Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why I am a Universalist and what that has to do with Easter

And what that has to do with Easter
Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 24, 2011

My recent issue of Time Magazine practically heated up the mailbox last week when it arrived. The headline “What if there’s no Hell?” screamed as loudly as another headline decades ago, when Time asked its readers “Is God dead?”

I’d heard about this controversy weeks before, when the news came out that Pastor Rob Bell, of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had written a new book entitled “Love Wins: a Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of every person who ever lived”.

In the book, Pastor Bell questioned the orthodox doctrine of traditional Christianity, that everyone who did not accept Jesus as Lord and Savior was doomed to eternal torment in the fires of hell.
He tells the story of visiting an art exhibit which included quotations from a variety of heroes of justice, including Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. A visitor to the exhibit had stuck a note next to the Gandhi quotation stating “Reality Check: Gandhi’s in hell.”

Bell thought to himself, “Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?”

That’s the opening story in his book Love Wins, and he goes on to suggest that the message of Jesus is that all persons who ever lived could have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be, because of God’s eternal love and mercy.

Not surprisingly, this bold statement of universal salvation hit the conservative world like a bomb. By now they’ve tried to kick him and his church out of the Southern Baptists, they’ve condemned him to the eternal torment of theological disdain and censure, and one young North Carolina pastor was fired by his church for endorsing the book.

The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, says “When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world, then you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross. This is the tragedy of non-judgmental mainline liberalism, and it’s Rob Bell’s tragedy in this book too,” implying that Pastor Bell had just signed over his passport to Satan.

Interesting, huh? But from a traditionalist perspective, taking away hell means taking away the most powerful weapon the traditional church has in its arsenal for those Christian soldiers.

Without hell, where is the incentive to turn to Jesus as savior? If Gandhi is in heaven, why bother with accepting Christ? If the words in the Bible about hell and heaven are not literally true, what does that say about women or homosexuality? These are questions that can undermine much of conservative Christianity.

Bell’s startling revelation of his changing theology found a champion in also-deposed African American Pentecostal preacher the Rev. Carlton Pearson, who, a few years ago, also came out of the evangelical closet as a universalist, stating his belief that God’s mercy and grace would extend to all persons, regardless of their belief or behavior, and he identified as a Universalist publicly.

In addition, after Pearson was kicked out of his own denomination, he was welcomed by our Tulsa OK congregation, All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, where he is getting a feel for what universalism means in another sense---the radical inclusion of all people in the beloved community.

For that is what Universalism has come to mean in this day and age, among theologians in our faith tradition of Unitarian Universalism: the belief that all persons have inherent worth and dignity and receive the gifts of Divine love and grace and forgiveness.

We have let go of an insistence on an after-life in either heaven or hell and, instead, believe that heaven and hell are both available to us humans right here on earth, before death. And it is our job to help to create heaven, not hell, for our fellow creatures.

As John Murray, one of our Universalist forefathers wrote, in a few lines included in the readings in our hymnal:
Go out into the highways and by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

Now, Rob Bell’s and Carlton Pearson’s universalism is probably not just like our Universalism; they both come from the conservative Christian tradition and still strongly hold many traditional beliefs. They accept a small-u universalism which is merely one strand in their statements of belief. But ours is so important to our way of being religious in this world, that we capitalize that U and make it part of our name.

What is Universalism and what does it mean about our religious tradition? Let me give you a little history, tell you why I am very much a Universalist in my own theology, and what that has to do with Easter.

Both Unitarianism and Universalism are ancient re-interpretations of Biblical narratives. Unitarianism started out as a disbelief in the Christian idea of the trinity. Originally, Unitarian thought was labeled anti-trinitarianism, because that’s how it was originally proposed. It meant a belief in God as a Unity, not as a Trinity, three in one, and it began in the third century of the Common Era.

Universalism was originally the idea that a loving God would not condemn his children to the eternal fires of hell, no matter how bad we were, whether or not we believed in Jesus as savior, and it, too, originated in the third century. Universalism originally meant universal salvation, and it is this definition that Rob Bell is talking about.

As the institutional structure of Christianity grew, orthodoxy crowded out these two alternative ways of interpreting the Bible. In fact, those who believed these different ideas were often persecuted, kicked out of the church, even killed. Their heretical beliefs were forbidden and even today conservative Christianity considers them anathema.

But they didn’t die out. Free thought has a way of rearing its head again and again despite attempts made to stamp it out. And over the centuries since those rebellious times, the ideas of God as One and Salvation for All have been resurrected again and again.

Today, we belong to a small, energetic, progressive, extremely liberal faith tradition which has taken those two concepts and reinterpreted them for an age in which the definitions of God and salvation have changed radically from those ancient days and have become even more relevant to a world in need of healing.

Why am I a Universalist? A story from the history of this very congregation illustrates one reason why:

It was just a normal Sunday, with the normal familiar smiles and 
greetings as people passed by me before joining others in the sanctuary, that Sunday in 2005.

There had been the normal “hi, so nice to see you today!’s your mom? and........what do you hear from so and so? and.......welcome to our UU congregation! would you like a nametag? and...........yes, I think there is a plan to go out for a meal after the service; I hope you can come. are you feeling these days?” 

