Claiming and reclaiming Universalism

Universalism is the noun, the identity, while Unitarian is merely an adjective.


Thirty years ago, I was desperately searching for a church, one that would not insult my intelligence or threaten me with hellfire and damnation if I believed "the wrong thing" concerning many issues of the Christian dogma—which I had to admit I did. The last congregation in town I would visit was the Unitarian Church of Long Beach, California, because it was the last one listed in the yellow pages of the phonebook and I had already, systematically, in alphabetical order, cased out the other denominations, with a growing fear that there would be no other place for me. I questioned too many basic premises of what I had been taught. I had even been to the Roman Catholic church and the Jewish synagogue, and I wondered about becoming a Hindu or a Muslim. As the granddaughter of a Methodist minister, I was petrified that if I made the wrong choice and rejected the truth about Jesus Christ, after having had, by the grace of God, the opportunity to hear and study it, I was going to hell for sure, and forever.

Still, one fine Sunday at the end of May 1961, I entered my local Unitarian church, which I remember as a pink stucco low-slung building with folding chairs in the sanctuary. I also remember something curious: no cross at the front of the worship place. Otherwise, things seemed civilized, and Protestant. I thought "Maybe they are like Quakers—into simplicity, the white walls theory of aesthetics. No big deal." After the obligatory hymns and some interesting readings, the speaker was introduced, an intellectual-looking man with glasses, who appeared to be from India. I thought "This is weird—he's probably a Hindu, and what is a Hindu doing giving a Christian ceremony?" In my total ignorance of Unitarian history, it did not occur to me that a church could be anything other than Christian. This man, whose name I would now bless a thousand times if I knew it, got up and cheerfully presented a list of ten beliefs of liberal religions—Christian, Hindu, or other. He was preaching the liberal gospel, the good news.

As he preached on, I was stunned to realize I already agreed with everything he was saying: individual authority in religious matters; the continuing search for truth; the right to use reason as well as emotion in the search; freedom of belief; no fixed creed required to be a member of the church community; tolerance for all beliefs; equal rights for all persons, including women; affirmation of the goodness of life and human nature; belief in the natural tendency of people to be loving; and belief in the democratic process and in working for social justice to make the world a better place. Nothing about hell. In a shower of relief I became a convert on the spot, have never wavered in my loyalty, and am now studying to do community ministry in this religion that gave me the most liberating, exhilarating moment of my life. I had become a Unitarian. But, unbeknownst to me, at that very moment the Unitarians were merging their (and now my) church with that of the Universalists—and who, pray tell, were they?

The first thing I found out about the Universalists was that they didn't believe in hell. I thought "That's a great idea—you mean there were Christians who actually didn't believe in hell?" Of course, they had been called heretics, but now that I was with them, whoever they were, maybe I wouldn't go to hell, after all. It took me a while to get to the point of not believing in the afterlife, whereupon the question of hell (a psychological form of warfare) became moot. But other than that admittedly critical issue, I didn't hear much about Universalism or its history or theology from people in the various Unitarian churches I attended, even after they became Unitarian Universalist. For in fact, they were still Unitarian and Universalist in name only, as I was. We didn't know enough about Universalism to be Universalists of any kind—trinitarian, unitarian, atheist, or other.

As time went on, it occurred to me that for some reason best known to those who had fought the battle of the merger, there was no hyphen uniting the two heritages into Unitarian-Universalism—as there could have been to indicate an integrity of wholeness in the newly created denomination. According to the Rev. Raymond Hopkins, who served on the Joint Merger Commission, that body considered an amendment to hyphenate the two denominations into one, but its members voted the amendment down. Oral tradition has it that some around this time were calling the new denomination "the great hyphen." But it wasn't. The truly big debate was not about the elusive hyphen, but rather about which denomination name should come first. If that vote had gone differently, we would now all be the Universalist Unitarians.

Seemingly trivial matters of punctuation and syntax can actually define relationships. The name as it now stands, lacking a hyphen, proclaims that we are a Unitarian variety of Universalists and implies that the two strands of our tradition are unequal. Universalism is the noun, the identity, while Unitarian is merely an adjective, a qualifying attribute. But this adjective is misleading. Many of us no longer think within the framework of the Christian axioms (God the Father as a personality with a plan for the universe, sending of Jesus of Nazareth on a mission to save souls, and so on) that generated the trinitarian-vs.-unitarian debates in our history. A brave minority of UU Christians keeps the faith handed down through the generations that brought us our heritage of freedom from religion. But except for these long-suffering Arians, we are not even Unitarian Unitarians, if the adjective is taken in the traditional sense.

