As most people in this room today know, the Unitarian Universalist religious tradition which we claim and which we celebrate here is a tradition that originates from two separate Christian denominations: the Unitarian and the Universalist. Both have long traditions. You can make a case that each goes back to Biblical times.
The two traditions were consolidated into one in 1961 when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America joined together. There has been a tendency in our churches to emphasize the Unitarian over the Universalist in our preaching and our teaching, and it often happens that we are referred to simply as “Unitarians” when others speak of us. It’s a good idea from time to time to lift up the Universalist side of our heritage, because it certainly has informed our thinking in ways that we are not always aware of. At the same time, the term “universalism” seems outdated to some, given theological developments across time.
Today, I’d like to talk about two things: Universalism as it was first understood within the framework of Christian teachings as preserved in the New Testament, and Universalism as it may be understood by us today who have a broader understanding of religious inclusion.
Universalism as a development of Christian understanding originated in this country from the teachings of two ministers in particular, John Murray and Hosea Ballou. John Murray was born in England and preached the gospel in England, at least until he was excommunicated for his universalist views. He immigrated to this land in 1770 at the age of 29 in order to start a new life. The ship on which he traveled landed in Good Luck, New Jersey, in late September of that year, and he found himself called to preach within days of his landing. He stayed there for four years before moving to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he founded the first Universalist church in the Americas, two years before the beginning of the American Revolution. He was appointed chaplain of the Rhode Island Brigade by General George Washington, despite the objections of other chaplains to Murray’s unorthodox refusal to state his belief in the existence of hell.
The arguments, which caused him so much trouble and which seemed crucial to Christian ministers at the time, have lost their traction with Unitarian Universalists over the decades and centuries—to the extent that it’s hard for us now to understand the amount of courage it took in those days to take the stands he did.
He was teaching at a time when the sinfulness of all of mankind was a near universal belief. The strictest of the interpretations, embraced by Calvinists, especially, held that some people were predestined to be saved,and some were predestined to suffer eternally, God’s perfect knowledge perfect in its future understandings. Others held that the sin of Adam and Eve, the original sin, condemned all of their descendants to perdition unless they were to take Jesus Christ as their savior: through his saving work, Jesus Christ redeemed sinful man through his willing acceptance of death on the cross.
John Murray taught “that all men would ultimately be saved through the sacrifice of Christ, the basis for this being the union of all men in Christ (yes, he wrote in the days before sexually inclusive language), just as they were united with Adam, and therefore partaking of the benefits of his sacrifice.” (Wikipedia)
Hosea Ballou was born in New Hampshire in 1771, the year after John Murray’s ship landed in New Jersey, and Ballou began preaching twenty years later, in 1791. He was born into a Calvinistic Baptist family, but he felt that his eyes and ears were opened when he heard the preaching of Caleb Rich, who preached a more liberal theology.
Ballou was an itinerant preacher, as many were in those days. This had the advantage of providing him with the opportunity of hearing ministers preach from a wide variety of perspectives. The preacher who seems to have influenced him most was Ethan Allen, famous as one of the Vermont Green Mountain Boys and an important figure in the war for independence. Ethan Allen was no orthodox preacher; in fact he was a Deist. He attacked orthodox Christianity through the use of reason in a publication called Reason: the Only Oracle of Man. Ballou was persuaded by Allen’s argument that the scriptures must be read in the light of reason. Ballou rejected the argument for Trinitarianism and, beginning in 1795, preached a gospel of Universalism based on a unitarian understanding of God.
Hosea Ballou’s great work is called The Treatise on Atonement. It argues against the orthodox view of atonement. Ernest Cassals nicely summarizes Ballou’s views this way: “Human beings are incapable of offending an infinite God. Therefore, (Ballou) rejected the orthodox argument that the death of Jesus Christ was designed to appease an angry God, and replaced it with the idea that God is a being of eternal love who seeks the happiness of his human children. It is not God who must be reconciled to human beings, but human beings who must be reconciled to God. Ballou was convinced that once people realized this, they would take pleasure in living a moral life and doing good works.”
Hosea Ballou was a New Hampshire country boy, born and bred. He never went to college, and he carried his country accent and manner of speaking with him throughout his life, though his writing became more polished as he refined his arguments against more orthodox thinkers. His down-home manner made him seem unsophisticated to some, but to his parishioners and those who were attuned to his message, his lack of pretentiousness made his words all the more appealing. The touch of humor he brought to his speaking engagements also endeared him to his listeners. His was a message of love, and he stressed that a love that was thought of as “infinite,” God’s love, was so far beyond our comprehension that it made no sense to try to understand it within our limited experience of what love could be.
Calvinists, however, thought of atonement as a kind of ransom. Humanity is captured by sin and thus condemned to suffer: the role of Christ was to offer a ransom in order to liberate humanity from this suffering. But, as time went by, the Calvinist perspective evolved, as well. One understanding was that “Christ died to uphold God’s law, or for his glory.”
