Fr. Tobias Haller is a great parish priest and theologian (a rare combination in my opinion). Here is a post he recently wrote on relativism and universalism. A link to his blog can be found on my listing of links or you can click here to find him. I encourage you to add him to your blog reader.
Relativism and Universalism
Two of the most common accusations directed these days at The Episcopal Church is that it tends towards a relativistic ethic and a universalist view of salvation. I'm concerned to clarify these terms a bit, for they seem rather vague. I tend, myself, towards absolute moral standards tempered by an ethic based on certain biblical principles elaborated by Jesus and Paul. And I hope for universal salvation, but hope is not belief.
That being said, some further clarity is warranted. As to what moral relativism might look like, would this qualify: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean." (Romans 14:14 )? I would call that "subjective" — and I suppose one might see subjectivism as a subset of relativism.
But I also think that the actors, situation, intent, and so forth have to figure in any moral or ethical judgment — there are very few acts that in and of themselves are always morally wrong regardless of these other factors.
To use the late Richard Norris' example, it is o.k. for a surgeon to stick a scalpel into someone, but not for an assassin. The act of "knife insertion" is only deemed moral or immoral on the basis of these other factors.
To take an example closer to home, you could not, if shown a photograph of a couple engaged in heavy necking (or more), be able to tell simply on the basis of the photograph if this was a moral or immoral act. You would need to know certain things concerning them and their relationship with each other, and possible others, to make such a determination. But once these other things are known, it is possible to make an absolute judgment, and to stand by it: for instance, assassination and adultery are always morally wrong. (Utilitarian, teleological, or consequentialist ethicists might fudge on these both, given the circumstances; I would rather stick, as Bonhoeffer himself did, with the notion that sometimes wrong acts have extenuating circumstances, but that they are still wrong, and those who commit them are responsible for them. Thank God, God forgave even those who crucified him, and they were about as wrong as wrong gets.)
Which brings me to universalism. Would this, also from Paul, qualify: "For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob." (Rom 11:25-26)?
Paul makes a compelling case for universal salvation (the healing of the wound of sin; not the same thing at all as "going to heaven" whatever that unbiblical phrase might mean), and he bases it on his understanding of the universality of sin itself. It is reciprocal: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Cor 15:22) Just as we did not fall under sin on our own account or by our own actions, so too we are not saved by our own efforts or actions. It is the faith of Christ (even unto death), not our personal faith in Christ, that saves us (from eternal death).* He is the savior, not we ourselves.
That's how it works, folks, and it is a great mystery.
* With due regard to the shades of meaning in pistis Christou.
Tobias Haller BSG