Learning Universalism from Scratch
Preached by the Rev. Scott Wells in Washington, D.C. on August 24, 2003
Each year, and especially each summer, at Universalist National Memorial Church we get an influx of visitors; some of the people I see in the congregation, included. You ask questions about this church about, and what is Universalism, and in different ways, ask, “Is this the right church for me?” Or even, “Is there a right church for me, at all?” These are fair questions, and today, I hope to begin – but not finish – answering these questions. And for the longer-standing members of the congregation, this sermon is for you, too. By taking on the eyes of a newcomer, it might be possible to take on that feeling of immediacy and joy that comes with discovering something special and new.
Yes, this church is special to those who’ve found it. It is distinct from most other member churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association, even though it was founded as the national flagship church of one-half of that tradition.
And because there are these differences, we need a different language than the one we used before. Several times over the summer you heard references to a phenomenon within the Unitarian Universalist Association described loosely as the “vocabulary of reference.” This phenomenon is an attempt to stay in positive terms that which rests at the core of the various expressions of faith found within the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s not going to be an easy task. Some people have given up as necessarily impossible. Perhaps it is. But if we leave this quest at a purely a denominational level, it will show that we’ve misunderstood what it means to the Universalist. For as far back as we have records, for as far back as we have understanding, for as far back as we have an identity, we’ve known we need to be able to answer this question at individual and at a congregational level. This means that we must not be afraid of standing with, along side to, and in some ways apart from other Unitarian Universalist. We have some resources for this new way of speaking about faith.
The building itself is telling. The arches and carvings make it clear that we take tradition, and traditional beauty, seriously. The sheer weight of the building and dimly lit corners create a hush and a meditative atmosphere. The windows teach stories and reinforce values from the Bible, from the life of Christ, and from the Universalist tradition. In brief, this is a place of prayer, and in prayer we meet the living God who gathers together the living spirits of those who lived in every time and place. A recent theological meeting raised a test case that many people thought outlandish. Would God’s ingathering action of salvation extend to intelligent life on other planets, should they exist. Or would the Klingons need their own savior? I am glad to be in this church because I trust (at a basic level) that not only would these far-off beings be our sisters and brothers, but that God is present in the animals that do not speak, and in the plants that do not gesture, and even the water, and the rocks – which Jesus and the Psalmist said will sing God’s praises. All things, from the cosmic scale to the sub-atomic, praises God because it simply is. And because God is, and extends to relate to all that is, then we can rejoice in a unity and ecstasy that always is, and always emerging, like waves cresting and crashing onto the shore.
At least that’s one piece of my take on Universalism and Christianity.
So, if we’re different than other churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association, then, in many ways, we’re also different from a good many other Christian churches, too. I wish this weren’t true. Obviously, I would like our unity to be plain and organic and visible. For the moment, we will have to be apart. Some doctrines will divide Christians, but there are probably as many doctrinal systems in this church as there are people, so you can only blame that so much. Structures, too, differ, but we’ve seen nation-states with similar kinds of governance fight while others who govern differently maintain a friendship. I have to come back to that distinctive trait of the Universalist Church. Again, that, God cares more about us and the world and restrictions placed by the same church dedicated to God’s worship. It isn’t about rules, and who’s inside and who’s outside, and I can’t participate in a Christian church that would have ultimate winners and ultimate losers. I know we’re not perfect in this church, and Universalism has occasions in its history when it got it wrong, but I think we’re pointed in the right direction and that means we want new people to share this life with us.
But – and this point can’t be overstated – Universalism, even from its earliest days, has meant different things to different people. It has mean different things from one generation to the next. It has meant different things from one church to the next. For its opponents, it was a hit sure one-way ticket to perdition and social upheaval, or a little more than holding on to a bad superstition and an impediment to the truth of disbelief.
So, it makes sense to try to get a handle on some of Universalism’s distinguishing features. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Universalists and maintain something of a cottage industry in defining what Universalism is. Frederick Williams Perkins, the Minister of this church for much of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and the man for whom the fellowship hall was named, published a series of sermons on this subject. He declared at “unity of spirit and purpose rather than uniformity of creed is the genius of Universalism” but that didn’t keep others from nailing down the details. For instance, there was a whole slew of catechisms directed at Universalist children that summarize the faith in one sentence or two. This might seem odd for denomination that spent much of its time defining itself as not having a creed, but it can be excused if understood as a way of exploring some of the available options. One, from the 1920s, and used in this church, asked the youngsters:
“Why do you accept [Universalism]? Because it agrees with reason, is supported by the Bible, and is the best expression of Christianity that I know.”
