Thursday, March 24, 2011

More on Bell & Universalism

I'm still in the beginning of reading Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  Meanwhile, the controversy over Rob Bell's book and whether or not he's a Universalist continues.  Now, Rob Bell has come out and said he's not a Universalist.  There are those who will say he is anyway, of course.  But it's not so clear.  The universalism he denies is one where, "a giant cosmic arm that swoops everybody in at some point whether you want to be there or not."  It's easier to not be something that you paint as ridiculous, of course.  I've been accused of doing that with theism, so I know.  I also know this because I teach the straw man logical fallacy in English composition classes to first-year college students. 

Rob Bell set himself up a bit as a straw man by saying that he's not a theologian and also "I'm not very smart but I do know that there is good news."  But that's too easy and not very fair to just use that.  I've said all that myself at times--except the not very smart bit (not that I think I'm a genius or anything). 

So is he a Universalist?

He thinks God's grace is not limited to just Christians.  He thinks that Hell is what we make on earth, but Heaven is a real place we go to when we die.  He doesn't clarify what happens to someone if there is no eternal Hell, but yet someone doesn't choose to go to Heaven.  He'll leave that to God to sort out.  And it's hard to concieve of the person standing at the pearly gates and being invited in and saying, "Nah, I'll go to the eternal coffee shop instead.  I hear it has good music."  Although many Universalists might--they do like their coffee.

You could argue Universalism as universal salvation, and Bell seems to believe that this takes away our free will (although I would argue no more than birth or death, which his God seems content to take away choice of), or you could argue Universalism as the lack of Hell, which Bell seems to agree with. 

If there's a life after death but no Hell, there has to be a third option, or Heaven is just the default afterlife.  Bell doesn't argue for pergatory, or my coffee shop idea, but his theology seems to require it, or for him to admit what many believe--that he really is a Universalist.  And if Universalism is not the answer, has love truly won? 

I'll leave that to Rob Bell to sort out.  Over here with our heritage and living faith of Universalism, we know what it means that Love Wins.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bell & Ballou -- On Universalism

Today Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is released.  Rob Bell is the minister of a mega-church in the Grand Rapids area, the Mars Hill Bible Church.  They meet in what was formerly a department store that anchored a mall, which should give you a sense of their size.  So this new book release has been much talked-about, and not only because Rob Bell has been accused of revealing in this book that he is a -- gasp -- Universalist!

As Unitarian Universalists and as religious liberals, we should welcome Rob Bell's book.  It's been a while since the theology of Universalism has been such in the public eye.  And I want to personally say, as a Michigan colleague, that if Rob Bell would like to sit down and talk with Unitarian Universalist ministers and exchange ideas, we'd be happy to do that with him. 

Universalism isn't a new idea, but it's still heretical in conservative Christianity, of course.  Universalists were kicked out of the National Council of Churches, deemed not Christian enough because of the heresy of Universalism.  So it's no surprise to see attacks on Bell for proclaiming it now. 

From what people are saying about the book, it seems that Rob Bell's thinking has followed that Hosea Ballou's when he wrote A Treatise on Atonement; In Which the Finite Nature of Sin Is Argued, Its Cause and Consequences as Such; the Necessity and Nature of Atonement; and its Glorious ConsequencesActually, the titles are even similar in a way (at least in wordiness), although over a century apart. 

Ballou essentially argues that a loving God couldn't condemn any person to eternal Hell:
First, I reason from the nature of divine goodness, in which all pretend to believe, and none dare in a direct sense to deny, that God could not, consistently with himself, create a being that would experience more misery than happiness.
The marketing for Bell's book says:
Does it really make sense that God is a loving, kind, compassionate God who wants to know people in a personal way, but if they reject this relationship with Jesus, they will be sent to hell where God will eternally punish them forever?
Welcome to the heretical faith, Rob Bell.  We're glad to have you here.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Unions: Are We Agreed?

