Universalism: Love Wins

I had posted as my Facebook status the following: Universalism is the belief that all people, and I mean all people, are loved and received home by the creator. Therefore no matter how far we stray from our human ability to express love to our neighbors we, like the prodigal son, will be welcomed home into the arms of an all forgiving, all embracing creator. Love Wins. The choice is in whether we allow love to win now or later.

A friend then asked the obvious question, “Even Hitler?”  Yes, even Hitler. In the story of the prodigal son there were two brothers, the younger brother took his share of inheritance and wasted it all on prostitutes and drugs.  When he had become destitute he returns to his father’s home. The older brother is filled with rage that his father would throw this lavish party for his no good for nothing brother while not once had his father given him even so much as a young goat that he might celebrate with his friends.  That older brother is us.  It is easy for us who work hard to be just and loving, to do what is right to then become angry when mercy and love is offered to one who is so far from us in our actions.  It is easy to point our fingers at another and say that person is not worthy of love, look at what they have done!  “Give him the Death Penalty!”  “Crucify Him!”

They have conspired to murder, to rape, to terrorism; clearly these things are wrong and therefore worthy of death.  It is easy to justify this.  We as a society must have a standard conduct of behavior or else chaos would reign, right?  And so when a Hitler who has caused directly and indirectly so much evil and untold suffering in the world it is hard to believe that even Hitler could be embraced by Love.

I don’t remember who said it, but there is a quote out there in the universe that goes something like this, “It’s a pretty good bet that if God hates all the same people that you do, then that is not God.”  God should not be made in our image.  If God is all loving then that love extends to even those we detest with our whole being.   Hitler, in  the history of the world, might be such a candidate to be detested with our whole being.

There are some that argue, if everyone gets to heaven, then what motivation is there to do what is right/ to have a moral code of behaviors.  Love wins. If I have been so swayed by the power of love, if I have been so convinced that Love is worth my devotion with my heart and soul then I will choose to seek to do what is most loving, most honorable, most just. To embody Love becomes my motivation to change myself and to change the world towards justice.

I have just purchased the book by Rob Bell entitled Love Wins.  Today is the day it became available.  But it is not a new thought. The notion that God loves all and all will go to heaven is deeply rooted in Unitarian Universalism.  The title says it all.  Love Wins.

If there is any limitation on that love, then love does not win.  If Hitler is not included in Love winning then Love is not love.  If Love refuses a Hitler then it is not love but something else. And if Love refuses a Hitler, who else does Love refuse to embrace? Who else is Love powerless to embrace? Who else is love unable to transform and heal? And who gets to declares this powerlessness, this limitation of Love? Jesus did not.  Buddha, Mohamed, Confucius, Abraham-Hicks, Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hahn, Dalai Lama, Marianne Williamson, all the spiritual teachers that ever walked this earth never once declared Love to have its limits of being Love.

Either Love wins or Love is not love but selective and prejudiced and biased and judgmental and unforgiving and condemning and vindictive and capricious and …

Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective

Reading:  From Michael Servetus’ Christianismi Restitutio [ The Restoration of Christianity]

“Not only because such gifts, but by reason of that one alone who breathes the divine spirit into us, God is said to give us his spirit, Gen. 2 and 6. Our soul is a kind of lantern of God, Prov. 20. It is like a spark of the spirit of God, a reflection of the wisdom of God, created yet very similar to that spiritual wisdom, incorporated in it, retaining the innate light of divinity, the spark of that prime wisdom and the very spirit of divinity. God himself testifies, in chapter 6 above, that the spirit of divinity was innate in man even after Adam’s sin. The dispensation of our life is given and is sustained through grace from his breathe, as Job says, chap. 10 and 32 and following. God breathed the divine spirit into Adam’s nostrils together with a breath of air, and thence it remains, Isaiah 2 and Psa. 103. God himself maintains the breath of life for us by his spirit, giving breath to the people who are upon the earth and spirit to those treading it, so that we live, move and exist in him, Isaiah 42 and Acts 17. Wind from the four winds and breath from the four breaths gathered by God revive corpses, Ezek. 37. From a breath of air God there introduces the divine spirit into men in whom the life of inspired air was innate. Hence in Hebrew “spirit’ is represented in the same way as “breath.” From the air God introduces the divine spirit, introducing the air with the spirit itself and the spark of the very deity which fills the air.

Michael Servetus

“Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective” by Rev. Fred L Hammond

17 October 2010 © Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

If I were to ask who Michael Servetus was in the history of Unitarian Universalism, I would probably hear something along the following:  He was a theologian in the 16th century who believed that the Trinity, the belief in a Triune God was not based on biblical scripture. His theology would be described as anti-trinitarian rather than Unitarian. He was burned in effigy by the Roman Catholic Church and burned at the stake with most of his writings in Geneva, Switzerland by John Calvin, another protestant theologian and founder of Calvinism. Following his execution, there was uproar over the punishment of the heretic in which Sebastien Castellion wrote, “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.[1]”  And this answer, if given in a classroom setting would give the student a passing grade.

