In the old days of Universalist evangelism, circuit riding ministers traveled from town to town, preaching the message of a loving and forgiving God, freedom of thought, reason in religion, and respect for the beliefs of others. At a time when fire and brimstone dominated the pulpits of America, the Universalist church grew to become one of the largest denominations in the country, and it was said that while other church bells rang with the sound “Repent! Repent!” the Universalist bells sang, “No Hell! No Hell!”
I have been thinking about that old Universalist message in the past few weeks. Looking at the news, or more often avoiding the news, I have felt very tired and frustrated and afraid. I have been in a Repent kind of mindset, and it has been difficult to summon that old Universalist spirit of No Hell.
But of course, the Universalist message was never one of naiveté. They understood injustice and the suffering of humanity as well as anyone. Many Universalists were poor, or certainly working class. Another century and more would come and go before they would merge with the wealthier Unitarians to create the religion we know today. These people – ministers and members alike – understood full well the pain human beings could inflict on one another, which is why they dedicated so many of their resources to work for human dignity and justice – the abolition of slavery, the rights of women, the betterment of human society. Salvation in Heaven was a settled issue for them; they didn’t need to spend their energy working on that. It was far more important to work for salvation on Earth, creating the Heaven that is beloved human community across the country and the world.
Theologies have changed, in the last hundred years. Humanism brought us out from an exclusively Christian mindset, and we now search more broadly and widely than we ever did back in the 19th century. But we still understand ourselves to be engaged in the work of creating the beloved community on earth. This is our heritage.
To tell you the truth, it’s a hard heritage to live up to when you’re feeling defeated, and when the world’s evils seem so readily apparent. It’s not easy to sing “No Hell!” when you’re feeling “Repent!”
But the heyday of Universalism wasn’t an easy time either. These were the days leading up to and including the Civil War. I think from today’s perspective we sometimes have a hard time fathoming the extent of the injustice of that time – from chattel slavery to grinding poverty to religious, racial and every other kind of discrimination. Through all of that, something in the Universalist message of divine love and human responsibility touched the hearts of a great many people.
So when I look to reclaim our old Universalist message of beloved community on earth, I do so with the full realization that this was never a theology created for easy or optimistic times. For both Unitarians and Universalists, our most powerful expressions of hope have always come when the days seemed most difficult.
James Luther Adams was a Unitarian theologian, a professor at Harvard Divinity School who traveled to Hitler’s Germany in 1938 to meet with ministers and religious thinkers. In the process he saw the power of religion harnessed to support the brutal Fascist ideologies of the Nazi regime, and he also saw the power of religion to resist such hatred and heartlessness. He returned both more convinced of and more committed to the religious work of social justice. And when he defined the faith of the religious liberal, he wrote that our way of being religious expresses itself not only in the individual heart, but also in the societal structures we work to create. And he said the resources, divine and human, for meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. He didn’t say, and never claimed, that such change would come easily or without severe setbacks. This was a man who had been interrogated by the Gestapo and had lost many friends to the holocaust. He talked of “ultimate optimism.”
Adams was hardly the first Unitarian to make this point. Eighty years earlier, Theodore Parker, that hero of the underground railroad, said much the same thing, in words later echoed by Martin Luther King, Jr. “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
What is Unitarian Universalism for?
Over all the years of my preaching, I’m somewhat astonished the question has never come up in quite that way. I’ve spoken about what Unitarian Universalism is. I’ve spoken about what we do. I’ve spoken about what I love about this free faith of ours. But in all these years I’ve never asked what we are for.
We could take the easy route. I could describe us, maybe preach one of those old sermons, and then say, “We’re here to be that.” We’re here to be a UU community for ourselves and each other. But somehow that doesn’t feel adequate, not today, not in December of 2016. It isn’t enough to enjoy Unitarian Universalism. Our religion and our values are not here for the purpose of our enjoyment, although, of course, we do anyway. Our values are here to be lived. We exist for more than just ourselves.
We could go in another direction entirely, dedicating ourselves fully and completely to the work of justice making, letting go of all other priorities. But that doesn’t seem quite right either. I think if we were to do that, we would lose something, and very quickly become little different from any other organization dedicated to social change. It isn’t that we shouldn’t do these things, any more than we shouldn’t enjoy what we have here. It’s that we exist for something more. We are a religious organization, and the way that we make change in the world ought to reflect who we are as religious people, not just what issues we care about.
