Olson Sermon Excerpts
Compiled by John Addington
The majority of his sermons are not easily quoted in sound bites. He had a great deal to say about UU theology, which is listed here in depth. Other topics include Mortality, Sin, Prayer, Religious Education, and an excerpt about the congregation before its move to the new church house.
The Community of Liberal Religion
FROM “RELIGIOUS LITERATURE,” FEBRUARY 1962
It is not necessary to inform intelligent people that the world constantly is becoming more and more a unit, with the highest interests of each person in it inseparably connected with the welfare of all others. . . . However, we do need to develop practices by which this fact may enter our spirits and influence our actions. No greater force operates in this direction that that of liberal religion. If we can bring ourselves to an acquaintanceship with, and a sympathy for, those who, under a different name and leader, embrace the same or similar ideals, we shall be closer to God and closer to our fellow men. It is this purpose and hope which inspires the Unitarian Universalist to share with others the truths of our faith. It is this purpose and hope which leads us to seek wisdom and truth regardless of its finite source.
FROM “REALISTIC RELIGION,” OCTOBER 1961.
It seems to me strange and sad that the institutions which ostensibly exist to promote religion in the world should employ so much of their resources in upholding beliefs whose appeal and authenticity diminishes steadily with the passing years. The spiritual values, on the other hand, do not essentially change. The situations in which we find ourselves in the twentieth century demands ever more insistently that we learn to match our growing control over material nature by promoting the control of worthy values over mankind, over us. To strive toward this end, in whatever slow and painful stages, would seem to be the supremely important and significant task of religion in the present age. And this, I submit, would be a realistic religion — beyond mythology, but actually closer to Man and to God.
FROM “THE LAWS OF WORSHIP,” PRINTED IN THE UNIVERSALIST LEADER, MARCH 1955.
Worship is a renewed self-commitment to the creative life, to the highest ideal, to the consecrated service of hopes, dreams and aspirations. It is the practice of whatsoever ceremonies, rites or other means as may serve to bring the individual more completely under the control of what is variously called the better self, the noble desire, the Divine Mind, the Kingdom of God, the All-highest, or simply, God. Some, with a reluctance to use complex or mystical terms, simply say that they seek to serve The Good.
It is possible that a person will lose his true sense of proportion for a time, after joining a Universalist church, in reaction against the misrepresentations of a dogmatic orthodoxy and in response to an intoxicating sense of release in liberal religious freedom.
If and when this happens, there may be a failure to recognize that true liberalism must maintain its own element of conservatism, if it is to be valid. That is, there must be an awareness that not all of the past is to be repudiated as a condition of religious growth. As a matter of fact, the opposite is true. Every present good has its roots in the past. Every present growth depends for much of its nourishment upon that which has been.
FROM A PAMPHLET, “AN UNDERSTANDING OF UNIVERSALISM,” PUBLISHED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLICATIONS OF THE UNIVERSALIST CHURCH OF AMERICA. THE FIRST PRINTING, IN APRIL 1949, WAS 2,000 COPIES. IT WAS REPRINTED IN 5,000 COPIES IN MARCH 1950 AND IN 10,000 COPIES IN JANUARY 1951 AND MARCH 1953.
Universalism is so much a faith that grows and acquires increasing significance within the individual, that one must liken it to a gem of many facets, each of which may catch and shine forth with a new brilliance as the light of truth plays upon it. . . .
The great difference between Universalist and other churches is that we are a non-creedal church. . . . Our most prized possession is what is often called “the liberty clause” in all our statements of program and purpose. Whenever, in any assembly the Universalist Church sets forth its judgment, there is written into such a statement these words or the equivalent of this thought: “Neither this nor any other precise form of words is required as a creedal test.” …
If each of us were given pencil and paper, and asked to set forth a concept of God, the result would be a variety of statements, I am sure. . . .If … we would share these several expressions — gathering from one and from another a stimulating thought, but retaining our rights to formulate our own ultimate conclusion — we would be illustrating the Universalist attitude and procedure.
And following this latter procedure, we would be Universalist if, within this variety of concepts, we would affirm that — whatever the nature of the particular lesser emphases — this Creative Power and Spirit of the Universe is to be conceived as in and through everything and everyone that is. This is what we mean when we assert the Universal Fatherhood of God. Universalists assert that God is neither tribal, racial, creedal or national: God is universal!
Universalists differ among themselves concerning the natural or supernatural character of Jesus. Acceptance of Jesus’ authority is not based upon any requirement of acceptance for the miracle stories. Many Universalists see them as the familiar literary device of gospel times to add stature to any revered person. . . . Reverence for Jesus does not depend on any special or peculiar circumstance surrounding his birth or death, but upon the splendid quality of his life and upon the timeless value of his judgments and precepts. . . .
Among Universalists, the Bible is regarded as religious literature containing a record of the spiritual aspirations of man. . . . Universalists do not regard the Bible as verbally inspired and infallible. They do regard it as inspiring and helpful in countless ways. . . .
