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The Argument from Beauty: Another Defense of Christian Universalism, Part I

Updated on May 11, 2019
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Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a B.A. in psychology and a minor in religious studies.

Waking from my Dogmatic Slumber

I’ve recently started reading the highly acclaimed 2018 tome on Christian universalism by Michael J. McClymond, The Devil’s Redemption. One of his peers has predicted that it will be considered the “definitive treatment” of the topic for years to come.

It defends an anti-universalistic stance.

A quick scan of the book and its reviews would suggest that it works to undermine the claim that universalism has deep roots in the earliest Christian antiquity, such that there was nothing close to an anti-universalistic consensus for the first five or six centuries of Christendom. The book also appears to attack the claim that universalism is “Biblical”, and it presents philosophical reasons that universalism is either untenable or undesirable.

I’ll provide an update on all that after I read through more of the book.

However, what I’ve read so far has prompted me to publish the following argument for universalism as quickly as possible, and I don’t believe that my argument will change drastically upon my further reading of the book. My argument is addressed to epistemological and ontological aspects of Christian soteriology/eschatology that I strongly suspect is largely unaddressed and/or unaddressable by The Devil’s Redemption.

I’m calling it the Argument from Beauty.

McClymond has framed Christian universalists as “metaphysical rebels”. In other words, they are people who refuse to accept reality “as it is”. As much as I like the moniker, and would love to adopt it to describe myself, I must refuse to accept its validity as defined by McClymond.

A “Digression” Into Bibliolatry

From a rational and empirical perspective alone, it is possible to surmise that, if there are intelligent designers of our universe, they are indifferent to human affairs, at best. One of the primary themes of the Gospel, however, is that the Creator of our universe is neither indifferent nor sadistic, but cares deeply about all humans, desiring the best for each of them. This theme, I think, is one of the themes that sets the Gospel aside as relatively unique for its cultural milieu, and relatively unique in contrast to currents of human thought in general.

The Gospel is not something that could be deduced via rationalism and empiricism alone. It is, I think, for that reason, many people consider the Christian Bible to be a vital source of knowledge. It is for that reason, I think, that many people elevate that collection of texts to a lofty place that often approaches, if not entirely becomes, a sort of deification of the texts. That is what I call bibliolatry.

The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. While I believe that the Christian scriptures are, in fact, a vital and divinely inspired source of wisdom, my personal panentheism requires that other sacred texts, natures itself, the human conscience, intuition, and many other such abstractions are also divinely inspired sources of wisdom. The Christian Bible stands unique inasmuch as it tells the story of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself was quoted as saying, “39 You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me,40 yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” Indeed, eternal life is a quality of life, not a duration of life. It is the quality of a life that is in communion with the Eternal. This is how Jesus is quoted as defining it: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

Thus, many Christian elevate their scriptures to such a degree that they term themselves, “Bible-believing Christians”, and the assumption, I believe, is that there is really no such thing as a Christian who isn’t “Bible-believing”. By Bible-believing, people almost invariably seem to refer to the belief that the Bible is the literal, inerrant, infallible Word of God. They seem to believe that the voice of God can actually be contained in dead human symbols: in a human language.

But in fact, if one actually believes the Christian bible, they will tell you that only one thing is required to be a proper “Christian”: “. . . the Son of Man must be lifted up,15 that everyone who trusts in Him may have eternal life.16 For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who trusts in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.18 Whoever trusts in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not has already been condemned, because he has not trusted in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Thus, while the Christian scriptures do point to Jesus Christ, it is completely unnecessary to believe that the sacred texts themselves must be considered the inerrant, literal, infallible words of God Himself. That is not listed as a requirement for one to gain eternal life.

In fact, the Christian Bible itself makes it clear that Christ himself is “the Word” (Logos). Elsewhere, it makes it clear that the Word of God is Spirit. Thus, the Christian Bible clarifies that God Himself is the Word of God. That is another reason, I believe, why even referring to the Bible as the Word of God is a form of idolatry.

But this is a subject I’ve discussed elsewhere, and that I will explore later in this series.

Kant, We Have a Problem

From a rational and empirical perspective alone, it is possible to surmise that, if there are intelligent designers of our universe, they are indifferent to human affairs, at best. One of the primary themes of the Gospel, however, is that the Creator of our universe is neither indifferent nor sadistic, but cares deeply about all humans, desiring the best for each of them. This theme, I think, is one of the themes that sets the Gospel aside as relatively unique for its cultural milieu, and relatively unique in contrast to currents of human thought in general.

