For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
There’s nothing quite like being in a crowd of people clapping and cheering with joy because the preacher has just yelled at them to “Go to hell!”
Let me explain…
This week I attended the 101st annual Hampton University Ministers’ Conference, and I posted about what it is and why I’m attending on Tuesday and how it’s similar to and different from a gathering of Unitarian Universalists on Wednesday. I am glad to have had this opportunity to share in a religious and cultural experience so unlike my own. The date for the 102nd conference has been announced, and suffice it to say that I’ve already put it on my calendar.
I spent the afternoon each day at the Scripps Howard School of Communication and Journalism, listening to the speakers and panelists of the conference’s second “Theological Think Tank”. Though the panel was not intended to consist of ministers who are under thirty-five years old, it did make for a lively discussion of what churches are doing — or, more often, doing wrong — not merely to appeal to Millennials (i.e. people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) but to be relevant to them. Earlier in the week, the Rev. Jamal Bryant of Baltimore made the point that in going to Ferguson, the young people joining the protests were looking not for clergy to lead them, but for television and music celebrities because that’s who they knew.
The highlight of the week, though, was Thursday morning’s lecture by “the Dean”, as everyone referred to him, namely Rev. Dr. John Kinney of the School of the Theology at Virginia Union in Richmond. Each of his three daily lectures had been powerful, and the Hampton University’s Convocation Center was packed every time with people wanting to hear him. One of his themes throughout the week was anthropology, which in religious terms refers to an understanding of human nature and humanity’s place in the grand scheme of things. In Dr. Kinney’s opinion, and going all the way back to the story of the Garden of Eden, there is too much concern for rank, for false hierarchies: divine over human; male over female; white over black; human over nature. It is the fragmentation of life that results that is the cause of suffering.
Toward the end of his final lecture, Dr. Kinney turned to a related matter, which he named “the problem of fracturing eternity”. If both heaven and hell exist as usually understood, he explained, then hell is a domain where evil wins, which is a big problem if you believe that God is present and active everywhere! He suggested instead that hell is to stand before the eternal and admit everything that we have been denying about ourselves, and yet the divine love that goes along with that means that we’re actually in heaven. In other words, at least as I heard it, he was proposing a version of universal salvation, one of the “heretical” strains of Christianity that led to modern Unitarian Universalism. (The other, as I preached last Sunday, was the humanity of Jesus.)
But it was what Dr. Kinney said at the end that really brought the house down. Putting it in terms of a willingness to go to hell in order to reach heaven, he explained that what really matters is reaching people who need help, whose lives are filled with suffering, for it is only in helping them that we deserve to call ourselves good. Self-righteousness that judges another group of people as unworthy is like trying to shut the door to heaven, except that the only result is to lock yourself out. He finished with a story which I remember hearing as a child in Sunday school, only he made the moral much more clear. A soul finds herself in hell and sends up a petition that she be released and allowed into heaven. A question comes back, asking if she had ever helped anyone in her life, and she replies that she had once given an onion to a neighbor. Soon enough an onion is lowered down from heaven, all the way down into hell. The soul grabs hold of it and it starts to go back up, but other souls grab onto her legs, trying to go up with her. She starts kicking them, trying to get them to let go, but in doing so she loses her grip on the onion and falls back down. As Dr. Kinney explained, you can’t get to heaven when you’re kicking someone else off your onion!