More ironic, however, for those who stop to notice it, is that we habitually practice the opposite of what our name plainly declares. If anyone asks about your denomination, and you are in a hurry or lazy, you are likely to grab the adjective of our inconveniently polysyllabic name and say, as I have said countless times, "I'm a Unitarian." This is not even true. Yea, though you may speak with the tongues of Chauncy and Channing, though your Unitarian pedigree ascend to the Mayflower, now, for want of a hyphen, according to the adjective/noun logic, you are a Universalist of the Unitarian variety, not some other variety like Hindu or Buddhist. There are also Unitarian churches all over the continent that are not yet changed their names to become Unitarian Universalist, much less Unitarian-Universalist. So we unwittingly live with the feeling that we are not what we say we are—a situation that erodes our self-confidence and power to affirm and love our dual heritage, even to gain much-needed identity from that heritage. This is a needless loss. We can receive the full benefits of our Universalist heritage simply by reclaiming the name as it stands and changing our thinking to fit the full name.

I am only now beginning to appreciate the momentous implications of the fact that, according to the democratically-voted-upon name (what's in a name? truth?) of my religion, I am a Universalist first and foremost. Yea, more: Unitarianism liberates the individual soul, but Universalism makes demands for it—including the demand for spiritual growth. Universalism's ringing affirmations of optimism and equality are accompanied by a prophetic cry to liberate all, so that they may be saved on earth as they already are in heaven. Affirming individual authority in religion, Unitarianism does not require us to believe in any particular doctrine, even the antitrinitarian concept of God that gave it its name. In the course of its evolution, Universalism arrived at a noncreedal position also, but the whole weight of its heritage obliges us to believe in universal salvation (define that as you will), or it makes no sense to call ourselves Universalists. The old Unitarians of "the neighborhood of Boston" were stereotyped as a cool, rationalistic, Harvard-educated, class-conscious elite. Granted, aside from a few genuine mystics like George de Benneville, many early Universalists were rationalistic also—wonderful hairsplitting Bible-quoting logicians, delighting in the use of "proof-texts" in passionate defense of the doctrine of universal salvation. But can you be an elitist snob Universalist? At great social risk to themselves, they emphatically rejected the Calvinist doctrine that only a small "elect" would be saved. They regarded us-vs.-them thinking as the heresy of "partialism." Their argument against it was based on their bedrock faith that, since God is loving, there cannot be only partial salvation—or, as my teacher the Universalist historian Charles Howe cheerfully told me, there are "No Hopeless Cases!" Universalism calls us to renounce partialism and enter a community where all may speak.

Universalism makes other daunting demands. You must not lose hope. You must not give in to despair or emotional paralysis. Clinical depression can be redeemed not just by therapy but by faith—a religious affirmation that life is good, worth living, even if you don't feel like it. You will not go to everlasting hell, but you must keep the spirit of life burning no matter what hell on earth you walk through, or become aware of. You must have love and compassion not only for yourself, which strangely seems hardest of all, but also for everyone else, for animals, for the whole planet as an ecosystem—for the universe, finally. As the Mahayana Buddhists phrase it, you must choose the Bodhisattva path and vow to keep practicing compassion until all sentient beings reach enlightenment—until all souls are saved. John Murray, the trinitarian Universalist usually credited with founding institutionalized Universalism on this continent, preached that Jesus Christ had already saved all souls. The Universalists believed him but threw themselves nevertheless into social action efforts—not out of belief in salvation by works but out of pure love, like that of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, or that of the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin.

We still have a long way to go before we will be practicing what our name preaches. To be a Universalist, you must counter, rather than contribute to, the racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and other pathologies of our society. You must not use any category whatsoever to injure other people. Try it. Can you live without conscious or unconscious prejudice? Do you even believe in trying to do this? If not, how can you be a Universalist? Will you have to resign from your UU-affiliated church? If so, where will you go? Or will you continue to call yourself a Universalist but not practice Universalism? Or will you just say, as so many of us do, "I'm a Unitarian"? That's not good enough.

When we claim our full name, we reclaim our best selves and vow to follow the Bodhisattva path of Universalism (or if we are persuaded to become eco-feminist, the Gaia dharma, whereby we work for the salvation of the planet.) Belief in Universalism enables relation and genuine, tender contact, for to believe in universal salvation is to affirm the worth and dignity of every person—a radical principle undergirding Universalist theologies all the way from the gracious God of John and Judith Sargent Murray to the bold vision declared 50 years ago by Robert Cummins, then general superintendent of the Universalist Church of America, when he said,

Universalism cannot be limited to either Protestantism or to Christianity, not without denying its very name. Ours is a world fellowship, not just a Christian sect. For so long as Universalism is universalism and not partialism, the fellowship bearing its name must succeed in making it unmistakably clear that all are welcome: theist and humanist, unitarian and trinitarian, colored and color-less. A circumscribed Universalism is unthinkable.

We are now beginning to fulfill this prophecy. By building multicultural worship communities where the wide diversities among us are not just accepted but celebrated—where the joys and sorrows of who we really are, and are becoming, can be expressed and shared—we give each other strength to live the values of both heritages in the great world.

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