Originally published 9/7/2015 on Quaker Universalist Conversations.
Please visit the original post to read an interesting series of Comments.

Some recent conversations with Friends revealed that they considered Quaker Universalism to represent anything but Christianity. This is not surprising either psychologically or historically, yet it misses the core premise of universalism: inclusion.

Psychologically, our pattern-seeking brains prefer boundaries and distinctions, and their cognitive shortcut is to divide things into either/or categories. Historically, if I came to Quakerism from outside of the Christian community, or if I have laid down the belief system of that community, I may see Quaker Universalism as the “welcoming other,” something instead of Christianity.

There’s a trick here.

When I look at Christianity—either from the inside or from the outside—I tend to see it as it is usually presented to me by its human advocates: as a system of beliefs and practices, together with the institutions which advocate and defend them. In other words, I see what those advocates project as being “Christianity.” I also see what I project onto “Christianity,” my conscious and visceral reactions to whatever I have experienced in interaction with “Christian” people and institutions.

I’ve used those quotation marks above to signify my dilemma. I see “Christianity” and self-identified “Christian” people, but am I seeing the Truth that those people and I share and sometimes glimpse beyond our projections?


In his new book, Jesus and the Chaos of History: Redirecting the Life of the Historical Jesus, James G. Crossley speaks to the challenges of this dilemma, even within the scholarly tradition of “historical Jesus” research. Crossley writes:

One of the advantages of working with the general “earliest Palestinian tradition” [of the Jesus movement], rather than trying more precisely to reconstruct the historical Jesus, is that it potentially allows for more evidence to assess the ways in which people were part of the complexities and chaos of historical change….

Besides, we do not necessarily have direct access to the words or even deeds of the historical Jesus and working more generally eases some of those more practical problems” (163)

There was great social disruption in 1st century Galilee and Palestine. Family, household and agrarian village life were turned upside down by the socio-economic demands of Herod Antipas’ new Roman cities of Tiberias and Sepphoris. Whether or not Jesus himself spoke out of a sense of peasant revolutionary distress, enough of that sense is reflected in the earliest tradition to show up in the gospels of Mark and the later evangelists.

In particular, Crossley argues that in this tradition the “sinners” Jesus was criticized for sitting at table with were not the lowly outcasts, the riff-raff, but rather “rich people who are powerful, oppressive, abusing justice, and unjustly successful” (99). The Jesus of this tradition does not deny that such people are sinners, but he communes with them in order to bring them back to righteousness.

For Crossley, the great historical irony is that the remedies looked for in this tradition carried within them the seeds of an abusive historical church:

The earliest Palestinian tradition pitted the kingdom of God against Rome, attacked wealth and privilege, supported the poorest members of society, and saw Jesus as an agent of the kingdom in both present and future.

However, the…tradition simultaneously mimicked power and imperialism. It looked to the kingdom of God coming in power and establishing hierarchical rule on earth with Jesus and his followers playing highly elevated roles, including one of judge. Rich and poor would be reversed but the structure of reward was not radically altered….

This imperial theology was also taken up very early, not least by Paul, and, even if it probably would have horrified some of the people responsible for the earliest Palestinian tradition, imperialist theology is not as far removed from Constantine as is often thought. (162)


So many intermingled layers of projection. How to see beyond them?

My suggestion is that universalism is not a belief system but a faith testimony.

I begin with the testimony that all of us are one kindred, regardless of our traditions, our religions, our politics, our behaviors and beliefs.

If that is the case, I first find situations for fellowship with others: self-identified Christians, same-sex marriage opponents, racists, and so on.

Then I find ways for us to sit together in expectant and compassionate waiting, perhaps sharing a meal, while we make ourselves tender and open to seeing what we all share as Truth.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

Views: 131

Comment by Howard Brod on 9th mo. 17, 2015 at 8:53am

It is unfortunate that many of our Quaker meetings/churches have brought into the meetinghouse the divisiveness that is so prevalent in the world at large.  One of the great charges of Jesus is that God provides for and loves all - even those we might individually consider wrong, misguided, and so forth. Lao-tzu in the Tao te Ching says the same thing.  Further, Jesus stated that we each should love all in this same perfect manner. If this isn't "universalism", then I don't know what is.  Yet, you can not love someone of a different perspective, if you don't take the first action of welcoming them into your spiritual community.

I will speak here from the liberal Quaker perspective - but my questions could easily apply also to pastoral and evangelical Friends.  If our meetings do not appeal to the varying shades of Christianity and general spirituality, the whole political spectrum, the rainbow of ethnic origins, varied economic backgrounds, and intellectual capacities - then we just might not be loving (as a community) others, as Jesus suggests we should.  It is one thing to say we accept all; but the 'proof in the pudding' is how comfortable are the 'all' being among us.

