Universalism says, “Love the hell out of this world!”
And we can because, as Universalism teaches, hell is a human creation and therefore healed through human effort. Efforts of many kinds. Feeding someone who is poor, for example. Or, more ambitious yet, changing the system that creates poverty to begin with, and perpetuates it.
One is a kind of direct action. The other is a kind of systemic change.
Do you see how the healing efforts are scaling upwards, in terms of the “size” of the action?
Today I want to introduce the work of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, whose effort to “love the hell out of the world” is even larger. The “size” of her action is not direct, not systemic, but theological in scope, meaning that it’s about changing how we imagine our world and ourselves. You just can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. Mark Twain said that. Get your imagination right, and then you’ll be able to do justice to what’s right before your eyes.
Your systemic change actions and your direct actions will be all the better for it.
Rebecca Parker wants us to get our imagination right and in this way love hell out of the world.
She does this by telling a Universalist story about the history of Christianity, as lived by millions of people over thousands of years, and as she has lived it.
She is joined in this effort by her colleague in scholarship, Rita Nakashima Brock. Their book is entitled Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. And it revolves around a very curious historical fact that you may not be aware of. I certainly wasn’t, until I read this book. The fact is this: how Christian sanctuaries from earliest times until around 900CE were filled only with images of Paradise, images resonating with Garden of Eden pristineness and beauty. Parker and Brock say, “Images of paradise in Rome and Ravenna [churches] captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, and teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and delightful.”
Only with images like these, were Christian sanctuaries filled. Until around 900CE, when you start finding images of something completely different, and opposite of Paradise: images of Jesus’ crucified body. Horrific, gruesome images.
Now, the broken body of Jesus is pretty much everywhere in Christian churches. Or, simply, a cross: which is but shorthand for Jesus’ gruesome death.
This is a given today. But it has not always been so.
There is a story in stone that is trying to be told here. A mystery that needs solving.
Parker’s and Brock’s book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, is nothing less than a spiritual biography of the Christian tradition. And as we take a look at how they trace it, I’d like to plant a seed in you. That their way of telling the spiritual biography of the Christian tradition can inspire and guide how we as individuals tell our spiritual autobiographies.
That’s the added benefit to knowing about this. Even if you do not identify as Christian, even if your preferred images of the sacred and the holy are something other than Christian, still, there is much to take from this.
So we begin.
The story in stone that we see in Christian churches pre-900s CE is the Universalist story of how the world is born in goodness and how people are born fundamentally good. Christianity started there, and all of us individually start there.
But then something happened. Trauma. In Christianity’s case, it was being taken over by the Roman Empire. Christianity becoming its instrument. “After searching in vain for images of Jesus’s dead body in the ancient churches of the Mediterranean,” says Parker, “we found the corpse of Jesus in northern Europe, in a side chapel of the enormous Gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany. There, among the mottled light and shadows, hangs the Gero Cross, the earliest surviving crucifix, sculpted from oak in Saxony around 965.”
It is an ugly image. You’ve seen how brutal they can be. And in the following decades and centuries, that image spreads everywhere. Paradise is pushed out. You enter a church and no longer are you enveloped by images of Paradise. You are suffocated by death.
Trauma is the cause. Says Parker: “A thousand years after Jesus, the brutal logic of empire twisted the celebration of his life into a perpetual reenactment of his death. The Gero Cross was carved by descendants of the Saxons, baptized against their will by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne during a three-decade campaign of terror. Charlemagne’s armies slaughtered all who resisted, destroyed shrines representing the Saxons’ tree of life, and deported 10,000 Saxons from their land. Pressed by violence into Christian obedience, the Saxons produced art that bore the marks of their baptism in blood.”
There are so many dimensions to this trauma of Empire making Christianity its weapon. Until the time of the Crusades, war had always been considered evil. And then came the First Crusade in 1095, and the Pope at the time, Pope Urban II, announced that, from here on out, war is no longer a sin but a way to be forgiven of one’s sins!
In this way the religion of Jesus was violated. To the core.
You just can’t tell the spiritual biography of Christianity rightly unless you tell this part of the story.
