Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Challenge of Universalism

These are my current thoughts on this month's "big question" from The UU Salon. The question(s), which I may have phrased clumsily, as stated there: "Universalism: the "other U," What does it mean to you? Do you resonate with Universalism, or not? What about the Universalist perspective challenges or comforts you?"

The question came from my reading of Philip Gulley, a contemporary Quaker Universalist writer, as well as Richard Trudeau's recent book, "Universalism 101;" and from the thinking I've been doing about our religious heritage. Unitarian and Universalist, a consolidation that turned into a merger, with many (if not most) congregants now calling themselves "UUs" or "Unitarians" because "Unitarian Universalist" is a lot to say. Harder to explain in conversation, too. I'll admit up front that I'm not done thinking about the relationship of Unitarian to Universalist - and still have my own questions.

It seems plain to me that in the consolidation of the two traditions, Universalism got the worst end of the deal. The Universalist name comes second in the association's name, the historically Universalist theological schools closed while the historically Unitarian ones remained open. It's my impression that fewer historically Universalist churches survive today, and in my experience those that do have added "Unitarian" to their names while fewer historically Unitarian churches have added "Universalist" to their names.

Trudeau points out, though, that our first and seventh principles owe much to traditional Universalist theology. Universal salvation, by God's grace, for every person - Universalists recognize the inherent worth of every person in that doctrine. This is in sharp contrast to the Unitarian view that salvation was earned - "salvation by character" - those who developed better moral character were more likely to earn salvation.

I'm comfortable in my Unitarian Universalist church. But most of my family would not have been. I'm a child of the working class, good people (for the most part) who worked hard for what they had, but never had much - and still don't. Universalism was more popular with the working class, while Unitarianism was historically the bastion of society's movers, shakers and captains of industry.

Without diving into the really deep end of the theological pool with questions on the meaning of salvation right now... The belief in universal salvation - that there will be no person "left behind" - that is a powerful idea. This is ultimate inclusion - everyone is part of the "elect," everyone is saved, everyone achieves union with the holy (at least eventually). Some Universalists were the "Death and Glory" types - go to heaven, no questions asked, immediately after death; others were "Restorationists" who believed there could be some form of punishment, punishment which would be temporary not permanent. The Death & Glory faction believed that belief in universal salvation was enough to cause people to live rightly; the Restorationists believed that there needed to be some threat of punishment in the next life to encourage people to live moral lives. Either way, everyone got to heaven. To me, this represents one of the comforts of Universalism. It also provides me with a major challenge.

How could the idea that all are saved possibly be challenging? I was thinking about this one day, as I contemplated the Westboro Baptist Church's latest protest. There they were - people carefully taught to hate - led by a religious fanatic named Fred Phelps. If you haven't heard of this man and his independent church, here's what Wikipedia has to say about him and his organization. Most famous for their virulently anti-gay views, the WBC sets up pickets outside institutions (like my alma mater) and events (presentations of The Laramie Project). But, their hatred is not confined to BGLT persons. The group is also anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti- a number of countries/ethnic groups.

Do I want to spend eternity with Fred Phelps (or others of his ilk)? How can this possibly be fair? And then I have to remember one of the meditations practiced at the Buddhist sangha I've been associated with - the one that reminds me that every person has the same basic needs to be happy, to be loved, to be safe. I have these needs, as does my spouse, my friend, my hair stylist... and Fred Phelps. Me and Fred - very different on the surface, but at the root we have the same drives and desires.

Am I comfortable with this? No, and I may never be - but comfort is not the point. Love is - and love is not always comfortable. Sometimes it's hard, but that's what I believe we are called to do: to love and witness to the love of the holy for all.

That's what I've got for now - your mileage may vary.


Julie-Ann said...

Whew - lots to think about, dear friend. You have my thoughts spinning with answers, questions and ideas - too many to put into works.

Thanks for this, though. Making me think about this.

Religion/faith/beliefs - strange bed fellows.

Paul Oakley said...

I appreciate Scott's sensitivity to your Salon Big Q du mois, stemming from his experience of his part of UU history and theology being all too often overlooked or wilfully ignored. As I saw it, that was exactly the point of the wording of your question. IMO, the question as worded was not insensitive or even clumsy. It reflected the reality that 1) "Universalism" is the second in order of the proper noun "Unitarian Universalism" and 2) UUs who were not pre-consolidation Universalists typically know little about Universalism and, consequently, have no conception of why they should care.

Universalism IS the other U. Raising the question is part of the solution not part of the problem.