But there is more to Michael Servetus, also known by his Spaniard name as Miguel Serveto and by his French name, Michel de Villeneuve in homage to his hometown in Spain, than his treatises On the Errors of the Trinity and Dialogues on the Trinity. And for us as Unitarian Universalists living in the 21st century, it is this other aspect of Servetus that I believe is more relevant to us today than his expounding on the errors of trinitarian belief.

I state this because even though half of our name is Unitarian, we are no longer a faith tradition that requires all to profess the creed in the unity of God—God is one.  Some of us may believe in the triune God, God in three persons and some of us may believe in no god.  That creed is no longer necessary for us to call ourselves Unitarian Universalists because we focus more on our character of person, for it is what we do in our actions that reveal the moral character of the person rather than on what we say with our mouth.  There is a scripture verse in the Christian texts that state that if a person confesses[2] with their mouth then they shall be saved.  Unitarians would say that words by themselves are empty and actions speak louder than words.  So the true test of our faith is found in our compassionate, loving actions; whether the inspiration of that action is based in a Unitarian God or a Triune God, or in many Gods, or in no God is immaterial to us as a whole. It is as has been stated many times in a sound bite; “deeds, not creeds.”

In order to get to the aspects of his story that I believe are relevant for us today, I need to tell something of the basic story that is emphasized by Unitarian Universalist historians. Michael Servetus was born around 1509-1511, the exact date is speculated.  What we do know is that his country of Spain had over the centuries prior to his birth become the home of Muslims, of Jews, and of Christians. The culture of the Moors, as the Muslims were known and of the Jews had greatly influenced Spain. The Catholic Church was currently the dominant religious faith.  So Spain was struggling with religious plurality.  ‘Struggling’ probably isn’t the right word, when push comes to shove; a dogmatic inquisition would occur.  Jews and Muslims were given a choice, baptism into Christianity, banishment from the country, or death.  The great inquisitions of Spain occurred before Servetus’s birth but there was this awareness during his lifetime that many had converted to Christianity in name only and not in belief, in particular to the creed of the trinity.

Servetus was a child prodigy by the time he was 13 he could read several languages including Hebrew.  Hebrew was a forbidden language because it meant that one could read the Hebrew Scriptures in the original tongue “without resorting to approved translations[3].” His learning this forbidden language meant that he was most likely   exposed to a secret culture that also existed in Spain that of the Sephardic Jews who became Christian in name only.

It was the belief in the trinity that Michael Servetus saw as the prime stumbling block for true conversions from Jew or Muslim to Christianity.  He thought if this creed, which he discovered had no scriptural basis, could be removed from Christianity then there would be no hindrance for Jew or Muslim to fully embrace Christianity.

You may have heard in the subtext a certain arrogance that pervades Michael Servetus’s personality.  This arrogance would eventually seal his doom.  Authors of Out of the Flames, Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone assert “Servetus was so smart that it never seemed to occur to him that his arguments would be more effective if he didn’t imply that anyone holding an opposing view was an idiot.” He became convinced that the creed of the trinity, codified by a vote of bishops at the Council of Nicea in the year 325 of the Common Era, was the beginning of the corruption of the Holy Church.

He began to hound the protestant reformers of the day regarding this error in theology.  He thought Erasmus would be sympathetic because he had removed the Comma Johanneum from his Latin translations of the First Epistle of John.  This was a phrase not found in the original Greek text which directly referred to the trinity.  Erasmus was not sympathetic; he was merely correcting the facts of the text.  Erasmus attitude was to uphold the church authority and any debate on the validity of the trinity would hold until Judgment Day.

Servetus lived for a time in the city of Basel, Switzerland with a protestant reformer Oecolampadius, who complained to his protestant reformers that Servetus was “of belligerent and persistent temper.[4]”  It was counseled that by any means necessary to squelch Servetus’s blasphemies less they pollute the church.

Servetus took particular haunt of John Calvin.  He sent Calvin his manuscript On the Errors of the Trinity.  They had exchanged heated letters.  This was the experience Servetus had with all of the protestant reformers, even those who were a tad sympathetic to his views, eventually publicly refuted his thesis.

Servetus thought perhaps he had not explained himself well enough. If only he could restate his thesis in another way perhaps others would see.  He then published his Dialogues on the Trinity. But they fell on deaf ears and Servetus then went into hiding in France, taking on the name Michel de Villeneuve and became a doctor of medicine.  His desire to win over John Calvin did not leave him and he would continue to write to him under his nom de plume.  His constancy in pursuing Calvin resulted in Calvin promising that if Servetus ever stepped foot in Geneva, he would not leave Geneva alive; a promise that was kept with Servetus being burned at the stake on October 27 1553.

