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