On the concern that the article suggests we will lose our identities if we are absorbed into Christ
Can't the same be asked of any language suggesting union with God? I have never seen anything in the usage of such language that suggests that this means loss of individuality but rather its ultimately fulfillment. Jesus talks about people being with God as He and the Father are one, so I'm not sure why this is problematic.
On the implication from the article on the role of the Church
Many folks would say "If you aren't going out to save people what is the point?" But the Gospel simply means good news and the commission is to share that news. Being an ambassador and building a Church to share this news doesn't have to equate with setting up an institution to save people (which first involves convincing them they are damned). The news that you are welcome, accepted and loved beyond measure isn't trivial nor is it easy to accept. The Church and its ambassadors would have plenty to do just living as if these things were true and sharing that acceptance and love with others.
On the idea that the God is forcing people to be saved against their will
It is sounds like the concept of irresistible grace. The idea that God, through Christ, is drawing all things to Him imperceptibly and inevitably is not new or controversial. If the teaching that all souls are restless until they rest in God is accurate, then the language used here has nothing to do with negating free will. I take his language to reveal the once common idea that despite our sense of separation from God some part of us remembers and is seeking wholeness, whether we seek it consciously or unconsciously and whether we seek it through organized religion or not.
His charge of anthropocentrism comes from the notion that Christ was sent in response to human behavior, like, "Oops,the humans screwed up, better go save them." It isn't about whether salvation is imposed on people. Does the parable of the shepherd who will leave the ninety nine sheep to find the one that is lost tell us that God is going to come and save us whether we want him to or not? Or does it show the depth of God's concern for everyone, even those who stray or outright run away?
an analogy from Shin Buddhism may be useful here. In Pure Land Buddhism, Amida (aka Amitabha) Buddha is the face of Ultimate Reality which is experienced by humans as boundless wisdom and compassion. His origin is rooted in the notions of karma held by the cultures in which his story arose, a figure from countless ages past who became the Bodhisattva Dharmakara who worked to purify defilements and accumulate merit -- enough to cover everyone everywhere. This bit is important because it was basically saying "Whatever you have been taught by your religion or culture about existential guilt and punishment that debt is going to be covered -- you are free." Dharmakara vowed he would put off complete enlightenment in becoming a Buddha until he was able to save all sentient beings.
In some forms of Pure Land, the relationship is seen as cooperative between Amida and the practioner. In Shin, the idea was refined. The practioner's "self power" and Amida's "Other power" were not separate. On one level, yes, there is a cooperative relationship. Yet on another level, self power is just a form of Other power. This realization comes with the experience of Amida not as a powerful alien entity "out there" but the voice calling out from within. Hence even the ability to chant "Namu Amida Butsu" comes from Amida -- wisdom calling to wisdom, compassion calling to compassion. That within us that recognizes our true nature is the same as Amida (i.e. Ultimate Reality). In this view Amida couldn't have become a Buddha unless everyone was already saved. Therefore finding the reality of Amida in one's heart was proof that one was already "grasped, never to be abandoned." In none of this are Shin Buddhists taught they are just automatons or that Amida is forcing anything on them.
If we go back to Christianity many of the parallels become clear. Coming out of a system involving the law and sacrifices, Jesus becomes the Christ by entering the world as a human who then operates within the prevailing religion and cultural beliefs by becoming the perfect sacrifice capable of covering all people for all time. One can also look at the lives of the apostles and the saints, especially those contemplatives who talk about their mystical union with God. Verses from the New Testament also parallel the development recognized by Shin Buddhism, such as the claim that "It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me", that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness" in prayer and "intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express", and the description of God as that "in whom we live and move and have our being." Not to mention the conviction "that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God."
The idea that we exist and act because of the power of God is neither uncommon nor is it a refutation of will or an imposition of power. That would assume a "thing A" (God) which wants to dominate "thing B" (human), but I don't see that dynamic being implied here in any way nor would it be consistent with the theology implied if I am understanding it right (of which there is little guarantee).
More on the idea of grace working with free will
I don't see that as being in opposition to universalism, which I don't actually "believe in" in a sense because it is reactionary to notions of eternal damnation like atheism is reactionary to notions of God. I think free will by its and our nature ultimately leads back to God. I don't think all paths are the same, just all understandings/notions of Ultimate Reality are not the same. Each paints a different picture and offers a different destination. But God is beyond pictures, paths and destinations, so in the ends it's like "Surprise! All destinations (and indeed all things) are on some level the same thing." Some paths may be longer, rockier, steeper and more treacherous but that is a matter of our environment (including the choices of others) as well as our own choices. Some people will choose or be shoved onto paths that cause immense pain to themselves or others. But ultimately it "all works to the glory of God" as they say.
