Saturday, June 24, 2006

Universalism question

True or False:

"Universalism" in the sense that it existed as a religion in early America is about "universal salvation," not Universalism as defined thusly:

In comparative religion, universalism is the belief that true and valuable insights are available in many of the religious traditions which have grown up in various human cultures. It posits that a spiritually aware person will respect religious traditions other than his own and will be open to learning from them. It does not deny that immersion in one tradition is a useful anchor for an individual's spiritual development. While it celebrates the richness and value to be found among humankind's religious traditions, it does not necessarily deny that some things done in the name of religion, and some religious practices, are not constructive. But it distinguishes itself from the view that there is only one true faith, one uniquely chosen people, or one final prophet superseding all others. The name Universalist refers to certain religious denominations of universalism, which as a core principle adhere to standards and rituals which are convergent rather than divergent, often espousing themselves as alternatives to denominations based on dogmatic or factionalized differences;

My understanding is "true," but enough people (including a minister who debated in the plenary today) seem to think that the second defintion of Universalism is at least part of what we currently mean by the term that I thought I'd ask.

To clarify, I am a Universalist by both definitions. I just don't recall anything I've read about the early Universalists mentioning their searching for truth in non-Christian religions. If I'm wrong, please tell me.



Jamie Goodwin said...

Starting in the mid 20th century some Universalist Ministers began looking beyond the traditional Christian boundries for inspiration.

Hence the Universalist symbol of the the circle with the off center Cross. It literally means that although our faith is Christian there is acknowledgment that Christianity is not the only (for some not at all) way to understand the ultimate reality.

This is the type of Universalist that I am.

Steven Rowe said...

You are correct - I do know that some date the begining of Universalism in the second catagory as 1827, I have the publication often cited (and issue of the Olive Branch), and I dont view that article that way at all. And there was a reason the main Universalist paper was called THE CHRISTIAN LEADER for some many years (of course the main Unitarian paper also had Christian in the name.

Not sure when it begain to head toward a more universlist use of the word Universalism - I see some mildly in the words of the 1910s - more in the 1920s - leading up to the late 30s and the off-centered cross. This view is an easy path from Universalist Salvation or Restoration though.

I note that I have recently seen the term "Unitarian" used as the "belief that there is truth in many religious traditions...."

sr (checking the 1915 "Universalsim and the Universalist Church"

Anonymous said...

I was always under the impression that Universalism pertained to universal salvation.

Jamie Goodwin said...

I would be interested in some of those publications. Gordon McKeeman is the minister emeritus of my church and he and the Humiliati where the first that I knew of who expressed thier Universalism in Univeralist terms.

Of course I do not have the kind of access you do to a lot of Universalist writings.

Wasn't one of McKeemans contemporaries at Tufts the first to use the Off Center Cross? I have read it was very controversal in it's time.

Jamie Goodwin said...


Originally it did but as the faith grew the theology slowly changed. The basic line of thought (very basic) is that if we all shall be saved then how can one faith claim ultimate truth? And if Heaven is populated with people of all faith, then perhaps our goal should be to create a heaven here on earth.

Anonymous said...

By the time of consolidation in 1961, the Universalist Church was apparently dominated by religious humanists who applied "little-u" philosophical universalism to the realm of religious life. You are certainly right to notice that this is VERY different from the original theological meaning of the term.

The latter-day version seems problematic to me. It is often summed up with the metaphor of a mountain, the top of which may be reached by many paths. Unfortunately, in making this analogy, you are claiming to have obtained a higher perspective with which to perceive the equivalence of paths which those "on the ground" clearly do not see as equivalent. Then also, no matter how many paths there are, the only way to get to the top is to pick one and walk it.

Steve Caldwell said...


I've just started reading Sam Harris' book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and The Future of Reason this morning and this book implicitly suggests one reason "universal salvation" or "no hell" Universalism would give birth to the "awareness of insights in other religions" Universalism.

For shorthand usage, let's call the no-hell variant "Classic Universalism" and the awareness - appreciation of other faiths variant "Modern Universalism." I'm using these terms as chronological and not in any judgemental sense. From our history, we know the "Classic Universalism" was around before the "Modern Universalism."

Harris makes the following observation early on in his book:

"Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. Once a person believes -- really believes -- that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one."

My suggestion is that the no-hell "Classic Universalism" makes any afterlife concerns irrelevant for people of faith who might be curious about what other faith traditions offer.

I can see how this no-hell view would provide us with the freedom to explore the wide range of religious views out there beyond the Christianity that gave birth to "Classic Universalism." It would give people the freedom to explore Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Humanism, Earth-based Spirituality, etc without the fear that they are doomed to eternal torment.

Harris' book doesn't mention Unitarianism, Universalism, or the post-merger Unitarian Universalism in the index. That's a shame but I suspect it simply reflects the small size of our faith community.

Steven Rowe said...

The Off-Centered Cross was developed and first used in 1946. It was unoffical, but popular. The Universalist CHARLES STREET MEETING HOUSE was started in 1949 - this was the first attempt to have an official Universalist church which completely fullfilled the second Universalism catagory. This a response to the General Superintendent's report to the GA in 1947. Previously in 1919, seperately both Elbert Whippen and Clarence Skinner discussed and promoted the "brotherhood of love that transcended all boundaries."
(a tip of the hat to volume two of THE LARGER HOPE).

Jamie: I have access because I own them. (a bookcase with nothing but U and U and UU books. Of course I live in a bookfilled house). I hear that the U of Akron has a very good Universalist archives. And speaking of Ohio, the Universalist Convocation will be back in Ohio in 2007 - in Bellville.

Jamie Goodwin said...

The University of Akron was originally Buchtel University, Buchtel was dean and minister of First Universalist Church of Akron (which late became UU Church of Akron, my church)many of the Deans following him where also Universalist ministers.

I don't know about the archives though, something I should check out.

Steven Rowe said...

Jamie: I was told about the archives by someone. Checking their website, I dont see anything like that at all. They do have modern UU archives though. So maybe the person who told me about it was confused. And Im sorry to have passed that on, without checking.
However, U of A does have a fair collection of Universalist books on the shelf. I ceertainly reccomend to those interested, the two volume "The Larger Hope" (1985). For those less interested, in print is the abridgement "The Larger Faith" (1993).

indrax said...

I vote yes, but I guess it's an issue of semantics.

I have heard a non-UU think that unitarian reffered to uniting the religions.

hehe, my word verification was 'wabitsay'

fausto said...

I think your first definition is the traditional one, but the second one (though inaccurate) also gained currency during the 20th century. I know Quakers who use the term and usually mean the second definition, not the first.

fausto said...

Having said that, I do think most liberal Christians (including not only our own Unitarian and Universalist ones) would agree that "the Holy Spirit bloweth where it listeth", and that legitimate apprehensions of the divine can be found outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that such insights can be supplemental or complementary (rather than identical) to Judeo-Christian ones and still be legitimate.

Among liberal Christians there isn't much debate on that point; the only question is whether "universalism" is the right term for it. Across the broader spectrum of Christianity it's still a very controversial assertion, though.

Mystical Seeker said...

I could be wrong, but I think that the Quaker Univeralist Fellowship possibly focuses more on the second definition than the first one.

The first definition has an perspective that derives from some of aspects of Christianity that are not my personal orientation, which is probably why I am more oriented towards the second one. The first view concerns itself with "salvation", while the second view is consistent with an agnostic point of view on the question of an afterlife. Since I fall into that category, and since questions of the afterlife are not relevant to my own religious beliefs, it is the second view that makes more sense to me personally.