Solidarity -- Twenty-first Century Religion
Following the landfall of Superstorm Sandy on October 29, 2012, part of the Valley neighborhood in Orange, New Jersey, lost its power at just about 8 PM on that Monday evening. It was restored about 2 PM on Thursday afternoon, while my wife Jody Leight and I were working out at the YMWCA several miles away in downtown Newark.
During our few days without electricity or internet connection, aware of the massive destruction on the Jersey Shore (where I lived for several years in the late 1990s) and the destruction throughout the region, I drove to the meetinghouse in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, on Wednesday afternoon to get ready for the Sunday service and acquaint myself with conditions in Westchester County. I was sitting in the minister’s office in Croton on Wednesday afternoon, when I recalled the words of Bill Quigley, spoken in New Orleans on January 22, 2007, some seventeen months after Katrina had made landfall in that city, where Quigley practiced law and taught at the law school of Loyola University. A group of us were gathered from around the country to strategize around issues of racial and economic justice in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, an effort I was serving as a consultant to the Center for Social Inclusion. Qugley's profound words:
There is a disaster … in every community in this country…. Our challenge is to walk softly … and to be in solidarity.
I had for a decade been convinced that Solidarity is the form that Love must take in the twenty-first century. As a Unitarian Universalist, deeply committed to the worth and dignity of every person, the democratic process in religious and civil life, and the Universalist Gospel of a love so great that none are left out, I preach that a 21st century religion – whatever its historical tradition or denominational identity -- must be a religion of Solidarity. Unitarian Universalism is a religion of Solidarity. It is a Twenty-First Century Religion.
Solidarity reaches across religions and non-religions. It is good science, good politics, and good religion.
Solidarity is good science
One of the great and most widespread misunderstandings of science is the definition of evolution as survival of the fittest. This is a misrepresentation of Darwin’s insight that populations whose random mutations and adaptations are effective in their environment evolve and survive. Evolutionary theory is about populations and the cumulative effects of mutations and adaptations among millions of individuals. Social Darwinism was a nineteenth century distortion that individualized evolution and gave moral value to individual survival. One survived because one was better. One thrived because one was stronger. One became rich because one worked harder and was smarter than others. Social Darwinism as an ideology served the interests of nineteenth and twentieth century conservatives (some of whom were religious liberals) and gave a patina of scientific respectability to the assertion that selfishness was positive and empathy a sign of weakness and moral unworthiness.
Frans de Waal, one of the world’s top primatologists, has studied the behavior of many higher primates and reviewed the research of other scientists. In his book, The Age of Empathy, he draws on these studies and reflects upon how human evolution affects contemporary society. He gives examples from higher but nonhuman primates of empathy, sympathy, hierarchy, equality, generosity, greed, meanness, justice, and other behaviors we readily recognize in human beings. In one experiment one Capuchin monkey helps another get food with no added benefit to him or herself. Bonobos get into fights between bands. Then the females of one side engage in sex with males of the other side, the fighting stops, and the two bands engage in peaceful grooming. Yes, this is a non-human example of the dictum: Make love, not war. Baboons are very competitive and not nearly as cooperative. Scientists observe a strong male taking a larger share of food he can only get with the help of a much weaker female. There are a wide variety of behaviors, for sure. But all higher primates live in communities of some sort. (Even elephants in a herd help each other.) Human beings have as much reason to see empathy and kindness in their evolutionary heritage as to see competition and cruelty. We can find almost any kind of behavior among our close relatives. What we cannot do is deny that there is cooperation and community and that our own high level of intellectual and technological development overlaps a variety of behaviors. Social Darwinists and other conservatives extol individual competition and the market as the arena and measure of success. However, just as Adam Smith – the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations – noted, the market does marvelous things, but it must be tempered by virtues of the community.
Human beings – in short – are programmed by evolution for both individualism and community, for competition and cooperation. There are different ways of organizing communities. de Waal discusses different balances between equality and liberty and finds fault with extremes in either direction. But his message is clear. We can only thrive as a species if we live successfully together. Without taking account of others, we will not thrive and we may not even survive. He notes that neither Europeans nor Americans are good at fraternity (one of the three values of the French Revolution). While fraternity is somewhat like solidarity, solidarity is not only a goal; it is a method for working toward the core values that de Waal asserts from the French Revolution and toward a just society in the 21st century. Solidarity is much more than empathy and sympathy, it is commitment to living in community and justice, even when these are not readily apparently real.
