(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 18 October 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)
(A general note on the sermons I post: While I do lightly edit them and add links and footnotes, they are still basically texts that I wrote with the intention of speaking. Therefore I sometimes use punctuation that is more appropriate for spoken language than for written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language, so if something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)
As you may know, at Throop Church we have monthly worship themes. Sometimes these themes are overridden by the requirements of particular services — like the Blessing of the Animals service last week — but in general, there is supposed to be a common theme among the services each month. For the month of October, the theme is “Letting Go.” Now, the title of my sermon today is “Universalist Influences,” and you may well wonder what that will have to do with “Letting Go.” But really, this sermon will be about evolution. Not the evolution of species, but the evolution of ideas, the evolution of theologies — and this evolution involves a continual process of letting go of some old beliefs, and embracing some new ones.
What happens to our history when we let go of old ideas? What do we think of our forebears, when we have moved on from some of their ideas? I’ve spoken several times now from this pulpit, and each time I have brought my perspective as a humanist. As I have said, I am an atheist — by which I mean that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” And yet I specifically chose the first hymn we sang this morning — the hymn that begins “Unto thy temple, Lord, we come with thankful hearts to worship thee.”
What kind of evolution can happen that would lead an atheist to ask you to sing those words?
Universalism, of course, is part of the very foundation of our congregation in Pasadena. In 1885, the Universalist minister Caroline Soule held services in Pasadena. In the following year, the Universalist minister Florence Kollock, who was vacationing in California, also preached in Pasadena. Under the guidance of Kollock and our namesake Amos G. Throop, this church was founded as the First Universalist Parish of Pasadena. As far as the State of California is concerned, that is still our name — the First Universalist Parish of Pasadena — although we are “doing business as” Throop Memorial Church and Throop Unitarian Universalist Church.
So what does “Universalist” mean? Those of you who already know this, forgive me — but let me review some history and theology.
When America was founded, the religious elite were mostly Calvinists. One of the basic ideas of Calvinism is that there are two types of people; the “elect,” who will go to heaven, and everyone else, who will not. But the interesting thing is that the determination of whether or not you are one of the elect? Calvinists believed that that decision was made at the beginning of time; it has nothing at all to do with how you behave here on Earth.
For many people nowadays, this theology is surprising. Whether or not you go to Heaven has nothing at all to do with how you behave on Earth? What would motivate a Calvinist to behave well?
Of course, one response — which, as a humanist, I prefer — is that people’s morals are not determined by what they hope or fear for their afterlife. But there’s a psychological motivation that came into play as well. If you were a Calvinist, you really, really hoped that you were one of the elect, one of the people who will go to heaven. You would be looking for signs that somehow indicated this. You might think: How would one of the elect behave? You might think: If I were one of the elect, I would probably behave well; I would probably tithe to my church, and help the poor, and contribute to my community, and do well by my family. And since you really, really hoped you were one of the elect, you would do the things that you thought would confirm this hypothesis.
Now, who were the Universalists? One strand of Universalism was grounded in Calvinism. These Universalists also believed in the idea of the “elect” — they also believed that there are two types of people, those who would go to Heaven, and those who would not — except that they believed that everyone was in the first group. These Universalists could not believe that a loving God would make some of His children suffer for all eternity in Hell.
The name “Universalist” comes from this belief: the belief in universal salvation — the belief that everyone will go to Heaven.
Everyone will go to Heaven… eventually. Universalists in the 18th and 19th centuries had various beliefs about purgatory. Some believed that people would have to suffer some amount of time to “pay for” their sins on Earth before they would be allowed into Heaven. Some Universalists — called “Restorationists” — believed that people would continue to suffer until they were reconciled with God, but that as soon as they were reconciled, they would go to Heaven. And some Universalists, sometimes called the “ultra”-Universalists, denied the whole idea of “paying for one’s sins” in the afterlife; they denied some of the basic tenets of Calvinism.
Oh, by the way: All of this was viewed as heresy by the mainstream churches in America. Even many Unitarians, who felt some sympathy for the Universalists, wanted to keep their distance, for fear of giving their theological adversaries yet another heresy to accuse them of.
For example, in his autobiography, 1 Adin Ballou, a Restorationist (and a younger cousin of the ultra-Universalist Hosea Ballou), wrote about his own installation in 1832 as minister of First Church and Congregation in Mendon, Massachusetts, about 30 miles outside Boston. Among the ministers participating in Ballou’s installation were four Restorationists and four Unitarians. Ballou wrote:
In those days it required no little moral courage for Rev. Mr. Whitman and his Unitarian brethren to unite with the Restorationists in a public religious service like that of my installation.
Writing nearly sixty years after the event, Ballou recognized the courage shown by the Unitarian ministers who attended, but also mocked the prejudices of some of their brethren. Speaking of Unitarians in general, he wrote:
The Unitarians were largely a well educated class of people, and nursed the pride of having a highly educated ministry. But the Restorationists, tried by their standard, were “unlearned and ignorant” — only a trifle better schooled, perhaps, than the humble Nazarene himself and his original twelve apostles, without a [Doctor of Divinity degree] among them, and little better than barbarians when compared with the graduates of Harvard College, and other polished literati. This was quite as objectionable to many of the “grave and reverend seigniors” of the denomination as our peculiar theology.
Some of these stereotypes about Unitarians and Universalists are still with us today!
