Unitarians, Universalists, Reason, and Love

Rev. Meredith Garmon, "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason," part 1

"He is risen! She is risen! They are risen! We are risen! OK, everybody up? Excellent. Now what?"

I posted that on Facebook early this morning, as I have every Easter morning for the last five or six years. This year, the first comment I got was: “Dance party!”

The second comment I got was: “Now we get to work healing this messed up world.” Which made me think: “Before or after the dance party?”

But then I thought, “Duh! The dance party is part of the healing.”

I’m thinking about Easter this morning, of course. What does Easter mean for Unitarian Universalists? I’m thinking about our Unitarian tradition of rationality.

The 1819 sermon by William Ellery Channing called “Unitarian Christianity” served as the manifesto of Unitarianism – a declaration of independence as a new American denomination. Channing emphasized the use of reason in Biblical interpretation. A generation later, Theodore Parker’s sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity,” expressed doubt about the miracles Jesus was supposed to have performed. It was the teachings that mattered, said Parker, not the magic tricks. Our form of Christianity was following the road of reason.

In the 1920s, Unitarian ministers John Dietrich and Curtis Reese followed that road of reason and began dispensing with everything that was supernatural – anything outside the well-ordered laws of nature and of logic – including God. The cross came down from the wall of Rev. Dietrich’s church, and of Rev. Reese’s. In the 1930s, the crosses came down from a few more Unitarian churches. In the 1940s, the rate of purifying our denomination’s temples of crosses had gained speed and momentum, and by the time our congregation moved into its current home in 1959, no cross was ever installed.

Unitarians and Universalists began as Christian Protestant denominations, but we followed the reason road to a different place. And that was good. It was necessary.

Religion, by and large, is so often irrational and actually harmful. Studies find that countries that measure higher on religiosity also measure higher on violence, drug and alcohol addictions, teen pregnancies, imprisonment rates, and high school drop-out rates. For all that we try to do to formally separate church from state, when magical thinking is encouraged on Sunday, people are somewhat more prone to magical thinking on social and political issues the rest of the week, and the consequences are disastrous.

We need rationality. We need the openness to data that doesn’t fit with our expectations and the willingness to follow where the facts lead, rather than where either our own ego needs lead or where prior ideological commitments lead. We need reason. As this campaign season reminds us almost every day: we badly need some reason.

So what does Easter mean for us rational Unitarian Universalists? When it comes to liberation (our theme of the month for March, which you have been exploring in your Journey Groups) much as we need reason, living in the rational mind is a half-way house. I call it a half-way house because reason does liberate us from many of the chains of the mind -- but not all of them. Rationality cannot get us the rest of the way to liberation. Only love gets us the rest of the way: unreasoning, uncalculating, unstrategic love.

That is my Easter message.

So I do particularly want to remember the Universalist side of our heritage. Our congregation here in White Plains was Unitarian. In 1961, when the two denominations consolidated, our congregation went from Unitarian to Unitarian Universalist, but we did not add Universalist to our name until just last June. So on this Easter Sunday, in the very first Easter sermon to the Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains, let us remember our Universalist side.

The rising rationality I was talking about was a Unitarian phenomenon. The Universalists always had comparatively more emphasis on love and comparatively less emphasis on reason. The name “universalist” comes from the teaching of universal salvation, that there is no hell, that everyone goes to heaven, that a loving God would not condemn creatures of his own making to eternal damnation. God’s love saves all of us.

A few years ago Rob Bell, the influential pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, had an epiphany and converted to a universalist theology. He no longer believed in hell. He wrote a book about it in 2011 titled, Love Wins.

Now, our progenitor, the great Universalist forebear Hosea Ballou, had written a book about this idea back in 1805. We beat Rob Bell to the punch by 206 years. Ballou’s book was titled A Treatise on the Atonement. Now, I ask you: which one are you more likely to pick up, A Treatise on the Atonement or Love wins?

We have never been good at catchy titles: If only Ballou had thought to title his book “Love Wins,” the popularity of Universalism might have been much greater. But whatever its popularity, the victory of love has always been the central message of the Universalist side of our heritage. We Unitarian Universalists today are, as I like to say, the children of the marriage of reason and love.

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This is Part 1 of 3 of "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason"
See also
Part 2: Can We Talk About Zombies for Easter?
Part 3: Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason

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