That is why…
Solidarity is good politics
By politics, I do not necessarily mean electoral politics or party politics. I mean politics as the way people work together and sometimes in opposition to each other in order to organize their society and shape its future.
Solidarity is good politics because people can recognize their common concerns and work together in spite of their differences. In articles in The Nation and in his book The “S” Word, John Nichols writes about the contributions of socialists and communists to American politics and society. Social Security and later additions to the social safety net, laws protecting the rights of workers to organize, laws upholding safety in the workplace – these all came when people in solidarity with the elderly, the poor, and workers joined in solidarity to improve the position of the weaker persons in society and make the society more just. Many of the ideas came from the left. But liberals, moderates, even conservatives supported some of these reforms. Just over101 years ago, on March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory caught fire, killing 146 garment workers – mostly young Jewish and Italian women. Other factories had agreements with the union. Triangle did not. Pity, sympathy, empathy, outrage at injustice – one or more of these – led many who had not been concerned about workers’ rights to join in solidarity with low income, young, female, immigrant workers and the unions that worked on their behalf to get fair wages and to strengthen safety laws and their enforcement.
While labor solidarity has declined with union membership and solidarity among sub-classes of workers has declined over the past thirty years, that inclination toward solidarity that de Waal identifies as part of our human/primate nature has come to the fore with the assaults on workers’ rights in Wisconsin in the first half of 2011. The fourteen Democratic state senators who left the state for three weeks acted in solidarity with each other, they were in solidarity with the state employees whose rights were threatened by Governor Walker’s union-busting bill. Unlike the US Senate, these senators were not all members of the 1% that Nobel Laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz wrote of in Vanity Fair six months before Occupy Wall Street. Massive crowds of citizens stood in solidarity with the workers and the senators. The police and fire unions – unaffected by the legislation – were in solidarity with their fellow state employees. People around the world joined in solidarity. Many worked with a mix of success and failure to recall the Republican senators and governor who legislated to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights. This is real solidarity. This is shaping the social landscape. This solidarity is good politics.
Working class American and middle class activists have achieved through much by being and working in solidarity:
The eight-hour working day
Sick leave and employment-based health insurance
Employer-funded retirement plans
And going back further in history:
The end of slavery
Voting rights for black men
Voting rights for all women
And more recently:
Expanded civil rights after the Jim Crow retrenchment
Lessened gender discrimination.
Only through solidarity will we keep these achievements. The 1% or 2% at the top are trying to roll them back. They are on one side of the class war and we are on the other. But we look at science, and we see that solidarity is natural. We look at politics, and we see that solidarity is effective: we have won in the past. Nonetheless, we need to be in solidarity in the battle to keep what we have won and regain what we’ve lost over the past 30 years.
Solidarity is more than good science and good politics…
Solidarity is good religion
If the Gospel of Love means anything, it means that human beings will live in solidarity. Unitarian Universalists hold a wide range of beliefs, but we share a set of principles. The first of these is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and the second is “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” This is how we say today what Unitarians, Universalists, and a wide range of Christians mean when they say, “God is love.” The origin of the gospel of love – that God’s love cannot be limited – leads to the valuing of all persons because they are loved by God. Humanists who are not theists go directly to inherent human worth. Couple this with our congregational polity – each congregation is composed of individuals who gather themselves voluntarily into a religious community – and there is no way that solidarity is not going to be central to religion. Even with our diverse beliefs, there is a solidarity based upon shared principles, values, and the need for community.
However, a religion whose core commitments include “justice, equity, and compassion” demands of its adherents a solidarity with and not just action on behalf of others – in striving for justice, in building a more equitable society, and being companions with those who suffer or sorrow.
It is through solidarity with fellow religious liberals that we clarify our individual religious paths. It is in living out that path that we enter into solidarity with others. When Unitarian Universalists speak of the how much they value the community of their congregations, they are talking about solidarity. The Beloved Community of which we speak is a community of solidarity.
Solidarity is both a goal and a method in religious practice. And it can cross religious lines. The late anthropologist Clifford Geertz described a Javanese feast known as slametan, in which followers of Hinduism, Islam, and indigenous religion joined together to create a community solidarity.
People in other religious communities share a commitment to human solidarity with us. We often see it expressed in religious commitments to social justice, economic equity, and inclusion. The history of religion as solidarity goes back at least to the Abolitionists who did not merely advocate for a change but stood in solidarity with escaped slaves to prevent their return to slavery. When unions were growing, there were religious people in them and supporting them and religious people who opposed them. Many, including socialist Eugene Debs and Universalist minister and union organizer Henry Clay Ledyard, saw Jesus as working class hero. The Civil Rights movement mobilized a lot of white people in support of black people demanding their rights.
