I learned this week that I am a radical Universalist.
I credit David Bumbaugh for this. In his book Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History, Bumbaugh spends 20 pages outlining the beginnings of the Universalist church in America, from deBenneville’s sermons preached across Pennsylvania; to the founding of the first Univeralist church by Murray in Gloucester, Massachusetts; to the founding on the New England Convention of Universalists; to Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement. It’s a rich history, and a reasonably short one: only 44 years passed between the first universalist sermons in 1741 and the first Convention in 1785 – just 44 years to go from idea to denomination.
I have always been fascinated by universalism, have always found it one of the most hopeful aspects of our faith. But it was in reading this treatment, seeing the varying theological differences within universalism, that I saw my place, standing with Caleb Rich and Hosea Ballou in believing that we pay for sins in this life – that “God doesn’t need to be reconciled to humanity; rather, human beings need to be reconciled to God.” I stand with them in understanding God as a loving deity and that Jesus’s ministry is largely about how to “grow into harmony with the Divine.” I stand with them – Ballou especially – in believing that “God would not endow humanity with reason and then present a revelation that was incompatible with that reason.” I also stand with Ballou in rejecting the Trinity and instead embracing the unity of God.
(I also, by the way, appreciate Benjamin Rush’s assertion that faithful Universalists must commit to social justice, which he calls “an unescapable consequence of Universalist faith.”)
Rich’s theology was called “Death and Glory”; unlike other Universalists who believed there is some punishment for sins after death but then eventual reconciliation with God, Rich said no – a loving God doesn’t want to see us suffer. In a world where a loving God exists, we have room to reconcile to each other, to work out our issues, to confront our sins, knowing that every step we take toward the good is another step toward the Divine. For me, it’s encouraging to think I don’t have to rely on some magical thinking to be saved from a mythical hell. Every mistake I make, every trauma I suffer, every sin I commit – everything I do to heal, reconcile, rectify, brings me closer to God and those around me.
Some find this theology too freeing – if there’s no eternal threat, why do good, they suggest. And I know it’s an issue people have long debated. But what I know is that it is human nature, for the most part, to do good – to act in altruistic ways, to nurture, to help, to want to improve the world. People want to be in right relations with other people. And when we do this, we create a more harmonious space. Universalism tells us that this isn’t an exclusive club, where only some go to heaven, and the only way you get in is by believing and/or doing exactly the right things. Univeralism tells us we’re all part of the club, and we have to do right by ourselves and each other in this world, while we can. And this is what I think the creator-creating God (see process theology) wants too.
So maybe I’m a radical process Universalist. Whatever the label, with this set of theological perspectives I feel loved, and compelled, and nurtured, and yes, in awe of the expansiveness of the Divine and of human potential.