Universalism after 553?

Universalism is a topic I am hesitant to make any strong claims about, especially at this early stage in my journey into Orthodoxy. As a fairly liberal guy, I should be attracted to it. But even when I was a liberal Protestant, I felt uncomfortable with universalism…although in those churches, universalism usually translates into extreme ecumenicalism: the belief and attitude that all religions are leading their followers toward the same end and that all religions are, essentially, equal. This belief does not necessarily offend my sensibilities, but the way it’s practiced often does. I never joined a Unitarian Universalist church because of how frequently they incorporate practices from different faiths into their worship—Judaism today, Islam next week, Buddhism the week after, a virtual cornucopia of comparative religion! I believe that we should be very cautious about appropriating practices from different faiths, that ecumenical dialogue must always start by affirming the differences, not the similarities, between faiths. This belief is a product of my liberalism. If you don’t respect another faith enough to admit that its claims may be incompatible with yours, you’re not really showing that faith any respect at all.

Nevertheless, universalism is a topic that continues to pop up in my study of the faith. I plan to eventually read (and discuss here) David Bentley Hart’s new book, That All Shall Be Saved; I enjoyed his apology for universalism in First Things back in February (First Things published three dissenting reviews of the book; the best of the three is by Douglass Farrow). How can an Orthodox scholar defend a doctrine that so blatantly contradicts the explicit teachings of the Church, especially following the fifth ecumenical council of 553? I find Hart’s response to this in the article very compelling (even if, per usual with Hart, his ethos is a touch too bombastic for my taste). He writes, “I simply think that—a little like the mathematician Andrew Wiles, when he discovered the proof of Fermat’s last theorem—I have provided the correct demonstration of something that many of us have always already known to be true.” Universalism, in this formulation, is not something that was abandoned in the sixth century. It has always been with us. (I should note that Hart does not do away with the doctrine of hell altogether. I’ll discuss these issues in greater detail when I read the book.)

Mark Chenoweth over at Eclectic Orthodoxy wrote a long entry today about universalism after the fifth ecumenical council, and I found it very enlightening. I recommend it to my readers. Chenoweth writes:

“There was no universalist saint after the fifth ecumenical council (553 CE) because it condemned universalism as heresy!” Although this exact sentence has never been uttered verbatim (as far as I am aware), many popular websites certainly seem to believe it. In contrast to that prevalent assumption, in what follows, I’m going to argue that there is at least one crucially important post-553 universalist or universalist-sympathetic saint: Maximus the Confessor. If Maximus was a universalist or at least considered universalism a permissible theological opinion, then he did not interpret the 553 Origenist anathemas as forbidding a belief in universal salvation.

Chenoweth’s argument is detailed, thoughtful, and rich with footnotes. I appreciate the judiciousness and care with which he approaches this topic. One section in particular stands out:

The great Maximus scholar Hans Urs Von Balthasar was the first to argue that there are certain passages where Maximus implicitly refers to universal salvation as a theological opinion to be “honored with silence.” Balthasar argues that Maximus saw universal salvation as a secretive doctrine that should only be disclosed to the spiritually mature. Maximus would not be the first early Christian to have referred to universalism in such a manner. Origen (and in my judgment as well as Balthasar’s and Ramelli’s, Gregory of Nazianzus) also spoke about universal salvation as a somewhat secretive theological opinion to be kept under wraps.

I believe that universalism is one of those topics that a novice, such as me, cannot approach easily or well. This is one of the reasons I always felt repelled by Unitarian Universalism: in that tradition, universalism is a starting point, an opening gambit, not a place you arrive at after careful, rigorous study and prayer. I don’t feel compelled to endorse universalism right now, and I may never endorse it. But I find the arguments for and against compelling, and I will likely write more about it in the future.

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