Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Imagining Universal Salvation: Seeing Past the Uglier Confusions

A social media friend of mine, a Christian with universalist sympathies, recently posted the following:
Thought experiment:
1.) Let's say it turns out that everyone will eventually spend eternity in the blissful presence and peace of God.
2.) You are granted the knowledge of this right now.
3.) How does this make you feel? What are your thoughts on the matter?
There were numerous responses, most of them expressing feelings of joy, some expressing concerns or raising questions ("Even Hitler?"). And then there was this one:
Being as how it will not happen and cannot happen......but if it did cheated and let down!!!!!! Because that wold make God a liar, a fraud,and no better than satan himself. It wold make The Word of God a lie, and mean that satan himself and all his demonic hordes would also be in Heaven and that Heaven would actually be hell!!!!!!!!!!!!
The response makes two claims about universalism (for my purposes I will assume we're talking about Christian universalism) that are worth reflecting on, despite being somewhat lost in a haze of exclamation-point fury. They are:

A. If Christian universalism is true and all are eventually saved, then God is a liar.

B. If Christian universalism is true and all are eventually saved, this means that the devil and his demons are eventually saved as well; and a heaven filled with the devil and his demons would be no heaven at all, but would be transformed into hell.

Let me reflect on each of these

Is God a Liar if Universalism is True?

The first of these claims is presumably based on views about the nature and content of the Christian scriptures: If you assume that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and if you assume that the Bible clearly denies universalism, then endorsing universalism amounts to saying God is either mistaken or a liar.

But the "ifs" here are big ones.

The doctrine of inerrancy is just one theory about how the Bible is related to God and God's Word, and a universalist might have a different theory. Alternatively, the universalist might--based on passages like Lamentations 3:31-33, John 12:30-32, Romans 5:18-19, Romans 11:32, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 Corinthians 15:28, and Colossians 1:19-20, or maybe based on a holistic reading of the biblical narrative--reject the premise that the Bible clearly denies universalism.

So it's a mistake to say that universalism implies that God is a fraud.

Suppose someone made the following claim: "If the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, then God is a fraud." You ask them why, and they say the following: "The Bible says in some places (e.g., Romans 5:18-19) that all will be saved and in other places (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9) that they won't. One of those claims is true and the other false. If the doctrine of inerrancy is right, then God has said something false. He's either mistaken or a liar. In either case He's a fraud."

The supporter of biblical inerrancy would likely reply in something like the following way: "That argument assumes that the relevant passages can't be reconciled. Maybe you're misreading them! It's not inerrancy that implies that God is a fraud. It's inerrancy combined with your particular understanding of the Bible that implies this. But I don't buy your understanding of the Bible!"

Yes. Exactly.

Here's the lesson: Some people, when they try to imagine universal salvation, have a negative response to it only because, when it is combined with other elements of their broader theology, the implications are ugly. But that doesn't mean universalism is ugly.

Is Heaven turned into Hell if Universalism is True?

Some universalists exclude the devil and his demonic hordes from the scope of universal salvation, limiting it to humanity: God saves all humans. But let's suppose we're dealing with the version of universalism that extends God's love even to the fallen angels. Would that brand of universalism turn heaven into hell?

An important feature of Christian universalism is this: It does not say that creatures will come to enjoy eternal blessedness without being sanctified. On the contrary, most Christian universalists I know are convinced of several things: (1) To be truly blessed requires being freed from bondage to sin, such that it is impossible to enjoy the blessedness of heaven while still being a sinner; (2) We cannot free ourselves from bondage to sin without the grace of God working in and through us; (3) Everyone will eventually receive the divine grace necessary and sufficient to free us from bondage to sin.

This third belief comes in different forms, because of different theologies. Typically, Christian universalists believe that we won't the divine grace necessary for sanctification and blessedness without repentance. So long as we have our backs to God, refusing to take in what God is pouring out to us, we will remain bound by sin.

What universalists are convinced of is that God never gives up on even the most recalcitrant of sinners, and that God is infinitely resourceful and creative in finding ways to cajole and inspire them to repent. What universalists believe is that God will ultimately succeed in transforming the heart of every sinner, redeeming every fallen creature.

