old Augustinian" presuppositions about the nature of reality, spiritual and human as well as Divine. There is also a carte blanche acceptance of Reformed thinking and metaphysics (hope I used that correctly) around notions surrounding Hell, Heaven, Love, and Justice and the list could go on and on. I get disturbed when any Re-Consideration of Re-formation agenda is seen as heretical. Its as if any thinking or any "church" that happened before or after Luther doesn't matter and can't matter. Uggggg! Talk about monolithic.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Well, this discussion is taking an interesting direction. I am a Wesleyan through and through, but I think there is something to Smith's argument here. I do not think one has to be Reformed to suggest that a position on anything needs to be based on more than wishful thinking and personal hopes.

And I do not think that all the debate and discussion of late over hell and universalism has to do only with whether or not one accepts or rejects Reformed thinking. It's been a much more complex and nuanced discussion.

Ken Schenck said...

Didn't mean to start trouble ;-)

I like Jamie Smith quite a bit and am not dismissing his point. I just got a vibe that seemed familiar to me...

Allan R. Bevere said...

Ken... you are indeed a trouble maker, which is one of the reasons we get along so well.

Yes, I take note of your point and it is a point well taken. I think the vibe that I'm getting and what struck a cord with me when I read James' post, is that there's a kind of theological and biblical sloppiness that is quite prevalent on the topic of universalism. And, yes, such sloppiness is prevalent elsewhere on other subjects of theological significance.

Now that we've all gotten our pet peeves out of the way...

Craig L. Adams said...

My problem with continuing this conversation is that, since I cannot in good conscience defend Universalism, I can't provide a "more informed" rationale for it, either. Oh well. But, special thanks to Ken for "starting trouble"! :-)

Craig L. Adams said...

And, now this post from Jaimie Smith has earned the withering scorn of Halden Doerge: here

QUOTE: "The real problem, I believe, that the whole buzz about “the new universalism” represents — and it is particularly typified in Jamie’s post — is the refusal to engage these questions theologically. Instead it is all a matter of figuring out who the sappy liberal is, and finding a clever way to make the accusation. If people are really interested in exploring the theological issues at work behind the current hubub, they will need to look beyond the temptation to simply attack people’s motivations...."