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Sermons : “Answering the Religious Right With the Big Heart of Universalism

As must be obvious to every one of you, these are times of great tension and conflict in America. Much of this turmoil in our nation is focused on what many observers have called The Culture Wars...the very vocal and visible battles that are occurring on many fronts to determine whose values, principles, beliefs, and perspectives (whose worldview) will determine the shape of American life. In particular, over the last several years, religious and cultural conservatives are waging a fierce battle against what they perceive to be the evils of liberalism (including the availability of abortion and sex education; the affirmation and protection of gay, lesbian and bisexual persons; and the cultural inclusion of minorities and women by means of multiculturalism and feminism—to name a few). Fundamentalist Christians (and others) are passionately convinced that there has been a dangerous erosion of old standards of American life...a dangerous shift away from the assumptions and ideas that they believe built and sustained our nation. At a recent meeting of a national group called The Christian Coalition, Pat Buchanan issued his battle cry, "We are in a war for the soul of the American people."

I’m afraid Pat Buchanan is right...like it or not there is now a war being waged in America. The intellectual and spiritual battle lines have been drawn, and a very important struggle is underway between competing ideas and values—between competing visions of what American society is going to look and feel like in the next century. I believe it is crucial that we Unitarian Universalists not sit on the sidelines of these culture wars. As religious people with a good and decent vision for human persons and society, we must speak up and stand up for our values and beliefs—speak up and stand up for the principles that give our religion its large heart and enduring beauty.

The cultural and religious struggle we are now in may seem like a brand new thing to many of you—but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, 200 years ago, Universalism arose in just such a time of deep societal conflict.

Let us—as we struggle to gain perspective on these conflicted times and how we as religious people should respond—begin back at the beginning. American Universalism (like its spiritual sister American Unitarianism) began as a radical and optimistic Christian heresy in response to the grim doctrines of 18th Century Calvinistic Puritanism. The story of how and why Universalism took root in America can perhaps clearly be told by contrasting the messages of two of the greatest preachers of that day, Jonathan Edwards and Hosea Ballou.

Jonathan Edwards was a Puritan’s puritan, who was the most renowned preacher of what was called "The Great Awakening," an early version of a Born-Again Christian fundamentalist revival that occurred in the late 1700s! He was an athletic and charismatic man who had the power (and predilection) during his preaching to bring whole congregations to fearful wailing as he described the misery and damnation that they deserved, and would receive in hell, at the hands of an angry God. Sometimes in the pulpit he would rip off his robes and tear his linen shirt to shreds in self-abasing frenzy and disgust. Listen to a portion of one of his more famous sermons where he tells the listeners that they are "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

The world of misery, the lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you...Hell’s gaping mouth [is] wide open, and you have nothing to stand upon or take hold of...It is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up...The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you. You have offended him...0 Sinner! You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe...and burn it asunder. You have nothing to lay hold of to save yourself There is nothing that you have ever done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

On another happy occasion, Edwards told the brow-beaten folks in the pews that whenever God catches the scent of humanity the human smell is so foul and putrid it causes God to "flair his nostrils in disgust!" Cheerful stuff this 18th Century Puritanism! But this was the substance and soul of the predominant Calvinistic theology of the day: God is a distant, angry, and stern judge...humanity a fallen and sinful beast...and most men, women and children are doomed to a hell of eternal damnation and misery for all their weakness and wickedness.

It was over this dark and forbidding spiritual landscape that blew the fresh and warm breezes of Universalism—a theology of love, reconciliation and hope. The early Universalists, in direct spiritual contradiction to Puritanism’s gloomy gospel, simply proclaimed that the essential qualities of God were not wrath, disgust and judgment, but goodness, mercy and love. The heart-felt good news of Universalism was that by God’s grace and power all of God’s children (every man, woman, and child—regardless of station or personality, weakness or wickedness) would ultimately be saved, welcomed back by an embracing and understanding creator. God’s salvation was offered to all, to the end that (as one early Universalist put it) "the last sinner will be dragged kicking and cursing into heaven." Universalist preachers proclaimed every human being to be a child of God—quite naturally possessing their divine parent’s inclination toward goodness and right, and therefore unavoidably drawn toward heaven and health by God’s all-powerful and encompassing love. Universalism’s life blood was the spiritual insistence that the evil and pain we see in our world need not be a permanent and pervasive part of the human condition. The early Universalists dreamed a larger hope than sin-saturated Puritanism, and passionately believed the natural inclination of God, humanity, indeed creation itself is toward the good. The American people (hungry for positive, hopeful, people-orientated religion) flocked to Universalist churches...at one time in the 1840s Universalism was the 6th largest American denomination!