In other words, universalists believe, like traditional hellist Christians do, that only the redeemed are in heaven. Where they differ is in their conviction that all of God's creatures are redeemed.

Universalists believe, like traditional hellist Christians do, that there is no sin in heaven. Where they differ is in their conviction that at the end of history there is no longer any sin at all--that God finally succeeds not merely in sequestering sin in hell but in erasing it from creation altogether.

If universalists believe that Satan and his hordes ultimately enter into Heaven, it is because they believe that Satan and his hordes are ultimately redeemed, repenting and confessing their sins, and so restored to their original state as angels of God, channeling love and mercy and grace, celebrating the peace and majesty of God in communion with all the blessed.

In other words, no one enters heaven unless hell has been removed from their hearts. Universalists believe that as much as hellists do. Where they differ is on the question of whether hello continues to enternally stain God's creation, an endless den of sin's persistence--or whether, on the contrary, heaven comes to encompass all of creation in the end.

Put simply, to think that universalism turns heaven into hell is to be caught up in some serious confusion about what universalism says.

Here's the lesson: Some people, when they try to imagine universal salvation, have a negative response to it only because they are confused about what it involves. They imagine sinners enjoying blessedness while still being sinners, even though such a thing is impossible (impossible because being a sinner is the worst conceivable affliction any creature can endure, such that its elimination is a necessary prerequisite for enjoying blessedness).

These points aren't enough to show that when universalism is properly conceived, it is a beautiful thing that should tug at our souls, filling us with the hope that it is true. These points are certainly not enough to show that universalism is, in fact, true. But they do show, I think, that some of the reasons why people don't find universalism beautiful are based on mistakes.

And I do find universalism beautiful, a source of hope and delight.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tone-Policing and Nonviolent Communication

I recently finished reading this essay, where Maisha Z Johnson uses the recent public clash between Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj as an occasion to talk about tone policing and the way that it's used to discount or silence black women's voices. As I was reading it, I was reminded of my study of nonviolent communication strategies. There are, I think, useful lessons to be found in thinking about tone policing in light of those strategies.

Tone Policing

The basic concern of tone policing is this: a member of an oppressed or socially marginalized group speaks candidly about their experience with oppression, speaking out against it, perhaps loudly, perhaps with discernible anger. Someone else (often a member of the privileged group) responds by complaining about the tone of the message. Johnson offers, as examples, the following kinds of responses:

"You're being too harsh"
"You're overreacting"
"You're making your cause look bad"
"I'm on your side"
"This is counterproductive"

"I'm on your side" is a bit different from the others on this list--a point I'll come back to later. But what all of these responses have in common is that they shift the topic away from the substance of what the oppressed person is talking about and towards something else: either the tone with which it is delivered (too harsh, hostile, or extreme); or the strategic failures of the speaker (counterproductive or alienating to actual and potential allies).

Strictly speaking, only the former is tone-policing. But the latter is sufficiently bound up with the former that it makes sense to treat them together. In both cases, the person offering the response distracts from the original speaker's message by complaining that how it was delivered will distract from its message.

It doesn't take much to see the problem here: If we really care about not distracting attention from someone's message, we won't respond in a way that distracts attention from their message. And that's true even if the way we distract from the message is by complaining about how the tone will distract from the message. Got that?

Nonviolent Communication

In its simplest terms, nonviolent communication is about finding ways to communicate with one another that encourage mutual understanding, reduce defensiveness, and help promote cooperative conflict resolution where everyone's needs and feelings are taken into account.

On one level, tone policing sounds as if it's about offering helpful advice with respect to these very things: "Hey, you! The way you're saying that isn't likely to encourage mutual understanding, may increase defensiveness, and may interfere with your goal of promoting cooperative conflict resolution!"

But even if that's true, talking about nonviolent communication isn't the same as engaging in it. There's a place for the former--including a place for pointing out to someone how they can be better at nonviolent communication. You might do it in a workshop about nonviolent communication strategies (or in a blog post about them). But if someone in a heartfelt moment expresses their frustration and anger about something, and I respond by saying, "You're a bad nonviolent communicator!", then I'm talking about nonviolent communication while failing to actually practice it.

