The Pilot Light of the Soul

During his ordination examination, a Presbyterian seminary student was being questioned by an elderly and very conservative minister.  One of the exam questions was: “Do you believe in the Doctrine of the Total Depravity of the Human Soul?”  The student’s immediate smiling reply was: “Yes, but I find it very difficult to live up to!”

When the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association consolidated in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, they merged in primarily administrative and organizational ways, without much discussion about theology.  The consolidation made sense, of course, because both religions were on similar pages theologically, each having evolved beyond their Christian origins, but there were still differences, given those origins.

The Universalists had emerged from Christianity around the central belief in universal salvation: that God so loves every soul that everybody is (ultimately) admitted to heaven.  As Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou put it, “Your child has fallen into the mud, and his body and garments are defiled.  You wash him and array him in clean robes.  The question is, do you love your child because you washed him or did you wash him because you love him?”

The Unitarians had also emerged from Christianity, with their central belief being in the humanity (rather than divinity) of Jesus.  As such, Jesus was not somebody to worship so much as someone to emulate.  Indeed, the Unitarians put their hopes for the afterlife in “salvation by character”, that heaven must first be attained as an internal state of the soul, as inward goodness.

As Thomas Starr King — the Universalist and Unitarian minister who is credited with preserving California within the Union during the Civil War — drew the distinction, “The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, whereas the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!”

Five decades after the consolidation that formed the UUA, today’s Unitarian Universalists are most often in line with the classical Unitarian position: even if we might slip up from time to time, we believe that people are intrinsically good.  This can be empowering, but it can also come across as too optimistic: we’re right to emphasize the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but we can’t forget to acknowledge real brokenness and pain and how easy it is for us to cause brokenness and pain.

I know a Lutheran minister who says she tried Unitarian Universalism but found that our “high opinion of humans” didn’t fit with her experience.  “People are flawed,” she says.  Whereas classical Unitarianism has a high opinion of the human being — what is known theologically as a high anthropology — Lutheranism has a low opinion — a low anthropology — such that we are incapable of contributing to our own salvation and only through divine grace have any hope of being saved.

However, to pit Unitarianism’s high anthropology against Lutheranism’s low anthropology is to set up a false dichotomy, for Universalism offers a third way.  Arguing whether humans are intrinsically good or intrinsically bad is to miss the more important point: we are intrinsically human.  Yes, Unitarian Universalism affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people, but that doesn’t mean we’re perfect, that we never screw up.  Rather, it’s a call to hold ourselves and one another accountable for our actions.

Another way of thinking about this is that we each have a spark of the divine within us.  It’s the pilot light of the soul.  All of us, if we are being honest, are broken in some way, and sometimes — due to illness or terrible circumstances or simply the stress of today’s world — the fire of love and compassion and all that is good within us stutters or even goes out.  But the pilot light of the soul remains, ready to re-ignite only if we clean away the debris by holding ourselves accountable for our actions, only if we reset the system by earning forgiveness, and only if we provide enough fuel by treating ourselves and one another with tenderness.

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