But it is as a doctor that Servetus made a discovery that was credited to a physician 75 years after Servetus first made it.  Servetus, ever the theologian, described in concept how the circulatory system exchanged blood between the arteries and the veins. He believed correctly that blood traveled from the heart to the lungs where the breath rejuvenated the blood and then sent the blood back into the body.  However, this discovery was lost for many years because of Servetus’ controversial standing and because most of his texts were burned with him, and because he wrote from a theological perspective and not a medical one.

It is this theological perspective that I believe is relevant for us today as Unitarian Universalists living in the 21st century.  In Servetus’s final book “Christianismi Restitutio” [The Restoration of Christianity], “God breathed the divine spirit into Adam’s nostrils together with a breath of air, and thence it remains, … God himself maintains the breath of life for us by his spirit, giving breath to the people who are upon the earth and spirit to those treading it, so that we live, move and exist in him.[5]

This builds on what he had previously written in his Errors of the Trinity, “I say, therefore, that God himself is our spirit dwelling in us and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.”

What is remarkable about this is it stands in direct opposition to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination of the elect.  Calvin argued that God from the beginning of the world humanity had two destinations, some he destined for eternal glory and others he destined for eternal damnation.  Only those who were predestined for glory would have the spirit of truth within them. Only the elect were saved.  Servetus is saying that all are among the elect, that all have the nature of the divine within them, the very breath of God itself.

Now this may seem to us as a ‘so what’ since many no longer adhere to a creed of salvation yielding to eternal life or a heaven.  That is indeed the literal reading of Servetus words and in that context perhaps not important. However, in a society where there are forces that insist on focusing on our differences to set us apart and in the extreme, dehumanizes us to the point that violence against one another or even self inflicted violence is seen as viable options, these words are very relevant.

There may not be many people today in Calvinist congregations who believe any longer in predestination, but there are plenty of people in these American states who believe to be indeed among the elect of God.  From the cultish Family on C street who indoctrinates politicians that they are elected by God and therefore can engage in all sorts of indiscretions and make heinous comments against gays and lesbians, against Muslims, and against immigrants without concern of consequence to the privileged corporate bosses at big banks and Wall Street who can break the financial laws of this country and get bailed out for destroying the economy.  This election is also seen in the very fiber of the dominant Anglo culture in this country and is the underlying argument of the Tea Party platform—America for Americans is based in this belief of the elect.

Servetus’s words come back to us and suggest that there is the potential for us to reach the heavenly realms.  In arguing against the trinity Servetus suggested “if Jesus was concluded to be less than divine, he might have been simply a man made divine through faith and acts.  And if that were true, might not that same potential be available to all [people]?[6]

There is within all of us that latent divinity, that creative spirit, that visionary specter, that leading-edge drive to move forward towards creating a world of justice for all.  Imagine if the restrictions on our minds were released and we believed that everyone, regardless of class, education, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression was truly capable of being the next Jesus, the next Sojourner Truth, the next Alice Paul, the next Gandhi, the next Dorothy Day, the next Thurgood Marshall, the next Martin Luther King, Jr., the next Cesar Chevaz, the next reformer for justice. Theologian Cornel West, speaking recently in Arizona said, Justice is what Love looks like in public…When you love folks, you hate that they are being treated unjustly[7]

Servetus’s words of latent divinity are a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear the immigrant.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair the immigrant in our neighborhoods with the drug cartels and the violent crimes south of our borders, all the while knowing this is untrue.

This is a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear the Muslim seeking to fulfill their religious vows as a peaceful people.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair Muslim Americans seeking the American dream with those who use their bodies as bombs to wreck havoc and chaos, while knowing this is untrue.

This is a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear gays and lesbians who seek to live their lives as equal citizens under the law.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair gays and lesbians with sexual predators of children, while knowing that this too is untrue.

Timely message when forces of injustice can use their guaranteed freedom of speech to spread malicious hateful lies against immigrants, against Muslims, against sexual minorities and fear no consequences while knowing that people will hear and act to embody their lies in hateful actions against immigrants, Muslims, and sexual minorities.

Who amongst us will allow the latent divinity to awaken within and be the next Harriet Tubman to serve tirelessly for freedom of those enslaved by the yokes of injustice?   Who will once again recognize that we all “retain… the innate light of divinity, the spark of that prime wisdom and the very spirit of divinity[8] and therefore are freed to act on behalf of all to create justice once again in this land?  Or at the very least begin to fulfill the call of our Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic teachings to love our neighbors as ourselves.  May it be so.

