Manifestations of Universalism
by Martha Hicks
“If you really believe in the brotherhood of man, and you want to come into its fold, you've got to let everyone else in too.” Oscar Hammerstein II.
I think I was about ten years old when I became aware of the conflicting views concerning predestination. I learned in my Baptist Sunday school that God was all powerful and all knowing. I asked my mother if this meant that God, if He knew everything, knew what I would do the next
day. I reasoned, if He didn’t, He wasn’t all knowing. She said that would be a good question to ask the deacons of our church. I remember how disappointed I was when the deacons not only wouldn’t answer my question, but questioned my faith in God and my being mature enough to be baptized.
From my Sunday school years, I had been taught to believe that God created us as fallen beings, from the sins of Adam and Eve and that our whole life must be spent working against a natural tendency to sin and that nothing could change this fact. The church taught me that once I believed in Christ, who died from my sins, I would be saved. He alone was the only way to be in God’s good graces. Until I was saved, nothing that I did (not the life I lived, not the choices I made, not anything I undertook of my own to improve myself) had any effect or influence.
Though I respect the right of people to believe this if it helps them behave better toward each other, I had to reject this thinking for myself in my early twenties. The guilt I was feeling contributed my mental anguish and I was feeling sick most of the time. I was first able to recover when I was able to let go of the guilt that was strangling me. It was Buddhist teachings that helped save me by helping me to understand my mistakes as an important part of learning.
Now, if a guilty feeling motivates me to change bad behavior or habit patterns, I listen to it. If the guilt immobilizes me, I resolve to do better and try to forget it.
We all do things that are inherently bad, but feeling guilty because I have sinned does not help me. When I was first introduced to philosophy, I was immediately taken by the discussions about the nature of humans. The centuries of debates on whether our nature was mostly good or mostly bad, how we cooperate and compromised with each other or fight wars, whether we are more self-interested or more socially inclined, and the biggest debate of all—whether we have free will or everything is determined by a greater force—all of this fascinated me and baffled me.
I now look at all the incredible technical advancements that humans are capable of thinking up and actualizing. I have been touched by the courage I have witnessed in the face of despair. I have also seen in my own life how loving kindness can turn bad situations into a better ones. But I am also reminded by the news every day how we are capable of despicable deeds, immeasurable greed, terror, warmongering, torture and genocide. I think humans will always be puzzled about themselves.
We have always been and will continue to be a combination of good and evil, egocentric and concerned for the wellbeing of others.
Regarding our free will, I think we have control in the sense that we can make decisions in life, but we are limited in how much we can change our bodies and personalities.
A friend from India once compared will and determinism to a game of cards: The hand that is dealt you represents determinism.
The way you play your hand represents free will. Most of us are searching for belief systems that enrich us spiritually, give us strength, comfort us in times of grief and give meaning to our lives.
How do we know what to believe? Do we believe what our loving parents told us to be true? Do we believe what people who helped us in crisis tell us to be true?
Do we believe the New Testament, which was written a century after the events took place, was translated many times and which sometimes gives us contrary versions of important events?
Do we believe someone because they are willing to die for their beliefs? Do we believe our feelings or our knowledge of what we have experienced to be true? Do we believe something because we are afraid that, if we don't, we will be punished and go to a terrible place after we die?
I am sure that all of these reasons and others lead us to believe what we believe. The churches that have risen around Christianity have much hypocrisy, but the other religions are no less hypocritical. Because of the nature of religion, this hypocrisy is unavoidable and it does not diminish the religion in my eyes if the basis of the religion is love.
Christianity is the religion to which I feel closest, but it is the teachings of Christ that I feel close to, not his (indeterminable) divinity. The message common to most great religions seems to be total, unconditional love. Where I see this love present, I find that, yes, I can believe this.
Where I see religions willing to kill, maim and destroy to prove they are the "only" true religion, this I cannot believe. And I definitely do not believe that there are a few elite souls that have been selected or favored by God because of their beliefs and exemplary behavior, for who truly knows what God wants? We are all in this together with all of our virtues and faults, struggling the best
we can, each with their own individual genetic make-up and the circumstances of their lives. As Oscar Hammerstein II reminds us, “If you really believe in the brotherhood of man, [sisterhood of women) and you want to come into its fold, you've got to let everyone else in too.”
We have seen plainly in the recent past that trying to solve problems with fear in our hearts, brings out the worst in us. Fear plagues us concerning much that is happening in the world. We see in the present world financial crisis that what is true of greedy, self-interested individuals on a small scale can be true of the society at large.
We must find ways to love one another, despite our differences; to choose love over hate and treat each other with kindness. The difficulties we are facing today are far more serious than the destiny of an Obama administration or of any one nation.
The problem is the destiny of humans. Can we prevent the delicate balance of this planet from collapsing in on itself, making it unfit for all species? Can we, in time, increasingly find our higher selves and all the good we are capable of?
My Universalist beliefs help me remain optimistic.
Martha Hicks graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in New York City with a Bachelors Degree in Music, majoring in oboe. She has been an active member of the European UUs since 1998, and the director of Religious Education from 1991-1996. She has edited the Unifier, the quarterly magazine for the EUU, since 1998.
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