The Buddhist on a Bicycle or How I Became a Universalist Without Knowing It
In the fall of 1976, my wife and I took a trip to New England. One day, when we were riding bicycles on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, I noticed a small, old, gray-shingled church. The message posted in the church’s wayside pulpit caught my eye and I took a picture of it with my Instamatic camera—not noticing or appreciating at the time that the church was the home of a UU congregation. The sign said: “In religion, as in everything else, survival is ensured only by change.”
Change, in religion as in everything else, is necessary, but it isn’t always easy or embraced with open arms. And the trick to change, evolution, and growth is to change, evolve, and grow in ways that retain and build upon what is essential and fundamental while discarding or reshaping that which is obsolete, unnecessary, tangential, and superficial.
So the history of Universalism over the past 100 years—throughout the history of your church at Outlaw’s Bridge—has been the history of change, of resistance to change, and of the search for a new identity that retains and reshapes that which is the true essence of Universalism.
Universalist minister and theologian Clarence Russell Skinner was one of the first to propose a new Universalist theology and identity in the 20th century. Skinner’s theology went far beyond the limits of traditional Christianity but retained the essential elements of the Protestant Social Gospel: the immanence of God, the ethical teachings of Jesus, and the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth. By 1933, the influence of Skinner’s theology could be seen in the revised Universalist Statement of Faith, which avowed a faith in “God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every human personality, in the authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of men of good will… to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God” on earth, but, unlike prior statements of faith, did not assert the Bible’s authority as the word of God, did not identify Jesus as Christ or the savior of humankind, and did not expressly mention the doctrine of universal salvation.
Although Universalism retained much of its liberal Christian identity during the first half of the 20th century, it moved closer and closer to the outer limits of mainstream Christianity. By 1950, some Universalist ministers, including Robert Cummins, Clinton Lee Scott, and Ken Patton, were articulating a new and radically different definition of Universalism that went well beyond the boundaries of traditional Christianity (and resulted in the rejection of the Universalists’ application for membership in the National Council of Churches).“A circumscribed Universalism,” Cummins said, “is unthinkable. Any Universalism worthy of its name cannot recognize divisions between people on the basis of race or class or religion or nationality … . All are welcome … unitarian or trinitarian, white or colored, theist or humanist.
Universalism cannot be limited either to Protestantism or to Christianity, not without denying its very name. Ours is a world fellowship, not just a Christian sect.”
So what does Universalism mean today—for Universalists like you all, for Unitarian Universalists like me, and for others in this community, state, and nation?
First, I believe that, within Unitarian Universalism, Universalism’s “heart-centered message” of love offers, in the words of UU minister Mark Ward, a much-needed “corrective to the often head-centered Unitarian approach to religious faith” and reminds us of the Christian roots of our denomination and of the value of the Christian message of love and community.
Second, despite the fact that Universalism has evolved beyond Christianity, its message of universal salvation remains attractive, I believe, to many liberal Christians. Universalism offered, and still offers, a kinder, gentler Christianity, a more loving and inclusive Christianity, a more rational Christianity, a more liberal Christianity. In my studies at Earlham School of Religion, I’ve met Quakers, Brethren, and Christians who call themselves universalist (with a small “u”) but have never set foot inside a Universalist Church. And I know Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists whose beliefs about God, Jesus, sin, salvation, heaven, and hell are probably not too very different from yours. So I don’t think it is too far-fetched to believe that Universalism could appeal to many liberal Christians here in rural North Carolina—Christians who understand that the love of God embraces all human beings without exception.
But, most importantly, I believe that a new and expanded Universalism offers an inclusive and expansive vision of religious faith for the world—the gospel of a “larger hope” that, in the words of Rev. Tom Owen-Toole, embraces all living things, engages every area of existence, and enjoys the resources of the entire universe.
“From its birth,” he writes, “Universalism has been a religious philosophy whose governing metaphor denotes breadth, size, expansiveness. At its truest, Universalism has been inclusive rather than restrictive in both spirit and structure.” Universalism holds that “our humanity is judged by the size of our devotions and the stretch of our involvements. Consequently, the only hope large enough to heal the globe’s brokenness will be one that pays homage to the gifts of women as well as men, children in addition to adults, and the marginalized alongside those in seats of privilege and power. A faith of the larger hope welcomes persons of diverse colors and classes, theologies and sexual orientations, ages and capacities. It aspires to be authentically, not artificially, inclusive. Once we are grasped by the Universalist worldview, by its concept of a larger hope, it proves unbearable to rest satisfied with diminishing emotions, petty prejudices, and small-minded commitments. One cannot pursue the path of Universalism and long remain void of hope, riddled with cowardice, and stingy with love.”
Recalling his conversion to Universalism, George de Benneville wrote: “And I took it so to heart that I believed that my happiness would be incomplete while one creature remained miserable.”
Universalism reminds us, according to Tom Owen-Toole, that the “only salvation worth having is communal, extended to everyone.”
The early Universalists, according to Christopher Raible, didn’t preach that there was no hell; they were merely arguing over its location. Raible writes: “If human beings abandon their responsibilities for each other, they make the world more hellish.” It is therefore our duty, according to Universalist minister Richard Gilbert, to be the agents of an earthly salvation—a salvation that is truly universal and communal and not merely personal. Universalism, in the words of Dorothy Spoerl, requires that we “not just talk about compassion and love and understanding” but place them at the center of what guides our words and deeds.
UU minister Mark Ward writes: “As with the early Universalists, we see many around us who live, consciously or unconsciously, under an ethic of fear. At some times it walls us off from others, and at other times it fuels a clutching, grasping mistrust and self-centeredness. Universalism teaches that we are better than that. There is better nature calling to us, one that would draw us in if we would but give it free play. It is that center that we act from when our hearts are open, and it gives us not only compassion but courage: courage to turn from the suspicion, cynicism and despair that separate us and act on the love that unites us.”
The gospel of Universalism, I believe, is still alive today even if it is not the same as the Universalism preached by John Murray and Hosea Ballou. But the gospel of Universalism, I believe, will survive and thrive only if it continues to evolve and grow and we share its light with the world—or at least our neighbors in eastern North Carolina.
In closing, I’d like to share with you a meditation written by Elizabeth M. Strong:
“Where the heart stirs,
there moves Universalism.
The center holds us
within its transformative power of love.
We know with a wholeness of spirit
that God is love,
that life is good,
people are created for goodness out of love,
that in the final reckoning
all shall be one
When we hurt, when we are broken, when we become separated:
Let us seek the center which holds.
Let us remember the goodness for which we were created,
Let us be open to the transformative power of love
that moves within the heart of life
and be whole once again."
John L. Saxon is a part-time student at Meadville Theological School in Chicago, and a UU campus minister at Duke University.