Paradox of grace
Jim Mulholland and Philip Gulley seem to get a kick out of stirring up controversy. As the authors of the controversial book If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person they’re getting used to their status as targets.
Their book makes the controversial claim that “God will save every person.” Such a declaration is a theological Molotov cocktail – causing some incendiary responses from those who believe it to be hurled directly at them. The firestorm over their book began before it ever hit the bookstores. The Indianapolis Star did an article on why Gulley’s previous publishing house that had produced his Harmony novels and Front Porch Tales was dropping him. The publisher did not care for the new theological direction Gulley took in his new book.
“The article took a few lines from the upcoming book without giving any context and that created a firestorm,” Mulholland explained. “People reacted and assumed Phil and I were going to abandon the faith.”
A group of fundamentalist Quaker pastors tried to have Gulley’s recording removed – similar to other denominations asking that a pastor be defrocked. Christian bookstores emptied their shelves of Gulley and Mulholland’s books, and the nasty letters to the editor poured in.
“It was actually kind of fun,” Gulley chuckled.
Mulholland, the more serious foil for Gulley’s playful nature, was more philosophical.
“When people actually read the books they discover that we’re not dogmatic about how we approach this,” he said. “It’s more or less just sharing our experiences and our journey and people don’t have to like our experiences and our journey but they really can’t argue with them, they’re our experiences and journey.”
Neither man seems to mind stirring the theological pot with their assertions that God’s grace is more powerful than evil and that every soul will be reconciled to God either in this life or the next.
As they wrote in their book (they write together in the first person):
“Long before I believed God would save every person, I claimed God as a loving father. It took many years for me to accept that if God is a loving father, his love will persist until every one of his children is reconciled to him. I understand now why it took so long for me to recognize this truth. I had to sort through the vast variety of images of God until I found the one that matched my experience. It finally occurred to me to trust someone I believe knew God’s heart – Jesus.”
It took both men a long time to sort through those images of God before they came to their current beliefs. Mulholland came from a conservative evangelical background attending several churches including American Baptist and United Methodist churches. Gulley grew up in a devout Catholic family but began attending a Quaker meeting when he was 17 years old.
“The girls were prettier than they were in the Catholic Church so I felt drawn to Quakerism,” Gulley joked.
It was personal tragedy that led both men on the theological journeys that brought them to where they are now. For Gulley it was the death of his friend Tim.
“The explanations I heard from people seemed to be totally bankrupt – that it was God’s will and that God needed Tim. Even though I was theologically unsophisticated it just struck me as nonsense,” said Gulley.
For Mulholland, who was a United Methodist pastor for 12 years before becoming a Quaker pastor, it was the death of his mother from cancer when he was 21-years-old.
“The same kind of trite explanations of her death were given and that opened up my search,” he said. “Also, I had a very close friend who came out of the closet and that stretched the issue for me,” he said.
That’s another commonality between the two men, who met during their first day of classes at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Gulley’s understanding of homosexuality changed as well when his younger brother came out.
“It caused me to reflect and reconsider and actually read the Bible and discover that right up there with injunctions against homosexuality were also injunctions against wearing garments of mixed fabrics and I wondered why we didn’t take that seriously?”
Both men launched concerted efforts to gain a deeper understanding of scripture and what it required of them.
“Reading and studying the Bible one of the things I learned was that there was a lot more there than I had been taught and the teaching was pretty selective,” Mulholland said. “Also, being a pastor in the inner city changed me, meeting people so different from myself and discovering that I had to make room for them.”
It was in making room for people in this life that sparked Mulholland to think more deeply about the afterlife.
“If your life is limited and your experience is limited to people exactly like you then it’s not a surprise that your picture of the afterlife is pretty limited as well,” he said. “It is an ungracious world and people have had experiences of pain and injury and it’s so difficult for people to give up punishment, judgment and damnation. Many times someone will respond to us with great emotion but we realize they’re not reacting to our ideas, but to some deep pain in themselves and they don’t want to give up the thought that somebody’s going to burn in hell.”
The latest book penned by them is If God is Love that explores how far the church has drifted from Jesus’ message of grace, love and hope and instead now offers only ungracious messages of fear and hate.
Whosoever spoke recently with Gulley and Mulholland about their books, their faith, their upcoming projects and how to live graciously in an ungracious world.
In If Grace is True you assert that you both believe that God will save every person. Do you mean even Hitler will be saved by God and not punished with an eternal hell?
Gulley: The Hitler we encounter is going to be the Hitler God intended, one who is healed from whatever illness, sickness or neurosis plagued him and he will be on his way to being restored and reconciled with those whom he saw as the enemy.
All of life is unfolding and changing and hopefully growing and maturing.
Mulholland: I work with guys in prison and there’s one guy who has been in for 28 years. He was sent to prison when he was 18 for murder. He is a different person than the man who committed that crime. I’m not who I was when I was 18, thank God. If we had killed that man for his crime that evolution would have stopped. There isn’t any continued evolution in the idea of condemnation. We believe that spiritual evolution continues in this life and the next.
