First part of baptism project completed

Wow: I type faster than I thought. I’ve not got Menzies Rayner’s 1839 thoughts on baptism online, and fixed a link that makes it possible to read L. F. W. Andrews antebellum thoughts again.

See all public theological docuements at Universalistchurch.net here; there’s a special section for baptism resources.

Go here if you want to see Rayner’s document in particular.

He has some interesing thoughts, but I don’t share his conclusions.

Who are we? An invitation to consider tradition

If you read old Universalist polemic (or old Unitarian polemic for that matter) you would be convinced that, on the face of it, we were arch biblicists. But I have a hard time reading our tradition(s) that way. I think the Universalists (in particular) were fond disputants, and the Bible was the acceptable vehicle of dispute. One gets a sense studying these forebears (and I hope I’m not projecting too much here) that the relationship with scripture is far more devotional and inspirational than dogmatic. For instance, the “Concordant Universalists” are more biblicist, and they cast a distinguishing light on “our brand” Universalists. These traits fit with the general pietistic thrust of American Protestantism.

But these traits are less helpful in finding or articulating a theology of revelation. Can’t describe revelation, and you can’t describe the transmission of tradition. Can’t do that and there’s little hope of starting self-consciously self-integrated churches. All you have left is custom and sectarianism, and that’s what the UUA is chugging along on, ecclesiologically. Much of the mainline is little better shape.

So quite properly, unless you know who are, and how you got here, there isn’t much hope in welcoming and including others. As Christians, we need to come to terms with (note, I didn’t write “adopt wholesale”) revelation, scripture, the universal Church, sacraments (perhaps worship generally) and the creeds. Much of what has been considered (and derided) as optional really stands as foundational. These are the main means of transmitting the tradition, and unless we know where we stand, we’re adrift.

"The Passion" meets "The Lord of the Rings" this Saturday

Holy Saturday is one of my favorite moments in the church calendar, ranking with the Ascension and Epiphany, as an acquired taste as Stilton or deviled kidneys.

On that day, Christ enters death and ministers to “those who dwell in darkness.” There is no overt biblical mandate for this observance, but it fits well into the whole mythic scheme. If I don’t go to Holy Saturday services (they’re not common) I’ll stay at home and read parts of the Revelation of John and The Dream of the Rood. (There is something about late antique and early medieval works – whether they are Britanic, Roman, Cappadocian or Syriac – that speaks to me during Holy Week and afterward for Easter.)

The latter is the earliest known (religious) poem in (Old) English, and dates to 750; it tells the Passion from the Rood’s, that is, the Cross’s point of view, and assumes a Germanic heroic code. (Thus the LotR reference.) You almost expect Jesus to be a blue-faced Pict; no, wait, that was Mel’s other movie.

Regular readers know I care about the spiritual lives of inanimate objects: a wise move I think, since Jesus warned us about the rocks and stone singing and all.

Read The Dream of the Rood in modern translation for yourself. Consider sharing this with your Rivendelled teens, too.

Up, up, and away

Chutney at MyIrony.com [blog defunct] was making some light-hearted (?) comments about Unitarian Universalists being left behind in the Rapture.

Forget that: I’m packing a bag. At least there’s precedent: Jesus rose once that we might live, and he rose again that his spirit might come. By it, we are one and free. (God, I love this.)

Universalists were the first American Protestants (depending on how you categorize the Episcopalians) to make something out of the feast of the Ascension, which this year will be on May 20.

First, it is one of those “lost holidays” ripe with meaning. In addition to it heralding the Paraclete (not parakeet) or Comforter, Christ gave his spirit for the mission of the church. It is all at the end of Luke and beginning of Acts. Kids brought up on the “continued next week” school of television drama will recognize the genre.

A. Durer's Ascension

But more: Universalists identified the Ascension with Christ’s other promise: the salvation of all. This time harkening from the gospel of John: When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (12:32)

Forget these Rapture-happy fools with their theological redlining. God has it covered, and I plan on being there when he is All-in-All.