This brings me to what I privately like to dub, “The Fundamental Problem of Philosophy”. Western Epistemology traditionally grants us two valid sources of knowledge: Reason and the Empirical. However, those two sources contradict each other when we ponder the most basic question of metaphysics: Does anything exist?

Empirically, it seems undeniable that something exists. Our sensory experiences and ability to conduct experiments with things both tell us unequivocally that something must exist. Rationally, however, nothing can exist. This is because our reason dictates that everything must have a cause. That is the foundation of the scientific method. We must admit, however, that existence itself must be uncaused, or somehow self-causing. Both scenarios completely defy our reason by defying the most fundamental grounds of that reason.

In short, reason tells us that there is no way anything can or should exist. But experience tells us that something does exist. What this tells me is that reason and experience alone are insufficient sources of knowledge when it comes to the most fundamental questions of metaphysics.

The Short & Sweet, the Beautiful and the True

In short, the Christian Universalist Argument from Beauty will go something like this:

Empiricism and reason alone are insufficient as sources of knowledge about some of the deepest, most enduring questions about our existence (see the prior section). The Christian Bible, furthermore, is limited as a source of knowledge for a life of faith, and an excess of dependence on or devotion to it tend towards idolatry.

Another source of “knowledge” about the big questions of life might be found in the non-rational, subconscious human faculties, such as intuition, emotion, and instinct. Nonhuman animals are known to possess instincts that are genetically inherited, and do not spring from the direct experience or rational processes of the individual members of the species, but represent the subconscious knowledge inherited from the collective wisdom of the species, as encoded in the individual’s genetics. Might we wonder whether such collective, unconscious knowledge also exists in humans?

From a philosophical standpoint, it has long been controversial to claim that beauty can be a source of knowledge. While early western philosophy often linked the Beautiful with the Good and the True, modern philosophy elevated reason and empirical experience to a lofty position of exclusivity. While there are certainly modern and contemporary philosophers who have attempted to reestablish a link between the Beautiful and the True, the idea hasn’t really been resurrected on a mass scale. That, however, shouldn’t minimize the import of these outliers’ contributions. I will spend a good deal of time looking at them in upcoming issues of this series.

I would ask whether, at the very least, systematic theology should consider beauty as a potential source of knowledge. Christian theology, in particular, is fond of claiming that “faith” is an essential component of the life of the spirit. Could one have faith that God’s plans are beautiful? I believe that is central to the “good news” of the Gospel. Or does faith have a place in theology anymore, now that we prefer our theology to be “systematic”?

A universe in which the majority of people suffered for eternity, or even a universe in which some people suffered for eternity, would not be beautiful. I base that statement on my own perceptions of what is or is not “beautiful”, but as we will later see, such conceptions may sometimes correspond to certain objective realities.

So, I say again: a universe in which anyone spends an eternity in torment is not beautiful. And if, by faith, I believe that God’s plans are beautiful, then I reject such a conception of the universe.

There is, in fact, scientific and mathematical support for the idea that our conceptions of beauty may sometimes correspond to the truth-value of the thing that we see as beautiful or not beautiful. I will discuss all of this, and much more, as I continue to describe the Argument from Beauty. In beginning to do my research for this project, I actually ended up finding that the subject is incredibly rich and vast and complex. My next issue in this series will outline some of those many subtleties and nuances that I intend to discuss in this series. It turns out that, in everything from our theologies to our pop culture, we mostly overlook the incredible depths of the subject of “Beauty”. True, our society is obsessed with beauty, but only with beauty that is “skin-deep”, so to speak.

I propose that Beauty is sometimes a source of knowledge; not necessarily knowledge with certainty, as we seek in empiricism and rationalism, but knowledge nonetheless. This is an inner wisdom: a direct personal experience of a deeper reality. Sometimes, it may even take a bit of faith to attain such knowledge. But then again, so did the idea that people might one day be able to fly.

Much more to come soon...

Dedication

The author lovingly dedicates this article on November 6th, 2018, to the memory of two dear friends: Gary Amirault, who passed from this world on November 3rd, 2018, and his wife, Michelle Amirault, who preceded him in death on July 31st, 2018. Gary and Michelle lived their lives passionately in love with Love, and on behalf of Love. Indeed, this article would likely have never come to be, were it not for Gary and Michelle's love. Gary and Michelle tirelessly promoted what they called the "Victorious Gospel", otherwise known as Christian Universalism or Universal Reconciliation. In short, they proclaimed to the world that "Love Wins". Tentmaker Ministries is one of their most enduring legacies, and can still be found easily online.

© 2019 Justin Aptaker

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