Pick a Path: A Critique of Pure Universalism

paths to the mountaintop

Good Morning! I want to start with a quote from Hunter Thompson:

No man is so foolish but he may sometimes give another good counsel, and no man so wise that he may not easily err if he takes no other counsel than his own. He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master.


Hunter Thompson, an American Journalist and Writer.

Being a storyteller, I want to propose a temporary suspension of disbelief today. I’m going to make some claims that may not be true in every case, but please try to discern the spirit of what I’m saying. Just ride with me for a few minutes and let me drive.

Today’s sermon is Pick a Path: A Critique of Pure Universalism. Now you might ask yourself, Why criticize Universalism? As Socrates said, the unexamined life isn’t worth living, so we question. I mean, isn’t that what intolerance is: a fear of questioning and finding answers? We want to know the truth, that’s why we’re here. We fight the status quo. That’s what we do, we’re rebels. Nothing is off limits and dissent is in our blood. We’re heretics because we dare to practice the heresy of choice. We can change our minds about our spiritual path.

Spiritual Paths

The path we take is special.

But thats not why I’m here today. I’m here today to speak of the virtues of NOT changing your mind about your spiritual path, but rather, of Picking a Path, and following it a bit longer than feels comfortable. I don’t want to kill universalism, I want to make it stronger.

Now I guess I should define elephant in the room, “Universalism.” So what is Universalism?

Universalism (wikipedia – universalist dictionary) refers to religious, theological, and philosophical concepts with universal application or applicability. Universalism is a term used to identify particular doctrines considering all people in their formation.

I would call it a Religion concerned with finding Universal Truths that apply to everyone. It is the search for Universal Ideals from all religions and a harmony of pluralism, a multitude of ideas. A diversity of beliefs all working together towards a better humanity. My Papaw, the Reverend Ernest Huskey, was an independent and reformed baptist preacher. He told me early on in life that all religions were hubs to the same spoke. He used a Hindu metaphor.

All Religions are Spokes to the same Hub

All religions are spokes to the same hub, a universal truth and the beginning of education.

Ultimately this implies an equality among religions, a universal application of religious and spiritual truths across boundaries. Its all Good! Thomas Starr King, another Unitarian and Freemason, said: Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.

Thomas Starr King

The famous Californian Thomas Starr King was both Unitarian and Freemason, a rare combination these days.

And for those of us with fundamentalist friends or family who think Universalism is unbiblical, Here is a passage from the Christian bible. 1 John Chapter 4, verse 7-8: “My dear friends, let us love one another, since love is from God and everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever fails to love does not know God, because God is love.”

We dare believe that like Christ said, God is Love, an equalizing force that embraces us and moves us all equally, despite racial, cultural, economic, or any other defining trait of a person. I, and other Christian Universalist propose that: Christ died for everyone’s sins, not just the Christians. So knowing that, what should we do with our lives? This is the idea of Universal Reconciliation that comes out of the Universalist Christian Tradition, our tradition.

Another perhaps more rational way to arrive at a similar conclusion is through scientific reason. Thankfully we have the scientific method as a way of arriving at universal scientific laws that apply universally. The law of gravity works everywhere, regardless of religious preference or spiritual path. I have fallen in love with the idea of rational scientific inquiry into the mysteries of the universe with Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. The opening scene compares all sort of macro items, like nebulae and satellites with micro forms, like the human eyeball or the seeds of a dandelion. In the occult studies we have a saying, “The macrocosm mirrors the microcosm,” and nowhere is this more present than in the natural sciences, where we are constantly faced with new visions that remind us of ourself.


We notice similarities between ourselves and nature and we put our numbers and symbols over top of natural patterns and discern fractals and geometric patterns that are universal and genetic. Its like mathematical laws are universally seeded in our planets DNA and we are starting to understand that.

