Monday, April 14, 2014

My Universalist Epiphany

Emma Watson set Unitarian Universalist hearts aflutter with hope and speculation this past month when she came out as a Universalist, leaving people to wonder whether she had been quietly lingering in one of our congregations.  Goodness knows, we like to imprint the names of famous Unitarian Universalists on our t-shirts — perhaps even tattoo them on our torsos, if we’re into that sort of thing — so I braced myself for a new wave of name-dropping and celebrity admiration in our congregations.

Rev. Magnus J. Skaptason / Emma Watson

Now perhaps you’ve been living in a bubble on the edge of the known universe and have no idea who I’m talking about.  Emma Watson is the gifted young actress who came to fame as the character Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies.  As Hermione, she was the smartest character in both the books and the movies who wasn’t actually on the faculty of Hogwarts Academy — and she seems equally intelligent, thoughtful and charming in real life.

Interviewed before the release of the movie Noah, in which she portrays Noah’s adopted daughter, Emma Watson said, “I already, before I did the movie, had a sense that I was someone that was more spiritual, than specifically religious.” She then continued, “I had a sense that I believed in a higher power, but that I was more of a Universalist, I see that there are these unifying tenets between so many religions.”

Well, as it happens, these sentiments are commonly found in Unitarian Universalist congregations — and the sense that there are values that cross the traditional boundaries of religion, values that we might call universals, is strong among us.  So strong, in fact, that many people today mistakenly imagine that that was what Universalism was always about.  But as it turns out, that notion of universalism is a later development that emerged as an earlier understanding of Universalism — one that was concerned with the Christian doctrine of salvation, but little concerned with other religions at all — grew and prospered and, for all intents and purposes, won the argument … and therefore came to dominate most of the mainline and liberal churches, whether they called themselves Universalist or not.  If you want to find an old-line Universalist today, you’re more likely to come across them in the United Church of Canada or an Anglican parish — or even a Lutheran congregation.  But there was a day when an accusation of Universalism could have caused a scandal in any of these churches.

It was on Palm Sunday in 1891 when the Reverend Magnús J. Skaptason ascended the pulpit in a rustic log church on Hecla Island, near the narrows of Lake Winnipeg.  The ice was not yet off the lake and it was that time of year when the short distance between the island and the mainland was especially treacherous to cross.  Still, Skaptason had made his way to the northernmost of the seven Lutheran congregations which constituted his ministerial circuit, as he had done for nearly four years since leaving his native Iceland to serve as pastor to the twenty-five hundred souls who lived along the western shore of the world’s eleventh-largest lake.  There had been rumblings in the parish for several months, since a small minority of its members had come to suspect that the good minister wasn’t quite orthodox in his beliefs.  Frankly, he was soft on sinners, some hinting he might even be a bit of a tippler himself, and he seemed much too easily given to forgiveness among those who fancied themselves as perfect in God’s eyes.

Skaptason had the rather eccentric habit of peppering his coffee!  When some of his supporters began to emulate this behaviour, it apparently led unsympathetic locals to call Skaptason and his followers “the peppered pastor and his peppered parishioners.”

“When I was a child,” he began after stepping into the pulpit, “I remember well what fright shot through me when I thought about the condition of the souls of the damned, and all the pains that they were to endure throughout eternity.”  He recalled that this belief tormented him as a youngster.  “I never knew whether I was among the chosen or not and, notwithstanding that, the sinners remained a majority of the population, who had to suffer and be tormented in the eternal fire.”  It seemed impossible to him to reconcile belief in God as a loving deity – a heavenly father – with such an unforgiving doctrine, since his experience of his own parents had taught him that they were sources of unconditional love.  And he himself was such a parent.  If human beings were capable of such love as this, then why not God?  From Skaptason’s perspective, the doctrine of eternal punishment was contrary to everything he had known and experienced.  “Would you not suppose, beloved friends, that God is equally just, compassionate, and merciful as humans?” he asked.  “What an absurdity it is to consider God so incomplete, so vengeful, and so ignorant as to condemn the very divine self, when it is acknowledged that all humankind, each and every person, is created in the divine image …”  The doubts of his youth gave way to the open skepticism of his maturity, so that, as his understanding of God and faith ripened and matured, he came to the conviction that hell was an illusion, eternal damnation a superstition, the Bible a product of human hands, and the creeds little more than milestones in the history of priestly thought control.