Today, there is a new Universalism in evangelical churches. Rob Bell, founder and former pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, writes
The gospel Jesus spreads in the book of Luke has as one of its main themes that Jesus brings a social revolution, in which the previous systems and hierarchies of clean and unclean, sinner and saved, and up and down don’t mean what they used to. God is doing new work through Jesus, calling all people to human solidarity. Everybody is a brother, a sister. Equals, children of the God who shows no favoritism.
Many conservatives use religion to argue against a wide solidarity. They are allied with a hierarchy of salvation and a hierarchy of wealth and power on earth. They may not be among the top 1% or 2 %. But they are allied with the aggressors in the present class war, combatants in an effort to divide the working majority against itself.
In contrast, when the worth and dignity of every person is at the heart of religion and solidarity is its practice, you have a powerful faith at work.
But you do not have to share religious beliefs to be in solidarity. Religion does not need to be what brings people into solidarity. In times of devastation and struggle for social justice – times such as those of Katrina and Sandy – human solidarity is palpable. It breaks forth before it is demanded.
The life of solidarity is a good life. It is a fulfilling life. It is the life that models what the future can be. It is through such living that we will have a chance to build the Beloved Community in the 21st century. Unitarian Universalism – because of its historical theology and its declared values – is a religion of Solidarity. It is a religion for the 21st century.
Rob Bell. Love Wins: A Book about Heave, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Harper One, 2011.
Franz de Waal. The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. Three Rivers Press, 2009.
John Nichols. The “S” Word: A Short History for An American Tradition…Socialism. Verso, 2011.
Joseph Stglitz. “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”. Vanity Fair, May 2011.
Is Pope Francis A Universalist?
Is Pope Francis a Universalist?
This question came alive on May 22, 2013, when he said in a homily broadcast on Vatican Radio:
"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Discussion ranged across the internet and in classrooms, church halls, and bars, as to whether the Pope was espousing what Catholicism and most of Christianity consider a heresy: the belief that God will save all souls, i.e., Universalism, in its original and basic theological meaning.
The controversy was further fueled by his answer to a reporter asking him about gay priests and his brief answer included the rhetorical question, “Who am I to judge a gay person of good will who seeks the Lord?” [Wall Street Journal] I can imagine some of the more conservative Catholics muttering, “Who are you to judge? You’re the Pope! It’s your job to judge.”
This and other statements led to a second question, Is the Pope a relativist in doctrine and morality?
There is a good deal to discuss before clearly answering either of these questions. One question is enough for this morning. I am sticking with “Is Pope Francis a Universalist?”
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Definition of Universalism
I need to define “Universalism” before I enter into this discussion.
The first and oldest meaning of Universalism is a belief that all souls will be saved and reunited with God. This was a common belief during the first four centuries of Christianity. Even after the establishment of the Christian canon that we know as the Old and New Testaments and the creeds, many Christians understood Jesus’s death on the cross to have redeemed and, ultimately, saved all souls.
But the church judged Universalism to be a heresy. Thus it rejected Origen [185-254] as a Father of the church, in spite of the wide regard in which he was held. At the start of Christianity’s fifth century, St. Augustine [354 – 430] asserted, “There are very many who though not denying the Holy Scriptures, do not believe in endless torment.”
For this belief I use the label “Biblical Universalism.” For all the efforts of the dominant Catholic and Protestant churches, it has endured through the entire history of Christianity.
In Biblical Universalism is the origin of one of the two religious traditions that joined together in 1961 to become Unitarian Universalism. By the time of the consolidation, the meaning of Universalism had broadened. But it is important to remember its original meaning and how the removal of the threat of eternal damnation scared church leaders. Even the early American Unitarian Charles Chauncey hid his conviction that, in fact, God would save all souls, because he feared that if the threat of damnation were to disappear, so would much of common morality.
At the heart of Biblical Universalism is a belief that God’s love is so great that no soul will forever be outside of its embrace. There are many biblical “proof texts”, for example, Luke 3.6: “All mankind shall see God’s salvation.” This, in several varieties, was the core of American Universalism, which is one-half of our Unitarian Universalist heritage.
The second and more modern tradition grew from the roots of Biblical Universalism and also included an acceptance of modern science and the willingness to learn from and respect religions other than Christianity. Over the past 125 to 150 years Universalism as a living faith became broader than Biblical Universalism.
As belief in personal immortality began to fade, the centrality of love did not. Universalism became a religion that valued every human being either for being a child of God or for his or her humanity. Under the intellectual leadership of Clarence Russell Skinner (1881-1949), Universalism became a religion encompassing a range of beliefs and social justice became part of the Universalist core.
The first two of Unitarian Universalism’s seven principles encapsulate what I call Modern Universalism:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
Other of the principles reflect Modern Universalism’s affirmations and practices, but these two are the heart of it: the Love – whether divine or human – that leaves no one out. As a preacher of Universalism in the 21st century, I consider Modern Universalism to be a religion of universal and specific solidarity.
Therefore, there are two parts to this morning’s question:
1. Is Pope Francis a Biblical Universalist?
2. Is Pope Francis a Modern Universalist?
The second part of the question itself has two parts:
A. Does Pope Francis preach and practice the doctrine that Love extends to all (an inclusive human solidarity)?
B. Does Pope Francis preach and practice an acceptance of the integrity of various faiths with whose members he (and we) ought to live and work in solidarity?
1. Is Pope Francis a Biblical Universalist?
Pope Francis’s rhetoric is rhetoric of inclusion. “God is in every person’s life,” he declared in an interview for several Jesuit magazines (Interview in America) “Even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else.” “The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.” [Wall Street Journal 3]
He is more specific in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). [ http://www.vatican.va/evangelii-gaudium/it/index.html#2 ] This is not a statement of doctrine but a call to the Catholic Church. The joy of the gospel is the joy of evangelization, which the Pope sees as both spreading the Word of God and serving others. Here and elsewhere, he is clear that he is not challenging doctrines – “I am a son of the Church”, he says – but he is focused on this evangelization of service and justice as well as of preaching. The focus on justice includes concern for economic inequality that has been repeatedly reported, much to the chagrin of politically conservative Catholics and those focused on opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
As I read Francis, he emphasizes divine love rather than divine judgment. This has been the dividing line among many Christians – Catholic and Protestant – for centuries. This was the emphasis of our Universalist forebears, to be sure, but also of many Unitarians. Theodore Parker, for example, considered Jesus’s more extreme statements on judgment as the errors of a young man in an earlier historical period, and summarized the whole of religion as “love to God and love to man.” It is the emphasis of liberal Christian preaching.
Pope Francis is emphasizes salvation: “The salvation which God has wrought … is for everyone….” [EG 91] However, “He has called them together as a people and not as isolated individuals…. This people which God has chosen and called is the Church” [EG 91] This seems to suggest that in the Pope’s view, the Catholic Church is the sole vehicle or community of salvation, a position long espoused, but downplayed and limited since the Second Vatican Council.
Nevertheless, he asserts something close to Biblical Universalism when he says,
Non-Christians by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live ‘justified by the grace of God,’ and thus be associated with the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ…. God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions…
But (in my opinion), not quite, since he says:
While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences.” [EG 189]
He is never clear as to whether the salvation through Jesus’s crucifixion extends to all or whether it extends only to those who become Christians. Papal spokespeople have gone to great lengths to defend the Pope from charges of Universalism, which, according to Catholic teaching, is a heresy. I cannot read his mind and assert what he truly believes. He repeatedly expresses an opposition to Immanentism, the idea that the divine resides in all that exists. This is “atheistic” because Francis’s God is radically other than human. (The Incarnation of Jesus is a unique instance.) Yet many religions are immanentist.
Nevertheless, a careful reading of formal and informal statements leads me to the opinion that he is not a Biblical Universalist.
2. Is Pope Francis a Modern Universalist?
This question has two parts. The first is this: Does Pope Francis preach and practice the doctrine that Love extends to all (an inclusive human solidarity)?
A. Francis states clearly that the divine Love touches all: “To believe in a Father who loves all men and women with an infinite love means realizing that ‘he thereby confers on them an infinite dignity.’” [EG 141-2] This sounds to me an awful lot like the Universalist notion of “worth and dignity of every person.” He goes further to state that people of faith have an obligation God’s love demands of Christians a wide-ranging solidarity.
The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.
189. Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible…. [EG 149-150]
Combine this more formal statement in Evangelii Gaudium with some of his less formal statements, and it is clear why Pope Francis has the attention of non-Catholics. In fact, he has asserted that not just non-Catholics but atheists can be “allies” [EG 191] It is also clear that he is moving away from the emphasis on doctrinal rectitude and the protection of the institution that characterized his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, saying
I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security. [EG 41]
Francis is concerned not just with salvation – life after death – but the quality of life here and now. [EG 144-5] While he does not take the position of a Clarence Skinner that hell is oppression and poverty in this life, he does assert that Christians must oppose oppression and poverty and that it is a characteristic of “authentic faith” to “desire to change the world” [EG 145]
This desire to change the world can be an area of cooperation amongst differing faiths:
Interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities…. In this way we learn to accept others and their different ways of living, thinking and speaking. We can then learn to join one another in taking up the duty of serving justice and peace, which should be a basic principle of all our exchanges. [EG 186]
Interreligious or, as I prefer to call it, multifaith interaction can be the source of a deeper and broader solidarity
To this extent, Pope Francis is a Modern Universalist. Yet his sense of solidarity and its goals differs from that of Unitarian Universalists and many Catholic and Protestant Christians. It is clear that he will no time soon (if ever) allow the ordination of women or same-sex marriage. He will not change the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion, although he may bend a bit on contraception. He has already de-emphasized these issues and put a greater emphasis than his immediate predecessors on economic justice and human rights generally – he met Gustavo Gutierrez, the liberation theologian whom the Church silenced as a priest for decades – but the realm of gender injustice is not (yet) on the table. In this regard, he is about where Modern Universalists were in the early 20th century.
B. The second part of the question is this: Does Pope Francis preach and practice an acceptance of the integrity of various faiths with whose members he (and we) ought to live and work in solidarity?
This is where I am most disappointed in the Pope’s words. I understand that he lives with and within a magisterium (a body of teachings and tradition.) All religions have their bodies of teachings and traditions and their adherents assert that their beliefs and practices are correct. Some sets of beliefs and practices are more tolerant than others. Some are more porous, that is, open to insights from differing religions than are others.
Francis has an intellectual starting point that gives him room for greater openness and respect than I detect:
God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes. [America 8]
Within this statement is the potential for seeing truth presented in many forms and traditions; something like what Theodore Parker meant when he said more than 150 years ago, “God is in history, slowly getting incarnated.”
Yet Francis reads this idea of God in history narrowly as it regards other faiths. Of Judaism he says,
We cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion…. With them we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept his revealed word.” [EG 185]
He says of Islam, that it shares beliefs with Christianity and notes the many mentions of Jesus and Mary (his mother) in the Qur’an. What he fails to acknowledge is that Islam specifically denies the doctrine of the Trinity and sees Jesus as the next-to-last prophet, Muhammad being the final prophet – neither of them, nor Mary, divine.
Of other religions he says nothing in any text I have read, other than to oppose all forms of immanentism and to reject what he calls “a new self-centered paganism.” [EG 154] There is no discussion of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, or any non-Abrahamic religion. He goes only so far in regard to multifaith dialogue:
An attitude of openness in truth and in love must characterize the dialogue with the followers of non-Christian religions in spite of various obstacles and difficulties, especially forms of fundamentalism on both sides.” [EG 186]
He correctly notes that all such dialogue must be based on each faith’s convictions. More problematically (in my opinion), he approvingly quotes Benedict XVI in making a connection between evangelization and Interreligious dialogue. 
In short, the answer to the second part of the question as to whether Pope Francis is a Modern Universalist is No. I have read and re-read his words and can find no indication that he fully accepts the spiritual integrity of other faiths. Yet, as I learned in my immersion in the study of multifaith relations, one must accept the full integrity of other faiths while fully affirming one’s own. This is a difficult challenge. However, I saw people of deep and theologically conservative faiths do this in the course of my doctoral work, prior to that in multifaith dialogue in post-Katrina New Orleans, and over the past six months right here in Pinellas County, Florida.
Is Pope Francis a Universalist?
Here, in summary, is my answer.
Is Pope Francis a Biblical Universalist?
Possibly. There are hints of leaning that way, but there are always limitations.
Is Pope Francis a Modern Universalist in the first regard: Does Pope Francis preach and practice the doctrine that Love extends to all (an inclusive human solidarity)?
Yes. His sense of solidarity is universal.
Does Pope Francis preach and practice an acceptance of the integrity of various faiths with whose members he (and we) ought to live and work in solidarity?
