Why I am a Universalist

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

This morning, as we are gathered here in this sanctuary that is and always will be so special to me – a few hundred miles to the northwest, in a different and much larger auditorium, a few thousand seekers and believers have gathered to hear the message of universalism as delivered by a charismatic and controversial preacher named Carlton Pearson, on the final day of an international rally called Inclusion 2011.

This little bit of trivia, this piece of spiritual synchronicity, would hardly be worth noting if it weren’t for two things: my fondness for religious irony, and the fact that Carlton Pearson, though a Universalist of the Christian persuasion, has had a very profound impact on my personal theology and ministry, as a Universalist of the Unitarian persuasion.

You may already be aware of Pearson’s connections with Unitarian Universalism. His story was published in the UU World a couple of years back – the story of how he rose, as a young African American preacher, from a ghetto in California to the pinnacle of evangelical Christianity, becoming one of the inner circle of hand-picked leaders in the Oral Roberts televangelism empire in Tulsa – only to be banished from the flock after he had a  conversion experience that called him to question the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell.

Pearson spoke at our UUA General Assembly in Salt Lake City. For a time, he served on the staff at All Souls UU Church in Tulsa, the same church that sponsored my own call to the  ministry.

I mentioned irony a moment ago. I do find it ironic that Carlton Pearson is something of a celebrity, and has achieved notoriety, both within our all-too-white Unitarian Universalist Association, as well as in predominantly black evangelical Christian circles. Last month, while I was eating dinner with some friends at an Indian restaurant in downtown Charlotte during this year’s G.A., a young African American man approached our table to inquire about our yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts. In the course of the conversation, I learned that this man was on something of a pilgrimage, heading to Atlanta to hear – you guessed it – Carlton Pearson preach.

I also find it more than a bit ironic that Pearson is not nearly as well-known, in the American mainstream, as his Caucasian counterpart Rob Bell – whose book “Love Wins” landed him on the cover of Time magazine this spring, and whose own version of Christian universalism is apparently so threatening to orthodox fundamentalism that the Southern Baptists, at their own annual assembly last month in Phoenix – in the very same convention center where we UU’s will gather next summer for our annual convention (how’s that for irony?) -– felt compelled to pass a resolution condemning Pearson, and [quote] “affirm[ing] our belief in … eternal, conscious punishment of the unregenerate, in Hell.”

Which is as good a place, as any, to begin the story of my own conversion to Universalism…

For just about as long as I can remember, I’ve been something of a skeptic. A doubter.

Never one to accept what I was told without first considering it carefully, and weighing it against common sense, early on I became what you might call a “Sunday School dropout.” Some of you may remember the saga of my ongoing battle with my kindergarten teacher, in the small Methodist church my family attended, in the small Southern town where we lived, in the early 1960’s.

Miss Maude, as she was known, was an imposing woman whose impatience with my questions – questions I considered quite natural, and quite important, thank you very much – was almost as legendary, in that small congregation, as was my own childish insubordination. Eventually came the Sunday morning of our final showdown – when Miss Maude at last played her trump card: Hell. If I continued to stubbornly insist on not believing what she was teaching me about some miracle or another – if I remained obstinate in my refusal to accept the things I was being told about this strange God-Man named Jesus – then I, and everyone like me – would go to Hell.

Upon hearing this news, I did what any self-respecting five-year-old boy might do, when his words were no match for a more powerful, more articulate debate opponent: I spit on the floor.

As I say, this may not be the first time some of you have heard that story – but I share it today because it marks a critical turning point in my life – a defining moment in a journey of religious questioning and spiritual development that led me, over the course of nearly half a century, first to atheism, then to agnosticism, then to something of a tenuous truce with the idea of, and language about, God – and finally to a reverential, very Universalist  kind of Unitarian Universalism.

And somewhere along the way, I felt the calling, to became a minister.

Miss Maude, God bless her, would be proud, I think – at least of my vocational choice, if not of my theology. But there is no doubt in my mind that I have her to thank, for the fact that today I call myself a Universalist – because it was in her Sunday School class, that I first encountered, and almost instinctively rejected, the idea of Hell – the idea that God would condemn anyone, to eternal torment.

It has been said that our images of God – our sometimes subconscious, and often very diverse concepts of that ultimate power in the Universe – can be traced back to the earliest days of our lives – to a time when, totally dependent on the care given to us by seemingly omnipotent beings, we learned one of two things: either that our parents and other caretakers were dependable, nurturing, and loving – or that they were unpredictable, threatening and angry.

Depending on what kind of early imprinting we receive, so this theory goes, we develop not only our concept of God, but also our understanding of the world – as either an essentially safe place, or as an untrustworthy environment in which we must always, be on guard.

