A quick note today: At the Union Forum, I shared some thoughts on the quickly changing perspectives on LGBTQ issues… Enjoy!
A quick note today: At the Union Forum, I shared some thoughts on the quickly changing perspectives on LGBTQ issues… Enjoy!
I recently studied American Theological Liberalism with Gary Dorrien, and was quite taken by a chapter (from Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology, Volume 1) on the social gospelers. As I read the chapter, I found myself saying “amen” to Walter Rauschenbusch’s understanding of Christianity, that Jesus’s message was that the personal and the political cannot be separated if we are to see the kingdom manifest ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ I was impressed that Walter could find his way out from under the abusive thumb of his father and find the joy and hope preached earlier by Bushnell – the very hope that seems truly absent in the orthodoxy of the elder Rauschenbusch.
And I found myself thinking this is remarkably familiar territory – I have never read Rauschenbusch or other social gospelers before, yet I had read these ideas, with a different spin. The light dawned when I arrived on the pages discussing the Federal Council of Churches. I knew from other study that Unitarian John Holmes and Universalist Clarence Skinner also wrote on the social gospel… yet they were absent. Mild curiosity turned to earnest consideration as I learned that the Unitarians and the Universalists were omitted from the Federal Council of Churches, all the while being frontrunners on the social gospel. So I wondered: why might that be?
As it turns out, both Holmes and Skinner were critics of Rauschenbusch and the social gospel promoted within the Federal Council. So I turned to the more familiar of the writings, Skinner’s Social Implications of Universalism, for answers.
Written in 1914 while serving as Professor of Applied Christianity at the Crane Theological School of Tufts College, Social Implications begins with a flat indictment:
The fact is that the traditional Protestant Church is dying, dying hard with colors flying and battling heroically, but nevertheless dying. The theology upon which it is built is dying; the individualism which called it into being is dying; the social order which it expressed is dying. Why should it not also die? (pg 1)
Indeed, Skinner is going after orthodoxy; he spills pages of ink arguing against the “religions of authority…who render stupid obedience to the established social order” (pg 9). He notes with derision that the traditional churches have been “so feeble” in social action because of “inertia inherited from the medieval ages when humanity lacked social dynamic” (pg 42). He argues that given the new age, “only those theologies which frankly and persistently align themselves with the world, and openly champion its potential goodness, can logically enter the great reformation of the twentieth century” (pg 48).
And it is there where Skinner shifts his attention from only skewering the orthodoxy to also calling out the liberal church. Any theology that sees salvation as coming “by escaping from a world which is inherently unsavable” – even in part, as Rauschenbusch promotes – is “individualistic, anti-social, medieval faith” (pg 49). He suggests that because of the emphasis on the death of Jesus, the church has inherited vicarious atonement which “has no social dynamic in it” (pg 55) – and that it is the social dynamic that is the actual ministry and religion of Jesus. “No dogmatic theologies about Jesus ever saved any one in society or out of society” he writes (pg 57), wondering why personal salvation should be necessary if the core of Jesus’s teachings are about social salvation. Instead of salvation being found in a statement of belief, a rite or sacrament, salvation, and Christianity itself, is “life lived in the open in the midst of the push and pull of social forces, and thus implies and demands a social context” (pg 59).
Skinner continues his arguments against the liberal church (particularly the hopeful theology of Bushnell that many social gospelers found attractive) in his section on “Hell and Salvation;” on the plus side, “liberal theology has successfully driven these nightmares [of a wrathful God and a brimstone hell] from the minds of enlightened men” (pg 63). Yet he thinks they have whitewashed the story, doing away with “moral accountability”; rather, the ideas of heaven and hell essential elements of religion. He makes this clear: “Universalism has not abolished the idea of hell. It has humanized and socialized it” (pg 63, emphasis his).
It is because of the hell on earth, then, that salvation is purely a social act as well; Skinner argues that “there is no royal road to salvation…it is as much subject to the natural law of cause and effect as is punishment” (65). Old ideas of heaven and hell are anti-social; thus, the need for personal salvation is anathema to the real salvation: saving ourselves in the here and now.
