Saving Universalist theology

(Be forewarned: this is a blog post about theology. Some of us enjoy theology, but if you don’t, this will not be fun for you.)

Mark Morrison-Reed, in his lecture “The Black Hole in the White Psyche” (online here, and in the fall, 2017 issue of UU World magazine), asserts that Unitarianism appealed to members of the African American intellectual elite through the late nineteenth and twentieth century, citing the Unitarian affiliations of people like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Whitney Young. Universalist theology, on the other hand, did not appeal to African Americans:

“Universalism … was difficult for African Americans to embrace. A loving God who saves all is, for most African Americans, a theological non sequitur. Why? In an article entitled ‘In the Shadow of Charleston,’ Reggie Williams writes about a young black Christian who said, during a prayer group following the murder of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in 2015, ‘that if he were to also acknowledge the historical impact of race on his potential to live a safe and productive life in America, he would be forced to wrestle with the veracity of the existence of a just and loving God who has made him black in America.’ This is the question of theodicy: How do we reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of evil? In the context of Charleston, the context of Jim Crow, the context of slavery, what is the meaning of black suffering? Why has such calamity been directed at African Americans? If God is just and loving there must be a reason. If there is no reason, one is led to the conclusion that God is neither just nor loving.”

What Mark says is clearly true. Yet there were a tiny handful of African American Universalists during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What drew them to Universalism?

The case of Nathan Johnson offers one possible answer. (You can find my brief biography of Johnson here.) If the name Nathan Johnson sounds familiar, it may be because you remember that when Frederick Douglass arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he spent his first night of freedom at the home of Nathan and Polly Johnson, and it was Nathan who helped him find his new name (see Douglass’s Narrative).

Nathan Johnson was a member of the First Universalist Society of New Bedford. What drew him to become a Universalist? As a religious liberal in 1830s New Bedford, Johnson had three religious groups to choose from: the Unitarians, who relegated African Americans to segregated pews; the Quakers, who went through a dramatic schism in New Bedford in the 1820s and cast out the liberal elements; or the Universalists, the newest liberal church in town.

So what drew Johnson to the Universalists? Most probably, it was the avowedly abolitionist ministry of John Murray Spear, who fought so hard for abolition of slavery that he had to flee New Bedford — which is pretty remarkable, since New Bedford was about as abolitionist as any city could get in 1830s United States, because the economy of city relied on the existence of a large free Black population as a labor force for the whaling fleet. (And yes, historical materialism is an important part of my theological toolkit.) Thus, when Johnson looked around, he saw that there was one New Bedford congregation that was active in abolition.

Yet the fact that the Universalists had an abolitionist minister was necessary but not sufficient. Johnson persuaded Frederick Douglass to come visit his church, but Douglass did not become a Universalist after his conversation with John Murray Spear. Perhaps Douglass had the reaction to Universalist theology that Mark Morrison-Reed outlined in his lecture. Then why did Johnson respond to the Universalist theological message?

One possible answer lies in the work of William R. Jones’s book Is God a White Racist? Jones, an African American humanist writing in the mid-twentieth century, distinguished between two types of theists: “theo-centric” theists, who believe God will take care of everything for them, and “humano-centric” theists, who believe it is up to humans to take care of human problems.

I’d like to suggest that a subset of Universalists are humano-centric theists, a religious people who believe that humans have the responsibility to address human problems. This is in fact the core of my Universalism. When I read Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement, one of the key points I take from the book is this: “If any of the human race be endlessly miserable, the whole must be…” and therefore that it is “impossible for a well-disposed man to see another in misery without bearing a very sensible proportion of such misery….” Ballou is referring to what those in heaven would feel knowing that the majority of the human race was condemned after death to endless punishment in hell; but implicit in Ballou’s argument is a commentary on life in the present world: How can any one of us be comfortable and content if any part of the human race is condemned to misery?

A further implication of Ballou’s theology is that we humans are urgently called, here and now, to address injustice; that injustice is caused by humans, not by God, and therefore it is up to us humans to end injustice; and that any injustice is a sin, that if we allow injustice to flourish we are indulging in sin. Ballou throws an overwhelming responsibility on humanity — we humans are the cause of all the sins we hate, and we humans are the ones who must end sin and injustice. Ballou does not let us to pretend that some Daddy God is going to come down and solve our problems for us. Nor does Ballou let us pretend that there is some embodied Devil who cause we evil. It is we humans who are the cause of evil, and it is we humans who are called to end evil.

So far, this is not a very comforting theology. I said humanity faced an overwhelming responsibility, but perhaps there’s a better way to describe it: this “responsibility” feels like a crushing load. In some ways, this is a more crushing load than the Calvinist hell and damnation that Ballou is trying to save us from. It might be especially crushing when you are the target of sinful injustice, and watching your oppressors benefit from the evil they are doing to you.