There is plenty of speculation on how it all works. The following isn't necessary or essential to what I wrote above but it fleshes out my understanding a bit more if you are interested. I apologize as it is a bit long...
Some folk speculate that we exist on many planes of existence at once and our consciousness shuffles between them, largely asleep at the switch, like when you drive to work on autopilot. Some of these planes could include what we would consider to be hell realms while others may be heavenly realms and even pure lands. One system I have found useful is summarized as the ten spiritual realms.
A word on this first because these ideas are tricky to conceptualize, as the first question often is "Are they real places or just states of mind/consciousness?" When told they are both because all "real places" are "states of consciousness" (or at least realized/interacted with via such), there is next the idea that our individual minds create all of reality and therefore everything is just something we dreamed up, an illusion. That is partly true but focuses too much on "us" as our limited egos grounded in and composed of what we call the material world and not enough on "us" as active elements of Ultimate Reality.
Even hard-core reductionists can admit we filter our perceptions and fit them into a cognitive landscape in our minds that we then assume is what reality is like "outside of our skulls". The notion advanced here goes further and suggests we also filter other dimensions of our existence (almost always unintentionally) and then attempt to assimilate what experiences we do have of them into our pre-existing map of reality. Such glimpses may be interpreted as visions, voices, feeling, etc or even experiences we have yet to categorize. As for our not just perceiving but "effecting" any particular plane or dimension, I can only say that it is suggested in every major religious tradition and generally categorized as "miracles".
OK, so anyway, why bring up the notion of different planes of existence (other than my childhood geekiness for Dungeons and Dragons, etc)? First, I am all for getting insight and good ideas that may not be adequately discussed in Christianity. I don't think such an idea is inherently incompatible with Christianity, so it shouldn't be a problem except for those who assume that "if it ain't in my readin' of the Bible it's a lie." And I don't kowtow to that crowd. Heck, even the Roman Catholic Church said we shouldn't reject anything true in other religions (which begs the issue of discovering what might be true). Second, I don't think it is totally alien to Christianity, just underdeveloped in favor of (over-)emphasizing other elements. And third, it makes a lot of sense to me and challenges me in healthy ways.
So what is gained? I'll just go in the order things things arise in my head, not in a planned or organized fashion.
First, it helps to eliminate the confusion and duality of whether Heaven, Hell, etc are places or states of consciousness and reconciles the notion of separation from God as an issue of perception. We are always part of/connected with God but we forget this. Here is how I described that recently to someone else in a totally different kind of discussion:
- There is the lesser self (or "ego") which tries to set itself up as our exclusive identity that is wholly autonomous and self-sufficient, but this need not be destroyed. In fact, beginning students of traditions such as Buddhism often make this mistake, thinking that the ego is a foe to be conquered or destroyed, while some Christians see it as an impure counterfeit that must be battled. It isn't. It simply needs to be dethroned, i.e. to be placed in proper perspective. To try to destroy the ego would be harmful as well as futile, and would actually fuel its entrenchment and reactivity. To let go of the self isn't easy because the ego will see this as a threat. It will in fact act as if it is being destroyed or killed (and since we identify with it as our sole source of who we are it seems that *we* are therefore dying). This can be quite terrifying. It isn't that there is something wrong with our egos per se, it is the attachment to them (or in Abrahamic terms the idolatry of them) that is the problem. They will not go quietly into that good night. Models of depravity work to break the hold of the ego as god, but they can be overdone. The idea that God alone is good cannot be divorced from the idea that we are made in the image of God without troubling consequences. If sin is indeed reflected in separation from God the issue turns to what that means. This is a major point of departure for many theological perspectives. One view I will offer (and only offer) here is that we are part of God, the ultimate reality and ground of being, but the trauma of our emerging consciousness causes us to have a kind of amnesia. At some level we remember God seek to return to that wholeness, even if only at a subconscious level. Our first instinct is to make our ego god. It actually makes a lot of sense since we recognize we are part of God. Of course, the fragment known as the ego cannot equal the beauty, vastness, or comfort of the whole which is God. It tries to do so, attempting to fill the God-sized hole with whatever it can. This leads to a madness in which we are consumed by greed (wanting more), frustration (not getting enough) and dissatisfaction (even when we get what we wanted we want more or something else). Hence the teaching of St. Augustine that all hearts are restless until they rest in God. Our lives "miss the mark" (the original meaning of "sin") until we reconnect or realize our connection with God. But for that to happen the ego must take its proper place. This is actually good for the ego, as it can actually grow and be actualized and fulfilled in ways it never could when believing itself to be completely independent. It is liberated -- it is saved. Our individuality actually attains it greatest flowering.
