Beautiful Music of Universalism: For All That Is Our Life by Rev. Anthony Makar
For all that is our life we sing our thanks and praise;
for all life is a gift which we are called to use
to build the common good and make our own days glad.
For Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, this hymn gets it precisely right. “And yet,” she says, “there is some whiff of paradise that still reaches us. Walking through the woods in the early morning, we catch glimpses of it. Singing in church, we hear strains of its harmonies. Cooking supper for friends, garlic and basil simmering in olive oil, the fragrance of paradise touches our senses. We lift a child into our arms and dance. In our twirling we feel paradise in our limbs.”
Her powerful word here is “paradise.” Think Garden of Eden.
“In our twirling we feel paradise in our limbs.”
Why is this important? “Rediscovering paradise and recommitting ourselves to the ethics of paradise,” Parker says, “is just what we need now. Western culture needs to stand again at the open doors of paradise and find its way to re-enter this world as a sacred site, as holy ground.” And then she says: “The Universalist part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage can help show the way.”
Previous sermons in this worship series on Universalism have mainly drawn from theologians of generations ago, but in this culminating sermon, our spotlight is on a contemporary of ours. Most recently, she was the President of one of our Unitarian Universalist seminaries, Starr King School for the Ministry (located on the West Coast, to balance out Meadville-Lombard Theological School in the Midwest and then Harvard on the East Coast).
She is a voice for Universalism that is alive right now.
And what she wants for all of us and everyone is to enter Paradise in this life.
This early on, what exactly that means and involves may not be clear, but I promise you, by the end, you’ll see how beautiful and profound it truly is.
Start with what Parker says about historical Universalism showing the way. Her particular route to this delighted me, because her scholarship takes her to a time and a place and a person way earlier than standard histories. She goes back to 17th century England and to the mystic and church founder Jane Leade (1624-1704). This brilliant woman, says Parker, laid the groundwork which, in a later time and a different continent, would be picked up and professed by American Universalists we know better, like Hosea Ballou.
Jane Leade’s central image is “paradise.” It is, as Parker says, “a realm in which humanity’s ‘beautiful diversity’ flourished. Salvation was ‘accomplished through the life-giving power of God’s love which embraced all people’.… In the church she founded, Leade preached that people’s senses could be ecstatically opened to tasting, seeing, and hearing the beauty that is within, among, and all around us.
“For Leade, entering paradise meant being spiritually transformed into a person rooted in love, who was growing and unfolding as a plant in the Garden of God. She told people they could become trees springing up from the rich loam of wisdom and goodness, drawing sustenance from the river of life, yielding fruits of compassion, generosity, and healing. Paradise could be now, she taught, and our own lives could be part of the renewal of paradise.”
That’s how Parker describes it. And note the main themes: How paradise is not lost but already here and now. How spirituality is about entering it in this life, is about being renewed and restored. How spiritual restoration requires, in part, an education or re-education of our senses, so that we can learn to experience deeply the present moment. To experience, not with indifference, but with attention, curiosity, love. To imagine oneself as being a plant in God’s garden, and with your roots you sip from the River of Life, and you grow fruits of compassion and healing. To be affirmed in one’s individuality and uniqueness, as one plant among a diversity of many others.
This is indeed Paradise!
But Parker hastens to add something that might be surprising. It’s tempting to imagine Paradise as a place of perpetually sunny skies and beautiful weather. She vehemently disagrees. All sorts of weather visit the Garden. It is not a static place. There is dynamism to it. There is danger.
Parker’s not making things up. In no less than the Hebrew Bible and its book of Genesis, we read how God walks around the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening. It means that, right there in Paradise, is the embodiment of the Sacred and Holy. But we also read about a certain Serpent, which the Biblical writers saw as evil incarnate, and it slithers around the Garden also and at the very same time as God. The Garden of Eden is no place of sleepy well-being. Momentous choices happen there. “Paradise,” says Parker, “is human life restored to its divinely infused dignity and capacity, and it is a place of struggle with evil and injustice, requiring the development of wisdom, love, nonviolence, and responsible uses of power.”
