(This is a revised version of a sermon I delivered yesterday at The First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches in North Palm Beach, Florida)
I grew up Unitarian Universalist. I grew up in the Southeast: in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. In adulthood, I lived in Atlanta, Georgia; Waco, Texas; Charlottesville, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; Rochester, Minnesota. That was all before I became a minister. However strange a new town might feel, however adrift in unfamiliar streets and customs I might be, I would look up the local Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Yellow Pages. (You remember Yellow Pages? It’s what us old timers used to use before there was the internet.) I would show up on Sunday morning and there I would be among my people. I would be home.
Yet even I, born and raised Unitarian Universalist, would occasionally have a certain experience. It must be even more common among the many people who do not come to Unitarian Universalism until adulthood. I’m talking about those times of looking around the room – around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, or at a committee meeting, or a potluck dinner – and thinking: Who are these people? They’re not really like the (fill-in-the-blank) other people.
Unitarian Universalists today are the inheritors of a long and a deep and a rich tradition of free and thoughtful people making together religious community.
Heaven, hell, and sin are big concepts. Many of those who do find themselves landing at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in adulthood after growing up in some other tradition have journeyed through significant evolution of their concepts of what heaven and hell and sin are. The individual journey that many Unitarian Universalists have taken recapitulates the journey of Unitarianism and Universalism. The liberal religious movement in this country went through stages, just as some current Unitarian Universalists individually did. Before we could come to a place of affirming both heaven and hell as experiences in this life, we started by saying there was no hell of eternal afterlife punishment.
To illustrate this evolution, let’s look at the life of an early Universalist: Hosea Ballou, born in 1771. His father, Maturin Ballou, was a preacher in Rhode Island before American independence. Then he headed out for that harsh New Hampshire wilderness for a new life. It was a tough life. With the tools they had, and the stony ground, and the short growing season, only the scantiest of living could be wrung from the land. And on Sundays, Maturin “preached without pay in the plain little meetinghouse where the members of his own household provided a large portion of the congregation” (Scott 58). Hosea was Maturin and Lydia Ballou’s eleventh child – so that congregation wasn’t quite so small as might have been supposed. When Hosea was two, his mother Lydia died, worn out and without medical care.
It was a life of arduous toil. Hosea was 19 years old before he first went to school. And the only reading matter in the house was one Bible, one old almanac, one battered dictionary, and one pamphlet about the Tower of Babel.
Maturin was a strict Calvinist Baptist. He preached that God willed eternal damnation for most of the human race. As Hosea was growing up, gradually the hamlet near the Ballou farm, Richmond, New Hampshire, grew. There were more people in the church.
And Maturin stepped down from the pulpit before Hosea was baptized at age 17. By full immersion. Out of doors. In a New Hampshire river. In November.
About that time, Hosea began to think about “the reasons for the faith he had accepted. There was no use asking his father questions; he already knew what the answers would be. So he went to the Bible” (Scott 59-60). He went to see for himself what it really said. What he saw was disturbing. What he saw were a lot of passages that seemed to contradict what he’d been taught all his life. What he saw didn’t say anything about most of humanity being condemned to hell forever.
Then, as if on cue, as if to compound Hosea’s uncertainties, word started to drift over from Warwick, New Hampshire, about six miles away, that there was a minister there named Caleb Rich who was preaching a strange doctrine called Universalism. And occasionally some cohorts of Caleb Rich came and visited Hosea’s church just for the purpose of raising embarrassing questions. “How could a good God be responsible for endless suffering in hell of creatures of his own making?” And what about this passage here, Romans chapter 5, verse 18: “Therefore as through one man’s offense [Adam’s], judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one man’s righteous act [Jesus’s] the free gift came to all men resulting in justification of life.” All men, it says – all people, to use a better translation. What’s up with that?
These universalists were starting to get a following in Richmond, New Hampshire. The Calvinists resisted strongly, but some substantial Baptists were won over. A whole family of Ballous – cousins of Hosea – were won over. This universalist threat had to be countered. Hosea went to the Bible to find the refutations that would confound these wrong-headed universalists once and for all. But instead, he found himself forced to yield more and more ground.
Hosea really struggled. “Could it be that his father missed important passages in the Bible? Is the doctrine of ‘election’ really true? Is the great majority of humanity doomed to endless suffering?” (Scott 60). Hosea felt like: “Hey, if it were up to me, I’d let everybody into heaven. “It’s not like it’s going to get too crowded – it’s infinite. Could God be less kindly than I feel?”
