New edition of “A Treatise on Atonement”

Now in print: a new reader’s edition of Hosea Ballou’s classic statement of universal salvation, A Treatise on Atonement.

This new edition has been edited for clarity and ease of reading. I broke up long paragraphs, modernized punctuation, and added section breaks where there was a logical break in the text. I also added an extensive general index that references names, topics, etc., and also references Ballou’s entertaining illustrations and parables. Scriptural references have been added in the text where missing, and there is a full scriptural index. An appendix has a brief biography of Ballou, written by Thomas Whittemore a year before Ballou’s death.

This project started almost a decade ago, when I couldn’t find an adequate online edition of Ballou’s Treatise. Scott Wells, Russell Allen, and Steve Rowe all helped produce the Web edition, which went online in 2011. This new print version represents a complete revision of the online edition, with added indices and appendix.

Why bother with a new print edition when the classic Ernest Cassara edition, published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, is still in print? Most importantly, the text of the Cassara edition retains the crazy-long paragraphs of the early nineteenth century editions; adding new paragraph breaks makes the book much easier to read. Then too, I’ve long felt that the index to the Cassara edition was inadequate. Finally, after Cassara’s death earlier this year, there was no longer any hope that he might revise his edition.

The new 2015 edition of A Treatise on Atonement is available now through for $12.99 plus about $3.99 for shipping. In approximately 8 weeks, it will also be available direct through major online booksellers, as well as through bookstores via Ingram distributors, at a retail price of about $12.99 (the minimum price I can set that allows such wide distribution).

Treatise on Atonement, thumbnail of cover

What’s a deity?

This week I’ve been posting images of deities. But what is a deity, anyway?

Here in the United States, popular culture has been heavily influenced by Protestant Christian culture, and so when we are asked to define a deity, we default to the concept of a monotheistic transcendent deity. If we have to draw a picture of this deity, we might either draw a picture of a man with a white beard sitting on a cloud, or say that this deity is transcendent and can’t be pictured.

However, most of the human race, for most of human history, has had a far more complex and nuanced understanding of deities. In our own Western cultural tradition, which extends back to the civilizations of Rome, Greece, and the ancient Near East more generally, we can find a great diversity of deities. Here’s a list of some of the categories of deity we can identify in the Western religious traditions:

• a single transcendent deity, e.g., the transcendent god of Xenophanes and other early Greek philosophers; God for some Jews; God the Father for some Christian sects
• a most powerful deity among other deities, e.g., Zeus in ancient Greece
• greater deities, e.g., the more powerful ancient Egyptian deities such as Horus, Osiris, and Ra
• lesser deities, e.g., the Titans in ancient Greece
• local deities, e.g., river gods, deities of a grove or forest, etc.
• household deities, e.g., the household gods of ancient Rome, etc.
• deified humans, e.g., the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Roman emperors deified after death, etc. (some might argue that the Virgin Mary of some Christian sects fits into this category)
• humans that are more than mortal but slightly less than gods, e.g., Herakles for the ancient Greeks, Jesus for the Christian followers of Arius, etc.
• humans with special powers who are worthy of veneration, e.g., canonized saints, sports figures and celebrities, etc.
• abstract concepts as deities, e.g., god as the unmoved mover in Aristotle, scientific method, financial success, etc.

These are just the first examples from the Western religious traditions that come to my mind. Then we can add in all the deities which are current in our increasingly multicultural world, such as the vast hierarchy of Hindu deities, the several Buddhas (who may appear as humans with special powers, but who may also appear as transcendent deities), ancestors who are venerated (as in some African traditions), deities as part of nature or tied to natural places (as with some Navajo deities), etc., etc.

I don’t believe we should accept without question the U.S. Protestant Christian definition of deity as a single transcendent god in whom one either believes or doesn’t believe. Humans in the U.S. today venerate a variety of deities, many of which look nothing like the U.S. Protestant transcendent God. And that veneration can take a variety of forms, from overt public worship to more covert forms of veneration. Given that, don’t you think that there is a lot more religion in the U.S. today than is captured by polls which ask whether people believe in “God” and attend “church”?