UU congregations are always on the lookout for visitors and this 
congregation was no different. We want to be able to say hello, offer a 
friendly smile----and a nametag!------and demonstrate the best welcome we 
can offer to someone new, someone who was perhaps hurting, perhaps 
lonely, perhaps unfamiliar with UUism, or----perhaps a longtime UU looking for a new church home. It’s our normal Sunday routine. 

On this particular Sunday, however, members of our small 
congregation took one look at the visitor coming through the door and did 
a double take. No, it wasn’t President Bush, coming to see how we liked 
his environmental policies or disaster response; it wasn’t some glamorous 
movie star or bedraggled reality show survivor; it wasn’t the mayor of the 
small town or any other well known local personage. 

This visitor’s appearance was startling in itself, and I could feel my 
own apprehensions rise up. Why would anyone choose to look the way this person did? I quickly began to think about how best to approach this 
individual; how would others in the congregation respond to him? 

And then, I saw one of our greeters, Malcolm Ferrier, step forward toward our visitor and the two ordinary looking people who had come in with him. I saw a friendly smile on Malcolm’s face and then a handshake; I watched as he helped them prepare nametags and gave them orders of service; and when the three visitors came to where I was standing, outside the sanctuary door, I had been given a clear model for how we were going to welcome our unusual visitor. 

“Cat”, as we came to know him that day, is a Native American who 
has adopted the unusual practice of changing his appearance to resemble 
that of his totem animal, a tiger. Cat is tattooed with tiger-like markings; he 
uses special contact lenses to give his eyes a catlike shape and color; his 
nails are shaped into claws; his face has been surgically altered to a more 
feline shape and his teeth are sharp and fang-like. 

Cat is not your typical visitor. Wherever he goes in the community, 
people stop and stare and perhaps walk the other way. Now, I don’t 
know all the reasons Cat looks the way he does. There are lots of 
questions in my mind about how he has chosen this path. 

But on that day, my task and that of the rest of us attending that 
service was to welcome Cat and his friends, to make a place for them 
among us, to offer them the simple hospitality of our sacred space, of our 
worship time, to invite them to have a cup of coffee and a cookie after the 
service, to go with our group to the Chinese place for a meal after church.

It was not to shoo them away from our door, to refuse to speak to them, to pretend we didn’t see them. It was an opportunity to get to know someone who was radically different, both in appearance and in lifestyle, and to welcome them into our lives. We could not know in advance whether this was a safe thing to do or not; we had to trust in the ability of Love to smooth the way.

Cat came to church here only once but I hope he went away knowing that there was at least one place where he was accepted as a human being, not as a creature to be shunned and ridiculed or used as a commodity but as a fellow human with a story to tell.

This is why I am a Universalist: because I believe that there is a force in the universe more powerful than human strength and yet available within each human heart. I believe that the force I name is Love, radical, inclusive Love, Love beyond the commercially popular versions of movies, songs, and ad campaigns, the Love that is, in my mind, the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus preached.

Nothing in human life is more challenging than to love our neighbor as ourselves, to see our tears in another’s eyes, to reach out to others, no matter how scary or off-putting they may seem, not merely tolerating difference nor dismissing its importance. We humans are naturally wary of strangers; it is a mechanism that once served us well and now keeps us from rejoicing in diversity, though diversity will be our salvation in the end.

And there’s that word again, salvation. Universal salvation to me, these days, is the sense that I can walk unafraid in this world because I love with this Love and am loved in return. It isn’t always safe to love and to be loved, but that is a risk I am willing to take because of the joy it brings me.

And it is my salvation from a fragmented and anxious life, giving me a life of delight and a sense that I am living rightly, no matter what difficulties and dangers I may experience.

So what does this all have to do with Easter? Universalism is a religious philosophy of radical and overpowering love and this is exactly what this season means, whether we’re talking about the Christian Easter, or a pagan spring celebration, or a Passover release from bondage. We’re talking about love.

As Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed has written: “Universal Salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not and cannot consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal Salvation is the consequence of Universal love, the recognition that love is the grounding, the basis of all….
The great insight of Universalism is that you do not have to coerce people into loving one another. The commandments are not threats. If they are not fulfilled, God will not withdraw love. No one has ever or will ever draw true love out of another with punishment. God’s love is given to all. Love is a more positive force for good than fear ever will be. Behind this is a simple truth: in being loved we learn to love.”

Now, it doesn’t matter whether we are agnostics or atheists or non-theistic in our thinking about God. We know what radical love means because we can see it in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We can experience it by giving it to others, for it inevitably rebounds to us full force.

Let me close with these words from the Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis:
I am a Universalist. I believe that there is an inexhaustible, inescapable love that will not let us go. It is there in every corner of the world. It is there in our moments of greatest connection and joy. It is there in moments of excruciating suffering and sorrow. It is there even when we willfully turn away from it and seek to be isolated, alone and apart.
Nothing and no one is outside the reach of this Love. (Love) can sustain those in despair,…empower those whom society has written off… strengthen those who want to…turn back (on) that Love…. It can awaken us to the words that Jesus spoke--the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, it is here, now…
Perhaps the comfortable, the wealthy, the self-righteous are right to be afraid of such a message... Because it could turn the world on its ear, and the inheritors of the kingdom--the poor, the meek, the peacemakers--would be equal at last.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer on this Easter morning.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that the power of Universal Love which is within us is not to be hoarded but to be shared. May we seek out the places where our Love can make a difference and may we give Love freely, not only to our friends and neighbors, but to ourselves and to our enemies. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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