The publication of Rob Bell's new book has incited heated discussions about universalism and what it means. I welcome this.
As president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, an association of more than 1,000 congregations that are proud to carry the universalist name, I am fascinated and encouraged by the current public discourse around the concept of universalism.
Unitarian Universalists have been examining the very questions Bell has raised for more than two centuries. In the 1770s, John Murray brought his belief in universal salvation from England to America and went on to found the first Universalist church in this country in Gloucester, Mass.
Building on Murray's theological foundation, Hosea Ballou penned his Treatise on Atonement in 1805, a stunning theological work that became the defining document of universalism in America. In his book Ballou put forth a truly radical concept: That a loving god would never condemn any of his beloved creatures to an eternity of damnation. Ballou's belief that humans stand in union with the godhead was a transforming theological concept and a hotly debated topic more than 200 years ago.
Universalism continued to change over time. In the early 20th century, pacifist and Universalist minister Clarence Skinner reinforced the connection between spirituality and social justice that is a hallmark of today's Unitarian Universalism. Good works and our own ethical choices, he posited, marked the path to a "Kingdom of Heaven" here on Earth.
In keeping with our openness to changing notions of theology, our understanding of universalism is still evolving. Today, we see it embodied in the work of Unitarian Universalists like the Rev. Kaaren Anderson of First Unitarian Church in Rochester, NY. She and her parishioners felt called to launch an abortion hotline that listens without judging. Without blaming. Without pushing away those who simply need a kind soul to hear them.
In keeping with the Rev. Anderson's example, when we speak of universalism today, let us speak in terms of compassionate love for all people. No matter how we interpret Bell's writing or his personal theology, let us be tolerant and kind in our dealings with one another, regardless of our faith. Most of all, let us stand on the side of love, always.