May 3, 2015 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois.
Opening Words: "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham
Introduction to the Reading: Historically, Unitarian Universalism gets the “Universalist” part of its name from the Christian doctrine of universal salvation, the belief that Jesus’ sacrifice paid the freight for everyone, so sooner or later — no matter what they believe or how evil they are — everyone is going to wind up in Heaven. There couldn't possibly be a Hell, because God is too good to create one, and God loves each human soul too much to give up on it and cast it away forever.
As you might imagine, the Catholic Church considered universal salvation a heresy. They started stamping it out in the third century, but no matter how many books or heretics they burnedit kept popping up every few generations, until in colonial America it became the Universalist Church.
What made universal salvation so hard to suppress was that unpredictable people at unpredictable times kept having the same religious experience: a vision of the goodness of God and the unconditionality of God’s love.
Christians are still having that vision, whether they’ve ever been exposed to Unitarian Universalism or not. Occasionally they have it at very inconvenient times. In 2005, the radio program This American Life devoted an episode to the extremely inconvenient universalist awakening of Carlton Pearson.
Carlton was a rising black televangelist, a protege of Oral Roberts. He had appeared in the pulpit with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. His Higher Dimensions megachurch in Tulsa was drawing 5,000 people a week. And then this happened:
Reading: From This American Life (December 16, 2005)
Well, my little girl, who will be nine next month, was an infant. I was watching the evening news. The Hutus and Tutus were returning from Rwanda to Uganda, and Peter Jennings was doing a piece on it.
Now, Majeste was in my lap, my little girl. I'm eating the meal, and I'm watching these little kids with swollen bellies. And it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains. Their hair is kind of red from malnutrition. The babies, they've got flies in the corners of their eyes and of their mouths. And they reach for their mother's breast, and the mother's breast looks like a little pencil hanging there. I mean, the baby's reaching for the breast, there's no milk.
And I, with my little fat-faced baby, and a plate of food and a big-screen television. And I said, "God, I don't know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell," which is what was my assumption.
And I heard a voice say within me, "So that's what you think we're doing?"
And I remember I didn't say yes or no. I said, "That's what I've been taught."
"We're sucking them into Hell?" I said,
"Yes." "And what would change that?"
"Well, they need to get saved."
"And how would that happen?"
"Well, somebody needs to preach the Gospel to them and get them saved."
"So if you think the only way they're going to get saved is for somebody to preach the Gospel to them and that we're sucking them into Hell, why don't you put your little baby down, turn your big-screen television off, push your plate away, get on the first thing smoking, and go get them saved?"
And I remember I broke into tears. I was very upset. I remember thinking, "God, don't put that guilt on me. You know I've given you the best 40 years of my life. Besides, I can't save the whole world. I'm doing the best I can. I can't save this whole world."
And that's where I remember, and I believe it was God, saying, "Precisely. You can't save this world. That's what we did. Do you think we're sucking them into Hell? Can't you see they're already there? That's Hell. You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I'm taking them into My presence."
And I thought, well, I'll be. That's weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That's where the pain comes from. We do that to each other, and we do it to ourselves. Then I saw emergency rooms. I saw divorce court. I saw jails and prisons. I saw how we create Hell on this planet for each other. And for the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of Hell.
Talk: If you read my Weekly Sift blog, you probably know that I reliably take the positions that are known as “politically correct”: I support marriage equality, I think black lives matter, I believe women when they talk about rape, I defend Muslims, I wish the rich paid more taxes, I advocate negotiating with unpopular countries like Iran and Cuba, I think voting should be easy, I believe in unions and a higher minimum wage, I think poor people usually work harder than rich people, I want everyone to have access to health care, and the idea that a few cheaters might be abusing food stamps doesn’t bother me nearly so much as the possibility that there still might be some hungry people out there.
Down the line, politically correct.
Now, describing those positions that way is disparaging, because it implies that they are just a fashion. These are the chic ideas among the liberal tribe these days, and we display them so that we will recognize each other.
And it works. If I meet a stranger and she says, “It’s a shame Elizabeth Warren won’t challenge Hillary” I think: “Ah, one of my people.”
Because human beings are like that. We’re tribal. It’s evolution — another one of those fashionable liberal ideas. One explanation for why the brains of primates got bigger was that we needed to do a lot of social processing to hold together larger groups. Larger groups have a survival advantage, so evolution favors larger brains.
