When Universalism was born, the raging debate was who was going to hell, and who was going to heaven. As you may recall, the Universalists thought that everyone had an equal chance at heaven, which lead to a debate a couple generations later about whether everyone went right to heaven when they died, or whether folks who had done really bad things had to spend some time in hell or purgatory to work off their bad karma before being restored to God.
Have you noticed that we only talk about this when we are learning our Universalist history? No UU has yet to ask me whether I thought he or she was going to heaven or hell. So what happened? How did the theological debate that birthed our movement become a historical artifact?
That old debate about whether we all would ultimately be reunited in heaven comes under the rubric of eschatology, which comes from the Greek roots meaning “the study of last things”. Many of our neighbors have an apocalyptic eschatology, believing that a final battle between good and evil is coming. When you hear about the rapture, you are hearing about a particular eschatology. But when we describe contemporary Unitarian Universalist thinking we have to stretch that word a little bit. Because we are not so much interested in talking about the end of the world- in fact Rev. Rebecca Parker says for us Eschatology means “Where we are coming form and where we are going.”
When we describe contemporary UU thinking we get to use the impressive phrase “realized eschatology” which means that the realization, the culmination of everything is in this present time and place. Folks from the Christian tradition who hold this kind of eschatology believe that when Jesus said that "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:14). Jesus was not talking about an apocalyptic scenario, he was saying “the kingdom of God is right here, right now.”
That’s quite a different frame for reality, isn’t it? Think about how you might spend the coming week if you knew that your whole life was leading up to a battle between good and evil at a time of apocalyptic destruction of life as we know it. Now think about how you might spend this coming week if you thought “heaven and hell are both here around me right now, and if I’m ever going to get to heaven, I’m going to have to look for it or create it in this world right here.” If you have a realized eschatology then there are 2 courses of action that seem pretty urgent.
First, we have got to start putting our attention into the here and now. The Buddhist tradition is one that takes seriously this living in the present moment. Even when you are stuck in traffic. Even when you are scrubbing the shower floor. A the Buddha said “
Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”. Buddhists believe that the present moment contains the seeds of all things, including liberation from suffering, and enlightenment. So instead of looking for enlightenment or for glorious reward in some future life, we search in this reality for heaven- cause we know it’s around here someplace. And many have proposed that, it’s hiding in plane site. Matthew Fox, the excommunicated Catholic Priest, says that it is crucial for us all to develop a sense of awe and wonder, to see the divine in the world around us. It’s not too hard to find as spring really gets going and the tiny budding leaves have that special young green color, and the whole diversity of the plant kingdom seems to have come together to create a symphony of color. Those of you who have grandchildren also know right where to look for a glimpse of heaven. It is also an idea that mystics from many generations have written about. Author and mystic Richard Jefferies tell us the same thing:
“It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me, in the sunshine, I am in it as the butterfly is in the light laden air. Nothing has to come, It is now. Now is eternity, Now is the immortal life.”
This ties in with our emerging UU pneumatology- (study of the spirit from the Greek root meaning breath) That the spirit of god resides in the natural world, in all living things. This Pneumatology came into our movement in the transcendentalists in the 1900s who showed us that the world is sacred. But sometimes it leads me to wonder, with the great Peggy Lee:
Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing
Because not everything we see in our daily life looks like heaven on earth. Frankly, some of it looks like hell. Sometimes it’s hard to have any sense of awe and wonder at all after catching a glimpse of the evening news. Isn’t there anything we can do to create the kingdom of God besides “be here now?”
We call ours a “living tradition.” this means that we believe in Continuous Revelation. We don’t generally hold that Moses was the last prophet. We don’t think there will ever be an end to truth that newly emerges into our consciousness. We also believe in Co-creation- which is to say we believe that God is not the only one creating the world- we are all working together day by day, whether we know it or not. We believe in evolution- not only in biology but in all the living growing changing aspects of our world. Things change and grow and live. And we have a role to play in this. Says Mesle, a Process theologian “But we have hands and God does not. Or rather, when hands are needed, God must rely on the hands of creatures to do that work” (Mesle p. 14). So in this eschatology the “end” of the world, that is to say the “purpose or outcome” of the world is right here among us, we have work to do.
And I think the kind of evolution we believe in is changing. As Rebecca Parker so beautifully articulated in here 2002 address to LREDA, our 19th century eschatology took Evolution to mean: “Onward and upward forever” but for generations that lived through world war one and world war 2, they realized that things weren’t necessarily getting better and better. Sometimes things get worse.
People responded in different ways to the tragedies of the 20th century. Some turned to nihilism in the face of those tragedies- that nothing has meaning. But a concurrent theological movement, process theology, was also emerging. This takes what we have observed motion through evolution and other scientific processes, and makes that the center of theology. Process Theologians hold that God is a process not a static unchanging being, God is motion. Some say “God is a Verb” This means that we can tell Peggy Lee “That’s not all there is” Something new is always unfolding, and we have a role to play in that unfolding. Says Processes Theologian Mesle: “For better or worse, each decision of each creature plays some role in the world’s process of becoming” (Mesle p. 62)
Change is linked to the deepest roots in our theology. The Latin phrase “semper reformanda” or “always being reformed” has been used by protestant churches for centuries to remind themselves that they must always be in the process of reformation. A new twist on the phrase: “Reformatus est semper reformandum” means “reformed yet always needing reformation”. Doesn’t that sound like something the UUs would have come up with? But it is an idea we share with many protestant churches. Ours is a living changing tradition in a living evolving world.
Our Unitarian Universalist eschatology has come a long way from our early history. A Revealed Eschatology allows us to focus our attention and our action in the world around us, instead in an apocalypse to come. A revealed eschatology holds in it two courses for being in the world- they give us 2 different senses of where we might direct our attention as we move through our daily life. Do we find the awe and wonder of our present moment, or do we see the flow of change and lend our hands to guide that change in the direction of life and love? In my own life and practice I think that both are crucial, and that there is a time and a place for each. A friend of mine who is Jewish Reconstructionist says this is part of what Sabbath is for her. That on one day a week we set aside the work of co-creating the world, enjoy the created world as it is. On the Sabbath “The world does not need to be changed.” It is ours to appreciate. But whether we are in the still waters of reflection and appreciation, or the rapids of life’s evolutionary flow, it is for us to use the powers of our hands, our hearts, our attention to seek heaven, enlightenment, the realm of God in this very world we now inhabit.
Process Theology, C. Robert Mesle, Chalice Press St. Louis, 1993
A Theology of Religious Education, Rebecca Parker, Delivered at LREDA Fall Conference 2002.