Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.
After giving this address in church this morning a number of us had a long conversation over coffee and tea about how disturbing it was that the universalist theme of my address, long a favourite theme of our own religious tradition could, today, suddenly sound so radical and counter-cultural. The nationalist and racist rhetoric that has become noticeably more apparent in the UK since the EU referendum has taken many of us by surprise and it has revealed, I hope, that our Unitarian, Universalist and liberal Christian message of hope remains a highly relevant and vitally important one that we must continue to preach loudly and proudly when, and wherever we can. It is a salutary reminder that the liberal openness and freedoms we have taken for granted within our own community for decades need constantly to be publicly affirmed, maintained and promoted by us in our own time.
1 John 3:18 (New Revised Standard Version)
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
1 John 3:18 (Good News Translation)
My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.
George de Benneville (1703-1793), born in London in 1703 to aristocratic Huguenot French parents in the court of Queen Anne, was a Christian Universalist clergyman. Whilst serving as a sailor as a teenager he traveled around the world and this experience caused him to begin to question his own religion and compare it to other world religions. During these voyages de Benneville had a mystical experience and, later, a near-death experience which he described in his autobiographical “The Life and Trance of Dr. George De Benneville.”
This begin an eighteen year period (c.1723-41) as an itinerant Universalist preacher firstly in France, Germany and Holland where he was sentenced to death more than once. Whilst in Europe he also began to study and practice medicine. Following this period, in 1741 he emmigrated to Pennsylvania where he worked as a physician and apothecary whilst continuing in his free time to preach a Universalist gospel. There he both socialized and traded herbal preparations with Native American groups in the area and his work remains, to this day, an important source of knowledge about their medicine. George de Benneville died at home in Pennsylvania in 1793 where his long life had led him to proclaim that all people everywhere are loved by God, and cultures, races, and sexes have no bearing on the worth of a human being.
What you’ll now hear is his account of the event that first propelled him towards a Universalist position taken from a book called “Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr. George de Benneville” (trans. Rev. Elhanan Winchester, Germantown, PA: Converse Cleaves, Publisher, 1890). Following this are a few passages written during his later life in Pennsylvania by which time he had become a convinced Universalist.
From “Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr. George de Benneville” (trans. Rev. Elhanan Winchester, Germantown, PA, Converse Cleaves, 1890, pp. 8-9):
When arrived at the age of twelve years I was very wild, believing myself to belong to a different class from mankind in general; by this fond imagination I was self-exalted, and thought myself above other men; but God soon convinced me to the contrary. As it was designed that I should learn navigation, I was sent to sea in a vessel of war attached to a small fleet bound to the coast of Barbary with presents, and to renew the peace with Algiers, Tunis, and Tripolis. Being arrived at Algiers, as I walked upon deck, I saw some Moors who brought refreshments to sell; one of them fell and injured one of his legs; two of his companions having laid him on deck, kissed the wound and shed tears upon it; then turning towards the rising of the sun, they cried in such a manner that I was moved with much anger, and ordered my servant to bring them before me. Upon demanding the reason of their outcry, they, perceiving that I was angry, implored my pardon, and told me the cause was owing to one of their brothers having hurt his leg by a fall, and that they kissed the wound in order to sympathize with him, and likewise shed tears upon it, and as tears were saltish, they were a good remedy for the hurt; and the reason for their turning towards the rising sun was to invoke him who created the sun to have compassion upon their poor brother and be pleased to heal him. Upon that I was so convinced and moved within that I thought my heart would break, and that my life was about to leave me; my eyes were filled with tears, and I felt such an internal condemnation that I was forced to cry out and say, “Are these men Heathens? No; I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen!” Behold the first conviction that the grace of our Sovereign Good employed: he was pleased to convince a white person by blacks, one who carried the name of a Christian, by a Pagan, and who was obliged to confess himself a Heathen.
Selections from the writings of Dr George de Benneville (1703–1793) and found in Albert D. Bell's biography, "The Life and Times of Dr George de Benneville":
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.
Last week, in our Harvest Festival meditations and conversation, I wanted to explore with you how, in the face of the disturbing rise of nationalism in Britain, Europe and the USA we might learn to celebrate a cosmopolitan harvest festival — where the word cosmopolitan is understood in the way suggested by the British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, as being “universality plus difference.”
As I wrote and then gave last week’s address I increasingly realised it would be worth returning to a key figure in our own history about whom you heard in our readings, Dr George de Benneville. Speaking personally, in my own religious life no other figure within our tradition has been more influential upon my own thinking and basic religious stance than de Benneville.
He was a man who came to internalise and live in a way that fully expressed the importance of “universality plus difference” and, as you heard earlier, he began to move towards this recognition when as a teenager he had a life changing encounter with some Moors [i.e. Muslims]. Like so many people then and, alas, today, the very young de Benneville was simply unable to see the value in ways of being, or as Wittgenstein might put it, “forms of life”, that were in many important ways different from his own. Now, when I speak of value here it’s important to be aware that I’m not only speaking of being able to see some kind of intrinsic value in another form of life but of being able to see how the encounter with another form of life adds value to one’s own.
Let me explain what I mean by using two lessons from which I have personally benefited. One occurred many years ago whilst I was studying theology in Oxford, the second also occurred many years ago but it has only recently properly been understood by me.
So, the first lesson occurred whilst studying Unitarian, Universalist and liberal Christian history. As we delved deeply into the tradition our teacher suddenly said to us something along the lines of “Remember, as we study our traditions that the person who only knows their own traditions thereby reveals that they do not even know their own traditions.”