Finally, Hosea Ballou came to resolution of that struggle. He let go a part of his inheritance. Yes, there were still parts of the Bible that did raise questions that he could not answer, but a basic clarity came to him. Certain clouds rolled away, and he said, “That’s it. I am a Universalist.”
Many Unitarian Universalists today can relate to what that moment must have been like. While I was born to this denomination, most of those who are Unitarian Universalist now reached a time in their adult life when they said, “That’s it. There are things I am still struggling with; my quest, my spiritual journey, does continue, but I am a Unitarian Universalist. It’s what I am. My lot is cast with these people.” (For many of them, the very next thought was: “Oh, my, how do I tell my parents?”)
Here’s a story: “One Sunday afternoon as young Hosea sat in the corner of the kitchen, Maturin his father asked, ‘What is that book you are reading?’ and Hosea answered, ‘A Universalist book,’
‘I cannot allow a Universalist book in my house,’ declared the father.
So Hosea walked out to the woodshed,” and, knowing his father would be watching him, in plain sight hid the book “in the woodpile. After Hosea had gone to bed Maturin went to the woodpile, and discovered that the forbidden book was the Bible” (Scott 61).
Hosea scrimped and saved his pennies and, at age 19, bought himself one term at Chesterfield Academy. “He got his money’s worth, absorbing so much from his studies that at the end of the term he was granted a certificate that declared that he was prepared to teach school” (Scott 61). In September 1791, at age 20, he attended the General Convention of Universalists in Oxford, Massachusetts. Universalism had gained a foothold in communities on the Atlantic coast, and Hosea had the chance to hear those preachers speak.
Hosea heard the call, took to preaching. In his day there were many preachers who earned most of their living doing something else. Hosea would teach all week and preach on Sunday. His fame spread. He got ordained.
At age 25 some colleagues began to be a little concerned. He showed no signs of getting married. As far as anyone could tell, he had never had a love affair. His colleague universalist minister Caleb Rich explained to Hosea the hazards of an unmarried minister, and even produced a woman for Hosea: Ruth Washburn – amazingly both intelligent and willing. The marriage was long and happy and produced eleven children. (Perhaps eleven was the quota in those days?)
Through his preaching and his writing, Ballou reshaped Universalist doctrine. Ballou’s 1805 book, A Treatise on Atonement, is a major landmark in the development of our thought. His editorship of the Universalist magazine – creatively titled The Universalist Magazine – gave us our identity for more than a generation.
Unitarian Universalists today are both Unitarians and Universalists. We are Universalists, walking in Hosea Ballou’s footsteps, not to try to be like him, but to be who we are – to let each of our unique little lights shine. We are Universalists not because we believe what Hosea Ballou, or any other predecessor, believed. We are Universalists because we are the latest participants in the conversation that is Universalism – the conversation that Hosea Ballou reshaped with his powerful ideas. It is as participants in that unbroken dialog, that continuous conversation which in this country extends back 240 years, that we are who we are, not by adherence to any article of belief advanced in that conversation. We are Universalists because we today speak with each other continuing the ongoing conversation in which Ballou in his time so eloquently spoke. And we understand ourselves by understanding how we got here, how this conversation came to constitute us. We learn to see for ourselves, more independently and more confidently, by hearkening to the echoes of voices from our past.
In his Treatise on the Atonement Ballou addressed Christ’s act of atoning for our sins by dying on the cross. The Calvinist doctrine proclaimed limited atonement. Christ’s act atoned for only a few – the great majority of humankind was doomed to hell. This included, the Calvinists felt sure, all the nonCalvinists and even probably most of the Calvinists. Ballou’s point, like the other Universalist preachers, was that Christ’s atonement atoned for us all.
And I can agree with that.
Insofar as Jesus knew what he was risking, and did it anyway, insofar as Jesus saw for himself and dared to speak of what he saw despite the danger, then his brave compassion, which earned him crucifixion, redeems us, all of us. Insofar as Socrates’ saw for himself and refused to shut up about what he saw, insofar as he continued to urge others to also come take a look, then his civil disobedience for the cause of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which earned him a bowl of hemlock, redeems us, all of us. Insofar as Katherine Vogel in the sixteenth century saw for herself and spoke out saying God was one and not three, insofar as she would not recant, knowing the penalty, then her theology, which earned her fiery death at the stake, redeems us, all of us. For every act of imagination and vision and courage redeems the species that is capable of producing it. By such acts we are lifted out of our petty, small-minded, mean tendencies and we are shown of what we, too, are capable. Such acts speak to us, if we will listen, and they say, “Hey you, human being, look what your humanity has in it to do.”