The greatest Universalist theologian and preacher of the day was the Rev. Hosea Ballou. Every bit the orator of his "Great Awakening" adversaries, Ballou used to hold his large congregations spellbound as he gently and joyfully proclaimed this gospel of universal salvation. Once, before a huge congregation in Philadelphia, he pointed to the children in his audience and expressed his horror that many of the parents present that day held to the prevailing Calvinist assertion that their children were innately depraved, and that most were already doomed to eternal damnation. Lifting his hand from the bible and pointing over the crowd he cried, "0 dear man! Dear woman! Have you no connections in the world? Are you insulated from human nature? I ask you to look at the companion of your bosom...look on the child of your love, and say if you believe it probable that these connections were originally doomed by the decree of heaven to everlasting wretchedness, and derive consolation from that belief?"

On another occasion, he was preaching in Boston when a rock sailed through the window and landed near him (remember, I told you even way back then there was a real battle going on for the soul of America). Without missing a beat, this Universalist evangelist picked up the large stone and said, "This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither reasonable nor convincing." Then putting the rock aside, he added, "Not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth." Ballou, and the other early American Universalists bravely preached a gospel of inclusion, reconciliation, hope right in the face of Calvinistic negativity...gospel that unashamedly affirmed the oneness and worth of all persons!

Now, when I first studied 18th and 19th Century Universalist thought during my years at Starr King Seminary in Berkeley, I was profoundly taken by this bold and positive faith position. What captured my spiritual attention was the large and embracing spirit of Universalism. . .the big and beautiful heart of Universalism, the deep and compassionate conviction our Universalist forebears had in the basic, deep-down, unquenchable goodness of creation, human society and persons.

In those days I went as far as describing myself as a Universalist Unitarian, not only because I was raised in a Universalist church, but also by way of affirming my interest in and allegiance to the Universalist principles of inclusion, optimism, compassion, and hope. During my final year in seminary, I decided to do a chapel for the faculty and students at the school, at which time I planned to expound on this pure and lovely gospel of universal human affirmation. God however had a surprise for me!

The morning the chapel was to happen, I arose early, poured over my powerful and polemically perfect text. I was privately proud in advance of the depth and passion with which I grasped the essence of my Universalist heritage. As I walked the mile or so up the hill from my home to the school, my head was down as I silently rehearsed to myself all of the beautiful phrases I had crafted to make my sermon on Universalism come alive. As I approached the busy intersection at Shattick Street, I happened to glance up and suddenly saw an incredibly large woman sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. Now I have always had a personal obsession about my own weight (it’s why I run marathons), and in those years was quite prejudiced and opinionated about people who weighed more than I thought they should...anyway, before I could censor the unkind, judgmental thought, I blurted out to myself, "Oh, dear God look at that gross woman...she must weigh 400 pounds...how could anyone ever let themselves get like that...and who could ever love that?"

And at that moment, as if it were a bolt of spiritual lightening aimed right at me, the skinny little guy sitting next to her on the bus stop bench looked lovingly into her eyes, leaned over, and gave her the most gentle and loving kiss I have ever seen one human being bestow upon another. I was stunned and ashamed. And while I was still reeling from the jarring disparity between my petty and unkind judgment and his pure and simple love, a voice came to me (without words, but in unmistakable clarity, holiness and power)...a voice came out of the whirlwind and said to me (and to me alone) "Don’t you get it, you dope? Here you are, at this very moment going up the hill to preach your clever little sermon on God’s love and universal salvation for every human person, and all you can do is sneer inside at someone you deem unworthy and unbeautiful. Don’t you understand that, in the eyes of all that is sacred and beautiful and holy and true in this creation, she is as utterly lovely as human beings get? Don’t you get it? If the pleasures and prerogatives, graces and goodnesses of this creation are made for you (and you certainly claim them as a natural birthright for yourself) then they are made for her too. And you call yourself a Universalist...puffff."

Let me tell you that I was startled as I was chastened. In that moment of pure and precious spiritual revelation, a spirit of holiness I can only call God spoke to me with heart-numbing clarity, and I finally began to understand Universalism viscerally...deep to my bones. What it means to be a Universalist, a real Universalist in more than name only, is to have a heart that seeks and sees (at every human turn) the natural worth and preciousness of people...all people...especially those very different from oneself. In an instant, I understood what a wild and welcoming doctrine our Universalist forebears bequeathed to us.

