Sunday, March 1, 2020

A Gospel of Universalism | First Sunday in Lent 2020

Pmucpastor, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
"Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all." — Romans 5:18 NRSV

Traditions born of historic Western European Christianity have a lot of baggage around the topics of hell and salvation. Original sin is in the mix as well, with most supporting the doctrine, and some sects and denominations denying it. How to overcome original sin and personal sin, receive salvation, and avoid hell in favor of heaven are the basic points of contention. Universalism argues that all are or will be saved. I wonder if these questions (and answers) are not all missing the point.

The Universalist Church of America, a predecessor of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), had as its founding belief the ultimate salvation of all people. This was the gospel it preached. As time progressed and the more mainline Protestant denominations increasingly downplayed hell, this distinctive was lost to the UCA. It became downright awkward when the denomination attempted mission work overseas, and in Japan the missionaries discovered that the people there had little idea of Christianity in general, let alone the worries over hell and salvation. Did they have to teach people the 'wrong' idea first to get them to understand the 'right' idea they had on the subject? Without members of other churches coming to them for solace from the doctrine of predestination and the preaching of hellfire, the potency of their universalist gospel was lost. And so it was that in 1961, as they united with the American Unitarian Association to form the UUA, their denomination was already in steep decline.

When I left the Roman Catholic Church at age 17, I joined a parish of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and was given a small booklet about the denomination. On one of the pages there was a reference to hell, set in the context of the hells we create for ourselves on earth through vice and injustice. If ever hell was mentioned from the pulpit, I certainly don't remember it. Had it been, it likely would have been notable enough to remember. This soft-edged gospel was appealing on one level, but on another level it lacked the call to action that I heard in evangelicalism. 

The Universalism of today, and least in UU circles, has much more to do with pluralism than what might happen to us after death. It's more than that, though. Universalism is now being expressed in the UUA through a concerted effort to face and address white supremacy culture in our fellowship, and then also the rest of society. The claims of 'colorblindenss' of previous generations of religious liberals always missed the mark, as has the idea that somehow a congregation doesn't have to do the work around becoming welcoming and affirming toward lgbtq+ people because 'of course everyone is welcome.'

This renewed effort to embrace a universalist gospel that calls us to change our hearts and pursue a reconciliation that is firmly rooted in justice is not without its detractors. Just last year a regrettable collection of essays was self-published by a UU minister and distributed by his congregation at the annual General Assembly. In them, he accused people of color and the lgbtq community of being too thin-skinned and sensitive, among other abusive comments. It set off an ugly undercurrent for the final two days of GA, with a lot of anger, soul-searching, and sadness. It illustrated how far we have to go, and highlighted the importance of this work.

Universalism as it is being understood at this time within the UUA demands that we who have privilege set it aside to listen, and use it to advocate alongside those who lack it. This Universalism is not a passive, sunny promise of ultimate acceptance by an almighty deity into eternal bliss. Rather, it is a component of a multifaceted progressive gospel that, among other aims and ideals, calls us to seek collective liberation, beginning with individuals and congregations. Much is required of us by this hard-edged good news that one day we can all be free.

Responses to The Gadfly Papers, referred to above, can be found on the following pages: