Forrest Church

June 10, 2001



Two weeks from now, I shall be speaking at our denomination's General Assembly in Cleveland. Here is a little of what I shall say.

As Unitarian Universalists, we share a magnificent theological legacy. Think about how redemptive our first principles actually are, especially in answer to those who would further fracture an already divided world. Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny. Both affirm that we are brothers and sisters by nature. Nothing that divides us can gainsay that which binds us together, for we are children of a single and abiding mystery. Our Unitarian and especially our Universalist forbears affirmed this as a matter of faith, Unitarianism by positing a single creator, Universalism by offering the promise of a shared salvation.

With this life-affirming legacy comes an attendant responsibility. To honor our inheritance, we must enlist our imaginations and energies in service of the One. I consider this a sacred calling. With appropriate passion and due humility, we are called to witness to the Unity that comprehends (in all its wondrous and essential diversity) our chosen faith.

Two obstacles thwart the fulfillment of this mission. First, Universalism is an exacting gospel. Taken seriously, no theology is more challenging, morally, spiritually or intellectually. Given the natural human tendency toward division, Universalists run the constant temptation to backslide in their faith. One can lapse and become a bad or lazy Universalist as effortlessly as others become ice-cream social Presbyterians or nominal Catholics. Think about it: actually to love your enemy as yourself; to see your tears in another's eyes; to respect, even embrace, otherness, rather than condescendingly to tolerate or combatively to dismiss its independent validity. None of this comes naturally to us. We are weaned on the rational presumption that if two people disagree, only one can be right. This works better in mathematics than it does in theology; Universalism reminds us of that. Yet, even to approximate the Universalist ideal remains devilishly difficult in actual practice.

The second obstacle is intrinsic to Unitarian Universalism itself. Though named after two doctrines, ours is a non-doctrinal faith. By definition, we don't even have to believe in our own name. We can exercise our freedom to believe whatever we will. We can be free from, for, or against whatever we choose. In a society that indulges it, religious freedom (a once precious commodity) is cheap and plentiful. We should be thankful for that. But we also must remember that when others are shouting fire in a crowded theater, freedom alone won't put it out. To answer the call of our times, we must invest our personal freedom in the bank of mutual responsibility, that it may pay dividends for everyone. Only a respect for the worth and dignity of every human being and a shared commitment to the interdependent web of being of which we are a part-each a Universalist touchstone-present a saving alternative to the perils of internecine division in an ever more fractious world.

Given our commitment to pluralism, Unitarian Universalism should represent the perfect laboratory for modeling amity in a world rife with passions that stem from inevitable differences of belief. Often, however, we too muster more passion for that which divides us than we do for all that unites us. Ask yourself this. If, in our communities of faith, we find it difficult to unite under the banner of this one over-arching sympathy, how can we hope effectively to counter fundamentalisms of the right and left? Without a uniting passion of our own, how can we begin to answer the often-destructive passions of anti-Univeralists? Without a deep, articulate and lived appreciation for our own first principles, how can we persuasively contest the validity of contesting principles that divide, not unite, the human family?

Responding to these questions, I present for your consideration a possible new foundation for Universalist theology, one designed to underpin our diversity in a more intelligible and practicable manner. Though I place my full emphasis here on theology, everything I shall say has implications for our ministries of justice as well. Unless we put its implications into practice, Universalism is frivolous, self-denying and moot.

On a cautionary note, let me begin by noting that Universalism itself can be perverted in two ways. One is to elevate one truth into a universal truth ("My church is the one true church"); the other is to reduce distinctive truths to a lowest common denominator ("All religion is merely a set of variations upon the golden rule"). The Universalism I embrace does neither. It holds that the same light shines through all our windows, but that each window is different. The windows modify the light, refracting it in various patterns that suggest discrete meanings. Even as one cannot believe usefully in "everything," to find meaningful expression Universalism must be modified or refracted through the glass of individual and group experience (which by definition will be less than universal). One can be a Buddhist Universalist, a Jewish Universalist, a Pagan Universalist, a Humanist Universalist, a Christian Universalist. On the other hand, one cannot in any meaningful sense be a Universalist Universalist; it is impossible to look out every window. Neither can one be, say, a Universalist Christian; when the modifier of one's faith becomes its nominative, primary allegiance is relegated to but one part of the whole that encompasses it.

Try looking at it this way. Imagine the world as a vast cathedral. This cathedral is as ancient as is humankind; its cornerstone is the first altar, marked with the tincture of blood and blessed by tears. Search for a lifetime-which is all we are surely given-and we shall never know its limits, visit all its transepts, worship at its myriad shrines, nor span its celestial ceiling with our gaze.

The builders have labored in this cathedral from time immemorial, destroying and creating, confounding and perfecting, tearing down and raising up arches, buttresses and chapels, organs, theaters and chancels, gargoyles, idols and reliquaries. Daily, work begins that shall not be finished in the lifetime of the architects who planned it, the patrons who paid for it, the builders who construct it, or the expectant worshipers. Nonetheless, throughout human history, one generation after another has labored lovingly, sometimes fearfully, crafting memorials and consecrating shrines. Untold numbers of these today collect dust in long-undisturbed chambers; others (cast centuries or millennia ago from their once respected places) lie shattered in shards or ground into dust on the cathedral floor. Not a moment passes without the dreams of long-dead dreamers being outstripped, crushed, or abandoned, giving way to new visions, each immortal in reach, ephemeral in grasp.

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational, some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through.