What our wise teacher was pointing to was the well-known phenomenon where it is only a so-called “outsider” who can help us more properly to see the things which we think we understand intimately, even fully. We need only think of how the arrival of a friend at our own house helps us notice that we haven’t dusted for a while and that, really and truly, it’s time to get the hoover out and clean up a bit. Think, too, of how taking someone from another land and culture around our own locality can help reveal all kinds of things one never noticed before and also helps us to raise important questions that had never before occurred to us.
de Benneville’s encounter with those three Moors (i.e. Muslims) was one such event for they helped him see something about his own personal Christian faith and practice that was deeply problematic, even defective — after all he was hardly showing love to his neighbour in his harsh and angry response; that wasn’t true love, which shows itself in action. This event of grace forced him to ask “Are these men Heathens? No; I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen!” and, as his life unfolded to open him up to a loving form of life that clearly expressed “universality plus difference.” This was no more beautifully put than in the words you heard earlier:
“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.”
This observation brings me to a second lesson I only properly internalised during my recent sabbatical. Many years ago someone pointed out that we are often kept faithful to our own religious/philosophical traditions only thanks to the graceful encounter with other religious/philosophical traditions. Think about it. If one is never challenged to think about adopting some different religion/philosophy there can really be for you no mature, conscious way of remaining meaningfully loyal to the religion/philosophy you already hold. Here’s my story about that some of you will already have read on my blog but which I haven't yet publicly spoken about from this lectern.
Now, most of you will be well aware that, although I have a deep, intimate, lifelong existential relationship with Christianity, I find it a tradition about which I have no choice but to be highly critical and this is especially true when it comes to its (“orthodox”) understandings of God (its metaphysics). When my cross fell off I was in a particularly critical mood and this undoubtedly contributed to my unwillingness (really my inability at that moment) to put it back on. Even so, I confess that I sorely missed its physical presence around my neck and so I began to cast around for something else that might replace it. Eventually I settled on a depiction of the four seasons, an image that I felt would suit well my religious naturalist inclinations and I decided I would put it on after my last service before my sabbatical on May 1st. On the appointed day I duly carried out my promise.
My genuine intention was to see, in the privacy of a sabbatical, how it felt to be “flying under another banner” until I returned to work in September and before deciding whether or not permanently to keep wearing this symbol of a new religious allegiance.
To my utter surprise less than 24 hours after putting it on, I found I had to take it off — the feeling was astonishingly visceral. It wasn’t so much that the symbol of the seasons was wrong, that I was somehow embarrassed by it, or even that it didn’t express something true about my own developing religious position (for it did); no, it was simply that it didn’t speak properly of the fundamental, existential governing demand in my own religious life and this is why, on the first full day of my sabbatical, I found myself putting the cross back on.
The cross I put back on is called “The Way” and it’s huge original is to be found hanging on the north wall of the west tower of Ely Cathedral. When I first saw it, it spoke to me (and Susanna, my wife, who also wears it) with great power because it represents an unfolding road which may be understood both to be running towards the cross(roads) and also away from the cross(roads). This echoed my own constant attraction to, and movement away, from the cross but it was only in the act of self-consciously choosing to wear another symbol that I was able to be reminded of this so clearly and feel it again so viscerally.
In this particular depiction of the cross I find I come face to face with Jesus’ infinite ethical demand (found in the Sermon on the Mount) that, simultaneously and irresistibly, calls me (because of its goodness and beauty) and repels me (because it seems—is—impossible to achieve), namely, the basic teaching that I must love my neighbour and enemy as myself and that it is in these acts of love alone that I will find God, even when the metaphysical God of Christianity has completely gone — and I assure you that, for me, that God is dead. (I said something about this just a few weeks ago.)
When I wrote this on my blog at the end of May I said that even if nothing else were achieved during my sabbatical I would feel that this realization would, alone, be enough because it helped me see that my a-theism (which is real) is through and through Christian and Universalist and it is this Christian (Universalist) Atheist faith that continues viscerally to motivate me both as an individual human being and in my public role as an heretical minister of the gospel. Other things were achieved during my sabbatical but, in many way, this remains the most important and graceful thing that happened to me whilst I was away from you all.
To reiterate, the point which connects with de Benneville’s own experience, is that I could never have come to this realisation without the graceful encounter with a kind of naturalistic/humanistic paganism. I could not have become more grounded as the person I am without this encounter with another possible way of being in the world and what is true of naturalistic paganism is also true in different ways of my own personal encounters with Buddhism, Hinduism Judaism and Islam. This was the case in de Benneville’s own life in his encounters, firstly with the Moors/Muslims of Algeria and then with the Native American Indians when he settled in Pennsylvania.Without them his own tolerant, open-hearted, Christian Universalist faith would simply not have been possible.
This helps us see that religious encounters with another religion/philosophy do not (generally) lead towards a dilution of one’s own faith but, instead, that they are often a central requirement to the proper development of any secure and mature personal faith. It helps us see that we all owe a huge amount of gratitude and thanks to those who are different to us in countless ways because their faithfulness helps our own. And, as de Benneville clearly and beautifully said, we do not find those differences obstacles to love.
So, to conclude, I’ll leave you with some words of de Benneville’s you heard earlier that we use every week towards the end of our evening service. They are a clarion call to us confidently to engage in a certain kind of religious mission to the world; a distinctive liberal religious mission that, in the current nationalistic climate, remains as important to proclaim as it was in de Bennville’s own day:
“The inner spirit makes us feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things. Let us, therefore, preach the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.”