People always ask us what happens after we die and we say, “We don’t know.” We can speculate. We have some things that seem attractive to us, but more than anything we base it on our assumption that the grace and presence of God we’ve experienced in this life is unending.
Gulley: What we believe about the afterlife has a huge impact on how we live the present life. As soon as we say that some people are beyond God’s eternal concern then it becomes permissible for us to treat them however we wish in the present day. I’m convinced that what drives our war in Iraq is our leadership’s conviction that Muslims are outside of God’s eternal concern. As long as that is true then we can do with them whatever we please, and we’re doing it.
When I talk with people about your books and tell them the premise and that you both believe in universalism, they always have the same questions for me. Here are a few of those questions. If we’re all saved then why did Jesus die for our sins?
Gulley: Jesus didn’t die for our sins.
Mulholland: The interesting thing we run into is this whole concept that the church is about grace and forgiveness, but God has to have every sin paid for. That is a contradiction. Either God is really about forgiveness and grace or God is about payment. You can’t have both. If you want to have a religion that’s about payment, that Jesus paid this price, fine, but then it isn’t a religion about grace.
Gulley: It’s a religion about restitution.
But doesn’t the Bible contain ideas about both grace and restitution?
Mulholland: It certainly does. There is a strong argument that there are competing voices throughout the tradition. Even in the NT you see this continuing struggle – is it about balancing the scales or is it about forgiveness and healing? Can those both happen, absolutely, but from our perspective justice is the outcome of the healing and the forgiveness. I think too often it’s seen as two options, an either or. We argue that if you’re gracious and forgiving that in the end that creates the environment that allows there to justice, equality and restitution.
Here’s another common question: If we’re all saved then why should we be good and moral if it’s all going to be forgiven?
Mulholland: That’s a pretty sad question. It implies that you’re only living the life you’re living based on either fear of punishment or the possibility of reward. That question reflects that for many people that’s where their religion is – that’s the level they’re operating out of, but we’re challenging people to move beyond that.
Here’s another question I hear: Didn’t Jesus say some people would be punished for all eternity?
Gulley: I think it’s clear that some of the writers of the gospel believed Jesus said that or believed it themselves and had Jesus say it, but it seems contrary to the picture of Jesus that I see in the gospel.
Mulholland: Or, that Jesus may have said that and Jesus was wrong.
Jesus was wrong??
Gulley: Jesus also thought the end of the world was here.
Mulholland: Or, maybe he didn’t. One of the things that historic criticism has done for us is really forced us to decide are our convictions only our convictions because Jesus said them or are they our convictions because we believe God has inspired that belief and truth within us? Fairly early in my life I abandoned the idea of “I believe it because the Bible says” because I realize the Bible was pretty complicated. What I adopted instead was “I believe it because Jesus said …” That’s still pretty much a fundamentalism which says it’s not based on any deep conviction or inspiration but based on some external authority. I think one of the challenges is to be able to say “I believe this because I believe it.”
Gulley: I experienced it to be true.
Mulholland: It’s from within me. Now that doesn’t exclude God. It’s still recognizing that the spirit of God is at work within us, but it’s being brave enough to not have to found everything we believe on some external authority.
But experience is often discounted the most over external authorities like scripture and tradition.
Mulholland: That’s why Phil and I probably both ended up Quaker because this tradition is highly respectful of experience. That’s not a new age idea, but an idea the Quaker’s were wrestling with 400 years ago. It’s frustrating to deal with fundamentalists who put so much authority in the Bible.
People approach the Bible as if it were a letter written to them. What you do with a letter written to you then you look for parts that you like or might apply directly to you and you focus on that. What’s sad to me is that most people are not taught much about the Bible at all. They’re handed the Bible. They’re not told its history, they’re not told how it was developed or how to interpret it. Can you imagine teaching about the Constitution of the United States and not mentioning the Revolutionary War or Thomas Jefferson? You’ve got to have context but we largely give the Bible to people without context and then are surprised that they make all kinds of strange assumptions about it.
I marveled at this whole controversy around whether our soldiers did or did not deface the Koran. We had people in Afghanistan kill other people because that was done to a book. That’s screwy. Talk about the devaluation of people’s lives that you kill someone because your book was not respected. In fairness, there would be a lot of Christians who would have that same reaction if the Bible was mistreated. That’s a frightening thing.
I tell fundamentalists that it was some three hundred years after Jesus died before a list of scripture that became the NT was published. Early Christians went that long without a Bible.
Mulholland: And did quite well!
And seemed to do much better than we have done with one.
Mulholland: Well I wouldn’t go that far. I think they were probably as contentious and divisive and irritating as we are.
Gulley: Yeah, but they didn’t have Pat Robertson.
Or Jerry Falwell.
True. We don’t seem to be making much progress!
Mulholland: I’m much more optimistic than that. I do think there is an evolution and I do think as much as the early church had its problems it was moving toward a more universal religion. It was moving away from a sectarian religion that Judaism was to a more universal religion and it wasn’t just Christianity doing that but other religions were doing it as well and that was an evolution. I continue to think that not just the church but religion is evolving. I’m excited about what’s happening right now. For a variety of reasons we’re not able to be insular anymore.
