Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Universalism and God's Forgiveness

So after I got home from my DATE last night...

...I opened my mail to find that a friend had sent me a passel of programs from recent cultural outings and among them was the Baltimore Opera Company's program of the new opera "Dead Man Walking," based on Sister Helen Prejean's book, and of course, you all saw the movie with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, right? And you felt shattered by it? I know I did. I watched it with a church group and had to really fight myself not to be found in the fetal position on the floor when the lights came back up.

So this opera was composed by Jake Heggie and the libretto was written by the marvelous Terrence McNally, whose dialogue I have been delighted to speak on the stage (even though his character Chloe Haddock from "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" has one glaring inconsistency that makes for one very difficult actor's moment, but I digress).

This from the synopsis of the opera "Dead Man Walking:"

"On the night of his execution, Sister Helen and [convicted murderer] Joe make small talk as she tries to convince him to seek forgiveness. Joe's family arrives for a tearful farewell. Left alone, Sr. Helen ponders the situation. The victim's parents arrive to witness the execution and chastise Sr. Helen for siding with Joe... As Joe is prepared for execution, Sr. Helen continues to press Joe to confront his guilt. As she continues to probe, he breaks down and confesses, begging for forgiveness. Sr. Helen assures him that he has it -- not just hers, but God's."

I read this and every fibre of my being went WHOA! Wait a minute, Sister Helen! You may speak for yourself in forgiving Joseph DeRocher for brutally murdering two young people, but to deign to speak for GOD!?? I'm so sorry, but even though you are Joe's spiritual director, do you have the right to speak for the Almighty in this case? Even if it comforts a dying man?

This is really hard for me.

As I have said before, I am trying to be a Universalist. I think it's a far more complicated theological tradition than can be summed up in "all souls shall be restored to harmony with the Divine" (although I believe that to be true). But although I believe that God knows what to do with Joseph De Rocher's soul, and while I don't believe in Hell (and frankly, the concept of karma has never held much sway with me, unless you mean in the sense that we build our own spiritual fate in this lifetime by our behaviors here in this lifetime), I have no idea if God literally forgives us for murder.

I know the Lord's Prayer, and I believe that Jesus was certainly pointing toward a forgiving God, but let's not forget about that contingency clause "as we forgive those who trespass against us." In the case of a murderer who's going to the Death Room any minute, does he have the time to forgive the state for executing him? Does he have time to forgive himself for destroying so much life and causing so much pain?

In the Jewish tradition, forgiveness can only be granted by those who have been harmed. Therefore, a murderer holds the most profound guilt of any criminal: he can never be forgiven in this lifetime. I may be wrong about that, and I hope Jewish readers will correct me if I am, but if that's true, I'm more in step with Jewish tradition on forgiveness than with Sr. Helen Prejean.

My Unitarian sense of self-culture and responsibility leads me to say that there are moments that cannot be redeemed by a soft word, that there are deeds too terrible to be salved by promises of God's forgiveness. To me, it is much more an affirmation of Joe De Rocher's dignity to let him walk with full awareness the path of responsibility for his own actions. As Universalists we can say that God loves him, loves the creation that he is, and perhaps even grieves with him, but can we say that God forgives him?

I hope you'll comment.

27 Comments:

Blogger Chalicechick said...

Not to be irreverent or anything, but this is the same God who killed off thousands of people on seeming whims in the Old Testament, yes?

To make the same point in a less snide manner, I suspect that when you deal with humanity on the scale that God does, murder seems less significant. Things that don't seem especially significant are easier to forgive.

I was never much of one for a personal God, though.

CC

09:01  
Blogger boyinthebands said...

If you will excuse the phrase, I think the model of forgiveness operating here is like a railroad "deadman's switch" -- where God's forgiveness has been promised and is set to engage, but if the sinner would ask for it. That is, take his hand off the switch and -- to use both a mechanical and biblical metaphor -- die to it.

