UU theologies: Hosea Ballou’s Universalism

Here’s the first short lecture I used in last night’s online class on Unitarian Universalist (UU) theologies:

Click on the image above to go to the video on Youtube.

For accessibility, the text of the lecture is below. Note that I may have altered the text a little when reading it.

Hosea Ballou wrote his Treatise on Atonement in 1805. It is still considered a major statement of Universalist theology in the New World. Ballou’s basic point is simple: If God is a god of love, and if God is a limitless being, then God’s love must be without limitations. Logically, then, there can be no such thing as eternal salvation, for a God of unlimited love would never damn sentient beings to eternal suffering. Ballou went further than this: he argued that God’s love was so vast that upon death everyone goes straight to heaven.

Wait just a minute, you may well say. Even if you don’t believe in God or heaven, the logic of Ballou’s Universalism may strike you as, well, problematic. Everyone gets to go straight to heaven? What about Hitler? What about slave owners?

Thus Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, a Unitarian Universalist minister, makes an obvious point when he says:

“If God is just and loving there must be a reason. If there is no reason, one is led to the conclusion that God is neither just nor loving. Hosea Ballou’s Ultra-Universalism, the ‘death and glory school’ in which all are saved and brought into God’s embrace upon death, is mute on this. In fact, it trivializes black suffering. What is the meaning of enslavement if the master and slave are both redeemed? The way black theology answers this question is that God is the God of the oppressed; that God through Jesus, who suffered, identifies with the oppressed and will comfort and lift them up.” (“The Black Hole in the White Psyche,” fall, 2017 issue of UU World magazine)

I don’t have an adequate response to Mark’s point.

When I worked with Lindsay Bates, long-time minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, she and I used to argue about Universalist theology. Lindsay took a middle ground between Mark and me; she was a Restorationist. The Restorationists said there were some kinds of evil that must be punished after death: there will be punishment for sin after death, but it will be time-limited punishment. Eventually, though, God will bring us all into harmony with divine love. Though I never convinced Lindsay, I always argued for Ultra-Universalism. I had a couple of reasons for arguing for “death-and-glory,” one selfish and one transcendent.

My selfish reason is that I’m pretty sure that under the Restorationist model I and most everyone I know would have to go through a term of corrective, purifying punishment. First of all, if you’ve ever been in any socio-economic class from the working class on up in the United States, you have benefited from globalized consumer capitalism that oppresses and exploits workers and benefited from resource extraction that is killing people here in the U.S. and around the world, as well as killing other living beings. Here in the U.S., given our collective sins against the environment, any conventional reading of sin and salvation would send us all straight to hell.

We could draw similar conclusions about other American societal sins: men who have benefited from patriarchy would go to hell; white people have benefited from racism and colonialism would go to hell; people who live in suburbs like Palo Alto have benefited from redlining and suburban sprawl would go to hell; and so on.

Even if you don’t believe in the Christian God, even if sin and punishment after death aren’t something you worry about, you have to acknowledge that most of us carry around a heavy load of sin, where sin is defined as transgressions against other humans or against other non-human beings. So my selfish reason for being a Universalist is that when I believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe, then I feel there is some hope for me being forgiven. What I get from Hosea Ballou is a hope for forgiveness.

Then there’s my transcendent reason for wanting to affirm Hosea Ballou’s Universalism. This is quite simple: Ballou shows that God’s love is bigger than you or I can know. I want to let that kind of love into my soul, to make me better than I can be on my own.

However, Ballou’s theology also means that we humans are urgently called, here and now, to address injustice; that injustice is caused by humans, not by God, and therefore it is up to us humans to end injustice; and that any injustice is a sin, that if we allow injustice to flourish we are indulging in sin.

Ballou throws an overwhelming responsibility on humanity — we humans are the cause of all the sins we hate, and we humans are the ones who must end sin and injustice. Ballou does not let us to pretend that some Daddy God is going to come down and solve our problems for us. Nor does Ballou let us pretend that there is some embodied Devil who cause we evil. It is we humans who are the cause of evil, and it is we humans who are called to end evil.

So maybe this is not as comforting a theology as it seems on the surface. The necessity of addressing injustice can feel like a crushing load. In some ways, it is a more crushing load than the Calvinist hell and damnation that Ballou was trying to save us from. It might be especially crushing when you are the target of sinful injustice, and watching your oppressors benefit from the evil they are doing to you.

I think what Hosea Ballou’s Universalism does for me is to relieve me of the necessity to anticipate vengeance. So, for example, some of my liberal friends absolutely hate Donald Trump, and some of them are consumed by thoughts of how vengeance might be wreaked upon him. I can feel the attraction of that line of thought, and I’ve even headed down that path myself.

But I find that dwelling on thoughts of vengeance can consume me. Whereas dwelling on the power of love serves to motivate me, keeps me from getting frozen in place. So, problematic though it may be, I continue to call myself a Ballouvian Universalist.

(Some of this text comes from earlier blog posts.)

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