This is a homily I gave in January of 2010, as part of a series on salvation. In light of the current furor over Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” it seems worth posting.
The notion that someone would be destined to hell for not believing as I do is one that I reject outright. I’ve been saying it just that plainly and matter-of-factly so long that it’s easy to forget how radical a message it still is to much of the world. I’ve also been saying it so simply that sometimes I’m stopped short when I have to consider what it takes to live this theology not as a statement to explain what “Universalism” means to folks who ask what I do for a living, but what it means as a faith stance I take seriously and want to live.
What percentage of your time do you spend thinking about hell? Few religious liberals tend to spend a lot of time entertaining thoughts of hell: pro, con, or otherwise.
If we frame our description of Universalism, then, in terms of not believing in hell, it can be easy to say it has nothing to do with us in modern times – we’ve grown past a regular notion of a punishing God, and we accept that there is truth in different faith paths.
The notion of universal salvation pre-dates Christianity, but the official name ‘Universalism’ didn’t come up until the mid-1700’s in England. Soon after, a preacher and theologian named Hosea Ballou made it famous in the United States. Ballou believed that the notion of a punishing, judging God was not one that would inspire the best to come forth in God’s people. He was concerned that the competition for salvation in fact brought out the worst in people, and that if folks simply took pleasure in living a moral life and doing good works they would find themselves reconciled to God. Now, you can see that his approach sounds a little naïve: we know that it’s not so simple as saying “God loves you, now don’t you want to do the right thing?”
The idea that everyone is already saved is profoundly challenging.
Those of us who go about our lives earnestly trying to do the right thing know that it’s hard work. Even when we’re working hard at it, it’s not always clear what the right thing is.
We want to know that effort is good for something, that it distinguishes us in some way.
Even if we’re not pinning our hopes on heaven, we want to be seen and known as the folks who have tried their best.
We don’t have to be believers in a saving God or in hell to find ourselves bound in habits of thinking that say our goodness is a zero-sum game. As we strive to be good people, we can’t help but take some notice of those who, to put it nicely, may not be striving quite so hard as we are. In our habits of thought, we distinguish our own goodness by negative judgments of others.
I am embarrassed to realize how much I do this myself. It came to me clearly and somewhat comically while I was driving to the gym early one morning. Now, we all know that early in the new year is a time when everyone makes their vows anew to practice their intentions with new discipline. Especially after the indulgences of the holidays the gym is one of the places those intentions are carried out. On this particular morning, I was very aware that the group exercise class I enjoy on Tuesday mornings was going to be filled to the brim, and I was racing to get there in time to stake out a spot.
I was not feeling charitable toward the interlopers who were inconveniencing me with their superficial commitment. “Just wait a few weeks and we’ll be back to normal” advised a friend. Not only did I know it was true, I actively wished for the failure of my fellow gym members to come sooner. I had won my place through hard work, for goodness sake, why should I have to make room for people who aren’t as serious, as committed… alright, let me just say it: as good as I am?
I don’t actively believe in or think about my own salvation, and I certainly don’t consciously tie it to my gym membership. But this habit of thinking in even trivial ways shows a distance between my professed belief and my lived belief. I caught myself this time, and asked what it would mean to live my Universalism in relationship to my neighbors and the gym.
It took admitting that I was trying to get some ‘credit’ for the hard work I’ve put in at the gym by assuming it earned me a higher place in the order of things. It meant admitting that until two years ago, I was fairly often one of the ones who would sign up in the first week of January, go two or three times a week for a month, and then let the membership lapse by May.
But the crux of the matter was that if I was going to the gym regularly to prove myself more disciplined, tougher, or simply superior to those who did not go, I was doing it for the wrong reasons. If I was doing it for my health and well-being, doing it was its own reward.
There was no reason for that same opportunity for health and well-being to be generously available to any and all comers. In fact, the more of us pursuing that and joining the gym, the more services the gym could provide and the more healthy women there would be in the community. A greater good all around.
Modern Universalism, if we are to really live it, asks us at every turn to replace habits of thought and action rooted in competition with the lived awareness of our radical kinship. Universalism not only says that there is room for all of us, but that each and every one of us can be an important part of the healing and the hope of the world.
As the late Forrest Church sums it up, “Universalism says good behavior unites and heals; bad behavior destroys and divides.”
The reward for our goodness is the magnified expression of healing and connection; it is finding greater communion with the unifying source of our being and our destiny.
We know our faith is connecting us with that greatest good when our habits of mind and heart are helping us to heal our lives, inspiring us to reconcile with our neighbors, and helping us, as Church puts it, “plant our feet firmly on the ground of our being.”
We are surrounded by, held by a love that will not let us go.
All that love asks of us is that we magnify its presence in the world.
We are humbled, knowing that none of us has the whole picture of the scope of that sacred presence, but that each of us is a unique expression of it in the world.
If we tune our lives to the living that love, to seeking that truth that both shines through us and greater than all of us, we do indeed find healing, wholeness.
So may it be.