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Forrest Church's Universalism

For Church, 'E pluribus unum' was a civic ideal and a religious insight.
By Christopher L. Walton
Winter 2009 11.1.09

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After being diagnosed with cancer three years ago, the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church completed three books: So Help Me God, his masterful study of religious politics in the early American Republic; Love & Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow, a pastoral reflection on living a life “worth dying for”; and The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology, published shortly after his death at age 61 this September.

The Cathedral of the World brings together revised versions of essays and sermons written throughout Church’s career as a minister, theologian, and leading interpreter of the Unitarian Universalist tradition. In five sections, he discusses God, American civil religion, religious dimensions of public issues, contemporary Universalism, and the primal concerns of all religion: the mysteries of “being alive and having to die.”

Church is entranced by the motto E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”), which he explores both as an American civic ideal and as a religious insight. American civil religion helps people feel their kinship in national and ethical terms, but Church also affirms a more deeply religious, universal dimension to human interdependence: “Each part, every individual, faith, color, and nationality is distinct, but one mother holds us all to her bosom, giving us life, providing us a home—the Commonwealth of God.” Church offers another version of this idea, drawing on our Unitarian and Universalist roots: “Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a single source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.”

Church has been called the most important UU theologian of his generation, but none of these essays uses academic language. Instead, he expresses his theological insights as a preacher, using extended metaphors, aphorisms, and anecdotes to make his points. Some readers may wish that he had taken a more analytical approach, but in discussing criticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Church could just as easily be offering a defense of his own work: “Mythic and parabolic language is imprecise. All Emerson could do was mirror his awe and humility in childlike reverence for the creation and his small yet consciousness-charged place in it.” Church’s religion invites people into a renewed sense of awe and gratitude for the gift of life and a deepened sense of responsibility for each other and for the world, his beloved cathedral.

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