If you compare humans to other primates, our brain size says we should run in tribes of about 150, compared to under 100 for chimpanzees and bonobos. That’s called “Dunbar’s number” and even today, it shows up in the literature about church size. In congregations with less than 150 members, everybody can have a personal relationship with everybody else. But 150 members is often a crisis point, and requires some kind of reorganization. It’s biology.
Now, one way our ancestors got around those limitations and held together tribes larger than 150 was to invent fashion. We learned to identify with each other's external trappings even if we didn't have a personal relationship. So we’d paint our bodies red or put bones through our noses, and that way if we met someone we didn't recognize, we could tell whether or not he belonged to our tribe. And if the next tribe started to copy us, then we’d have to change to a different color or a different kind of bone. Because that's how fashion works. It’s how like-minded people recognize each other.
Naturally, it’s easier for me to spot political fashionability in people I disagree with. For example, I’ll bet most of you know some smart, scientifically literate conservative who for some reason is blind to the evidence for global warming. You can be having a perfectly intelligent conversation, but something strange happens when climate change come up. He just can’t go there.
It’s tribal. Ten or fifteen years ago, a John McCain or a Newt Gingrich could acknowledge global warming. But fashion shifted, and climate change became a global socialist conspiracy. Today, a conservative who admits to believing in it risks being ostracized from his political community.
Of course, liberals and conservatives aren’t perfect mirror images of each other, so just because the other side has some fault doesn’t mean my side necessarily has it too. But in this case I think it’s fair to say that sometimes we do. Because tribalism and fashionability aren’t flaws in the conservative worldview, they’re part of basic humanity. We are all tempted to bend over backwards to fit in with the people we recognize as our own.
But just because an opinion or a practice is fashionable doesn’t mean it’s just fashionable. There also might be some good reason for it. For example, children are still reciting “Eeny Meeny Miney Moe”, but they say it differently than I did. Today they say, “Catch a tiger by the toe.” But if you’re my age or a little older, maybe you remember saying, “Catch a nigger by the toe.” We didn’t necessarily think about what we were saying, that’s just how the rhyme went in those days.
That version is out of fashion now, but it’s not just fashion that keeps us from teaching it to our children. There’s a reason to say it the new way, and I don’t think the old rhyme is ever going to come back.
So yes, I understand that all the opinions I listed at the beginning of this talk are fashionable among liberals, but that doesn’t mean that nothing more than fashion links them all together.
Conservatives usually will grant me that. My views aren’t just liberal chic, they come from a higher principle. Like: I hate America. Or I want to destroy western civilization. Or maybe I just hate myself, so I push against whites and men and Americans and anybody else who resembles me.
Those certainly are unifying principles. But they’re not the one I had in mind. To me, all those positions on all those diverse issues arise from the spirit of Universalism as I understand it. Which is not to say that Universalism has a political dogma, or that you can’t be a good Unitarian Universalist if you disagree. But this is where Universalism takes me.
When I introduced the reading I talked about the origins of Universalism in the doctrine of universal salvation. When you describe it that way, Universalism seems very etherial and other-worldly. It’s all about God and the afterlife, and doesn’t seem to have much to do with food stamps or foreign policy. But those theological ideas laid the groundwork for a radical kind of Humanism that we're still practicing today.
You see, in orthodox Christianity, as in many other faiths, the afterlife isn't one place, it's two places: a blissful Heaven and a torturous Hell. And that creates a fundamental division in humanity between the Saved, who will be on the boat to Heaven, and the Damned, who will be on the boat to Hell. Orthodox believers see this not as some unfortunate accident, but as divine justice. The Damned are bound for eternal torment because that is what they deserve.
That vision of the afterlife doesn’t force believers to take a harsh view of life here and now — many people who believe in Hell are kind and generous here on Earth. But if you have any harshness already in you, this vision of the Saved and the Damned will magnify it. Because it does lend itself to the harsh view that once you step off the path of righteousness, you deserve whatever you get.
So if a young woman gets raped, well, what did she think would happen when she went to that party dressed like that? If a gay man gets AIDS, if a petty criminal gets killed by police, if a Muslim villager becomes collateral damage in a drone strike, why do they deserve our compassion? They stepped off the path laid out in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, and they got what was coming to them.