I would add to her list of requirements for the struggle with evil, this: scholarship. Or, more simply, memory. Awareness of past times, with which to help us understand the present. I am firmly convinced that Evil wants people to forget about anything that transcends the past several months or the past single generation. Evil wants us contracted to a small mind that feels overwhelmed by events that seem unprecedented in all of history. Evil wants us contracted to a small mind that cannot benefit from the mistakes of ancestors, or feel inspired by their achievements.
Which is why I so appreciate Rebecca Parker’s scholarship and its role in the struggle with Evil for the restoration of all humans and all beings to Paradise.
In her book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire (co-written with Rita Nakashima Brock), the struggle with evil and injustice takes the form of a seemingly innocent question: Why is it that Christian sanctuaries from earliest times until around 900CE were filled with images of Paradise? “Images of paradise in Rome and Ravenna [churches],” she says, “captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, and teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and delightful.”
But there’s more to the seemingly innocent question. From earliest times until around 900CE, you never find an image of the crucified body of Jesus anywhere in any Christian church. You never find this image. It shocked Parker and Brock to discover this, and it shocks me, and maybe it shocks you. Because, it’s my experience that in Christian churches today the broken body of the crucified Christ is everywhere. Or, simply, a cross: which is but shorthand for Jesus’ gruesome death.
So that’s the full question that Parker asks, as part of her struggle with Evil.
I ask it this way: what trauma happened to the early Christians, that they would forget Paradise and replace it with an image of violence and death?
What happened, that they (and we) would develop various coping strategies that enable us to defend ourselves against the continuing trauma while keeping us stuck in the mess?
And how was it, that a religious genius like Jane Leade would remember Paradise against the devastating sway of trauma, and, with Hosea Ballou and all the rest, give the world a brilliant Universalist vision that is at one with the original early Christian vision?
I don’t know the answer to the last question. Genius is an ability to see around corners. Genius is an ability to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.
But let’s tackle the other questions now.
The trauma. It was Christianity being taken over by the Roman Empire. Christianity becoming its instrument. “After searching in vain for images of Jesus’s dead body in the ancient churches of the Mediterranean,” says Parker, “we found the corpse of Jesus in northern Europe, in a side chapel of the enormous Gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany. There, among the mottled light and shadows, hangs the Gero Cross, the earliest surviving crucifix, sculpted from oak in Saxony around 965.”
It is an ugly image. You’ve seen how brutal they can be. And in the following decades and centuries, that image spreads everywhere. Paradise is pushed out. You enter a church and no longer are you enveloped by images of Paradise. You are suffocated by death.
Trauma is the cause. Says Parker: “A thousand years after Jesus, the brutal logic of empire twisted the celebration of his life into a perpetual reenactment of his death. The Gero Cross was carved by descendants of the Saxons, baptized against their will by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne during a three-decade campaign of terror. Charlemagne’s armies slaughtered all who resisted, destroyed shrines representing the Saxons’ tree of life, and deported 10,000 Saxons from their land. Pressed by violence into Christian obedience, the Saxons produced art that bore the marks of their baptism in blood.”
There are so many dimension to this trauma of Empire making Christianity its weapon. Until the time of the Crusades, war had always been considered evil. And then came the First Crusade in 1095, and the Pope at the time, Pope Urban II, announces that, from here on out, war is no longer a sin but a way to be forgiven of one’s sins!
In this way the religion of Jesus was violated. To the core.
When a person or a community or a religious tradition is traumatized and violated, invariably what happens next is the adoption of survival strategies and a simultaneous forgetting of what came before.
One style of survival is authoritarianism. The traumatized person, community, or religious tradition stands with the one that has oppressed them.
So what we saw in Christianity, after Empire co-opted it, was the proliferation of art and architecture that makes Jesus’ violent death the center. We saw theologies that blessed war and conquest and colonization and racism and exploitation of the earth. We saw the meaning of the Eucharist (or communion) change from celebrating the gifts of the good earth and good loving community to re-enacting Jesus’ violent death. For one, salvation is about entering into Paradise in this life. For the other, salvation is about violence that secures your immortality in another world. As for this world?
Just keep your head down and keep grinding away.
Now don’t get me wrong here. There’s no such thing as Christianity. I’ll say that again: There’s no such thing as Christianity. There are only Christianities. There’s only plural forms of that faith. And some of you who were raised Christian, and probably all of you who identify as Christian today, did not and do not experience your faith as authoritarian.
