From Fundamentalism to Universalism

Navigating the Process of Spiritual Growth

By Eric Stetson — January 2007

(Note: This is an abridged version of an article originally published in The Christian Universalist Connection newsletter.)

About two and a half years ago, I decided that I was fully convinced that salvation is for all people and there is no such thing as eternal hell or annihilation of the wicked. Since then, my beliefs about religion have continued to change. … Those who think they can become a universalist yet remain in all other ways a “conservative Christian” are, in my opinion, fooling themselves and in for a surprise.

Belief in universal salvation opens up a whole new panorama before us, a vision of a totally different kind of God than the false god of fundamentalism who keeps people in bondage to existential fear — fear of asking questions, thinking for oneself, trusting one’s rational mind and spiritual intuition, and trusting that God will not punish you brutally and endlessly if you make a mistake. God expects that we will sometimes get it wrong; making mistakes is often the only way we can learn! And heaven knows, just about everyone on this planet has gotten it wrong at least once in a while on matters of religion.

Part of this fearless vision is a new understanding of who we are and what is the purpose of life. A Christian Universalist realizes that the Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of all mankind is the root of our belief. This is the Gospel: that Christ taught us to recognize the divine light within us, and the fact that there is no one who is not created in God’s image and destined to be reconciled and conformed to the pattern of the Divine Man, the Son of God…

Salvation is a process, not a momentary event of religious conversion. Discovering God and being transformed in the divine image is a journey that never ends. So much of Christianity has been narrow-mindedly focused on “winning souls” — getting them to pray some magical prayer in the name of Jesus so that “their sins can be washed away in the blood of the cross” and they can avoid the doom of eternal hell — that we have forgotten the real message of the Gospel. It is about spiritual growth. God is ever calling us to do better, to go farther, to come up higher, to listen to the wind of the Spirit and allow ourselves to be taken up in its heavenly vortex, to be blown wherever God wants us to go.

If we are sailing upon the ocean of this world, and we seek to reach the shore of reunion with the Divine, we cannot turn our sails away from His wind, afraid of where it might take us. “Oh no, that wind might be blowing from Satan!” we fear, if it doesn’t feel familiar. Fear: That is our main problem that keeps us from the Goal. The Jews who met Jesus also accused him of being from Satan, because they were afraid his new ideas would undermine their religious traditions. Jesus responded by saying that this was the worst sin of all, the “blasphemy against the Spirit” that cannot be forgiven either in this age or the age to come. So let’s get that clear in our minds: What is the one thing people do that God hates the most? It’s when we restrict ourselves from potential spiritual growth because of religious-inspired fear of change.

Salvation is a process, not a momentary event of religious conversion.

What I have discovered is that everything changes once a person embarks on the path of universalism. The more that one reflects upon the doctrines of traditional Christianity within a universalist context, the more one is forced to confront the fact that many of them no longer make sense. The Augustinian theological paradigm upon which “standard Christianity” has been constructed crumbles under the weight of the reality of universal salvation. We must let go, and reach out into the unknown territory of genuine spiritual exploration. …

Bestselling author and psychologist M. Scott Peck outlines four stages of spiritual growth. In the first stage, a person’s life is chaotic, unordered by any transcendent belief system. The second stage, which usually begins with a conversion experience, is marked by an emphasis on order and doctrine, legalism and belief in the necessity of correct religious ideology and observance. The third stage is about questioning and skepticism, after a person reaches a point of rejecting the excessive dogmatism of stage two. In stage four, one is able to achieve a synthesis of faith and open-mindedness, where one’s beliefs are strong and provide beneficial structure and meaning in life, but are not rigid and unbending to new ideas and alternative possibilities.

Rev. Kalen Fristad, a Christian Universalist minister, points out in his book, Destined for Salvation, that many religious people get stuck in stage two and are suspicious of those in stage four — especially universalists — feeling that they have abandoned the faith. The reason is that stage three, a period of uncertainty and doubt, usually lies in between — and the fundamentalists are afraid that people can get stuck there and no longer believe in anything. They are right to be concerned, but wrong to criticize those who successfully pass through the questioning phase. Yes, many people are stuck in stage three; the Unitarians immediately come to mind. But many people do pass through a brief, constructive period of questioning, critiquing, and analyzing their spiritual belief system, and come out on the other side with a greater understanding of which beliefs really matter and which no longer serve a useful function or fit with new spiritual discoveries.

I have had that experience, and I pray that I will continue to grow in my faith. And I pray that all Christian Universalists will come to realize that holding on to a rigid, dogmatic religiosity in any area is incompatible with true spiritual growth, and with the spirit of both original Christianity and Universalism. Fear not! No eternal hell awaits if you happen to get something wrong.

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