A couple of years back we were driving down a rural road and saw a church whose changeable letter sign said “Walmart is not the only saving place." I thought that was awesome. I made a guess, based on the stereotypes I’ve got in my head, that this was probably a conservative church. In my imagination, this was probably one of those churches where all the members have a copy of “Left Behind” on their bookshelves somewhere. But that sign resonated truth to me on another level. Because I believe that our church is a saving place, and yet I don’t have any designs on being raptured. So lest you feel “Left Behind” I want to give you the saving news of Universalism this morning.
When we hear the question “are you saved?” We might well ask “saved from what?” The answer, in most cases, is “hell.” First I want to point out that not all the religious traditions answer this question the same way. When I invited the 2 ladies from the Jehovah’s into my house for coffee and indoctrination, they explained that in their tradition there are 3 sorts of folks- the elect who rule with Jesus in Heaven, the righteous, who live on earth during 1000 years of peace, and the wicked, who are destroyed and miss out on that 1000 years of peace on earth. Now I’d been studying Buddhism for a while there in Seminary, and what Buddhists want to be saved from is the eternal cycle of death and rebirth. It occurred to me that what was salvation to them was pretty close to the punishment for the wicked the Witnesses wanted to be saved from.
So some are concerned about being saved from eternal damnation, others are concerned about being saved from death, others want to be saved from the never-ending cycle. The study of this question- the study of salvation is called “soteriology” which means to “preserve”- so another way to look at salvation is to ask “what needs to be, or can be preserved.” The root of the word “salvation” is the same root as a salve- a balm that sooths and heals. So another way to look at salvation is “what saves and heals us?”
Our Unitarian Universalist tradition has some thoughts on this as well. The earliest Universalists believed that there was surely a heaven and a hell, and our souls needed be saved from hell. But in the second generation of American Universalists there was a fellow called Hosea Ballou who didn’t believe in hell. He believed that what we had to be saved from was sin. And let me reassure my contemporary audience that what he meant by “sin” is the same stuff we would be appalled by now-a-days: Murder, theft, cheating, so don’t get distracted by that old fashioned word) He wrote in his landmark work of Universalist Theology Treatise on Atonement ”why [should I] fear sin?” “Answer: Because it will make me miserable if I commit it. There is no priest that I can apply to, who can prevent my suffering, if I am a sinner. If I fear a prison or a gallows, or a punishment in the future world, I may flatter myself some way may be provided by which I may escape them; but if I fear sin itself, I know, if I am a sinner, I must endure that evil.” So he is saying that the down side to sin is not hell or even jail, but that sinning feels bad- it takes you out of right relationship with your world, with your community. He also says that “There is no necessity of promising a reward in a future state for the practice of duty in the present. All that is wanting for his purpose is to understand and to be persuaded that righteousness brings an ample reward, in the present life.” Sin is it’s own punishment, and righteousness is its own reward.
Ballou believed that ultimately we are all going to be reunited with God when we die, that we all return to a metaphysical unity. He believed that when you die, no matter who you are, you return to the primordial one-ness. You are gong home- but home is not a heaven with pearly gates. Some of the more conservative Universalists thought this was ridiculous. Said one such, the Rev. Charles Hudson in an essay hew rote criticizing the “ultra Universalists” like Ballou: “You represent the soul of man as an emanation from the deity, and contend that this future happy life consists in returning to the fountain from whence he came.” And what did Rev. Hudson think was wrong with this? he writes “This opinion was not only embraced by those ancient heretics, the Gnostics, but is the popular opinion of infidels to this day.” Good company as far as I’m concerned.
So Ballou doesn’t feel we need to be saved from hell in the afterlife, but from hell on earth, the hell that we create for one another. According to Ballou, the goal of religion, the goal of a good life is no longer to save souls from hell, but to save life. To save ourselves and all the people in the world, since they are all our brothers and sisters, from the forces that deny life in this world. In the early 20th century, Clarence Skinner spoke of this as a “Universal Brotherhood”
(as a side note, did you all know that the Athens Universalist church was called “The church of the Universal Brotherhood? So named in 1871!) Skinner was a prominent Universalist thinker and activist who wrote in 1915 that “…Universalism inspires…faith not only because it teaches the divine origin of all men, but likewise because of its belief in the common destiny of humanity in all times and in all stations of life.” (Robinson p. 172)
A few years back I was feeling very jaded about my religious tradition. It happens to the best of us. Sure UU raised me from when I was younger than the youngest of the kids in our RE program, gave me an ethical framework, a life’s work. But what had they done for me lately? I talked to my colleague Sheri Prud’homme about the fact that I was having trouble getting excited about my UU tradition, and asked what was it that made her passionate about her faith? Her explanation boiled down to the idea that with Universalism “We’re all in the same boat.” Whatever salvation there may be, it is for everyone. Sheri believed this was important, that it was a precious part of who we are.