Universalists hold that punishment is not for sin, but by sin. That is, when anyone does wrong, the action contains its own retribution. The verb “to sin” — as it appears in the Bible — is translated literally “to miss the mark.” . . . The problem of good and evil is one which no man has explained in a satisfactory manner. Much that happens in our world defies rational interpretation. The Universalist position, however, may be indicated by saying that “evil carries within itself its own disastrous consequences.”…
Universalists admit to limitations of knowledge which prevent them from expressing any certain and definite familiarity with whatever lies beyond the mortal existence. . . .
The best possible preparation for any future life is to be found in living this life to the best of our ability. Good must triumph over evil. This is the end toward which we strive.
Universalism recognizes that religion has divided itself into many historic forms. These forms have shared in men’s ignorances and superstitions. At the same time, they have nourished humanity’s higher life and produced its nobler attitudes. Accordingly, Universalists believe that there should be developed an appreciation and an understanding of other faiths and traditions. Each faith should be regarded not as a paganism to be scorned, but as a part of the infinite spiritual wealth with which humanity is endowed. . . .
Many people become partially acquainted with the Universalist or Unitarian Church by learning of the protests and denials which adherents make in the face of orthodox and authoritarian creeds and demands and restrictions. As a result, there arises a mistaken assumption that Universalists and their liberal colleagues believe nothing and unite only to repudiate the ordinary concepts of other church people. Let me undertake to correct this impression, but with no apology for denials or repudiations when they are necessary in the service of truth. . . .
Universalists affirm that . . . the power to think and to reason is one of the most divine. We claim that there is no other way in which to separate error from truth except by investigation and the use of reason. We believe, therefore, that there must be free and full inquiry into religion as well as into every other phase of life. . . .
As we study our world and the universe, we see it to be a unity — a cosmos and not a chaos. Its creation transcends our human intelligence, but observable evidence impresses us with its operation in response to natural laws, functioning without exceptions or interruptions. Universalists have faith in its dependability, and believe that from man’s intelligence must be produced the means for curing the ills of existence. . . .
Man, as part of the world of nature, is constantly gaining new behaviors, and there are within him the ideals and impulses toward a better world. This attitude crowds out the idea that man is born in sin and requires redemption by supernatural means. Moral progress is the evolving of man toward a more complete cooperation and sympathy.
FROM A PAMPHLET “MAKING RELIGION REAL,” PUBLISHED BY THE ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSALIST WOMEN OF THE CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER (FIRST UNIVERSALIST CHURCH), MARCH 1942.
I think that we all feel that Christianity has stood for an ethical development and stimulus which has been very fruitful. Its influences for good can hardly be overestimated. . . . But we should be able to look at things objectively if we are to understand why we have moved away from orthodoxy and find ourselves in a relatively small numerical group with an obviously great influence upon modern thought and life. . . .
Beginning as an essentially democratic brotherhood of fellow-believers in which wisdom and experience, rather than authority, guided affairs, the Christian Church gradually adopted the political form of the society in which it existed. Officials of the Church gained more and more power to suppress disagreement and to maintain the outlook which became traditional. . . .
Protestantism was a reform rather than a revolution in its religious aspects. Real revolutions take centuries for growth. . . . But the break in organization opened the way for the subsequent divisions which came as differences continued to arise within succeeding groups which maintained rigid doctrinal standards. . . .
It was in this fashion that the Universalist Church and other religious groups of our day were formed. . . . By some fortunate circumstance, these truly liberal groups admitted to their consideration what we call the scientific attitude of mind. When they found that some specific doctrine was placed in question by the revealed fact of an advancing science, they subjected the doctrine to scrutiny. . . . By this action was achieved a realization that religion is most real and most serviceable when it is used as lens to focus human abilities and aspirations upon daily life. . . . Freedom from dogma and doctrine as conditions of association made possible a wider and broader fellowship, one more fruitful in the harmonizing of deed to the supreme creed of brotherhood. . . .
The ideals and methods of such a religion can never be easy. Ease is always evidence of religion’s absence. . . . When seriously applied to life, religion is never mere conventionalism, never a matter of laissez faire. . . .
This religion of which I speak is one which will . . declare with certainty that God is part of each one of us and that divinity may arise within each one of us as we seek and attain and cherish the highest human values.
FROM “LIBERAL RELIGION,” A PAMPHLET PUBLISHED BY THE WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION OF THE CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER, FIRST UNIVERSALIST SOCIETY OF MINNEAPOLIS , AND CONTAINING THREE SERMONS PREACHED IN JANUARY 1941.
(this seems to me to be useful as individual nuggets of how he regards the Universalist faith and of what he believes about Jesus and about God. J.A.)
Religion played an important role in the development of democratic ideals. There comes to us now a somewhat belated and haunting thought that religion and respect for our fellow-men may be inseparably related and that, having prided ourselves that our good society did not need religion, we may have been coasting under a power exerted by previous generations. And we now face the alternative of doing some pushing ourselves or of seeing our progress cease. . . .
Freedom of thought when it is sincere, is the sine qua non of Universalism. You and I, as religious liberals, have the right and duty of thinking for ourselves and the obligation to follow those principles which commend themselves to us as sound and worthy and practicable and adequate. . . . As we look back over the years and call to mind those who were regarded as liberals (and quite possibly as heretics) in their day, THIS is the tie that binds us in a continuum. Little creeds have their day — they have their day and cease to be. But the urge to THINK and to EVALUATE and to reach INDEPENDENT CONCLUSIONS is the continuing genius of our faith. . . .