Joel Monka recently published a blog article on the union debate titled, "Umm, Hey, can we discuss this..." in which he cites several blog articles (mine among them) and an e-mail from the UUA Congregational Witness and Advocacy director asking people to join our UUA president in signing on to a group letter in support of the unions.  Joel concludes his post by stating in an update:
"But my primary point, the raison d'etre for this post, is that there is plenty of room for disagreement and need for debate on this issue- I don't want it declared a basic tenent of our religion until such debate has taken place. I don't want Boston taking a position on my behalf without such a debate. I don't want clergy out there declaring that support for the unions in Wisconsin is an extension of our faith, an inseperable part of our principles, until we have had that debate."
I think this is a good point, and worth examining.  My initial response was to agree. 

I myself had more trepidation posting on this subject than others because my individual church has taken no stand on the issue, and I had not researched our denomination's history on the subject.  I see my blog as a place to voice my particular argument (just as Monka also posts his argument), not as a voice for our denomination as a whole.  While I don't often disagree with our denomination's positions (one reason I am so happy to be a UU), if and when I do I feel free to write about it.  I think a clergy person making an argument for why something is an extension of our faith is part of the process.  Assume every blog post here begins with "IMO," in other words.  Similarly, Dan Harper's post, which Monka also cites, was making an argument for labor rights in what Harper was assuming was opposition to the larger UU culture.  And I would say to do this sort of thing, to draw attention to where our association needs to catch up and pay attention to, is very much in keeping with the role of the clergy. 
But that aside, surely a call from our UUA Congregational Witness and Advocacy office with our UUA President leading the charge indicates a stance our denomination has taken.  Monka writes, "I don't want Boston taking a position on my behalf without such a debate."  "Boston," of course, is understood here as UU-shorthand for "the Unitarian Universalist Association."  Have President Peter Morales and the UUA office jumped the gun and taken this stance without the support or direction of the congregations?  And, if so, is that okay?

For the first part, I would say that our president can easily take a stand on any issue that the General Assembly has taken a strong and established stand on.  That seems pretty clear.  What is our history on labor rights?  Well, it's not too clear.  "Economic Justice" as a broad category is something we've addressed often.  We've often made broad statements like this one from 1985: "That this Assembly endorses the principle that every person has an inherent and moral right to work at a meaningful wage, food, clothing and shelter."  Finding more specific statements is a little harder.  The 1997 General Resolution "Working for a Just Economic Community" urged us to work for "Reform of labor legislation and employment standards to provide greater protection for workers, including the right to organize and bargain collectively, protection from unsafe working conditions, and protection from unjust dismissal."  Most other statements we've made about collective bargaining were more specific to certain boycotts.  In the 2003 Statement of Conscience "Economic Globalization," we also said, "Countries are responsible for requiring foreign and domestic companies to pay fair taxes, ensure their workers a locally defined living wage, provide a healthy and safe work environment, and respect the right of their workers to bargain collectively in independent labor unions and to engage in strikes and other job actions when necessary. The standards of the International Labour Organization of the United Nations should be incorporated in all trade agreements."  Of course, we were talking about other countries.

I think the strongest argument for a statement on collective bargaining and unions for our denomination would rest on the fact that we've long used the UN's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" as support for our arguments for what stands we do and do not take.  We've had specific declarations on supporting the United Nations, establishing the UU-UNO office, urging congregations to celebrate a UN Sunday, and so forth.  And the UN's "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" states in 23.4, "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

I think it's arguable that the debate in Unitarian Universalism over collective bargaining has been had, and that unless we reverse some statements, the UUA President does have so free rein to make statements on this issue on behalf of our denomination.  It seems a reasonable interpretation, not just extension, of statements we have made to call for the support of workers to bargain collectively in unions.  

But if it were not the case that we have some established precedent here, then what of the UUA president's actions?  For better or worse, I think we have given our UUA president some pretty free rein to take social justice stances on behalf of the denomination.  It's an open question, I suppose, whether this is good or bad and whether or not we should tie his hands more.  After thought and examination, however, I have to conclude that I think UUA President Peter Morales is acting appropriately and in conjunction with established precedent. 

And, luckily, I also happen to agree with him.