No. He tries to and he clearly has great love and respect for some other faiths and persons of other faiths, but this understanding seems to be mostly limited to the Abrahamic faiths and has no room for earth-centered or humanistic spiritualities or for the religions of the East: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. For him the Christian sacraments trump even the deepest faithful practice if it is not Christian.
Because of his commitment to Love as Solidarity, there is a large area for alliance and even active cooperation with this Pope. He has staked out positions regarding wealth and poverty that many people of many other faiths share and there will continue to be alliances between Catholics and other religious and non-religious persons and groups and these will likely increase, for the present Pope is opening up the Catholic church to forces within that were released following Vatican II [1962 – 1965]– including the Theology of Liberation -- and which John Paul and Benedict stifled for so long.
My Challenge to You
More important than the consideration of this question about Pope Francis: In either the Biblical or Modern sense, are you a Universalist? Obviously, Humanists are never going to be Biblical Universalists even if they appreciate, as I do, the spiritual and moral power that Biblical Universalism can unleash amongst Christians. But not everyone here is a Humanist; hear these questions as appropriate to your beliefs.
If you are a Theist, do you believe that all souls will be reunited with God?
Whether a Humanist or a Theist, do you believe and live as if you believe that Love extends to all in solidarity?
In your interactions with others, do you accept the integrity of religious paths other than your own?
Let us sit in silent reflection on these questions.
I begin this sermon with some powerful words spoken with Universalist Attitude.
It was Hosea Ballou the great preacher of the Gospel of Love that became known as Universalism, who said, “There is one inevitable criterion of judgment touching religious faith in doctrinal matters. Can you reduce it to practice? If not, have none of it.”
Ballou, who preached through the first half of the nineteenth century, summarized the doctrine of universal love briefly in contrast with the partial salvation of Calvinist Christianity:
As to the justice of endless punishment, minds enjoying the liberty of free inquiry could easily detect the diabolical character of such justice, as it is the exact opposite of Divine nature, which is love. Such justice is evidently predicated on the false principle and ungodly practice of rendering evil for evil….
The Gospel of Love states that love is so great that it cannot be limited or denied. As The Universalist Declaration of Faith  puts it:
We avow our faith in God as eternal and all conquering love … [and] … the power of persons of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.
As a Humanist, I translate these two assertions into these words:
We avow a faith in the oneness of humanity and the universal and specific solidarity in which we can and ought to live, respecting the worth and dignity of all persons, and building a world where that solidarity is lived and known by all.
Around 1920, as he was leading the transformation of the Unitarian Church of the Messiah into the Community Church of New York and his friend, the Universalist theologian Clarence Russell Skinner, was founding the Community Church of Boston, John Haynes Holmes expressed it this way:
The Community Church is the practical acknowledgment of religion as the Spirit of Love incarnate in human fellowship. The core of its faith, as the purpose of its life, is “the Beloved Community.”
In short, the Gospel of Love is the recognition of the reality that we are all connected one to another, and -- not just an abstract doctrine, but reducible to action -- living in accord with that great teaching and recognition, which Clarence Russell Skinner labeled “the largest thought the world has ever known.”
A thought internalized and put into practice is an attitude. This sermon is about Universalist Attitude!
You do not have to believe in personal immortality to be a Universalist or to have Universalist Attitude. All you have to do is believe in salvation for all – however you may define “salvation.” Universalism as a belief in God’s salvation of all souls was common in early Christianity. It was so common that one of the early Fathers of the Church, Origen, taught it and another, Augustine, argued against him and lamented how widespread was the belief that there was no hell. While the doctrine that some were saved and some were damned became the doctrine of the Christian churches, Universalism never disappeared. How could it -- hen there were so many Biblical proofs, such as the passage from Luke that was our first reading? Whether in the first century or the twenty-first century, Universalism challenges all hierarchies of salvation, whether they be worldly or other-worldly. Universalist Attitude holds that there is something redemptive in or for anyone – individuals, communities, families, nations, churches – even if you disagree with, fight, or oppose each other or each other’s beliefs. In this, Universalism always has been counter-cultural.
Remember that: Universalism always has been and is counter-cultural.
