THE TRUTH ABOUT UNIVERSALISM
A Sermon by John Cummins, Minister
First Universalist Church of Minneapolis
The truth about Universalism is that it is really not Christian. At least, it is not Christian in the way that churches over the centuries have come to interpret Christian – as “believing in Christ, and him crucified,” as the third part of a triune God who somehow became the father of himself, was raised magically into heaven, and so saved all who believe.
There are a few Unitarian Universalists who, emphasizing the teachings of Jesus during his lifetime, believe that he was as nearly divine in his teaching and example as a human being can become, and that no person has ever equaled his example. Believing in the moral teachings of Jesus himself rather than in the accumulation of dogmas about him in later centuries, these few Unitarian Universalist Christians regard themselves as the true fundamentalists.
Others of us, by far the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists, while recognizing the validity of Jesus’ ethical teachings, believe something quite different. Namely, that Universalism means what its name implies. That it is not just a particular kind of Christianity, but that it is, in fact, a new world religion with universal implications and applications, able to recognize and assimilate validity in the moral and religious truth embodied in many religious traditions.
All of this would be mere matter for armchair philosophers like ourselves but for the fact that religious beliefs have very real consequences. One of these is war. People are still dying by the thousands because of the insularity of their religious beliefs. During the height of the Iranian-American controversy, the Ayatollah Khomeini banned all Western music from radio and television, feeling that such music was a heathen and polluting influence among the faithful. Western news reporters, knowing that the Koran teaches high respect for Christianity as a co-religion, asked Khomeini if the ban also included the great religious music of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Khomeini’s only reply was, “I know not those names.” An equal ignorance applies to Western knowledge of Iranian and Islamic culture and history. And so, in an extremely dangerous and war-prone atmosphere, we talked past each other.
The situation could be duplicated a hundred times over the earth where cultures, rooted in ancient religions, immersed in their insularity, view others as different, alien, hostile. The problem applies as much to Bird Island, Minnesota, where there are, at best, three churches (with as much difference between them as tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum) as it does to Khurdish tribesmen in the hills of northern Iran. Pity the poor child in each place! Each grows up assuming the whole world is Shi’ite, or Lutheran, as the case may be. It might not make any difference except that when such ethnocentric naïveté is backed by undreamed-of military might, as in the case of America, the result is the Viet Nam tragedy, the debacle in Iran, a generation of mistaken hostility toward China, reference to all communists as atheists, and the consequent backing of fascist dictatorships in South and Central America. Such ignorance will be the cause of world war III, if it happens. What may the child of Bird Island know of the lessons of Confucius or gentle Buddha, of the ways history and legitimate aspirations of these peoples? Yet, out of his ignorance, in the end, rise vast national policies with world wide implications. He may die of his own ignorance – as indeed, he did in Viet Nam. How strange, in a world of vast networks of communication, that this should be so.
The all-alike Christian churches of America need desperately to be challenged by the transcendent Universalism of a church like our own, that thinks in terms of world community, that does not raise up persons like Judd of Minnesota and John Foster Dulles, both the product of narrow Protestant missionary traditions determined to convert the “heathen”to their way or else, and who therefore found it easy to think of Communism as a great world wide conspiracy of “materialistic atheism.” Though neither of these men perhaps ever held a gun, thousands have died and thousands more made homeless refugees because of their influence on American foreign policy, in China, Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam, Iran, El Salvador, Chile, and on.
Unitarian Universalism, unique among the churches of America, not only teaches about world religions but further draws upon their historic beauty and wisdom for inspiration and guidance in worship; and encourages critical selection by individuals from among and within them of those values and practices which command respect and emulation. This “going beyond” merely teaching about world religion, to incorporate, pragmatically and emotionally, various aspects of world religions into a religious outlook that is uniquely one’s own is frankly an experiment in the name of religion. It is an effort to build a religious outlook that is appropriate for an age of one world, to build a religious outlook that allows and encourages the widest possible individual liberty, a religious outlook that is inclusive, healing, and unitive of the human family, rather than parochial, divisive, and prejudicial.
The question is not whether it’s popular, but whether it represents reality, whether it works, whether it stands a chance of preventing the world’s future children from dying in wars, which A. E. Hayden referred to as “The quest of the ages.” The chief criticism of Universalism by traditional Christians is that it is a patchwork of artificial borrowings from
various traditions/ a meaningless “potpourri” without roots or belonging, and as such is shallow, hollow, immature. This accusation of “syncretism,” of being a rootless and artificial mix, is a responsible one, and must be addressed. I address it briefly by pointing out that every religion on earth has always borrowed, knowingly or otherwise, from
every religion around it, and every religion that went before it, including Judaism and Christianity. Thus, Jesus, in the choicest of all prayers, prayed “Our Father who art in Heaven,” lifting a concept of “The Sky Father” directly from Zoroastrian religion of Persia that existed centuries before he was born. Thus the word Easter, taken from the Sanskrit word for dawn, borrows from the religious concept of the resurrection and renewal of all life that existed for thousands of years before Jesus died on a cross.
Every educated person must know that the religions of humanity do not exist in self-contained boxes, impenetrated by each other. The religious experience of the world is a vast tapestry of patterns woven geographically and historically, sharing and profoundly related to one another in symbols, ideals, and ethics -all dealing with universal human experiences of birth, marriage, death, kinship, idealism, and philosophy. Truth, understanding, and beauty flow through them all. None possesses a monopoly on truth or religious wisdom.
Now I admit that I could never make a good Buddhist if it were obligatory to shave my head and bow my spirit before the gong-beat of punctuated meditation, but when I reflect on the pity and compassion shown by the gentle Buddha toward the suffering of the world, then I feel at one with six hundred million Buddhists across the world who would follow his path.
I could never swallow Hindu images of divine beings with three faces and three sets of arms, and yoga only sets me to yawning with boredom, but when I think that for five thousand years, Hinduism has never tried to impose ecclesiastical uniformity on anyone, nor ever felt any divine mission to convert the world, then I am content to reach out to that breadth of tolerance. I could never touch my forehead to the ground five times a day at the muezzin’s call as do the Moslems, nor ascribe to Islam’s militancy, but when I reflect that Islam kept astronomy, mathematics, architecture, chemistry, poetry, and art alive when Christian Europe was sunk in a thousand years of darkness, brought civilization to the Arabian desert, and is totally colorblind, then I can still say, “Salaam, and thank you,” in all sincerity.
There are four ways of reacting to the diversity of religions in the world. The first and worst may be called DISPLACEMENT. In it, you attempt to displace all other points of view and replace them with your own. You organize and pay missionaries to do this. Next best is TOLERATION, or a neutral attitude of studied indifference. Not an offensive approach, certainly, but passive, undynamic, and uninspired. Third, ECLECTICISM, selecting out of the mélange certain aspects, and putting them in what is, principally, your own framework. An example of this would be Ba’hai which has 9 recognized world saviors. It has kept the notion of “savior,” yet fitted 9 of them into its own frame of reference. Fourth is SYNCRETISM; A full synthesis, or full acceptance of the totality of human aspiration.
To stand upon the shoulders of the past and not be buried by it is the challenge of our age of One World. This is just the way we should deal with the great heritage of human ideals and aspirations we have received from the past, and that have come down to us from the prophets and teachers of every age and tradition.
THE TRUTH ABOUT UNIVERSALISM IS THAT IT IS UNIVERSAL.