The test of the adequacy and value of any religion is in its practical and spiritual implications, not only for you — but for all the world of men. This is to say, as Jesus and fellow-prophets of religion in every age have said, true religion must be inclusive to have value. Personal concepts of salvation often are but masks to cover one’s selfishness — and they cover it but poorly. True religion must be something grander, broader, higher and deeper than this. It must have dimensions great enough to merit the title, Universalism.. . .
There is no merit in adhering to the faith of the fathers, merely because the fathers had a faith. Religion is a developing understanding, modified and enriched by human associations and life situations. Once a group believes that it possesses truth beyond which the mind cannot go, religion becomes static. A practical value in our faith is its admission of place for change.
Some creedal statements [assert] beliefs to the exclusion of purposes. Assent to a set of beliefs does not produce a religious life. . . . If we have a grasp of truth we must do more than merely hold it! . . .
Having come into existence within the Christian tradition, the Universalist Church accepts this heritage willingly. But it looks to the teachings of Jesus rather than to the person of Jesus for Christianity’s meaning. . . .
We turn to the Bible as a source of wisdom, gladly, but without binding ourselves to regard it as the sole source of wisdom. . . .
We believe that God is good. We admit that definitions are impossible and that description is a futile effort. But we are convinced that truth is a stronger force and more reliable than error, and that error cannot prevail when men of good will ally themselves with truth. . . .
Some have said that the righteous are justified by their faith. We say that the faithful are justified by their devotion to the right. . .
It is certainly true that man is not perfect, but to think him bound inextricably in toils of depravity is contrary to all the religion which we possess. . .
Universalists draw no sharp line between the practical and spiritual in life. We hold that the ideals and aspirations which are a part of our religion should be committed to actual operation and influence in life. . . On the other hand, we hold that everyday living should be so guided as to reach constantly toward the highest potentialities attainable. . . .
Traditional theology asserts belief in man’s fall from grace and in his continuance under the influence of what is called “original sin.” Liberal religion, on the contrary, holds to what may be called a belief in the rise of man.. . .
Where mortal life was once regarded as a melancholy pilgrimage toward bliss to come in after-life, a modern faith bids us make of this existence a worthy preparation for whatever is to be. . . .
A modern faith, in my opinion, does well and wisely to abandon a search for God as an entity in time and space. . .
There remains so much which man might yet accomplish to remedy the imperfections now apparent, it seems our time were better spent in this than in speculation upon the definite nature of deity. For my own part, I feel the wisdom of the hymnist and say with him: I do not ask to see the distant scene — one step enough for me.” Pressed for a definition, I would say, “God is the Power which makes for righteousness.” And — as a Universalist — I would say that within all men a portion of that power resides.
FROM A PAMPHLET “FINDING A FAITH BY WHICH TO LIVE,” EARLY 1940, PUBLISHED BY THE WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION OF THE CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER (FIRST UNIVERSALIST SOCIETY)
As we observe the problems which face us in our day, we may be sure that we cannot say: “Let us all adopt a religion adapted to present needs, in harmony with modern thought, democratic in principle, conscious of its social mission,” and find our job done by the statement.
Religion must be the product of the inner self. It arises naturally or not at all. Its strength and stability come from within. Personal faith is its root: ideals and causes are its flowers and fruits.
FROM “AN UNDERSTANDING OF LIBERAL RELIGION, A SUMMARY PREACHED AT YEAR’S END OF 1958.
(This is a lot longer than most of the excerpts, but I think it is an excellent summation of one minister’s beliefs as of 1958. John Addington)
Religious liberalism teaches not merely that Jesus was human, not divine, but that the human race is capable of producing such leaders as Jesus, as Buddha, Confucius and others, and it teaches that all men are the sons of God, actually or potentially.
Religious liberalism teaches that men love and yearn for good. They make mistakes in in the efforts to attain good, as do we all, but they — and we — continue to seek it. Children are born, not of or in sin, but of their parents’ love of life and desire for fulfillment. …
Religious liberalism teaches that the religious books of all peoples are to be respected and revered as the products of the aspirations and as their interpretations of the meaning of life.
Religious liberalism does not simply reject the Trinity, it teaches that the spirit which we call God is present everywhere, in all things and in all persons, and at all times. No figure or representation or limitation is great or broad enough to contain what we mean. To present God as Trinity is not very different from presenting it as a many-headed Hydra. Any figure limits the concept; no figure contains it.
Religious liberalism teaches that life is unending, that death is a phase of life, that the forces of life are present everywhere, at work constantly, neither beginning nor ending ever, at any point in time, as far as we know.
And as for belief in a personal God, religious liberalism knows that all so-called personal Gods are determined by the ideals of men, in different ages, in different places, at different stages of growth. They change as man changes. We respect these human ideals and human yearnings, but we do not deify them. We try to reach outward and beyond.
