A Renewable Universalism for the 21st Century

By Alicia Lee,2014-03-30 22:21
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A renewable Universalism takes the best of the past in Universalist faith and couples it with a modern sense of the societal needs that compel us to seek

    stA Renewable Universalism for the 21 Century

    Rev. Dr. Richard Speck

    October 8, 2006

     One day three clergymen were having a talk down in hell. The

    Priest explained, ―We have strict rules about lusting after women, but I

    just couldn’t resist a good body. I guess that’s why I’m down here.‖

    The Rabbi then spoke: ―As you know we have many explicit laws

    governing diet, but I just loved a ham sandwich. I guess that’s why I’m

    down here.‖ After a silence, the Priest and the Rabbi turned to the third

    member of their group. ―So, we confessed. What are you doing in this

    terrible, hot place?‖

    The third man glared at the others for a moment, and said, ―Hey, I am a

    Universalist. This place is not hot, and I am not here.‖ Well, I’m here

    and we’ll know how hot this place is when I finish.

     I am honored to be the preacher at the Pennsylvania Universalist

    Convention this year. This gathering is the 175

    th annual meeting of the

    trustees and delegates of our historically Universalist churches. The

    meeting yesterday was full of stimulating thought from Rosemary

    McNatt and lots of conversation among the various people present. It

    was probably this way back in 1831 at that first gathering. About the

    only difference will be that I don’t plan to preach for two hours like

    some of them did back then.

    stA Renewable Universalism for the 21 Century

    Rev. Dr. Richard Speck

     I chose as my subject to explore the theme of linking our historical

    Universalist faith with the modern work of saving the world including us.

    I researched everything in my library and on line that might give me

    some inkling of what Universalists thought about the world and our

    place within it. The two readings that were offered earlier referred to

    our connection to the rest of creation. It seems that nature wasn’t a big

    topic within Universalism. They were more interested in saving souls

    than saving trees.

     You are familiar with The Washington Declaration of 1935 which

    reads: ―The bond of fellowship in this Convention (church) shall be a

    common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to co-

    operate in establishing the kingdom for which he lived and died.

    To that end, we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme

    worth of every human personality, in the authority of truth known or to

    be known, and in the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to

    overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.

    Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test,

    provided that the faith thus indicated be professed.‖

    It is in the progressive establishment of the kingdom of God that I find the need for a modern Universalist faith. Rosemary talked about the

    need for us to have a new missionary zeal to show the world what we

    believe by our actions in helping with the disasters such as Katrina. She


    stA Renewable Universalism for the 21 Century

    Rev. Dr. Richard Speck

    said we need to be witnesses and companions to others in such a way

    that our faith comes shining through.

     Our Universalist history is replete with examples of brave men and

    women who were there working for a more just society. You are well

    aware of Clara Barton, the angel of the battlefield and creator of the

    American Red Cross. She helped Americans know that they could

    collectively assist their neighbors in time of need. Adin Ballou worked

    to create the Hopedale community where common ownership of the land

    and communal support of one another were the norm. His pacifism

    influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King. Abner Kneeland was jailed for

    heresy as a Universalist minister because he preached a radical

    understanding of God too liberal for even other Universalists. He also

    established a community that worked for equality and justice.

    In the last century the name of Clarence Skinner is lifted up as the foremost Universalist leader working for social justice. In the foreword

    to his 1915 book, The Social Implications of Universalism, Skinner

    wrote, ―How to transform this old earth into the Kingdom of Heaven—

    that’s the primal question. For thousands of years sad-eyed men [and

    women] have looked upon this war-wracked and greed-broken world,

    yearning to gather it into their great healing love. Many have gazed with

    amazement at the sorrow and misery of humanity and have wondered.

    Some have climbed into the high places, searching the heavens for an

    answer; others have gone down into the deep places for the secret.


    stA Renewable Universalism for the 21 Century

    Rev. Dr. Richard Speck

    Prophets have caught a various vision, their eyes have been lighted by

    many and devious enthusiasms which have sent them into the world to

    labor and to serve.‖

    He finished with, ―May the humblest of these seekers after truth set

    forth the talismanic word which fires him [or her] with hope and urges

    him [or her] to whatever service he [or she] can render. It is

    Universalismthe universal faith and hope in the universal love. When [people] have tried all lesser faiths, when all fragmentary trusts have

    failed, may the world come to see this vast vision of a cosmic religion,

    As lofty as the love of God, As ample as the needs of [humanity].‖

    Skinner taught that Universalism wasn’t an escape from reality, but

    a harmonious and spiritual development of all the elements of real life.

    He called this social salvation. He wrote, ―Those who have faith in the

    world are the ones upon whom rests the tremendous responsibility of

    redeeming the world.‖

    He put his energy into not just teaching at Tufts Divinity School,

    but helped found and lead the Community Church of Boston in 1920.

