By Eric Stetson — May 22, 2011
(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C.)
Throughout history, there has been an ongoing clash of vision and struggle of will between, on the one hand, those who have called people to look beyond the boundaries of tribe, nation, race, religion, and other divisions within humanity, seeking to unite human beings in ever larger and more diverse societies, political and spiritual, through the recognition of the essential oneness of human nature and potential to overcome the challenges presented by our differences; and on the other hand, those who have pointed to these very differences as evidence that the division of humankind is a fixed and insurmountable feature of the natural order of life in this world — perhaps even ordained by a Higher Power who wishes to separate the chosen from the common, or the saved from the condemned.
Broadly speaking, one of these views may be called Universalism, for it is concerned with the goal of unity in human universals; and the other — which has gone by various names in various contexts, such as tribalism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, segregationism, creedalism or theocracy — may be fairly called Separatism, because it seeks to separate people into groups of different perceived value, either in competition against each other for supremacy or locked into some sort of caste system, or to enforce or reinforce already existing separations and stratifications.
For most of human history, Universalism has been a visionary impulse, and one that was impossible to realize fully. It was the dream of the most advanced and enlightened thinkers in all civilizations — and mocked by many as a utopian fantasy, never to be manifested in reality. Nevertheless, Universalism has made a steady march toward victory in both the spiritual and political realms. From the first preachers of monotheism who subsumed the pantheon of local and national deities into the triumphant idea of only one divine Creator and Ruler of all, whose synagogues, churches, and mosques have spread to nearly every corner of the earth; to the ambitious kings, presidents, diplomats, and philanthropists who created ever larger empires of territory and resources, culminating in the establishment of global institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and others too numerous to mention; — our gods have gotten bigger and the horizons of our organized life have expanded, ultimately to embrace the whole world.
The World’s Parliament of Religions met for the first time in 1893 and still meets today, encouraging interfaith dialogue, the recognition of common values and principles among all faiths and their application on issues of global concern. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Earth Charter, and the Earth Constitution are documents written in recent decades which seek to provide philosophical underpinnings and practical frameworks for benevolent and just relationships between individuals, communities, governments, and the planet itself in an all-embracing world civilization.
The last century’s revolutionary advances in transportation (such as the airplane and space travel) and communication (the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and especially the internet) have made it possible, for the first time in human history, for people to have a truly global consciousness and way of life. The whole world and its people are interconnected as never before — and increasingly aware of it.
Although there was a great deal of global connectedness even when transportation and communications moved more slowly, it was much less noticeable, and all social units — the village, the city, the nation, religious communities, and so forth — were, in various ways, more isolated from one another. It was easier to preserve the fiction of inherent division, because the horizons of the earth were too vast for us to envision, with a fair degree of realism, the whole planet as the single interdependent ecosystem that it is and the entire human species as our kin.
At its root, Universalism is the recognition of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” as expressed so clearly and succinctly today in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s statement of principles. Through the centuries, this basic idea has been expressed in different ways, its implications explored and expounded by numerous thinkers. Some Universalist visionaries have emphasized the redeeming love of God for all individuals, while others have seen the broader implications of a God of love, justice, and mercy, for the ideal order of human society.
In poetry that has echoed down the ages, the ancient Jewish prophet Isaiah dreamed of a world where peace will reign:
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. [Isa. 2:4]
From the dawn of Christianity, the Christian Universalists have believed that no soul is forever lost, no matter their beliefs, mistakes, or affiliations, but all are redeemed according to the plan of a benevolent Deity — a God who, like a loving Father, may correct us but will never disown any of His children. In the third century, before Universalism was banned by the Church as a heresy, Saint Clement of Alexandria wrote that “all things are ordered both universally and in particular by the Lord of the universe with a view to the salvation of the universe. But needful corrections, by the goodness of the great, overseeing judge… compel even those who have become more callous to repent.”
Nearly two thousand years ago, Saint Paul envisioned an inclusive faith uniting the world and breaking down the barriers and inequalities between different types of people, writing in his Epistle to the Galatians that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal. 3:28]. A century and a half ago, the Baha’i Faith arose as a progressive offshoot of Islam and expressed the Universalist belief that God is one, Man is one, and all the religions are one. “Let your vision be world embracing,” wrote Baha’u’llah, the Baha’i prophet, summarizing the spirit of this age. “Glory not in love for your country, but in love for all mankind. … Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.”
