UNIVERSALISM: MAKING THE SOUL SMILE
by Patrick Murfin
At its core universalism is simply the stubborn refusal to believe that the universe is malevolent. It has been dressed up and silk and satin, coarse homespun, saffron robes, the quaint attire of countless clans and folk cultures, but that is the one absolute that unites them all whether they
would recognize the label “universalist” or not. It dwells within us today not because of historic connections, although those connections are undeniable, not because of the bonds of denomination, though bonds are strong, but because we generally share that simple affirmation.
In the earliest days of The Church, before there even was really any Church at all, when the very breath of Joshua Bin Josef, called Jesus the Nazarene still seemed to rustle the palm fronds and whisper through the olive groves, many of his fumble followers believed his word had changed everything. Yahweh, the fierce and jealous Sky God, who demanded sacrifice,
punished those who would not shower Him with unremitting flattery, and tormented those tempted by the charms of neighboring gods was transformed. By Jesus, through Jesus, for Jesus, it made no real difference. Jesus, part and parcel with God himself, Jesus the Son, Jesus the Spirit, Jesus the Man Messenger, it made no difference. What did matter was that Jesus was somehow mixed up with this new God, a God of forgiveness, of love, of a righteousness that transformed lives rather than adhering with blind obedience to lifeless ritual, a God of Jews and Gentiles a like yearning for reconciliation with all of his people.
The God that Jesus brought to these people wanted to gather them all to him, to elevate them somehow after earthly death to a place by his side in Paradise. The people were happy in this thought. Of course a Bishop here and a Bishop there might, in brotherly correspondence differ as to the details of the arrangements. Some Jews still clove to Jesus as their particular Messiah. Up in the Hellenic world some obsessed with ways to fit the message into the systems of the Greek Philosophers. For a long time, despite Roman persecutions most of these new Christians, as they had come to call themselves, were united in this cheerful universalism.
For others the gods were the Old Wise Ones who chuckled at humanity’s foolishness while forgiving its folly. There were trickster gods ever ready to teach a gentle lesson. There were the enveloping arms and nurturing breasts of Mother Goddesses. Life for these folks was a blessing, not a curse which must be endured. Every tree and stone manifested the goodness of creation which was inseparable from the holy. These people, too, were universalists.
In the East Lao Tse taught his followers about the light and the dark, the light in the dark, the yin and the yang. Some would read his teachings and believe that they were about enduring without complaint the evils and trials that the world rained down upon them. Placid acceptance was seen to be the key. Resistance or any measure to change one’s lot or station was considered a shameful arrogance and a disruption of a cosmic unity—another bleak hope for the oppressed and a comfort for the oppressors. Yet others would read the same teachings and always find the yin buried deeply in the yang, the hope in the depths of despair. These were universalists.
The subtlety of the Hindu system, which so entranced Ralph Waldo Emerson, acknowledged the essential unity of one great, unifying divinity which we in the West might call God. But such a god was so great, so powerful, so vast, and so unfathomable that he/she/it could only be comprehended by humans in diverse and particular manifestations. In the Hindu tradition the three main faces of God, were Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. In addition each of these had a female mate/counterpart with similar properties and powers. And all had further incarnations, forms and avatars each with special powers and characteristics. Below this trinity were literally thousands of other names of God with a bewildering array of human and non-human faces each representing a subtle but unique attribute of the essentially infinite. In such a system devotees couldn't pick and choose which face of God, which incarnation to worship. Thus one religious tradition birthed a thousand cults.
Those who see the world as corrupt and evil could choose to worship Shiva and his feminine counterpart Kali, the wrathful angel of destruction bent on scourging humanity of its sins. Others could select from the Avatars of Lord Vishnu including Krisha the Divine Lover, Balaran or Buddha the Sage, or Kalki the completer and savior. These celebrated the light and the goodness of creation, the infinite perfectibility of humanity. And these were universalists.
The followers of the Buddha would have little truck with Christian notions of salvation, bodily resurrection, and eternal life in the dazzling company of the Almighty. God or gods were unimportant to them, trifles if they existed, meaningless in their absence. Instead they believed that a well lived life--reverent, kind and generous—which also cultivated inner peace, serenity and openness to a greater, non-personal holiness which united the universe, was the essential religion. But some Buddhists would come to view the world as its own kind of Hell and the endless rounds of re-incarnation of the soul in various states of degradation a just punishment until enlightenment can be achieved and escape from all travail made possible by the blissful nothingness of union with the greater. It was a bleak world and forlorn hope nearly impossible to achieve. Yet others, professing on the surface the same beliefs, managed to find bliss in each drawn breath, each moment lived with perfect awareness of the marvelous now, each connection with another soul, its own echo of the vastness of the universal One. They were universalists.
