The Mysteries of Love: The Three Eras of Universalism

Rev. James Ford is Minister Emeritus of First Unitarian, having served the congregation from 2008 until 2015. James and his wife Jan currently live in California, where James is a Guiding Teacher at Empty Moon Zen Network. He is also a consulting minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim. You can still find his blog – Monkey Mind, Easily Distracted – in the internet universe. 

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The Mysteries of Love with Rev. James Ford and Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

Posted by First Unitarian Church of Providence on Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sermon Text

“How we eat is connected to how we care for the planet

which is connected to how we use our resources
which is connected to how many people in the world go to bed hungry every night
which is connected to how food is distributed
which is connected to the massive inequalities in our world between those who have and those who don’t
which is connected to how our justice system treats people who use their power and position to make hundreds of millions of dollars while others struggle just to buy groceries
which is connected to how we treat those who don’t have what we have
which is connected to the sanctity and holiness and mystery of our human life and their human life and his little human life
which is why we hold up that baby’s hand and say to the parents, ‘it’s just so small.” 

Rob Bell, “What We Talk about When We Talk about God”


Not quite a decade ago a prominent Protestant minister caused quite the hubbub in Evangelical circles when he published a book titled Love Wins. He then spent a lot of time explaining precisely how he wasn’t actually a universalist. But, if you google him, Rob Bell is his name, you will see pretty much everyone else seems to think he’s one.

Around the same time a Charismatic minister, Bishop Carlton Pearson, after feeling a movement of the spirit, began to preach what he called the Gospel of Inclusion. Again, his colleagues looked at what he was saying, and as with Reverend Bell, they denounced him as a universalist.

The Reverend Mr. Bell was pressured to leave his megachurch and began an independent ministry as a speaker and writer. While the bishop’s megachurch began to dwindle, until the remaining congregation, still a good five hundred people, ended up joining All Souls Unitarian Universalist church, in Tulsa.

Now, thanks largely to my participation with interfaith organizations I’ve come to know a number of Christian clergy. Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Methodists, principally. Along with a sprinkling of others. And, of these, once we get past the “what church do you serve” and looking to find anyone we might know in common, a fair number of these ministers in one-on-one conversations, want to let me know, if quietly, that they, too, are universalists.

It is my sense that among the so-called main-line Episcopal and Protestant churches, some significant number of clergy and laity alike in fact believe in some form of ultimate reconciliation for everyone in this hurting world. While they may not use the word, it definitely is universalism. Their understanding might be more theologically informed as often is the case with clergy. It might be more visceral and specific, “of course Gandhi is in heaven,” as with many of the laity.

The fact is in many forms universalism runs a wondrous current through the churches. Sort of the secret teaching of the Christian heart.

Of course, we Unitarian Universalists are the inheritors of the denomination that originally owned the Universalist name. And, I’ve noticed something about this. Despite the chiding of clergy and the most institutionally committed among us, mainly we and those who know us usually call us by the first part of our rather cumbersome denominational name, Unitarians.  But, I suggest, the theology, the spirituality that actually drives us is in fact Universalism.

Now the original sense of Universalist, the sense in which both Reverend Bell and Bishop Pearson are concerned, is that at some point, everyone, even the devil will (or with Mr Bell, can) be saved.

But, in fact, universalism has come to have additional meanings. Some enormously important. And, while not limited to our tiny denomination, this richer universalism can be encountered most clearly within the history of our Unitarian Universalist Association.

Today I hope you’ll indulge me as I try to capture what I’m calling the three eras of Universalism. Although era isn’t exactly right. Lots of overlapping.  They’re sort of like Russian dolls. Each nestled within the other. Although that’s not quite it, either. They interpenetrate each other, and where one leaves off and another begins is rarely totally clear.  Each aspect is valuable. But taken together in all their richness, they may well speak to a healing message for the world. I really believe they do.

