The Universalist Imperative: A Radical Quaker Perspective

The world we share with billions of humans and countless plant, animal, and other life-forms is facing multiple social, industrial, ecological, and political crises on an unprecedented global scale. The various religions and philosophies that humans have created to knit communities and form alliances on local, regional, national, and even to a limited degree internationally seem inadequate. While we must respect and preserve the best of these historic attempts at human and ecological harmony, the necessity for a new global perspective seems inescapable.

The leading religious and irreligious traditions and philosophies break out roughly this way:

Christianity – 2.5 billion – 33% of world population
Islam – 1.6 billion – 21%
No Religion – 1.5 billion – 16%
Hinduism – 1 billion – 14%
Buddhism – 400 million – 5.9%
Chinese traditional religion – 400 million – 5.9%

There are even more traditions than these, but this listing alone accounts for 95% of world population. Christianity is on top of the heap at the moment, and this tracks with the economic and political dominance of Western Civilization over the world. However, the multiple crises we face are in some real sense a product of Western – Christian – world dominance. The United States – which is 77% identified as Christian – as a nation consumes 25% of world resources, yet we are only 5% of world population. We have the world’s largest military force and can initiate unilateral wars with no real opposition. Does such a world situation seem like the fulfillment of the revolutionary compassionate message of Jesus?

And yet, in the US one is repeatedly urged to attend church and find salvation. Many, but not all, true believers in Jesus seem to never pause to ask whether the other religious or irreligious peoples of the world might have universal truths we’ve neglected or suppressed in our rise to power? The narrow way of Jesus which is proclaimed to lead to life abundant is understood by many as a supernatural transaction for a ticket to an afterlife paradise, not any sort of radical message of universal love to be applied in this life. “Love your enemies” is rarely taken to mean one must understand other religious traditions or irreligious philosophies with deep sympathy.

Universalism is hardly a new idea, nor even a strictly Christian one. The Rig Veda, written no later than 1100 B.C.E., proclaims “the truth is one, sages call it many names.” If one understands humanity as one species sharing one planet, then the diverse religions are inescapably seen as finite, cultural creations of albeit rich historical and imaginative shared narratives and rituals that can bring us into harmony with one another, or they can drive us apart. Even modern atheisms are not immune to this divisive underside of human culture, economic competition, and political warfare.

Is there a solid place to stand in the shifting sands of apparent global relativism? Can one come to embrace and follow Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Marx, and the Goddess seeing in them various human stories that point imperfectly to a larger goal of world communion, without feeling lost and adrift in a lawless tide? Such a perspective is the one that this radical Quaker cannot avoid taking, even when it leaves me feeling breathlessly uncertain at times.

Universalism does not mean there is no standard of right and wrong or truth and falsehood. It begins with our finite intelligence and eschews dogmatism, whether religious or irreligious. It takes as its goal bringing together as widely as possible the entirety of our planetary diversity for the purpose of tackling the big and small problems every being and species faces today. Bringing the entire world to Christ or Allah or Marx seems to be too easy compared to such a task. Yet, dare we aim at anything less with our global destiny in the balance?


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