Religious liberalism holds that every person not only has the right and the privilege, but also bears the burden and the responsibility of thinking honestly, of examining carefully, of speaking in accordance with his convictions. Each individual is morally bound to think what he MUST think in the light of his own experience and understanding. It is one of the functions of religion to guarantee the freedom of each individual to fulfill this moral responsibility. It is the duty of each parent and teacher to free the child to accept, to understand, and to live in accordance with his universal human responsibility and privilege. When properly assumed, this responsibility and privilege never can result in irresponsible or inconsequential thinking. Only as each of us is encouraged and challenged to think truly and freely, in the judgment of religious liberalism, can religion truly serve us and our world in quest for reason and reality.
FROM A PAMPHLET, “WHY UNIVERSALISTS CANNOT BELIEVE IN HELL,” PUBLISHED IN 1950 IN RESPONSE TO A BILLY GRAHAM CRUSADE IN MINNEAPOLIS. IT IS A CONDENSATION OF A SERMON PREACHED ON OCT. 8, 1950, AND FINANCED BY THE PRINTING FUND OF THE ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSALIST WOMEN OF MINNEAPOLIS.
This morning’s scheduled discussion has been set aside to permit the more important and necessary consideration of the fires of hell which have been kindled oratorically in this community in an effort to frighten men, women and children into a profession of the Christian religion.
In common with a number of other clergymen, I have been reluctant to engage in verbal fisticuffs — and I do not propose to do so now. But, when the insidiously foreign and perverted doctrine of hellfire and eternal damnation is proclaimed as an essential of Christian belief, there must be at least one voice of protest and of challenge raised in a Christian pulpit. I do so protest!
However, let it be clear: every person has a right to his opinion, and a right to express that opinion. I protest not the man, but the doctrine. The issue is not one of being intolerant, but of being intelligent!
Universalists cannot believe in hell for five reasons: It is contrary to the Bible; It is contrary to Christianity; It is contrary to science; It is contrary to reason; and finally, it is contrary to religion.
By the last point, I mean that such a belief is a denial of the majesty, the power, and the purpose of God!
It is very clear that belief in eternal hell and damnation is contrary to the Bible. This is an historic contention of Universalism, and it can be documented.
When we realize that the Bible was not written in English, we know that we must go behind the English words to see whether the translations have been accurate. As we do this, we discover the word “hell” appears in the English translation fifty-three times. And in the more ancient manuscripts, it was invariably one of four words: Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, or Tartarus. None of these words meant a place of eternal torment prepared by God for his children!
Sheol, according to the early Jewish view, was the abode of all the dead. Distinguished from the grave, it was also known as “the place of silence” or as “the land of forgetfulness.” This accounts for thirty-one of the references.
Hades, a Greek term, designated the same thing — the abode of the shades or spirits of the dead. Actually, in its ten instances, it is used as a figure of speech for a moral reality,
Gehenna was the common name for the Valley of Hinnom, outside of Jerusalem. The term appears eleven times and in a definitive moral sense. The place was used, at a very ancient time, as the scene of sacrifices. Subsequently, it became a dump. Accordingly, it was suggestive of disgust and abhorrence and uselessness — but not of any physical post-mortal abode.
The term “Tartarus” appears once in the Bible, and that is in the Second Epistle of Peter, the second chapter, the fourth verse. The word is a heathen term, derived from the Greek mystery cults. It is sometimes used synonymously with Hades, but it merits special attention because it indicates the beginning of the corrupting heathen influences which have perverted the religion of Jesus into something which he would never recognize as his faith.
This brings me to my second point — that a belief in a hell of eternal torment is contrary to the entire teaching and spirit of Jesus. As a matter of fact, the question of what becomes of men at death was never asked of Jesus, nor was it ever taken up by him independently. Christianity, if it is to be understood as a presentation of the precepts of Jesus, must be framed in the spirit of his message.
Surely no one can study the life, the precepts and the practices of Jesus and ever reach a conclusion that he condemned anyone to utter hopelessness and torment by any fires of hell. He spoke of God as a Father and he, himself, urged that men and women should know and acknowledge God as such. His message was that the Divine was infinite in love and mercy, anxious that humanity should develop and display these qualities. I tell you, a Christianity which presents the doctrine of an eternal hell is foreign to everything which Jesus represented. As a matter of actual fact, this is literally true! The real source of these ideas in religion is not be found in the faith of Jesus, but in the ancient Persian teachings and mythologies. The ideas are not Christian!
That these ideas are irrational, contrary to reason, obviously depends in great part for its endorsement upon an individual’s ability and willingness to think. Let me suggest two approaches in this connection.
In the first place, I ask you to accept the concept that God is at least as good as you and I. If you will grant this, how unreasonable it becomes to attribute those qualities and actions which, in you or in me, would be despicable! If a man or woman thrusts a child’s body into a furnace, or even sears it briefly with a glowing iron, how would we feel about it? Could a rational person believe in that kind of a God? It is absurd!
Or, to use another approach, if we believe that God is infinite in love and wisdom and power, where is that wisdom or love or power if it is to be defeated in eternity? If such were to be the destiny of mankind — and an infinitely wise God would have known it from the beginning — where is the why of creation? The whole of creation and of history becomes fantastically unreasonable, if we hold this view!
