The Scandal of Universalism: You Can't Earn It
So I have been thinking about and doing some reading about Universalism lately. Rachel Held Evans is doing a Universalist series on her blog. My thoughts about it came to me in the midst of a couple of recent conversations. I was talking about my job search and the networking I was doing and the comment was made to me "Well, it isn't about who you know; you have to get the jobs on your merit." I think the comment was a bit naive and yet it also reflects a deeply held American value of individual achievement and that it is merit that makes the difference.
First, we are steeped in this myth of merit and individual achievement. As I wrote about in my post on What Job Searching Has Taught Me, all the job search advice will tell you that the number one thing to focus on for a successful job search is networking, finding out who knows someone who works where you want to work and connect with them. Most jobs are found through networks. So it isn't just about merit and sometimes it is not about merit at all, at least not in a particular field or industry. Many of us have worked with or encountered people who are not qualified for the job they are doing but they got the job because they knew someone.
It is the way that racism, sexism and all the other isms are perpetuated. Those with privilege have access to make connections through school, family, work or community that others do not. It is why women have worked so hard to get access to men's only establishments. It is through these connections that people get into positions of leadership and power.
The myth of meritocracy is one that privileges the most privileged among us. One of the most important pieces of work that I have personally had to do is understanding that my "normal," my expectations of how the world works and the access people have to education, jobs and the political process is not universal. I pointed this out in my post on voting - I have never questioned that I have the right to walk into a polling center and cast my vote without being questioned, without having to prove my worthiness to be there. As a white person in this culture this is my normal, it is my world view. I don't get followed in stores.
So what does all this have to do with Universalism? Universalism is still a very controversial issue in religion, in Christianity in particular. People and institutions remain very attached to the belief that the "good" will get their reward in heaven and the "bad" will be punished. We want that sense of justice - it may not happen in this life but in the next one "I" will get "mine" and "they" will get what "they" "deserve." Usually the opposition to Universalism is justified with Scripture, many (not all) Christians believe that only Christians are saved - that one must be a Christian to be saved. At the heart of most of this is a belief that heaven, that salvation is something we earn. The scandal of faith, the scandal of Jesus' life and message is that we can't earn it.
At the core of Universalism is that all, every person regardless of merit, status, religion will be gathered into salvation - that all will go to heaven if you will. Much like the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights it declares that salvation, like rights, comes simply because we are human. In the case of humanity, salvation is assured because God, the Holy, loves human beings. I became convinced of Universalism by about the age of fourteen. I could not reconcile the notion of a loving God, who I was taught wanted nothing more than to be in relationship with us, with a notion that that same God would damn people to eternal torment and punishment. I finally just came to the place that God's love would keep reaching and keep giving chances until all were reconciled. As I look at the life of Jesus, his message over and over again is that we are loved unconditionally by God. God is faithful, God keeps covenant even when God's people break it over and over again. A reading through the Hebrew Scriptures shows this unconditional love, the reaching, calling, pleading to turn back, to be in relationship, to practice justice and mercy. In the Jewish tradition God saves a people - not just individuals, but God loves the people and keeps reaching out to them. They can't earn it, in fact they fail miserably at earning it. Yet God through the midst of it, remains faithful. Jesus doesn't ask those he heals if they have earned it, he just heals them. His message to the Pharisees is not that they are wrong for following the law - their mistake comes from thinking that they can earn it - that they are better than others because of the way they follow the law.
For those religions that believe in reincarnation, the point of life is to learn. It is continually to be learning how to better live. The point is not that we earn it - it is that we can learn, we can do better. Yet in reincarnation is the belief that you don't earn that second, third or hundredth chance, it is that those chances will continue to be given to you - unearned.
This makes us uncomfortable! We want to earn things - we like the notion of "deserving." We talk about the "deserving poor" which of course tells us there are "undeserving poor." We want to have earned our degrees, our jobs, even our good health - well at the very least we are responsible when we have bad health it must be our fault particularly if we have things like Type II diabetes or lung cancer. We want to believe that life is fair, that the good always get their reward and the bad get punished. Politicians love to use the phrase, "If you work hard and play by the rules, then you should expect to have" health care or marriage equality or success and access. Unfortunately, those who work the hardest are not always rewarded and sometimes those who have the most material success do not play by the rules or even work all that hard. The scandalous message of Universalism is none of us can earn it - it is a gift, a freely given gift. This gift is not one that we have to wait until we die to recognize - it is here now. God's love and grace are present here. The scandalous message is that we are truly called to be just, merciful and loving to all - regardless of merit. This message calls all of us to see the merit in every person, to cultivate the unique gifts of every person.
Where in your life do you experience the scandal of universalism? Does the notion that we don't earn many of the things we believe we do offend you? Surprise you? If we let go of the myth of merit how would life be different? How would you live differently?