Benediction: Do not be deceived that because there are those who are privileged in this country, that they somehow are the elect and those who are not so privileged are not among the elect. The spirit of justice, the spirit of truth oft times chooses the least of these to level the playing field, may we seek not after the privileges of the elect but rather after the spirit of justice and truth.  Go in Peace.


[2] Romans 10:9 “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Likewise another verse with a similar meaning:   Philippians 2:10-12that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

[3] Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone, Out of the Flames

[4] Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus 1511-1553

[6] Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone, Out of the Flames

Published in: on October 17, 2010 at 2:25 pm  Comments Off on Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective  
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Sermon: Questions From the Heart

The Heart Nebula

 16 August 2009

UUCTuscaloosa

Rev. Fred L Hammond

I thought it would be fun to hear what people in the congregation are thinking about regarding living their Unitarian Universalism. Were there any questions that were being unsaid or not being answered in a clear manner? The questions fell into a theme for the service and I am always amazed when that happens. I don’t think it is important to identify who asked the questions. These are questions that almost anyone in the congregation could have asked and you may resonate with the questions yourself. So let us begin with a history question.

 At one time, both Unitarians and Universalists believed in a Christian God. That’s no longer part of the Purposes and Principles, though. When did an explicit belief in God get phased out—and how did that happen?

Unitarian Theology as it was developed in the United States in the early 1800’s was a belief in One God. This was the God of the Jews. It was a return to the monotheistic belief that was held at the beginning of the Christian era. What we consider the Christian God didn’t become orthodoxy until the Nicene Creed in the 4th century, when the concept of a Triune God, three personas in one was established. This is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the Trinity of Christian doctrine. God for the Unitarians was still a father figure, still a personal god. Jesus was the son of god, but so was all of humanity, all were the children of god. Jesus was fully human.

Unitarians in William Channing’s famous sermon on Unitarian Christianity did not believe that Jesus was crucified as recompense for humanities sins. Channing pointed out that no loving parent would punish a stronger child to atone for the sins or wrong doings of a weaker child. So while Unitarians believed that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected from the dead, it was more of an unfortunate consequence of people not heeding his message. Unitarians believed that salvation was through the following of Jesus’ teachings to develop moral character.

Universalists started out as trinitarian but they soon shifted to a Unitarian concept of God as well. Universalists believed that all of humanity would be saved because the death of Jesus on the crucifix paid the price for all of humanities sins; past, present, and future. There was no ever-lasting torment in hell because God was too good, too loving to condemn people to everlasting hell.

Rev. Thomas Starr King who was an ordained Universalist minister and then became a Unitarian Minister is quoted as saying the only difference between Unitarians and Universalists is that the Universalists believed God was too good to condemn people to hell and the Unitarians believed they were too good for god to condemn them to hell.

By the mid-1800’s Emerson, Parker and others were espousing transcendentalism. This was the belief that revelation was available through intuition that transcends the physical and empirical. Personal experience had to be accounted for in one’s exploration of faith. The Bible was not the only source for revelation- Emerson had said no one book could contain all the revelations of god. Emerson and others found some translations of the Vedic texts of Hindu teachings. These were badly done translations so there were misconceptions but the impact of these writings was profound on American thought and the development of transcendentalism.

Parker in his famous sermon, The Transient and the Permanent, announced that if Jesus had never lived there would still be a Christian religion because the values and concepts that Jesus taught were readily available to everyone. There were some aspects in Christianity that were transient and others that were permanent. He suggested stripping away the transient in order to find that which was permanent.

The civil war had a devastating effect on the heart of America. This country had never seen such a bloody war of this magnitude on its shores before. Abraham Lincoln revived the national fast day where people were to fast from food and repent for national sins and return to God’s ways.

There was in the Unitarian Church a move to list in their preamble that they followed the Lord Jesus Christ in their convention in 1865. This caused heated debate. Unitarians already had a strong non-creedal tradition and this was seen as developing a creed, a doctrine that people had to agree on. Two years after the civil war ended, there was a split in the Unitarian Church with the founding of the Free Religious Association. This group rejected the notion of a personal god. And the Free Religious Association leaned heavily on the teachings of science and the implications of the Origin of Species.

Someone asked a question regarding the Ethical Culture Society and Unitarian Universalism. As a side bar, the Free Religious Association while it later reconciled with the Unitarian Church and rejoined, one of its members was Felix Adler, a reform Jew in NYC. Felix Adler was the founder of the Ethical Culture Society in the mid 1870’s after the Free Religious Association dissolved and rejoined the Unitarians. They have four principles to our seven and these four principles are similar in concept to ours. So in genealogical terms, the Ethical Culture Society would be cousins to Unitarian Universalists. There is one ethical cultural society that has joined the UUA in recent years. This is the society in the Washington, DC region.