Others defined Universalism as democratic principles applied to Christian faith, as a religion that tried to unify people by “getting back to basics” and the intersection of mysticism and public morality. And above all, liberal Christianity was defined in terms of what can be removed from Christian faith (as generally recognized) and yet still remain Christian. Like a sculptor with a hammer and chisel approaching a mountain of granite, the liberal Christian was supposed to take off this corner, remove that slab, shape something in the immovable and lifeless rock. But far too often, all that was left was a pile of rubble, pebbles, even dust with nothing to put it back together. Perhaps you’ve experience questions without end, and without a hope of answers, and worse, without a hope of dwelling with the God who cannot be carved in stone. The instinct was correct. Remove what cannot be, and perhaps the Truth – truth with a capital T – would be released from its tomb. The instinct was correct, but not its application. And the difference between a theory and a church is that a church always exists in the specific, the particular, in the living experience.
Each Sunday, we repeat the Declaration of Faith, and even if some of us don’t say every line (and there are, and that’s fine, even something of a tradition here) we all hear the last line, which is my favorite. It refers to the “final harmony of all souls with God.” This is an echo of an older document. Two hundred years ago, in 1803, a group of Universalists gathered together in the Winchester, New Hampshire to try to make a statement about Universalist faith that would hold up for the ages. It ends with
We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
In other words, it may be fine to attribute good and great things to God, but we benefit from this understanding by applying these ideas to our own lives and actions. Universalism, and Christianity for that matter, rather than being ethereal, is intimately involved with real life. Universalists have understood that none of us is really born Universalist, but their faith is developed and refined and matured. Christians, Universalists among them, are not born but made. And we are made to be happy – that is, have a delight, and peace, and sense of order in ourselves and our relationships – and holy, that is, to have a delight, and peace, and sense of order with God. Yes, faith can be that straight forward.
We live in a very different world today. Tell your friends, tell your neighbors, tell your co-workers that you are a Christian or even religious in some neutral or defined way and you’re as likely as not to be judged in silence. America is becoming a secular country. Increasingly, we don’t know what to do with religious expression. Those Christians who are bold enough to expose themselves publicly are often of the more extreme variety, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, or at least are thought to be extreme.
It may seem strange to say this during a sermon on Universalism, but talking about Universalism can be a bit misleading. Its ideas, practices, and assumptions grew up in a time when nearly everyone was a Christian, and talked about, and those who weren’t religious didn’t draw much attention to themselves. And in those days, still within living memory, Christianity was something that was assumed to extend into the public and personal spheres. The current fracas in Alabama shows that we’re in a bridge time with respect to religious expression.
In these pleadings, I hear the voice of people who deeply want to have a meaningful relationship with God and, ” like those who dream,” thing that such a relationship must necessarily be outside of any church, because there is no church and that would really have them. I wonder how often the faith of the Universalist begins out of a deep spiritual loneliness. A loneliness no less true when found in a world full of people asking the same questions. A loneliness no less true when surrounded by people talking about God, Jesus, the Spirit, prayer, faith. A loneliness that cannot be fed because there is no home that would take it.
Of the question, what does it mean to be a Universalist? We need to begin with another question, what does it mean to be Christian? Because as long as there’s been a Christian church, there’s been more than one answer to it. The people in this church have long known that there’s a different way to be Christian.
The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Roman church, and heard today in the lesson, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” That had a very different meaning in those days that it does now. Today the word gospel has a number of meanings that Paul simply could no understood. The word refers to four books in the Bible which probably had not been written at the time. The word refers to a style of music which is grown up in our own land. Of the word had been applied to all kinds of nonreligious pursuits as a brand name for truth. Or put another way, G. K. Chesterton, the writer, said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
This Universalist church is a place where we can try.
This is the home that will take the spiritual loneliness. But first we need to start asking the questions, and expecting some answers, that will make us look in direction towards wholeness.
Universalism is very appealing. It holds that its core is nothing less than God’s concern and care for everyone who lives and everyone who’s gone. It necessarily hold the that we the children of the living God our brothers and sisters to one another. Universalism assumes that we have a common origin and a common destiny. His Universalism has upheld as central that we are responsible for our souls and for our actions.
I pray this church may speak to you.