Universalism: Along A string of Tensions

I have been pondering about universalism alot lately.  The Universalist Herald has had several articles in this month’s issue discussing what Universalism should look like in today’s Unitarian Universalism.  Yes, I said should.  Because that is how this magazine has been taking up the cry to revive Universalist thought. 

There does seem to be a need for a universal message in today’s ultra conservative climate.  In Laurel, MS there is an evangelical presbyterian minister who writes a column on faith, his faith specifically, and he has twice now denounced universalism as heresy.  I responded the first time but decided not to the second time.  His theology is steeped in Calvinism.  I have gotten the impression that most of the community in which I live in Mississippi is steeped in Calvinism.  I was speaking the other day within someone who stated being raised Baptist and was taught, indoctrinated, to believe that if you disagreed with anything that was said you were facing the fires of hell.  It wasn’t until leaving home, meeting other people who did not see the world in such harsh  tones did the realization occur that maybe church had missed the mark. 

But what should that universal message be?  The Universalist Herald has been promoting what I would call a purist universalism.  This is the doctrine that the atonement of Jesus on the cross is freely given to all of humanity, that all are saved, and would be restored to God in the afterlife.  John Murray, oft considered the founder of Universalism in America, believed that there was a period of purification that some would have to go through before this restoration, and Hosea Ballou believed there was no need for this purification as the act of Jesus was sufficient. 

Both John Murray and Hosea Ballou rejected the notion of Original Sin.  This is the doctrine that Augustine of Hippo expanded on and through his efforts became the doctine of the Catholic church and later of many protestant churches.  Original Sin states that when Adam and Eve disobeyed god by eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge,  that sin and death entered the world; not only did humanity fall from grace but all of creation to this very day.  Murray and Ballou believed that men and women were responsible for their own sin not the sin of some proverbial ancestor.   Jesus’ death and resurrection took care of any sins that were committed paving the way for God to restore humanity to itself.

The Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington,DC has revised the 1899 Universalist Declaration of Faith.  They ask for participation in the reading of this declaration each Sunday.  Reading it is not mandatory.  The revised declaration is as follows:

“In faith and freedom, we are called to bring hope and healing to the world, so that all my rejoice in God’s grace. I believe in the universal love of God, the spiritual authority and leadership of Jesus Christ, the trustworthiness of the Bible as a source of divine revelation, the need for repentance and forgiven of sin, and the final harmony of all souls with God.”  

There is very little difference from the original declaration.  Words that implied a sexist point of view have been removed.  John Murray’s ‘certainty of  just retribution for sin’ has been removed and Hosea Ballou’s belief emphasized a bit more implicitly.  The declaration is in fact a creed. 

I have difficulty with this declaration of faith.   I no longer call myself Christian. I seek to follow the teachings of Jesus but I do not see Jesus as Christ; I do not believe his death served as an atonement for anything; and I doubt his physical resurrection.  Given that these criteria are cornerstone to the definition of Christian, I cannot in good conscience call myself one. 

I question whether the Bible is to be considered trustworthy.  There are gems found within the Bible that are priceless. It is these gems that I mine for when I read the Bible.  But there is plenty in the Bible that has inspired malicious acts against others.  For a text to inspire such evil places it in the questionable box for it to be trustworthy as a source of divine revelation.   

Yet, I think the Universalist Herald might point to the Universalist National Memorial Church as an example of the type of Universalism that needs to be spoken today.  Perhaps.   But I see this growing call to re-claim, revive Universalism as being poised along a string of tensions.  For many of us, this would be a call to repentance for having left our Christian roots and return to the bosom of Jesus, forsaking all others.   

I consider my theology to be universalist.  Universalism for me is the knowledge that the source of all that is and all that is not,  is love.    Universalism as I have come to understand it is the knowing that love is a stream of well-being that flows through all of creation. This love is always there for us to tap into regardless of the circumstances around us. There is absolutely nothing as the author of Romans stated that can separate us from the love of god.  Universal Salvation for me is accessible in this life time.  I do not need to wait for an afterlife to experience it. 

It does not depend on a notion of sinfulness that needs redeeming, nor the death of an innocent man to make it available.   It does not require that I believe in god or Jesus in order to tap into the knowledge / experience that I am loved for who I am.  This love that flows inspires me to create justice for others.  It is inclusive of all paths of spirituality inviting all to swim deep in the waters of universalism.  This is the message that needs to be put out there in ever abundance.   Blessings,

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5 Comments

  1. While your definition of Christianity is the definition that the orthodox themselvesgive, it’s certainly not one that the Universalists nor Unitarians of the 18th and 19th century would have given or accepted. Back in 1892 J. W. Hanson defined Christian as “all those who accept Christ as an authoritative teacher, in whatever attitude of being they may locate him or whatever extent to his mission they may give, are entitled to be called Christian. Christians are those who accept his claims as they understand them, and are endeavoring to be his followers.” (A Pocket Cyclopedia, published by the Universalist Publishing House – which was owned by the Universalist Church).
    I could go on and on, such as mentioning the vast difference between “trustworthiness” and “trustworthiness as a source” and of course, Ballou’s own strong Calvinism (or as someone had called it “New Improved Calvinism”) and his view on unconditional election, “limited” atonement (but a much much much wider “limit” that traditional Calvinist think of, to put it mildly), irresistible grace, and a strong belief in the perseverance of the saints. I’m not sure of his view of total depravity…. etc.

  2. Steven R: You are correct the definition I am using is the orthodox definition. And the orthodox did not accept the Universalists nor Unitarians claim to the name, Christian. We were not and still are not accepted into the World Council of Churches because of this orthodox definition of Christian. So Hanson’s definition doesn’t cut it for the rest of Christianity.

    There was in the Universalist development a debate on whether there was limited punishment after death or punishment during this life was sufficient for entry into heaven. Restoration was the belief that eventually everyone would be restored to God but depending on their unrepentant sins in this life time might have to spend some time in hell for purification.

    I am in the midst of packing for my move so I don’t have my books handy, but I believe it was Hosea Ballou who argued for what was called “death and glory” universalism versus Restoration universalism which included a period of punishment before being restored to God. This controversy led to a schism in Universalism. Another Ballou, (Adin??, Hosea 2nd??) might be the one you are referring to that advocated for the restoration–the new improved calvinism. Restoration by the way became the predominant belief after the civil war.

  3. I always thought Universalism sort of the flip side of Calvinism; you’re saved regardless what you do, whether you want it or not. Everyone’s predestined to salvation.

  4. Bill: yes this would be correct and I state that in the blog. However, there was the question in the development of universalism of what about those individuals who were really really bad and unrepentant of their sins. All would be predestined to salvation as the end result of such a loving god. But would there be a punishment for those who were unrepentant before their entrance into heaven? John Murray believed that there was a punishment period for those sinners. Ultimately they would be restored and enter heaven. Hosea Ballou argued in a debate with a minister named Edward Turner, that one is punished enough in this life and therefore enters heaven immediately after death. The term ‘death and glory’ was applied. Turner argued that some form of punishment occurred before entry into heaven. Both became recalcitrant in their arguments and it resulted in a schism in the church. Those who declared themselves Restorationists in the split eventually merged with the Unitarians who were also Restorationist in their theology. The civil war was such a traumatic event in the life of America that the other Universalists who were “death and glory” in view shifted towards be Restorationists as well.

  5. The civil war was such a traumatic event in the life of America that the other Universalists who were “death and glory” in view shifted towards be Restorationists as well.

    Aware of anyone who has written about the impact of that war on Unitarian or Universalist theology and practice?


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