If you’re not careful, the Saved and the Damned can come to seem like two different species. In the New Testament, Jesus uses Judgment Day metaphors that seem to say that. He talks about God separating the sheep from the goats, or about the harvest, when the grain is kept but the weeds are burned.
John Calvin went a step further. Not only would humanity be divided at the end of time, but it had been two species all along. From the moment of Creation, God had predestined some souls for Heaven and others for Hell. That was the kind of Christianity that many of the early American Universalists grew up with.
Human beings, as I was saying before, have a tendency towards tribalism. And if you’re not careful, this theology of the Saved and the Damned can ally itself with your tribal impulses. And then the Saved become the Good People, the people like us, and the Damned are the Bad People, the people like them. It becomes easier to look at someone who is different, and see not a fellow human being, a child of the same God, possessed of the same rights and faculties I have, but rather someone whose ticket to Hell is already punched and only the formality of death is delaying the completion of his damnation.
That is certainly how colonial Americans behaved sometimes. These heathen Indians — why shouldn’t they be driven off this land where I want to build my City on a Hill for the greater glory of God? These pagan Africans — why shouldn’t they be my slaves? And if I convert either of them to Christianity, well then they should thank me. I get their land and their labor, but they get eternal salvation, so it works out for everyone.
Universalism said no to all this. There aren’t two afterlives or two boats to the afterlife, no Saved and Damned. There are just people. Humanity is one species, and we are all in the same boat. We all have the same basic set of emotions, the same drives, the same temptations, and the same yearnings for a better life.
From the very beginning, that had political implications. When American Universalists began to think of themselves as a national movement, one of the first things they did was to call for the abolition of slavery. (They were the second denomination to do that, after the Quakers.) And perhaps the beginning of American feminism was the essay “On the Equality of the Sexes”, written in 1779 by Judith Sargent Murray, the wife of Universalist leader John Murray.
The political upshot of Universalism — which continues in Unitarian Universalism today, even among those of us who don't believe in God or the afterlife any more — is that since God isn’t writing anybody off, we don’t get to either. We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone, to picture them not as damned or evil or inconsequential, but as people deserving of the same kind of consideration we would like to claim for ourselves.
That’s an easy thing to say, and easy to nod to when somebody else says it. But in actual practice, it is difficult and radical. Not many people manage it consistently, and I know I find it a struggle.
When people live far away from us, or live so differently from us that we are afraid of them, or if they act in ways we find inconvenient, or if they are unpopular and lack the power to make us respect their point of view, it’s easy to slip into imagining them in stereotyped ways rather than seeing them as human beings as deep and as complicated as we are.
When this country first started debating marriage equality, I’d often hear someone say, “I can’t understand why two men would even want to get married.” Of course the people who said this were often married themselves and knew exactly why they had done it: They wanted to share a life with someone, to tell the world that this relationship was special, to build a secure household for raising children. Why a same-sex couple might want to marry was a mystery only to straights who could not let themselves imagine that gays and lesbians could be so much like them.
When protest — and sometimes violence — was erupting in Ferguson, and again last weekend in Baltimore, I heard the most amazing explanations of why people were out in the streets: Looting and burning weren’t isolated responses to mistreatment, they were the whole point. Michael Brown or Freddie Gray were just excuses to throw off the constraints of law and civilization.
Again and again, I heard TV pundits talk about our fellow citizens as if they were animals to be tamed or vermin to be controlled. So few called on us to imagine our own neighborhoods being similarly tamed and controlled, or to ask ourselves how we would respond to such treatment.
Even when the poor are quiet, I hear astounding things about them. They are “lucky duckies” because they don’t have to work or pay taxes. They have no pride or ambition, and they don’t want their children to work hard and get an education and succeed. Somehow, that description is easier to believe than that the poor want the same things from life we do, but just have a harder time getting them.
Foreign countries are also split into the Good People and the Bad People. The Good Foreigners accept the place in the world order that the United States has assigned them, and the Bad Foreigners don’t.
And the reason they don’t is not because they love their land and their people the way we love ours. It’s not because they want their country to find its own place in the world or to shape its own system of government like we did. It’s not even because they fear and distrust us the same way we fear and distrust them.
