Fresh crop of universalists?

There’s some buzz, buzz, buzz because evangelical darling Rob Bell may (or may not) be a universalist.

That tickles me, not because “our” number might be increased by one, but because this kind of proclamation is so common in Universalist history and was vital in its self-defense. (Style point: I use universalist to describe the theology and Universalist to denote the denominational affiliation or customs.)

“We” were happy when Partialists — a particular and sectarian term coined by, and used exclusively by, Universalists; it means “everyone else” — gave up their ways, even if they didn’t formally affiliate with us. Do you note a hint of scepticism, even sarcasm?

It’s because if the anti-Universalists have any case it is that universalism is something of a gateway doctrine to more eccentric and esoteric modes of belief. Think about Universalist minister Abner Kneeland‘s early and celebrated exit to blasphemy (and Iowa.) Or William Vidler’s early slide to Unitarianism. Or the fact that many well-established New England Swedenborgians came out of Universalist churches.  Or the fascination of Universalists with Spiritualism. (I wonder if Unitarianism cultivated the same trajectories, conditioning the pair to identify with one another?) And latter-day universalists will sometimes compromise and land in the more palatable (but morally horrifying) halfway-house of annihilationism. Others will make their faith into a fan dance and never quite answer “do you so believe?”

So, in short, I’ll believe in a celebrity conversion if it sticks. Call me in five years.

Most constant Universalists — speaking historically — are largely unknown, but it’s easy to read between the lines of the newspapers and reports imagine them as institutionalists: the hymn-writers and committee-members, many of whom only have a living legacy in the mind of God. Those who threw themselves into world-changing work, and those who adopted a lower-case-c catholic approach to their faith. The hope that by re-grounding Christianity on a historic, reasonable and well-balanced footing many of the old conflicts and errors that Christians made might be overcome. And above all, that God was better, more just and more loving that what we imagine ourselves to be. It was lived, at its best, as a cultivation of Christian character in communities — not always particular congregations — and in solidarity: a challenge to the Unitarian cultivation of Self.

But it was not a successful campaign in the larger sense, or it would be more a part of our denominational consciousness today, and this is why Unitarian Universalism seems more like a busy airport with many airlines offering endless arrivals and departures and no comfortable place to rest. Again, this is not new.

At least one Universalist — Orestes Brownson, a writer who, if he lived today, would almost certainly be a professional blogger — was drawn to something more capital-C Catholic . . .  and crossed to Rome.

Of course, today’s celebrity universalists have no need to cross to anywhere. Like Judith Sargent and her ministering second husband John Murray, this new generation is more likely to be independent of denominational connections. This weighs on me, because — perversely — there is really no more liberty or support to be a Universalist Christian in the UUA than there is to be a universalist Christian in other denominations. And if it takes a fight of self-assertion, what does one win if successful? Where will Bell — or Carlton Pearson or Jim Mulholland — be because of their stands.

Constant, catholic Universalists lost the larger fight, but oh! to know the inner lives, the congregations and the families so many must have built. That’s worth something, and sometimes small successes need celebration. I have to tell myself that as I ponder this new church start. Ask me if I feel the same five years hence.

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