The revivalist, according to newspaper accounts, admitted that he did not know about hell but stated that he believed in a hell of torment over which a wrathful and vengeful God presides. I admit to a similar lack of knowledge, but I cannot accept the sort of God which would act in the manner projected. Such a creature might become my Devil, if I believed in one, but such a creature as would condemn anabaptized millions and non-Christian billions to eternal fire would never qualify as my God!
In addition to these points, there is the truth that belief in such a hell is contrary to science. There are many aspects to this contention, yet the problem of simple geographical location is enough to convince me. Back in the days when everyone thought that the earth was flat, with a canopy of heaven above and a pit of darkness beneath, this might have been a feasible concept. In the light of today’s knowledge, it is an outmoded superstition. No further comment in this connection is necessary.
In my listing of reasons why Universalists cannot believe in a hell of eternal torment, I said that it was contrary to the Bible, contrary to Christianity, contrary to reason, contrary to science, and contrary to religion. This latter item was explained as indicating that Universalists maintain that acceptance of this dogma, unsupported as it is, would be a denial of the majesty, the power, and the purpose of God. I want you to think with me for a moment upon this suggestion.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson purchased his farm at Concord, he said that he obtained more than those who sold it supposed that they were conveying to him, for he acquired possession not only of the land and buildings, but also of the landscape, the beauty of the flowers, the glory of the sky, the songs of the birds, and the enchanting interest of the manifold forms of life around him. All these were there before, but they waited for someone to recognize and appreciate them. So it has been with the love of God and with his children in this world and in religion. Universalists reach toward a broader appreciation and understanding.
In religion, each one of us has the possibility of gaining either a narrow piece of sectarianism and creed or a portion of the great and wonderful universe of creation and of humanity. The sense of the Fatherhood of God, universal and all-inclusive, is within religion — if we have the spirit and the vision to know it. The sense of the Brotherhood of Man, similarly universal and all-inclusive, is there — if we have the spirit and the vision to show it.
As for me, and all who would claim the name of Universalist, I sincerely decline to believe the worst of God and prefer to hold a faith in love and kindness and inclusiveness as his attributes. I pretend to no greater knowledge than any mortal, but I adhere to what I believe to be the greatest and most glorious faith! It can be stated in these words:
“All that I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen. Whatever it be which the Great Providence prepares for us, it must be something large and generous and in the great style of all his works.!”
FROM “WHEN MINDS ARE FREE,” PRINTED IN THE UNIVERSALIST LEADER, SEPTEMBER 1957
Thomas Huxley, in his “Science and Culture,” said this: “ History warns us that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions.” This, I suggest, is what has happened in Christianity as the religion of Jesus has become set in the molds of orthodoxy. Some of us have heard the pronouncements of orthodoxy, with reference to men and women as “miserable sinners” whose only hope for salvation, allegedly, lies in the formula of the particular denomination which is being presented. Ritual and rite, confession and creed, denomination and dogma are imposed in the name of one who said, simply, Love God and your neighbor!
Again, in our day, religion needs that declaration of independence from formalism and ritual which Jesus made two thousand years ago. . . . Instead of being told that we are miserable sinners, we ought to be challenged to become disciples of the teachings of Jesus and of every great and good leader of mankind that we act like Children of God.
FROM “THE FUTURE OF RELIGION,” JUNE 1961
(The quote is unattributed, but probably from Theodore Parker, who is frequently quoted earlier in the sermon.)
The future of religion, as it seems to me, is to be found within the essential being of him who can understand that “From the day of his birth, a man reaches out — First with his hands, Then with his mind — Never satisfied, Until at last he reaches out with his heart.”
FROM “THE LEADERSHIP OF JESUS,” MAY 1961
(The sermon asserts that Jesus was firmly rooted in the Judaism of his time, and that “the Judeo-Christian stream of religious development . . . makes more sense if it is regarded as a continuity — which it actually is.” He quotes Jesus’ declaration: “Thou shalt love the God and thy neighbor as thyself. Upon these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.”)
What does this mean? Not that there is any break in the sequence of religious teaching as to the duties of man — but that man’s duty must be brought to the level of daily human application IF IT IS TO HAVE ITS FINEST MEANING AND ITS GREATEST SIGNIFICANCE!
This was what Jesus was trying to teach, as a religious radical and reformer within the framework of Judaism. Upon this emphasis does Jesus’ religious leadership rest!
Those who followed Jesus distorted his message and produced a devolution of Christianity away from vital ethical and moral teachings toward a stress upon forms and ceremonies and extraneous concepts, influenced by myths and superstitions.
That was exactly the situation against which Jesus revolted, in the first place. That was the reason that he stressed human brotherhood and kindness as the essentials of religion. . . .
As religious liberals, our purpose must be to let nothing obscure the primary purpose of religion, which should be, in each one of us, to make themselves better persons and our world a better place in which to live.
FROM “THE LARGER FAITH,” EASTER 1961.
Critics of the Liberal Faith have often scored Universalism as being a negative religion, receiving its initial impulse from denial. The criticism is true insofar as all great religious movements are set into action by a reaction from an unacceptable limitation in the old attitude. But such critics fail to see that the only denial made by Universalism is against some form of partialism which is in itself a denial of the unity, integrity or universality of religion. Universalism negates only the negative, and thus produces a positive faith. . .
