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The Trap of Theological Universalism – Ecclesiological Holzwege V

It is believed that the value of a faith and a church lies in its universalism. If something is not valid for everyone then that thing, it is thought, has no value. If, on the other hand, it is valid for everyone, then its validity would be immediately guaranteed. The problem is that this way of conceiving universalism easily leads us to an obsession with unity. Moreover, by increasing rigidity, it does not allow us to grasp and live in the tension that true faith implies, which is a tension between universal and particular. Although the universalism of faith is true, it becomes false when it detaches itself and rejects this tensional dialogue with the particular. The true dialogue of universalism with the particular does not take place when the universal normalizes and organizes the particular. Instead, it ends up engulfing and neutralizing it. True dialogue occurs when the universal allows itself to be countered by the particular. It then can resize and reconfigure itself differently from the particular.

When universalism becomes standard, and no longer dialogues with the particular, it then ceases to be humane, and becomes outright idolatry. This is Kierkegaard’s[1] radical critique of Hegel’s rational and systemic universalism, which Hegel encapsulated in the phrase “everything real is rational and everything rational is real.” But for Kierkegaard[2], truth is not in the universal but in the particular, not in categories but in exceptions. The particular, in fact, always manifests itself in an exception that we are forced to recognize in life. Not “man” (a universal category) but some particular man, perhaps called Carlo, Mario or Alessandra.

Adventism, in its present history and future planning, has lost its sense of the particular and capitulated to an abstract doctrinal universalism. The expressions of people, in their hesitations, vicissitudes, and vulnerability, do not matter at all for us, just like the prophet Jonah in Nineveh. They are anomalies and asymmetries to be overcome as quickly as possible in the face of a universal eschatological truth that demands clarity, compactness, and militancy. And right there—where obsession with the universal is accompanied by an ironclad pact with clarity, compactness, and militancy—there is no place for the human element. And if there is no humanity, there is no truth. And if human-truth is absent, there is no God either. Adventism, in the name of God and continually invoking his name, headed toward eschatological idolatry, not because it says what is false, but because it says only a part of the truth and is silent about that which guarantees healthy manifestation of truth, which is attention to the particular.

Within the abstract Adventist universalism paradigm, everyone must believe and do the same things, no matter where they are and what culture they belong to. And this endogenous universalism then finds its natural exogenous projection. So the only way of their eventual recognition is for the person to become Adventist, if not in fact, then at least in fundamental traits. Adventist missiology is tainted by this false universalism which demands that all believe the same way and in the same things, first for those who are outside, but even more for those who are inside, or have decided to enter.

But atypical European Adventism, the prodigal son of Mainline Adventism, has a different conclusion. It believes in the foundational value of the particular and consequently spontaneously distrusts the various salvific universalisms that swarm world Adventism today. Europeans do not minimize them but neither do they exalt them. They are not excluded; on the contrary, Europe wants to dialogue with them. It is the others who exclude European Adventism. They do not want to dialogue with it except when it bends and follows them. Some call this theological cynicism. I think we could more simply call it cultural realism and historical wisdom. And this valuing of the particular while distrusting alleged universalisms happens at the grassroots level, by ordinary members in their local churches. It’s because European culture is like that and has learned the hard way from its own history. Moreover, Adventism has been positively influenced and thus improved by this European cultural trait.

Culture does not determine, but certainly influences, the theological and social configuration of all churches, including Adventism. Each church, like each theology, is culturally rooted and therefore, bears specific historical names and surnames. So it is legitimate to think that European Adventism is actually more European than Adventist. Likewise, Europeans could easily respond in the same way, that American Adventism is actually more American than Adventist, especially when it strives to prove otherwise. Every theological reflection and configuration is always culturally mediated and a child of its own time. There is no neutral, a-historical perception of God, or reading of the Bible. The desire for the zero/neutral point of theological or cultural elaboration is not only a fiction but also an idolatry.

