Quaker Universalist Fellowship

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Toward A New Universalism

By Rhoda R. Gilman

In my seven or eight years out here in the midwestern fringes of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, I've sensed an enormous amount of self-examination and debate over definition. There have been inspiring expressions of wisdom and insight, especially from some older Friends in whom I've felt a wonderful clarity and ripening of the universal spirit. Yet my over-all impression has been of a group that spends its fading energy defining and defending the ground of universalism. Looking elsewhere during the same years, I've seen a world shaken by cultural and spiritual crisis as never before. I've seen a spontaneous wave of searching into myth, mysticism, "mindfulness," and along a variety of other paths toward the common goal of personal awakening. There's a lot going on out there!

Maybe we need to change our name. Maybe "universalist" has been too long identified with reaction against rather than for something. As Howard Baumgartel's letter, published last fall, noted: "Historically, Universalism was a reaction to Calvinism and the concept of the chosen or elect." Since then it has become a reaction to any dogmatic, theological, or institutional definition of "truth." In that sense it has at last caught up with the founders of Quakerism and their idea of the Inner Light. For as Samuel Caldwell pointed out in his controversial 1988 address, Quakerism in its original form is universalism. The concept of the Inner Light is in essence personal mysticism--and that, quite simply, is as universal as the human spirit.

Where Caldwell and others parted company is over the fact that Quakerism was articulated in Biblical language and within a Christian framework. How essential is that context? Most members of the QUF would probably say "Not at all." Others would disagree--some with great vehemence. For one worldwide reaction to the crisis of our times has been a flight back to the faiths of our fathers (gender intended) with all their rigid, exclusive certainties and cultural boundaries. And many Quakers have been swept along with the tide.

No one needs to spell out the dangers of this reaction in a 21st-century global village. But what is our alternative?--Surely not a sterile scientific agnosticism, nor even a rational, benevolent humanism. Neither will answer the world's desperate need for a spiritual and ethical turnaround. Yet, fairly or not, the label "universalism" has become identified with what one eminent writer calls a "watered-down global religion" (Ian Barbour, Religion in a Age of Science, p.85, 1990). Its image is negative, not positive.

Friends have a precious gift to offer the world today, along with Buddhists, some forms of Hinduism, and a few other Christians. These traditions affirm the need and possibility for direct human experience of the ineffable, the sacred, the divine, by the channel of individual consciousness. All religions have a thread of such mysticism running through them, but in many it has become so obscured by belief systems, priestly hierarchies, or institutions that it is nearly inaccessible. Unlike the other mystics, however, Friends have had no tradition of monasticism or solitary contemplation. Their mysticism has been closer to the life of this world, and their openings have often been a shared experience. For 350 years they have been laboring with this situation, and the lights and shadows of their history hold lessons for others.

Whether George Fox referred to the Living Christ, the Inner Light, or the Buddha Nature within all humans is irrelevant. When he announced that the world had been made anew as before the Fall, that men and women had been restored to "innocency," and that they could again commune directly with God, he stepped outside the bounds of historical Christianity. As Kingdon Swayne observes, had Fox lived among Buddhists, he might have spoken of "maya" rather than "notions," or "the Dharma" rather than "the Lord God," and he might indeed have been able to express more freely the nature of his insights. But Fox spoke to his own world. Today we must speak to ours. And ours is a world of many cultures and languages, tied together in a single interdependent economy with near-instant communication. It is also a world that faces imminent disaster if humans do not learn humility and accept their shared role as servants of life within a planetary biosphere.

Some will object that a living, vital universalism is beyond our grasp. They will rightly claim that without deep understanding of the symbolism and ritual of a religion along with intimate partaking in the culture that gave it birth, the true substance, the emotional knowing of it will be lost. I have felt this myself. Images of a blissful Nirvana fail to move me, and though the Buddha spoke of suffering, it is a twisted body nailed to a cross that opens me to the full depth of pain and suffering that is entailed when consciousness takes root in time and flesh.

These are the languages of the heart, and we need not give them up. But beyond them still lies the power of wordless realization--of experience outside of thought and time. It is individual, and it is universal. Also universal is our relationship to this lovely and awesome living globe, with its unimaginable complexity of processes and participants. Our very cells are not our own. They belong to it--as we do too. In our growing sense of this identity and dependence may lie the seeds of a new universal spirit. Let us turn to cultivating that and leave the self-definition behind.

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