Reflections of a Lifelong Universalist

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
April 21, 2002

"He drew a circle that shut me out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in."

-Edwin Markham, Outwitted

The words I have just shared with you were taught me by my Dad. I have been repeating them to listeners ever since. They constitute what I think is one of the most succinct descriptions of a Universalist that I ever remember hearing. They are what one might call the "jumping-off place" for sharing my "becoming" religious beliefs.

Today, however, I want to approach the process in a little different way this morning. I want to talk about the word "change". A question occurred to me: "How had my religious beliefs changed - or had they - over the years?"

Try the same exercise. Ask yourself: "Am I the same person? Are my beliefs the same? Is my attitude regarding the vicissitudes of life the same as was ten years ago?" I suspect there would be very few here today who would say that change had not been a factor in their lives.

Believe me, life is full of modifications and if one is to grow, one has to realize and embrace transformation as a living reality. Let me illustrate it another way. In her book, Sacred Cows. . .and Other Edibles, Nikki Giovanni wrote that,

"...I like to think I've grown and changed in the last decade. How else could I ask people to read my work or listen to me. . . . That would be an ultimate betrayal of the trust people put in a writer. I should hope there will be a body of work by Nikki Giovanni that's not just a consistency of unformed and untested ideas. . . . I seek change for the beauty of itself. Everything will change. The only question is growing up or decaying. We who are human have a great opportunity to grow up and perhaps beyond that. Our grasp is not limited to our reach."

Actually, my "personal belief" sermons have swung across the theological landscape. In finding new perspectives I have never seemed to have had a problem with letting go. Previously-held frames of reference have never been sacrosanc for met. Early religious exposure and ideas never created barriers. Metamorphosis occurred. It came naturally and with no sense of loss or anger. Why hold to some religious value if it has no further meaning?

I was raised a Universalist. The Unitarian Universalist Association became a reality for me only in the year following my ordination to enter the Universalist ministry. I had grown up with lifetime saints such as John Murray and Thomas Potter, founding heroes of early Universalism; Hosea Ballou, the theological architect of modern Universalism; Universalists Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross and Reverend Olympia Brown, the first woman minister ordained by a national denominational body.

Of course the work of the "Unitarian trinity", William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson were familiar to me through my seminary training. But it was the Universalists whose lives, writing and influence formed my early religious perspective.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated that one should proclaim liberal religion. In his famous and revolutionary "Divinity School Address" he said:

"...(What about) The institution of preaching? ...What hinders that now(?). . . Everywhere, in pulpits, in lecture-rooms, in houses, in fields, wherever the invitation of. . .your own occasions lead you,. . . speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach it, and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of (all) with new hope and new revelation."
Emerson said it poetically, too. Listen to his poem, "God's Altar".

"There is in all the sons of men
A love that in the spirit dwells,
That panteth after things unseen,
And tiding of the future tells.

And God hath built his altar here
To keep this fire of faith alive,
And sent his priests in holy fear
To speak the truth--for truth to strive."

As I look back on the over four decades of my career I realize I have often failed to preach the good news for which I was ordained. And it's happened to others.
The Apostle Paul spoke his young apostle, Timothy, about preaching.

"Preach the word, be urgent in season and out. . .". In other words, speak your truth, the truth that you find through your reason and your experience... to power.

Growing up a Universalist and as the son of a Universalist minister, the spiritual misgivings of so many were never mine. I was not exposed to a "forced orthodoxy". My religious education was expansive, enriching, affirming and joyous. I was encouraged to be curious, to ask questions, to doubt and to find out for myself. The religious faith I learned was one of love, joy and the vision of a peaceful world. It was not elitist. It was generous, free from guilt, superstition or fear. It was a religion based on truth, love and joy. It was Universalism. Perhaps I should call myself a "Universalist Unitarian". But I don't want to make a big fuss over labels. Let's continue.

Do you remember this? It's a quotation from the Gospel of John.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life"

How many of you have never heard those words? For the uninitiated among you these words are the classic definition of what it means to be "a Christian". They are contained in the Gospel of John in the 3rd chapter, 16th verse.

I have always had trouble with that verse and the closed community it creates. It smacks of a false religious aristocracy that is narrow, unbending and guilt-ridden. I reject any such notion. That kind of religion doesn't work for me.

To say the only seat of religious authority is the unquestioned and infallible Old and New Testaments troubles me. My fundamentalist sisters and brothers assert that the only acceptable definition of what it means to be a Christian is to accept "their definition". When they do, I become impatient with such cocksure attitudes.

What are the implications in making such a statement? Think of a brand new baby in its mother's arms. What does the quotation in John 3:16 imply for that baby? ("God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.")

Is he or she a sinner? Really? How could this be? And does this mean that tiny babies I have been privileged to dedicate fall under that threat? Are they really sinners who will go to hell unless they are baptized in the name of God the Father, Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son and the Holy Ghost? No! Again, I'm sorry. That is too narrow for me. My religion is too large to be bounded by such strident words. And that baby has yet to enjoy the opportunity to develop its own powers of reason and choice. No. I'm sorry. Throughout it all, I remain one with Emerson's statement that "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind"!

As a Universalist Unitarian, I have also continued to emphasize that one must be open to the insights of other world religions. To ignore these insights is to deny oneself of a wonderful learning experience. And it is very important to realize that our personal religious experiences can be a resource for others. We need to share our insights - all of us. By doing so we grow. In articulating our values, we create what has been called "our chosen faith". But we have to practice. There are always new and clearer ways we can share these insights with each other.

