–joining the UU Salon, with thanks to Lizard Eater for a great idea–

I’m sure I’ll return to this theme, because so many different threads of Universalism weave through my life and beliefs. The first one that came to mind when I saw the UU Salon question, the one that tells me I was a Universalist before I knew there was any such thing, was redemption: stories of conversion of the heart, which have captivated me from an early age.

Some of the stories are fictional. One of my favorite books has long been The Secret Garden, which is all about redemption. Mary Lennox, Colin Craven, and Colin’s father are lost in self-absorption and unhappiness. The gardens within them have withered for lack of care, like the secret garden, but like the walled garden, they still possess a dormant power and beauty. The book is about the gardens’ reemergence. First Mary, then Colin, then Mr. Craven realize that there is more in them and in the world than what they have seen before. This realization saves them, making them both better people and happier ones–in other words, bringing them both holiness and happiness, which, as the Winchester Profession proclaimed, are “inseparably connected.”

Fictional story #2: “A Christmas Carol.” Another heart closed, both suffering and creating misery; another story declaring that redemption is possible. In fact, the worst can become the best: at the end it is said of Scrooge that “he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Fictional story #3: Casablanca. I didn’t realize this one was another redemption story until I summarized it recently for a Spanish assignment, but of course it is.  At the start of the movie, Rick is a cynic who “sticks his neck out for nobody” and has no cause but himself–his form of neutrality, as immoral as Captain Renault’s (that’s Claude Rains, the Vichy chief of police who carries water for the Gestapo).  Both abandon their neutrality and their cynicism and embrace courage and idealism.  That, more than the love story, is what makes it impossible for me to watch this movie without crying.

I don’t remember what experience of my own made this theme so important to me, if there was one in particular.  It’s not as if I was ever as unhappy as Mary Lennox or as selfish as Scrooge, that I needed to find redemption.  However, I remember encountering “Amazing Grace” in my early teens and feeling that it expressed the way I now saw things to which I had been blind, cared about things to which I had been callous. The story behind the hymn, of how the cries of the enslaved people aboard his ship moved slave trader John Newton to become an abolitionist, is largely apocryphal, but that’s okay; I count it as another powerful fictional account of conversion. After all, some real slaveholders did become real abolitionists, including Newton, though he did so more gradually than the song implies. What an amazing turnaround both they and our country made.

Another true redemption story, one that I encountered when I had already identified myself as a Universalist and was well on the way to becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister.  It’s the true story of rapist-murderer Matthew Poncelet as interpreted in Dead Man Walking. When I saw the movie in 1995, I was utterly gripped by the urgency of the questions: Would Poncelet find the courage to admit to himself both what he had done and how terrible it was? Would he face the truth and do what he could (as little as that was) to make amends? In other words, would he find redemption before he died? I realized that one reason I oppose putting criminals to death is that it cuts off this chance.

Which may be an odd thing for a Universalist to say, since many people, including many UUs, regard a belief in life after death as one of the key elements of Universalism. I don´t believe anything awaits us after this life. That is, I’m agnostic on the point, but if you could collect money on such a bet, my money would be against it. I find the early Universalist theological debates about heaven and hell fascinating, but for me the question isn’t what happens to us after we die. The basic theological definition of redemption is “deliverance from sin,” which concerns me very much in my own life and seems to me to have nothing much to do with the question of whether a heavenly judge will declare us Guilty or Not Guilty (that’s more a concern about punishment than a concern about redemption, the way a child on the way to the woodshed is focused not on his infraction but on how much the whipping is going to hurt).   Redemption is about how we’re going to live–whether we’re going to try to purge from our hearts cruelty, selfishness, apathy, injustice, and all the other sins we’re heir to. It doesn’t happen once and for all; small and large conversions of the heart happen throughout our lives.

I had a big argument with my rabbi about redemption when I was a teenager. There had been a TV movie about child sexual abuse that month, and he had devoted his biggest sermon of the year–the one on Kol Nidrei, the eve of Yom Kippur, the day when Jews confess their sins and seek to be forgiven and to live more morally in the coming year–to the claim that there are some sins that even God does not forgive, the sexual abuse of a child being one. I was miserable and furious and his protests of “Amy, we’re talking about people who rape children!” didn’t address the issue at all. It didn’t help that along with the truly horrific crime of the rape of a child, his sermon listed adultery and homosexuality as sins that put us beyond the possibility of forgiveness, but my main complaint wasn’t actually that one of the kindest people I knew was a family friend who had left her husband for another man, nor that I couldn’t see how homosexuality was even a moral issue. It was that an essential quality of God, in my mind, was that He could forgive us anything. Anything. If He wouldn’t, if even the God who created us could see us as irredeemable, then something very meaningful dropped out of my universe.

As I said, I was already a Universalist; I just didn’t know it. By the time I did know it, about ten years later, I’d long since stopped believing in an anthropomorphic God, boundlessly forgiving or otherwise, but what Universalism said to me chimed deep in the soul of that Jewish, God-devoted teenager. It said that our capacity for conversion is unlimited (or limited, perhaps, only by the span of our lives). No matter what we’ve done, as long as there’s life, there’s hope that we will change. That’s why, when I sing “Amazing Grace,” I sing “wretch” with all my breath, despite the hymnal commission’s mild suggestion that we might prefer “soul.” I believe that one can be an utter wretch, a person who has done truly terrible things, and still turn one’s heart and one’s life to the light.

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