Tag Archives: Universalism

Where do you go for your Universalism fix?

I just talked with someone around here who wants to explore current Universalism within the Unitarian Universalist Association. I told this person that I thought of myself as a Universalist, but that I have to get outside the Palo Alto church (which has a decidedly Unitarian orientation) to get my Universalism fix. And how exactly do I get my “Universalism fix”? this person wanted to know. Well, by hearing good kick-butt Universalist preaching, and by talking to some real Universalists. And who are the preachers who still deliver kick-butt Universalist sermons? –and who are the “real Universalists”? this person wanted to know. Well, I had to admit that many of the “real Universalists” who have kept me going me are either dead (like Bob Needham), or on the East Coast (like Richard Trudeau). As for kick-butt Universalist preachers, there’s Gordon McKeeman, but he’s not preaching regularly any more, and sometimes I hear some real Universalist preaching at Ferry Beach, the Universalist conference center in Saco, Maine.

These were not very satisfactory answers, I’m afraid. Therefore, I’m going to plug into my online Universalist hivemind. If you’re a Universalist, how and where and from whom do you get your regular Universalism fix? Be specific and name names: Universalist preachers, congregations, persons, places.

Unsystematic theology: Salvation

Second in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Back when I was a Unitarian Universalist kid, I vaguely remember hearing an old Unitarian profession of faith that has long since been superseded in liberal religion. Written originally by James Freeman Clarke in the late 19th C., that old profession claimed that Unitarians believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards forever. I doubt many religious liberals would accept Clarke’s affirmation today, because second-wave feminism made us realize that gender-specific language doesn’t work. But the notion of “salvation by character” remains important for many religious liberals. Liberal religion wants to affirm that human beings are in large part responsible for their moral choices. We can choose to solve society’s problems, we can choose to address social sins; and when we choose to tackle social problems and social sins, we are exhibiting good character. Salvation happens through the conscious efforts of persons of good character.

Thus it appears that religious liberals link sin and salvation, where sin is understood primarily as social sin: we humans have to save humanity from social sins like racism, global climate change, and so on. If we think of religion as having both a horizontal dimension — relationships between human beings — and a vertical dimension — relationships between human beings and the divine — liberal religion characteristically emphasizes the horizontal dimension, and attenuates the vertical dimension of religion; so too with salvation. Many religious liberals do not affirm the existence of a divine being or beings, and for them the vertical dimension of salvation is vastly attenuated; salvation is a human responsibility, with a small vertical dimension insofar as humans respond to abstract ideals. Many religious liberals do affirm the existence of God, Goddess, or other divinity/ies, but they are very unlikely to say, “It is up to God [or whatever] whether or not the world is saved.” Religious liberals assume it is up to us humans, not a divine being, to solve problems.

All this seems to be generally true, yet at the same time I am aware of a fair number of religious liberals who would like to have a stronger sense of personal salvation: perhaps, these people say to themselves, it is not enough to try to save the world; we also long for personal salvation by character. Continue reading

Universalism for a new era

UU World magazine just put a good article by Paul Rasor on their Web site. Titled “Can Unitarian Universalism Change?” the article is an excerpt from the Berry Street lecture Paul gave last June.

Using demographic and other solid evidence, Paul makes the case that in an increasingly multiracial society, Unitarian Universalist congregations are predominantly white. In other words, we are increasingly out of step with the surrounding culture. In other words, we are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Paul goes on to say that our Universalist heritage offers a solid theological foundation on which we could build a truly multiracial, egalitarian religion:

Early Universalism was a communal faith. ‘Communal’ here means more than a group of individuals who share a common belief and come together for mutual support and worship, the way we might understand it today. Instead, in this form of communal theology, the individual was removed from the religious equation. Universalists insisted that our personal salvation was no more important than anyone else’s salvation. As Ann Lee Bressler, author of The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1880, puts it, Universalism ‘encouraged the believer to think of his own interests as inseparably linked with the eternal welfare of the whole body of humanity.’

This theological core led to a radical egalitarianism. The American emphasis, shared by most Protestant denominations, including Unitarians, had always been on equality of opportunity, at least in principle, while in practice tolerating vast inequalities of outcome. But Universalism’s egalitarian theological doctrine became the basis for a truly egalitarian social doctrine — ‘an egalitarianism not of opportunity, but of desert,’ or outcome. In other words, Universalism was not simply pluralistic; it was radically inclusive.

However, a radical Universalist inclusivity is going to ruffle lots of feathers of current Unitarian Universalists who place an extremely high value on personal and individual freedom. In my reading of the Treatise on Atonement, Hosea Ballou’s foundational theological statement of Universalism, Ballou places great restrictions on free will: you don’t get to choose whether or not you wish to be saved, you will be saved no matter what. Unitarians placed much more emphasis on free will:– Continue reading

“Death and glory” all the way!

