God is Love: A Humanist Universalism

God is Love: A Humanist Universalism
Rev. Douglas Taylor
February 14, 2016

Some days (moments) I will identify with being a twenty first century man. An Atheist who understands that god is a mythopoetic construct; -a manufactured means that assists some people in relating to the Universe.
Other days (moments) God & I have a good laugh about that, and I can easily hear the soft booming voice of Almighty God herself saying, “What did you learn as an Atheist, Billy? How did that taste? …that freedom from Belief?
…and were you? …free from Belief?”
-Bill Thorpe

Bill’s poem reminds me of an old story about Rev. Gordon McKeeman from when he was president of Starr King Seminary in California in the mid 80’s. McKeeman would meet regularly with the presidents of the other seminaries in the consortium and one day the others questioned him, “We know you are a Unitarian Universalist and that some of you are theist and some are atheist. But we haven’t been able to figure out which you are?” McKeeman answered “On Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays I am a theist. But on Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays I am an atheist.” “What about Sundays” they asked him smiling. “Well, on Sundays,” he sighed, “it is anybody’s guess.” After a short time they all agree that it was much the same of the rest of them.

Gordon McKeeman was a Universalist before the 1961 merger of our two traditions. He is far from the first or only Universalist to be an atheist or in his case an occasional atheist. But it makes me wonder what the theology is like. The basic stance of Universalism is that God is love, God’s love is so powerful we will all be united with God in the end – Universal salvation, everyone goes to heaven. But how does that work as an atheist framework? How does that work from a perspective that does not recognize a deity, or heaven, or a supernatural source that loves us. Somehow it works, I’ve seen it in people. Somehow it is even an obvious possibility given the evolution of Universalist theology over the past two and a half centuries.

And I think this is more than merely an academic question about our history. The beliefs and values in Universalist theology and in Humanist thought are prevalent among us today. To uncover the examples of the blending of Universalism and Humanism from history will offer a helpful framework for our contemporary experiences.

My mother, Dr. Elizabeth M. Strong, has had an abiding interest in Universalist history and theology. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the history of Universalist religious education, which gave her ample insight into the evolution of our theology. She has a succinct way of outlining the nuances of the formative Universalist perspectives.

The three main streams of Universalism that were espoused in the beginning years of Universalism in America are:

George deBenneville’s mystical universalism was evident in many sects (German Pietists, Quakers, Effrata Community) and held that “in the end all shall be well.”
John Murray’s Trinitarian Universalism that held in Adam all fell and in Christ all were saved.
Hosea Ballou’s Deterministic Universalist held that God saves, not Christ, and that you cannot not be saved. All are saved.

The Restorationists modified Ballou’s determinism by holding that there would be some punishment before salvation for those who had committed egregious sins.
-Elizabeth M. Strong

These are all example of Universalism – they all claim Universal Salvation and God’s love – but each slightly different in how it works and why it works. I find that when I or others talk about Universalism, it is often Ballou’s version presented. Rather than presenting Universalism as a mystical personal experience that ‘all shall be well’ or as a biblical argument constructed around the true work of Jesus Christ, we instead talk about all souls being saved because “God’s love embraces the whole human race.”

It is perhaps jarring to talk about Universalism as “deterministic,” as in ‘Hosea Ballou’s Deterministic Universalism.’ That word is most associated with John Calvin and his pre-destination theology, which Unitarians and Universalists have historically rejected. Calvin said there is a set number of people that will be saved, God already knows who will be going to heaven and who will not. There is nothing you can do to change the way it is going to turn out. It is set. It is already determined.

I remember a Presbyterian church-history professor talking about this Calvinist doctrine in a class I was taking back in seminary. I declared that Universalism takes Calvin’s doctrine of predestination to its most optimistic extreme: Yes, it is set and determined. God knows exactly who and how many are going to heaven: everyone. Gordon McKeeman suggested the image of the “last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable…to resist the power and love of the Almighty.” You cannot not be saved.

As Universalism developed from that earliest time in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the implications of this radical theology began to unfold. The Universalists continued to believed in God as a loving father who will call all His children home, but they began to take the next step, ‘why not strive to make heaven here on earth?’ A version of this perspective is in Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement (1803). The only logical response to having God’s love poured out on to you is to do likewise to others.

Many Christians throughout history rejected the idea of Universalism outright. They couldn’t see past the usefulness of eternal damnation as a motivation for good behavior. They rebelled against the notion that Jesus dying on the cross was not what secured our potential of salvation, that instead our salvation has always guaranteed. What then, Christians have countered, was the point of the gospels if not to have Jesus’ death serve that great cosmic purpose of securing salvation?

The answer from the Universalists is that Jesus’ death is not the biggest point – his life is our example of how we ought to respond to God’s love. As the passage says in 1st John, “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (4:21) and “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (4:11) A great many Universalists were compelled by their faith to speak out against injustice, to work faithfully on behalf of those in need, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to give voice to the voiceless. Why do you act for justice or offer compassion in the world? Universalists historically sought justice because how else ought we to respond to the love that is poured out for us! The history of American social reform is littered with the names of Universalists: Lydia Jenkins, Mary Livermore, Clarence Skinner, Clara Barton, and Olympia Brown. Over the generations Universalism continued to evolve, though it ever held that core thread of radical inclusion: that all God’s children are included and our work is to build heaven here on earth.