When the Free Religious Association disbanded and rejoined the Unitarians, the Unitarians had shifted in their thinking closer to the notion that god was not a personal god. There was an emphasis once again of their non-creedal heritage. By the late 1800’s the Christian world was no longer calling Unitarians a Christian faith. Unitarians still called themselves Christian but the rest of the Christian world did not recognize Unitarians as such. The Universalists were right behind the Unitarians in their evolution away from Christianity as their core identity.

At the turn of the 20th century there was the first world war which again profoundly impacted Unitarian thought. The rise of the social sciences led to the hope that humanity could perhaps evolve beyond violence. In the 1930’s there was the Humanist Manifesto, signed by many Unitarian clergy. And by World War Two, the Unitarian Church no longer declared itself to be a Christian denomination and the belief in a god, personal or otherwise was no longer assumed. There are other evolutionary factors that occurred along the way.

Why are UU’s not considered a denomination? Follow-up with are we a denomination or something else—a school of thought, a movement, a unique religion?

This notion of Unitarian Universalism being a denomination, a school of thought, a movement, a unique religion is still being debated. There are many among us who still see us as a denomination of the Christian religion. Remember the term denomination refers to being a sub-set of a larger whole. The World Council of Churches, which prides itself as being the most inclusive ecumenical organization of all of Christendom does not recognize us as a denomination since we as an association of congregations do not proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Our heritage came up through the reformation of the 1500’s and then through the puritans in the American Colonies. Congregationalism is the governance that we adopted as opposed to an Episcopal or presbytery format. This had to do with the fear of any one person or body having control over another group as experienced in England in the late 1500’s and 1600’s. So while our governance structure is similar to other Congregationalist faiths, like Baptists and United Church of Christ we are not a Christian denomination.

I suppose one could argue that we are denomination of the free church which would include The Ethical Culture Society, Unity, and Science of Mind, all cousins to Unitarian Universalists and descendents of the thoughts and teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The next two questions I am going to read together because they are essentially the same question from two different poles.

“What is the role of atheism and religious skepticism in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? I ask because I’m occasionally uncomfortable with references to God, Jesus, heaven, and even spirituality in our sermons or music. Are UUs really welcoming in this regard, or welcoming only in hopes that that skeptics will “come to religion (lite)”?”

 “If it is okay for members to follow their own path, then if a member wants to follow the path of Christianity (and actually talk about it) why are UUs sensitive and touchy about that? If somebody wants to follow the path of, say, Hindu. That’s fine. If you say you’re a Christian, many (sometimes angrily) want to know ‘what are you doing here?’”

It is a challenge, isn’t it to be a non-creedal group and be willing to be together in covenant regarding a set of principles? Remaining in covenant with one another is hard work. Yet that is what we are called to do. We have a purpose in the greater society to show the world that a diverse group of people can indeed be in community with one another. We can honor one another’s view points and conclusions as being valid even when they seemingly are contrary to everything we have processed in our lives to date. As congregations we have covenanted together to affirm and promote a set of principles and to draw upon a living tradition that derives from many sources.

There are two principles that address this polarity directly. Our third principle states “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” Our fourth principle states “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Can we be accepting of one another here, even when the person in the pew next to you has not come to the same conclusions you have regarding the ultimate questions?

Last April we affirmed as our mission statement that we saw ourselves as being “an open and nurturing Unitarian Universalist community made visible by our actions to make a better world.” In order to show ourselves as open and nurturing out the world we need to be open and nurturing in here.

To me that means I choose to be in covenant with you to listen to your journey with my heart, accepting your words as your best expression at this moment in time AND you in covenant with me, choose to listen to my journey with your heart, accepting my words as my best expression at this moment in time. Together, we may learn some new piece of wisdom that can only be revealed when these two expressions come together.

I recently heard of a story of a rabbi who met a person who had a Jewish surname. The rabbi said “your surname is Jewish yes? but I don’t recall ever seeing you attending Shabbat.” The person answered, “yes, rabbi, my surname is indeed Jewish but I am an atheist so I do not attend Shabbat.” The rabbi answered, “What does being atheist have to do with being Jewish?”

Actually, everything. The Jewish faith is founded on a covenant with God / the ultimate other. Remove the ultimate other from the covenant and you are left being alone. Even if one is using God in the metaphorical sense of the cosmic unknown, if that is removed then there is nothing.

One could argue I suppose that the community is metaphorically god and that is where the covenant lies but the metaphor as presented in the Abrahamic text breaks down with that notion. Abraham was alone when he made his covenant with god; there was no community present. And that paradoxically becomes the strongest argument for the atheist who is also Jewish. His covenant is first and foremost with himself. The Jewish community invites him to expand that covenant to be inclusive of others. Our UU congregations could be said to do the same. We invite you to expand your covenant to be inclusive of others.