No, they oppose us because they are all madmen and monsters. They hate freedom. They are enemies of all human civilization. There is no understanding them or talking to them; all we can hope to do is go to war and kill them.
Universalism says no to all that.
It says that if you want to understand other people, the place to start is with our shared humanity and all that it implies. People living very different lives from us may have been shaped by different experiences, but underneath all that nearly all of them have the same needs, the same drives, the same fears, and the same hopes that we do. They aren’t a species of Bad People pledged to the Devil with a reservation on the boat to Hell. They have the same ticket to life and death that we all do.
Now I can’t just stop there without responding to the most common objection to Universalism: Universalism, people will tell you, is a rose-tinted worldview. Everybody is nice. Everybody is trustworthy. Everybody is like us. If you believe that, the critics say, you’ll be a sucker. Because bad people exist, evil exists, and you won’t be able to deal with that evil, because you have made yourself blind to it.
There is a difficulty there, a challenge. But it’s not the one the critics claim. If you approach the world as a Universalist, if you envision all people as human in the same way that you are human, then you won’t be able to deal with evil — if you imagine that there is no evil in you.
But if you give in to the tribal temptation to say “We are the Good People”, if you give in to the egotistic temptation to say “I am Good”, then you need to believe in the Bad People. Because how else could the world be this way? We didn’t do it.
Earlier in the talk I criticized a couple of things Jesus said. Now I’d like to give him credit for an observation I find insightful: “Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer.”
A lot of people interpret that in a way that doesn’t do Jesus much credit. They think he’s holding us responsible for the bad thoughts we don’t act on. But I think he’s saying that you’re kidding yourself if you imagine that some great moral divide separates you from the Bad People.
Have you ever hated someone? Then you know where murder comes from. Have you been afraid and humiliated? Then you know why people lash out. Have you ever wanted to slough off inconvenient responsibilities? To forget a promise? To look at someone else’s suffering and say, “I don’t have anything to do with that” when deep down you know you really do? Then you know why people cheat and betray each other’s trust. Don’t act like evil is some great mystery; it isn’t. We all live with it all the time.
Universalism doesn’t deny the existence of evil, or the struggle between good and evil. It just refuses to frame that struggle as an external battle between Good People like us and Bad People like them. It doesn’t see the battle between good and evil as something that’s happening far away in Syria or the Ukraine, or in Washington, or in the poor neighborhoods of St. Louis or Baltimore.
Good and evil are both part of our human inheritance, and not even an Almighty God can divide them so neatly as to send the Good to Heaven and the Evil to Hell. The battle between good and evil is always happening, right here right now, inside each and every one of us. We win some and we lose some. All of us.
I want to close back where I started, with political correctness and the liberal tribe. One consequence of recognizing that humanity is one species and we’re all in the same boat is that we have to own up to feeling the same tribal temptations that we see in our opponents. Universalism can warn us against that human tendency, but it can’t completely inoculate us.
And so every day on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I see link after link about the horrible things the other side is saying or doing;links that are there mainly to raise my anger, and to reinforce the idea that I and my friends are the Good People fighting the Bad People. And the Bad People do not have their own, perhaps misguided, view of right and good. They are monsters and maniacs, committed to falsehood and impervious to reason or compassion. So if my side doesn't do whatever it takes to win, the world will plunge into eternal darkness.
That’s not a Universalist style of rhetoric.
I face that issue every week when I put the Sift together. Whatever outrageous thing Michele Bachmann or Louie Gohmert said this week, am I tempted to include it because my readers need to know the full range of the ideas that are out there? Or am I just trying to raise their blood pressure and build their sense of our common righteousness?
I can't ignore that question. Because there is a weakness in the Universalist position, one that the other side doesn’t share: We can lose by winning. If we win by demonizing and stereotyping, if we win by casting ourselves as the Saved and our opponents as the Damned — then we’ve lost. If good vs. evil is a battle inside each person, then evil can win in us at the very moment that we are winning in the external world.
Polarization is a fact of today’s political landscape, and we have to deal with it. But we can’t afford to lose ourselves in polarization. Because our virtues are not divine, they’re human. And their vices are not demonic, they’re human.
Good and evil are both part of the human inheritance that everyone shares. And whenever we forget that, no matter what is happening on the battlefield out there, we’re losing.
Closing words: “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost