A Universalist Christian meditation for All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls

Graves lit by candles in Sweden
Readings: John 17: 20-26

And selections from the writings of Dr George de Benneville (1703 – 1793)

Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.

Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.

Our Sovereign Good is the Infinite and Everlasting Love, the only indwelling, all-embracing, undergirding and overshadowing spiritual reality, which is at once the source, the instrument and the object of its power.

He will restore all of His creatures, without exception, to the praise of His glory and their eternal salvation.

The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in colour, language and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and the female of all species. We do not find those differences obstacles to love.

Unity testifies to the many parts of the whole. Each body has features which may be recognized separately, but these have no real usefulness, beauty, or value apart from the body.

The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things. 

My happiness will be incomplete while one creature remains miserable.


Later this week we celebrate All Hallows EveAll Saints and All Souls. These are days when, in a variety of ways, our culture remembers the departed - both the faithful departed and also, particularly with reference to the popular festival of All Hallows Eve (Halloween), the unfaithful and even vengeful departed. To think about such a series of festivals, whichever way you spin it, we are required to consider the language of life after death for, even if these festivals are understood in solely imaginary and literary rather than in literal scientific terms, their power over us is based upon our culture’s long experience that somehow the departed do continue to have a certain kind of reality beyond the grave and are still capable of affecting our present lives.

This gives me the opportunity to challenge the all too common liberal view that religion is primarily (even solely) something concerned with ideas (whether believed to be false or true) that simply go on in a believer’s head. All too often I hear claims being made within our circles that one of liberal religion’s chief aims should be to persuade people to rid their minds of certain beliefs and ideas that the liberal has come to think are false and replace them, not surprisingly, with certain ideas and beliefs that the liberal thinks are true. The feeling in play here is that only when one has succeeded in removing supposedly false ideas and beliefs from one’s own or another’s head will that same person be restored at least to the possibility of living what the liberal believes is a genuinely good, rational and true life. The idea of life after death (and the language associated with it) is often believed to be one such “false” idea that should be replaced. My contention here is that belief in life after death should not be worried over as something either true nor false (this would be to let our words go on holiday - see this post) rather what is more important to do, and what we as a liberal church should be concerned about, is to see what is being done by a community or individual with the language of life after death.

That said, once upon a time attempting to ascertain what was a false and what was a true idea and belief was for our tradition a credible and reasonable way of proceeding. After all as a church we are very much a child of the Reformation and the Enlightenment and, taking our lead from the methods and experiences of the developing natural sciences which seemed so successfully able to discover empirically testable truths about the universe, we came to think that in the realm of religion the discovery of objective truths through the use of reason alone was also achievable.

But, to borrow a memorable line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “like a worm 'i th' bud” our rational search for real, objectively true facts of religion was, at the same time slowly eating away from within at objective truth’s beautiful, "damask cheek". By the beginning of the twentieth century the rational philosophical project had begun to reveal to some key philosophers and theologians in our culture that, at least in the matter of religion, there was probably no such thing as objective truth. In Nietzsche's still powerful words found in his notebooks of the 1880's our liberal religious culture as a whole came came to feel that in the sphere of religion “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

Not surprisingly this had a profound effect upon most religious liberals because, if you accepted Nietzsche's insight (and by and large our Western European and North American liberal religious culture did accepted it), it meant that even one’s own most strongly held religious and philosophical beliefs, including the one that there are no facts only interpretations are also only interpretations. With this realization the worm in the bud finally broke through objective truth’s beautiful, damask cheek and created for us what felt like a very unpleasant and unsightly wound - one which liberal religion is still trying (and, in my opinion, by and large failing) to come to terms with.

Basically speaking religious liberals have dealt with this wound in one of two ways - one accepting Nietzsche’s insight the other rejecting it. The first accepted it wholeheartedly but did so in a very ill-disciplined and highly uncritical way. The underlying optimism of this approach (and it was optimism and not anything approaching an educated hope) was that as widely different beliefs and ideas were mixed together in the liberal church there would emerge quite naturally a universalistic, liberal, non-specific, religious consensus. This has not occurred. In actuality far from it as the result has simply been the creation of a confused hyper-eclectic pluralism in which there really is only confusion. To be sure at times it has been an interesting, even very interesting confusion, but confusion it has remained.

The other approach has been to attempt to maintain or revive a kind of old-style sectarian liberalism in which the members of the church are encouraged to believe in a strong way that, actually, they still really do know what is true and false in religious matters. These churches tend to be committed either to a kind of naturalistic, even scientistic, humanist spirituality or to a kind of nineteenth-century rational liberal Christianity. Essentially this approach denies Nietzsche’s insight and it is one that has, of course, also been favoured by more conservative and even fundamentalist religious traditions.

