Ballou on the brain

After spending something like 36 hours editing Hosea Ballou over the Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve got Ballou on the brain. So I can’t resist posting one more Ballouvian quote. This time, I’ve edited and updated the language somewhat. You shouldn’t go reposting this and attributing it to Ballou, but I think my edited version does capture the essence of his meaning for early twenty-first century readers:

The ideas that sin is infinite, and that it deserves an infinite punishment; and that God took on a natural body of flesh and blood, and actually suffered death on a cross to satisfy God’s infinite justice and thereby save human creatures from endless misery; — these are ideas which appear to me to be unfounded in the nature of reason, and unsupported by the Bible. Such notions have, in my opinion, served to darken the human understanding, and have rendered the Bible a subject of discredit to thousands who, I believe, would never have condemned the scriptures had it not been for those gross absurdities….

6 thoughts on “Ballou on the brain”

  1. Whatever… why is Hosea Ballou of any interest? Granted, his view are astonishingly liberal for his time, but… so what? Why would anyone besides a UU minister think his opinions were relevant today? Okay, so this is a snarky comment – mea culpea – but … Ballou on the brain? REALLY? Please ‘splain why you think the meaning of his Treatise on Atonement should be of interest to twenty-something’s (or older :- )living in the 21st century?

  2. Victor — Yes it is a snarky comment, but I’ll answer you anyway. Some of us find ourselves engaging with fundamentalists, and Ballou offers some useful ways to communicate with them, or at least better understand them. And there is a recent resurgence of Calvinism (do an online search for TULIP and Calvinism) among evangelicals and even a few moderate Christians, and Ballou is a useful corrective to that unfortunate trend. Thus for those of us who engage with people outside of secular liberal or religious liberal circles, Ballou can be helpful.

    In addition, the Treatise on Atonement is the most important theological statement of American Universalism. For those of us who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists (as opposed to those folks who just call themselves “Unitarians”), Universalism is half of who we are. If I want to know about that half of who I am, it makes sense to have at least a tiny bit of familiarity with Ballou.

    Finally, I hear from quite a few people who really like Ballou, and find him a real inspiration. From that perspective, your comment comes across, not as snarky, but as insensitive.

    Feel free to ignore Ballou yourself, but recognize that there are people out here who find him of interest.

  3. I had never read Ballou, although I’ve been a UU for 30 years and a lowercase universalist for 15 or so years before that. Skimming, I was delighted to find that his reasoning echoed the process I had gone through (as a young liberal Baptist teenager) to arrive at my basic beliefs. I had just finished reading Out of the Flames, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, a history of Servetus and his work, which does a wonderful job of tracing his ideas and the major threads of unitarian and universalist ideas from the Council of Nicea to the present day, and the major Protestant and Catholic ideas opposing them (and in a short and popularly written book!)

    I have indeed been dealing with what I call “hateful Christians” – I’m not sure many of them have actually examined their theology, so whether they are evangelical, fundamentalist, Calvinist, or whatever may be irrelevant – they all share a belief in the basic wickedness of humanity that leads to all sorts of personal and political inhumanity. I have been struggling to understand that, and how to argue against it. Even though only a very few people attend church regularly any more, the idea is pervasive, and its proponents loud. And there it is in Ballou:

    “The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men, have been believed to exist in God; and professors have been molded into the image of their Deity, and become more cruel than the uncultivated savage! A persecuting inquisition is a lively representation of the God which professed Christians have believed in ever since the apostacy. It is every day’s practice to represent the Almighty so offended with man, that he employs his infinite mind in devising unspeakable tortures, as retaliations on those with whom he is offended. Those ideas have so obscured the whole nature of God from us, that the capacious religion of the human mind has been darkened by the almost impenetrable cloud; even the tender charities of nature have been frozen with such tenets, and the natural friendship common to human society, has, in a thousand instances, been driven from the walks of man.”

    I was in the process of writing my own post on this when I saw this comment. Ballou is relevant today, because he so carefully examined and argued for a different interpretation of Christianity – a strain that goes back through the Reformation to the beginnings of the church. I am not a Christian in any sense but that I believe Jesus was a great teacher, but I am a searcher for truth and meaning in all religions, each of which I think is a different perspective on universal truth. So Ballou is relevant to my personal search, as well as a way to understand and talk to Christians.

  4. I think you have a good point about many UUs not understanding the significance of Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement – myself included. But saying you can’t call yourself a real uU, if you don’t know anything about him, doesn’t help either.

    So, I’d really would like to hear your thoughts about his significance to us “1-Us” in our everyday lives described in non-theological terms, and hopefully one of these days you’ll preach a sermon about that topic?

    And I apologize for my snarkiness, but I am not ignoring Ballou. I just really didn’t understand why you felt so strongly about him, and frankly – still don’t.

  5. Victor, read Lisa’s post above (which got held in moderation, but here it is now) — that may help to begin to answer your question.

    As for why I feel so strongly about him, I’ve seen first-hand the fear that some people have of hell. I don’t really understand why they’re afraid of hell — I was raised a UU, and hell wasn’t something we bothered with — but I’ve seen how that fear can drive people’s lives. I find the whole notion of hell absurd and disgusting, but I can’t just say that to the people who believe in hell. Ballou talks to them on their own terms — he demolishes the whole absurd ridiculous notion of hell and damnation, and he does it in such a way that he makes you laugh at the absurdity. That’s why I like Ballou so much: he has saved a great many people from an idea that’s absurd and damaging, but also very widespread.

    And yes, I’ll write more about Ballou at some point in the future. Right now, I’m feeling like I need a little break from Universalist theology, though….

  6. Thank you Lisa and Dan! Now those are two responses I can understand. Very heartfelt and moving.

    We UUs have a great Christian Universalist legacy. It’s a puzzle to me why we haven’t learned to communicate that very effectively.

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