AND THAT DOCTRINE CAN BE SUMMED UP IN STARK SIMPLICITY: THERE IS A PLACE SET IN THIS CREATION FOR EVERY LAST MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD...A PRECIOUS, SAFE PLACE HAS BEEN SET FOR EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US...PERIOD...and it is our human job to respect, protect and nurture the well-being of all of God’s diverse and curious children. The early Universalists said, pure and simple, that every human being (no matter how strange or flawed or unlovable or broken or weird they may seem to you) is to be protected, cherished, welcomed, loved.

Now this is not an easy faith to have in these waning years of the 20th Century. Our time—I need not point out—has so much human violence, cruelty, and degradation. Just open the daily newspapers if you need evidence—wars and civil wars, genocide and terrorism, torture and violations of human rights, domestic violence and sexual abuse of children—the manifestations of our human depravity are nearly endless. This is not an easy time to believe in the worth and redeemability of persons and society.

But Universalism, you see, Universalism then and now, is not a naive and foolish bluebird faith (one that cannot see human wickedness, foible and sin) it is rather a tenacious faith. Universalism is a promise to theologically hang in there with the complexities and cruelties of the human enterprise. It is the promise not to give up on people, but to keep struggling in our broken world for the improvement and inclusion of all—even those one might naturally (or even rightly) despise, reject, condemn, or judge. They simply refused to give up on people...they saw in humanity ONENESS AND WORTH MORE THAN SEPARATENESS AND SIN.

But as everyone in this room is no doubt painfully aware, many in our culture do not! Just as in 1793 (when the Puritans and Universalists were theologically battling in the public square for the hearts and minds of the American people) once again today there is struggle, a very real struggle, over the soul of our nation. Today, the Religious Right (who as you all know are fervently vocal, fiercely organized and frightfully well funded) is preaching the same negative and judgmental human message that Jonathan Edwards preached 200 years ago. The theological and social message of the Religious Right is the exact opposite of Universalism’s tenacious acceptance of every human person. People like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell see God as angry and punishing, and believe humanity must be divided...ripped asunder..."sheep from goats"..."saints from sinners." They are not the least bit shy about declaring that righteous delineations must be drawn between the "saved" and the "damned"...between the "right-thinking" and the "wrong"...between the "pure" and the "defiled"...between God’s chosen "religiously-correct" (for whom a place has been set) and the devil’s legions (all those others who don’t see or live in the world as they do) for whom a place at creation’s table has—in their worldview—NOT been set!

You all heard Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan at the last National Republican Convention (and elsewhere since) declare their "holy war" (their words...not mine) a Jihad against all who have different lifestyles, beliefs, values, worldviews, even social and political philosophies! And these vocal new Puritans (who number in the many, many millions in this land) are not satisfied with swaying individuals to their worldview; the Religious Right demand that society and government be structured in ways that reflect their narrow perspectives, and their narrow perspectives only.

Surely it is clear to everyone in this room today that we ignore a modern-day Jonathan Edwards and his angry, narrow, and hateful religious vision) at our own peril. I believe with all my heart and soul that in this time of culture wars we must ANSWER the religious right...we must answer them, pure and simple with the truth that is Universalism!

Does that seem too bold a statement. .TOO DOGMATIC OR OPINIONATED? Well, BY GOD, this third-generation Universalist believes it. Universalism—that big-hearted faith that sees the oneness and wonder-ful-ness of all people everywhere, even in all their diversity and difficulty—is good and true! Universalism is good and true...it is a sound and saving vision for the human family that can help us create a livable world for all. That’s why we must not hide the light of our faith under some bushel of meek and mild politeness while the Jerry Falwells of this world preach their divisive, fearful, exclusionary poison to millions. We must boldly and unashamedly share our "Good News" that every-man, woman and child of this creation (be they young or old, black or white, rich or poor, yellow or brown, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, beautiful or broken) is a child of God (a valuable creature fashioned out of high and holy stuff) for whom a place at life’s table has been set! Wherever we are, however we find ourselves stationed in life, we must share that faith...tell that truth...live that ethic...dare that dream.

John Murray, the man who is credited with bringing Universalism to America, put it this way, "You possess only 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."