The beauty of religion and the beauty of science both tie back into the beauty of the people that live on this planet. We see reflections of ourselves in the math that we create, however we can quickly slide into scientific determinism. If all are so similar and there are these underlying truths, then what do we have as individuals? We run the risk in trying to find universal truths of homogenizing everything into a blob. One time we left a bottle of gummy vitamins in our car, only to find that days later, it had all melted together. What were once individual pieces of vitamins and minerals separately were combined into a poison. That giant gummy bear blob of vitamins contained more iron that a person should have and would have caused an overdose if anyone were to eat it. This isn’t a metaphor, iron is dangerous and children would love to eat a huge gummy bear.

Melted Gummy Bears

Melted gummy bears are probably the best food in the universe. That is a universal truth unto itself.

We are those children and I dare say that the melted gummy bear of all the world’s faiths runs the risk of killing our individual faith traditions today. Here is a Universal Truth from my mystical gummy bear, to start with,

All are One

How boring is this? I know, I know… it is a mystical truth among all faiths, the mystical union of the individual with the whole, but I like me! I want to be me, not necessarily as one with all, but separate and individual. I’m not sure I’m ready to dissolve my ego all the way just yet, I still have some stuff to do on Earth! Besides, the idea of a universal one offers no diversity, no identity, no differences, no variety and no spice! I’m not ready to be assimilated into the Borg collective!

There is a Swahili word I came across in my journey: UBUNTU. It means “I am because of who we all are.” It does not mean I am because we all are. There has to be identify and uniqueness for something sacred to emerge.

Now I want to examine more closely Universalism under the microscope of my reason. I speak for myself, not on any authority other than my own, so take it for what its worth. With Universalism, how can humanity ever know anything? Sure we have scientific inquiry, but does that leave room for spiritual growth and the following of a path? Where do we get our spiritual authority? Early humans looked to religion, later we learned of philosophical inquiry, and now we have direct observation of the natural world to derive our own understanding of reality. We meditate and walk in nature to learn directly the secrets of Mother Nature, so there must still be Universal Truths to be discovered, they aren’t all found yet!

Listen closely to the sound of the wind blowing,

Listen closely to the sound of the wind blowing.

Another question I have is, How can we be so cautious and comfortable as to homogenize everyone? There is an inherent danger in naive universalism. Is the person you’re standing in front of just like you? How do you know? We continue to discover, through discourse and through inquiry that they are in fact very different from us, so how dare we try to make universal declarations about what is and what isn’t? There is constant change in the air, and that change has to start with us today.

Finally, If Universalism is adopted, how can we continue to increase in knowledge? Do we already know everything? Universalism is a sort of final chapter in religion, we all know that, but maybe this story has another chapter. I am not ready to discount the mystical experience of an individual as invalid to my experience, especially if that person has a message for me and offers words of encouragement. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to write the final chapter and rise in abstractions to the level of the Universal.

UU Chalice

We believe in all faiths having wisdom.

With these examinations, I am hinting at an underlying structure to universalism that I want to take apart. So what kind of polarities can we find in Universalism?

How about Us and Them? In so many instances the us and them we build in our head is false upon further investigation. About a month ago, I did my first Pridefest Parade in Knoxville. I was so glad to stand in solidarity with my LGBTQ siblings and my large human family in all of its diversity and distinction on that day. I got out of my comfort zone and discovered another group, like me. We are all us together, so maybe us and them doesn’t work so well anymore.

Lets talk about Liberals and Conservatives. We all know the terminology, but do we understand the polarity. What we call liberal in this country is more of a conservative ideology in Europe, especially with healthcare and education. We’re way behind, even the progressives in this country! I’ve also been told that 20% of people identify as Liberal, 20% of people identify as Conservative, and 60% of people are smack dab in the middle just looking to get by and don’t necessarily identify as either extreme of the scale.

Okay here’s another weird case of polarities gone awry: cool and uncool churches. Think about this phrase, “I go to the coolest church on the street.” How many people here believe that. I know I do, but I did at the last church I went to as well! How many other parishioners up and down the street also believe the same? Everyone justifies their church as the coolest, but that can’t be true because they’re teaching/preaching a lot of different things. So how can there be differences if all are one?

Cool Church

No church will ever be this cool.