This is Easter Day. And how shall we celebrate such a day? Shall we mouth the fevered hope that we shall be individually projected into eternity? What good will that do us, or do for humanity? Better for us to realize that this day is a symbol of the possibility that we may make our lives, in the here and now, things of eternal worth. THAT is the basic meaning of this day.
FROM A PAMPHLET “WHY I READ THE BIBLE,” A SERMON PREACHED ON NOV. 26, 1939, JUST BEFORE DR. OLSON’S INSTALLATION AS OUR FOURTH SETTLED MINISTER ON DEC. 1, 1939, THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS ORDINATION “INTO THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY.” THE PAMPHLET WAS PUBLISHED BY THE WOMEN’S ASSOCIATION OF THE CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER (FIRST UNIVERSALIST SOCIETY).
1. I read the Bible because it helps me to understand what other people are talking about! . . . English literature abounds in references to incidents and characters presented in the Bible. . . . In just four or five pages of Browning’s poetry, there were well over 100 Biblical allusions . . . The content of the Bible has percolated into our consciousness to such an extent that our language would be impoverished without it.
2. I read the Bible also because of its intrinsic worth as literature! . . . No other volume in the world contains such a diversified congregation of literary styles. . . . For me, there is no idea of the Bible as infallible. Consequently, I can read poetry as poetry, history as history, legend as legend. . . .
3. It helps me to understand (and to live with) all kinds of people when I am able to turn to the Bible and meet them there. It shows me that human nature which I see today is similar to that which existed in a far different era and environment. . . I find suggestions which help me in modern life in a complicated world.
4. A fourth reason why I read the Bible is that it teaches me of evolution!
This may sound strange, inasmuch as many declare that the theory of evolution undermines the Bible’s values. . . . That the Bible offers teachings regarding evolution may be verified by a consideration of the progressive development of religion revealed in its pages. . . .
Thus we have the religion of Yahweh, the tribal god in a world of other tribal gods; the religion of the Jews, which is a monotheism . . . with some traces of universalism within it; and the religion of Jesus and the Christians which — with certain modifications to eliminate foreign influences — we hold as our own. . . .
We may surely affirm that the Bible supports a theory of gradual and potential development. It is not a final word but an introduction to that which may be brought to pass.
5. I read the Bible because there I find the biography and the message of Jesus! . . .
If you and I are to understand for ourselves the meaning of Christianity, we must turn to the Bible and read intelligently there. . . . When Jesus was asked for the essence of religion, he mentioned no rites or creeds. . . . His sermons were geared to life.
Jesus conceived of the Divine Power as one resident in the world, not as something far removed from man. . . . Reading the Bible is the best way of which I know for any person to reach the ultimate in religion — the conviction that religion is a matter of daily, personal responsibility.
FROM “CONCERNING GOD,” ONE IN A SERIES OF 10 PAMPHLETS ON UNIVERSALIST BELIEFS, PUBLISHED BY THE PUBLIC RELATIONS COMMITTEE OF THE CHURCH, UNDATED. IT WAS MAILED FREE TO THOSE WHO CONTRIBUTED TO THE CHURCH BUDGET AND WAS AVAILABLE BY MAIL TO OTHERS, FOR $1 EACH.
As is well-known, the term “God” is one which I use deliberately. There are some who so emphatically reject the commonly accepted connotations of the word that they wish to avoid any possibility of creating a false impression, and so they reject the word itself. . . . For my own part, I am somewhat obstinate in refusing to those whom I regard as the enemies of honest and intelligent religion all the rights to a term which is as much mine as theirs! . . .
Almost all Universalists, and I use this moderate designation to preserve always a basic element of individual freedom — admitting their own limitations of knowledge, accept the physicists’ statement that the universe is composed of units of energy. This energy does eventuate in objects that are separate and unique. And the principle or power or spirit by which this energy is grouped into patterns or configurations that give us this world in a form apprehensible by humans may properly be called GOD!
Moreover, we, ourselves, are part of this energy, power, spirit. We are part of a universe in which exist virtues and values in which we may share and in which others may share. It is very difficult to reduce thoughts of God into terms which are simple and common. . . . For we are dealing with the perennial mystery — the real depths and nature of which we cannot actually plumb. But it may help to say that we recognize some things in life as being good, and true, and beautiful. Whatever it is that makes these things good, beautiful and true, we call GOD!
FROM A PAMPHLET “CONCERNING JESUS,” SEPTEMBER 1955, PART OF A SERIES ENTITLED “UNIVERSALIST BELIEFS.”
All through Christian history there has been this contrast between the religion ABOUT Jesus and the religion OF Jesus. There has been the Christianity that makes ceremonial and creed the essential things; and there has been the Christianity that relegates these to a lesser position to make essential A WAY OF LIFE — characterized, as Jesus said, by love to God and love to Man.
Universalists, as a whole, adhere to this latter interpretation of the Christian religion. They accord to ceremonials and to forms a real recognition when they serve as symbols of valid truths. And, it should be noted, this does not imply that everything ancient is denied because it is ancient. There are many truths which apply today as they did centuries ago. But it is our responsibility to test their validity. . . .