We must unashamedly stand up in this culture and (without arrogance or vitriol...and even perhaps with an appreciation for the integrity and thoughtfulness of many evangelical Christians) give voice to our theological beliefs and spiritual perspectives just as our optimistic and unashamed Universalist forebears did. We must be the brave and forthright messengers of their larger hope for the whole of the human family. We must not sit back complacently, in that self-satisfied smugness that is so common in "right-thinking" religious liberals, and let their centuries-old vision for a better, kinder world die because of our sophisticated cowardice or neglect. We must speak and live and share the generous heart of Universalism.

The "Bottom Line" is that, like it or not, we must be evangelists...that’s right, my good Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters...evangelists. . .unashamed evangelists willing to speak up for the kind and generous truth that is Universalism. Now I realize that the word "EVANGELIST" may carry extremely negative connotations for many of you. Most who call themselves Unitarian Universalists probably think of evangelists as pushy, arrogant, obnoxious, zealots who sell religion door-to-door...and that does accurately describe many conservative Christian "evangelists" I have had the misfortune-of encountering over the years. But did it ever occur to you that the only reason you think so poorly of evangelists is that next-to-nobody who thinks or feels as you do religiously ever engages in the process of publicly sharing their faith? Unitarian Universalists are notoriously SPIRITUALLY SILENT! Because we demand to think for ourselves, are respectful of human difference, and don’t appreciate it when someone else tries to ram their beliefs down our throats, we tend to shy away from (even cautiously and respectfully) sharing with others what it is we believe, and how those beliefs help us strive to be better, kinder, larger people. I know it’s hard for some of us to "talk back" to fundamentalism by "talking up" our own faith, but I passionately believe we cannot afford such a self-imposed silence in dangerous and divisive times such as these.

We can wish it all we want, but the truth is that the Falwells and Robertsons and Buchanans are not going to just fade away. They are out there in the public square...on the public airwaves...they are running "stealth" candidates in local elections and trying to take over school and library boards, town and county offices, even national party structures in many states and unless there are other, gentler visions for the human family being given voice, their divisive, mean-spirited and often-hateful message will be the only one heard...and (God help us) the only one believed! If we remove ourselves from the religious playing field—by being too nice, polite, or non-confrontational to even say what it is we believe and why it is we believe it and strive to live in accordance with it—then they will carry the day, and have their way with both us and the world and that neither we nor humanity can afford.

So let us be kind, gentle, respectful evangelists for that hopeful, inclusive human vision bequeathed to us by our Universalist forbearers, the stakes are too high for anything less!

And, I have to warn you, it is not enough simply to speak up about Universalism with our lips...we must further speak it with our lives...with the deeds and doings of our hands and hearts. We must, as the African American saying goes, "talk the talk and walk the talk." And let there be no illusions about it, dear friends, Universalism is a tough and radical doctrine...it is a hard and demanding gospel...for it insists that we each be constantly about the business of growing bigger, more inclusive and caring hearts...setting aside our little fears and prejudices...as we strive to care evermore widely for our brothers and sisters in the world. Universalism says (against all self-protecting common sense):

If there is a neighbor that needs a hand,
you lend one...

If there is a mouth that needs fed,
you share some of what you have to eat...

If there is a family that needs a home,
you build one...

If there is a captive who needs release,
you remove the bars...

If there is a mourner who needs comfort,
offer your embrace...

If there is a charity that needs support,
write that check...

If there is a stranger who needs welcome,
open your home...

If there is someone crying,
use your finger to gently wipe away their tears

If there is a man or woman or child anywhere in the world who needs your understanding, your compassion, your mercy, your support, your love, YOU GIVE IT...G1VE IT unstintingly and selflessly.

This is the demanding call of Universalism. . .this is not a casual Sunday walk in the park, it’s a tough and foolish doctrine of inclusion and care that constantly challenges us beyond the narrow confines of our natural selfishness and fear...to ever wider circles of caring and compassion.

I pray that in the days and years ahead we who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists will speak the generous, inclusive, affirming spirit of Universalism. Speak it with our lips as we answer those who live by mean and divisive little doctrines...and (even more challenging) speak it with our lives. Speak it—BY GOD—until everyone (across this great and troubled land) begins to hear on the wind the holy and inclusive voice that poet Carl Sandburg heard:

There is only one horse on the earth,
and his name is all hooves.

There is only one bird in the air,
and her name is all wings.

There is only one fish in the sea,
and the fish’s name is all fins.

There is only one man in the world,
and the man’s name is all men.

There is only one woman in the world,
and her name is all women.

There is only one child in the world,
and the child’s name is all children.

There is only one maker in the world,
and that maker’s children cover the earth,
and they are called all God’s children. Amen [adapted]

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 31, 2014.

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