153 years after the founding of the Universalist Church of America, in 1946, a newsletter called “Theologically Speaking” was launched upon the world. Its writers were multiple, their names probably unrecognizable to most people today: Gordon McKeeman, Albert Ziegler, Earle McKinney, Raymond Hopkins, David Cole, Frederick Harrison, Charles Vickery, and Albert Harkins. They were all young Universalist ministers, classmates in the seminary at Tufts University, and the name they gave their group was The Humiliati, which is Italian and means “the humble ones.”
Newsletter after newsletter, articulating their theological ideas, was published, and the response from fellow Universalists was … mixed.
A certain Donald M. Morgan said: “Your publication struck me as a terrific blunder.”
But then an F. B. Bishop said this: “It is the first ray of hope I have seen for many a day. I had about made up my mind that the Universalist Church had completely sunk in the [muck] of appeasement. I hope we have some fight left in us as in the days of old when we made progress.”
And then, from one Homer Jack, this: “We need some stimulating theological discussion, in whatever direction.”
Already you can tell that what the writers of “Thinking Theologically” were trying to do was by no means humble. They had a big vision for what might be next for Universalism. Definitely they were convinced that there needed to be a next, there needed to be a new chapter.
Because, by 1946,153 years after the founding of the Universalist Church of America, there was a widespread feeling that the faith was struggling, that it was “languishing in apathy.”
Because it had been so successful! Originally the Universalist gospel that denied the existence of eternal hellfire & damnation and affirmed salvation for all was widely rejected. It was seen as of the devil. Proponents were seen as morally and psychologically defective, incapable of sound judgment, and therefore restricted from serving on juries.
But by the latter part of the 19th century, the Universalist Church of America had grown by leaps and bounds and had become the 6th largest denomination in the nation!
Even more success was that liberal and moderate Christian churches started to adopt Universalism for themselves. Thus, by 1946, the Humiliati’s concern for the future of Universalism was legitimate. “There is no virtue,” they said, “in maintaining a distinction where there is no difference. If other churches are preaching universalism, we are not justified in manufacturing small differences to support our seclusion.” “We are languishing in apathy,” they said, “because we have no up-to-date philosophy of religion to put into the minds of our people.”
Today, I want to explore with you the “up-to-date philosophy of religion” that these Humiliati developed, between 1946 and 1954, which they called “New” or “Emergent Universalism.” The symbol on the screen, of the all-inclusive circle with an off-centered cross, was the symbol of this evolved faith.
Let’s jump right in, see if what was up-to-date in the mid-20th century can be up-to-date for us today. [As a side-note and a caveat: one way in which the Humiliati are decidedly not up-to-date for us today is in their usage, standard in their time, unfortunately so, for the word “man” to represent all genders. Forgive them. When you hear “man,” they mean to refer to everyone.]
We begin. For Universalism to become new, said the Humiliati, it must deeply claim what is original and radical in the old parts of it. Specifically, in the thought of Hosea Ballou.
Here’s how they put it: “In ‘A Treatise on Atonement,’ Hosea Ballou laid the foundation for a philosophy supporting our optimistic faith. We revere his memory and ignore his basic teachings. We strive to maintain his optimism, unsupported by his philosophy. We need to restudy the ‘Treatise’ for a revival of the force of our faith.” Again, “[A] study of history of our Universalist thought reveals that we have grown closer to the other churches by reason of our sustained retreat from the genius of our liberal gospel.”
Abraham Lincoln once said that “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” That was what Hosea Ballou did for Universalism, but Universalism, said the Humiliati, preferred the beaten path.
And now it was time to evolve or to die.
Time to stop retreating, and to lean into Ballou’s genius vision.
Which had to do, essentially, with his Unitarianism. 20 years before the American Unitarian Association would be formed, here was a Universalist preaching Unitarianism! A Unitarianism that saw reality as having no fundamental divisions or gaps in it—no multiple god-heads, no trinities, no God vs. Satan. Ballou called this “universal benevolence” and said, “Is it not wrong to make a separation where the Almighty does not? Is [God] not perfectly joined to [all] creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God?” God is a “divine animation” embracing all humanity. “I do not conceive that [the agency of God’s word] is confined particularly to names, sects, denominations, people or kingdoms. The word … is everywhere, operating, in some degree, in all hearts.”
Are you starting to see why the Humiliati chose the all-inclusive circle to symbolize Emergent Universalism?
Emergent Universalism is just Universalism that takes Hosea Ballou seriously.