Mark Morrison-Reed makes an obvious point when he says: “If God is just and loving there must be a reason. If there is no reason, one is led to the conclusion that God is neither just nor loving. Hosea Ballou’s Ultra-Universalism, the ‘death and glory school’ in which all are saved and brought into God’s embrace upon death, is mute on this. In fact, it trivializes black suffering. What is the meaning of enslavement if the master and slave are both redeemed? The way black theology answers this question is that God is the God of the oppressed; that God through Jesus, who suffered, identifies with the oppressed and will comfort and lift them up.”

Frederick Douglass probably agreed with this point, and this may be why he never went back to the Universalist church in New Bedford, nor to any other Universalist church that I know of.

So why did Nathan Johnson find a temporary home in Universalism? What allowed Johnson to stay there? To begin with, Ballou wants to move us away from fear. One obvious point: if you believe that God will condemn some, perhaps many people, to eternal damnation, you’re always going to have a niggling worry in the back of your mind: Where does God draw the line for eternal damnation, and am I going to be good enough to escape damnation? How perfect do I have to be to make it to heaven? But Ballou tells us that there is no doubt that when we die we get to go to heaven; and for some people this knowledge might make this life, filled as it is with sin and injustice, a little more tolerable.

When I worked with Lindsay Bates, long-time minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, we used to argue about Universalist theology. Lindsay was a Restorationist; she said there were some kinds of evil that must be punished after death. Restorationism was the view of the majority of Universalists through the second half of the nineteenth century: there will be punishment for sin after death, but it will be time-limited punishment. Eventually, though, God will bring us all into harmony with divine love. Though I never convinced Lindsay, I always argued for Ultra-Universalism. I had a couple of reasons for arguing for “death-and-glory,” one selfish and one transcendent.

My selfish reason is that I’m pretty sure that under the Restorationist model I and most everyone I know would have to go through a term of corrective, purifying punishment; if you’ve ever been in the working class or better in the United States today, you have benefited from globalized consumer capitalism that oppresses and exploits workers and benefited from resource extraction that is killing people and other living beings, and I cannot imagine that God could possibly send us straight to heaven. My transcendent reason is simple: God’s love is bigger than you or I can know. Maybe that’s a selfish reason, too: I want to let that kind of love into my soul.

I don’t pretend that the Universalist theology I’m outlining will appeal to everyone. God is love, but we humans have the freedom to screw things up royally. Evil is human-caused, and it’s only going to be solved by humans. The only comfort we have is that, in the end, everything will be all right (even though it will be all right for everyone, even the oppressors). And there are other possible Universalist theologies — one of the joys of being a Universalist is that we have the liberty to constantly modify our theology in conversation with others.

That’s why I’d love to have a conversation with Nathan Johnson, so I could understand why a free African American in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 1830s, chose Universalism. I can’t have that conversation; the historical record on Nathan Johnson is too fragmentary. But it would be worth while to listen to the African Americans today who profess Universalism. Just as it would be interesting to listen to others from historically marginalized groups who profess Universalism.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I’ve gotten to have some of those conversations, and I’ve seen individuals from historically marginalized groups find great joy in the saving theological message of Universalism. Unfortunately, some of these individuals wound up having a very tenuous relationship with institutional Unitarian Universalism; in practical reality, the theological and sociological rigidity of our Unitarian Universalist institutions chokes off the saving, “happifying” message of universal love. The smug self-satisfaction of most Unitarian Universalist institutions, directly at odds with a Universalist theology grounded in the knowledge of human inadequacy, makes it hard to profess Universalism within those institutions.

We Unitarian Universalists are all too effective at casting out those who make us feel uncomfortable. Being a white, European American, Unitarian Universalist myself, I’ve become all too aware of the dangers of smug self-satisfaction I see in my fellow white UUs. We white UUs too often smugly believe we are God’s gift to the world (ignoring for the moment the fact that many of us despise “God” as a concept because we don’t want anyone more powerful than us white folks); we are unwilling to shoulder full responsibility to end evils like racism; and in our smugness we are unable to give ourselves up to the saving power of Love. We white UUs are so smug we cannot hear the phrase “Black lives matter” without thinking how much our lives matter, causing us to say, “All lives matter,” a sentiment completely at odds with the Universalist knowledge that human evil must be addressed head-on by human effort. No wonder those African Americans who find hope in the theological message of Universalism don’t waste much time in our smug congregations.

Nathan Johnson did not remain a Universalist for long. John Murray Spear was chased out of New Bedford, in fear of grievous bodily harm, because his abolitionist activities. The New Bedford Universalist church was essentially moribund for most of a decade, then reorganized around 1850 as a more theologically and sociologically rigid institution which did not welcome African Americans. At about the same time, Nathan Johnson left New Bedford with a mixed-race company for the California gold fields. There is no satisfying end to this story.

But I believe Universalism could be the seed from which grows a Unitarian Universalism that is not smug and self-satisfied and small and stunted. I believe we could escape our institutional rigidity so that our congregations could become places where Nathan Johnson could remain his whole life.

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