    This congregation started with 300 people at their first service. By 1926

    between 1500 and 1800 people attended services on Sundays. We have

    yet to have a modern Unitarian Universalist church match such


    The church was active in many social justice areas including

    defending Sacco and Vanzetti who were falsely arrested and ultimately


    stA Renewable Universalism for the 21 Century Rev. Dr. Richard Speck

    executed by the state. John Haynes Holmes wrote of Community

    Church in 1939, the Community Church ―fought poverty. . . It has

    assailed militarism, political corruption, economic exploitation, racial

    discrimination, and religious bigotry. . . It has only sought to save the

    people through the application of social justice to the common life.‖

    stThis is what we need for the 21 Century Universalism. Think

    how much worse off our country is now. Back then, they didn’t know

    about atomic weapons, biological warfare on civilians, environmental

    degradation of the ozone layer, toxic pollution, or any of the modern

    maladies that we confront today. We still are dealing with corrupt

    politicians. Just read the headlines about the latest Republican scandal

    whether it be former congressman Foley or convicted felon Jack

    Abramoff. The minimum wage is below the federal poverty level so

    people who are working still can’t provide for their families without

    government assistance. We still have religious bigotry against Muslims

    and don’t get me started on the state of racial discrimination.

    Seeing so little change from sixty years ago makes me think of that

    famous theologian Woody Allen. He said that humanity faces a

    crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other

    to total extinction. Let us pray, he said, that we have the wisdom to

    choose correctly.

    He also said that if Jesus Christ came back today and saw what

    was being done in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.


    stA Renewable Universalism for the 21 Century

    Rev. Dr. Richard Speck

    A modern Universalism will take our salvific message of a loving God and infuse us with the spirit of working with one another to solve

    the human ills that confront us today. A renewable Universalism takes

    the best of the past in Universalist faith and couples it with a modern

    sense of the societal needs that compel us to seek new ways we can

    make heaven on earth for today and into the future. We are renewed by

    knowing that love is there anytime we want like a perpetual fountain.

    So how do we transform this old earth into the kingdom of heaven? What can we do as modern Universalists to show the world that our faith

    is more than great sounding phrases? We can begin with expanding

    John Murray’s exhortation to preach the kindness and everlasting love of

    God to practicing kindness to all we encounter and demonstrating the

    love of God through our own actions in community.

    Justin Lapoint gave a sermon honoring the Bicentennial of Universalism at the Unitarian Universalist Association General

    Assembly in 1993 which he titled ―Universalism for Such a Time as

    This.‖ In this sermon he articulated the three principles of Universalism

    for today’s world. The relatedness of all being, the universality of grace,

    and the necessity of living the faith were Justin’s call to a new

    Universalism. The first principle reminds us that we are an integral part

    of the universe. We are connected to everything and everything is

    connected to us. What we do to the system affects more than just us as

    individuals. He said, ―Universalism from the very beginning has


    stA Renewable Universalism for the 21 Century

    Rev. Dr. Richard Speck

    affirmed a belief in a benign rather than hostile universe. Learning our

    place in this interdependent web of life, acknowledging our kinship to

    all people and with all life, seeking to live in harmony rather than to

    dominate the environment these things Universalism asks of us.‖

    The abundance of grace coming into our lives is a central tenet of the Universalist faith. All are included in God’s love. A young person

    once asked about the nature of God. The Universalist preacher told

    about when he was young he had stayed out too late with a friend and

    was coming home at night. On the frontier in the nineteenth century the

    cabins that people built had to be sturdy. There were wild animals that

    might come foraging for food or native peoples seeking supplies or

    revenge for what was done them by the white settlers. Once the door

    was barred from the inside, there was no way to open it from outside.

    The exception was if a small rope was left dangling outside the door that

    would lift the bar from inside, a person on the outside could get in. This

    was called the latchkey. The Universalist minister said that God was

    like his parent who left the latchkey out so he could get home safely.

    God left the latchkey out for all people to enter heaven. It was God’s

    abundant grace. We need to tell people of God’s love. We need to

    evangelize for Universalism through both word and deed.

    If we are to practice a modern Universalism, we need to live it out in our everyday lives. A Universalist pamphlet of the 1950’s found in

    Lapoint’s father’s papers said, ―Our faith is a power we work with, not


    stA Renewable Universalism for the 21 Century

    Rev. Dr. Richard Speck

    just a set of ideas to accept. To do a thing, not to argue about it, or

    merely teach the theory of it, is the primary task. Universalism is not

    merely a set of doctrines but a way of life.‖

    We need to address the needs of this community and the people who surround it. What do they need the most? What can you do to meet

    it? Who can you partner with to bring more resources to that need?

    What do you need to change in your life to better see and hear the

    supplications in this community? It will be by our works that people

    will know that Universalism is alive and thriving in the Church of the


     Hosea Ballou wrote in 1849 three years before his death, ―Owing to the age and infirmities of the writer of this article, he cannot expect to

    be able, much longer, to render any considerable service to the infinitely

    glorious cause to whose interest he has had the happy privilege of

    devoting his humble talents for nearly sixty years. But while holding

    himself ready to resign his armor, at the word of command, he cannot

    fully express his gratitude for what he sees of the wonderful spread of

    truth, and for the numerous army which he will leave in its future


     I think that Ballou would be proud of what we have done with

    Universalism in the more than 150 years since he died. But there is

    much more to be done. We need to leave a numerous church that is

    working for alleviating society’s ills. A renewable Universalism can


    stA Renewable Universalism for the 21 Century Rev. Dr. Richard Speck

    revitalize our liberal faith and rekindle the flame of our spirit in bringing

    the kingdom into reality. May we embrace such a faith, become

    emboldened to share it with others, and work together for a brighter

    tomorrow. Amen.


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