There’s Jeff Foxworthy joke, and he can tell it because he identifies himself as a redneck. He says the last words of most rednecks is “Hey, y’all. Watch this.” Yet it is essentially those words that are spoken to us by those who whose vision and courage wholly guides them: Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Michael Servetus, Katherine Vogel, Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Che Guevera, Rigoberta Menchu, Aun Sang Su Chi, Mother Teresa, Steven Biko. Hey y’all. Watch this.
And watching, we are awakened to a depth and possibility of human life. And we are redeemed from a life constrained into more narrow concerns, and all our many failures to be all that we wish we were, are atoned for by the knowledge of what we can be. “Lives of Great [ones] all remind us, we can make our lives sublime,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
So, yes, I believe in Universal atonement. The doctrine as I accept it has certainly evolved as the conversation rolled from Ballou's time to ours, but I see an essence there that is the same doctrine. It’s like poetry. The poetry of the early 21st century is different from the poetry of the early 19th century, or of the 17th or 15th centuries, or of the ancient Greeks. Yet we can see the poetic truth in earlier forms and styles. Theology isn’t science. It’s more like poetry. Theology can certainly be informed by science – just as poetry can -- as when our sense of transcendence, of wholeness, and interconnection is triggered by reflections on scientific findings in their very broadest context of meaning. We can see the poetic truth in earlier forms and styles of theology too – if we are willing to lay aside dogmatic axes to grind, stop being literal and superficial, and see through to the deeper truth behind, say, a 19th century account of atonement.
So I read Ballou at two levels, both for the significance he had to his own time and for the meaning he still offers to ours. And the former paves the way for the latter, for Ballou altered the course of Universalism forever. He did so in two ways.
First, he was a unitarian – unitarian with a small u, since Unitarians had not yet formed a separate denomination. Saying Ballou was a unitarian means that, in addition to believing in universal salvation, another one of his doctrines just happened to be that the trinity idea was insupportable. Prior to Ballou, Universalists were trinitarian universalists, but Ballou agreed with Unitarians that God was one, not three. Before the 1961 merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America could happen both sides had to be ready. And the Universalists had been made doctrinally ready a century and a half before by Hosea Ballou.
Ballou’s other major contribution to Universalist thinking was about hell. For prior Universalists, everyone goes to heaven – but not right away. There was a hell, though it was temporary. We endured a period of punishment of duration proportionate to wickedness -- before passing Go, collecting $200, and advancing to the pearly gates. For a few years Ballou waffled on that question, but he finally came to the view that heaven was immediate for everyone.
This was a big controversy. People within and outside the Universalist church said: if there were no punishment at all, we’d have complete licentiousness. If there is no price to be paid for sin, you will have total moral anarchy. Without fear of retribution, people will sin freely, wild sex, drunken orgies, social decay, “cats and dogs living together” (that’s a line from the movie Ghostbusters).
The story is told that Ballou “was riding the circuit of the New Hampshire hills with a Baptist minister one afternoon. They argued theology as they traveled.”
The Baptist minister said, “If I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven.”
Ballou replied, “If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you” (Richard Gilbert, Building Your Own Theology: Introduction. 2000. 64)
What Ballou was saying – what we still say – what I learned as a child at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta – is not that we don’t pay the price for our sins. We do. We pay the price for small-souledness. We pay the price for every thoughtless deed that diminishes the light from the spark of divinity within us. We pay the price for not loving ourselves, and our neighbor as our selves. We pay the price for not recognizing kinship, and we pay the price for not accepting difference. We pay the price. But that price is paid here. It is paid in this life. Hell is an earthly phenomenon, and it is those who cannot see beyond themselves and their own narrow self-interests who are imprisoned in the hell of their own making.
This is the teaching that comes to us from father Ballou. He saw for himself. And he helped our other forebears see for themselves, and they helped intellectual descendants see for themselves, so that we here now can help each other in the ways that we do to see for ourselves. “Our own lives expanding, our gratitude commanding, his deeds have made immortal his days and his years.”
Who are these people? We are the inheritors of a long and a deep and a rich tradition of free and thoughtful people making together religious community.