Same goes for the spiritual autobiography of every one of us. We can’t get to spiritual depth until we come face to face with the traumas that have happened to us.
Because when a person or an entire religious tradition are traumatized and violated, invariably what happens next is the adoption of survival strategies and a simultaneous forgetting of the Paradise that came before and was original.
One style of survival is authoritarianism. The traumatized person or religious tradition stands with the one that has oppressed them.
So what we saw in Christianity, after Empire co-opted it, was the proliferation of art and architecture that makes Jesus’ violent death the center. We saw theologies that blessed war and conquest and colonization and racism and exploitation of the earth, and we’re still seeing that today. We saw the meaning of the Eucharist (or communion) change from celebrating the gifts of the good earth and the gifts of good loving community to re-enacting Jesus’ violent death. For one, salvation is about entering into Paradise in this life. For the other, salvation is about violence that secures your immortality in another world. As for this world?
Just keep your head down and keep grinding away.
Now don’t get me wrong here. There’s no such thing as Christianity. I’ll say that again: There’s no such thing as Christianity. There are only Christianities. There’s only plural forms of that faith. And some of you who were raised Christian, and probably all of you who identify as Christian today, did not and do not experience your Christian faith as authoritarian.
Which leads to another survival style: the liberal and progressive style, characterized by an insistent and unrelenting rebellion against authoritarian forms of Christianity and against all forms of oppression and injustice. Social Gospel Christianity of the early 20th century is a great example of this liberal form of the Christian faith.
This was Parker’s own version of Christianity in her youth. She says, “When I was a child, the Social Gospel meant that we as faithful Christians campaigned for integrated, nonrestricted neighborhoods to counteract racism in our community, marched for civil rights, and worked to end the war in Vietnam and advance economic self-determination for people around the world.”
But she goes on to say, “Immersed in this tradition of Christianity, I learned firsthand its strengths—and limitations. The hoped-for future perpetually condemns the present. The failure of the world to conform to God’s vision of justice and abundance is laid at humanity’s feet: We have not yet worked smart enough, been well-enough organized, convinced enough people, or corrected the flaws in our approach. Social Gospel Christianity has had a home in the heart of mainline Protestantism. It is a great vision, but perhaps it has flagged in zeal because weary spirits have labored for an ideal world but have neglected to attend to their own soul’s thirst. In the absence of a divine wellspring in the present, when the going gets tough, there is nothing to fall back on.”
That’s what Parker says.
Liberal perfectionism is as much a survival strategy as authoritarianism, and while the authoritarian sells their soul to the oppressive establishment, the liberal perfectionist becomes subject to what Buddhists call the “second arrow.” As in, not only are we caught up in the pain that has traumatized us to begin with, but we are condemning ourselves for never being able to make it all better.
All that pain just makes us too fragile to do the work. That’s the bitter irony in our liberalism.
Perfectionism is the enemy of progress.
But whatever the survival strategy we’re talking about, authoritarianism or perfectionism, it’s just about fragile people trying to cope with trauma and trying to do the best they can as best as they understand it in the moment.
People are just trying to get happified as best as they can.
God, let us bring compassion to each other.
Right now, just breath compassion into each other and into our hurting world.
Deep breath in with me, deep exhale out.
We honor the survival strategies, but they are a form of ignorance and they don’t heal the trauma and they don’t help things get to a better place.
Let’s not just survive any more. Let’s thrive. Let’s be restored to what is our natural birthright. Let’s remember what trauma has jarred out of consciousness.
Let us remember.
Any complete spiritual biography or spiritual autobiography must answer the question: what has helped an entire religious tradition or a person to remember? What has put them on the path of being jarred-out of survival strategy mode, of re-experiencing cut-off parts, of recognizing how the status quo is hurting others and is hurting us, of being renewed into a more whole sense of self?
For Rebecca Parker, it was the silent testimony of ancient church architecture, before 900CE. And it was also this: discovering the brilliant 17th century mystic and church founder Jane Leade (1624-1704). This brilliant woman, says Parker, laid the groundwork which, in a later time and a different continent, would be picked up and professed by American Universalists we know better, like Hosea Ballou.