This is pretty Protestant (says this Protestant, confessing that it surely crops up elsewhere) and not sacerdotal, where forgiveness is granted or imposed externally.

09:13  
Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

I'll make two comments, so I'll post twice. First, a quick reply to CC since her comment appeared just as I was clicking here.

I grew up Universalist, and my understanding was that God did not kill off thousands (millions?) of people in the Old Testament based on personal whims. Just as it was a misunderstanding that led people to imagine there is a hell that God created and sends people to, it was a misunderstanding that God had flooded the earth and killed people in other various ways. Much of the Bible is just plain wrong if read literally with this viewpoint. Of course, being Unitarian Universalists, we were already aware that the Bible can't be trusted as a historical account. Just as we discounted the historical accuracy of the non-evolving creation account, we disregarded the historical accuracy of the alleged floods and other God-sent scourges.

Don't get me wrong, the Bible played a role in this Connecticut Valley Universalism I was nurtured in, but it was secondary: Universalism, as I understood it, originated with the spiritual feeling of God's universal love for all, and moved from there to discover manifestations of it in various sources, especially but not solely the Bible. In fact, in some ways even the universal salvation of souls was only a byproduct of that central conviction of God's inhuman goodness--God is good, therefore hell didn't exist; not, hell doesn't exist because God is good. Maybe a subtle point but it had meaning. The universalism in Universalism was firstly God's universal love, secondly the salvation of all souls, and thirdly the universal brotherhood of all people, in that order.

So, at least from one Universalist perspective: no, it is not the same God who killed off all those people, because that never in fact happened (and God wouldn't have done such a thing anyway). If there was a flood, it happened because of weather patterns arising from natural conditions, without any malevolent Deity assistance. Same with the various times when God strikes somebody down, turns her into salt, etc: fairy tales that reveal our misunderstanding of God, not God's true nature.

Jeff Wilson

09:21  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Okay. That's helpful. I suppose what I couldn't handle is the kind of momentariness of it, as in "repent now and I get to send you to the electric chair forgiven!" I mean, it's an opera and it works dramatically but is it pastorally and theologically responsible? Pastorally, yes. Theologically, I had never considered that specific question in that particular context, and it gnaws at me.

09:25  
Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

OK, comment two. Looks like this is gonna be three comments because in re-reading your post I picked up on something that deserves its own entry. Here I'll make an aside and say that my understanding of the Lord's Prayer differs from yours, PB. To me the line "[God] forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" does not indicate a contingency clause.

We recited this prayer as a congregation every Sunday, I had a lot of time to reflect on it. As I understood it, the meaning is not "To the degree that we forgive others, please forgive us." Rather, the line means "forgive us, because we are struggling to learn to forgive our own offenders." God is the example that we look to for love, patience, and compassion on the perfected level, beyond the ordinary. Therefore, forgive us God so that we might see what great forgiveness is like and try to apply it to our neighbors in turn.

It isn't really a plea. It's an instance of homage to God (in many ways the central aspect of this particular Universalism--Jonathan Edwards' spirit has yet to be laid to rest in my neck o' the woods) that happens to be formulated as a plea. But there's no real doubt that God will in fact forgive. What is in doubt is whether we'll take that inspiration and manage to turn around to act as God wishes us to do.

Just offering an alternative reading, I won't pretend it's the right one, only that it was right for us.

Jeff

09:41  
Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

OK, now I'll finally get to the actual point of your post, PB. Sorry to be cluttering your blog like this today.

"I have no idea if God literally forgives us for murder."

As I understand it, God does not. Because there is nothing to forgive. Unless you murder God (a logical impossibility), you are not accountable to God for murder. When you commit murder (of another human being) you disappoint God. That's not the same thing as an offense, and God doesn't need to forgive you for disappointing God. I don't forgive people for disappointing me, I forgive them when they actually commit an offense toward me. It is not possible to commit a serious offense toward God, who cannot be killed or harmed or stolen from, and who's not so narcissistic as to hold it against you forever if you take God's name in vain.

