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The Hells We Make – March 6, 2011

For most of this week, I was at a conference in Boston.  It was a meeting for Unitarian Universalist ministers from all over this country, and Canada, who are in their first year of service. Since most of these folks live far from Massachusetts, they all flew or drove in and they staid all together in a little place on Beacon Hill. I was one of the select few who were local enough, and foolish enough, to choose to commute every day. Which meant that I got up early in the morning and I came home late in the evening. My week was spent at the mercy of the commuter rail schedule. I know that’s a predicament that many of you are familiar with, including a couple of folks I ran into this week, riding that train, heading into Boston and coming back again. It gave me a new appreciation for the life of a daily commuter.

On Tuesday night I was heading to catch the train at North Station and that took me around the side of the Garden. Inside, there was a Bon Jovi show going on, and outside in the cold, cold night there were a couple of guys just standing around. When I walked past the first one he called out, “Get your free ticket!” and I broke my stride just a bit. He had some pamphlets in his hand that he was trying to get strangers to take from him. He called out again, “Get your free ticket, to get into Heaven!”

Oh. I see. I kept on walking by. The second man was standing further out on the sidewalk than the first, so I passed much closer to him. He made me the same offer with the same crisp, printed slips of paper: a free ticket, into Heaven. I stopped walking, and I turned to him, and I said, “Actually, friend, I believe that everybody gets into Heaven. You and me, and everyone else on this Earth.” – He started shaking his head in disagreement, but I just kept talking. – “There is mercy enough to forgive the mistakes we make, there is love enough to dissolve the hatreds that we indulge.” – He’d already started talking and now he raised his voice, and so did I. I don’t think he was expecting someone to pick an argument with him. He probably mostly deals with people who pretend he’s not there. – “You are right that it is free, but you are wrong about why.” – The man started quoting some Bible passage to me then, but I was still talking more than listening. – “Heaven is not some super-special club just for Christians; it is a state of being for everyone, no matter what God they follow or do not follow. Even you, sir. Therefore be blessed, friend, be blessed!”

With a sharp edge in my voice I turned and walked away quickly. That man kept up his end of the argument just as long as I kept up my own. He had four inches of height and probably more than a hundred pounds on me. By the time I’d said three words to him I was already asking myself why on Earth I’d chosen to start an argument with a stranger in the street on a cold, dark night. It wasn’t a very well-advised thing to do.

I started that argument because I’m a Unitarian Universalist. You see, because I am a Unitarian Universalist it is sometimes infuriating to live in the world that I live in. In this world there is a mode of religion which is narrow, and exclusive and intolerant, and that form of faith speaks with a very loud voice in the public square. It is espoused by people of different sects, and different religions, and it is spoken so frequently and at such a volume that many people come to think of it as the totality of what religion has to offer. There is even a conspiracy of sorts between the ideologues of dogmatic religion and some – and I want to be clear here: only some – advocates of Atheism. The first side claims that their constricted and confining theology is the only true sort, and the second side happily agrees with them, denying that any strand of faith based in love and inclusivity could actually count as a real and genuine religion. And all of this sells books, and gets folks invited to shout at each other on cable news; it fills pews and prayer halls, and all the while it twists and coarsens the souls of those of us who absorb it.

One of the common elements of an “Us vs. Them, No-Way-But-Mine” theology is a focus on the afterlife. Heaven and Hell, or similar concepts, are wielded as a cosmic carrot and stick. Eternal paradise in Heaven is the reward for compliance: for saying and believing the right things, for joining the club. Eternal suffering in Hell is the punishment for deviating from the narrow, heartless path of such limited doctrine – and that punishment is the lot of everyone outside the chosen group. So for millennia, people have been taught alternately to live in fear of future punishment, by those teachings that condemned them to Hell, and to practice a literally holier-than-thou attitude of superiority if they thought they were among the select few destined for Heaven.

The problem is not a new one, and it is not unique to North America, or to Christianity. There is a figure from the Muslim tradition named Rabi’a al-Adawiyya. She lived in the 8th century in Basra, in what is today Iraq. Rabi’a was honored in her lifetime, and is still remembered today as a waliyu ‘llah: a friend of God. She was an ascetic who lived a life of voluntary simplicity in constant spiritual devotion. One day, it is said, Rabi’a was seen on the streets of Basra, an unusual event since she rarely left her house. She was running back and forth from one end of the city to the other, and in one hand she carried a lit torch, while in the other she held a bucket of water. When someone saw her strange behavior and called out to ask what she was doing, the saint replied that she was going to set fire to Heaven and pour water on to Hell, so that neither fear of punishment nor hope of reward would distract people anymore from the raw, pure love of God.[i]

Our Universalist ancestors held that there was no literal Hell, and that all souls were destined to reach Heaven. In one sense, this was similar to Rabi’a’s idea of destroying both Heaven and Hell, because either way, the afterlife was taken off the table as a possible motive for what to do in the present. No matter what, the final destination wasn’t going to change, so the current life here on Earth became the focus for the Universalists. They taught that one day, all of us were going to find ourselves living together in Heaven, so we ought to start learning how to live together here on Earth.

Today, as Unitarian Universalist we don’t share quite the same consensus that the historic Universalists did about what happens to us after we die. Some of us embrace the idea of an afterlife, and a few of us find the idea of reincarnation meaningful. Many of us are confident that this life is all there is, and many others acknowledge their inability to know for certain. In a well-worn joke that we sometimes tell at our own expense, a Unitarian Universalist dies, and on the way to the afterlife, encounters a fork in the road. She carefully reads the signs telling her where each path will lead, and makes her decision without hesitating. She bypasses the path marked “This way to Heaven” and instead takes the alternate route: the path marked, “This way to a discussion about Heaven.”

