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Loving the Hell Out of Life – November 14, 2010

A few weeks ago there was a rally held on the national mall in Washington. You might have heard about it on the news, or saw footage from it; at least one of us here today, I know, was there in person. That rally was hosted by comedian and media critic Jon Stewart. It was billed as a chance to promote reasoned discourse, a counterweight to the loud and angry voices in politics. Now, I will tell you that I enjoy Stewart’s work, and also that I disagree with him on a great many things. His rally wasn’t really my scene, and so I didn’t plan to watch any of it. But a number of friends, and some of you, in fact, commended to me the speech that he gave at the end of the rally. So, on those strong recommendations, I watched the video of that speech.

Jon Stewart was speaking out against the divisive framework of the national media – what he calls the 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator – and he ended with an image that stuck with me. Speaking about the ability of people to be fundamentally decent towards each other, Stewart actually plaid a clip of his own, of cars waiting in line to enter the Lincoln Tunnel, making the trip from Manhattan to New Jersey. This, to him, was a central example of Americans cooperating each other, compromising, taking turns, showing a basic tolerance for one another. As lanes merge to enter that tunnel, drivers have to police themselves and alternate who goes in – because if everyone guns it and tries to get there first, no one’s going to have a very good day.[i]

Now, if I were a professional football player, I might see the world through the lens of the game: am I on offense or defense in this situation? Do I need to pass the ball here, or try to run it in? And if I were a brewer, I might interpret my experience through my craft: has this problem been given enough time to ferment? Are the conditions right for a palatable solution to form? If I were an astronaut or a steelworker, or a hard-boiled private detective; each of these vocations might shape my worldview in different ways. But I am none of these things; instead, I am a minister. So when I was listening to Jon Stewart and thinking about his image of the Lincoln Tunnel, the matter that it called to mind for me was theological. Specifically it reminded me of a bit of wisdom from the Universalist wing of our ancestry. Universalism, of course, is often summarized in the belief that everyone and everybody is going to Heaven. This is what that picture of the cars waiting to take their turn reminded me of: the saying goes that since we are all going to have to spend eternity together in Heaven, we might as well figure out how to live together, here on Earth.

Unitarian Universalism has grown and changed over the course of time, and as a group today we are far from identical to our theological forbearers. Referencing our Unitarian side – the name for which comes from a belief in the oneness of God and an opposition to the Trinity – it has been said that today we are a people who believe in one God, at most. Likewise, it is true that you would be hard-pressed to find a Unitarian Universalist who believes in Hell; but then again, probably less than half of us believe in Heaven, either. Yet even if we do hold beliefs which are identical to our ancestors, we are still their inheritors. They have entrusted us with a mantle, which we are called to carry forward.

There was a time when the subject of Hell was the chief animating discourse in American religion. In 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon in Connecticut entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which caught the zeitgeist of religious fervor then in vogue. In it, the displeasure of God is alternately described as a bottomless pit, an oncoming storm, and an inescapable flood.[ii] Every human life hangs precariously by a thread, and the almighty being who holds the string is very, very cross. The era was defined by the doctrine of Calvinism, which held that a very few people were going to Heaven, while everyone else was destined for Hell, and that these assignments were doled out before birth, so nothing you might do could change your fate, one way or the other. This is the religious landscape which American Universalism developed in opposition to.

The Universalists taught that a loving God would not condemn even one person to eternal punishment. The Creator would not discard the Creation. Everyone was destined for Heaven, no matter what errors they made or crimes they committed on Earth. That idea infuriated the Calvinists and caused something of a moral panic in the religious class. Persecution followed. Once the Universalist minister John Murray was preaching in Boston when someone threw a rock through the window of the church. He stepped out of the pulpit, picked it up and pronounced, “This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither reasonable or convincing.”[iii]

Hosea Ballou, another Universalist once found himself sharing a carriage with a minister from another denomination, someone who believed very much in hell and damnation. Midway through their ride, the fellow asked him: “Could it be that you are Hosea Ballou, the infamous Universalist preacher?” Hosea admitted with pride to being who he was, and this other minister began to question him about his beliefs.

“So you do not believe in the existence of hell?”

“No.”

“Not even for the punishment of truly heinous crimes?”

“No.”

“Not even when you imagine that you yourself could be the victim of such a crime? Can you not conceive of a space in hell for someone who harmed you personally?”

“I cannot conceive of any place in hell, friend, for it does not exist.”

Finally, exasperated and upset, the man asked Hosea, “Am I to understand then that if I were a Universalist, there would be nothing to stop me from killing you and the driver and making off into the night with this carriage?”