What some theists take to be God's forgiveness, I understand as God's approval. God disapproves of the murderer's acts. But God can also approve of contrition on the part of the murderer. That doesn't set everything back in balance--the person is still dead, and the family is still wounded (and perhaps unforgiving). But it is better than all of this PLUS no contrition, no feeling of humanity on the part of the killer, which among other things doesn't help the hurt ones to heal.

This relates in some sense to the afterlife, so I'll bring it up here. The understanding of Universalism which I was given as a child was of God's irresistable grace. We have a common destination in heaven with no exceptions, and it has nothing to do with our actions on earth (or our wishes for that matter). God has deemed it so, thus it is so, too bad for you if you really want to go to hell. We frankly don't get to pick our afterlife, just as we didn't pick our birth circumstances in this life. God's got a plan, it's got a happy ending, and God's not about to let you futz around with it.

This doesn't mean that killers get off scot-free, however. As I always understood, going to heaven isn't simply a matter of getting to hang out a fluffy cloud with a lot of chocolate. It's actually a continuation of the process of spiritual maturity which we undergo in life, and to the extent that we didn't perfect ourselves in life, we have to continue in heaven. There is an awakening, an enlightenment that occurs after one dies, in this scheme. Freed from attachment to a single fleshly body, the soul is shown the sufferings and dignity of all other souls in life. The newly-arrived soul is made to see how it has hurt others time and again in life, others who are no different from it, who are its sisters and brothers. This is actually not merely a process of awakening, it is somewhat traumatic. This cleansing, enlightening process is much more traumatic for those who were "evil" as we lable them: killers etc have more to atone for and they are hit much more "viscerally" (souls have no viscera. . .) than those who are merely conventionally imperfect. The evil ones experience a far greater sorrow at the reception of this knowledge and insight, and they suffer from the pains of conscience even as they exist in heaven, for a (temporary) period of time corresponding to their degree of evil. God rejects none, but souls reject themselves for a period of time as they adjust to a God's eye view.

This relates to forgiveness too. I agree, it is for the murdered to forgive the murderer. As I understand it, the murdered always forgive their killers, because when they get to heaven they acquire the God's eye view which shows them how the killer came to be, and they develop pity and compassion. In this scheme the dead are really like mini-gods themselves: in heaven love, compassion, and forgiveness become perfected (and therefore equal to God's). They aren't actually gods--they can't create worlds, etc--but souls end up in a state of post-life perfection because of the natural awakening process God has built into the structure of things.

I think we can see some Spiritualist influences in this scheme. That's another major historical influence which I don't think has died out of Universalism. I should stress that all this speculation about the afterlife was not a significant part of the theology I imbibed--it was merely a conjecture to fill in the gaps of what we did take for fundamental: God's universal love, the universal heavenly destination of all souls, and the reconciliation of all to all, such that in the end no offense or animosity remains between souls.

Jeff

10:18  
Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

Wow, Jeff. Thanks for that last post, especially. Lots to reflect on.

Peacebang - i saw that Opera in New York, and I didn't like it. But I did meet a fascinating old lawyer dude there who worked pro bono for inmates on Death Row. He worked on the case of a famous inmate, actually, who was charged with raping and killing a female prison guard, but in truth he'd been framed because the female guard was aware of some corruption in the prison system and her murder had been arranged by the powers that be.

My discussion with this lawyer was far more powerful and interesting than the opera, but maybe I was just uncomfortable with the melodrama of the opera format.

12:57  
Blogger Jess said...

My problem with discussing the posibilities of the afterlife is that no one has really been there to come back and tell us what it's all about. So this life is this life, and contrition and forgiveness have to happen here, as far as I'm concerned. The rest of it is conjecture - and, frankly, I have better things to worry about!

13:19  
Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

Thank you, Hafidha. Glad to be of service.