Universalist Attitude goes back a long ways. It is always outside of and up against the mainstream. Universalism has never been part of the establishment. In this it is different from Unitarianism, which was an established religion in Transylvania in the1500s, when Ferencz Dávid was Unitarian bishop and preacher to history’s only Unitarian king, John Sigismund and in New England, where the proto-Unitarian Charles Chauncey of the First Church in Boston became convinced by scriptural study that, not only was Jesus not God, but that God would save all souls. As a member educated and mercantile elite before the American Revolution and up to his death in 1787, Chauncey hid his belief in universal salvation for fear that the lower classes would lose all motivation not to sin if the threat of damnation were removed. He only released his book to counter the Universalism preached by John Murray, whom Chauncey viewed as too uneducated to represent such an important theological innovation. Unitarianism was the religion of the Boston elite and Unitarian churches were tax-supported in Connecticut and Massachusetts until these two states became the last to end tax support for churches in 1833. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, Unitarianism remained a religion of the educational and economic elite.
Universalism is another story. Universalism was dangerous to the status quo. Universalists were among the founders in 1790 of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a physician and social reformer, an early opponent of the death penalty, which, he declared, would delay but not deny the salvation of the criminal, by denying him the opportunity to repent and make restitution during his lifetime. Rush was among many Universalists who believed that sinners would be punished – but they would not be punished endlessly. In 1793, Rush provided support to the First African Church in Philadelphia. Benjamin Rush has Universalist Attitude and was confident that Universalism was widely spiritually attractive, stating that “The Universalist doctrine prevails more and more in our country, particularly among persons eminent for their piety, in whom it is not a mere speculation but a principle of action in the heart prompting to practical goodness.”
Universalism appealed to a broad range of individuals, including farmers, small business owners, and unpropertied workers. In his marvelous book, Chants Democratic, historian Sean Wilentz describes the role of religion among the developing working class in New York City prior to the Civil War. Among the working class in this period of transition from craft-based production in small shops to mass production in factories there were significant numbers of Deists, Methodists, and Universalists. The first Universalist congregation in New York City was the Society of Christian Friends, founded in 1796, twenty-three years before the First Unitarian Congregational Society (now the Unitarian Church of All Souls) in 1819 and twenty-nine years before the Second Unitarian Congregational Society (now the Community Church of New York) in 1825. In 1821, shoemaker and Universalist Thomas King gave a July 4th oration in which he assailed ecclesiastical despotism and called for the republic to be based on rational liberty. He spoke not of “the son of God” but of “the Sun of Science.” A Second Society of Christian Friends was founded in 1826. The First Universalist Society (which was really the third, at least) was founded in 1829.
Universalism has always been counter-cultural, from the early days of Christianity when it challenged the centralizing power and uniformity of Christianity, whenever it has appeared in history, and up to the present day. Although many Unitarians were Abolitionists, few Unitarians strayed sufficiently far from their elite location to seek to attract Blacks to their churches. There were Theodore Parker in Boston in the 1850s and Jenkin Lloyd Jones in Chicago in the 1880s, but that was about it, until John Haynes Holmes set out to integrate the Community Church of New York in the 1920s. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, Quillen Hamilton Shinn, best known to Unitarian Universalists today as the founder of Ferry Beach Conference Center in Maine, was an itinerant Universalist missionary, who established numerous Universalist churches in Black communities in Virginia and Georgia.
Universalism is counter-cultural. Joseph H. Jordan, a Black Universalist minister founded a Universalist Church in West Suffolk, Virginia, in 1889, and then a school for Black adults and children. This was at a time when Jim Crow kept Blacks out of the public schools. White Universalist minister Henry Clay Ledyard was a union organizer as well as a pastor and preached of the working man, the carpenter, Jesus. The First Universalist Church in Los Angeles, in the 1950s when homosexuality was considered an illness and even a crime, welcomed gays.
Universalism is always counter-cultural. Charles Chauncey was correct in his judgment; the loss of the fear of eternal punishment would have repercussions. In many cases these were libratory, rather than libertine, as he had feared.
Universalism is counter-cultural in proclaiming the human worthiness of all persons. It has Humanist and Christian strands. It even draws from other religious traditions. And it has been attacked by one wave of Evangelicals after another. Evangelicals were attacking Universalists in New York City from the moment they first appeared. But among Christians who believe in biblical teachings of God’s love, Universalism is today spreading. Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, two Quaker ministers have written two well-selling books on Biblical Universalism: If Grace Is True (2003) and If God Is Love (2005). Bishop Carlton Pearson, a minister in the Church of God in Christ, like many students of the Bible before him, came to the conclusion that the Bible teaches what he calls “the gospel of inclusion” or “inclusive salvation.” This is Universalism. When he left the Church of God in Christ and sought another denominational affiliation, his 800 member Higher Dimensions Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, joined the United Church of Christ. When questioned asked about Pearson’s teaching, another UCC minister reportedly stated, “We are all Universalists.” Then Pearson led his congregation to join All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa.
