Universal Salvation March 22, 2009

posted Apr 14, 2009, 11:43 AM by Mike Allen   [ updated Apr 14, 2009, 1:22 PM ]
Are you saved? I am. I was saved when I was 12 years old. During a week of revival services at the small, white-framed Baptist church where my family belonged, the loud guest preacher convinced me that I was a sinner who would go to hell if I were not saved and that it didn’t matter that I was a good boy and went to church every Sunday because we are saved by faith, not our works. Though I deserved to go to hell, a loving God, out of his mercy, killed his only son. Well, he didn’t put it exactly like that, but that’s really what he was saying. It took me a long time to realize what he was really saying. What he said during those revival services was that God loved me so much, he sacrificed his own son so that I wouldn’t have to spend eternity burning in agony. In fact, because of my sins, it should have been me who was nailed to the cross, but Jesus took my place and bore the punishment I should have received. See, Jesus, God’s only son, was really God, so it was God killing himself on my behalf. I know it gets confusing, but it all seemed to make sense to me back then and to my mother and my grandparents and everyone else in the congregation. So I didn’t think about it much. I just had faith, which is the antithesis to thinking. 

I had heard it all before, Sunday after Sunday, but during those revival meetings, coming from a guest preacher, the message drilled home this time. I started to feel guilty about all the sins I had committed that no one else knew about, but God knew. He knew about the times I had lied to my parents. He knew about the time I had stolen a set of vampire teeth from the Roses dime store. He knew about the time I took a single cigarette from my father’s pack of cigarettes and smoked it in the woods. Worst of all, he knew about the time I found the Playboy magazine in my father’s closet and got an eyeful. That preacher was right. I was a horrible sinner, and I did deserve to go to hell. 

But I was also a very shy 12-year-old, and I couldn’t bear the thought of my walking down the center aisle of the church while the congregation was singing “Just as I Am” and my whispering into the preacher’s ear that I wanted to be saved right there in front of God and everybody. That would be hell, well, not hell-hell, but hell on earth. That was a very real dilemma for a 12-year-old boy – hell or social phobia? What tipped the balance on that particular night was the preacher’s convincing argument that I didn’t know how long I would have to mull over my decision. On the way home that very night, I could be killed in a car accident and there would be no more time to weigh my options and since I wasn’t saved, I would go straight to hell. Hell or social phobia? 12-year-old boys don’t often think about dying. Now that he had thrown death into the equation, the balance had been tipped. 

So I walked down the center aisle of the church while the congregation was singing “Just as I Am,” and I whispered into the preacher’s ear that I wanted to be saved right there in front of God and everybody. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. They were tears of guilt because I knew I was a worthless sinner, and they were tears of gratitude because I knew that if I were killed in a car accident on that very night, I was prepared. I was saved, and I was wearing clean underwear. 

But the deal wasn’t sealed yet. I was saved in my heart, but there was still the public declaration of faith through the rite of baptism. And Baptists go the whole ten yards with their baptism. None of this puny sprinkling of water on a baby’s head. No, you’re pushed down, all the way down into the water, like a donut being immersed in a large cup of coffee. In the old days, you would have been baptized in a literal stream or river. But thanks to indoor plumbing, by the time I came along, most Baptist churches had their own baptismal pool, which was located up high on the wall behind the pulpit, with a mural of the Jordan River, so that it was if you were being baptized in the same waters in which Jesus was dunked. 

But this second act of the getting saved deal offered its own dilemmas, which I didn’t not fully consider on that revival night I walked down the center aisle to whisper to the preacher. I did not consider that on the Sunday morning of my baptism, my minister would take me with both of his hands, with one hand supporting my back and neck and the other over my face, and plunge me all the way under the water and hold me there a few seconds and then bring me back up. As a little boy, I had witnessed others being baptized in that same Jordan River up on the wall behind the pulpit, and the thing that stuck out for me was the way the redeemed person would be gasping for air as they were pulled back up from the waters. 

My baptism was scheduled for Easter Sunday, and though Easter was several weeks away, I have always prided myself on being well prepared. So for weeks I practiced holding my breath. I practiced holding it as long as I could because I didn’t know how long the preacher would hold me under. It didn’t look very long when he baptized others, but things seem to last longer when you’re in them as opposed to observing them from a distance. As the fateful day drew near, I even practiced holding my breath and putting my face in my bath water. When the day arrived, I felt confident, but I was still nervous. What if the preached, for whatever reason, paused longer than usual while he had me under? What if his capacity to hold me under exceeded my capacity to hold my breath? What if I didn’t inhale quickly enough before he put his hand over my face and pushed me under? It wouldn’t matter that I had practiced holding my breath if I didn’t secure enough breath to begin with. 

