My sermon this morning is the first in a three part series that I’ve titled “Universalism Today & Tomorrow.” What we’re going to do in this sermon series is explore three traditional expressions of Universalist theology and apply them to our situation today. Maybe that sounds boring to you. I don’t think it is. And not because I’m some kind of religion nerd who enjoys theology, but because this has to do with our lives and our world.
This sermon series is going to introduce three expressions of Universalist theology, and it will introduce them in reverse historical order. We’ll be working our way backwards. Two weeks from now, we’ll be looking at the earliest expression of Universalist theology, the doctrine of Universal Salvation. Universal Salvation, the narrowest of these theological statements, said simply this, that all souls will be reconciled and reunited with God. What a powerful thing to say. Not all souls, except for people of this religion or that nationality. Not all souls, except for this scoundrel or that criminal. Not all souls except for that neighbor, the one I cannot stand. Not all souls except for that person whose entire existence seemed of no redemptive value to anybody whatsoever. All Souls are reconciled with their Creator. Everybody goes to Heaven. Everybody gets in. That was the theological position of our religious ancestors. Two weeks from now, we’ll talk about what that means for those of us living today.
Now you can imagine that if those earliest Universalists believed everybody would get into heaven, the consequence of such a belief would be not a suspicion of other religions, but an open-minded curiosity directed towards them, and a desire to see goodness confirmed by them. In one UU church I once belonged to, a prominent poster displayed versions of the Golden Rule as contained in the scriptures of different religions of the world. When Rev. Ken Patton put symbols from the world’s religions around the sanctuary of his Universalist Charles Street Meeting House – much like the world religions symbols we used to display around the entrance to the Barn Chapel thirty years later – it announced a new understanding of Universalist theology, the understanding that the religions of the world had, at root, a common dream, vision, wisdom that was available to us. I’ll be talking more about this next week.
So, if the religions of the world had something in common, if dialogue between religions and nationalities was possible, if there was some connection we shared, then it was possible for Universalists to broaden that way of thinking, and to imagine that there is a shared connectedness that is a reality between all people and between all beings. This became the third major understanding of Universalism. And this understanding gave us our seventh principle. The seventh principle, which says that there is an interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
What does this principle mean: “An interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”? I would say it means that we are connected to everything, and everything is connected to us. This is a theological statement. I can’t prove it to you, even though I can give you examples that would support it. It is a theological statement, meaning it helps us to form the meaning we make out of the world in which we live, and as a result of impacting our meaning-making, it helps to determine our actions, our deeds, and our choices.
So, let’s look at this principle, this idea that our lives are part of, “an interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” What does this mean? First of all, it is such a broad concept. When many read this principle, they first think to environmentalism. We recognize, for example, that if a factory puts toxins into a stream here it causes cancer there, and if you spray DDT to kill insects, the chemical gets carried up the food chain and kills birds. This is basic cause- and- effect thinking.
But the principle is even broader than that. We all recognize these interdependences – webs of existence – in our lives. To an extent, at least. The problem is that this web of all existence is too big for us to fully comprehend, fully grasp, and so it can be our tendency to only see the connections that are most obvious to us, to value the relationships that we already value, to hang out in our nook of the web, maybe sensing the vibrations from events that occur a seemingly long way off, but all the time hanging out in the neighborhood of interactions we are familiar with, and meanings already made. I want to suggest that this way of being in the web is not sufficient to the task of living a life that makes the whole system better, and is not in line with the larger truth of what it means to live in the world. In reality, our connections are both more intimate and more expansive than we tend to accept.
What I want to do is offer some helpful observations for living interdependently in this web of all existence of which we are a part. All this so far might seem abstract, but we’re going to try to make in plain.
The first observation I want to introduce is something I call the rule of indirectness. We are used to thinking of cause and effect between things directly. But the rule of indirectness says that all sorts of things impact us and others indirectly. My favorite example of this was given at a church leadership convention I attended a couple of years ago. The presenter, Rev. Kenn Hurto, was talking about a church that was always horribly off-key in its singing. This fact was a great sore spot to many in the congregation. They fixed their problem by painting their nursery. It turns out the nursery had been kind of a dingy, dreary, uninviting place, but after it was painted, it was much more inviting, and several weeks after it was spruced up a new family with a small infant visited. Impressed by the bright and friendly nursery they felt comfortably welcome and decided to stay. It turns out that the couple had extensive training in leading singing groups, and the congregation’s singing soon improved tremendously as a consequence of their leadership. The presenter made the point to those of us there that it would be wrong to think that doing likewise would guarantee similar results, but rather, that changing one part of a system will change other parts of a system. Changing one part of a system will change other parts of a system, indirectly.
The rule of indirectness is “a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa will cause it to snow in Kansas City”-style thinking; it’s quantum physics compared to Newtonian physics (or so I’ve heard.) The rule of indirectness says that the effects of actions have an expansive, and unpredictable, rippling effect.