What questions do we need to ask of the Principles and Purposes?

A response to something Philocrites wrote:

Unitarian Universalists by-and-large treat creeds like they were a form of mind-control. Not a little hint of paranoia and defensiveness either. Yes: you can use a creed to exclude and by it exalt one’s exclusivity, but it isn’t its strength. (After all, you can also use a car to kill a person, but it doesn’t make a car a weapon.)

I see creeds (like a part of the tradition) as a means of praise and a guide to identity. They are also a tonic against false teaching, and this last is terribly important for the first time since the third century. Since we cannot rely (and shouldn’t have relied) on the general culture to propagate our faith, we need to be taught and have this teaching reinforced.

What about freedom? I hear you say. Taking a page from Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou, if we were perfectly self-integrated, with access to all knowledge, and eternal, then such a teaching would imposition, but in our finitude, we need help. Why rely solely on our own abiliites when (people being very much the same over the millenia) others have labored and suffered so much to know and live with God?

A free person knows when to accept and when to question. A person who only questions is no more free than one who only accepts, leading me to cringe every time I see one of those “The question is the answer” t-shirts.

So what does this have to to with the UUA Principles and Purposes? They function as a creed insofar as they inform the identity of many of those who become Unitarian Universalist. They teach persons who want to learn. They steer the wayward back on the path. Unlike some of the “Free Church Conference Unitarians” I get it and don’t mind the idea of a creedal statement.

The problem is that they’re not designed to be used that way: to reprise the earlier metaphor, it would be like using rollers skates as a lethal weapon. (Yes, it can be done, but . . . .) Also, we never accepted them to be used that way, at least not formally or with forethought. One of the reasons I can stay in this fellowship in good conscience is because I know I can have my own creed, and stuff the P&Ps when they try to take on that role. God knows it might be impossible to be a Christian in the UUA if they were ever codified as such. Indeed, I think a great deal of ink and sweat was spilled in the mid-1980s from Christians over this very matter.

All this I say in case anyone has tried to understand why I have a creed on the blog, oppose the creedalism of the Principles and Purposes, and remain in this odd-but-wonderful little family.

The book I'm waiting for . . .

Universal Salvation? The Current Debate

Why do the Calvinist presses put out all the good books about Universalism, either pro or con? And why – with matters of universal salvation and the divine economy (the Trinity) all the rage in Christian circles – are the Unitarian (and) Universalist Christians so painfully out of the loop?

This book is due to be published in North America by Eerdmans, and first came out in Britain by Paternoster Press.

From the Eerdmans website:

Universal Salvation? The Current Debate
Robin Parry (editor), Christopher Partridge (editor)

Will God one day save all people through Christ’s atoning work? That is the question at the heart of the debate in this volume a debate sure to challenge readers, whatever their current perspective.

The book opens with a rigorous defense of universalism by Christian philosopher Thomas Talbott, who argues that Scripture teaches the ultimate salvation of all people, including those in hell. This is followed by responses from a range of Christian scholars who evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Talbott’s arguments, take his thought in new directions, or explain why they think he is mistaken. Two additional chapters trace universalist teaching in Christian history.

I want this book.

1/1/05 It was finally pubished in the US, and I got it for Christmas!

Three Prophets of Universalism?

A colleague just called and asked about three Universalist sermons that would match the three Unitarian sermons in the long-published, oft-used book, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism.

That’s hard to say. Universalists were less prone to use monumental sermons like the Unitarians, and tended to rely more on newspaper articles, biographies, debates, and devotional guides.

But the request is reasonable, and I can point to two sermons (on the Web) that fit the bill, and will look for (or, if need be, add from my historical library) a third.

In particular, I will look to the undervalued persons in Universalist history like Orello Cone, William Henry Ryder, Phoebe Hanaford, John Wesley Hanson, and Edwin Hubble Chapin.