Jane Leade’s central image is “paradise.” It is, as Parker says, “a realm in which humanity’s ‘beautiful diversity’ flourished. Salvation was ‘accomplished through the life-giving power of God’s love which embraced all people’.… In the church she founded, Leade preached that people’s senses could be ecstatically opened to tasting, seeing, and hearing the beauty that is within, among, and all around us.
“For Leade, entering paradise meant being spiritually transformed into a person rooted in love, who was growing and unfolding as a plant in the Garden of God. She told people they could become trees springing up from the rich loam of wisdom and goodness, drawing sustenance from the river of life, yielding fruits of compassion, generosity, and healing. Paradise could be now, she taught, and our own lives could be part of the renewal of paradise.”
That’s how Parker describes it. And note the main themes: How paradise is not lost but already here and now. How spirituality is about entering it in this life, is about being renewed and restored. How spiritual restoration requires, in part, an education or re-education of our senses, so that we can learn to experience deeply the present moment. To experience, not with indifference, but with attention, curiosity, love. To imagine oneself as being a plant in God’s garden, and with your roots you sip from the River of Life, and you grow fruits of compassion and healing. To be affirmed in one’s individuality and uniqueness, as one plant among a diversity of many others.
Jane Leade’s Universalist spirituality came into Parker’s life and comes into ours here and now, to remind us what we might have forgotten.
Paradise is already here and now.
Not that it is a constantly serene place. We don’t need Parker to tell us that, though she does. We know that first-hand. Being a spiritual being having a human experience is dynamic. There is danger.
In no less than the Hebrew Bible and its book of Genesis, we read how God walks around the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening. It means that, right there in Paradise, is the embodiment of the Sacred and Holy. But we also read about a certain Serpent, which the Biblical writers saw as evil incarnate, and it slithers around the Garden also and at the very same time as God. The Garden of Eden is no place of sleepy well-being. Momentous choices happen there. “Paradise,” says Parker, “is human life restored to its divinely infused dignity and capacity, and it is a place of struggle with evil and injustice, requiring the development of wisdom, love, nonviolence, and responsible uses of power.”
And we are back to the beginning of this sermon. Loving the hell out of the world, through direct action and through systemic change. But with a Universalist mind and a Universalist imagination, that helps our eyes see the ever-present possibility of Paradise in this world no matter how daunting things feel.
With a Universalist mind, too, that understands that sometimes, the best you can do is rest in the grace of the world and trust in the divine wellspring in the present, and be free.
An imagination expanded like this can save your life.
She tells a story about a time in her life (relayed by Rev. Mark Ward) when terrible things were happening to her, one after another, and in her grief and in her despair she was suicidal.
One evening she left her house for a walk with an eye to a nearby lake. Her face wet with tears, she set her course for the water’s edge, determined to find consolation in the lake’s cold darkness.
Entering a park leading to the lake, she walked onto the wet grass and discovered between her and the lake what seemed like a barricade that she would have to cross. She didn’t remember the barricade being there, but when she got closer she saw it was a line of people hunched over what seemed strange spindly-looking equipment.
It was the Seattle Astronomy Club: a whole club of amateur scientists up and alert in the middle of the night, because the sky was clear and the planets were aligned. On her way to the lake, she was stopped by an enthusiast who assumed that she had come to look at the stars.
“Here,” he said. “Let me show you.”
And he began to describe the star cluster that his telescope was focused on. Brushing tears away, she peered in the lens and focused her eyes. And there it was: a red-orange spiral galaxy.
That ended her walk to the lake. As she put it, “In a world where people get up in the middle of the night to look at the stars, I could not end my life.”
“What saved me in that moment is difficult to fully name,” Parker says. But in the end, she decided, “I was saved by the human capacity to love the world . . . by being met, right in the center of the pathway of my despair by one – actually one hundred – who wouldn’t let me go that way . . . by the stars themselves, by the cool green grass under my feet, by the earth, the cosmos, its presence, which won me over, persuaded me to stay.”
She was saved by Paradise.
We can be, too.