Jess, I hear you. I think this is literally the first time I have ever written anything on the afterlife in my 30 years as a UU. It isn't a primary concern for me either; at the same time, I think UUs have a right to speculate if it is meaningful to them.

Jeff

14:15  
Blogger Jaume said...

Three notes on the post and on some comments:

1) Regarding some feedback, it is amazing how literalist we liberals can still be. (sigh)

2) I don't think that a nun can make God forgive a sin, but if it was a priest, then yes, his forgiveness in the sacrament of confession is God's.

3) Talking about Universalism, I usually prefer to go back to the sources rather than 19th century materials (sorry, Scott!). I recommend to read (or, for you, very probably re-read) Origen.

16:49  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

That was a joke, right, Jaume? To suggest that others were being literalist and then to say that a nun "can't force God to forgive," but when a priest offers absolution, it works because (a) he's a man and (b)when HE does it, it's sacramental? Sorry, that's way too much sexist Catholic magical thinking for me.

Jeff, I appreciate your wading into this and offering so much. I couldn't disagree with you more, however, that we can't offend God and that a sin as grave as murder merely "disappoints" God. That sounds to me like the worst of permissive parenting writ on a cosmic scale. I also find it to be Scripturally unsound, but that depends how you interpret the meaning of the Cross.

If we believe that each human being contains a spark of the divine, I can only believe that it is indeed an offense against the Lord to commit murder.

As far as the Lord's Prayer goes, I was being a little sarcastic when I said that "as we forgive the trespasses of others" was a "contingency clause." But I think you've soft-pedaled the expectation there, too. Jesus makes it clear that unless we mirror the divine attribute of forgiveness, we should not expect any ourselves. You can translate that in a 21st century psychologically-aware way, and I do (by assuming that we can't feel the presence of grace in our lives unless we've bestowed a similarly generous love upon others), but it's still an unmistakably clear teaching. I think it matters greatly that Jesus took Rabbi Hillel's popular teaching, "Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you" and made it proactive. A simple change but with huge ramifications for the righteous life.

17:37  
Blogger Chalicechick said...

Ahem. I was kidding about God directly killing people.

Taking me literally is just as dangerous, I can assure you, especially when I label my own words as snideness.

I did mean what I said about the scale, however. One has to assume that God on a regular basis sees every sort of awfulness humanity can think of and a few varieties that can only be left to nature.

According to the census bureau's international database, some 154,483 people die every day. Likely the majority of these individuals die in a way that would upset any reasonable person who really understood his/her story. (Many die of starvation, many are killed in pointless wars, many die of disease treatable in other parts of the world, many die alone and ignored by the families they built, many get preventable diseases they didn't understand how to prevent, many die in stupid accidents, many die of quiet suicide caused by addictions they developed because they were abused or otherwise treated badly, many commit suicide directly. And yes, many are murdered.)

In the context of all these deaths, murder doesn't seem like an outlier in terms of shitty ways to die.

Is is possible that one of the things that makes God God is God's ability to care for each and every one of those people as individuals and want justice for everyone?

Yes, but I for one have trouble conceiving of it.

But then, I'm most assuredly not God.

If I had to guess, though, I'd say that in God's ultimate ability to take the long view, God sees the roots of every murder.

Murderers become murderers through some combination of circumstance and being born that way.(Presumably does not "make" a sociopath any more directly than God "makes" a tornado. But nobody expects a tornado to ask forgiveness.)


CC

01:00  
Blogger Jaume said...

O, but this is the problem with a lot of UUism, right? We are very happy to believe that a witch creates a magic circle and invokes the Goddess, but we can't believe that a priest forgives sins because he is a male, and Catholic on top of it! If we go etic (i.e. we assume the inner logic of the religion) for some, we go etic for everybody. Or if we go rational and detached, we go rational and detached for everybody as well.

09:24  
Blogger Jaume said...

I meant "emic" above, sorry for my mistake.