The first era is that most basic intuition we encounter in the Christian story. How can a loving God at the very end of the day, not call all home? As Reverend Bell says, “love wins.” Or as it goes in our old Nineteenth century Universalist slogan, “Love over creed,” or maybe even best put by our contemporary UU theologian Thandeka, who declares, “love beyond belief.” Love is the name of the project.

But, then there’s a second era.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of preaching at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. Among the mix of reasons that I was so pleased to be standing in their pulpit was how I felt a profound connection to the great Swami Vivekananda who had stood in that very same pulpit something more than a hundred years earlier.

Swami Vivekananda’s visits to America were watershed moments in interreligious encounter. In 1893 he captivated the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. From that electrifying moment the swami drew large crowds wherever he spoke.

He introduced America to the fact, startling at the time, that a non-Christian and a non-European could be saintly, scholarly, and could advocate another religious perspective as compellingly as any Christian preacher. And for some hearing him, in fact with much more resonance than anything they’d heard before.

I believe it is important to notice his first official talk was actually at the Annisquam Universalist Church in Gloucester. During his two visits to America he visited Unitarian and Universalist congregations and spoke at them some twenty-seven times. Some of these were the largest and most prominent congregations of the two denominations that encompassed liberal religion at the very beginning of the twentieth century. He preached in Chicago and Detroit and Minneapolis, at a number of churches in New England, in Pasadena and in Oakland. Thousands heard him speak.

While both Unitarians and Universalists rejected the idea of hell as pernicious, the swami suggested an additional nuance to what universalism might actually be. He proclaimed that there is a universal current within religions, and that all faiths share in the spark of truth. Something like this can be found here and there before his tours. But, never quite as full throated. Never quite as grounded as an ancient spiritual teaching.

This would integrate as a current within these liberal traditions, even as they more focused on naturalism and rationalism.

We would see this sense resurge in 1988 when journalist Bill Moyers famously interviewed the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell over seven episodes on PBS. Those episodes would be played in possibly every single UU church in the country.

The theme that ran through the episodes clearly captured this universalist sense of the sacred that had been articulated by Swami Vivekananda.

It also began a shift from what had become a primarily materialistic and analytical perspective, without denying any of that hard-earned intellectual freedom, toward a wildly open and heart-ful spirituality. It would mark the last decades of Unitarian Universalism in the Twentieth century.

This broadness of spirit is a calling to a universalism that is open to wisdom wherever it presents. Although it often presents most compellingly within poetry, myth, and the world’s religions.

And, there is the third era. I believe the most important point to the three faces, perhaps “faces” is the term I’m looking for, of our living Universalism. Those first two starting with the power of love in this world, but enriched by noticing that truth is multi-faceted, and has many different expressions found around the world in all cultures.

And then, there is that third thing. Era. Face. Aspect. Maybe even the deep root for all of these things…

I believe I first described the event that follows in 2013, at the installation sermon for the Reverend Christana Wille McKnight. At the time she was a community minister for the First Unitarian Church of Providence. And was now called as minister at the First Parish Church in Taunton, Massachusetts. The following year the anecdote was reprinted by the UU World. And, since then it has had a small life of its own. I hope you’ll forgive me quoting, well, me.

In 1961, when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated, there was a statement of our principles. By the mid nineteen seventies it was pretty obvious it needed updating. Chief among those who took up the challenge were members of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation. The process was hard. As they say, you don’t really want to visit the sausage factory. There were negotiations, there were fights, there were compromises.

Finally, on June 25th, 1984, Unitarian Universalists from across the United States and Canada gathered at the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, for the eleventh General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The great focus of this GA was a vote on a new statement of principles.

As perhaps is appropriate for such a momentous event, people aren’t actually clear on all the details. The official agenda set Thursday morning the 27th for the final debate and vote on the proposed document. However, some people say the vote took place that afternoon, while others say the debate continued on to the next day, the 28th, and it wasn’t until late that afternoon the last points of dispute were resolved, and the vote taken.