Until then, look at

1. Elhanan Winchester’s The Outcasts Comforted at “God’s Truth for Today“.

But could we believe that sin and misery should endure to all eternity, that the blessed God, worthy of all praise, from all intelligences, should be hated by vast numbers of the beings he hath made capable of loving and serving him, and that to all endless ages, we should be filled with the greatest sorrow imaginable! For even when we see poor miserable wretches, under the power and government of Satan, profaning and blaspheming the name of God, it fills our hearts with grief inexpressible; how inconceivable would our distress then be, if we could be made to believe, that they must, to all endless ages, continue in rage, blasphemy, and despair! But glory to God in the highest, we believe that the wisdom, power, and goodness, of the ever-adorable JEHOVAH shall shine most gloriously, in the entire destruction of all evil, and total subjection, and complete restoration of all his creatures. “We believe, and therefore we speak.” Great is our joy; though we are despised, rejected, and treated with contempt by many for the gospel’s sake which we believe, yet we would not part with the satisfaction we find therein, for all the glories of the world, and the applause of all mankind.

2. Quillen Hamilton Shinn’s Affirmations of Universalism
at the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship page. (OK, I typed that myself, but no longer maintain that site.)

Universalism affirms a good destiny for the entire human race. At the outset I dwelt upon this distinguishing feature of our faith. A few additional words I think are necessary for the reason that, however clear we make to ourselves our views touching destiny, we are still confronted, and how frequently, with the old question, “What will become of wicked people who die in their sins?” The idea seems fixed in the minds of people that God can do nothing for his sinful children after they leave this world. Now, the relationship existing between the spiritual Father and his children is spiritual. Death cannot change it. Death cannot separate us from the love of God, said the great apostle. Has redeeming love physical limitations? Will we get beyond its reach by going to another world? It would be as reasonable to confine its action to New York, or even to Rhode Island, as to confine it to this world.

What, then, is our answer to this question so perplexing to many anxious souls? This: Those who are not cured in this world, and none are completely cured here, will be cured in the next. Old Orthodoxy says they will be sent to an eternal penitentiary. New Orthodoxy says they will establish themselves in endless rebellion against God, become eternal anarchists. The doctrine of annihilation, another phase of New Orthodoxy, says they will be blotted out of existence. Which answer can you best harmonize with the will and purpose and character of an infinitely good God? Universalism answers, They will be cured.

I’m rather looking forward to finding #3.

Trinity I: Roll call

Another adapted bit of writing to UUMA-CHAT, this time on the historic presence of Trinitarians within Universalism:

As early as 1830, you can read embarrassment that there are or might be Trinitarians in the Universalist ministerial college, presumably by those who don’t want any. Thomas Whittemore, as an appendix to his Modern History of Universalism (1830) footnotes a personal and unscientific survey he took of his colleagues on the question, and quotes the letters he received. They can be summed up, “Oh, I think there used to be a Trinitarian over there, but we’ve seem to have misplaced him.”

Since American Universalist has multiple origins, and since there is evidence of Trinitarian Universalist liturgy in common usage, it seems there has never been a time when such a position hasn’t had at least a few proponents. (Can anyone guess when the last Universalist denominationally-printed prayerbook with explicit Trinitarian references came out? 1941, with a special reprint in 1943. Hardly the depths of antiquity.)

A minority, sure. But perhaps one driven into rhetorical isolation for polemic goals.

The goal? First friendship and then consolidation with the Unitarians, of course, which was a hot-and-cold issue until it was consummated four decades back. Ann Lee Bressler (Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880, which I’m glad to see is used at Meadville/Lombard) has a few nice pages about what happens to Universalist history when necessarily viewed through an Unitarian-irenic lens.

This helps explain why everyone gets so tied up about Hosea Ballou being “the first unitarian” — but how many of us can identify, with some detail, the workings of Ballou’s universalist theology at any significant juncture of his career? He was, after all, a Universalist, and not a second-string (or worse) Unitarian, despite those who remember him so.