Gulley: It’s amazing the number of people I get at my church who are being motivated and inspired by progressive Christianity. I suspect that the vocal evangelical traditional rise of Christianity that we see in America is the last thrashings of a religion that no longer makes sense to people and they know that so they proclaim it even louder and more fervently, but they know that the game is up.
Bishop John Shelby Spong said that years ago, but I still don’t see it dying out.
Gulley: When you talk about religion you don’t talk months, you talk decades.
Mulholland: Maybe even generations. I’m very optimistic – just around the homosexuality issue. I know from the inside it may be hard to see much change, but just think if you’d gone back 20 years ago and said that there would be states doing same-sex marriage people would have just laughed at you.
True, just the fact that every denomination is debating this issue is amazing.
Mulholland: Our meeting just hired a gay man as a children and youth minister and 20 years ago they would have said he was a child molester and that would have been the end of it. I see it happening. Whenever there is change the old guard fights tooth and nail and we’re seeing that. The very level of viciousness shows they know the game is up. If they really felt they were in power then they’d treat you with apathy. You’re not important enough to even acknowledge.
How is your current book, If God is Love, different from the first?
Gulley: Less controversial.
Mulholland: Partly because people are used to it.
Gulley: It’s still a passionate response and much more positive from people who have been beat up by the church.
Mulholland: There are some evangelicals that while they don’t buy the universalism part have been very sensitive to our criticism about how ungracious the church and its theology has been. To them much of the book is applicable. I’ve heard people say they like the second book better because there was a lot they could apply.
Many gays and lesbians have been hurt by the church and they can’t get over the belief that God hates them. Then we get suspicious of a gracious church because we believe the church wants to change us. How can we talk to a community that has been so hurt by the ungraciousness?
Gulley: I don’t think we talk at all, we act.
Mulholland: And listen.
Gulley: And show them over and over again that they are accepted just as they are.
That’s so hard for gays and lesbians to accept, though – we’re suspicious people.
Gulley: I’ve pastored gays and lesbians and I know. When I tell them they’d be welcome in my congregation it takes a couple of years of them being there before they believe it. And then all it takes is one moron to say something stupid and they’re gone.
Mulholland: What we have to help them move beyond is not to hear the one divergent voice as being the voice of the community. Quakerism really emphasizes the voice of the community is discerned by the community. What usually happens is a gay or lesbian person will come in to a church and the church may be fairly open and welcoming but they’ll hear one negative person and say, “I have to leave if that’s going to be said here.” But the irony is that we must be gracious to the moron too. That’s the trick. What being open and welcoming is about is being open and welcoming to people wherever they are at. Is that difficult to do? You’d better believe it.
In our meeting we have one man who is just as homophobic as he can be and the gay and lesbian people have slowly embraced him.
Gulley: The irony of this guy is that he volunteers at a center for people with AIDS. His wife is very gracious and is bringing him along.
Mulholland: He is like a lot of people I run into who, one-on-one, can be very gracious but whose theology is so engrained – and it’s an ungracious theology – that they really live in two worlds. There is the personal which is very gracious then there is the corporate which is very ungracious. I can’t imagine living that way, but there are millions of people who have figured out how to do that.
Why do you think it’s so hard for some people to believe that God actually loves everyone?
Gulley: It’s our experience that people find it hard to believe that God loves everyone because they can’t imagine that they could do that. So, it’s more indicative of their own inability or unwillingness to love and care.
Mulholland: Or, the other side of the coin is that their real anxiety is over God really loves them. If you’re struggling over whether you’re accepted or righteous then how in the world do you have the security to do that for other people? Your whole life becomes comparing yourself with others and hoping that you’re good enough, better enough and that the line between salvation and damnation is somewhere behind yourself. You can’t imagine yourself as being more gracious than God.
Are you two working on any new projects?
Mulholland: I’m going solo and partially because really the person who struggled the most with the whole concept of Jesus was me. Phil grew up in the Catholic Church where the tradition of the church was lifted pretty high and I grew up in congregations where Jesus was the whole story. So, the new book I’m working on is called “If Jesus Wasn’t God” just to play out those questions. This is what we were taught about Jesus and what would it mean if it wasn’t true?
Gulley: The underlying thesis being that anytime a religion deifies its founder then all other religions must necessarily be false.
Mulholland: The subtitle is “One man’s journey from worshiping Jesus to following him.” What people say to us is “how did you get from where you used to be to where you are now.” There are hints of that in the first two books, but I think for many people Jesus becomes the stumbling block. How did I get from being a person who was an ardent follower of Jesus as the only way to where I am now?
So, Phil you didn’t want to get in on the hate mail this one is going to get?
Gulley: No, I’ve had enough. Let Jim endure this on his own.
I can see it coming, Jim.
Mulholland: Oh, yeah, I expect it. My sense is though that there are an awful lot of people out there who respect and love Jesus but have thought that if I don’t buy the whole theological framework I can’t be a Christian, and say to them that there are all kinds of ways to relate to Jesus and still be a Christian.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.