The role of the atheist in our congregations is a prophetic role. As we ponder on the mysteries of the universe, we humans have an amazing ability to develop matrixes with things that simply are not there. Seeing Jesus in a water stain on a wall is one such example. Our minds are always searching to make meaning out of everything we see. The devout catholic might in response set up an altar with candles. The atheist is there reminding us to use our sources which include “humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science…” to say “nope just a water stain, nothing miraculous to see here folks, move along now.”

The covenant that we seek with one another is not based on a doctrine or belief. So as time evolves, the pendulum between the two poles of atheism and theism within our congregations are allowed to swing. There is a need for both in our communities. The one that says nothing miraculous to see here folks, move along now and the one who sees the face of Jesus in the water stain and from this regains the hope and vision to rebuild a disintegrating community. This is the wonder of the possibility. Both have a role in our congregations. Both can help us find the transcendent reality.

It is true that this congregation was founded predominantly by secular humanists over fifty years ago. But we are no longer a collection of secular humanists; we are of many different beliefs, of many different paths. The question these two questions are really posing is this: Can we be in covenant with one another today given that we are as diverse theologically as the spectrum of humanity?

This seems to be our growing edge as a beloved community. Some of us are uncomfortable with the language of religion in our midst. Some of us are uncomfortable at the lack of spirituality in our midst.

I wonder if you would be willing to identify where you resonate theologically so that others will know that they are not alone here. You may resonate on several areas so as I mention different spiritual paths would you raise your hands? And be free to look around, you may realize for the first time that there are people you have more in common with than you thought. Now these words are all complex and there are multi-layers as to how we define them. And I will talk about that in a minute, so with the broadest of brush strokes that these words might encompass…

With a show of hands, how many here resonate with being atheist? How many here resonate with being agnostic? How many here resonate with being Buddhist? How many here resonate being Bahá’i? How many here resonate with being Christian? …with being Hindu? … with being Jewish? … with being Muslim? … with being Mormon? … with being Pagan? … with being Pentecostal? … with a Native American religion? … with being New Age? How many here resonate with some other spiritual path?

We are a diverse group. We should all feel free to discuss our beliefs here with out worry of ridicule and scorn. Unfortunately, I know that is not the case here. If we have felt uncomfortable with words and ideas being expressed here, can we examine where we sit with our third and fourth principles? Do we truly honor these principles in our lives?

I guarantee that if you were to move to another community and sought out a Unitarian Universalist congregation there, you would find a different configuration of spiritual paths. You might not be comfortable attending King’s Chapel in Boston with its common book of prayer revised when that congregation left the Anglican faith and became Unitarian in the 1700’s. You might not be comfortable attending All Souls in Tulsa, OK where Bishop Carlton Pearson’s former congregation has now joined as members and meets with them every Sunday with hands in the air. ( Bishop Pearson, you might recall had one of the largest mega Pentecostal churches in Tulsa and then he discovered the message of universalism and his congregation was reduced to a fraction of its size.)  You might not be comfortable in a Unitarian church in Transylvania where they serve communion to honor and renew the covenant they believe Jesus was making with his disciples. You might not feel comfortable in First Unitarian in Chicago with its dominant humanist message. These are the varieties of expression of Unitarian Universalism.

However, if you believe that the principles in which we covenant to uphold is a useful guide then all these expressions in the final analysis should not matter because all of our paths can enrich our lives and be made better for them. I am enriched by the presence of Christians here. I am enriched by the presence of Atheists. I am enriched by the presence of our diverse theology. Each offers a gift that will enable my faith to grow, and I believe that for you as well.

Theologian James Luther Adams said, “An unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident. A faith worth having is a faith worth discussing and testing.” This statement is true for all of us regardless of our path.

+++++ Let’s look for a minute at the multiplicity of the words here. Someone identifies as an atheist here what does that mean? It may mean they do not believe in a personal God as defined by Christianity. Or It may mean that they do not believe there is any divine or otherwise force that created the universe. That definition of atheist is different from the first.

Someone identifies as being Christian. What does that mean? It may mean that they believe that Jesus is the son of god, both divine and human and that Jesus came to take away the sins of the world. And that he will return again to judge the quick and the dead. Or it may mean that they try to follow the teachings and example of Jesus as a great human teacher. They may not believe the other aspects of the orthodox faith. Or it may mean that they identify as a Christian as a cultural identification. They grew up in the Bible belt and therefore they recognize the cultural aspects of Christianity as their own but they adhere to the specific teachings only to the extent that these have influenced the culture in which they live.

So when someone wears a Cross and attends a UU congregation what does that mean? Can we assume it means they are bible thumping evangelicals who believe that Jesus is the only way, radically pro-life, and they are anxiously awaiting the rapture to whisk them away so they will avoid the demonic forces of the Great Tribulation? Please don’t.