As regards the nature of Jesus himself, it is commonly held among Universalists that he was a great religious prophet and leader. It is held that he was different from other men in the degree of his spiritual development and not in the nature of his birth or being. . . It is far more important, Universalists say, to concentrate upon the vital business of applying religion to life than to argue over theology. . . .
Jesus’s central, all-pervading teaching is that there should be harmony within one’s self, and that it must be attained through learning that nothing less than universal brotherhood can supply humanity with its essential spiritual needs.
FROM “CONCERNING THE BIBLE,” APRIL 1956, FROM THE SERIES “UNIVERSALIST BELIEFS.”
Universalists affirm that the Old Testament is of great value in showing the growing, changing, evolutionary, instrumental character of man’s quest for happiness, security and understanding. It is priceless as an ancient literary collection. . . .
In the New Testament, Universalists believe, there is shown a schism; then a new religion laboriously extricating itself from the old; adapting, changing, modifying, adjusting itself to another culture; becoming a religious synthesis. [It ] is regarded as valuable because it shows the origins of a new religion . . . It, too, is is a literary collection of high merit.
In all honesty, it should be said that Universalists see clearly enough to acknowledge that the Bible often has been and often is today at times a vicious instrument of the stupidity, superstition, credulity, ignorance and book-worship of groups in the western world. The Bible has been made an instrument of magic, opposing learning, darkening men’s minds, imprisoning their spirits, fettering their intellects, and delivering them to error.
One of the great tasks of the Church today, as Universalists see it, is to rescue the Bible from its status as the foundation of error and to place it upon on honorable level as the depository of ancient wisdom, much of which has eternal application and current value.
FROM “INTELLIGIBLE IMMORTALITY,” EASTER 1960.
If there is one thing certain in this whole world of human life and experience, it is that man’s hopes and ideals cannot be refuted by the mere fact that they cannot be proved now. Lack of proof, proves nothing; it makes no great amount of difference, if the hypothesis rests upon reasonable assumptions. What does make a difference is this: that any person who admits to the remotest possibility of immortality should fail to remind himself oftener that once a year of its implications! In every day of the week, in every hour of the day, there are challenges before us to make ourselves worthy of the highest hopes and noblest ideals of mankind.
Only as we are constant in our efforts to bring Truth, Beauty and Goodness into our lives and to share them with others, can we approach or appreciate an Intelligible Immortality.
FROM A PAMPHLET “CONCERNING IMMORTALITY” JUNE 1956, FROM THE SERIES “UNIVERSALIST BELIEFS”
Universalists emphasize the importance of directing one’s attention to the proper living of the life which we now have. . . . When we ally ourselves with the eternal values of truth and justice and love, seeking to give them expression in our lives, we need no assurance of another life in which to atone for failures in this one. . . . Universalists agree that it is . . . through deeds, thoughts, feelings and actions that we give our lives meaning and immortality which are beyond all conjecture. And Universalists are content to base their lives upon this conviction.
Since this is all a very personal matter, my own and personal thought may be pertinent at this point. My basic conviction is of my own ignorance. I do not know what lies ahead. (This is known as “respectable ignorance,” or as some say, agnosticism.) Beyond this, I admit a mild curiosity. But I am enjoying this life sufficiently not to want to satisfy the curiosity immediately . . Yet there is one aspect of my own attitude which seems to be understandably individualistic: it would be reasonable and satisfactory to me if, in the economy of the universe, my energies and substance should support one flower of the earth in time to come. . . .
It seems to me that none of us could wish for more than this: that our lives should be so builded through the years that they deserve continuance. And it would not surprise me, if this were true, that it should come to pass.
On religious education
FROM “A UNIVERSALIST PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGIOUS EDUCATION,” DATED JULY 1955.
(note that this was written six years before the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America into the Unitarian Universalist Association. I have read that the two denominations integrated their religious education efforts well before the merger. J.A.) It is important for us to realize that our program of religious education should not be designed primarily to produce Universalists and Unitarians. In our own image or in the image of a preceding generation. It should be designed to produce young people who shall be so equipped as to be capable of becoming religious liberals in their own right and in their own age! That is, the aim or our religious education should be not to transmit a theology to children but to help them in living their own lives and in preparing for an adulthood which shall include vital ethical and religious awareness, rather than an inheritance only.
This does not mean that we should deprecate or ignore institutional loyalty or cultivate a contempt for the questings of religious liberalism in the past or present. On the contrary, it involves the development of a sound respect for and interest in the history and achievements of Universalism and Unitarianism as they have served us and all mankind. But it should make this a part of what might be called a universal appreciation of humanity’s search for high judgments, noble ideals and lasting values. If this is done, we may have confidence in the outcome, I am sure.
FROM A PAMPHLET “CONCERNING PRAYER,” JANUARY 1956, PART OF A SERIES “UNIVERSALIST BELIEFS”
Every scholar of reputation confirms the fact that prayer is a central phenomenon of all religion; it is found universally.
[He devotes two long paragraphs to the kinds of prayer, including “the calm collectedness of a devout individual soul and as the ceremonial liturgy of a great congregation; . . . as the spontaneous expression of upspringing religious experiences, and as the mechanical recitation of an incomprehensible formula; . . . as loud shouting and crying, and as still, silent absorption; . . . as a simple petition for daily bread, and as an all-consuming yearning for God himself . . . As a desire to change God’s will and make it coincide with our petty wishes.”]
