Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Will D. Campbell (part two) and the possibility of universal salvation

In addition to what I have already written (please read the previous post first) about Brother Will, there is something else. This appears in another sermon in my Help My Unbelief, but the original source is Will's book And Also With You. The sermon was preached at the commencement for Virginia Theological Seminary graduates in 1999. Here is a part of the conclusion:


            This brings us to book number three, by Will Campbell. No greater servant of the radical gospel of grace lives today. He was, as he says, “in the crosshairs of the Klan” for many years, but everything Brother Will writes is constructed around the gospel message that Christ died for the ungodly.[1] His latest is And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma.[2] Duncan Gray was a genuine hero of the Episcopal Church in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, and the book is written as a tribute to his witness. I want to give you some idea of the book’s ending, but please be aware that it is far more intricate, poetic, artful and profound than I can even begin to suggest. That said, let us follow as Brother Will describes a day with a most unlikely and unholy triumvirate. Picture Will Campbell, Sam Bowers, and civil rights activist Kenneth Dean, colleague and friend of Duncan Gray. Bowers is escorting them on foot through the “deep, foreboding” Mississippi swamps, “as remote a place as I had ever seen,” where “dark rituals [had] uneased the night” at “nocturnal, clandestine gatherings” of the Ku Klux Klan.

Beside me was Bowers, a man alleged to have been responsible for multiple murders, bombings, and mayhem. On the other side of me was [Kenneth] Dean, a man who had risked his own life trying to save the lives of black citizens...It was the greatest test my tentative understanding of unconditional grace as overshadowing, overcoming, conquering humanity’s inherent sinfulness I had ever known. The scandal of the gospel I had heard preachers and theologians talk about in generalities all my life assumed an even more outrageous posture. Is grace abounding here in this darkening arcane forest? Truly unconditional grace? Something as crazy as Golda Meir chasing Hitler around the pinnacles of heaven, and after a thousand years he stops and lets her pin a Star of David on his chest? Who said that?...I felt a strange oneness with the two men with me. And an even more unfamiliar concord with those I knew had convened on this ground to plan missions of atrocity.

            What is that oneness? What is that concord? That is the theological question. Is it simply “God loves everybody?” No one who cares about God’s justice can be satisfied with that. Religious reassurances of the ordinary variety do not reach the deepest pain or bridge the widest chasms. Nothing will do it but this Word: Christ died for the ungodly. That is our oneness, that is our concord. The unconditional grace of God, the righteousness of Christ in his death, “overshadowing, overcoming, conquering humanity’s inherent sinfulness”; the purpose of God at work with resurrection power to reclaim this whole human race of “miserable offenders” for his glorious kingdom: that is the word of faith which we preach.


That's from the sermon. Since 1999 I have written 600 pages about these problems and these issues. It is Paul in Romans 11 who most clearly suggests universal salvation (preceded by hints in Jonah and Isaiah 40-55). George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary and I were discussing universalism and the problems it poses, and he said, "We are permitted to hope for it." That seems right to me, and I don't think we can say more than that about universal salvation in view of the many portions of scripture that seem to forbid such a speculation.

Wikipedia has an entry for Will that shows more depth that Wiki often does. It contains two classic quotations:
He has insisted that "anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian" [7] and that "Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well".[8]
Regarding Hitler: after pondering the problem of evil and reading at least 40 books about Hitler, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Stalin, and genocide in general, I have begun to think that there have been a few people in human history who were not human beings at all. They appeared to be, but they were only simulacra (having the appearance but not the substance of the real thing). That's as much as we can surmise. Obliteration, as though they had never been, and the erasure of their memory (see Miroslav Volf's The End of Memory) seems a possibility, but we must leave that to our righteous Judge.

[1] One annoying thing about Will Campbell is his insistence on saying that he is not a theologian. That’s equivalent to Aretha Franklin saying she is not a singer.
[2] Will D. Campbell, And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma (Franklin, Tennessee: Providence House Publishers, 1997)