Kuan yin

Kuan yin (in Pinyin, Guanyin) is a deity with multiple identities, including multiple gender identities. According to the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha said, “If living beings in this land must be saved by means of someone in the body of a Buddha, Guanshiyin Bodhisattva will manifest in the body of a Buddha and speak Dharma for them.” And if someone needs to be saved by this boddhisattva, Guanshiyin, who is also known as Guanyin or Avalokiteshvara, will manifest him/herself in whatever form works best:

“If they must be saved by someone in the body of the wife of an Elder, a layman, a minister of state, or a Brahman, he [sic] will manifest in a wife’s body and speak Dharma for them. If they must be saved by someone in the body of a pure youth or pure maiden, he will manifest in the body of a pure youth or pure maiden and speak Dharma for them. If they must be saved by someone in the body of a heavenly dragon, yaksha, gandharva, asura, garuda, kinnara, mahoraga, human or non-human, and so forth, he will manifest in such a body and speak Dharma for them.” [trans. from City of Ten Thousand Buddhas Web site


Above: “The Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Guanyin), 1300-1400 CE,” Asian Art Museum, catalog no. B61S37+

Guanyin also became a Daoist deity, a female immortal; one can chant a spell to the Daoist Guanyin “whereby one will accomplish unimaginable virtues, and give evidence to the penetration of the absolute.” (Guanyin mizhou tu)


Above: A Daoist Guanyin, adapted from Henrik Sorenson’s article “Looting the Pantheon.”

“The increasing Daoist appropriation and transformation of the Avalokiteshvara cult and the associated teachings which took place during the later imperial period, is also reflected in the mid-Qing work, the Guanyin xin jing bijue (‘Secret Explanation on the Heart Scripture of Avalokiteshvara’). This text, which to all appearances and purposes appears to be a Buddhist commentary on the Prajnaparamitahrdaya sutra, one of the most important and popular Buddhist scriptures in China, on closer examination turns out to be a Daoist commentary on the Buddhist sutra. In addition to its full-scale doctrinal modification, it casts Avalokiteshvara in the role as a female immortal (nuxian) from the Zhou dynasty (1122–255 BCE). … the level of appropriation [of Buddhist deities by Daoism] could, and often did, go well beyond superficial borrowing, ending with something akin to full-scale integration.”

— Henrik H. Sørensen, “Looting the Pantheon: On the Daoist Appropriation of Buddhist Divinities and Saints,” The electronic Journal of East and Central Asian Religions, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, 2013), p. 62.

Fudo Myoo


Fudo Myoo is a Japanese Buddhist deity, one of the Five Great Kings, or Godai Myoo.

The Godai Myoo “are considered to have great magical powers to fight against heresy, passion, ignorance, illusion, and other spiritual obstacles. The most popular Myoo in Japan is Fudo, whose name means literally ‘The Immovable One.’ He is an incarnation of Dainichi Nyorai, who is an idealization of the truth of the universe, from whom all other Buddhas and boddhisatvas are born. Fudo is thought to fight against all evil to protect Buddhist law.” — Selected Works: The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, c1994), p. 179.

This image is a digitally manipulated photograph of a sculpture in the Asian Art Museum labeled “The Buddhist deity Achala Vidyaraja (Japanese: Fudo Myoo),” dated to 1100-1185, catalog no. B605146+.



Above: porcelain image of the Taoist deity Toumu [Doumu], made in Fujian province in the 18th century, now in the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (catalog no. B60P1362).

“The Dipper Mother [Doumu] is a star deity and a Daoist adoption of the Tantric deity Marici, a personification of light and dawn. As a savior and healer, she is invoked through visualizations that unite the adept with cosmic light and ‘oneness with cosmic principles’ (75-76). As the cosmic mother of the nine star-gods of the dipper, she is a nurturer and instructress, but the Dipper Mother also maintains her own salvific powers and authority.”