In the middle and late 19th century, Universalists spent quite a bit of time arguing about the afterlife. Sure, they agreed that every human being was going to be saved; they were Universalists after all. But some Universalists (an increasing number as the 19th century went on) believed that there would be some form of punishment in the afterlife; while other Universalists believed that you would go straight from death to glory in heaven. The first group were called the Restorationists; the second group were called the Ultra-Universalists, or the “Death and Glory” faction. The Unitarian Universalist Historical Society has a good (albeit long) article on the Restorationist controversy.

You are probably not interested in the Restorationist controversy, but some few of us are. I used to get into gentle arguments with Lindsay Bates, who is a Restorationist. She would say, “There are some people whom I believe need to be punished.” I would say that if there is any afterlife at all, either I want us all to go straight there upon death (yes, even the child rapists and axe murderers), or I didn’t want to be a part of such a theological scheme; or to put it another way, either God is perfectly good beyond human comprehension, or I didn’t want any part of God.

Not only was Lindsay a much better debater than I, I always felt my argument was pretty weak. Today, I was leafing through Hosea Ballou’s An Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution, on the Principles of Morals, Analogy, and the Scriptures (Boston: Universalist Trumpet, 1834), and I came across an argument against Restorationism that was new to me, and convincing in an odd, 19th-century sort of way. Ballou writes:

“But I must hasten to notice your queries. 1st. In relation to what you term ‘death and glory.’

“This subject has never been much agitated among brethren of our order, until quite lately. Dr. Priestley’s views of an unconscious state after death, were not known to me when I wrote my treatise on atonement, nor had that subject then ever been considered by me. This accounts for my silence on it. Of late, I have endeavored to know what divine revelation has communicated on this subject; but, owing to my want of discernment, I have not been able to reconcile all the passages, which seem to relate to the case, to a fair support of either side of the question. My efforts, I acknowledge, have not been made with that intenseness of application, respecting this matter, as they would have been, had I been persuaded that the question was of any great consequence. Being fully satisfied that the Scriptures teach us to believe no moral state, between the death of the body, and the resurrection state, in which that which was sown in dishonor will be raised in glory, and that which was sown in corruption, shall be raised in incorruption, it seemed to me immaterial whether we enter, immediately, after the dissolution of the body, on the resurrection state, or sleep in unconscious quietude any given time before that glorious event shall take place. In either case, it is what you call ‘death and glory’; for it makes no difference as to the length of time during an unconscious state. In such a state there can be effected no moral preparations.”

You go, Hosea! Take that, all you Restorationists!

Now I just wish someone would write a hymn that uses the phrase “Death and glory!”

We play “Zip, Zap, Zoop,” and we talk about conscience and the voice of God

Series of entries in my teaching diary about an experimental Sunday school class. First entry.

The children went to the first fifteen minutes of the worship service with the adults as usual. It took a long time for the worship service to get going this week. We started three minutes late, the announcements went on for four minutes, and we wound up taking about five minutes to greet the people around us and introduce newcomers, so it was 11:12 before the worship service really started. Fortunately, this week’s worship associate, Kay Brown, told a wonderfully effective children’s story. She started by saying that the story took place “far, far away, ten thousand miles away, in the land of India, where I was born.”

The story was about a man who made his living by selling caps (Kay put a baseball cap on her head to show the kind of cap she meant). He carried around some 50 caps in a big basket calling, Who wants to buy a nice cap? Red ones, green ones, all kinds of caps! Then the man walked under a tree in which some 50 monkeys lived. The monkeys saw the caps and wanted them. They climbed down out of the tree, and each took a cap. They liked the red caps best, said Kay, “because the red caps matched their red rear ends.” The man called to the monkeys to return his caps, for if he could not sell the caps, he would earn no money and his children would starve. He pleaded with the monkeys, but the monkeys just laughed. The man grew sad, and then angry, and when he realized the monkeys would not give his caps back no matter what he said, he grew disgusted and threw his own cap on the ground (Kay demonstrated this with the cap she was wearing. Lo and behold, all the monkeys imitated the man and threw their caps on the ground where he could pick them up. “The moral of the story, parents and children,” Kay said in conclusion, “is this: children will do what adults do, not what you say.” (I can’t remember the exact wording of Kay’s moral, but it was something like this.) I found it to be a very satisfying story — it was a familiar story told in a personal way, it was fun for children, and the moral was not simplistic. I liked that the moral was really two morals in one: it told adults that words are not enough; and it alerted children that they should pay more attention to what the adults in their lives actually do, as opposed to what those adults say. I thought to myself that I might want to take some time to talk about this story with the children in class.

We went off to our regular room. I was surprised to find that several of the things I had set up had been put away — the candle we were going to light was gone, the markers and crayons I had ready for the project were gone, the snack was gone. We found the candle and the markers had been put away in the closet in our room. I went off in search of matches and snack while Melissa said the opening words with the children. I grumbled a little bit, but there wasn’t much we could do. This is always one of the challenges of teaching Sunday school: things move around when you’re in shared space.

