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There is a story about a first time woman visitor to a Unitarian Universalist church. She was invited by a friend of hers who was a member of that congregation. During the sermon, this woman visitor became increasingly upset at what she heard from the minister. She frowned and shook her head repeatedly. After the service she remarked to her friend, “I can hardly believe what that minister said!” Her friend smiled and replied, “That’s wonderful! It sounds like you already fit in!”
I offer that bit of humor as an appropriate introduction to my message today. My message theme this month is on exploring Unitarian Universalism and my topic today is on Universalism. All of you from Northern Hills might wonder what I could tell you – with your years of experience in the UU. I hope I don’t see too many shaking heads and frowns as I speak! But even as my purpose this month is to inform myself and the Gathering about the history and ideas behind Unitarian Universalism, I hope my thoughts today might both inform and inspire each of us just why it is that we are a part of good and proud congregations like Northern Hills Fellowship or the Gathering.
Last month, when I spoke here on October 5th, I related to you some of my life journey and how I came to my present understanding of spirituality. We each have our own important stories to tell but I wanted to relate mine so that you can better understand me. I related that an important moment in my life was when I decided to come out as a gay man – to speak my truth. In coming out to my family, I was extremely nervous – particularly with my two daughters who were teenagers at the time. I knew I might alter their understanding of themselves, their family and their relationship to me. When I sat down with them, I was visibly shaking and my words poured out in a jumble. After I finished, they were briefly silent as what I had said sunk in, but then they each looked at me reassuringly and my youngest daughter reached over to me, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “Daddy, It’s OK. We love you no matter what and that will never change.” (pause)
I was dumbstruck. I still choke up when I recall their words to me that day. Their reaction is the single greatest gift I’ve ever received. At a moment in my life when I was most vulnerable, they simply loved me.
What they offered was what I want to discuss today – no strings attached love. It did not matter to my daughters what defined one small part of me. They offered in that moment a love we all desire to receive and we all hope to give – unconditional, total love without any expectation or demand. It is the kind of love the ancient Greeks called agape – a love that is almost unreal because it is so pure – untouched by romance or hopes of reciprocity.
I also relate this story because it reflects the principles and values of Universalism. In a world that often demands retribution, in a world that judges others and expects reward or punishment for human actions, Universalists saw and continue to see a different approach. Whatever force it is that we choose to believe animates the universe, that force does not judge humans on the basis of their merits or their actions. We are not sentenced to hell – even if we don’t believe in such a literal place, as I do not. Instead, according to Universalism, all people will find eternal grace and eternal love. All people have inherent dignity and value. All people are to be loved without any strings attached. It is a beautiful and uplifting belief that is difficult to practice. It is totally contrary to most other religions which assert that people earn reward or punishment and that a god will only love us if we return that love in the form of obedience, worship and belief. Universalism tells us we each deserve to be loved no matter what! No hell. No judgement. No condemnation. Only love.
The history of Universalism is long and often deeply theological and philosophical. It originated with the Greek philosopher Plato who taught that all creation emanates from a divine source and all of creation, including humans, will return to that divine source. A very early Christian leader Origen believed much the same – all humans were born into grace and all will eventually return to that state.
But with the Protestant Reformation and its reaction to Catholic ideas that humans must earn their way to heaven, John Calvin in particular taught that everyone is born with the stain of sin, total depravity as he said, that is passed down from Adam and Eve. God is so powerful, he believed, that there is nothing we can do to overcome her omnipotence. She loves who she loves and she condemns who she condemns. We are powerless to influence her mind. Some are predestined from the beginning of time to be rewarded with heaven, many others are predestined to go to hell.
Early Unitarians and Universalists perceived a slightly different God from each other. Unitarians saw in Calvinism a denial of human reason and its ability to cognitively choose to do good or bad. If there is a god, Unitarians said, he or she offers humans the freedom to think and determine their own destiny.
Early Universalists saw a God of love. It made no sense, from their reading of the Bible, for a capricious God to exist. As they saw it, God cannot be a loving God if he randomly chooses to send some to hell. Nor can that God encourage human love for others if so many are destined for hell.
While there were several streams of early Universalist theology, some believing that evil humans will spend a few hundred years in hell but their souls will eventually repent and go to heaven, the prevailing view was taught by F. D. E. Schleiermacher, the father of Universalism, who taught in the early 1800’s that hell cannot exist since those sent to heaven could not enjoy that paradise with the knowledge that many of their friends and family are forever suffering in hell. Since he believed everyone will enjoy eternal grace and love – a symbolic version of heaven – it is therefore impossible for hell to exist. His was a modern understanding of suffering – even those who might deserve to suffer are nevertheless to be pitied. This contrasted with some theologians, and with fundamentalists today, who believe that those who are in heaven will be so in touch with the will of God that they will rejoice in his punishment of unbelievers and sinners. Personally, I find that viewpoint incomprehensible.