At our UU history class last Thursday, I read from the church record in 1878 which reads in part: “Our partialist friends in the surrounding community ,becoming much disturbed and alarmed by the spiritual condition of their ‘awful neighbors’ in the Valley, occasionally send a “Screaming Moses” to warn us of the wrath to come.” I love this story. First, I love that the opposite of a “Universalist” is a “partialist” those who believe that only part of humanity will be saved. And of course the partialists are concerned and alarmed by other points of view, because when part is saved, the rest are damned. When part is holy, the rest are unholy. Part is right and the other part is wrong. How much destruction has been done in this world by those who understood themselves to be good, to those whom they understand as bad? Think about our political discourse right now- one must be completely right and the other completely wrong. One is a force of democracy, and the other a force of fascism. One must be victorious and the other must be destroyed. And yet we are all in one boat: if we tear this country apart it will hurt us all. If we waste and poison the earth, it will hurt all living things.
In the late 20th century we enlarged our conception of the “universal brotherhood” as we began to think in terms of the interconnected web of life of which we are all apart. The social sciences taught us how violence begets violence, and recently proved that there is a relationship between happiness and proximity to other happy people. We understand now that nitrates used in American farming effect coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean. Our sense of what it means to be a Universalist has expanded. We used to sing “God’s love embraces the whole human race.” [#298] now we sing “Respect the water, land and air which gave all creatures birth; protect the lives of all that share the glory of the earth.” [#175] Who will be saved? Either all are saved or none are saved. The kingdom of heaven is not a gated community.
Still we have to ask; how can we be saved? Our friend Clarence Skinner writes “The idea of Universal Brotherhood is the great social dynamic of the twentieth century. Sometimes it is dynamite. It fires our hopes, builds our dreams, unfolds before us the messianic vision of an imminent Kingdom of heaven on earth.” Skinner believed that we could transform the word through our faith in human dignity. By the end of the 19th century, Universalists no longer about talked how to get to heaven but how to “progressively establish kingdom of God” here on Earth. (This idea can be found in the affirmation this congregation said every Sunday through most of the 20th century.)
Universalists wanted to save souls not from hell, but to save souls from the forces in this world that crush and diminish the spirit of life in each one of us. The Unitarian preacher and writer William Ellery Channing talked about the “capacities of the soul” and felt the purpose of life was to grow those capacities, of mind, creativity, love, justice, reason and many others. Folks who live in oppression, in crushing poverty, in fear of violence never get the chance to develop the powers of the soul; their life, their creativity is lost. This is how the 19th and early 20th century social activists wanted to build the kingdom of god, by creating a just world where not only was life saved from violence and death, but saved for something- saved for a full, rich, and deep life- that every soul might have a chance to grow. How will we be saved? We will save each other.
Building a Kingdom of God, or as a seminary buddy called it, a Kin-dom of god, one where we are all kin, is not something one of us can do on our own. It is not something one group can impose on another. Building a peaceable kin-dom is something that can only happen through our interactions, our relationships with one another. Our relatedness is not optional. We are deeply embedded in this web, in a “network of mutuality.” Says EcoFeminist Theologian Ivone Gebara “relatedness is the primary reality; It is constitutive of all beings. It is more elementary than awareness of differences or than autonomy, individuality or freedom. It is the foundational reality of all that is or can exist. It is the underlying fabric that is continually brought forth within the vital process in which we are immersed.” Or to put it another way “the interconnected web of which we are all part.” We build a peaceable kin-dom in the context of this relatedness, this web. Or if “relatedness” is too cumbersome a word, how about love? Contemporary UU theologian Rev. Rebecca parker says “Love generates life, from the moment of conception to the moment when we remember with gratitude and tenderness those who have died. And in the darkest night, when our hearts are breaking, love embraces us even when we cannot embrace ourselves. Love sages us and redirects us toward generosity.” (p. 14)
Well this leads us to our final question- when will we be saved? In the “left behind” books, we are waiting for a final battle between good and evil that we are inexorably heading towards. And this sense of “being saved later” follows us over into our UU theology sometimes. We will be saved when all people are treated justly and equitably, when science has a cure for the world’s diseases, when our fight is finally won. Parker had the audacity to ask “what if the apocalypse has already happened?” She calls our minds to all the destruction and violence of the 20th century and proposes that “In the aftermath of Apocalypse, the religious enterprise can be imagined as a kind of salvage work, recognizing the resources that sustain and restore life- resources that are ready at hand, not in some distant promise land.” (p. 22)
Parker finds in our UU theology a “realized eschatology” which I preached about last spring. Some of you will remember this idea that the end times are here and now- that when we say “the kingdom of god is nigh” we don’t mean “the end is coming” we mean, it is right here, it’s all around us.
So the time for salvation is now. The place for salvation is here in this neighborhood, this earth, this body. Who is to be saved? All of us. We all need saving, and we all have the capacity to be preserved, protected and salved. And what we are saving is love, this beautiful web of life- not just to allow life to survive, but to allow the profound beauty and vibrancy of all beings to flourish and grow. And how can we be saved? Through relationship. By connecting and re-connecting to one another and with the web of life of which we are all a part. If anyone asks you “are you saved?” feel free to answer “yes, I am. We all are.”