I submit that the motive of prayer is the effort to fortify, to reinforce, to enhance one’s life. And I submit that the essence of prayer is the creation of a unifying relationship between the spirit of man and the spirit which is basic in and to the universe — the spirit of God, however conceived. . . .
The greatest values and powers of prayer are to be found in the lives which you and I live in fulfillment or furtherance of our hearts’ true desires. What doth the Lord require of us but that we shall do justly, and love kindness, and walk humbly but determinedly in the performance, the actual performance or our duties to the best of our abilities?
FROM A PAMPHLET “CONCERNING SIN AND SALVATION,” FEBRUARY 1956, FROM THE SERIES “UNIVERSALIST BELIEFS.”
Crime is the violation of civil law. Vice is immorality resulting from the disregard of the social and ethical standards of society. In distinction from these, sin is an act or an attitude by which the reality of God is denied or violated. . . . Among primitive people, the notion of tabu was related closely to that of sin. Probably the concept of sin was derived from this source.. . .
It was the apostle Paul who stressed sin in Christian theology as being whatever did not come from faith. . . . Sin thus has become identified with unfaith, chiefly: if one does not believe, one is a sinner!. . .
One of the major problems which religious thinkers and theologians faced throughout the ages was that of the roots of sin, how it came to exist in a world created by the will of God and according to his plan. The question was how it was possible for man to misuse his freedom of will so that a sinner could set himself against God.
The apostle Paul set forth the alleged answer by supplying the basis for the doctrine of so-called “original sin.” The idea was that the sin which caused Adam’s fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden is transmitted from generation to generation, so that all the descendants of Adam must be regarded as being of a “perverted” or “depraved” nature.
Later, Augustine undertook to explain the manner of original sin’s transmission by linking it with the reproductive process, in what I regard as the most perniciously vicious teaching ever promulgated. No one can catalogue the enormity of evil, individual and social, which has resulted from the distortions of human life and of God which have resulted from the doctrine of original sin! . . .
While Universalists admit and deplore the existence of evil, their point of view is that, despite his shortcoming and his failures and his missings of the mark, mankind is not inherently and inescapably depraved. . . . What man needs, in the judgment of Universalism, is the challenge to meet life to make it whole and holy. . . .
Universalism rejects the doctrine of damnation, hell-fire and endless punishment at the hands of God. . . . God must be regarded as at least as good as we are! . . .
What we should fear, and what is no fiction, is one’s personal wrong-doing. . . .
Salvation, according to the orthodox viewpoint, consists of a redemption from hell and from the torments threatened mankind by God. From the point of view of Universalism, it is plain that such redemption is external, something done for us. And it is equally plain that recovery, such as is urged by Universalism, is internal, something accomplished within us. . . . The actual penalties for sin are suffered within, we maintain; so actual recovery must be brought about within, also. . . . It is this latter recovery which the Universalist regards as salvation.
On congregation history
FROM “THE WAY BY WHICH WE WALK,” PREACHED ON THE 85TH ANNIVERSARY SUNDAY, OCT. 22, 1944. THIS SEGMENT DESCRIBES THE MOVE TO CHURCH HOUSE.
The present pastorate began in November, 1939. It was apparent that population trends were away from the location of our building at Eighth Street and Second Avenue South. This was a serious situation, as a survey of actual and potential support revealed. Sale of our downtown property provided our congregation with the means for relocating in a satisfactory building and in a potentially more satisfactory site. This action was taken in the same spirit which prevailed throughout the previous history of the Society. Seeing the church building, wherever located, as a service center dedicated to the promotion of the cause of liberal Christianity, the decision was made. We would seek to serve where need and response were to be found.
But soon after the action was consummated, this congregation faced the fact of being a part of a nation at war. We were not responsible, but neither could we avoid responsibility. There could be no question as to our duty to forgo thoughts of a new church home until victory should be achieved. As others faced their responsibility, so must we — as a congregation — face ours. This has meant sacrifice, great sacrifice. But it has meant, too, that courage, conviction and devotion have been and are being called forth from us. It has meant that, once again, we must test our spirits and prove our powers.
Often, when we look back across the years to see the merits of the past, we see that our forebears in liberal Christianity have faced apparently discouraging circumstances. When the fire of 1888 gutted our Society’s home, there must have been many who despaired at the event. But, because there was courage and conviction and devotion, this event was overcome to lead to new achievement. Today we are called upon to possess and to exhibit those same qualities. And it is a deep satisfaction to be able to say that we are courageous, we are devoted, and we have conviction that our purpose can be and must be and shall be realized.
There are some who require special settings and fixtures to stimulate religious sentiment. We can appreciate their value, now perhaps more than ever before. But the thing which calls us together is something more than any of these. To this fact we bear strong witness. Handicaps often provide strength. So has it been for us. We have been crowded here in our Church House, but it has made us closer friends, both figuratively and literally. We have moved into a new section of the city, but the strangers around us are becoming our friends. We have relinquished many of the things which we had come to accept as a matter of course, but we shall appreciate them the more when we are able to have them again.