09:27  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Jaume, there's a very big difference between a group of people invoking the Goddess and believing together that they have created a sacred space, and having some guy show up and speak for God to forgive my sins. The latter option is specifically offensive to Unitarian theological understanding because it wipes out personal responsibility, and supports the idea that we need an intermediary between ourselves and God. The pagan example you cited may be irrational, but it suggests that we all have access to the Divine energies. It doesn't seek to endow any priest or priestess with the power to make things right with God.

09:54  
Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

Howdy,

This is an interesting exercise for me--I can't recall the last time I tinkered with explicit theology, if _ever_. Probably comes from the fact that I'm an agnostic non-theist who doubts there's an afterlife. Still, it is intriguing to work with the idea of what God would be like, from potential Universalist perspectives.

I'm having trouble imagining a God who could get offended. To offend someone is to cause them anger or resentment, as I generally understand things. I don't think of God as capable of anger or resentment, I just don't think God is really God if there's the possibility of pettiness or emotional reactionaryism. Drawing in part on my Buddhist background, I think of anger (in the abstract, at least) as a negative emotion that derives from deluded attachment to a falsely-imagined self. Buddhas literally cannot become angry because they've seen through the web of self-centeredness; I give God the benefit of the doubt and assume that God can't be less enlightened than Buddha. Likewise, resentment comes from self-cherishing, something I imagine Buddhas and God to lack.

Incidentally, I've never understood the perspective that says that God created humanity so that there'd be someone to glorify God. That just seems too darn egocentric for God, to me. I always assumed God created humanity for humanity's own pleasure--so that there would be beings in the universe who could achieve joy and love; and, perhaps, so that God would have someone to love.

Note that this does not mean that human anger/resentment is necessarily unjustified. Anger has generally led to unfortunate results in history, but we can also point to positive outcomes, such as anger over inequality spawning the Civil Rights movement. I'm talking in about ideals here, not necessarily reality as we must live it.

So an angry God makes no sense to me, just as an offended one doesn't. God sees the roots of every action and understands that they derive from contingent causes. God is understanding, not judgmental. Otherwise, if God is just as blind, petty, and self-attached as we human beings, why would we feel any particular desire to worship God?

I'm afraid I can't help you with whether I'm being scripturally sound or unsound, PB, since the scriptures weren't ever that important for the kind of Universalism I'm describing. I never worried about being scripturally unsound--if I thought about it, I guess it seemed possible that if anything the scriptures themselves were at times unsound, as they contain a lot of magic and petty ideas about God. And the cross, frankly, never came into the equation--my sense of it as a kid was that it was an unfortunate example of what people do to the good and the social agitators, not part of some cosmic plan. The crucifixion was a historical, not theological, matter for me and the other people at church (as far as I was made aware). The resurrection did carry a bit more weight, since Jesus always seemed like a character embodying the teaching that "God is love," and the return of Jesus after three days suggested that love could be repressed but never beaten, that it wins out in the end.

The idea of a spark of the divine in each person is interesting. I assume this is NOT like the ancient Hindu atman theory, where the soul is actually a piece of God hidden within the mortal body of a person, destined to reunite and dissolve into union with the rest of God at the end of its journey.

I'm not sure exactly who you're refering to as the source of forgiveness/unforgiveness when you say "unless we mirror the divine attribute of forgiveness, we should not expect any ourselves." If you mean God, then again, I have a hard time imagining a God who doesn't forgive. Is it that if we don't act like God (and forgive), God won't forgive us? There seems to be a little trouble with that logic, if I understand it correctly. The equation seems dangerously close to the one that Murray confronted when he was trying to convert the Universalists in England. He asked a young woman to believe that Jesus was her savior, and that then she would be saved. She replied that was Jesus not her savior until she declared him so? And if that were the case, didn't that force her into a lie, because he was not in fact her savior, until later on when she declared (falsely at that moment) that he was?

What I'm getting at is the appearance that one must act like God (and forgive) before God is willing to act like God (by forgiving). That doesn't make sense to me.