From a book review by Sara Elaine Neswald of McGill University on the Daoist Studies Web site (2 Dec. 2004), of the book Women in Daoism by Catherine Despeux and Livia Kohn (Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press, 2003).


Update: August 12, 2019: Entry on Doumu in E. T. C. Werner, Myths and Legends of China (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1922), pp. 144-145:

Goddess of the North Star

Tou Mu, the Bushel Mother, or Goddess of the North Star, worshipped by both Buddhists and Taoists, is the Indian Maritchi, and was made a stellar divinity by the Taoists. She is said to have been the mother of the nine Jen Huang or Human Sovereigns of fabulous antiquity, who succeeded the lines of Celestial and Terrestrial Sovereigns. She occupies in the Taoist religion the same relative position as Kuan Yin, who may be said to be the heart of Buddhism. Having attained to a profound knowledge of celestial mysteries, she shone with heavenly light, could cross the seas, and pass from the sun to the moon. She also had a kind heart for the sufferings of humanity. The King of Chou Yu, in the north, married her on hearing of her many virtues. They had nine sons. Yuan-shih T’ien-tsun came to earth to invite her, her husband, and nine sons to enjoy the delights of Heaven. He placed her in the palace Tou Shu, the Pivot of the Pole, because all the other stars revolve round it, and gave her the title of Queen of the Doctrine of Primitive Heaven. Her nine sons have their palaces in the neighbouring stars.

Tou Mu wears the Buddhist crown, is seated on a lotus throne, has three eyes, eighteen arms, and holds various precious objects in her numerous hands, such as a bow, spear, sword, flag, dragon’s head, pagoda, five chariots, sun’s disk, moon’s disk, etc. She has control of the books of life and death, and all who wish to prolong their days worship at her shrine. Her devotees abstain from animal food on the third and twenty-seventh day of every month.

Of her sons, two are the Northern and Southern Bushels; the latter, dressed in red, rules birth; the former, in white, rules death. “A young Esau once found them on the South Mountain, under a tree, playing chess, and by an offer of venison his lease of life was extended from nineteen to ninety-nine years.”

Xenophanes on the appearance of the divine

Xenophanes, a Greek thinker (fl. 540 BCE), is quoted by later writers as having said the following about the divine:

If cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as humans do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own — horses like horses, cattle like cattle. [Diels-Kranz fr. 15.]

Mortal [humans] suppose that the gods are born as they themselves are, and that they wear human clothing and have human voice and body. [Diels-Kranz fr. 14.]

— trans. Arthur Fairbanks [and altered slightly by me], The First Philosophers of Greece: An Edition and Translation… (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trubner Co., 1898), p. 67.

Let’s talk UU SEO

Behind the scenes, several Unitarian Universalist bloggers have been discussing how to increase traffic to blog posts that the blogger thinks are useful or important. One UU blogger observed that if you write a post that is some combination of controversial, critical, or ranting, you are more likely to get a lot of hits on that post. But how do you drive traffic to more thoughtful posts that you think are worthy of a wider readership, but which aren’t the kind of traffic you think they deserve? The advice given by several bloggers was to write headlines and titles that are carefully designed to drive appropriate traffic to the blog post.

This is a sound approach to driving traffic to your blog, and I have no intention of following it.

Over the years, I’ve tried this approach a few times, and I’ve written a few blog posts on controversial topics that, judged by my low standards, got a fair amount of traffic. I discovered three things: First, writing controversial blog posts that attract lots of traffic forces me to think about the world in ways that I do not enjoy: you have to start looking for controversies everywhere. Second, once you start getting more than half a dozen comments on controversial blog posts you are going to have to spend time moderating whackos and fending off trolls, activities I find dull and unpleasant. Third, controversial blog posts tend to attract readers who either have an axe to grind or who aren’t interested in nuance, people with whom I have little in common.