Which leads to another survival style: that of insistent and unrelenting rebellion against authoritarian forms of Christianity and against all forms of oppression and injustice. Social Gospel Christianity of the early 20th century is a great example of this liberal form of the Christian faith.
This was Parker’s own version of Christianity in her youth. She says, “When I was a child, the Social Gospel meant that we as faithful Christians campaigned for integrated, nonrestricted neighborhoods to counteract racism in our community, marched for civil rights, and worked to end the war in Vietnam and advance economic self-determination for people around the world.”
But she goes on to say, “Immersed in this tradition of Christianity, I learned firsthand its strengths—and limitations. The hoped-for future perpetually condemns the present. The failure of the world to conform to God’s vision of justice and abundance is laid at humanity’s feet: We have not yet worked smart enough, been well-enough organized, convinced enough people, or corrected the flaws in our approach. Social Gospel Christianity has had a home in the heart of mainline Protestantism. It is a great vision, but perhaps it has flagged in zeal because weary spirits have labored for an ideal world but have neglected to attend to their own soul’s thirst. In the absence of a divine wellspring in the present, when the going gets tough, there is nothing to fall back on.”
That’s what Parker says.
Perfectionism is as much a survival strategy as authoritarianism, and while the authoritarian sells their soul to the oppressive establishment, the perfectionist becomes subject to what Buddhists call the “second arrow.” As in, not only are we caught up in the pain that has traumatized us to begin with, but we are condemning ourselves for never being able to make it all better.
It just breaks my heart.
Whatever the survival strategy, it’s just about fragile people trying to cope with trauma and trying to do the best they can as best as they understand it in the moment.
For a moment, just breath compassion into our hurting world right now.
Deep breath in with me, deep exhale out.
Survival strategies don’t heal the trauma and they don’t help things get to a better place.
Let’s not just survive any more. Let’s remember what trauma has jarred out of consciousness. Let’s be restored to what is our natural birthright.
Let all of us and everyone enter Paradise in this life.
But how? Parker says, “Entering paradise in this life is not an individual achievement but is the gift of communities that train perception and teach ethical grace.”
I am so grateful for the gift of this community when it teaches me, in services like this, to follow Jane Leade in opening myself to tasting, seeing, and hearing the beauty that is within, among, and all around us.
I am so grateful for the gift of this community when it allows me, in services like this, to piece together the connection between trauma and survival strategies and forgetting—and for us all to breathe a collective breath of compassion into a world that is very good but hurting and broken.
And I am grateful for Universalism, and for Rebecca Parker, and for the always already existence of Paradise.
I’ll close with this story (as told by the Rev. Mark Ward):
In it, Parker is sharing about a time in her life when terrible things were happening to her, one after another, and in her grief and in her despair she was suicidal.
One evening she left her house for a walk with an eye to a nearby lake. Her face wet with tears, she set her course for the water’s edge, determined to find consolation in the lake’s cold darkness.
Entering a park leading to the lake, she walked onto the wet grass and discovered between her and the lake what seemed like a barricade that she would have to cross. She didn’t remember the barricade being there, but when she got closer she saw it was a line of people hunched over what seemed strange spindly-looking equipment.
It was the Seattle Astronomy Club: a whole club of amateur scientists up and alert in the middle of the night, because the sky was clear and the planets were aligned. On her way to the lake, she was stopped by an enthusiast who assumed that she had come to look at the stars.
“Here,” he said. “Let me show you.”
And he began to describe the star cluster that his telescope was focused on. Brushing tears away, she peered in the lens and focused her eyes. And there it was: a red-orange spiral galaxy.
That ended her walk to the lake. As she put it, “In a world where people get up in the middle of the night to look at the stars, I could not end my life.”
“What saved me in that moment is difficult to fully name,” Parker says. But in the end, she decided, “I was saved by the human capacity to love the world . . . by being met, right in the center of the pathway of my despair by one – actually one hundred – who wouldn’t let me go that way . . . by the stars themselves, by the cool green grass under my feet, by the earth, the cosmos, its presence, which won me over, persuaded me to stay.”
She was saved by Paradise.
We can be, too.