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On the Pretense of Universalism

May 19, 2009


At my college’s graduation ceremony the school’s chaplain offered a prayer to the creator of the universe.

Why the hell did she have to bring Ahura Mazda into it? So what if he created the world? We all know it is Avalokiteshvara who actually answers prayers.


Seriously though, I’m sure the chaplain meant “the creator of the world” to be generic, but it is not. It might be generic enough for Jews, Christians, and Muslims who think they’re worshiping the same god—by contrast to Christians, like Marcion, who did not think the Jewish and Christian gods were the same.

But this isn’t all that general. It exhibits a bias against all of the following groups:

  • agnostics and atheists
  • all religious practitioners who believe in a creator god but worship or pray to other gods
  • Jews, Christians, and Muslims who, like Marcion, don’t think Yahweh, the Christian god, and Allah are identical

This kind of universalism is fundamentally self-centered and condescending: it involves the assumption that all other religious traditions are like one’s own, or it involves the projection of one’s religious views on other religious traditions.

It’s like the white guy who thinks that all races can get along becuase he believes that, at bottom, all people are just like him. (This guy is always surprised when he finds out that they’re not.)

It’s also what children do: seek to understand everyone else by thinking of others’ lives as somehow analagous to their own.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2009 10:20 am

    All universalism ultimately excludes somebody. I readily endorse the universalism inherent in the Marxist notion of the working class, but this excludes workers who don’t think their interests are confluent with other workers, or bosses who have interests fundamentally opposed to such universalism or political theorists in the strain of Cicero’s Concordia Ordinum.

    I cannot claim that my universalism is the only one which aims at the betterment of human kind – because so does that of your school’s chaplain. The only difference, I would contend, lies in the basis of my universalism in concrete social analysis rather than whimsical fairy stories and that thereby it has a greater claim to actually better the condition of mankind.

    We’re all universalist in our own way – even the idiot post-modernists.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 22, 2009 12:12 pm

    Dave: Yes, I have no problem with exclusion in principle. I also agree that we do and should make reasonable universalist claims: people get hungry, sick, are often exploited, etc., and we should give a shit about that and do something about it.

    So, it’s not “universalism” per se that I’m objecting to, but the impoverished attempt at religious universalism that “aims” at the betterment of humankind, as you put it, but which ends up simply reinforcing Christian privilege, IMO.

  3. March 15, 2010 1:47 pm

    I am Christian and I believe that God is universal as the laws of nature are universal regardless of what we or others believe. I can’t say that I really know what God is or who He is, but I know He is.

    Good and evil is not exactly relative of what we want to believe. It’s part of everything including our struggle for surviving. Evil could be considered a necessity to govern and impose order. Everything seems to be part of the order to keep things as they are.

    The more we understand, the more we respect history and the established order, people’s lives, people’s needs.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 15, 2010 1:57 pm

    gmanon: I’m not sure that what you’re saying here has any relation to the post.

  5. March 15, 2010 2:09 pm

    You are talking about the assumptions of monotheists. I am giving you my view as a a monotheist.

    “Jews, Christians, and Muslims who, like Marcion, don’t think Yahweh, the Christian god, and Allah are identical. ”

    It does not matter what we think. What it’s, is regardless of people’s thinking.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 15, 2010 2:20 pm

    Sure, some things in the world are what they are independently of what we think. But how would you know you’re right and Marcion was wrong?

  7. March 15, 2010 2:30 pm

    Because Marcion did not considered that most of the things that Jesus said, was already prophesyzed in the old testament. Jesus was just a confirmation of the God in the old testament inspired the prophets, therefore, he must be wrong.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 15, 2010 2:33 pm

    That response makes it seem as if you’re almost entirely ignorant of the principles of either historical criticism or hermeneutics in general. It smacks of wishful thinking. You can protect any view from criticism with the use of wishful thinking, but you’re unlikely to persuade anyone else …

  9. March 15, 2010 3:26 pm

    You make me laugh. I do not even care about the principles of historical criticism or hermeneutics. I do care about my purpose in life as a human being. And that, I know it.

    If you know so much, you will know that people are not really persuaded by words, unless those words are proven with facts of life. Persuasion and discussion without life experience is just a waste of time.

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