As for the heaven realms and the Christian notions of Heaven, some fit and some do not in informative and constructive ways. Buddhism differentiates between duality and non-duality. Some forms of happiness or joy are based on conditioned things, hence they are "born" and must "die". True happiness and joy is rooted in the unconditioned -- it is neither born nor does it die. The are striking parallels for example between the storehouse described by Nichiren (whose followers created a new Buddhist tradition) and Christ's admonition to store treasures in heaven. Both seem to be referring to something beyond form, something of which we are already a part and to which we are already connected. In other words, trust or align your heart to God (or whatever is representing God, such as nirvana, Buddha-nature, etc). In the scale of the ten realms, this would be the top, or tenth realm. This is Heaven as being fully open to the presence of God.
Which leads to a second benefit which is harder to summarize or name, but which reveals quite a bit about our relationship to God and the nature of existence.
The concept of the interpenetration of the ten realms, which was elaborated by T'ien Tai and further refined by Nichiren and his followers, has also been understood through the often tricky notion of ichinen sanzen. The upshot is that each world somehow contains all of the others, like a hologram, and therefore each can "reveal" or manifest the others. So we can therefore "travel" from world to world. Each moment then contains all of the others. This makes sense in a panentheistic view wherein God is both transcendent and immanent. As transcendent, God is ineffable an beyond complete rational, logical comprehension. God is, as Tillich and others have suggested, not a "thing", even a super-duper thing, alongside other things. God is the ground of all being and existence, the ultimate source and reality, the raw potential out which all form (or phenomena) arise and return as well as their substance. God in this sense "doesn't exist". God is existence itself. This is what is apprehended by apophatic theology.
Yet there is also the immanence of God, which comes in since we are in every sense "of God". This recalls oft-quoted opening lines from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: "To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour." But it pays to read the rest, as some additional lines attest: "Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine Runs a joy with silken twine... We are led to believe a lie When we see not thro' the eye, Which was born in a night to perish in a night, When the soul slept in beams of light. God appears, and God is light, To those poor souls who dwell in night; but does a human form display To those who dwell in realms of day." Thus the paradox. God is on the one hand incomprehensibly transcendent, yet on the other hand the fullness of God is contained in a single flower, whose true depth and mystery are boundless.
Which take us back to ichinen sanzen. All possible worlds are present in each world. All possible states and conditions, choices and consequences. To make sense of that model we tend to think linearly -- I am in this moment which contains all others, and then I move to another which contains all others. The idea then becomes to move "in the right direction", which when flattened onto the map of the Ten Worlds is moving toward the top world. Yet this is misleading. As a state or condition, Buddhahood in non-dualistic. I have had trouble tracking down the source for this paraphrase, but the original quote more or less says that an ordinary person sees deluded and enlightened beings, but a Buddha sees only Buddhas. The over-identification with or over-rejection of any moment or series of moments is the delusion. Similarly, the commandment to love others as ourselves and the idea of "seeing" God in all things, especially others, suggests we are all the children of God whatever we believe or do.
When we don't ponder ichinen sanzen in a strictly linear sense we get a glimpse of the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of God and how simply and joyous it really could be to accept that and rest in God. Not rest as in being lazy or non-motivated, but as in letting go of the existential angst and confusion that leads us to latch onto our poor egos as a solution to our sense of incompleteness and dissatisfaction. This in a sense is what religious programs are for -- to help us let go and trust in ever deeper and more complete ways in God. We have to participate because we are creating or reinforcing the barriers to our own liberation. We must then give our assent, in a way that goes beyond words sometimes even conscious thought, to God working in us to free us.
In that context is might be helpful to revisit what was written above: I think free will by its and our nature ultimately leads back to God. I don't think all paths are the same, just all understandings/notions of Ultimate Reality are not the same. Each paints a different picture and offers a different destination. But God is beyond pictures, paths and destinations, so in the ends it's like "Surprise! All destinations (and indeed all things) are on some level the same thing." Some paths may be longer, rockier, steeper and more treacherous but that is a matter of our environment (including the choices of others) as well as our own choices. Some people will choose or be shoved onto paths that cause immense pain to themselves or others. But ultimately it "all works to the glory of God" as they say. By definition God is in this sense inescapable. Even what we see as wrong choices and bad moves will eventually be (perhaps necessary) steps to our full self-realization (in God).