The 'All' in All Souls and All Saints

A sermon given on 4 November 2007 at The Memorial Church, Cambridge

During the week we have experienced (or perhaps not) that complex melange of festivals which confuses many people. Firstly there was 'All Saints’ or 'All Hallows’ in which all the known and unknown Christian saints are remembered. The same festival has, of course, its eve and is known as 'All Hallows Eve' or more commonly as 'Hallowe’en.’ It is a festival intimately linked with the Celtic end of summer festival 'Samhain’. Secondly, there followed 'All Souls’ in which those baptized Christians who are believed to be in purgatory because they have died with the guilt of lesser sins on their souls are commemorated. Roman Catholic doctrine still holds that the prayers of the faithful on earth will help cleanse these souls in order to fit them for the vision of God in heaven.

This concern for the soul (however conceived and in whatever number) is not, of course, confined to the Christian Church. In Buddhism, for instance, there is an important 'All Souls’ Festival called Ullambana. Worshipers make "boats of the law" (fa-ch'uan) out of paper, some very large, which are then burned in the evening. The purpose of the celebration is twofold: to remember the dead and to free and let the 'pretas’ ascend to heaven. The pretas are the spirits of those who died as a result of an accident or a drowning and as a consequence were never buried; their presence among us is thought to be dangerous.

Today, I want to concentrate on the adjective 'all’ in the festival names and so I don’t, therefore, propose to explore the many and complex theories of the soul that exists. However a brief, tentative definition of in what consists the soul is useful. In outline, we may define the soul as the immaterial essence or animating spiritual principle embodied in either human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or in the universe conceived of as a whole. Within some cultures and philosophies everything, including animals and apparently inanimate things, also has a soul of some description.

That these 'All Soul's' festivals are still ‘celebrated’ (or perhaps better merely acknowledged) in both secular and religious ways across both our own country and the world bears witness to the perennial concern with the soul and its fate. Given this it is, I think, incumbent upon us as a particular kind of liberal Christian church to recall what has been our own tradition’s position regarding the soul and its fate so we may speak as clearly and meaningfully as we can to those who seek us out for solace and inspiration. For us a key word is one connected with our family of churches - namely 'Universalism.’ But, having just spoken of clarity before we continue we need, firstly, to clear some considerably muddy water that has gathered around this word and also around that of 'Unitarian’ with which it is often connected.

I am sure that many of you, in deciding whether or not to come to this church, will have 'Google-searched' the name 'Unitarian’ and come across many sites relating to a religious view-point called 'Unitarian-Universalism’ (written with a hyphen) - you may even have assumed that this church is a Unitarian-Universalist one. Well, to begin with, we need to note that the names 'Unitarian’ and 'Universalist’ are for us derived from adjectives which modify the noun Christianity. So a Unitarian is a Christian who, essentially, affirms the unity of God and who consequently strongly affirms the humanity of Jesus. A Universalist is a Christian who is of the opinion that, however conceived, every soul, and that does mean every soul, will somehow obtain salvation - even if that soul is not a Christian one. Universalist Christians may, or may not, be Unitarians. As it happens I am a Christian who is both a Unitarian and a Universalist. But Unitarian-Universalism (remember written with a hyphen) explicitly defines itself as a new, post-Christian religion. The website of the American Unitarian-Universalist Association (the UUA) states that: "Unitarian-Universalism no longer solely holds traditional Universalist or Unitarian beliefs, but does draw directly on its heritage for much of its inspiration and grounding." So, when someone tells you they are a Unitarian it is worth finding out - simply for clarity’s sake – whether they mean Unitarian Christian or Unitarian-Universalist.

This church is not, and do please remember this and make it clear to those whom you meet, this church is not a Unitarian-Universalist one. It is a Unitarian and Free Christian one. However, because we share with it important elements of the same liberal religious history we continue to have with it many pleasant, fruitful and constructive relationships. As the cover of our order of service notes we "strive for a broader understanding among religious groups and endeavour, in a spirit of enquiry, to appreciate truth, beauty and goodness in whatever form of religion or philosophy these may be found."

Although in our immediate context this clears up one aspect of the meaning of the word universalist it leaves another unaddressed. Unitarianism - in challenging the validity of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity - is what is known as a Christian heresy - though we don’t see it as a heresy of course! Because of this the word Unitarian is utterly redundant as an adjective attached to any other religious tradition with perhaps the single exception of Hinduism where the Unitarian tradition is represented by the Brahmo Samaj (the Society of God). But Judaism and Islam, for example, are already 'unitarian’ (lower case u) in outlook. But universalism is a "global" heresy not limited in any way to particular historical, cultural, and religious context. It is a sad fact but all the world’s religions have, in some form or other and at various times, tried to claim that a soul’s ultimate salvation is absolutely dependent upon being a member of the right religion, namely their own and has claimed there will be damnation, or at least utter perdition or oblivion, for all those souls who practise any other faith. The theological conviction that unites all universalists in all the various world religious traditions is an absolute rejection of these notions. All universalists have proposed that it is grotesque in the extreme to imagine anything worthy of the noble name(s of God or the Absolute that would either allow this or behave in such a fashion. So universalist Christians, Hindus, Moslems, Zoroastrians and Manicheans, Jains, Jews, Buddhists, (the list is endless...) - all say, in their own languages and historical and religious contexts, that God, the Absolute simply does not give birth to the world and suffuse it with 'Its Essence’ in order to discard any of those 'pieces', or 'reflections', or 'sparks' forever. The 'reconciliation of each with all' may take a very, very long time - but the ultimate outcome is, to a universalist, not in any real doubt: in the end universalists believe that all souls find salvation, healing and wholeness.

The connecting link that binds these varied universalists together is a train of theological thought, intuition, and argument which holds that when you consider God’s unity then it becomes impossible to imagine anything that does not come from God - God being seen as the Absolute reality. For this reason it becomes impossible to imagine anything that does not return to God in the end because, in truth, it has never left this Unity. Here is found the intimate connection with the Unitarian position.

But the universalist affirmation of this ultimate unity in God does not, at the same time, result in the abandonment of different religious traditions in favour of some lowest common denominator religion. What it does mean, is that each individual religion calls forth an understanding of the universal that is deeply rooted in the different times and places and in the different ways of worship and even belief that humans hold. In short, universalists, believe they are called to be true to the universal truth that they have been bequeathed in their particular traditions. Without those particular and distinct traditions there would be no way of intuiting this underlying unity. Perhaps one of the most beautiful expressions of this that I know is to be found in the Qur’an. In Sura 5 v.48 we read: ". . . for each We have appointed a law and a path, and if God had wished, He could have made you one people . . . so vie with one another in good works. Unto God ye will all be brought back and He will then inform you about those things wherein ye differed" (trans. Martin Lings).

At this time of the year, and particularly in the strange times we are living through when increasingly dangerously sectarian spirits are abroad in the world, it is time once again to meditate hard upon what it is we believe about the soul and which truly underpins our liberal Christian community and which inspires us to reach out and relate constructively and positively with people who believe differently from us. To help with this process I leave you with some words by that great eighteenth-century English Universalist who founded the Universalist Church in the USA, John Murray. I fervently believe that they still speak to us today and commend them to you as one beautiful expression of our faith as a particular people intent upon following the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about him. He speaks, of course about America but he speaks with a universal spirit:

Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new country. Give the people , blanketed with a decaying and crumbling Calvinism, something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

Amen.
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