And Hosea replied, “No, sir. If you were a Universalist, the thought of doing so would not have occurred to you.”

Our Universalist ancestors challenged the idea that fear should be a central motivator in religious living; they sought to replace it, instead, with love. Hosea Ballou once said, “If we can agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.” That is a message that is needed as much in our time as it was in his. Because while fire-and-brimstone Calvinism may have fallen somewhat in popularity over the last century, it is still out there, and it still needs to answered. A few months ago, I was asked by a friend if I would talk to an acquaintance of hers about Unitarian Universalism. This person was from a conservative religious background, she explained, and he was curious to understand more about UUism. In my eternal optimism I thought that this was a sign that the fellow I was being asked to talk to was questioning his current faith and looking for a more loving and hopeful alternative. I was wrong.

Rather than a hesitant but receptive audience, seeking something new, I found someone who was very confident and assured in what he believed, and just as sure of how wrong I was. I don’t think of myself as someone who shops around for arguments, but a taking with someone who holds a position opposite to yours can help to clarify your own feelings. Because the whole conversation took place electronically, I have lovely record of the words that were pulled out of me by our conversation. Despite our differences, I’m grateful to my opponent in this unexpected disputation; it led me to the following summary of my position as a Universalist:

“I believe I ought to live as though there were no hell. If, when I die, I find to my great surprise a God with a great white beard on a thrown of gold sending some souls to be rewarded and others to burn eternally, well then, I will tell God that he is wrong to do so to his face. Until then, what we have in common as human beings is not a shared certainty about what will happen after we die, but the current reality of this life. We have everything that is necessary to make of this world a heaven, or a hell. We ought, therefore, to choose the former and not the later.”

It is to us, the descendants of John Murray and Hosea Ballou, among many others, to carry on their message, for while the doctrines they opposed may have faded somewhat, the essential problem is still with us. That essential problem is that idea that people are disposable; that they can be discarded for any reason and that some object or desire could take priority over any person. You see, we must learn and struggle and strive to agree in love. Because when we give in to that modern Calvinism, that ethic of human disposability, we agree in a love of a different sort. We love money, and we love the hell out of it. We love power, and we love the hell out of that too. But the imperative of Unitarian Universalism is that you should love your neighbor, love the stranger and love yourself – love the hell out of every one of them. And don’t stop until you’ve gotten the last bit out.

In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote a famous defense of extremism. “Was not Jesus an extremist for love?” he asked. “Was not Amos an extremist for Justice?… The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or for the extension of justice?”[iv] What branded Dr. King, a man of resolute non-violence, an extremist in the eyes of so many was his demand not simply that the individuals around him be guided by love, but that his society follow that sentiment as well. He called people out for keeping the practice of love a private matter.

Love unites people. It breaks down the barriers between “I” and “you”, and helps to form a “we”. Particularly in our ever-more individualistic and isolating culture, love is the most dynamic force there is; the one most likely to change the way in which people live and relate to one another. Yet love, even religious love, perhaps especially religious love, has a reputation as a passive and meek emotion. There’s a famous passage in the Christian Testament attributed to Paul, from the first letter to the people of Corinth, that exemplifies this:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[v]

Those are the words attributed to Paul, and for you who are inheritors of the great cause of Universalism, I have the following amendments: Love is not always patient. In fact, it is frequently impatient, for love knows that justice too long deferred is justice denied. Love may not be boastful or arrogant, but it is entirely capable of being rude, if by rude we mean impolite – love will speak out of turn, will defy authority, will cause a scene, when life and wellbeing are at risk. Love is marked by hope and endurance, and it bears many things, but it does not bear all. Love is not satisfied with the world as it is; it demands, instead, the world as it ought to be.

In the Lincoln Tunnel image that we began with, the people waiting in line for their turn were practicing tolerance, and tolerance is a nice enough thing; certainly, it is better than hate. But tolerance, in a civil society should be the lowest common denominator – it is the least of civic virtues. As a person of faith, and as an eternal optimist, my goal is to reach not for the lowest common denominator, but the highest: and this is love. Love which draws us out of the narrow bubble of our private lives and private automobiles, and into relationship with other people. If we are guided by love, we will not be content to wait in line, alone and separate. We’ll turn off the engine and get out of the car and we’ll start making friends, right there on the freeway.


[i] http://www.comedycentral.com/videos/index.jhtml?videoId=363864&title=jon-stewart-moment-of-sincerity

[ii] http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path=aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9nZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy4yMTo0Ny53amVv

[iii] http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/universalists/John-Murray.php

[iv] A Letter from Birmingham City Jail, as reprinted in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

[v] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

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