You mentioned permissive parenting, and I guess it's not surprising that I formed a parental view of God, seeing as I was a kid at the time. But the question of whether or not God is being permissive seems to indicate some idea of God influencing the world. I guess God always seemed more Deistical in a way, because no one ever suggested that God actively intervened in human affairs (and concurrently, no one advocated prayer as a way to bring about "real world" results). God didn't seem to permit or deny anything--God simply wasn't directly involved. We humans were in this muddle together, and couldn't rely on God to get us out of it. God would set things right after death, but in this life we needed to keep our own house in order. The best way to do so was to follow God's example of love, but falling short of that we have human justice and the legal system.

I'm not sure whether to characterize all of this as idle speculation on my part or not. God isn't part of my beliefs, though I do have beliefs about what God would be like if God existed, which derive from my Universalist upbringing. It isn't something I worry about, because I figure that even if I don't believe in God, God believes in me.

Thanks for the conversation.

Jeff

13:25  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Damn, I wish we were on a retreat and sitting in a relaxed environment with a cup of cocoa and I didn't have like thirty free seconds today.
Jeff, I wonder if we replace the word "natural law" for "God" in my post that would be more accurate to what I actually believe. I don't really believe in a wrathful or offended Deity in a personal sense, either.
It has never worried me that I may be conflating the Almighty with ancestor spirits or some very flawed God concept, but I do deeply believe that there are crimes that make the stones cry out and that offend the order of creation. And as far as scriptural "correctness," my reliance on Scripture (such as it is) is based on my conviction that these stories are deeply in touch with the eternal mojo, and we ignore it at our peril. This isn't to say that there aren't huge glaring crazy errors in Scripture: I just take it seriously.

When Jesus taught us to mirror the divine attribute of forgiveness, I am not saying that one can ever be certain that God forgives us, whatever someone's God concept is. I think he's speaking again of a natural law: i.e., you don't get to experience grace unless you extend it.
I mentioned the Cross because I thought you might be suggesting that God doesn't need to forgive us because Jesus died for our sins, etc. Which would be pretty far out for a UU but hey,you never know where we all come out.

Can you believe we're having this discussion in the comments section of a BLOG!!? LOL!

13:59  
Blogger fausto said...

Wow. Appeals to Origen's original doctrine of apocatastasis. Debating the theology of the Cross and the availability of grace. All in a UU forum, of all places, during a week when I have no time to pitch in! >:-(

Next you guys have to dig in to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his rejection of "cheap grace", and how it may inform the conflict between Unitarian and Universalist notions of atonement.

14:51  
Blogger Rev. Sean said...

For that last part,Fausto, go to
http://www.reallivepirate.com/?p=60

It's a very interfaith discussion of that very topic, with comments by at least one UU.

As far as forgiveness goes, I think God longs to forgive us, even those of us directly or indirectly responsible for murder. I think we truly only have to ask. That said, God doesn't magically remove the consequences of that sin. As I understood PB's synopsis of the operetta, the convicted man still gets put to death.

So the consequences remain, but if and when we enter into deeper relationship with God, we will find ourselves welcomed by Love, and given a new beginning by Grace.

But that's just me. PB and I have gone around about similar topics before...

15:14  
Blogger Jaume said...

Peacebang, I don't want to play the Devil's Advocate here (talking about things Catholic...), but may I remind you that every shamanic tradition in the world (the sources from where Neopaganism is supposed to be taking inspiration) uses the intermediary (shaman) as the human channel that provides the connection between this world and the invisible world of spirits and deities. Now you may question that Neopaganism is a recreation from past shamanic traditions as many of them pretend it to be, and I might agree with that, but it is clear to me that the priestly role of channelling the will of God to the believer by delegation is closer to the old Pagan traditions than the Protestant-Emersonian idea that we all can be in communion with the divine without intermediaries.