These polarities don’t work for me. We want to put people in boxes, we want to call people names like Liberal, Conservative, Man, Female, etc, but every name we call is just a signifier, a symbol, for a unique person. There are as many polarities as people in the world, 8 billion polarities, all shifting and changing all the time, because there is no static. Change is the only constant. When we try to oversimplify complexity, we lose a lot. We lose more about people that makes them special and we put them in a box.

Now I want to outright criticize universalism, this belief I love, because I want to make it stronger. We have barely scraped the atmosphere into our solar system and we declare ourselves universalists. We barely know what a universe is, and that idea keeps changing and getting bigger as our understanding grows and changes about it. Maybe god lives on another planet? Maybe there are higher beings on another plane of existence that we can’t understand? How dare we call ourselves universalists when we haven’t left the solar system. How brash of us to be so bold and prideful to call ourselves universalists. We should repent of this hubristic pride and acknowledge the fact that our knowledge is very limited, although growing, before we look for truths here on Earth.

If somebody'd said before the flight, "Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?" I would have say, "No, no way." But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried. -Alan Sheperd

If somebody’d said before the flight, “Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?” I would have say, “No, no way.” But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried. -Alan Sheperd

I also worry that in Universalism, we don’t allow for innovation, no new religion or spiritual formation is allowed. No special revelation would ever be allowed in our service, except for one within a faith tradition accepted by our congregation, or one of the world’s major religions.

There are NO UU prophets, because we would shut them down. I could hear us now, “Well that’s true for you, but that isn’t true for me,” or “we need to form a task force to verify these claims.” Can we not still find universal truths and tell each other about them? I hope you hear what I’m trying to say. I’m not saying that I have some holy message, but I might, and if I did, I would want to tell people about it at my CHURCH. That should be our new definition of universalism: something I discovered that applies to others. But that might get some of us in trouble as others might not want to hear it.

To tout universalism is to distill down the complexity of human experience to pithy truths and make altruism as the end all be all. Now I love altruism as much as the next UU, but there has to be something more. Something intangible, something real, beyond words and symbols! I want the next thing. I want an eternal all pervasive energy to become the ground of my being and to permeate the existence of this congregation. I want a Spirit of Life, not a dead prophets observation.

paths to the mountaintop

To get to the mountain top, you have to at least pick a path.

There is an Ancient Japanese Saying that says, There are many paths up the Mountain, but the view of the moon from the top is the same. This is ultimately our Universal Truth in this congregation: that we all have different paths, but the same goal. I can’t say what the path should be, and I can’t say what the goal is, but I can say that if getting to the mountain top is your goal, then you have to Pick a Path. Pick a Path! We as UU’s have the power to chose. It is what makes us the lovable heretics we are: we dare to practice the heresy of Choice, but we have to make that choice to get started on the internal work that we have to do.

The opposite of love isn’t hate, the opposite of love is apathy.

Helen Keller: Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all—the apathy of human beings.

I agree with Helen Keller: apathy is the worst human evil. How can we not care about the most important decision we have to make in our life? What to do with ourselves? To not make a decision is a decision after enough time, so bear that in mind if you want to table the decision for a while longer. I’m here to encourage you to pick a path and to share your experiences of that path with this congregation. I for one want to hear about it. Despite what you’ve heard, our human journey up the mountain is special and unique and individual to us. I am not happy knowing that we’re all moving in the same direction, I want to know how we’re different as well. And I want to affirm our differences together today in Love.

Paul Thompson: And what is most remarkable is that the closer they come to the summit, where the One sits, the closer they draw to each other, the closer their paths come, and the fewer and fewer are the distinguishing features of the “many” paths, until they know — at last — unity in the One. Only in the One.

Another Paul Thompson speaking directly to us universalists: So do not make a creed or an idol out of “many paths”! Keep your eyes upon the One.

So I’m here to help us all Start Back Over and suggest today that we want a temporary suspension of disbelief! We want to turn off the critical part of us that is on autopilot and complacent and I want to challenge you to take an intuitive leap of faith. Today I ask you to set an Intention and Purpose in your life to go up that mountain with us at TVUUC! Let’s agree that there is a goal bigger than us at the Top of the Mountain and all agree to support each other in our respective paths. Individuals. Going Forward. Together. Unique. Loving. So Mote it Be. Amen.

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