Beltane Universalism

Last night’s multi-group Beltane celebration was excellent. We had representatives from six different Pagan groups from Texas and Oklahoma – I didn’t get a final count but it was somewhere in the 35-45 range. When the crowd thinned down to those of us who were camping, we gathered around the fire and a series of conversations began.

I talked at some length with a woman attending her second Pagan circle. Her situation is similar to mine 17 years ago: she grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment, she can’t honestly believe what she’s being told she has to believe, she feels a call to this path, but she’s afraid to leave the faith she’s known all her life. And, like me, she wants to be certain she’s doing the right thing. After all, her religious leaders have told her eternal torment awaits if she chooses the wrong religion.

I have quoted others and I have said it myself: Unitarian Universalists need to stop defining ourselves by what we aren’t and what we don’t believe and start defining ourselves by who we are and what we do believe. We have too many members who are just so happy to be away from fundamentalist Christianity or traditional Catholicism they never take that next step from not-Christian to active UU. At least in my congregation, we need many many services and sermons on how to take that next step.

But last night’s conversation is a stark reminder that Unitarian Universalists – and Pagans – should never stop preaching universalism.

What follows is my case for universalism: what I said to the woman (who I don’t think wants her name plastered on a Pagan blog) last night, plus a few things I wish I had said.

Universalism means everything is going to work out OK in the end, for everyone. Universalism (with a capital U) is a Christian concept that says everyone will eventually be reconciled to God, if not in this life, then in the next. Or, more bluntly, there is no hell. That’s a gross oversimplification that ignores some pretty deep religious thought, but that’s the essence of it.

In a non-Christian setting, universalism (with a lower case u) means the same thing, but without the Christian scripture and doctrine to back it up. As far as I know, Christianity and Islam are the only religions that claim their “true” followers are going to heaven and everyone else is going to hell. For other religions, universalism is assumed.

Fundamentalism is demonstrably false. Yes, I’m a good non-judgmental UU. Yes, I understand that some people need the simplicity and certainty that fundamentalism provides. But it rests on concepts that require willful ignorance to accept.

In the Baptist church where I grew up, the foundation was not the Bible (as they said), but the concept that the Bible is the literal, inerrant and unchanging “Word of God.” When I studied the Bible and its origins, I learned (for example) that Genesis was not written by Moses, it was written by at least two authors and edited by another. Studying history, I learned that the laws of Deuteronomy (which those who oppose full equality for gay people love to quote) were written by Jewish exiles trying to hold on to their national identity in a foreign land – and not by a God who attached eternal significance to what kind of clothes we wear and what we eat for dinner. And those are just two of many examples.

I recommended Karen Armstrong’s A History of God for some of the religious history I was never taught in Sunday School. I’m sure there are other good choices – that one was helpful to me.

When the foundation of scriptural inerrancy falls, fundamentalism falls. This is why fundamentalists fight so hard against evolution (another topic where they are willfully ignorant) – if humans weren’t created in our current form by God, their whole historicized mythology is no longer reliable and the black-or-white fundamentalist doesn’t know what to believe… whereas the liberal Christian and the Buddhist and the Pagan can see that “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a pretty good way to live, regardless of where it comes from.

A God who would cast any – much less the vast majority – of his creatures into eternal torment is a god unworthy of worship. Calvinists (currently experiencing a resurgence in Baptist churches) attempt to get around this by claiming that humans are “totally depraved” and thus born deserving of hell and that God is “sovereign,” meaning he can do whatever he wants and by definition it is good. As I’ve stated before, this is a misunderstanding of the concept of sovereignty.

This is the argument that set me on the road to universalism as a young child. If God is wise enough and powerful enough to create the world and everything in it, then why can’t he save everyone? God’s “plan of salvation” is the human sacrifice of his own son? And it doesn’t cover everyone, only those who by the luck of the draw of where and when they are born follow the right religion? That’s a pretty lousy plan! Either God is not all-wise and all-powerful, or he is not good.

Or, as I believe, the whole concept of infinite punishment for finite violations of arbitrary rules is a mistake.

If the Muslims are right we’re all going to hell. When I say that to fundamentalists, inevitably they launch into an attack on Islam. They’re missing the point: namely, that there is no such thing as religious certainty. This is not an easy concept for people who like things to be black or white – it’s why so many are willing to overlook the unbelievably unlikely foundation of biblical inerrancy and literalism. But what in this life and in this world is certain? Nothing. And why should religion be any different?

If there is no One True Path, then what are we to do? Follow your heart. For some, this means being a Christian and following the teachings of Jesus. For others, it means being a Humanist and demonstrating that we are capable of living good, moral lives without any supernatural assistance. I realized I would do far more good as a committed Pagan than as an unenthusiastic Christian. That was one of the major milestones in my journey from fundamentalist Christianity to Paganism and Unitarian Universalism.

“Follow your heart” is easy to say and hard to do – particularly when you’ve been bombarded all your life with the idea that the “saved” are going to heaven and everyone else is going to hell. But this is the path I’ve been called to – to do otherwise would be to live a lie.

You have to choose. A traditional Wiccan initiation rite begins with this Challenge: “O thou who wouldst cross the boundary between the worlds, hast thou the courage to face the tests which will be required of thee? For I tell thee, it were better to throw thyself upon this sacred blade and perish now than to essay the trials with fearing in thy heart.”

While the Challenge is rather dramatic, the real challenge isn’t to enter the circle with no fear. The challenge is to have the courage to follow your heart and enter in spite of your fears. Trust in the love and goodness of God – the Goddess, the Universe, the All – and move forward boldly.

This has not been an easy journey for me, but it has been and remains a rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful journey. I hope I was able to provide some reassurance and inspiration to the woman I talked with last night. I hope I was able to give her some information and some resources to find her way along her path, whether that is ultimately Paganism or some other path.

For as much as many of us need to grow up and move on, there are many others who still need to hear the good news of universalism.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.


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