When I actually seek to practice nonviolent communication, the focus is not on policing what other people say and how they say it. Rather, nonviolent communication is the effort to communicate in ways that move away from the language of judgment and accusation and towards the language of self-disclosure. And I do this both in terms of how I speak, and in terms of how I listen. The basic strategic tool for doing this is something called the "I-statement."


An I-statement offers a way to address my problems or concerns without making accusations (it can also be used to address things I'm grateful for, but that's another topic). The basic technique is to point out a situation or behavior that bothers or upsets me--in purely descriptive terms that don't make judgments--and then share how this situation or behavior makes me feel, and why.

An I-statement is about self-disclosure all the way down. When I share the reasons why I'm angry (or afraid, or sad) about your behavior, I do so in terms of my own needs, interests, significant desires, and core values (what I'll just call "needs" for short). I share with you something about myself that explains my emotional response.

Sometimes I may need to talk about my beliefs or perceptions as well--although there are dangers in this. It may be best to wait to talk about my beliefs for a time when emotions are less raw, a time when feelings and needs are in less urgent need of attention. But to fully explain my feelings and promote genuine understanding, sharing perceptions at some point is often crucial. If so, I should do it honestly and without judgment or accusation. It's one thing to say, "You're seeing racism that isn't there." It's something else to say, "It looks to me like you see the playing field as less fair with respect to race than I do." When we do share our perceptions or beliefs, we need to do so with humility, recognizing that our perceptions may be imperfect.

An I-statement usually culminates in a request. Not a demand or an ultimatum, but a request. The request is for something that would help me to meet my needs and resolve my emotional distress. When I deliver an I-statement, I understand that there may be more than one way to meet my needs, and that the request I'm making may be just the start of a conversation. After all, the specific way of meeting my needs that I've identified might not satisfy the needs of the other person. I need to be prepared for that, and ready to explore alternative ways that we can both get our needs met.

But if we're going to work together on finding ways to meet all our needs, it's not enough that you know what my needs are. I need to know what your needs are. This may require more than just talking in I-statements. A special kind of listening may also be needed.

Listening for Hidden I-Statements

In conflict situations, we're so used to talking in the language of judgment and accusation ("you-statements") that it's unlikely that when I share an I-statement, the other person will respond in kind. But as nonviolent communication guru Marshall Rosenberg has noted, "you-statements" can be seen as nothing but tragically failed attempts to share our feelings and needs. When I launch into a you-statement tirade, it's because I'm angry (my feeling). And I'm angry because I'm being thwarted in getting things that are really important to me (my needs). And I want things to change in a way that will resolve those feelings and meet my needs (my request).

In short, I can choose not only to express myself in I-statements but to listen for the hidden I-statements in what others say.

Of course, I might get it wrong. So, it's important that I check in: "Here's what I'm hearing. Is that right?" The trick is to try to identify the feelings, needs, perceptions, and requests of the other person, and then make sure I've got it right. If I don't, they'll correct me--maybe in more you-statement forms, but hopeful in a way that will deepen my understanding of them even as I invite them through my I-statements to a deeper understanding of me.

This kind of reflective listening--listening that's attuned to the self-disclosure behind the actual words--can be magical. When people feel heard, anger fades. When people feel understood, a cooperative spirit grows. Conflicts become shared problems that people work collaboratively to resolve, rather than a reason for animosity.

Tone-Policing Revisited

Let's return to the five tone-policing responses that Maisha Johnson talks about in her essay. It should be clear that all but one of them are clear-cut you-statements. They amount to telling the other person what is wrong with them. The exception is "I'm on your side," which I'll talk about on its own.

Tone-policing you-statements are a self-protection strategy. Someone has just said something angry, something full of feeling and deeply expressive of unmet human needs. And maybe their outrage encompasses me, and so I feel an indictment. Maybe the judgment is explicit, maybe not. But either way, my focus becomes immediately on that. I feel defensive. Maybe I agree in general terms with the judgment they're making, but I don't think it applies to me. And so I completely ignore their rich self-disclosure. Instead of listening for the feelings and needs and perceptions that lie at the heart of what they say, I launch into self-protection. I point the finger at them to deflect the perceived attack on me.

In short, I'm more concerned about avoiding blame than I am about listening. Or--as the case may be--I care more about whether you adhere to some standards of nonviolent communication than I care about what nonviolent communication is supposed to facilitate, which is deeper mutual understanding.

