Thoughts on Founding the Universal Church of the Restoration

About a year ago, I began reflecting on the growing need for a new type of church — a community of faith that brings people together in a coherent understanding of who we are as beloved children of God, and which, while being open-minded and inclusive, inspires people to live a devoutly religious life. The combination of progressive faith and a strong commitment to organized religion is hard to find, but for many years I have believed it to be the answer to many of humanity’s problems. This elusive synthesis can facilitate the greatest moral progress and spiritual maturity both for the individual and society.

Over the past 15 years I have written two books and dozens of articles about religion. In 2005, when I was in my mid 20s, I felt called by the Holy Spirit to start an evangelistic ministry teaching an all-inclusive interpretation of Christianity. In 2007, I founded the Christian Universalist Association (CUA), which grew to become the largest ecumenical organization of Christians today who believe in universal salvation.

Eric Stetson
Eric Stetson

Originally, I had hoped that the CUA would evolve into a new denomination with a radically progressive theology and its own church planting program. However, because of the wide-ranging denominational and theological diversity within the CUA, it remained mostly focused on opposing the doctrine of eternal hell — an important issue, to be sure, but not enough of a comprehensive worldview to become the basis for a large and devoted new religious movement.

When I stepped down from the position of executive director of the CUA in 2011, I began working for charitable nonprofits and later founded a socially conscious small business in the IT industry. I gave guest sermons at Unitarian Universalist and interfaith churches on occasion, but my attention had shifted away from my previous religious calling.

Nevertheless, there was always a part of me that felt that my ministry work was unfinished. A series of events in late 2019 and early 2020 led me to the decision to launch the Universal Church of the Restoration (UCR) — a challenging venture in an era when progressive churches in general are in decline, and in a year when it is physically impossible to plant a church because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was not a decision I made lightly, and I put my trust in God to bless this endeavor if it is meant to succeed.

I would like to thank those who have provided encouragement and inspiration as I have gone through a year-long discernment process — most notably, my friend Colin Mills, who shares my concern that Christianity has largely been taken over by outdated and simple-minded dogmatism while liberal churches are often too vague and lukewarm to win people’s committed allegiance. Last December, Colin and I began discussing what a hypothetical new Christian church or denomination should be like, and our discussions ran to over 50 pages of emails on the subject. Colin has known me since high school, and I have always been able to count on his sharp mind and pragmatic personality to help me evaluate new ideas. Sometimes in the past he has pushed back on my tendencies to excessive idealism — so when he enthusiastically embraced the idea of the UCR and offered to help me launch it, that was an important vote of confidence, without which I would have been much more reluctant to attempt it.

I would also like to thank the Rev. Kalen Fristad, who co-founded the CUA with me so many years ago. Kalen and I have always shared a lot of the same ideas about theology and religious philosophy, not only on the question of the scope of salvation. When I told him about the plans for this new church, he expressed support for the idea and kindly offered his practical advice based on several decades serving as a United Methodist minister. Rev. Fristad has offered to preach a guest sermon sometime next year, and we look forward to taking him up on his offer.

Some of my friends have questioned whether the UCR is really a good idea. I am thankful for their input as well. Most notably, I have had some interesting discussions with leaders of the Oracle Temple in Independence, Virginia, a progressive interfaith church that I participated in when I lived there from 2017 to 2019. The prevailing opinion in that church is that Christianity is too limited and corrupted to serve as the primary basis for a universalist spiritual worldview in the 21st century. I considered their perspective, but after giving it much thought, I came to the conclusion that I am in fact a Christian and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be the best possible foundation on which to build the new religious movement that the world needs today. Despite my disagreement with Oracle Temple about Christianity, I explored a lot of important ideas through their church and learned a great deal which has strengthened my holistic and universalist interpretation of the Christian faith.

Last but not least, I would like to thank God and the other exalted spiritual beings who have given me guidance through prayer, meditation, and dreams, or have assisted me in other ways during the past year.

On two points in particular I would like to express my gratitude toward the spirit world. Firstly, I am grateful for the opportunity to be alive today. I was very fortunate to survive a major car accident last December with relatively minor injuries, when in all probability I would have died or been paralyzed had it not been for a guardian angel looking out for me. I am also blessed to have been protected from the coronavirus this year, despite being in some unavoidable situations where infection could have easily occurred. Reflecting upon mortality and the unpredictable nature of life has led me to take actions regarding my vocation that I might not otherwise have done. Since any of us can die at any time, it is important to do whatever we believe to be the most important things we can contribute to the world, before it’s too late. Founding the Universal Church of the Restoration is something I decided was in that category, so I did it.

Secondly, I should acknowledge the presence of a spirit guide or manifestation of the Holy Spirit who has inspired me to emphasize something in this new ministry that I might not otherwise have focused on. That is the reality of the Divine Feminine and the importance of advocating for its full and widespread acceptance as bedrock principle of Christian theology, with all the practical implications thereof. I have believed in this for many years and have written about it some in the past, but I never expected that I would be called upon to make it a centerpiece of my teaching. It has typically been a point of interest of progressive spiritual women, not men — except among mystics of various faith traditions, with whom I identify.

In March of this year I had a spiritual experience that confirmed to me that I should start a new church and teach that the female aspect of the Godhead wants to be known to the general public. Gone are the days when God can be conceived of as just a “Guy in the sky.” If we are all the children of God, created in God’s own image as the Bible teaches, then God is both male and female. That is not an insignificant footnote, but a core truth of spiritual reality. Women throughout history have been relegated to an inferior position by the very religion that should instead be at the forefront of establishing gender equality — a religion that is, at least in theory, based in large part on the traditionally feminine virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, and the power of grace rather than aggression. Christianity at large needs to reckon deeply with its theology of gender; and when it does, it will open itself to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will make our faith tremendously more powerful as a positive influence in the new millennium.

In conclusion, I would ask all to consider what religion is supposed to be and what role it should play in our future. To be truly “religious” is not about holding to old-fashioned doctrines or being part of the right tribe and excluding others. What religious devotion really means is to live a life of humble service to our brothers and sisters in the human family. It means openness to hearing the voice of God still speaking in our time. It means supporting institutions that treat people with dignity and bring hope to our hearts, and choosing not to support those forces in the world that exploit people and the precious earth we must share.

Many wonderful souls are turning away from organized religion because they see it as a source of needless division and conflict, or as something that holds people back from true spiritual progress. There are good churches that do not fit that description, but they are usually not bold enough in standing for a progressive religious worldview that answers the big questions with confidence — the kind of systematic focus and passion that inspires the devotion found more often in conservative churches.

Withdrawal from religion will not solve the problem; only the rebirth of religion in more relevant and transcendent forms will satisfy the human need for spiritual community in the increasingly sophisticated world of the 21st century. I invite you to join me in helping to reinvent Christianity for the new millennium.

During the pandemic, we may have to be socially distant, but let’s not be socially absent. This is a great time to look inward and explore the domain of the soul — and it’s also a time to build new relationships with like-minded people anywhere in the world through the power of online communications. Legacy churches are closed or struggling, but the Universal Church of the Restoration is opening its virtual doors. Things may never completely “go back to normal” in many areas of life — and I certainly hope that proves to be the case for organized religion. God knows the church needs a shakeup to be true to its mission in a changing world.

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