All these thoughts and more were racing through my mind as the preacher and I stepped into the tepid baptismal pool, made tepid by indoor plumbing. What is my mother thinking? I bet my grandmother is proud. I wonder if my little brother is snickering at me. Everyone here is probably thinking, “Oh, so that Jones boy is not so good after all. He’s been hiding all his dirty little sins from us. It’s about time he came clean.” Then, before I knew it, the preacher grabbed me and plunged me under and pulled me back up. I don’t remember if I caught my breath in time or not. I don’t remember much of anything -- it happened so quickly. All that I remember is that my long, wet hair was dripping in my face, so I flung my head back to fling my wet hair out of my eyes, and by so doing, I flung water into the preacher’s face. The congregation laughed out loud as he wiped the water from his eyes. I could feel my face turn red. I was embarrassed, but at least I was alive. 

Salvation. The word doesn’t mean much anymore to people who no longer believe in a hell to be saved from, and we rarely use the word “sin” anymore, preferring instead words like “mistake,” “shortcoming,” “failure,” “addiction,” or “bad habit.” As you know, I’ve taken a course in UU history, which I try to flaunt in my sermons, and I’ve discovered that we Unitarians were the first Protestants to reject the Calvinistic doctrine of Original Sin, that belief in the depravity of humankind, that all of us are flawed in some essential way, defective at the very core of our being, and that there is nothing we can do about it except cast ourselves on the mercy of God. The Unitarians broke away from the Congregationalists, not just over the Trinity, but over Original Sin, as well. Unitarians believed that people have a free will to choose or reject righteousness. As time went by, God’s role in salvation became less and less significant in the Unitarian way of thinking, and the human role was magnified, so that eventually Unitarians began to talk about “salvation by character,” that people are saved by their own individual merit. As our belief in a literal hell melted away, we still harbored the idea of good and bad people. Unitarians assumed that good people were … well, like them – well educated, self-disciplined, self-improving people who developed themselves to the fullest extent and became the financially successful leaders of society. Or as Thomas Starr King was to have famously said, “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, and Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned.” 

Unitarian history is not so much a record of the development of a church or a denomination or a movement. It’s more like a Who’s Who list of successful individuals who used their tremendous talents to go out and do great things. Great statesmen like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, John Marshall, Daniel Webster, and Adlai Stevenson. Great writers like Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Burns, Charles Lamb, Charles Dickens, Hermann Melville, Bret Harte, May Sarton, e.e. cummings, Kurt Vonnegut,and Ray Bradbury. Great scientists like Michael Servetus, Joseph Priestley, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Darwin, and Linus Pauling. Great social reformers like Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Henry David Thoreau, Dorothea Dix, Horace Mann, Clarence Darrow, Roger Baldwin, Albert Schweitzer, and Whitney Young. Each one of them made a name for his- or herself by going out and changing the world … as individuals. That was their salvation. 

Unitarians may have discarded heaven and hell, and sin and guilt, but they continued the American religious tradition of individualistic salvation. Traditional Christianity envisioned each individual as standing alone before the judgment seat of God, stained with his or her sins, hoping to be spared from the eternal flames of hell. An individual could purchase the necessary fire insurance by simply believing that Jesus is the son of God. The traditional Christian understanding of salvation is about saving your own hide. It’s an individualistic view of salvation, and the Unitarian view of salvation is just as individualistic, only the emphasis is not on faith but on an individual’s own efforts to become a good person. 

However, when you read the other side of our Unitarian Universalist history, you discover that the Universalists had a different understanding of salvation. As you know, the Universalists derived their name from the fact that they broke from the Calvinists, not over the Trinity or Original Sin, as did the Unitarians, but over the issue of salvation. The Calvinists held that God would save only a select few – the elect – and that only God knows who they are. The Universalists read the Bible and concluded that God saves everyone and condemns no one. Before I became an expert in UU history as the result of taking one class, I had assumed that I knew what the Universalists meant by “universal salvation.” I thought that universal salvation meant that you and you and you and I are saved as individuals. But that’s not what they meant at all. For the Universalists, universal salvation meant that all of us together would be saved. The emphasis was on community, not individuals; on relationships with each other, not on personal improvement. The Universalist vision of heaven was not a reward for self-achievement but the whole community being absorbed in the totality of God’s love. 

The Universalists recognized that we are all in this together. You can be saved only as the whole community is saved. You cannot be saved alone; either it is together or not at all. You are saved just as you are regardless of merit, but only when you realize that you are part of something greater than yourself. The Universalists took the meaning of the word “religion” very seriously. The root of “religion” is the same root for “ligament.” Re-ligion binds us back together. God wants us to be one community with peace and justice, not an assortment of isolated individuals. Your salvation is not your own self-fulfillment but your recognition of your connection with the person across the street and across the tracks and across the ocean. 