The afterlife may now be a point of open debate for us, but what we share together is a common focus on this world and this life; what we do in the present, as flesh-and-blood human beings on Earth, matters. Together we have the capacity to make this world we share into either a Heaven, or a Hell. They are not possible future destinations to us any longer, but states of being, in the world around us, and in our own hearts.

In a folktale that is told in different ways in China and Japan, a woman once travelled to the worlds of the afterlife in order to see them for herself. First she visited Hell. There were many, many tables, large and circular, with people seated all around the edges of each one. In the middle of these tables there were great tall piles of food, all of it hot and fresh, smelling wonderful and delicious. The people sitting at these tables were too far from the food to reach it, but they each had huge spoons, easily three feet long. Nevertheless, they were all terribly weak and emaciated, their faces pained with frustration and hunger – though they could reach the food with their spoons, the utensils were too long for the people to bring them to their mouths to eat. The traveler then moved on to Heaven. She was surprised to see that the scene in Heaven was nearly identical to the one in Hell: the same sorts of tables, the same great piles of delicious food, the same three-foot spoons. And yet, the people sitting around those tables and using those spoons were all happy and well-fed. Watching them, the woman grew to understand: the people of Heaven had learned to feed each other.[ii]

You see, the condition of Hell is rigid, it is dogmatic and it holds the worth and dignity of every human being under constant threat. It destroys the possibility of cooperation, and eradicates any sense of a common good. It is a narrow place where the difference and complexity of life-in-the-fullness-of-life is not permitted. We human beings create Hell in obvious ways, through overt hatred and brutal violence, but also in subtle ways as well. Through arrogance and impatience and the casual cruelty that emerges when we forget just how precious the lives of ourselves and others are. The word ‘God’ can stand for many things, and one of these is as a metaphor for purpose and meaning, for whatever provides a person with a reason to live, and struggle, and go on living. Hell is sometimes explained as “the absence of God,” and so the absence of meaning, the lack of a reason for life, might serve as yet another possible definition.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to pour water onto Hell wherever we find it, and even to set fire to those Heavens which are false, and limited, and built to exclude the many for the pleasure of the few. Our work is to free up the narrowness in our own hearts and in the world around us. But there is danger as well, in this work. That danger lies in the incautious application of fire without water.  In her quest to reveal the truth that connects all people, Rabi’a was wise enough to set out ready to destroy both illusions at once, and her motive in that mission was love. Sometimes, however, we are not all so wise. In differences of opinion both imperative and innocuous there is always that powerful impulse to show those who disagree with us the error of their ways. Hoping to convince and change them, not for their sakes, but for our own satisfaction, we more frequently succeed in silencing them, in excluding them, in stealing hope without compensation, setting fire to their paradise and making of their Heaven a freshly burnt Hell. Fires, untended, can grow in ways and directions beyond our intentions until all the world is fire, and we have naught to eat but ashes. Our world and our movement’s history contains already too many examples of the cruelty of silence, exclusion and the attacks of the many against the hope of the few.

There ought to be peace in paradise, but it must be an unquiet peace, for comfort and complacency will never bring justice to the world. We have a duty to challenge practices and ideas that are destructive to life wherever we find them. But we must not lose hold of love as our guiding spirit in that struggle. Hell is the place of strict sameness, of only one idea, one identity, one way of being. Heaven can hold more than that; it can contain more than one idea at once, and live with the ambiguity and the dissonance. We must, and we can change hearts for the better, especially our own, but we cannot do it by shouting at each other, or at ourselves.

In my encounter, earlier this week, with the streetside evangelist, neither of us walked away particularly changed by the other. I still had my position, he still had his. I cannot know if a different approach would have been more effective. But I can say that a different attitude would have been more faithful, and better in keeping with the radical and all-encompassing love that I was trying to convince him of. If I could do it again, I would greet the man differently; not particularly less strident or certain of my own position, but more curious and willing to engage with him as a person, and not as an adversary. Ready to build relationship, if the opportunity was there. So perhaps I should not say that neither of us were changed by the encounter after all.

My friends, in the coming week, may you taste more of Heaven than of Hell. May you learn to live with the person who cuts you off in traffic, the boss who does not listen to your ideas, and that member of your family who is just driving you nuts right now. Do not choose to be passive or to ignore the people who frustrate and infuriate you. That is not the path to paradise. But choose, instead, to love them, to show just a little more mercy, more compassion and understanding. Remember, no matter who else forgets, that we are all in this together. And if that feels to you like an impossible challenge, and you falter in it even before you have made it out the door of this sanctuary, remember that you are also one of the 6.7 billion people on this Earth who deserves your love, and your compassion and understanding.


Every one of us has a free ticket into heaven. Many, many of them, in fact. Those tickets are sitting and standing to your left and to your right. They surround you on every side, they fill the globe with their nearly uncountable numbers.

Look at the people beside and around you. Feel their hands. Hear their breathing. Hear the voices of the children out in the hall. Between the all of you, you have everything you need to make a paradise.

All of us – or none of us – will get to Heaven together. And we will arrive by our choosing to live like we’re already there.

[i] This story is recounted in several different ways in several different books. For just one, see E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopedia of Islam.

[ii] This story has many different versions. One is an adaptation by Elisa Pearmain, part of the UUA’s Lifespan Curriculum, Tapestry of Faith. It can be found here:


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