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Why Christianity’s particularity is better than John Lennon's universalism

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 18 August 2005


In the most general terms I understand liberalism to be that impulse deriving from the Enlightenment project to free all people from the chains of their historical particularity in the name of freedom. As an epistemological position liberalism is the attempt to defend a foundationalism in order to free reason from being determined by any particular tradition. Politically liberalism makes the individual the supreme unit of society, thus making the political task the securing of co-operation between arbitrary units of desire.
Stanley Hauerwas, Against the Nations, 18.

Particularity is under attack from all points. Much of the church has abandoned what they see as narrow sectarianism for the universal message of love and peace. In doing so they have reversed such sayings as “God is love” to produce “Love is God” - a new form of idolatry.

This is also true when in our thinking about God we begin with the philosophical attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence to yield a God who really knows nothing, has no power and inhabits no place, or when we begin by talking about religious need or spirituality. Rather than speaking of the particular God of Israel known in the nameless name YHWH and in the life and death of the man Jesus, we talk instead of a universal God, shorn of the narrowly secular and worshiped by other religions and creator of the physical world.

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The universalising of Christianity is a part of the church’s accommodation with modernism that is embarrassed by the historically particular. The product of this movement is universal morality that can be applied to any man in any situation, a God divorced from particular commands found in scripture; the imposition of a theology of creation that ignores the covenant established in the Old Testament and is directed to an explanation of nature.

When the particular is ignored we get religion based on idealism that can only degenerate into nihilism. This can be the only result because ideas are abstracted from the particular events and acts found in scripture and the particular people of the covenant. Whenever we derive universal moral principles from biblical texts we engage in this abstraction. This is particularly apparent in the case of natural theology. The law or Torah is not a legal code to be taken literally as in Islam. The narratives cannot be separated from the Ten Commandments which cannot be separated from the cultic instructions. They all speak to us about the history of Israel with its God in which religion is questioned and found wanting.

The church must face up to the fact that God is to be found in particular and ancient, often obscure texts, not behind or under these texts, but in them. When the prophet says “thus says the Lord” God actually speaks. When the Eucharist is celebrated God is actually present.

Part of our problem is the use of the word God that is shared by most religions. However, Israel did not have a general word for God but particular words, YHWH, the anonymous name that could not he pronounced, El Shaddai the God of the mountain. This seems to us to belong to the primitive mentality that we have long since left behind. However, when we abstract the particular names Israel had for God we produce a generalised deity that rubs shoulders with Allah, that the scientists can associate with creation and nature, and may be included in the constitution or not. Here we have a firm basis for atheism or a superficial religiosity that can only result in nihilism.

The Christian doctrine of incarnation rests on Israel’s understanding of the presence and action of God in history. Indeed, Israel had no other conception of God other than as He commands and acts. It was only in his commands and his acts that He could be understood to be merciful and abiding in steadfast love. The religion of Israel was a religion of the verb, God said, God commanded, God acted, God created. Any attempt to abstract a general idea of God apart from the specific event was unknown.

The quote above from Stanley Hauerwas may be contrasted to the words of “Imagine” by John Lennon.

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Imagine

Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today...

Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace...

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Article edited by Eliza Brown.
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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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