No gaps or divisions in reality. “One purposeful, growing universe power, by which all things are maintained and toward whose end all things move.”
It is Ballou’s version of what the Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen saw 700 years before him, back in the 12th century:
I am that great and fiery force
sparkling in everything that lives;
in shining of the river’s course,
in greening grass that glory gives.
I shine in glitter on the seas,
in burning sun, in moon and stars.
In unseen wind, in verdant trees
I breathe within, both near and far.
And where I breathe there is no death,
and meadows glow with beauties rife.
I am in all, the spirit’s breath,
the thundered word, for I am Life.
We are held in the loving arms of a universal benevolence. The “great and fiery force” is in all things and it is in you and it is in me.
And we feel It, intimately, in our impulses. Notice that I just called it an It, because the Humiliati wanted to combine naturalism and theism and humanism together. The “great and fiery force” is not anything supernatural. And while of course you can use the word God if you prefer, there are other ways to name Sacred Reality. Call it Love. Call it Spirit. Call it The Holy. Call it The Mystery. Call it Goddess. Call it the cosmic dance of interrelatedness.
But just call it. Name it. Know it.
In us we feel it as the natural impulse towards goodness and wholeness. “God has a good intention in every volition of man,” said Ballou, meaning that every choice we make aims for some kind of good, and in that aiming we feel God or, equally, the desire for happiness. Ballou also said it like this: “Every individual always does what he deems best for himself at that moment.”
Now, I don’t know where Ballou got this idea that no person willingly chooses to act in a way that they perceive will have absolutely no benefit to them. The first time I ever heard this was when I read Plato and encountered the amazing figure of Socrates, advocating for and explaining this belief. Others would object, citing example after example of people doing bad things, and Socrates never denies that the actions are objectively bad, but he always affirms that in each instance of a bad act, there is always a subjective, intuitive sense in the person’s mind that the action is going to somehow help them. A person can even know intellectually that what they are about to do is considered bad, but they’ll still do it because, again, there’s that intuitive sense that the act will relieve them of suffering or will benefit them positively in some way.
This instinct is our natural morality, our natural spirituality, which God, says Ballou, puts in us.
And it unfolds developmentally. Abraham Maslow was discovering this around the same time as the Humiliati were doing their work, although I don’t know if they knew each other. But I bring up Maslow here because it so beautifully illustrates how the “great and fiery force” that is in us grows us.
At the base of our “hierarchy of needs,” Maslow puts our needs for water, air, food, and sleep. These are the physiological needs, and I am sad to say that millions of people around the world languish at this very basic, basic level. But if they are helped beyond this, if we are able to get beyond this, then the focus very naturally and effortlessly turns to getting safety needs met, and when those are met, you go up to the third level of the hierarchy, to social needs for affection, love, and belonging; for companionship and acceptance; for involvement in social and religious groups. Get those needs met, and next you seek to meet your self-esteem needs, your needs for personal worth, social recognition, and accomplishment. Meet those needs, and you go to the top of the hierarchy: you focus on self-actualization needs that have to do with fulfilling personal potentials, integrity, authenticity, self-awareness, and creativity.
This is picture of the five levels of our self-unfolding, which is driven by the “great and fiery force” within. It—the Sacred, the Holy, God—wants each and every person to rise to the very top, and even go beyond the top, as Maslow was surprised to discover.
For a time, Maslow thought that there were only five levels of development, because if you’re self-actualizing and your self-esteem is high and your social needs are all fully met and you feel plenty safe and you are definitely getting enough water, air, food, and sleep, then what the heck else do you need?
Sound like your life is pretty good!
But Maslow noticed something about people operating at the self-actualizing level—the top level—of his hierarchy: many of them were engaged in quests for what could only be called spirituality. They sought out experiences of life-altering moments of love, understanding, happiness, bliss. They wanted to experience states of consciousness that transcended ordinary human states. People would even compromise other needs lower on the hierarchy in order to meet this highest need. They would leave safe jobs and safe marriages for the quest. They would give up comfort and security for the quest. They would even lay down their lives—for the quest.
Maslow responded by adding yet another level to his hierarchy of needs: level 6: the self-transcendence level. That’s what’s at the top of the top.
The “great and fiery force” wants this for everyone.
And we can’t choose otherwise. We can’t shut off the inner impulse that causes us always to seek for what we think is best at any given moment. We are not free to do that.
Which takes us to what is perhaps most shocking about Ballou’s genius vision and the Humiliati’s Emergent Universalism. Both reject the doctrine of free will. Humans are not fundamentally evil, and humans are not fundamentally neutral. Humans are fundamentally good.