18:02  
Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

PB, if we ever meet I'll buy you a cuppa cocao and we can hash out God's plan, I can hardly think of anything more appealing. It'd probably be a better conversation too, since already on this thread alone I've missed sarcasm by you and CC, taking things at face value. The Internets aren't so good for digging in the deep stuff, I think. Lest my own words be similarly mistaken, let me say that I approach this thread with a smile and an interest in other viewpoints, there's nothing but curiosity and goodwill here. I'm not going to be upset if I'm disagreed with and in fact I rather expect a trained minister to skate theological circles around a layperson like myself.

OK, another comment to add, recognizing that your last comment was dashed off without time for further thought or editing. I can certainly relate to being busy, busy, busy.

I think your reference to natural law is kind of helpful for me to understand what you're getting at. I don't actually know much about the nuances of natural law (isn't that kind of a Catholic thing?), but just taking the term as it appears, I take it to mean something like "the order of things." I too have a gut reaction that murder is wrong. There has to be something about it that goes against the grain of the universe. It isn't so much that killing is wrong--life only survives on death, and animals regularly slay one another, even one's own kind. But while we too are animals, we are thinking, feeling animals--we know better, or at least have been told to do better. We can choose not to go that route. I can't think of any possible reason to object to your sense that murder offends the universe.

By the way: "This isn't to say that there aren't huge glaring crazy errors in Scripture: I just take it seriously." This is precisely the attitude I demand out of my ministers. Just because the Bible doesn't have a whole lot of relevance to me, doesn't mean I don't want my ministers to have done the tough work of going through our original sources and working them out. Taking the Bible seriously, whether or not one believes it contains a true revelation of God, is something I would consider a requirement of any decent UU minister. Which is just another way of saying, "right on."

Here's where I think your ideas and mine meet in harmony: "you don't get to experience grace unless you extend it." The operative word here would seem to be "experience." As I have understood it based on my Universalist childhood nurturance, God's grace is extended to everyone, and all people are destined for heaven (just as an aside, that includes the Devil too). However, not all people _experience_ that grace during this lifetime, and this is a big, big point. One can live in the light of God, or not, and these two life experiences aren't even close to being equal in fulfillment and satisfaction. For the person who forgives (for instance), there is a taste of that divine attribute of forgiveness. For the person who loves, there is a taste of that love which God _is_. And these tastes can be ever enlarged into a greater and greater awakening to awareness, i.e. experience of that universal grace embracing us throughout our lives.

However, for the person who does not forgive, who does not love, there is no experience of that ever-present grace of forgiveness and love. The unforgiver turns his/her face from God and fails to experience God in this lifetime. This is nothing less than tragic, in the hardest sense of the term without all the watering down it's acquired through over-usage. When the person dies and the scales fall from their eyes, they will see the error of their ways, and lament with heart-breaking sorrow that they spent so long walking in the dark when the light was always being offered to them. Truly seeing the pain they caused to others, they will feel aghast at their actions, and perceiving that they put themselves outside of God's wishes for so long, they will be chagrined for the suffering they caused themselves thereby (because the happiest life is one lived in awareness of God's love). This is part of that initial trauma of heaven that I mentioned earlier.

Again, it kind of boggles me that I'm actually discussing the afterlife. But I've thought a bit more about Jess's comment, and I have something to add. She and I don't include the afterlife as a significant part of our everyday religiousity. But I do think that people with our attitude can miss the relevance of the afterlife to this life. We who say, "I want to know what relevance religion has to THIS life," often don't recognize that people's afterlife beliefs directly impact how they live this life--that the two are not necessarily disconnected for some, maybe even most people. Worrying or wondering about the afterlife is part of how people discover meaning in this very life. I don't say that we all must do so, only that we need to respect those who find a logic in such an approach.