As for me – I know I am one of the lucky ones. Despite a childhood that included not only Miss Maude, but multiple schoolyard bullies and a broken home, I always knew that I was loved – by both my parents, and my family – a knowledge which I believe also had a great deal to do with the fact that I am, today, a Universalist. At that pivotal moment when I first came face to face with harsh judgment – when first I encountered the prospect of ultimate rejection – I already knew, that I was unconditionally loved. The information – the theological claim – that God might reject me – for eternity, no less – simply did not fit, into my worldview.

This, at the age of five.

As I grew older, my understanding of unconditional love deepened. When I was playing, and accidentally broke a window – I was loved, and forgiven. When my negligence caused an expensive jacket my parents had bought me to catch fire, nearly burning down the house – or at least, so I believed – I was loved, and forgiven. When I got suspended from high school, for stealing something out of my biology teacher’s desk – yes, this was the same biology teacher who infuriated me by teaching us Creationism rather than evolution (perhaps there is a common thread here!) – anyway, when I got suspended from high school, I was loved, and forgiven.

When I wound up in the hospital after experimenting with some bad drugs – I was loved, and forgiven.

I’m not saying that my family and my parents weren’t disappointed in me, over and over again – that they weren’t upset, weren’t even sometimes outright furious at me, for all these things – I’m just saying I always knew, that in spite of all my many faults and failings – I was loved, and forgiven.

And if human beings are capable of such love and forgiveness, I reasoned, why not God?

So first and foremost, I am a Universalist because I believe in love and forgiveness.

I’ll never forget the time my mother lay dying, in a coma – and we had an unexpected visit from my nephew, a young man who had been in and out of trouble, in and out of jail, for all of his adult life. Mama had not been responsive, to any of us, for days. Furthermore, she had not seen or spoken to my nephew in years – nor, in fact, had most of the family that had gathered round the deathbed.

But when my nephew walked into the room, something there changed. And when he bent down beside her bed, almost as if in prayer, and took my mother’s hand, and stroked her hair, and said, “Grandma, it’s me. I’m here” – the closest thing to a miracle I’ve ever seen took place. A tear – one, single, tear – rolled out of the corner of my mother’s closed eye, and slowly down her cheek.

If a human being, can offer such love and forgiveness, why not God?…

At this point, I realize that some of you are probably thinking, “why God?” Who needs God, to be touched by stories of love and forgiveness? And it is true, that unlike the classic Universalism of the 19th century – a 21st century Universalism does not have to have God, in order to be Universalism. Belief in God – belief in Jesus as the Son of God, or even as a specially anointed messenger of God – belief in the Bible as a unique revelation containing stories of literal truth – these are no longer necessary, to be a Universalist, in the 21st century. If they were, I suspect that most of us, would not be here, right now. Certainly, such beliefs have little to do, with why I am a Universalist.

No, we modern UUs have principles, rather than dogma, to guide us; we prefer logic and reason, over what we sometimes think of as “blind faith.” And so, like most adult converts to Unitarian Universalism, the Principles play a significant role in my religious self-understanding – and therefore offer insight, into why I am a Universalist.

It is not uncommon for folks to cite our first UU Principle, our affirmation of the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” as our most explicitly Universalist principle – and it is true that the language of this principle grew directly grown out of our Universalist heritage. This principle – and not just because it is our first principle – certainly carries great moral weight. If one really believes in the inherent worth and dignity of each and every human being – if one looks at the world in which we live through this lens – it will create a profound shift in our perceptions.

For one thing, it means that we are not, contrary to most orthodox religious teachings of most of the world’s religions, somehow fallen, or flawed. The baby dedication ceremonies with which we celebrate the coming of new life into our community, speak to how differently we UU’s view human nature.

Furthermore, if we seek to truly live as if each and every person we come into contact with has inherent worth, and is deserving of our respect – then, as Helene Knox reminds us, we are called to live a very different kind of life, throughout our life.

Yes, our first principle, is Universalism made manifest. But I bet you never thought of how our second UU principle, might relate to Universalism. Actually – let’s be honest – I bet you never thought much about our second principle, at all! Can anyone even tell me our second principle?…

[That’s right – “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.”] If you’re looking for a short, succinct sound bite for Universalism –to me,
that’s it!

Let’s look at this particular version of the “trinity,” one word at a time… Justice. I am a Universalist, because I believe in justice. Not the kind of retributive justice that calls for punishment or banishment, that demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – but rather the kind of justice that is egalitarian – the kind of justice that makes level the rough places, the kind of justice that guides us, in the words of the hymn, on the road from greed, to giving. It is the kind of justice immortalized, in the Hebrew scriptures, in the concept of the Jubilee year, when the slaves are freed, all debts are forgiven, and the slate is wiped clean. As an aside, my online dictionary tells me that “egalitarianism” is the opposite of “elitism” – a subject we UU’s have been wrestling with a lot, lately. But suffice it to say, believing, as I do, in egalitarianism – how could I be anything but a Universalist?