Universalism is the spiritual underpinning of a global mindset, lifestyle, and social order. It is the humane face of globalization — and without it, globalization tends to produce many injustices and much needless suffering as old divisions crumble away. In a rapidly globalizing world — a world in which secular materialism is on the rise, as people reject the limitations imposed by old religions and value systems — the tempering influence of a universal, humanistic spiritual and social vision is essential, lest otherwise human beings may be treated as mere commodities to be exploited or consumed in a brutally efficient world economy. It is therefore providential, and indeed natural and to be expected, that Universalism should become a major spiritual movement of the 21st century — and with the growing ranks of the “spiritual but not religious,” the “New Age,” and the decline of belief in hell and rise of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism, it is evident that Universalism’s rapid ascent or revival is already occurring.
The triumph of Universalism, however, presents a major challenge for religion, which has traditionally been based on the Separatist mindset of dividing humanity into the chosen and the common, the saved and the damned, or the enlightened and those who abide in darkness. This has been the bread-and-butter of so many religious creeds, churches and institutions for so long — literally for millennia. Old habits are hard to change — and what new message would religion replace it with?
Universalism as an organized religion has had a difficult time attracting large numbers of adherents, perhaps because its all-embracing philosophy does not appeal to the baser side of human nature — which most religious leaders and institutions traditionally have exploited. Another reason might be because people simply don’t see the need to participate actively in a religion that teaches that no formal affiliation or ritual actions are necessary to appease a Higher Power and win or keep one’s salvation — not even a creedal profession of belief, enrollment in a church, and evangelizing the world, let alone confessing to a priest or other activities that require the existence of clergy.
If religion is no longer about getting people to accept creeds, perform rituals, and obey clergy in order to avoid being condemned by God, what is its purpose?
Inspiring individuals to live a better life. Inspiring society to order its affairs according to a higher vision. And providing face-to-face communities in which people may help each other help themselves and their world. Religious congregations such as churches should focus on these purposes in order to remain relevant and gain the participation of a new generation, in this nascent era of globalization.
People always need inspiration and leadership. Political leaders rarely inspire, and when they do, it is usually because they themselves have been inspired by a higher message that descends into the realm of political rhetoric and government policy from a spiritual source. A society bereft of the kind of grand, beautiful, otherworldly and imminently challenging visions that religion is best suited to provide, is a society destined for stagnation, decline, and destruction.
As for the lives of individuals, how many throughout history have been touched by the teachings of the prophets, the sages, the wise ones in all eras who have sought to communicate what they believed to be the inspiration or revelation of a Spiritual Source from beyond the mundane world? Truly the influence of these leaders of faith is unfathomable. Without them and their teachings as a constant reminder and motivation to eschew the evil and manifest the good, the life of the average human being would shrivel into a dry, hardened lump of petty self-interest.
Religious communities can be places where people come together to listen to each other, inspire each other, and challenge each other to look deeper within ourselves and then to turn outward with altruistic benevolence toward a world in which we are each called to play a part with courage and conviction to make it a better place. For most of us, these actions do not come naturally. It is only when we consciously covenant with one another in a community of faith that such a mindset and lifestyle has a hope and prayer of becoming the norm.
The fact that all the great religious traditions have truth and wisdom to offer us, and that God’s plan is not to eternally separate humanity but to reunite us with each other and with our Creator, does not nullify or even weaken the necessary role of religion in our lives and our world. What it does destroy is the walls that needlessly divide us; what it does remove is the prejudice, hatred, and dogmatic conflict that bring us suffering, from which our ancestors have suffered in every generation, and which sadly, remain sources of suffering to this day.
Universalism is the religion that offers all the people of the world the cooling waters of reconciliation to put out the fires that so often consume our hearts with anger and distrust toward our fellow man. It is the faith that mocks no one’s God, rather enlarges Him. It is the spiritual vision of unity in diversity, and the movement that ever seeks to draw a larger and more inclusive circle of fellowship, that the contributions and potential of no man or woman be wasted or scorned. As Edwin Markham so eloquently put it in a poem called “Outwitted”:
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Love wins, and Universalism in the end shall outwit all the forces of Separatism. The great arc of history bends ever onward toward a world united, and within every soul returning to that great Forge of Love in which we were all once formed, brightly shining like gold.