Rev. Tess Baumberger: The implications of Universalism
Nine years ago, during my chaplaincy internship, I rediscovered Psalm 139. This psalm is sometimes titled “The Inescapable God.” Of course, I must have heard it during my Catholic childhood but had forgotten it. It was one of the babies that I threw out with the bathwater when I rejected my “religion of origin.” Rediscovering it is part of my journey to reclaim and integrate my spiritual life.
At the time of this rediscovery, I was looking for ways to minister to a devout elderly woman who was on a respirator and did not want to be taken off it because she thought that would amount to taking her own life. As an old school Catholic, she thought that was a mortal sin and did not want to take the chance of losing heaven.
But she was suffering, needlessly. I conferred with the priest who went with me to see her. We tried to explain that God would not want to see her pain prolonged. She was adamant, however, and eventually had to be moved to a nursing home.
I searched for something to offer her before she left. A colleague suggested Psalm 139. As I read it, tears came to my eyes. I thought it might reassure her, as neither the priest nor I could, that nothing could separate her from the love of the Divine. Taking it to her room, I read it to her and sang “Amazing Grace.” That was the last I saw of her.
Later someone told me that the children’s book “The Runaway Bunny” by Margaret Wise Brown is based on that psalm. When my son was little, that book was one of his favorites, and mine too. No wonder I loved that psalm so much! It turns out that this psalm is one of the scripture passages that led my religious ancestors to believe in universal salvation. Universalism is the belief that everyone will go to heaven.
These days, since Unitarian Universalists practice freedom of belief, not all of us believe in a divine force. I do, and so write here from my personal theology. The God of my experience is the loving, embracing, all-forgiving, everywhere being of this psalm. My tears, when I rediscovered this psalm, were tears of recognition. The ancient psalmist captured the same experience of the Divine that I (and many others) still have centuries later.
“Whither can I flee from your presence?” writes the psalmist. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” Nothing can separate us from the love of a God who knows our thoughts and is acquainted with all our ways. The creator did not create us to be perfect. It would capricious to create us to be imperfect and then condemn us for that fact. The God of my understanding and of this psalm, who knit us in our mothers’ wombs, simply does not work that way.
A God who knows our inward hearts knows that sometimes, even when we do our best, we make mistakes. We do or say things we regret. For those mistakes, this God offers forgiveness. I believe this divine example shows us that we ought to forgive our selves and one another. The psalm assures us we are not alone, that there is hope on the other side of despair. There is life.
Basically, Universalism tells us that there is no sin too great to separate us from the love of the God described in Psalm 139. No fault is unforgivable to a power of unbounded mercy. Nothing we or anyone else can do merits eternal punishment. If your idea of heaven is oneness with the creator, Universalism says that in the end, all beings will experience that oneness, will return to that from which we came.
The arguments people raise against Universalism are the same now as when our religious ancestors began preaching this message over 200 years ago. One argument has to do with great evil. People raise the specter of Hitler and say that surely he deserves eternal torment. We cannot imagine ever forgiving Hitler. My 15-year-old son said that if hell is suffering all the pain you caused other people to suffer, Hitler has many more deaths to die. But my son believes that someday even his torment will end. So do I, sometimes – on good days. Universal salvation is a tough belief.
Another problem people have with universal salvation is that we want justice. Since justice is often not served in this world, we want “justice” in the afterlife. One good point Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland make in their book, “If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person,” is that when we reason this way, we confuse retribution or punishment with justice. They point out that parental punishment is not intended to inflict pain. If it is, then it’s abuse and not discipline. Instead, the consequences parents give are meant “to redeem, shape and protect.”
They go on to say, “Eternal punishment contradicts even the harshest concepts of justice.” Justice, they contend, is an end rather than a means, and that when we work for justice we seek to eliminate the sources of pain, not to increase them. Eternal torment is not justice. It is retribution. It repays evil with evil, which does no one any good.
One last objection people raise to the idea of Universalism is that, if there is no threat of hell, then there is no incentive to be good. But if the only reason you toe the line is because you’re afraid of punishment, is that really morality? Isn’t the point to have a changed heart, a heart that wants to do the right thing?
The basis for ethics in the Universalism is the deep-seated belief that every person is worthy of love, grace and forgiveness. If you let this belief soak into your bones, you see that Universalism requires a conversion of the heart into a heart that loves without limits.
It requires a conversion of one’s spirit into a spirit that not only forgives, but also wills the ultimate good of every person. Universalism inspires the transformation of our lives into lives that work to reduce the pain in this world and to create opportunities for redemption in our own time. So may it be, and so may we live.
The Rev. Tess Baumberger, Ph.D., is minister at Unity Church of North Easton, Mass. For more information about Unitarian Universalism please visit www.uua.org. Baumberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.