So I came up with a different strategy for writing blog posts.

I tend to write carefully-written, well-documented posts designed to have a long shelf life. Such posts might provide information not easily available elsewhere on the Web, e.g., the posts I have done on Black theologian William R. Jones. Or such posts might provide authoritative information on an area where I have some level of expertise, e.g., the post I did on implementing #FergusonSyllabus in Sunday school. Or such posts might provide useful summaries on an obscure topic (note that since Unitarian Universalism is a tiny sect, most UU topics are obscure), e.g., the posts I have done on the theological influence Mary Rotch had on Ralph Waldo Emerson. In SEO (search engine optimization) terms, this is a variant of “long tail search”; my SEO goal is to have lots of authoritative posts with just a few highly specific links going into them.

To put it another way, trying to compete for traffic with Huff Post (or for that matter with Doug Muder and Vicki Weinstein) is a mug’s game, a strategy with a low chance of success. At least, it’s a mug’s game for someone like me, because I’m not that kind of writer.

I’ve spent some time thinking about the kind of writing I am best able to do. My partner, a former freelance writer, talks about being an “information hunter-gatherer,” and I can do some of that. My older sister, a professor of writing and an author, talks about the book by Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work, and I can do some of what Coles describes. Then too I’m a minister, and every once in a while I’m able to do some writing on spiritual topics.

Once we’ve gone this far, the rest is obvious. Finding out what kind of writer you are means figuring out who your readers are, and what they are interested in reading. Finding out who you are as a writer means learning how to write well for your readers. Depending on who you are as a writer, this could mean learning how to write clickbait headlines, and keyword-rich blog posts. Or if you’re a different kind of writer, this could mean something different. In my case, it means trying to write well-crafted short essays on topics about which I have knowledge. And in your case, it might be something else altogether.

I don’t believe there is one best way to write a blog. I believe what you want to do is know who you are as a writer, know who your readers are, write well-crafted blog posts aimed at your readers, and then find the SEO strategy that best allows you to reach your readers.

Easy face painting

Some of our high school youth youth advisors went to Kids Carnival today, the fun event organized by the University AME Zion Church as a way for people of different races and ethnicities to get to know each other a little better while having a good time. Our youth group offered to do a face painting booth. We lucked out in that Elaine, a high school senior from the Palo Alto Vineyard Church, joined us — she is a fine artist who has her own business doing face painting for kids’ birthday parties. We let her do all the hard designs (Ice Bear, a Death Eaters logo, etc.), and we used our own easy designs.

Our designs turned out to be easy enough that children can do them (we let some of the children who came to our booth use our paints to paint designs on each other) — yet they’re satisfying and look pretty good when you’re done. I’m posting them here in case you want to use them next time you do face painting in your congregation. Except where noted, our designs are meant to go on cheeks or backs of hands. We had copies of the designs where children could look at them and choose the one they wanted. One last suggestion: it is worth spending extra money for good face paints; we bought the cheap ones, but when Elaine let us try hers, we saw that they were far better.

Face Painting 1

Face Painting 2

Face Painting 3

Chart of Christian churches

Another handout I developed for our “Neighboring Faith Communities” course for middle schoolers, a timeline of Christian churches and their derivatives:

Christian Church timeline thumbnail

Christian church timeline (PDF)

This is a revision of an earlier version of this timeline, which I originally posted here.

One purpose of this chart is to introduce middle schoolers to the incredible diversity of Christian churches, especially churches that are not well know in the West (i.e., Oriental Orthodox Churches, African Independent Churches), and groups that are often passed over or ignored by religious liberals (i.e., Restorationist groups including Mormons, Pentecostals).

Another purpose of the chart is to show how Unitarian Universalists do in fact derive from Christian churches — and further to show how very few in number we Unitarian Universalists are compared to the various Christian churches.

Chart edited. See comments.