But it wasn’t until a little over a hundred years after Ballou’s remarkable treatise of Universalist theology that there came a clear theological articulation of the humanistic implications. Ballou had focused on God and the implications of God’s love. In 1915 Clarence Skinner’s book The Social Implications of Universalism offered an optimistic, socialistic vision of the “kingdom of heaven” to be established on earth.

In this shift, the theology of Universalism becomes less about God’s love for humanity and more about humanity’s response to God’s love. Clarence Skinner’s version of Universalist Theology was a key step. Universalism had always had a social reform edge, but that edge was moving in the early 1900’s to the center of its identity. It is in Skinner that we see Universalism make a significant shift of identity in that direction.

And then a few years later, the Humanist Manifesto was released. The Unitarians were embroiled in the Humanist/Theist debate for a little while prior and the Manifesto exacerbated it. The Manifesto did not only say “the time has passed for theism.” It claimed the universe as self-created and humanity as “a part of nature” arising through the evolutionary process. It also articulated that the signers considered “the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life,” and that the act of worship is best described as “a co-operative effort to promote social well-being.” In other words – the purpose and meaning of life is to build a better world. Which that part actually aligns very well with classic Universalist Theology.

In Charles Howe’s book about the history of Universalism, he describes it like this:

Thirty-four men signed the document (presumably no women were invited to do so), thirteen of them Unitarian ministers. Clinton Lee Scott, at that time minister in Peoria, Illinois, was the only Universalist signatory, although two of the Unitarian signers, J.A.C. Fagginer Auer and Charles Frances Potter, also held Universalist fellowship. (Howe, Larger Faith, p103)

Charles Howe goes on to speculate that all Universalists could well be considered ‘humanistic’ in their values and theology based on their professions and affirmations throughout their history of the supreme worth of all ‘human personalities.’ And the insistence on humanity solving humanity’s problems rather than waiting or relying on God’s aid. The institution struggled with the humanists, and most Universalists rejected Humanism as an idea but they never rejected the humanists among them.

Clinton Lee Scott who signed the Humanist Manifesto, for example, was reelected by a significant majority to his post of trustee of the General Convention. And ten years later at the General Conference, the General Superintendent Robert Cummins proclaimed:

Universalism cannot be limited either to Protestantism or to Christianity, not without denying its very name. Ours is a world fellowship, not just a Christian sect. For so long as Universalism is Universalism and not partialism, the fellowship bearing its name must succeed in making it unmistakably clear that all are welcome: theist and humanists, unitarian and trinitarian, colored, and color-less. A circumscribed Universalism is unthinkable. – Robert Cummins, superintendent of the UCA

The “colored and color-less” is, I think, an unfortunate turn of phrase but it was 1943 and in context it amounts to a call for racial diversity that was progressive and radical in its time.

The definition of Universalism began to be about creating a ‘universal religion’ that could serve all humanity, a world religion for all people of the world. Universalism became akin to Inclusivism. A full-throated articulation of Inclusivism (and perhaps of Humanist Universalism) would not really come until a few years later with Kenneth Patton’s Charles Street Meeting House in the 1950’s. Patton was supported in that post by Clinton Lee Scott, by the way. It was Scott who put an avowed Humanist into the experimental pulpit where the expressed goal was to create a Universal Religion merging all the world’s religions. What we mean by the name “Universalist” was changing.

And within the next ten years the Universalists would merge with the Unitarians. People tend to think of the Universalists as mostly still Christian and the Unitarians as practically all Atheists. But the truth is far more nuanced, of course.

The critique has come that we are no longer Universalist in our theology, in part because of the introduction of core articulation of our identity that lack a theistic center. If classic Universalism is defined as “God’s transformative love that assures salvation for all” how does is work from a Humanist stance?

The Humanist side of the equation says the source of our human worth is wholly natural. The Universalist side of the equation agrees that there is human worth but that the source is God’s love. And somehow, there are and have been Humanist Universalists. I thought that I had a handle on the solution to this conundrum, but the more I have been poking at this the less I understand how it comes together.

And this is not merely academic. (… I mean, it is academic, but it is also more.) Our community and many Unitarian Universalist communities function with a pluralistic mix of Universalist grace and Humanist skepticism.

And perhaps the best answer I can offer is in the poetic mix from Gordon McKeeman’s answer to his seminary president peers and Bill Thorpe’s yearning to be free. The best answer I have is less about the history and more about the mystery.

Perhaps the best answer I have is not my own answer but an encouragement for each of you to wrestle with the question. What is the source of our worth? That you are of worth – that you are loved – is not the question, that is a given. What is the source of the love that calls to you to respond? Love calls you to respond to the needs for compassion and justice in the world. Your response is important and really it is the point. But it is worth it to also wrestle with the question of where it comes from – what is the source of the love calling you to love the world?

In a world without end,
May it be so.