This was only the second service in the church at Hecla, which was not yet complete.  The orthodox trustees padlocked the church against Skaptason and he stopped his liberal supporters from breaking down the door to reenter the church.  The sermon ignited a controversy which spread like a prairie fire throughout the Icelandic immigrant settlements, so that word arrived at each of the churches in his circuit before he arrived to preach during the week that followed.  In the end, he never made it all the way to the southern end of the circuit before the synod sent emissaries to persuade Skaptason of the error of his ways.

Within a few weeks, a general meeting was called and, although one congregation boycotted the event, the representatives from the remaining congregations voted overwhelmingly to retain Skaptason as their minister and withdraw from the Lutheran Synod.  These congregations were then reorganized as a Free Church which affiliated itself with the American Unitarian Association.  Now, this could be described as an accident of history, since Skaptason and his followers were in many respects closer to Universalism, which was then a separate denomination from Unitarianism.  Perhaps that surprises you—that seventy years before the Unitarian and Universalist denominations consolidated to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, an event we commonly call “Merger,” yes, three generations before, the Unitarians swooped down and scooped a band of believers who were obviously Universalists, pure and simple.  And while I could point to the familiarity of many Icelanders with leading Unitarian thinkers, coupled with the existence here in Winnipeg of a small Unitarian mission to the Icelandic immigrants, as possible explanations for how the Unitarians picked off a half-dozen Universalist congregations, the more likely explanation is simpler: there were no Universalists on the ground anywhere near Lake Winnipeg at this time.  Indeed, the Canadian census of that year reports just three Universalists—that’s individuals, not congregations—three Universalists in all of the Canadian territory between the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains.  The closest Universalist church was more than four hundred miles away in Minneapolis.  This, despite that fact that in 1891, the Universalist General Convention was likely still significantly larger than the American Unitarian Association.

As an organized denomination, the Universalist Church had already been around for nearly a century as these events were occurring on the Canadian prairies.  And as a movement, it had been around considerably longer.  However, the Universalist denomination had peaked about half a century earlier, when it was reportedly the ninth largest religious denomination in the United States.  Yet there were vast stretches of territory from which organized Universalism was simply absent.

More than half a century after the merger which brought together Unitarians and Universalists into a single family, this may seem a trivially unimportant detail, a forgotten moment of history that deserves to remain forgotten.  But I ask you: what other opportunities were missed because Universalism was hidden from view?  And what is being missed today, within Unitarian Universalism, when the distinctly Universalist aspects of our heritage are so often hidden, ignored, or misrepresented?

Universalism is hidden when its contributions to contemporary Unitarian Universalism are subsumed in accounts of Unitarian history, as though they never found separate expression, and when its central tenets and insights are carelessly attributed retroactively to the more famous Unitarians of history whose celebrity attracts our attention.  Universalism is ignored when almost every single aspect of our denominational polity and organizational structures is a continuation of the practices of the American Unitarian Association.

And historic Universalism is misrepresented when those who study our history superficially—even our ministers and scholars—then manufacture a revisionist story based largely on wild speculations emanating from reading the dictionary definition of Universalism with a few pithy anecdotes added for texture.  We are then too often left with a story that is divorced from history and mostly sentimental in nature, while missing the core teachings of our Universalist heritage: (1) that whatever else God may be or not be, God is love — and that even if we reject belief in God at all, we can still believe in the power of love; (2) that no individual or tradition possesses the whole truth, but that each grasps a piece of what is true, perhaps several such pieces; (3) that all people are somehow sacred, whether we call this an inner divinity or simply human dignity; (4) and that the same fate—whatever it may be—awaits us all.