In the early 20th century, the meaning of Universalism widened — for some, it referred to the idea that there is some kind of universal religion; that religions that are different in their particulars are somehow trying to explain or understand or live with the same ultimate truth — the idea that we would now express with the image of different people feeling the elephant in the dark room, or with the expression “one light, many windows.” This widened view of Universalism is why, for example, Swami Vivekananda — a Hindu religious leader who had been a sensation at the World Parliament of Religion in 1893 — was welcomed in 1900 as a speaker at both Throop Church 2 and at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. 3
But how is all of this theology relevant to us today? What are some of its influences?
Let me quote Benjamin Rush, one of the founders of the United States — a member of the Continental Congress, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and a Universalist. He wrote: 4
A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures, and that he will finally restore all those of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth. It leads to truths upon all subjects, more especially upon the subject of government. It establishes the equality of mankind — it abolishes the punishment of death for any crime — and converts jails into houses of repentance and reformation.
Rush’s writing 200 years ago sounds a lot like what Marilynne Robinson said just last month, in the quote I gave as today’s reading: 5
I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. […] It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level.
The Unitarian Universalist blogger Doug Muder, in a sermon on “Universalism, Politics, and Evil” delivered earlier this year at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois, expands on this idea:
The political upshot of Universalism — which continues in Unitarian Universalism today, even among those of us who don’t believe in God or the afterlife any more — is that since God isn’t writing anybody off, we don’t get to either. We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone, to picture them not as damned or evil or inconsequential, but as people deserving of the same kind of consideration we would like to claim for ourselves.
“We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” This is not an easy thing to do, but I think it is an important thing to try, even though we are bound to fail. It calls us to remember that even people who we dislike, people who do things that are undeniably evil, are human. It doesn’t mean that we should excuse people for misdeeds — people should be held responsible for their actions — but we need a vision of humanity that includes our failings, and that recognizes that these failings occur in every one of us, to some extent.
“We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” We are tempted so often to not do this; we are tempted by all of the discourse around us to view so many people as less than human. People who are not like us; people who speak a different language; people whose culture is not our own; people in other political parties; people who disagree with us on moral issues.
“We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” For me, there is a certain political figure who stands out as a particular challenge here. Someone who I think has done great harm, who has damaged institutions I hold dear, who has helped make incredibly bad decisions. [I won’t say who this is, because it doesn’t matter — I’m sure we all have someone we can think of who plays this role for us.] I try to imagine the full humanity of this person, and frankly it is difficult. But I need to keep this in mind, even as I work against policies that this person and others have put in place.
Here is a question: Do Unitarian Universalists believe in equality? You can conduct an experiment during coffee hour, and ask this of the friend sitting next to you. I have not done the experiment myself yet, but here’s a prediction. If you ask a Unitarian Universalist whether they believe in equality, there’s a 95 percent chance that one of two things will happen: Either they will say “yes,” or you will find yourself in a 20-minute discussion of “what does equality mean, anyway?”… and then they will say “yes.”
If we believe in equality, where can we find it in the list of seven UU principles?
The second principle speaks of equity, but equity and equality are not the same thing.
It is my belief that equality appears in the first principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Where did the first principle come from? The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961 with the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Originally, the UUA had a list of six principles. One of them begins:
The members of the UUA unite to affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth of every human personality.
Here’s one thing among many to notice: The word supreme. I haven’t yet read the records of the time that explain how this principle evolved into what is now our first principle, but I can imagine many reasons for wanting to remove the word “supreme;” for example, it represents a very human-centered view of the universe.
But I think there was an unintended consequence of removing the word “supreme”. The idea is that if I have supreme worth, and you have supreme worth, then we both have equal worth. This is the equality that Benjamin Rush speaks of as a consequence of Universalism; this is the equality that Thomas Jefferson expresses, imperfectly, as “all men are created equal”; this is the equality that I struggle with when I think of certain people; this is the equality that I must struggle with, the equality that is at the foundation of my religious belief.
Removing the word “supreme” has made this concept of equality much less explicit, but I think that it is still there in our first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s not that we all have worth and dignity but some of us get more of it than others; it’s that, as the Universalists would have it, we are all equal in the eyes of God.
Why did this service start with hymn #35? Not because of the first verse; but because of the second:
The common home of rich and poor,
Of bond and free, and great and small;
Large as thy love forevermore,
And warm and bright and good to all.
All humans are created equal.
May we have a Unitarian Universalism that is large enough to recognize and celebrate what we have in common with the Unitarian author 6 of that hymn; a Unitarian Universalism that allows us to open our service singing of a God that some of us have let go of, and close it in celebration of the Universalist love that still influences us.
Please rise, as you are willing and able, as we sing our closing hymn, “Standing on the Side of Love.”
- Completed by his son, based on notes he left at his death in 1890. ↩
- On the evening of January 28, speaking on “The Way to the Realization of a Universal Religion.” ↩
- He spoke seven times at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, in February, March, and April. ↩
- Quoted in David Robinson’s book The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985). ↩
- Which is from a fascinating conversation held between Robinson and President Barack Obama in Des Moines, Iowa, on 14 September 2015. For the reading, I gave a slightly longer excerpt. ↩
- The hymn “Unto Thy Temple, Lord, We Come” was written by Robert Collyer, who was a Unitarian, not a Universalist. He was known as “the Blacksmith Preacher” because earlier in his life he had been a blacksmith in England. He put an anvil in a place of honor in Unity Unitarian Church in Chicago (which he founded) because, it is said, he wanted to hammer out the truth as he had once hammered out horse shoes. He wrote “Unto Thy Temple” for the dedication of the building that housed Unity Church after the original church was destroyed by the great Chicago fire. Note that Unity Unitarian Church is now Second Unitarian Church of Chicago; the similarly-named Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park comes from the Universalist tradition. ↩