So I find myself turning back to that the old Universalist vision of Heaven on Earth, building the beloved community, human redemption and ultimate hope. It’s a message we proclaim but our purpose is more than proclamation; I believe our purpose is to live it, not just with each other, but every day and together in the world.
Think about what you love in Unitarian Universalism. Is it the freedom of thought? Is it the way we respect one another, not despite but because of our differences? Is it the way we reach out to each other in compassion? Is it the way we reach out to the world with a sense that we can and should make our community – whether it is the West Chester community or the world community – better than it is right now? Is it the way we come together in love and honesty? Is it the way we open ourselves, again and again, to new and deeper truths? Is it the way that Unitarian Universalists have of speaking deeply held beliefs while acknowledging the possibility that we might be wrong? Is it the sense of community?
Why are you here? What makes Unitarian Universalism so special?
I think, at heart, all of these things that we love come back to the central practice of our religion – engagement with people who are different from us whether in thought or in background or in way of life. That’s what makes Unitarian Universalist community so powerful and transforming. That’s what makes us different. And that, I believe is what the world needs in 2016 and beyond. The world needs the kind of engagement we teach.
The world needs us because people are struggling. That struggle may be for Black Lives Matter or for immigrant justice, or for climate action, or for keeping a pipeline out of Standing Rock, North Dakota, or for any number of reasons, but the struggles are real. Sometimes the struggles are more personal – a struggle to make it through the next week when we are hurting or afraid, a struggle to get by on a minimum wage, a struggle to hold on to the family farm, or just the everyday struggles of life that every one of us goes through. People are struggling. And when we are struggling, what we need is someone to stand with us and be with us, willing to listen and learn and not have all the answers. In particular, with the issues our country and our world face today, we need people who know how to embrace differences, instead of ignoring them, dismissing them, or seeking to overpower them. Unitarian Universalists know how to engage without needing to control, and even when we don’t know, we are willing to learn. That is a precious gift we have always offered to one another, and it is our unique religious gift to the world.
As I look ahead in our congregation, I know and I believe we will be doing this in many ways, because we’re already doing it in some; now is the time to reach out anew in solidarity and sensitivity, into the world.
Of course, we make mistakes. Especially when we reach across barriers of race or culture, we are likely to say some wrong things or rub some people the wrong way, or get caught up in people’s assumptions about us or our assumptions about others. We know this, and we also know that we need to do the work anyway, because it is far too important to let go, just because it is hard. We’ve been at this a long time.
Sharon Welch, a UU theologian, calls it an “ethic of risk.” “There are no heroic pretensions,” she writes, “no grand narratives of certain triumph but a life affirming refusal to submit to cynicism, alienation, and despair.”
It may get hard, but we will not stop living Unitarian Universalism, and when society moves backwards, it is our calling to reach out more than ever before not only to seek justice, but to live justice, not only to work for the beloved community on earth, but to create that community even as we continue to struggle together. Together, we do the work of the world, and if you are suffering; if you are at risk because of your race, or your gender or gender identity, or your sexual orientation or your national origin, or your mental or physical health, or any other reason, Unitarian Universalism is here to tell you you do not walk alone. We are with you, as we are with one another – not in charity, but in partnership, not to tell you what to do, but to listen to you and learn from you and do everything in our ability to lift up the power of your humanity.
Yes, we are here to be a religious voice for truth in a time when truth is under attack. Yes, we are to hear to be a beacon for freedom when the freedoms we value are seriously at risk. Yes, we are here to be hands of love in the world, when love is so desperately needed. Yes, we are here to live the values of human worth and dignity, celebration of diversity, integrity, free inquiry, and community inside our congregation and outside.
But more than anything else, I believe we are here to walk with one another and to walk with those who need a friend. We are the religion which says it doesn’t matter what you believe or what country you were born in, or what color your skin is, or how much money you have, or who you voted for. If you are suffering you do not need to suffer alone. We are the religion which says, “It won’t be easy, but if we value one another as equals, we can work together, and we can change the world.” So we reach inward and we reach outward and we reach upward together. We build the beloved community.
Through it all, through triumph and tragedy, through celebrations and losses, through the struggles of our own lives and through the great movements of the age, we continue to sing – No Hell! No Hell!
Once again we begin the creation of Heaven on Earth.