As with all extended metaphors, this one is imperfect. The Light of God (or Truth or Being Itself) shines not only upon us, but out from within us as well. Together with the windows, we are part of the cathedral, not apart from it. Together we comprise an interdependent web of being. The cathedral is constructed out of star stuff and so are we. We are that part (or known part) of the creation that contemplates itself. Because the cathedral is so vast, our life so short and vision so dim, we are able to contemplate only a tiny part of the whole creation. We can explore but a handful of its many chambers. Our allotted span permits us to reflect on the play of darkness and light through remarkably few of its myriad windows. Yet, since the whole is contained in each of its parts, as we ponder and act on insights derived from even a single reflection, we may experience self-illumination. We may also discover or invent meanings that invest both the creation and our lives with coherence and meaning.

A 21st century theology based on the concept of one light (Unitarianism) and many windows (Universalism) offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honoring many different religious approaches, it excludes only the truth-claims of absolutists. This is because fundamentalists-whether on the right or left-claim that the light shines through their window only. Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshipers, they conclude that there is no Light. But the windows are not the Light. The whole Light (God, Truth) is beyond our perceiving. God is veiled. Some people have trouble believing in a God who looks into any eyes but theirs. Others have trouble believing in a God they cannot see. But that none of us can look directly into God's eyes certainly doesn't mean God isn't there, mysterious, unknowable, gazing into ours.

Religion can be dangerous, of course, especially on a shrinking globe where, with discrete backyards a thing of the past, conflicting faith positions contest one another in almost every human precinct. The greatest challenge to theology today is the reactionary retrenchment of competing theologies and ideologies with mutually exclusive truth-claims. Though the recent spread of religious or ideological terrorism throughout the world compounds the danger contemporary true believers (or true-unbelievers) present, every generation has had its holy warriors, hard-bitten zealots for whom the world is large enough for only one true faith. Terrorists for Truth and God, not only have they been taught to worship at a single window; they also are incited to demonstrate their faith by throwing stones through other peoples' windows. Tightly drawn, their logic makes a demonic kind of sense.

1) Religious answers respond to life and death questions, which happen to be the most important questions of all.

2) You and I may come up with different answers.

3) If you are right, I must be wrong.

4) But I can't be wrong, because my salvation hinges on being right.

5) Therefore, short of abandoning my faith and embracing yours, in order to secure my salvation I am driven to ignore, convert, or destroy you.


Aristotle coined something called the Law of the Excluded Middle. As a logical certainty, he asserted that "A" and "not-A" cannot both be true at one and the same time. By the light of my cathedral metaphor, Aristotle is wrong, at least with respect to theology. His logical certitude oversteps the law of experience. Contrast one stained-glass window (its dark center bordered by more translucent panes) with another (configured in the opposite fashion). Though the same light shines through both, it will cast diametrically opposite shadow images on the cathedral floor ("A" and "not-A," if you will). Even as we cannot gaze directly at the sun, we cannot stare directly into the light of God. All the great world scriptures make this point. No one can look God in the eye. Truth therefore emerges only indirectly, as refracted through the windows of tradition and experience. To a modern Universalist such as myself, this suggests that-since the same light can be refracted in many different ways (even "A" and "not-A")-the only religious truth claims we can discount completely are those that dismiss all other claims for failing to conform to their own understanding of the creation.

One presumably impartial response to the war of conflicting theological passions is to reject religion entirely, to distance ourselves from those who attempt-always imperfectly -to interpret the Light's meaning. There are two problems with this approach. One is that such a rejection deprives us of a potentially deep encounter with the mysterious forces that impel our being, thereby limiting our ability to invent and discover meaning. The second is that none of us actually is able to resist interpreting the Light. Whether we choose the windows that enlighten existence for us or inherit them, for each individual the light and darkness mingle more or less persuasively as refracted through one set of windows or another. Attracted to the partial clarification of reality that emerges in patterns of light and the playing of shadows, even people who reject religion are worshipers of Truth as they perceive it. Their windows too become shrines.

Because none of us is able fully to comprehend the truth that shines through another person's window, nor to apprehend the falsehood that we ourselves may perceive as truth, we can easily mistake another's good for evil, and our own evil for good. A Universalist theology tempers the consequences of our inevitable ignorance, while addressing the overarching crisis of our times: dogmatic division in an ever more intimate, fractious, and yet interdependent world. It posits the following fundamental principles:

1. There is one Power, one Truth, one God, one Light.

2. This Light shines through every window in the cathedral.

3. No one can perceive it directly, the mystery being forever veiled.

4. Yet, on the cathedral floor and in the eyes of each beholder, refracted and reflected through different windows in differing ways, it plays in patterns that suggest meanings, challenging us to interpret and live by these meanings as best we can.

5. Each window illumines Truth (with a large T) in a unique way, leading to various truths (with a small t), and these in differing measure according to the insight, receptivity and behavior of the beholder.

I am certain that others will refine and improve upon these principles. I offer them as much to promote an ongoing dialogue about the integrity and intelligibility of Universalism for our time as I do to answer the many questions Universalism poses to the inquiring mind. Yet I offer them with complete conviction. If we Unitarian Universalists are unable to recognize the ground that we share, we shall remain only marginally effectual in helping to articulate grounds whereupon all together might stand as children of a mystery that unites far more profoundly than it distinguishes one child of life from any other. To the extent that we fail in this mission, we betray our Universalist inheritance.

Amen. I love you. May God bless us all.

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