In the late sixties and early seventies, I affirmed a gospel of peace, social reform and continuous struggle with the events of that time.Today, my personal theology is more of a Christian Universalism. By this I mean to say my belief is Universalism modified by the principles Jesus taught and lived.

We must be careful, however, not to reduce what we find to its lowest common denominator. To say, self-indulgently, that all religion is merely a set of variations upon the golden rule is a crippled palliative, to be sure. I revere the teachings and example OF Jesus - the faith he taught and practiced, not the religion ABOUT Jesus - the faith that the Apostle Paul and others INVENTED ABOUT HIM AFTER HE DIED. That's for someone else. (And can't you imagine what Jesus would say about the many hypocrisies committed in his name today!)

Religion - even liberal religion - is the light that enlivens the life of each and every person. But Evangelical Christians (and you know who they are!) claim the light shines only through his door. No. I see a wide variety of doors called variously by words such as "Life" - "Nature" - "God" - "Enlightenment" - "Truth". So I continue to push the limits of reason and experience, remaining open to what I find there.

The Holocaust cut history in two like a knife. The genocide of Josef Stalin did the same. So, too, with the Spanish and Protestant Inquisitions. The bubonic plague of the 14th century killed 38 million people. After a plane crash in the mountains of South America, the survivors managed to stay alive only because they were willing to cannibalizing those who had died. AIDS continues to claim thousands of lives each day. The tragedy of the wars in the middle east, not to mention the pain of September 11th continue to remind us of our barbaric inhumanity to one another. And the seemingly unsolvable problems of religious hatred and tragic attacks on both sides in Israel and Palestine seem to have no end.

No. We have to be honest. Whether the victim be Black or Jewish, female or child, Gay, or Muslim or Hindu, Protestant or Catholic, one race or another in Bosnia or Africa, one is prompted to ask "Where is God in all this?"

One rabbi, when asked where was God at Auschwitz answered,

"The answer is this - God WAS there - starving, broken, humiliated, gassed and burned alive, sharing the infinite pain as only an infinite capacity for pain can share it.. What is the message of the Divine Presence's not stopping the Holocaust? In effect, God was saying to humans, YOU stop the holocaust..."

Such doubts about my own inadequate witness to truth have come at times in my life. Where were WE during the Holocaust? Where were WE during those days of slavery, segregation, civil rights marches, beatings and murders? The answer may just be that there is a sort of common god out there - and that is the goal of all religion - a common god as answer to all the violence and hatred BETWEEN religions.

Illustrative of this harsh reality I am reminded of a phone call I once received in another church from a mother who, at the time, was not known to me. She said she was a Unitarian Universalist from Connecticut. Her son was very ill, awaiting a liver transplant. Would I call on him? Of course. I visited him several times.

Just before that Christmas Eve I got a scrawled note saying the mother had called. The social services were finally going to work on her son's case. Hallelulah! I thought. Some progress in medical bureaucracy! But miracles don't often occur.

On New Year's Day I listened to the messages on the church answering machine. The voice of the mother was there again, pleading with me to come to the hospital. Her son had been prounounced terminal. I arrived to find him in coma. All care had ceased other than morphine. His family was there. The doctor had given us no indication of what was to come next. We were informed, however, that he was too weak to have any kind of heroic procedures performed. So he slept, fitfully, with the drip, drip, drip of the IV. "Why haven't they called Hospice?" I asked. The mother shook her head and replied, "Quite honestly, Jan, I've been so confused I just didn't think of it." So we went to work. Friday was spent in a whirlwind of telephoning, interviews and arrangements. By evening, the young man was home, in hospital bed, surrounded by loved ones. When he died he was only 39, a gifted musician and caring friend. In the midst of untimely death, I thought "God?"

Parents have talked with me about how to speak of God with their children. I usually reply that they have already done this by being the kind of people they were. "But where is God in this?" they ask.

My friends, God is no more or less than life itself. God does not exist. God IS life itself. For me, everything in existence is a manifestation of its own being.

I don't enjoy rehearsing the tragedy and brutality of the world; the neutrality of the universe. I wish I could "fix it", "make it better", "end the pain". But those absolutes remain, don't they? And yet, beyond it all, God (that often confusing concept) is nothing more than the urge for the good, for creativity in everything that grows.

So this strange word is which we are placed is not simply the good and the beautiful; but is the ugly and the destructive, too. We sow what we reap. Innocent suffering and death are facts. I see God as no more or less than life itself - in the commonplace, along a country highway, in a garden, a schoolroom, a prison cell, along a deserted beach, in our son, Keith's intensive care bedside. God is not revealed in religions. God is revealed in sensitive living, in knowing our relatedness to one another.

Religious expression is a personal thing - for me at least. God is the most personal; it is all the living world around me - you, us, children, nature. As long as someone cares; as long as someone can love or can rise above the brutish nature of humanity unleashed, then that for God, is Truth.

This morning I have not suggested that you believe as I believe. I have tried again to walk that lonely path of religious introspection in a public way. I continue to love and respect this broad space we call our liberal faith. We share it in worship, in education, in fellowship and in the highs and lows of human everyday experience. And how I am growing to love you and the vision of this church we are sharing - every day and in so many, many ways!

I would like to close with a poem that pretty well says it all in capsule form. It was written by Robinson Jeffers and is called "The Answer".

Then what is the answer? --Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor
or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.

To keep one's own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
by dreams of universal justice or happiness.
These dreams will not be fulfilled.

To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear,
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history - for contemplation or in fact -
often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is organic wholeness, the wholeness
of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe.

Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

Let us never cease to remind ourselves of Edwin Markham's poem when appropriate to what goes on around us:

"He drew a circle that shut me out;
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in."