Have you ever heard a Unitarian Universalist speak of having had a conversion experience? Have you had such an experience? A moment which divides your life into before and after; a moment in which there is a spiritual transformation; a shift in your inner reality that changes the way you view the world? Such a moment once seized me, and I was transformed from a Unitarian into a Universalist.
It happened in the fall of 1980, at the annual meeting of New York State Convention of Universalists. My wife Donna and I arrived late, slid into a pew and turned our attention to the Rev. Gordon McKeeman, who had already begun to deliver a keynote address: “The Persistence of Universalism.”
It was the beginning of our second year of co-ministry at the First Universalist Church of Rochester, New York, but we didn’t know very much about Universalism except what we were learning via osmosis. Of course, I’d studied the basics in theological school: how the early church father Origen argued for universal salvation; how John Murray founded the first American meeting house in 1790; and why some, the Ultra-Universalists, were called the “death and glory” school.
However, since I had been raised Unitarian in Chicago, the Unitarian ethos had been bred into me rather than Universalism. Or so I thought.
I sat admiring the stained-glass and carved beams, half-looking, half-listening until I heard McKeeman say “Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable…to resist the power and love of the Almighty.” What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven. What kind of a God was this?
Suddenly, what I had learned in seminary and what I was gleaning from our congregation came together and I got it: This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation—the reality that we share a common destiny—is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.
Unitarian Universalists embrace many images of God, and reject even more. But a God who drags the last unrepentant sinner kicking and screaming (no, actually profanely cursing and resisting) into heaven—that might be a God we can envision, we can admire, we can have confidence in, we can have feelings about, we can even laugh at. It is a personification of the Most Holy rooted in a powerful, sometimes overwhelming, feeling. It is an experience that transcends description, a yearning that defies analysis. What a relief to feel that ultimately there is nothing I can do to alienate myself from God’s loving embrace, the almighty but tender arms of the creative force that upholds and sustains all life.
Universalism’s insight is that you cannot coerce people into loving one another. The commandments are not threats. If they are not fulfilled, God will not withdraw a love that is all encompassing. No one has ever, or will ever, draw true love out of another with punishment. God’s love is given to all and is a more a positive force for good than fear ever will be. Love is not just stronger than fear, it is stronger than death. Love survives in us, thus all the departed reside inside us.
Behind this is a simple truth: in being loved we learn to love. Those who are loved will in turn love others. Those who feel God’s infinite love within themselves will feel so good about themselves, so connected to life, so full of compassion that they will not be able to help but to spread that love. They will overflow with love. What is love?—to stand before life with open heart, accepting arms, eyes wide with wonder, and a bemused smile.
This was the feeling that captured me some thirty years ago. This is the belief the world needs today as much as ever. The image of the sinner being dragged into heaven took my unconscious early experience of being raised and being loved by a family embedded in a Unitarian community and made that experience of love paramount. Henceforth I could say: I will make mistakes and fail; I will disappoint others and myself; I will do thoughtless, hurtful things. I may be scorned by the world, may be no good and rotten to the core, may even reject the love that is offered me—and still I am sustained by the creation that made us all.
The “Gospel of the Larger Hope” is a message of inclusion that proclaims God’s enduring and undaunted love. What has always puzzled me is why it didn’t sweep the world. Why, after a boom in the first half of the 19th century, did it collapse? Why is it the afterthought in Unitarian Universalism? Why is Universalism and its proclamation of unconditional and uncompromising, all-embracing and over-powering Divine Love more difficult to believe in than the resurrection and the virgin birth? Why is it easier to believe the unbelievable than to believe we are one human family beloved by God?
What we yearn for is unconditional love, but it is contradicted by our experience. Instead, the primary message each of us receives over and over again is: behave and be loved, behave and be loved. The implication is that those who are good and compliant are loved, and all others are not. Universalism calls this “partialism.” In other words, people have taken their own experience of conditional, judgmental, imperfect human love and ascribed it to God.
Today, given the insane rate of incarceration in America, ongoing strife in Afghanistan and Iraq, the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, upheaval in Syria, attacks in Libya, etc., Universalism is as important as ever. The world needs to know that God’s love is boundless, but we UUs have abandoned the language and retreated from this ancient proclamation. Theism offers religious liberals a language to carry into the world. It is a useful language because it is the vernacular of ordinary people. Say “God is Love and God loves you and every member of the human family” and people will at least have an inkling of what we mean.
The world needs to hear about this faith that soothes wounded hearts and shapes attitudes to embody the spirit of Love rather than Wrath. In the face of neo-tribalism we need a message that challenges “axis of evil” rhetoric, contradicts an “us” versus “them” mentality and proclaims the oneness of the human family. There is only “us” and we are all beloved by a God who, dismissing free will (yes, you do not get to decide), embraces alike the saintly and despicable, who created both Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein, supports both Obama and Boehner, loves both Bush and the now-dead Bin Laden, and drags Hitler into heaven as well.
This is a truth almost too shocking for us to assimilate, but, in the words of UU minister David Bumbaugh, “beneath all our diversity and behind all our differences there is a unity which makes us one and binds us forever together in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.” It was to the unrelenting tug of this reality, which I know as God, that I gladly submitted that long-ago day.