Skinner’s book is of course, largely an argument for Universalism, suggesting that its long history of social consciousness, open arms, and trust in a loving God will one day be at the center of a unified church. He believes that others will come around when they realize the truth of Universalism and let the medieval faith fall away completely. And obviously, that has yet to occur, if ever.
But the Universalists wanted to be at the table with the other social gospelers; that they and the Unitarians were sidelined left these two humanity-centered denominations to flounder and eventually find themselves. As Unitarian Universalists, we work alongside modern social gospelers, gently reminding them that we’ve been here for a long time – and welcome to the party.
I am pretty sure I was not the only person headed for a pulpit this morning who let out an extra moan after hearing the verdict in the Zimmerman trial.
In the midst of weeping for the Martin family, for our young black men, and the failed justice system…and after a while weeping also for women, for immigrants, for students, for the poor, for the marginalized… somewhere in the midst of my uncontrollable weeping, I let out a moan, knowing I had a sermon that felt like half a loaf compared to the shock, anger, sorrow, and fear we were all facing. How could I stand up and talk about a loving, father-mother god, when God was not in heaven and all was wrong with the world? How could I present this hopeful, encouraging service when we were faced with such pain?
That is when Pat Humphrey’s song came to mind (song begins at 1:53)…
I began to sing to myself and slowly began to stop crying. I knew I could not let this travesty of justice go unmentioned, but I also knew I could not write an entirely new sermon at midnight on Saturday.
But I could do something: I wrote a new call to worship for this morning – one that acknowledges our pain, our frustration, and our need to come together for comfort, for peace, for space, for nourishment. I invited us all to not get stuck, but to keep on moving forward. And we sang. And then we moved on to the rest of the service, talking about the loving, transcendent God that is found in Unitarian Universalism.
Of the many lessons I have learned since entering seminary, the one that’s been most remarkable and meaningful is the lesson about being present to the present moment of a congregation. You can have everything perfectly planned, but if they are hurting, or if there is strife, or if something tragic has happened, you have to be present to that pain and address it in a way that comforts and encourages. People want space for their pain to be acknowledged – and they want something to both nourish and distract them for a bit. We can’t let our inner preacher silence our inner pastor.
Nor can we let our own pains get in the way. Last month, in the midst of a bizarre crisis that hit my village and my family, I was slated to preach on the virtues of theism and humanism; the week, however, was difficult, and in my pain, all I wanted to say was “God’s dead and people suck.” Of course, I didn’t… I found a path through my pain to provide a message that was both authentic to the situation I found myself in and was nourishing to the congregation I spoke to. I had to keep on moving forward.
And that’s the lesson. We can pause and honor our pain. We can weep out of anger, fear, frustration. We can feel paralyzed by injustice. And we can pause with others who feel as we do. But then we have to take that next step. We cannot, CANNOT let injustice and hate win. We have to keep on moving forward.
As I completed the manuscript for my sermon entitled “God and Democracy” I realized that I write and speak more passionately as a Universalist than as a Unitarian. While my Unitarianism compels thought, my Universalism compels action.
I also know that my recent exposure to the Red Pill Brethren, as well as both Michael Tino’s Murray Lecture and Beth Ellen Cooper’s compelling presentation (“Occupy Your Faith”) further engaged my Universalism – that part of me that knows my power comes from my faith, is grounded in justice and compassion, that we are called to serve the family of humanity, to stand of the side of love, to make sure the smallest voice is heard, to do, to speak up, to act.
And so I delivered a sermon that was perhaps the most passionate sermon I’ve delivered, despite my feeling like death on a cracker. I demanded action of the congregation, but also of myself. As bad as I feel, I know I too have to be an active, willing participant in the lives around me. Who am I if I ask a congregation to serve the needs of those next door if I am unwilling to do it myself? Who am I to talk about mission and servant evangelism and the call of democracy as a call of faithful action if I am not going to act as well?
So my passion – my deep faith in a loving, benevolent God who, as Clarence Skinner remarks, “loves the universe, who hungers for fellowship, who is in and of and for the whole of life” – compels me to action, to be intimately and actively engaged with this amazing family of humanity.
Here we go. Are you ready? Am I ready?
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.