But there is a third - post-modern - approach available to us as liberals which, even as it wholly accepts Nietzsche's insight that there are no facts only interpretations, doesn't then succumb either to a hyper-eclectic relativism or to the temptation to reassert old, simplistic Reformation or Enlightenment rational religious orthodoxies.

It can be summed up as being an approach which understands its own religious tradition and that of others not in terms of true or false beliefs and ideas supposedly going on in the heads of its members but rather in terms of what its members have actually done and still DO with these beliefs and ideas. Technically speaking this is an approach which tries to leave behind metaphysics and tries only to do phenomenology. As I often say to you, following Wittgenstein's lead, I am convinced that we must not look for the meaning of human ideas, faiths and beliefs in isolation but only in the context of lived forms of life (Kishik, David: Wittgenstein's Form of Life, Continuum, 2012 p. 55). This point allows me to return to All Saints, All Souls, to those three little words, “life after death” and to the form of life historically encouraged by our own church tradition.

Naturally, like all of, you I have my own personal views about the matter and they are ones about which I’m happy to talk to anyone should they ask. But - and it is a huge but - as a minister of a church standing in the liberal Christian tradition I am responsible to more than my own views and beliefs. One of our own theologians, John F. Hayward, in his book “Existentialism and Religious Liberalism” was “bold [enough] to counsel the leaders of the liberal church - the ministers and all laymen [and women] in responsible positions” that:

“Their own personal tastes and decisions relating to theological matters are unimportant compared to their duty as guardians of an ancient institution. They must make available to future generations that basic Jewish and Christian substance from which the power of the church has arisen. They are also under obligation to broaden the conception of the heritage by relating the church’s life to non-biblical sources of spiritual insight. They are free to teach and celebrate more than the Bible; they are not free to teach and celebrate less.” (p. 114).

I take this advice with the utmost seriousness (not least of all because it was first offered to me by the Revd Frank Walker, the minister emeritus of the Cambridge Church where I am minister). Readers of this blog will know I try to fulfill my obligation to broaden the conception of the liberal Christian tradition in various ways but, in this address, it is found in my appeal to an important insight offered us by dear old Wittgenstein.

But what of my obligation to that basic Jewish and Christian substance from which the power of the church has arisen?

Well, it is important to see that the extraordinary power of the liberal Christian tradition didn’t come out of nowhere but is continually rooted in the Biblically derived language of a divine, interdependent relational unity in which we felt there is to be found a universal restoration and salvation - our readings were but a small illustration of this position. So when here we remember All Saints and All Souls we really do mean ALL the souls and saints of humankind regardless of their own faith and beliefs. This is precisely what enabled us as a Christian community to take seriously, and be deeply respectful of, the differences that exist between people of different faiths and to be able to say, as de Benneville said, “We do not find these differences obstacles to love.” It is precisely this feeling that, over the four and a half centuries of our existence, has encouraged and inspired us to engage again and again in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue and countless campaigns for social justice and civil and religious liberty.

But the liberal power of this language of universal restoration and salvation can only continue to DO its vital work in our world - right here and right now - insofar as there is also available to us a language of hope which speaks of some kind of life after death. Why? Well, because again and again we see how as individuals and communities we fail to achieve the full and abundant life that we saw expressed in the person of Jesus - for us the paradigmatic example of the good life. Does this mean that whenever we have experienced a major failing in our own lives and efforts we are simply to be written off as eternally lost and worthless? Also, are the lives of those who have died and which seem to us to be profoundly incomplete and unfulfilled also simply to be understood as eternally lost and worthless?

As a liberal church tradition we have consistently replied to this with a resounding “No!” We have always been prepared to use a Biblically derived language of life after death to speak of a divine, interdependent unity to which, as St John said, all will, in time, come home and become, with Christ, completely one with one another and with God. In such a God nothing is lost, no one is forgotten and left unforgiven and unloved and it is this that (as individuals and as a community) gives us the hope required to continue to live our liberal form of life even through the darkest of days.

Now, some may wish to complain here that the foregoing lines speak only of (metaphysical) ideas going on in my head - but I demur. When de Benneville says that “Unity testifies to the many parts of the whole. Each body has features which may be recognized separately, but these have no real usefulness, beauty, or value apart from the body” I want to understand him as suggesting that whenever you live with a strong sense of belonging to some kind of divine, interdependent unity you cannot then meaningfully separate our language out from our bodies - language has no real usefulness, beauty, or value apart from the body. Consequently, our language of life after death is best understood, not as set of abstract metaphysical ideas going on in our heads, but something as real and tangible as our very hands - an absolutely necessary part of an embodied way of being liberal and hopeful in this world NOW.

It seems to me that, as a liberal church, this language is as necessary to us as are our very hands. Without it we would simply not be able to preach (and try to live out) the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.