I want to say something else about Universalism as I understand it. Essentially, it comes down to gratitude toward God for all that we have received, all that we are enabled to do. When I think about murder, I have to recognize that murder isn't just something that someone else has done. Looking inside myself, I find there is the possibility of murder there. I possess an attachment to myself that is stronger than my love for others, and a heart that contains greed, anger, and stupidity along with the better angels of my nature. The main difference between me and a killer is that I have not been put in a situation where I have been motivated to kill anyone. But a murderer and I are really the same, I've just been luckier so far. That luck includes having a stable, loving family. It includes having had access to education and material comfort while growing up. It includes being born in a time and a place where people of my skin color haven't experienced significant marginalization and persecution. It includes the fact that I have a wife who is faithful and kind. And it definately includes growing up UU, a blessing and a gift that has given me resources to manage those ugly shadows of the heart. Not everyone has had these strokes of luck, which come to me as grace--utterly unearned, beyond my control. And yet pushed into the right situation, even I could kill, I imagine. How much moreso someone without such luck, such advantages.

God understands all of this to a much greater degree than I do. God sees the contingent factors that led to that bullet, that knife, those hands around a throat. God doesn't approve but God does understand. And in the end God finds a way to bring that unlucky one back into the fold too, even if I hate him for killing my brother, even if I want the universe to spit him out because he offends my sense of natural law. It is because God is a better person than me and is not beholden to the same limited sense of right and wrong as me that God _is_ God.

18:31  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

We're ALL right and we're ALL wrong and we're ALL imperfect in our knowledge and it's ALL GOOD!

I wish I could keep up with this thread my darlings, but with a lecture to give at church in 25 minutes, a serious talk to prepare for April 11th, a doctoral proposal to hand in by April 18th, a class to teach, three staff positions to fill at church, and ministry to attend to, that's all I can say for now.

Love and kisses, PB

18:37  
Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

Well, really we're just filling space here while we wait for you to dish more date details, anyway. Good luck with all those projects!

Jeff

19:56  
Blogger SC Universalist said...

Certainly in the modern conservative Christian sense, God does forgive murderers and can do so at any time. No more punishment needed.
Yet the 1899 - 1935 Universalists stated in their non-creed creed that they belived in "the certainty of just retribution for sin; the final harmony of all souls with God."
which makes those Universalists less liberal than the conservatives?
nevertheless - while there will be just retribution for wrong, there will still be final harmony....

to quote something i quoted on my blog (from George Emerson? in 1896)
"Universalism is not exactly convertible with universal salvation. Universalism presents indeed the issue of the final salvation of all souls, but it includes this - it is not simply IT. Universalism is a system of truths; it has many parts with many applications to life and conduct. The being, character, supremacy of God; his relations to the world and particularly to the beings created in His image; the consequent relations of souls to Him and to one another; the claims of justice and humanity and the privilege of worship - there are particulars enough to give matter for octavos. But the salvation of all mankind, essential to keep the system intact, is but a principal point, There are we find, many believers in Universal Salvation; but there are not so many believers in full Universalism."

20:07  
Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

Jeff, do you have a blog?

21:16  
Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

Hafidha, I used to manage Transient and Permanent, my UU-oriented blog. However, I deleted it a couple of months ago because I was concerned that the personal nature of the blog could negatively impact me during the hiring phase when I go on the academic job market later this year. Sad but true, some people have had their blogs held against them by colleagues on academic hiring committees, and I'm way too junior to be able to take that chance. Even my comments here in this thread make me nervous, I'm in a vulnerable position and Google puts everything you write at the world's (not always understanding) disposal. Maybe it will become more Permanent than Transient again at some point, once I'm through the hiring process.

I do still maintain two non-UU blogs (both are Buddhist). One is located at the American Buddhist Study Center, while the other I run for Tricycle, the primary English-language Buddhist magazine.

Hope you're having a pleasant evening. And my apologies to PB for monopolizing this thread, especially considering that I haven't even read/seen "Dead Man Walking."

Jeff

22:28  
Blogger Wally Nut said...

I don't read your blog for a week or so and I find myself left behind on a terrific discussion. But since these comments have gotten so long, I'll just refer you to a couple of new entries on my blog about the afterlife.

Blessings,

00:17  

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