Again, let's just take liberal Quakers as an example (an easy one to point to for me because I am part of a liberal Quaker meeting).  The form of worship utilized by liberal Quakers could be an inviting environment for all - no pastor, no sermon, no anything but the living Spirit to minister among us.  However, many of our meetings don't come off as inviting to Republicans, Evangelical Christians, etc.  Our dedication to the movement of the Spirit among us should be uniting us in love - period.  Yet, we often act as the world does by sending subtle messages that we don't respect, accept, or value these "others".

We must ask ourselves direct questions as a meeting in order to reform ourselves into the community the Spirit wants us to be.  Such as, "Do we emphasize our SPICES testimonies (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship) without also emphasizing what political action Friends should take?  Does our Peace and Social Concerns committee stick to these testimonies - or do they direct Friends on how they should vote or what they should support in order to "be good Quakers"?  Example: My yearly meeting's Peace committee recently sent out a directive that Friends should contact their legislators about supporting the Iran Nuclear Treaty.  This was done in a directive manner without first arriving at a sense of the meeting that we ALL wanted to do this?  Yet, we have some politically conservative Friends among us who sincerely believe that this treaty will lead to war, violating our Peace testimony.  Surely, it must be obvious to any objective person that our common support for our testimonies does not mean we all support the same political actions in order to manifest them.

Our meetings would do well to embrace some humility before we make assumptions about those among us.  While we all embrace love and light, it is unlikely that we all embrace the same application of these in daily earthly life.  And unless we have come to a common understanding through our Quaker process that we are unified in particular secular action, we must concentrate on spiritual unity above all else.  This is the only way we will ever be able to demonstrate that we actively love all.

This simple change in attitude within our meetings/churches could make a distinguishing difference and a witness to the world we live in.

Comment by William F Rushby on 9th mo. 17, 2015 at 9:19am

Well put, Howard!

Comment by Mike Shell on 9th mo. 19, 2015 at 5:16pm

Beautiful response, Howard.  I appreciate the depth and specificity of your comments.


Comment by Mike Shell on 9th mo. 19, 2015 at 6:14pm


Let me say a bit more about my assertion that “universalism is not a belief system but a faith testimony.”

I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a credal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.

Nonetheless, Jesus has been my spiritual master since my earliest childhood. He is the human face of God for me, a “perfect type” of what God tells us we can ourselves become as human beings.

I became a convinced Quaker in my adult years, because I understood that the first Friends had centered Quaker faith and practice in the witness of Jesus, indwelling as a teacher in our hearts. This primitive focus on the reality of Jesus, rather than on the theology about Jesus, speaks to my condition.

What troubles me about modern Quakerism…modern religious trends in general…is that we all cling to the imaginary boundaries of “religious identity” which separate us, rather than opening to the horizon of God which embraces us all.

A reader of my post in its original form on Quaker Universalist Conversations voiced the following concern:

The conflict that is felt in modern Quaker communities, and the reason Christians often feel marginalized (at best) can be comprehended with an analogy. Suppose you join the Rose Society, a group dedicated to the cultivation of roses. Then some people join who want a ‘broader’, ‘more encompassing’, more ‘universal’ view of gardening. After all, what’s wrong with geraniums? Others join with this ‘broader’ perspective.

Soon the non-Rose people outnumber those who joined the Rose Society because it was the Rose Society. It becomes difficult to talk about roses. If you bring up roses others immediately brand you as narrow and limited in your understanding. They are actually irritated when you talk about roses or use ‘rose-talk.’

I would suggest that something similar happens in some groups dominated by Universalists. It does not necessarily happen, but it can, and apparently does, happen in some instances.

In response I wrote alternative reading of his garden analogy:

In a time when the Western world knew only rose gardens, Friends came to understand that it is not the species of flower which makes a garden but the life which breathes within everything in the garden.

Over centuries, many Friends discovered that same life breathing in other tended gardens. They struggled with the differences, fought over which was the right sort of garden, and challenged each other over boundaries and definitions of gardening.

Yet there remains something true about God’s creation. Human gardens are designed and cultivated by human beings. God’s Garden, though, contains all of life, all of nature, all of humanity.

Universalism at its truest is a practice of reverence towards the whole Garden, a sort of reverence which is not disturbed by the different ways that people cultivate their own plots, so long as they remember that their boundaries are merely markers for their individual experiments at gardening.

And so it is.


Comment by Howard Brod on 9th mo. 19, 2015 at 6:21pm

Love it Mike!  Thank you so much for the gift of your words.

Comment by Mike Shell on 9th mo. 19, 2015 at 9:42pm

Thanks, Howard.


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