Whichever hour, when it looked pretty close to done, the document was, frankly, mostly “mom and apple pie.” Hardly a word anyone of most any spiritual tradition or of a broad humanistic bent, could argue with. What I would call the perfect product of a committee. The most distinctive feature was the first principle, a call to the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” a libertarian focus on the individual that had marked out English speaking Unitarianism for its entire history.

Then the Reverend Paul L’Herrou made his way to the microphones. Everyone who describes the scene say he was lanky and bearded, and stood at the microphone with the ease of an experienced pulpit minister. He looked around, briefly stroked his beard and then addressed the proposed seventh principle, which was a call to “respect for the Earth and the interdependence of its living systems.” In my mind’s eye, as Paul stood there, the hall fell to a hushed silence. I think, I’m pretty sure the world outside grew quiet, as well. Perhaps one or two stars broke through the Ohio daylight, shooting beams in the general direction of Columbus. Out of that silence Paul pointed out how that wording fell far short of what it could be.

Paul proposed new wording for the seventh principal: a call to respect “the interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part.” I’m pretty sure, although I have to admit there’s no hard record of it, that with those words the ceiling blew off the convention center and a host of angels, devas, and many other celestial beings from all the world’s religions, past, present and future, descended from the heavens, some playing instruments of astonishing beauty, while others sang a Gloria that reached out to the farthest corners of the universe. Even the stars danced in joy at the revelation of this great secret of the universe within a gathering of Unitarian Universalists in Columbus, Ohio, within the United States, nestled on the North American continent of a tiny planet circling a middling star at the edge of one of a hundred thousand million galaxies.

The call: to know that interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part.

The proclamation of the third era of Universalism.

And then it was over. The ceiling resealed, the beings were gone, only a hint of their song remaining in the hearts of the assembled, who then voted. They accepted that proposed change, and with that our little band found itself marked with an astonishing charism, a particular channel of divine blessing aimed at healing this poor, broken world. I suggest in that hour our future was articulated with as much authority as if it were from the tongue of an ancient prophet.

And, what has happened since? Well, many have missed the importance of that moment. Others dismiss it as typical liberal hat tipping to the issues of the day, in this case our looming ecological catastrophe. But, actually, this is so vastly more important, so deep, and compelling, it needs the cloak of myth, the mystery of song to even partially convey its import. It is so powerful a message it is hard to look at it directly. I suspect we will spend lifetimes unpacking and expanding what this all means.


I find myself thinking of the Reverend Rob Bell and Bishop Carlton Pearson. And the other Christian clergy and laity who find it best to have a quiet Universalism. There is something both glorious and terribly sad that this good news must be kept quiet. Glorious in that it cannot be suppressed. Not really. As long as there are human hearts yearning for healing. Not as long as people seek a true north star for their lives and their deaths. And so sad because we need this good news. All of us.

Also, it seems that when suppressed the deeper nuances can be lost, while trying to keep alive a small flame: it is the whispering of the all-pervading truth of love. But with a little freedom we can also see how this truth can be found in other expressions around the world. It genuinely is our common inheritance.

And there is that last wonderful part that the story of the Seventh Principal speaks to. There was another Christian accused of Universalism in the early part of the Twentieth century. C. S. Lewis called us to the four loves as used by the ancient Greeks. Agape, divine love; eros, the loves of the body; philios, friendship; and storge, empathy or perhaps compassion.

If one understands we are all woven of the same cloth, that our lives, and our deaths, are bound up in what Dr Martin Luther King, Jr called a garment of destiny, then, in the exact moment when we open ourselves full to this truth, well then all four of those loves flow into and from us.

And the great way of healing for us all is revealed. A north star appears, and we know what to do.

We find ourselves as we really are. Precious, unique. And, in a contradiction only out of our sense of isolation, both passing as the morning dew, and eternal. Always alive within the mysteries of our interdependent, interpenetrating, all encompassing, love.

With this body knowing we can find the healing of our own divided hearts. And beyond that, we are given a moral compass that allows us to act in this world in ways that actually can help.

All of it.

It is the mystery and power of Universalism.

Our way.

Hope for this world.