Rev. Bill Gupton marching with Standing on the Side of Love banner in Selma, Alabama.

Which brings us to equity. I am a Universalist because I believe in equality. I believe that all are created equal; that no one person has any more, or any less, right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, than does any other. I believe with all my heart, that when all is said and done – when you strip away all the superficial and ultimately meaningless differences among us, differences like age and ability, gender and sexuality, wealth and status, education and opportunity – when you look beyond those things, we are all equal. Believing that, how could I be anything, but a Universalist?

Justice. Equity. And finally, compassion. I am a Universalist because I believe in compassion. I believe that there is no greater power than love – and that there is nothing more transformative, that the experience of being loved. As I have said, knowing that I was unconditionally loved, shaped who I am and how I see the world, at a very deep and fundamental level. Further, it is our human capacity for empathy – not sympathy, mind you, but empathy – our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another, and then act on that deep connection – which has truly transformative power. When you give, from deep within you, you can change the world, with your love. Believing this, how could I be anything, but a Universalist?

But there is more, to this faith I profess. I am also a Universalist, because I believe in diversity and inclusion. When I look around at our world, I see a planet that is both diverse, and inclusive. Did you know that there are nearly 500 species of frogs? That there are more than 8 million possible gene combinations in the process of human cell meiosis? Have you ever noticed that a weed – of which there are no doubt scores of varieties, though I didn’t bother to look that one up – have you ever noticed that a weed, does not care where your neighbor’s property line ends, and yours begins? Yes, the natural world is one, giant experiment, in both diversity, and inclusion.

Living as I do, in a Universe that is one of an infinite number of possible universes – living in a Galaxy itself that, according to a NASA report released earlier this year may contain as many as 500 billion planets – and living as I do, for a brief time, on one of those planets, amid billions of other human beings as just one of two million or so existing species – how could I be anything other than a Universalist?

But when all is said and done – in the end, I am a Universalist because – and here I come round again, full circle, to that Sunday School classroom, all those years ago – I am a Universalist because I believe that the ultimate destiny and destination of every human being, is the same. This is the classical definition of Universalism – and it seems to be just as radical, just as controversial, a faith statement today, as it ever was. Yet if I am to be true to my heart, it is where I must take my theological stand.

Throughout history, though they certainly wouldn’t think of it this way, human beings have constructed cosmologies and creeds based on the supposition that, in the end, when all is said and done, inequality will reign supreme – that injustice will somehow carry the day. This simply makes no sense to me. Believing, as I do, in justice, equity, and compassion – I find such a universe unthinkable – unconscionable, in fact. Believing, as I do, in love and forgiveness – I cannot imagine a Creation in which there would be such a place as Hell. Believing, as I do, in compassion and inclusion – the idea of eternal exclusion, is one I cannot abide.

Just as everything comes from the same Source – so, too, I must believe it will eventually return. All, will be made one, because all is one. Nothing, can ultimately be separated, from the whole. On this point, science and spirituality – head and heart – agree. Believing this, how could I be anything, but a Universalist?

Yes, mine was a spiritual journey that began in the arms of loving parents. It was shaped, very early on, by a defining encounter with an inflexible, Christian fundamentalism. What followed were years of questioning and doubt but – with some luck, perhaps fate, and maybe even a bit of Divine guidance – I eventually found, at the age of 24, a new faith: Unitarian Universalism. More recently, I believe it was Grace that led me to Cincinnati, to serve as the minister of a Universalist congregation whose people, and traditions, have played another pivotal role in helping shape who I am, and what I believe.

It has been wonderful to be with you, this morning – here at First UU, where I always feel at home. Just beyond that wall, in the memorial garden, sits a bench, dedicated in memory of my late mother. Down the back hallway, mine and Jennifer’s names are among those on the wall of what I still think of as the “new” religious education wing. First UU is in my blood; you are part of my religious DNA. This is the first church I served, after I was ordained to the ministry.

But way leads on to way, writes Robert Frost – and now I have found my place in our Unitarian Universalist tradition – as a Universalist minister, who takes every chance he gets to preach the good news of love and inclusion. Thank you, for letting me share that gospel with you, today.

May the tradition we share – a tradition rooted in the unconditional, loving embrace of Creation; a tradition of radical hospitality for friend and stranger alike; a tradition of inclusion, rather than exclusion – may this cherished tradition, light our paths forward – now, and in all our days to come.

Shalom. Blessed be. And Amen!