It has been my privilege to minister to the last remnant of Magnús Skaptason’s Lake Winnipeg congregations, which, for most of the last generation consisted of three church buildings, a lakeside camp, and scarcely enough people to muster a good Sunday service.  In the chancel of the Arborg congregation, there is a banner that reminds us of our Universalist origins, notwithstanding our Unitarian affiliation from the earliest years.  “God Is Love,” it reads, a proclamation that was surprisingly rare in Unitarian sanctuaries but nearly ubiquitous in Universalist ones.  “God Is Love”—as a Humanist, I feel obliged to read it from the bottom up, that is to say “Love Is God,” but I never felt moved to replace it or to remove it from its central place in the chancel.  It reminded us of our origins, our roots, our core sentiment, if not necessarily everyone’s literal belief.

Our Universalist ancestors took love seriously and imagined a merciful deity amidst an oftentimes harsh world.  Like this congregation, the one in Arborg recites the familiar affirmation of James Vila Blake, who while not a Universalist, managed to capture the essence of Universalism in his affirmation. They use the original, simpler version of the affirmation, not the expanded version recited here; they say: “Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.  This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”

In this celebration of love as the central tenet of its faith—the one that makes its assertion of universal salvation obvious—Universalists had been influenced strongly by the apostle Paul, who was the source of that familiar benediction, “And now abides faith, hope, and love, these three: but the greatest of these is love.”  This is a pretty remarkable observation on Paul’s part, since almost everything else we read about Paul suggests that love was not his strongest suit.  Indeed, we might have expected him to offer a rather different list, ending in “the greatest of these is neurosis!”  But Paul was captivated by love and thought he didn’t necessarily always express love in his actions and attitudes, he expressed it in words more poetically than any writer across the generations.  And before telling us that love was the greatest of virtues, Paul wrote that “love bears all things, believes all things”—it’s a short step from here to the Universalism that prevailed in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Yet, I would say that it’s a mistaken Universalism that believes all things.  I love our capacity to integrate truth from diverse sources and to find wisdom in all of the world’s major spiritual traditions, which is clearly part of the genius of Universalism.  But we cannot be everything to everyone, everywhere and every time!  Some things are simply unbelievable and no amount of sentiment or goodwill can change that.  So a Universalism which is faithful to our roots does not, in fact, “believe all things,” even if it might strive to “bear all things.”

Some three decades ago, Raymond C. Hopkins, who died just last year and who was one of the leading Universalist ministers of the generation that brought the merger of Universalists and Unitarians to fruition, observed that “Universalism has grown beyond the ideal of universal salvation to embrace the concept of the universality of truth.  Truth is not sectarian, different for a Christian, a Buddhist or a Jew.  Truth is universal! …  Universalism has come to stand for the seeking out and stressing of the universals which can lead sorely divided nations into the great unities.”

Universalism was never about everything being true or all expressions of religion being valid.  No, it was about God’s power—the power of Love, if you will—to redeem all that is broken and lead all the world’s people to the salvation that awaited them.

At a time when most religious liberals no longer believe in an afterlife, or at least maintain a robust agnosticism about future heavens even as we deny future hells, Universalism’s doctrine of salvation takes on a this-wordly emphasis that challenges us to save people in this world and not another.

So there you have it.  As I see it, the enduring values of our Universalist heritage are grounded in an acknowledgement of a deep and abiding love at the heart of human existence, whether we choose to call it God or let the word Love alone suffice, which makes a moral demand upon our lives to love our neighbours as ourselves.  Our Universalist heritage calls us to a sense of humility that recognizes that no individual or tradition possesses the whole truth, but that each grasps a piece of what is true and that, taken and tested together, they may offer us glimpses of what is ultimately true — but glimpses only, yet we are nevertheless called to live and act upon what we deem to be true.  Our Universalism challenges us to acknowledge that all people are somehow sacred, whether we call this an inner divinity or simply human dignity.  And our Universalist tradition reminds us that, right or wrong, deserving or not, the same ultimate fate—whatever it may be—awaits us all.

May hope never die,
but blossom brighter and brighter every day.
Truth, love and faithfulness
be the watchwords to call us
to nobler thoughts and nobler lives.
— Magnús J. Skaptason