“Give them hope, not hell:” A thing left undone

Conversations in the cafeteria are where much of the real theological work gets done at my seminary, where students hash out their thoughts on what was discussed in the class just ended or the readings for the class soon to begin. Throw in some pop culture references, season with puns, and you’ve got a party.

I recently ended up at a table where, I think, everyone either is or has been a UU in the past except for maybe one person. The topic of the 1961 joining of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America to form the Unitarian Universalist Association arose, along with its discontents then and now. Long story short, the Universalists were broke, and there’s a resentment among many of their generation, a sense that “the Unitarians took over” in ideology.

One person at the table quoted the idea that the Universalists lost in numbers, ceased to be a necessary theological movement, because they’d won the debate. The mainline churches largely abandoned hell. The Universalists put themselves out of business by succeeding too well, I said. (Though some Christian Universalists still persist on their own, I should add.)

Because I grew up in a fundamentalist church, the notion of the kingdom of God being right here, right now, in the relationships between Christians and one another, between the created and the Creator, still has some novelty for me. I think it’s a healthy, challenging view that at its best can keep people of a variety of religions honest and alert to what their actions say about their whole religious community. It creates accountability.

Coins have two sides, though. If like the old song says, “heaven is a place on earth,” then I hate to be a downer, but so is hell.

This really can’t be that big a surprise: Just watching the news should have clued us in long ago.

Hell is the mother drinking water to fight off hunger because the food is for the kids. Hell is the unexpected knock on the door of a military parent whose child is deployed in a theatre of war. Hell is the doctor calling to say the results are in, and we should set up an appointment to discuss them in the clinic. Hell is the trajectory of the doomed relationship from lust to disgust, as a mentor of mine once told a class of fidgeting freshman babies who only knew, by that point, the first part of that equation.

If God, or the good, or paradise, is found in endless possibility, in flourishing, in creativity, then their opposite is found in undifferentiated pain, lack of opportunity, the crushing of hopes and dreams.

Hell is the SMS alert that your child’s school is in lock down because there’s been an incident. Hell is the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle — any emergency vehicle, really — outside your home when you arrive late at night. Hell is a man in Kansas City, Mo., being thrown out of his husband’s hospital room because he’s “not family,” the pregnant woman learning that her fetus has died and that she’ll have to travel out of state for medical care because “pro-life” politicians won’t allow it to be removed through a medical procedure.

Perhaps most of all, hell is the feeling in the pit of your stomach when the only options apparent are bad options, when the only ways out or ahead are actions that would make a person with a conscience fear for his or her soul. It’s not always as dramatic as “kill or be killed;” sometimes it’s a decision of whether to stay together for the kids.

Universalist John Murray’s charge to “give them not hell but hope” represents one of the highest callings to ever issue forth from any religious leader. Rob Bell does it, John Shelby Spong does it, the Nuns on the Bus do it, the Dalai Lama does it with a laugh that is pure joy, and in a rare moment of clarity from the UUA, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign does it.

(If you’d told me that coming to Boston, the cradle of Unitarian Universalism, would lead me to set that religious identity aside, I wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s another story.)

At Andover Newton, we talk a lot about “ministry outside the pulpit,” a more egalitarian spin on what has traditionally been called “the priesthood of all believers” that offers some space under the umbrella for those who might flinch from one or both of the nouns in that older phrase. And it’s true, there are other ways of serving.

Argentinian-Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim leads an orchestra comprised largely of Israeli and Palestinian musicians as a form of peace building. Humanist Todd Stiefel engages in “inter-belief” work by appearing on evangelical Christian radio to put a human face on atheism. And PROTECT lobbies hard to strengthen laws against child abuse in myriad forms, to bolster programs that work with its victims, and to build law enforcement programs that help rescue the innocent, bringing hope to the hopeless.

I like Stiefel’s term for conversation and collaboration between the religious and nonreligious better than an alternative I’d heard, “interpath.” The notion of being on a path is going to be too “spiritual” for some, but everyone engages in the act of believing — whether it’s about deities or the perfect combination of pizza toppings.

I’ll close by pointing to speculative fiction author Warren Ellis’ short story “Breathe With Me” (warning: other content by the author at this site may be NSFW, but this one’s a beauty appropriate for all ages), which begins by noting that “The word ‘conspire’ means ‘to breathe together.’ And we do, you and I.”

As I’m finishing this, there’s news of a couple of explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The first thought is bombs, not gas lines or underground transformers. We have a lot of work to do. Let us breathe peace. Together.

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