Part of developing a vision of a workable Universalist Christianity is knowing what appealed to past generations and seeing if those features have parallels that compel us today. Regard and concern for the dead was part of Universalism’s appeal. So much of its institutional growth after the Civil War was no doubt tied up with the grief that families felt from those dead in the war, and from that a sensitivity to the tragic otherness of death. The Universalist care for lost loved-ones prompted a special memorial day, recognized by the Universalist General Convention, “for commemorating those friends who, during the year, have been taken away by death” to be observed on the first Sunday in October: anticipating the generalized care for All Souls a month later.
Universalism defended, in reasonable and assertive terms, that the dead would be both corrected and cared-for, and that a purified humanity would be reunited in eternal and comprehensive bliss. It appeals even now, in general terms, but especially following violent and unprepared death, which remains a crisis in our own day. The world may not be just, it follows, but God dwelling in eternity is.
But the Universalist approach to preventing violent deaths was inadequate. Universalists past regarded preaching the gospel as a way in itself to overcome social sin: Universalism would make people more sensitive and more moral. Today, we regard Universalism at best as a healing place that provides peace in the storm, and moral direction for more practical response. Not that past Universalists opposed or neglected social reform, but too often (and in keeping with the day) preferred comprehensive, monolithic solutions. Perhaps you have also said something like “if we could take care of that, the rest would fall into place.” The that changes, but not the instinct for “general reform.” But any successful general reform would have to come with oppressive might. A different approach is to see personal contributions for the common good as a network of effort, rather than a vast common plan. A Universalism of intention, if not mobilization. Networks, after all, are robust. We will surely disagree about what injustices are the greatest or most urgent, and how they can be overcome. A monolith knows one goal and one general way. A network respects different goals and different methods. It may mean well-meaning people work at cross-purposes; it also means that persons’ full passions can be engaged, and that all the eggs aren’t in one basket.
We can then care for beloved living loved ones, and with care, have the mental, material, moral and spiritual resources to help others when the call comes. We each take a piece of the work, and share the burden.
(The Rev.) Scott Wells