No. Universalist is not a comic book superhero. Universalist is the second word in Unitarian Universalist formulations of religious identity. Blech. A comic book super hero would be better than that sentence. Maybe.
On the other hand, Universalism is a pretty neat idea coming out of Christianity. Heretical, of course. There you go. Again, I’m coming at these ideas from my recent point of view standing just inside the door of Unitarian Universalism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and all like that. Figuring out where I stand so I can start really exploring this stuff. So I’m fast & loose with my information, spitting it out as I currently have it, citing sources like there’s tomorrow to get it right, and asking for forgiveness rather than permission (and gentle correction and a reading list along the way–I love interlibrary loan).
Universalism: Christian heresy for “everybody gets saved!”.
There are, of course, lots of flavors of universalism, which I’m not going to rehearse here. Also, there are some strains of Christianity which get all whooped up about the heretical aspects of the idea (recent controversy, but it looks like it’s always bubbling in some circles). To be fair, there are some strains of Christianity which place universal salvation (whatever that might mean) at the center of their Christianity. Which I think is pretty cool. (Though I’m not so sure about annihilationism.)
There is something I want to touch on in the history of universalism, and that’s its up-and-down history as a popular religious movement in the US. Where Unitarianism was a liberal sort of Christianity which increasingly moved away from the centrality of Jesus, was centered in urban areas, particularly in the north east portion of the US and followed the frontier in fits and starts, universalism did something different.
In the US, universalism seems to have kept Jesus pretty central to its theology, was a liberal sort of Christianity which steadily self-identified as Christian, was a more rural (and as I think I understand, southern sort of thing), and I’m told was the largest sort of Christianity in the country for an extended period through the 19th Century. It lost adherents into and through the first half of the 20th Century, but still. By the time it wasn’t such a big thing anymore the still-pretty-big Universalist organization, the Universalist Church of America, got denied entry in the Federal Council of Churches twice. So it’s not enough to think of oneself as a Christian, other Christians have to think so, too.
By 1961, the UCA had merged with the Unitarians, and now Universalists were members of the Unitarian Universalist Association. And there you go. Within just a few years of being told by other Christians that they couldn’t join a Christian club, they hooked up with another group of self-identified outsider Christians and got hitched. Then the newlyweds went on a 40-year bender of peeling away much of their Christian identity. Strange. But, if they hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t be doing this. Not that I’m any great prize, but I’m happy to have a space to explore my religious identity.
But wait! Hang on! Universal salvation? Everyone goes to heaven? What could be better than that? And why would anyone dispute something like that? Well. Exclusivity, mainly. Particularly, from what I understand, at least one of at least two forms.
- Jesus is the one way to reconciliation with God, and accepting claims about that one way is required to attain the reconciliation
- Only the living individual can trigger that individual’s reconciliation with God
Universalism says it’s not exclusive. Here’s what I think. It’s like geometries (it’s an analogy, not an argument).
Geometries? Plural? Right.
What works in one system works differently, or possibly not at all, under a different system. So Christian Universalism is one system. Traditional Christianity is another system, which sees CU as deeply wrong. Mind-bending. It might even make traditional Christians sick to their stomachs. Imagine a riding a roller-coaster in non-euclidean space. No. Don’t think about that.
And then there’s UUA Universalism. I don’t think UUA theologians have fully worked out their geometry yet–I’m not even sure they actually can, given the nature of UUism. So just about everyone gets a stomach ache thinking about it. There is room, according to the rules, for Christian UUs in the UUA. Actually, to be precise, there is room, according to the rules, for Christian UU congregations within the UUA rather than individual Universalist Christians, though, as a practical matter, what would a Christian UU congregation be without any Christian UU members or even just one of the U’s? God only knows. (Hah.)
I think it’s easier to be a universalist without ties to Christianity than to be a unitarian without such ties. After all, when you boil it down, it’s really just a claim that we’re all in the same boat. And I think we are. So, yeah, I’ll wear the universalist pin.