In any event, another observation that is important to consider when we think of Universalism as interconnectedness is the rule of intimacy. The rule of intimacy says that we are actually a lot closer to other people than we imagine we are. One writer [Tracy Kidder in his biography of Dr. Paul Farmer] observed that a person can get on a jet plane in a third world country and land in a first world country, or for that matter, take a different highway exit than the one they usually take, and remark about this journey, “I feel like I am in a different world.” In which case, the writer remarks, such a feeling would be absolutely wrong. That feeling, he explains, is a way of distancing yourself from the fact that someone else’s living in a third world country has something to do with your living in a first world country. The feeling is a way of distancing yourself from the fact that the type of life found off of one highway exit is connected to the type of life found off of another highway exit.
Intimacy, rather than distance. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker calls the artificial distance which prevents us from understanding our actual connection with others “fragmentation”. She says that there is a kind of culturally sanctioned and enforced ignorance which fragments our inter-relatedness, and she writes that, “to become an inhabitant of our own lives and society [and world], we need a different theology. A new theology must begin here, a theology that assists in a healing of the fragmented self, supports a new engagement with social realities, and sanctions a remedial education into the actual history and present realities of our country [and world.]” She continues, arguing that such “a fragmentation of knowledge—a splitting of mind, body and soul; neighbor from neighbor; disciplines of knowledge from disciplines of knowledge; and religion from politics… results in apathy, passivity, and compliance.” [Blessing the World, pp. 29, 33]
There is the rule of indirectness, which teaches that changing one local part of a system can result in expansive changes in other parts of a system. There is the rule of intimacy, which teaches that we are closer to parts of the web than we perceive and that we should challenge the fragmentation that insists we are separate and different.
The third observation we might apply is what I call the rule of reflexivity. I apologize for the jargon. Reflexivity is just a fifty-cent word that I use to mean the capacity to be a present part oneself of the interdependent web. Let’s look at the verbiage again. The seventh principle calls us to have “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” So far I’ve been talking about indirectness and uncertainty; I’ve been talking about this absolutely enormous expansiveness; I’ve been talking about a radical intimacy that unites all that has been fragmented. It is easy for ourselves to start to get lost in this theology. But those last six words of the seventh principle are important. They’re reflexive. “Of which we are a part.” Of which we are a part. That is an affirmation, folks.
In your order of service today, you’ll notice a letter from Kendra Schlebusch. As a member of the board, Kendra is the liaison to our social action vision. That vision states that as a church we will invite and inspire people to get involved in working for a peaceful, fair and free world… and that our congregation will grow to be seen as a social justice and community service leader in the Kansas City metro-area. We’ll do this by partnering with other congregations, community organizations, and by working collectively and individually. The piece of paper in your order of service will kind of set a bench-mark, knowing where we stand right now: where SMUUCh is at in the whole big interdependent web of all existence, of which, individually and collectively, we are most certainly a part.
I want to end with a brief story from earlier in this month. Back at the beginning of July I was privileged to be invited to speak at a Reproductive Justice conference which took place a few blocks away from the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. The group hosting the conference was ChoiceUSA, an organization created by Gloria Steinem. Unfortunately, the portrait of Ms. Steinem in the National Portrait Gallery was as close to her as I was able to get. What was so cool about the conference was the framing of the issues: that reproductive justice was an aspect of social justice and that it was necessarily linked to racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, gender justice, immigration justice, et cetera. I spoke to a group of about fifty diverse young people who were actively organizing and fighting for reproductive justice on their campuses and in their communities. Very impressive.
Part of my talk was the interdependent web talk. I spoke about the importance of involving clergy and religious communities in the struggle and talked about what those connections could add to the advancement of justice. I also talked to them about the dangers of a fragmentation in which activism was divorced from religious community and vice-versa.
What impressed me so much was how some of the conference attendees were linking various forms of justice in their work. One participant was working to link reproductive justice with racial and immigration justice, working to bring attention to policies that deny entrance to visibly pregnant women at airports. Another participant was combining reproductive justice with economic and racial justice working with Vietnamese nail salon employees who, if pregnant, are exposing their unborn children to harmful chemicals that may cause deformities. I conferenced with one young person who was running for office about how to get churches involved in her justice work which has inspired her bid for public office. The courage, the connections these young people were making in their activism work was inspiring to me.
Let us remember, as we leave this place, to take the wider view, aware that our lives not only affect others in our local spheres directly, but touch others indirectly. In that way, our reach is expansive. Let us remember that feeling that another is far away is a sign of our own fragmentation, and that repairing that fragmentation leads to intimacy. And finally, let us boldly and audaciously claim our part in this interdependent web of all existence.
Expanding on a passage from Deuteronomy, Rev. Peter Raible composed these words:
We build on foundations we did not lay.
We warm ourselves at fires we did not light.
We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.
We drink from wells we did not dig.
We profit from persons we did not know.
We are ever bound in community.