Back in the West, the Church ossified into a powerful monolith with vast temporal as well a celestial authority. But always, somewhere, some heedless soul would pop up and wonder at the fragility of the imposing edifice. On reading scripture for themselves, which be came possible after the invention of the
printing press, they found that doctrines of original sin, damnation, and the identity of Jesus with the substance of God were no where to found in his teachings as recorded in the Gospels. The Protestant Reformation was off and running as men and women relied on their own reason to parse out the meaning of scripture. The Reformation shot off in different and contradictory directions. In many places, as among the German Anabaptists, some English Quakers, and other, the joyous insights of universalism were rediscovered
On the other hand John Calvin in Geneva, John Knox in Edinburgh and others went in an entirely different direction. Central to the dispute between Luther and the Church which had started the Reformation was the concept of Salvation by Good Works—the idea that an exemplary life filled with charity and beneficence (especially to needy clergy or church coffers) could win salvation. All of the Reformers maintained that salvation was solely a gift of grace by God and could not be earned except by utter faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God and the only Savior. All others, the vast majority, were condemned to eternal damnation and nothing they could do, say, or profess would change the outcome.
This was the religion of the Pilgrim Fathers, of the Puritans, and even the dissenters like the Methodists and Baptists. But on New England stone farms and in Pennsylvania taverns the notion grew that this Calvinism of predestination and election was so much poppycock. Thus was universalism born in this country. The Good News went out that God was both loving and forgiving, unwilling to cast any of his children into torments. Spread by the likes of George de Bennville, Elhanan Winchester, John Murray, Caleb Rich and Hosea Ballou universalism grew into Universalism, one of America’s leading denominations.
Universalism’s pious adherents were mostly simple folk—farmers and artisans, laborers and petty merchants, the slat of the earth types from country side to rural village to industrializing town. They were happy in the sure joy that they were destined to sit with God. And not just themselves alone as a reward for placing the correct bet on the winning theology, they knew they would share Glory with all of humanity. They wanted to manifest their gratitude to God by living exemplary lives deserving of His gracious Gift. They also treasured reason and the ability
of human beings to be agents for change in their own lives and communities. They saw it as their job to make a heaven on earth reflecting the Paradise to come. In such a world justice would “flow down like water in never ending streams.” So they fought against slavery and for the rights of women, condemned capital punishment and sought prison reform, demanded humane care of the insane, justice for Native Americans, and a fair shake for workers then under the oppressive heal of unapologetic capital. What became known as the Social Gospel flowed naturally out of their Universalist vision.
American Universalism remained essentially a Christian sect with an abnormally sunny disposition. Then the wide world came knocking at its provincial doors and when those doors were thrown open something entirely new was made possible.
In 1893 the World Parliament of Religion was held in Chicago in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition. For the first time Americans could hear directly from the great religions of Asia—Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Zorastorism—as well as from the practitioners of local native cults the world over and a variety of other Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It was a stunning development. Some Universalists recognized a certain kinship in the practical teachings of all religions and observed how each functioned in the context of its traditional culture. Perhaps, they began to surmise, Jesus Christ was no an essential agent after all, just one of many messengers of God’s greater truth. And if all humanity was indeed reconciled to God upon death, the forms of worship practiced on Earth were not critical.
By the early Twentieth Century Clarence Skinner and others were re-inventing Universalism in a post Christian context. They wanted it to become a truly universal religion capable of embracing and understanding the breadth of religious express over the wide world. They emphasized the essential kinship of all humanity, expressing a universal love that defied the deadly divisions of nationalism, creed and class which were then turning the new century into the most blood soaked in history. They joined with emerging Humanists in placing the fate of the species in the hands of its members, who had the ultimate power to transform the world.
As a church and religious body, Universalism ebbed and withered. By the time of its merger with the Unitarians in 1961 it was a feeble shell of its former self. But though the body was weak, the essential idea was strong. Many thought Universalism would be swamped by larger and better organized Unitarianism and its oh-so-rational and cerebral brand of religion. But almost unnoticed Universalism became the flame in the UU Chalice, the burning light of hope
Today when our movement welcomes and cherishes the voices of a thousand temples, we are Universalist. When the cries of the wounded and oppressed can not be ignored, we are Universalist. When we stand before the mob and declare the essential worth and dignity of every person, including gays and lesbians yearning to build families, we are Universalist. When in the face of despair, we refuse to cede hope, we are Universalist. When we search for language to express our longing for union with the Greater, we are Universalist.
Universalism is Faith and Hope—the Hope that makes the soul smile.
Partrick Murfin can be e-mailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org