So what might this Universalist understanding of salvation mean to us today? How might you need me and I need you to be saved? I guess we should first of all be clear about that word “salvation.” As you well aware by now, I love to understand the root meaning of words. “Salvation” shares the same root as the word “salve,” which is a substance that heals, which brings wholeness. To be saved means to be healed from the wounds to our soul, to our humanity, to become whole, a whole human being. So, why do you and I need community, even this community, this Fellowship, in order to become whole human beings? Well, I’m sure there are lots of reasons, but in order to have a three-point sermon, I will briefly mention only three. 

Firstly, I believe that all of us, all human beings, suffer from some degree of shame. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is that feeling of self-reproach when you do something wrong; shame is that feeling that something is wrong with you. We feel guilty for something, but we feel ashamed of ourselves. All of us feel ashamed about something because none of us escaped childhood without our souls being wounded in some way. Our souls were wounded because our parents were not able to accept us fully as we were. There was some part of us that they found unacceptable. Perhaps they wanted you to be prettier or smarter than you were, or perhaps they wanted you to be more compliant or more charming. Whatever they may have found unacceptable about us, they were doing the best they could because they, too, had been shamed when they were children, so they were incapable of giving us unconditional love. So we grew up feeling flawed or defective in some basic way. Many women feel shame about their bodies or appearance. Many men feel shame about being weak or needy. 

In the most recent issue of the UU World magazine, a former minister of this congregation, Christine Robinson, described a kind of religious shame that many UUs feel. Four out of five of us came to Unitarian Universalism after a childhood spent in other faith communities. We left those communities because we no longer believed what they taught and what we used to believe. Many of us were led to feel that our inability to believe what we were taught was due to a flaw in our nature, that something was wrong with us. “Why can’t you just believe like everyone else?” That lingering feeling that something is wrong with you is shame. 

Shame is a failure of self-acceptance. We cannot accept some aspect of ourselves we judge to be inferior or inadequate or defective. We cannot accept our whole selves because early in life when we were dependent on others for our self-worth, they could not accept our whole selves. Since relationships originally set up our shame, it will take relationships to heal our shame. Not just any kind of relationship because some relationships continue to shame us, but relationships with people who can accept us as we are, with all our warts, freckles, and blemishes, and affirm our basic goodness. You and I need each other to be healed from our shame because if you can accept me as I am, then maybe I will be able to accept myself. 

Secondly, I believe that all of us, all human beings, are born with the capacity for empathy. Well, it’s not just a belief; there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that we instinctively feel what another human being is feeling. Babies as young as 12-months-old demonstrate evidence of feeling empathy. It makes evolutionary sense that we would be hard-wired for empathy because feeling empathy for others would lead to helping others, which would promote the survival of the species. 

But as with every other innate capacity, it can only develop if the proper conditions are present for its development. That’s why you and I need each other. We need community to give and receive understanding, support, and compassion because without the developed capacity for empathy, we cease being human. Some may hold that our reason or our science or our technology is what makes us distinctly human. But I think our capacity for empathy is what makes us most human because it allows us to recognize the humanity of others and to connect with the humanity of others. Without this capacity, we are subhuman. Without this capacity, we see people as if they were means to our ends, and we treat them as if they were mere objects. There is probably nothing scarier than looking into someone’s eyes and not seeing a flicker of feeling. Sam Keen once asked a murderer on death row if he felt any remorse for his crime. “No, I don’t feel remorse,” said the inmate. “I don’t feel much of anything.” Somewhere along the way, that man had lost his soul. You and I need each other in other to save our souls. 

Thirdly, I believe that all of us, all human beings, are meaning-makers. We have to make sense of our world, give explanations of why things happen, have goals to strive toward, have values to live by, have a reason to be. When we hear a bump in the night, we cannot go back to sleep until we can explain to ourselves what it was. We cannot accept randomness. When the unpredictable happens, when things don’t fit our familiar frameworks, we feel tense, annoyed, maybe even depressed. But life is good, life is fulfilling, life is … well, meaningful when we find meaning outside ourselves. It was Benjamin Franklin who observed that “people who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages.” During the last few months, as the excesses of Wall Street have been exposed to public light, we have beheld men who have accumulated lots of stuff but whose lives are small packages because the meaning of their lives has not grown beyond their own egos. 

I think it is telling that when a lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus told him the story of the Good Samaritan, a story about someone who went the extra mile to help someone else. Evangelicals define eternal life as what happens when life ends. But according to the Biblical use of that phrase, eternal life has more to do with what happens when life begins. To have eternal life means to be fully engaged in life, to be fully alive. I don’t know about you, but I have felt most fully alive when I have gotten beyond myself and invested myself in the lives of others. You and I need each other in order to have a meaningful life. 

Are you saved, brothers and sisters? Don’t look to heaven; look to each other. Amen.