In the 20th century, Universalists leaned toward a more Unitarian approach to theology and philosophy – that the human mind is capable of discerning truth apart from ancient texts. In this regard, Universalists reasoned that if there is a supernatural force, it is logical it will be one of love for what it created. Why create if the intent is to eventually condemn? Even further, if any love, including that from a god, is to be genuine, it must be offered unconditionally. If I tell you I love you but expect in return your devotion and worship of me, is what I offer really love? Or is it, instead, a commodity I have dangled in front of you as way to buy your devotion? Even worse, as in the case of a hell condemning god, is it a threat to worship me or else? Universalists logically asked if one’s belief in a greater power is motivated by love, OR by fear that one might go to hell? Bribery is not love. Threats are not love. Fear is not love. Logic and our own experiences, much like what I felt from my daughters, shows us what real love looks and feels like.
As all of you Unitarian Universalists know, the two streams of today’s UU denomination came together in 1961 – a perfect blending of Unitarian emphasis on reason with Universalist emphasis on compassion, charity and love. The head and heart wonderfully combined. Our brains – or Unitarianism – operating on their own can lean toward cold intellectualism. Our hearts – or Universalism – operating on their own can lean toward sloppy emotionalism. Both need the other in order to effectively change the world.
Several months after I began as minister to the Gathering, I shocked many of its members by beginning a sermon with the statement that I believe in hell. I heard gasps of wonder at just who they had hired as minister! But I went on to explain that I had visited hell and that many of them had too. Hell existed outside our doors in Over-the-Rhine for those caught in poverty, drug addiction or homelessness. I had visited the worst of hells during two construction trips to Haiti where I was aghast at the extreme poverty I saw. My group and I travelled through many of Haiti’s slums. Our senses were bombarded with piles of trash, sewage running through gutters, pigs wallowing in filth, and, on one street, a dead human body covered with flies as people stepped around it. Yes, I said in my sermon, symbolic hells do exist.
In Haiti, I visited a clinic run by Catholic nuns for children suffering from AIDS and tuberculosis. Three and four kids were lying in cribs made for one. There was no crying. Most were so sick they mutely stared at us. The nuns told us they had little money to provide medicine or treatment for these children – most of whom had been abandoned. Very few survived more than a few weeks. What they did offer, the nuns said, was comfort and love. It struck me at the time that outside that little clinic was a version of hell on earth. Inside those walls, however, the nuns had built a version of heaven, a place these children might experience a glimpse of unconditional love, a soothing voice, a gentle transition into an early death.
What I believe then as I believe now is that what those nuns were doing may not be for all of us, but it was and is consistent with our human purpose in life. It is consistent with Universalist ideals that all people have inherent dignity and are deserving of love – no matter what. If we hold those principles to be logical and true, then it is part of our responsibility to build places of heaven on earth for everyone – especially for the outcast, the poor, the dying, the oppressed, the least of creation’s children.
As I have been a Unitarian Universalist for many years without knowing it, I can now give my beliefs an identity. My spirituality has called me to worship and serve a universal force of love – to strive to give that love away to family, friend and stranger alike. I must do so with humility, kindness, joy, empathy, and gentle speech. Reason tells me that my love must be focused through the prism of my mind – that sometimes love cannot be given as my heart desires but that it must often be in a form of so-called “tough love.” It must be the kind of gentle and helpful love that initiates change of behavior in another person – not to punish or judge but to teach.
I also believe in the Universalist ideal that tells me love can never be compelled. It must be given without coercion. I can, therefore, only model it for others to see. I cannot and will not tell others how they should love nor shame them if they do not love as I believe they could. Each person loves in different ways and many of us find that during certain periods in our lives, expressing charitable love is limited by circumstances – by family, by health, by finances. Empathy calls me to focus on my own actions and to acknowledge we each love differently.
I see at the Gathering and here at Northern Hills visions of what loving communities can look like – places of celebration for all people, places of wisdom and reason, places where each person strives to practice love toward everyone. I see churches where visitors can come and instantly feel welcomed, churches that serve and speak out in behalf of the marginalized. I see places that witness to the wider community how members peacefully cooperate and communicate with one another. I see churches that are small beacons of light in an otherwise dark world of dogmatic, angry and competing religions. The children here will soon model these visions of love as they hand out angel biscuits to each of us. Our two congregations modeled such love yesterday – some from the Gathering assembling hygiene kits for homeless youth, a combined group from Northern Hills and the Gathering helping to winterize the homes of elderly and disabled poor. Northern Hills Fellowship and the Gathering are important places – not perfect – but vital to this city, nation and world. They are places free of religious judgement, sectarian rivalry and spiritual arrogance. They are places of love for all people – no strings attached. They must exist, in some form, long into the future.
Let us, in conclusion, live out the historic traditions of Universalist forebears and strive to give away glimpses of unconditional love – love that is based on reason, love that is generous, lavish, and true. To me, to you, to those around us in here and in the communities in which we live, may it be said that we speak about universal love…and that we then truly practice it.
I wish you all much peace and joy.
For the heart to heart time or, as the Gathering says, “the sermon is not over until the congregation also has its say”, I am interested in your thoughts about what constitutes unconditional love? And, what are good ways to show that love to others?