If this thought washes across your mind, please keep it to yourself because we have a mission that we are seeking to fulfill. We want to be an open, nurturing Unitarian Universalist community and by questioning someone that they don’t belong here because they wear a cross or that they pray to Jesus when they feel in need is not open nor nurturing and it is certainly not Unitarian Universalist. See principles 1, 2, 3, and 4 and read our sources again, where we state that we draw from the Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves. God’s love could be interpreted as the warmth of community, feel free to translate as needed to increase comfort level. I say that not to be facetious but in the honest truth that we sometimes, in order to understand within our personal contexts, need to translate.

What do you (meaning I) make of the G** word?

I thought it only fair to answer this question. Even though I have had a long history of being a charismatic Christian, I do not identify as a Christian in the orthodox meaning of that word. I do not believe in a personal god. I do not believe that there is a god who is watching over my shoulder to see if I am living according to HIS plan. Gender use is deliberate. I do not believe in an omniscient omnipresent god. So in this regard I would be an atheist.

For me, the concept of god is all that is and all that is not. It is the expanse of everything known and unknown. And I think there is quite a bit that is unknown. But this is a conceptual god not an actual entity or stream of reality.

I recognize the legitimacy for those who believe in a personal god. And I can accept their language to express their experiences of this personal god because the experiences they are describing are universal. The interpretation of what those experiences mean may not be. I don’t have to agree with the interpretation of their experiences but I can find affinity with the experience.

Who has not experienced a love so rich and deep that it was transcendent? Now to a Pentecostal that might be described as being blessed by the Spirit (with a capital S) to an atheist it might be the increase of oxytocin in their brains. The experience is the same. If you or I were to experience this, it would be up to you and me to define its meaning.

Because of personal experiences that I have found no reasonable or rational explanation, I consider myself a metaphysical mystic. This is the best way to date that I have been able to reconcile my charismatic Christian experiences and the paranormal experiences I have had in my life. I no longer seek to define them within a context of religion because those answers are simply too dualistic for me. I have grown comfortable in the mystery and wonder of life and so I let those experiences be and am amazed when they occur. May we all be comfortable in the mystery and the questions of life. Blessed Be.

Published in: on August 16, 2009 at 3:13 pm  Comments (3)  
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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,

Flotsam and Jetsam

On Sunday I gave a sermon about the life of Rev. John Murray and why I am a Universalist. I wrote the following paragraph and decided to unpack it a bit further.

“I am a Universalist because I believe in this love–this stream of well-being that flows through the universe as an undercurrent to all else that happens. This love is constant. All else is transient flotsam and jetsam on the surface. It will pass and even if we become entangled in the flotsam for awhile, the love that surges through the universe is ever present to see us clear.”

In my best moments, I can say with about as much surety as I know that the earth’s gravity will keep me within its power of influence, that all is truly well. I observe the birds chirping their morning songs in the pecan trees outside my Ellisville house. I note the figs developing in the shade of the fig leaves along side the old red barn. I watch the red tail hawk swoop down to catch the unsuspecting or perhaps very suspecting but paralyzed in fear rodent in the fields. Life is good. It flows on in its cycle and the human animal is part and parcel to this unending cycle.  And I rejoice in being witness to it all and even excited about my role in its unfolding.

I enjoy, really enjoy, the animal planet show, Meerkat Manor. The writers of the show have given human characteristics, motives and emotions, to the actions and behaviors of these animals living in social groupings. They are afraid and wary of the others who are not members of their small village. They will war on their neighbors if they encroach too close to their marked territory. They will have jealousies and fights between themselves.  They will exclude and expel members who do not behave or threaten to disrupt the order of things.  And they will come together and fight in unison against an outside threat such as a cobra slithering nearby in the hope for a fledgling meerkat for a meal. 

meerkat photographer

Now maybe all this anthropomorphism is a bit over done.  But it does serve its purpose at least in my watching this show and reflecting on human behavior.  We do the same, don’t we?   For all our increased intelligence, we do the same.   We have our bitter jealousies and rivals within our communities.  We tend to be wary of the stranger who moves into our neighborhood; especially if they have a different culture to our own.  Culture here being defined as different religion, different political affiliation, and different understanding of our common values; not excluding those who come from foreign countries but our wariness is acutely attuned to the subtleties as well as the obvious.   And we war against perceived threats from within as well as without our country. 

Yet, what we see as cute and even adorable in the meerkat family we see as atrocious in our human family. This is the flotsam and jetsam in our lives.  It is the allowing our focus to be turned to the animal behaviors we do and responding from this animal base.   Some people have called it the reptile mind; that core almost instinctual place in our brains.  If activitated no amount of reason or logic can break through it until the person does what the person is driven to do, and then if we are fortunate, we laugh about the action and forgive each other for stooping so low later.