What is Universalist Attitude today? It is an attitude that all are welcome, all have worth regardless of race, class, creed, gender orientation, ability, disability, or education. It is testified to in the words of those who, having been labeled as “evil” or “damned” by other religions, come to (Unitarian) Universalism. knowing that they will not be rejected.
But sometimes we do reject others. Sometimes our attitude does not hold up. The Church of the Redeemer in Newark, New Jersey, was one of the leading Universalist congregations in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. When minister Luke Hamilton Garner started integrating the membership and inviting speakers of all persuasions and nationalities to issues forums in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the church could not live up its counter-cultural basis and drove him out. Inevitably, the church shriveled and died, its fate sealed when, in 1947, it moved from its long time location across Broad Street from Newark’s City Hall to a neighborhood in a lily-white suburb. It closed its doors in 1967.
In Human Nature and the Nature of Evil, published in 1939, Universalist theologian Clarence Russell Skinner wrote, “It is a twisted and perverted will which strives to lower one’s own standard from high to low.” What might be the source of that “strange and perverted will” among Unitarian Universalists and (before the merger) Universalists?
One source is the desire, having lost the connection with the counter-cultural nature of the faith, to remain comfortable. This helps explain why the Newark Universalists could not change. Theirs may not have been an elite church, but it was large and influential. I have seen Unitarian Universalists drive four to six miles from one suburb to a white church in another suburb rather than drive one mile to two miles to a multiracial congregation in the neighboring city.
Another source is letting less important stuff get in the way. In 1999, sixteen Unitarian Universalist congregations signed the National Organization on Disabilities pledge for full accessibility. Six years later, one of these congregations had still not rebuilt a restroom to accommodate wheelchairs.
A third source is the culture of the corporation in the new economy. Corporate cultural values have become so pervasive in the 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century that they often frame decisions both in congregations and in the Unitarian Universalist Association. At the 2003 General Assembly in Boston, one delegate moved to table a resolution in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose members pick tomatoes for fast food chains. This delegate argued that the UUA should take the route of shareholder resolutions. Truth be told, the UUA was one of the few mainstream or liberal religious bodies not to support the boycott that the resolution called for. It now does support the Coalition. This failure to do so in 2003 was for me a painful moment in a movement whose ministers included Luke Garner, who went from parish ministry to labor mediation in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and Henry Clay Ledyard, a Universalist minister who was also a union organizer from the 1920s until his death in 1950.
Universalist Attitude is counter-cultural. It challenges materialism, the class structure, racial segregation; it challenges the very privileges that enable us to be comfortable in our jobs and middle class communities. It challenges the corporate culture that devalues persons and sucks the ethical life out of religious communities.
Universalist Attitude means, like Jesus, getting on a donkey and riding through the crowd not knowing what waits at the end of the ride. It means walking down the street and going through open doors. It means welcoming – really welcoming – each and every person who walks through these doors. It means having the spirit of my Baptist friends who, at the end of each service, issue a call to discipleship with these words, “The doors of the church are open.” And they mean it. Universalist Attitude means walking through doors and opening doors. Whether I am a Humanist or a Theist, I can live as if Love were at the heart of the universe. Call it God or Love or Solidarity; I can live so as to make that Love real. Love is the doctrine and we can apply it to life. The commitment to do so is Universalist Attitude.
Universalist Attitude means challenging the hierarchies of salvation – be they religious or social.
Universalist Attitude is counter-cultural, outside of and up against the establishment.
Universalist Attitude is radical, dangerous --- and tough.
Warren Grover. Nazis in Newark. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003.
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save every Person. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2003.
James D. Hunt, “The Social Gospel as a Way of Life: A Biography of H. C. Ledyard, Universalist Minister and Labor Leader, 1880-1950.” Journal of the Universalist Historical Society 5 (1964-65).
David S. Lawyer. First Universalist Church of Los Angeles http://www.lafn.org/~dave/uu/universalism/LA_univ_history.html (Accessed March 18, 2005 and March 31, 2008).
Clarence Russell Skinner, Human Nature and the Nature of Evil. Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1939.
Carl Herman Voss, editor. A Summons Unto Men: An Anthology of the Writings of John Haynes Holmes. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City& the Rise of the American working Class, 1788-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
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