All of the tone-policing responses could be changed into I-statements, although in cases like this it may be far more important to listen to what others are trying to say to us--and to check to make sure that we've understood them--than it is to launch into our own self-disclosure. This is especially true in cases where the speaker is a member of a marginalized minority whose voice has been traditionally silenced, and we are members of a privileged group used to being heard. In such cases, there is reason to prioritize nurturing the voice that has been historically silenced over having our own say. There will always be time for us to speak.

But suppose I'm just too worked up to listen. Maybe I realize I'm being defensive, but that realization doesn't help. Maybe I'm even self-aware enough to know that my privileged position in society is part of the reason I'm getting so defensive. And it may well be true that I'd be less defensive, better able to listen, if the other party said things in a different way.

In that case, I might say something like the following. "I'm feeling frustrated, because I want to understand and digest what you're telling me but I'm feeling really defensive. Could you put your point another way?"

This is, in effect, an effort to unpack the hidden I-statement in the typical tone-policing you-statements. While such an I-statement might not be nearly as helpful a response as a listening one, if I'm not able to listen I don't do anyone a favor by pretending to. And this I-statement is a clear improvement over typical tone-policing responses in two ways: (1) it honestly reveals the speaker's issue rather than trying to cast blame, and (2) instead of silencing the other person by shifting away from the substance of their message, it is an invitation for the other person to continue sharing that message.

The response, "You are being counterproductive by taking that tone," changes the topic and invites everyone to ignore what the person is saying in favor of condemning its mode of delivery.

The I-statement response does not.

But what about "I'm on your side"? The problem here is a bit different. In many cases, "I'm on your side," is a comforting reassurance. But much hinges on context. When Johnson brings it up as an example of tone-policing, she has in mind Taylor Swift's response to Nicki Minaj's complaints about racism in the music industry. Johnson's worry is that, in that context, "I'm on your side" is a defensive response with an implicit judgment, namely, "You're wrongly attacking your allies." Even if the former is not in itself a you-statement, the latter is.

There may be an important difference in perspectives here that needs to be addressed. One person may voice a complaint that includes me as part of the problem causing them pain. By contrast, I see myself as their ally, trying to help them fix the problem. But when perceptions diverge like this, the solution is not to silence the opposing perspective with a forceful counter-assertion. The solution is to dig more deeply into the experiences that lie behind each perspective.

Imagine if "I'm on your side" were replaced with the following kind of I-statement: "I'm upset, because I want to be on your side in this, and I worry now that you don't see me as the kind of ally that I want to be. Could you tell me more about the kind of ally you need?"

This is not a rejection of the other person's perspective, but a request to understand that perspective more deeply. Instead of silencing or delegitimizing the other's message, it's an invitation to expand on it.

In short, tone-policing generally takes the form of you-statements. If that's true, one way we can avoid tone-policing is by committing ourselves to practicing nonviolent communication techniques in the kinds of situations where tone-policing so often rears its head.

Shouldn't we condemn those who say, "You're Tone Policing"?

I can already hear a critic say, "Accusations of tone-policing aren't good nonviolent communication. Anyone who labels someone else as guilty of tone-policing is violating the very principles that nonviolent communication tries to teach."

But here's the thing: Nonviolent communication strategies are intended to be used to guide our communication efforts, not as a template for judging the communication efforts of others. The moment I do the latter, I've abandoned nonviolent communication.

Yes, "You're tone-policing!" is a you-statement. But when I point this out, I'm talking about nonviolent communication instead of doing it. I'm mentioning its categories instead of using its strategies.

If I were using those strategies, I would never criticize or condemn those making the tone-policing charge. Instead, I'd do one of two things: (1) I might try to understand the feelings and needs and requests that underlie the tone-policing charge and then try to honestly express them, checking to see if I'm right (and then listening to see what I've missed or got wrong); (2) I might formulate an I-statement about how I feel about the tone-policing charge and why, in terms of my needs.

I think I've attempted to do the former in this post. It doesn't make much sense for me to do the latter, since I haven't been accused of tone-policing. But if I ever am, I hope I don't respond by saying, "You're overreacting! I'm on your side!"