Say the Humiliati, “Man is tied to the purpose of the universe that produced him and is impelled by that purpose always to act in the manner which appears best to him. He is not ‘free’ to do evil. He is ‘free’ only to do the good as he sees it. BUT HE MUST SEE IT BOTH INTELLECTUALLY AND EMOTIONALLY, since man does not act upon his intellect alone.”
The argument takes us back to the all-inclusive circle image. The Sacred is one cosmic force for growing towards higher and higher complexities and harmonies. It is a universal benevolence and no one is left out of the circle, all belong. The orthodox teaching of freedom of the will, however, introduces a gap in this scheme. An ability to choose what’s wrong and to do that with the full, honest intellectual AND emotional conviction that there will be no benefit at all to anyone represents nothing less than a force that opposes God. That shatters the all-inclusive circle. That shatters the unity of reality.
The Humiliati, following Hosea Ballou, reject this again and again. “The only life in man is the universe force. He grew out of its evolutions and is not free to move other than towards its purpose.”
It’s exactly why, they say, that our confidence in the “supreme worth of every human personality” can be total (or, as we Unitarian Universalists today say, the “inherent worth and dignity of all people.”) Our confidence in this can be total. Sin is not the result of anything supernatural or absolute. Mistakes are made, from small to horrible, not because of the devil, but because people are ignorant of what will truly give them happiness. The ignorance can be so layered and so seemingly stuck that it’s horrifying. The ignorance can infect communities and nations until problems are horrifyingly layered and seemingly stuck.
But it is all, in the end, ignorance. And ignorance is solvable.
This is a gospel of not hell, but hope.
And the church plays an integral role. “The function of the church,” say the Humiliati, “is to educate men both intellectually and emotionally to be good.” Humans are self-conflicted creatures, knowing one thing but doing another. The conflicts exist because, as they say, “MANKIND ALWAYS HOLDS IDEALS INTELLECTUALLY THAT ARE BEYOND HIS PRESENT EMOTIONAL BASIS FOR ACTION. Not until he becomes emotionally convinced that these ideals are good for him, does he act upon them.”
This takes us straight to what we heard Taryn Strauss talk about earlier, when she was describing her vision for religious education and the skills of empathy, compassion, and resilience. “We are empathy school,” she said. Yes! “In a world of gun violence, rising sea levels, scarcity of resources, and rampant greed, we hold the antidote. Raising kids who will be compassionate above all, resilient leaders who are skilled at empathy. What a world it will be, when the kids who were raised here grow up to build caring, peaceful, innovative communities we can only imagine.”
Yes, yes, yes!
Education needs to be holistic and embrace the emotions as much as the intellect.
And, and … we need to seek out truth wherever truth may be found!
This is where the Humiliati diverge with their honored Hosea Ballou. Ballou firmly believed that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.
But the Humiliati? Think again of their distinctive symbol—the off-centered cross. The cross is off-center to telegraph the message that, though Christianity has, historically speaking, been an essential step for us in reaching Universalism, the time has come to decenter it and to open up to the entire religious history of the human race, together with philosophy and science and art and all the disciplines of knowledge around the globe.
Not to reject Christianity and Jesus, but not to proceed as Universalism had been since the beginning and see in Christianity and Jesus the ultimate in authority.
The seeds of this can be found in Ballou. We heard him say a moment ago, “I do not conceive that [the agency of God’s word] is confined particularly to names, sects, denominations, people or kingdoms. The word … is everywhere, operating, in some degree, in all hearts.”
Yes, but Jesus was still his go-to guy, his sole and fundamental authority.
But not for the Humiliati. They say, “The plain fact we must face is that Jesus did not command slavish respect, his authority is not adequate, his religion is neither dynamic nor functional in this age, his personality can no longer dominate the educated, thinking person.” Again, “If replacing the ‘authority of Jesus’ with the authority of empirical reasoning be heresy, then heresy it must be. […] Let us build our faith squarely on the best of modern scholarship and human reasoning. Let reason and truth be our authority, not a semi-historical figure of the first century A.D.”
And they called themselves Humiliati, the “humble ones”?
Be that as it may. Our religion needed a shot in the arm in the 40s and 50s, and it needs one right now too.
Always a good thing to revisit the vision of geniuses.
Of father Ballou.
Or of mother Hildegard of Bingen. Through whom God spoke, and speaks to us today:
And where I breathe there is no death,
and meadows glow with beauties rife.
I am in all, the spirit’s breath,
the thundered word, for I am Life.