The question that remains for me in my observing all of this is what is the role of religion if it is not to help our spiritualities to relax into the stream of well-being that is constant in our lives?  It does not negate that the flotsam and jetsam of human animal behaviors and actions exist but it could help mitigate the intensity in which we respond to those events that switch on the reptilian brain.  

From where I sit in my current understandings, Unitarian Universalism is one of the faiths that could aid in this process.  We have our own flotsam and jetsam that we get hung up on but our current principles that we seek to uphold are bent along that arc of love towards justice.  Our faith includes the willingness to examine the wisdom of the world religions to find aquaducts to that universal current of love that interconnects us all.  This seems to me, to be a noble start. 

The proclaiming of one true faith only is trajecting us into the nets of the flotsam and jetsam in our lives.  It causes an increased tension between us.  It triggers the reptilian mind.  Many faiths proclaim being the one true faith, so I am not only referring to Christianity, though this phrase is most commonly associated to it.  The notion of universalism as I understand it in the 21st century, is one that recognizes the spirit of love that is flowing for all of us.  We all have access to it.  But for us to fully enjoy this river of love, we must be willing to practice our swimming daily.  And swimming will help us swim around the flotsam and jetsam of our base behaviors.  Blessings, Rev. Fred L Hammond           

Published in: on May 12, 2008 at 4:15 pm  Comments Off on Flotsam and Jetsam  
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Death Penalty and Universalism

The Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that capital punishment via lethal injection is not unusual or cruel punishment.  All of the justices left the door open for more litigation to prove that capital punishment is unconstitutional.  So this was not a case regarding the death penalty per se but only regarding this method of implementation.  

Can a person who has a Universalist theology be a proponent of the death penalty?  Does Universalism contradict such a stance? 

The orthodox view of universalism states all experience salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  There are no exceptions.  All will be reconciled with their creator, God through the redemptive actions of Jesus on the cross.  All are saved. All are going to Heaven.  Period.  

This orthodox stance is as controversial today as it was in John Murray’s day.  The notion of an elect who are saved is therefore disputed and rejected.  Bishop Carlton Pearson, a pentecostal minister, had a conversion experience where he embraced this universal stance.  He was expelled from his church as a heretic for preaching that God would embrace and redeem everyone including ‘murderers and fornicators.’  He calls it the gospel of inclusion but it is identical as far as I can tell to John Murray’s notion of universalism.   His opponents have built up a wide array of arguments stating how he has erred from the one true path.   He certainly is no longer advocating what is considered to be orthodox Christianity of the Nicene Creed

So given the fact that this notion of universal salvation remains a controversial one even today.  The question remains for me.  Can someone be a universalist and support the death penalty?  What does this say about us if the answer is yes.   Does it say, we have the right to judge a person’s worthiness of living life based on their actions against the current laws of society and we then let God to sort it out after we put the person to death?  To me, that seems a bit arrogant on our part to think we have the ability to judge the worthiness of a life to continue or to be halted; regardless if the method is done in what the supreme court deems to be a humane methodology.  

Orthodox Christianity or at least those proposing a Christianity that requires a confession of the mouth and of the heart to proclaim Jesus as personal savior, maintains the possibility of what I remember being called deathbed salvation.  The notion goes like this, a person who has committed the most heinous of sins [I will let your imagination come up with what those might be.] can at the moment of death ask Jesus for forgiveness for those sins, and salvation and entry into heaven is then assured.  All their sins are at that moment are wiped clean.  I think this is the reason [I could be wrong]  why a minister / chaplain is present to the person on their last walk to the execution chamber in prison for the hope of a last minute repentance. Of course, we rarely hear of death row conversions as that would be against the hope that this person is now burning in hell.  [Another notion that Universalists and Unitarian Universalists do not believe in.]   But this notion of deathbed salvation seems equally crazy to me as the arrogance of judging a person no longer worthy of having life, believing in universal salvation and sending them on to Heaven by killing them.

Now many, but not all,  Unitarian Universalists with a Universalist theology no longer believe in the doctrine of a here after in heaven but still believe that all of humanity has the potential for reconciliation.  They still believe that all of life has a worth to have life that goes beyond the actions that life may have committed. There is still the belief that redemption is available to all even if they humanly find it hard to grasp it. 

I’d like to hear some comments on this as I find it a curious position to take: To believe in universalism and to believe that the death penalty is an appropriate judgment for a crime. 

In case you have not surmised… I am opposed to the death penalty.  I believe that if someone is convicted of a crime that is heinous [again, I leave the definition of heinous to your imaginations] that the best punishment is life imprisonment perhaps with solitary confinement.

Blessings, Rev. Fred L Hammond               

Published in: on April 17, 2008 at 4:18 am  Comments Off on Death Penalty and Universalism  
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