I got back to our room in time for check-in. There were just four children today: Dorit, Andrew, Perry, and Monty (attendance was light in most age groups at the first worship service as well). There were five adults today: Lee, Melissa, Lucy, Amy (our parish minister) and me. Lucy is Dorit’s and Andrew’s mom, and she said, “Is it OK if I come to class? I like it in here.” Of course we said it was OK for her to come to class. Amy has been wanting to visit the Sunday school for a while, and since we had a guest speaker today she was able to come.

After we had each checked in, Dorit asked if we could play “Zip, Zap, Zoop.” Continue reading

An eco-universalist prayer

Yesterday’s post has the story of how the great Universalist Hosea Ballou did a preaching tour of the New Bedford region in May, 1820 — including an anecdote of how Rev. Le Baron of Mattapoisett unsuccessfully tried to keep Ballou from preaching. Never one to miss out on provoking a good controversy, Ballou wrote a letter to Le Baron the next day, which apparently had some kind of wider distribution. This letter is probably the first Universalist tract ever written in the New Bedford area.

Ballou’s letter contains one almost poetic passage, which could almost be a proto-eco-universalist prayer. I added snippets from elsewhere in the letter to make conclusion for it, and here it is:


     Does not the sun shine universally,
     and the moon likewise?

     Do not the clouds give rain to all,
     and the fruits of the earth grow
     for the benefit of all?

     Is not the vital air for the life of all;
     and are not all equally entitled to the waters?

     All people, every person,
     and the whole world are universal.
     This testimony, I believe, is Universalism.


For those of you who love to watch early 19th C. Universalists picking fights, I’ve included the full text of the letter below. Continue reading

A Universalist responsive reading

The Eternal Law of Right

It may be asked, Why do so many people still believe in an angry God?

The answer is, that some people believe what they are taught, and neither dare nor care to question its correctness.

Others believe God is literally angry. A criminal, it is said, fancies he hears the footfall of the pursuer in every unexpected sound.

Our feelings are projected upon everything around us. On this principle, to the wicked, God must seem to be angry.

We reject their fear-inspired notions, and are compelled to believe the testimony of the best thinkers and clearest seers.

We should shape our conduct, not to please or displease the immovable Calm, but to conform the eternal law of right; because in keeping this law “there is great reward.”

Adapted from Through the Shadows (Universalist Publishing House, 1885, p. 45) by Rev. Isaac Case Knowlton, minister of First Universalist Church of New Bedford.

Glad to be a Universalist

Recently, Carol and I have been coming face to face with the machinations of manipulative, amoral people — different people for each of us. No, they’re not church people. No, I’m not going to go into details — there’s no need, anyway, because no doubt you’ve had your own experiences with such people, and you know what goes along with those experiences: frustration, sense of betrayal, hurt, sometimes even despair. Suffice it to say that it can be discouraging.

It’s times like these when I’m glad I’m a Universalist. People are the way they are, a mixture of good and evil. But in the end, the most powerful force in the universe is Love. Some of the old Universalists used to say that God is love; which sounds like a theistic formulation, though if you’re a humanist you can also take it to mean something like “what we used to call ‘God’ is now better understood as ‘love’.” Whatever works for you; metaphysical speculations don’t particularly interest me. The point is that manipulative, amoral people can fight against the power of love for a time (sometimes for their whole lives), but it takes lots of energy, and it diminishes their lives. And the point is that I don’t need to exhaust myself wishing for revenge upon them in the form of sending them to some eternal torment; for in wishing such a thing, I would be as manipulative and as amoral as are they.

Nope, it’s good being a Universalist, because I have the ultimate comfort of knowing that even if manipulative amoral people happen to be causing harm in my life, their influence can only be transient — because the permanent truth of the universe is love.

As always, your mileage may vary….

How could I have forgotten?

How could I have forgotten to celebrate on October 5? I mean, that’s such a big day in the history of American religion, it seems impossible to forget.

What’s that you say? You’re not quite sure what October 5 has to do with American religion? Why, it’s the birthday of our greatest native theologian! It’s the birthday of a minister and theologian and president of Princeton College, a man who seriously worked to integrate the latest scientific insights of his day into his theology, a man who was also a great prose stylist (it’s probably that you read some of his sermons in an English class at some point in your life) — and a man whom we can credit as being one of the major inspirations of Universalism.

Yes, I’m talking about none other than Jonathan Edwards, the man who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (that’s the sermon you may have read in English class), a man whose depictions of hellfire and brimstone set such high standards that many preachers felt they weren’t worth anything until they, too, had scared the living daylights out of their congregations with such a sermon — thus prompting people like Caleb Rich and other early Universalists to really read their Bibles and discover that hellfire and brimstone are not Biblical at all; to discover that the Bible actually depicts a loving God, not an abusive hate-filled God who takes pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Edwards, both for being such a good prose stylist, and for making it clear to the next generation that his theology of hellfire and brimstone went way too far.