Culture is not simply the object of conscious choice, but it is essentially an unconscious condition and therefore an assumption that is behind each individual. It precedes us. At this level we do not choose our culture. The culture chooses us, because it exists before us and welcomes us into life, not the other way around. Linguistically we use the same categories of people from antiquity. But using words like God, family, and faith, does not imply that the meanings are the same. Cultural homonymy is a current phenomenon. We say we worship the same God as Abraham, and nominally we are believers like Abraham, but substantively our God is a different God. Ours is a typically modern God. Our revival is a typical modern revival of Abraham. If Abraham were to be resurrected, he would be confused, and perhaps frightened, by our individualistic, rational, functional, contractual faith, that nevertheless would appeal to him. Abraham would certainly be more comfortable with the pagans of his time because he would see them, despite major theological differences, as closer to him culturally.

Giacomo Marramao[3], is a philosopher at the University of Rome, and has been a guest several times in our Villa Aurora theology faculty. He reminds us that the appeal of this cultural universalism (that he calls “identity universalism”) is not only present in Christianity and the churches, but also in the history of the West itself. The paradox is that the Adventist church, while opposing modern culture, from the very beginning of its history has not been able to offer a structural alternative, but only proposed a thematic alternative. In fact, it has simply re-proposed the same inflexible universalism in an eschatological and ethical form.

Therefore, Marramao suggests, we must learn to construct what he calls a “universalism of difference,” which is characterized by two essential traits. The first is that this new universalism must be dynamic, not static. It cannot be substantiated because religions, as well as cultures, are always on the move. Their natural allegiance to the past cannot force them to copy, but rather to reconfigure their past according to new stresses. The second trait is precisely this attention to the particular. The “universalism of differences” does not renounce the universal, but moves toward it from respecting and listening to the specificity of the particular in its various forms.

Marramao[4] also reminds us that management of the particular today has become even more complex, as it is not used to dialogue with the universal, but simply to oppose and protect against it. The world has become heterogeneous and culturally polycentric, thus both the defense of a necessary and healthy universality, and also the wise and flexible management of the particular, has become problematic. There is a dual tendency for: 1) a radical formal universalism to coexist with strong identity-based reactionary drives, and 2) the defense of a closed and self-referential particularism. Indeed, globalization is an example of the former, and the religious and cultural identity hardening of minorities is an example of the latter.

At this point the description of contemporary Adventism becomes complicated because of the church’s persistent obsession with an abstract doctrinal universalism. But it paradoxically coexists with another obsession with a closed, identity-based, tribal, religious particularism. Adventism thus has two problems: an inflexible universalism on the theological and eschatological level, and an equally inflexible ecclesiological and missionary particularism. Neither mission nor eschatology are negative in themselves. But they are in their present configuration. Our religious universalism (theological and administrative) is not interested in the particular, and our religious particularism is only interested in its own particular. The result is a theological and religious paradigm that tends to be schizophrenic, torn between two allegiances—universal and particular—that it cannot keep together except in a caricatured form.

It is at this point that European Adventism can be a resource, not an anomaly to be corrected. The inflexible theological universalism and closed and militant particularism of Mainline Adventism is contrasted by European Adventism, which exhibits a “flexible theological universalism” and a “dialogical particularism.” The conquering, militant, missionary Adventism, present throughout the world, is polite but unkind because it does not accept others as they are. Also, it is impaired by this inflexible universalism and its parallel closed and distrustful particularism. European Adventism, on the other hand, (and against all appearances) cultivates a “Gentile” theology and eschatology, that are the essential prerequisites of any true acceptance of others.

[1] S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling. Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de Silentio, (London: Penguin 2000).

[2] S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death. A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening by Anti-Climacus, (London: Penguin, 2004).

[3] Giacomo Marramao, The Passage West. Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State, (New York: Verso, 2012)

[4] Giacomo Marramao, The Passion of the Present. A Brief Lexicon of World Modernity, (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri 2008).

Title image: George Bakos on Unsplash

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