Ballou’s response was to say that God’s reputation did not need such “enhancement.” When he rejected the argument for the Trinity as unscriptural and not in accord with reason, “he likened it to belief in ‘infinity, multiplied by three’.”
In the book, Religions of America, edited by Leo Rosten, Christopher Gist Raible writes that “From their beginnings in America, both Unitarianism and Universalism were in harmony with the democratic ideals of freedom, individualism, and social progress.” We find these values running through the writings of Hosea Ballou to a remarkable degree. His arguments against orthodoxy are arguments for the freedom of the individual to struggle to find his or her own truth in the scriptures that we inherit. Ballou says:
We feel our own imperfections; we wish for every one to seek, with all his might, after wisdom; and let it be found where it may, or by whom it may, we humbly wish to have it brought to light that all may enjoy it; but (we) do not feel authorized to condemn an honest inquirer after truth for what he believes different from a majority of us.
He knows that all too often our fear of contradicting ourselves necessarily limits our ability to grow in knowledge and understanding. He says:
Knowing, to my satisfaction, that authors are very liable to feel such an attachment to sentiments which they have openly avowed to the world, that their prejudice frequently obstructs their further acquisitions in the knowledge of the truth; and even in cases of conviction, their own self-importance will keep them from acknowledging their mistakes. And having some knowledge of my own infirmities, I felt the necessity of precaution, which I have no reason to believe is, or has been, injurious.
Speak the truth as you know it, even if it contradicts the truth as you used to know it. This is true humility in the service of a wider and deeper understanding.
And Hosea Ballou understands that mouthing pieties without feeling the truth of their sentiment and bringing that truth into the world by our actions serves no purpose but to fool ourselves. He says:
No faith, however true it may be, can be of any real service to the believer, unless it be accompanied with the spirit and life of that truth in which it is grounded. The greater the beauty of a person, the more lamentable his death. The more divinity there is in any faith, the greater is the pity it should not be alive. As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
For all these reasons and more, we should be grateful for the contributions made to our religious understandings by Hosea Ballou. But, in the 21st century, when more Unitarian Universalists identify as humanists than Christians, we need to look more deeply at what Universalism can mean for us.
We’re at a stage in our development where, for better or worse, the popular culture, for many of us, provides more useful touchstones for communication than the Bible does. I wonder if you remember a movie called Gravity, which was released four years ago. In it, Sandra Bullock, playing Dr. Ryan Stone, and George Clooney, playing Dr. Matt Kowalski, are astronauts who are stranded in space after the destruction of their space shuttle in mid-orbit. Space debris is streaming towards them, and they need to find a way to get to a Chinese space station before being struck and destroyed.
There is a scene where Dr. Stone talks about her home-life and the death of her child. The viewer is struck by the intimacy between the two astronauts in the midst of the impersonal void—and the need for such intimacy for what is inherently human to survive. Things develop in such a way that the two get tangled in a parachute cord, Stone holding on to the strap of Kowalski’s suit. It becomes clear that they cannot both survive; Kowalski detaches himself from the tether so that Dr. Stone can be pulled back to the space station; Kowalski floats away to certain death.
Here the relationships are very personal, and the dangers are portrayed as very real. While the partners are together, there is a sense of warmth and connectedness evoked by their closeness, their mutual dependence, their common humanity, vulnerable and afraid in the midst of uncertainty in a blind and uncaring universe. Once Kowalski releases his hold on the cord and drifts away, the enormity and emptiness of space fills the screen—and the viewer’s imagination.
What is left in the heart is the question of life vs. death, meaning vs. meaninglessness, a void where there is no such thing as human warmth, and the hope that somehow something meaningful can emerge from that void. Ultimately, whatever the course of the events that make up the plot, the only thing that can bring significance to the void is the significance of love. Perhaps it’s better to say, the experience of love or, better yet, the experience of being loved.
As it happens, that’s not the way the movie plays out. We root for the heroine as she must use her ingenuity to find her way back to Earth; she needs all the resources she can muster and luck besides, and once she makes it, the screen and the theater are filled with relief and gratitude and the renewed appreciation for small things. But, when I see her drifting alone in the immensity of the void that is space, I feel the fear of absolute aloneness in being abandoned by fate—and the understanding that the only thing that can redeem that estrangement is love.
This is another way of understanding the story of the sacrifice of Christ—as the gift of a love that can overcome even the most extreme form of estrangement, the abandonment to impersonal forces where the absence of love creates a void that holds us at an existential remove from any meaning at all.
The term “universalism” is a pretty dry term for the expansive nature of love that it attempts to capture. It states that no one is beyond the field of a love that is absolute, because by its very nature that love is all-inclusive.
One question that emerges for us is: Is there a love that is so all-embracing that it will include us at all times, no matter what we have done, no matter what we feel about ourselves, no matter our condition or feeling about our condition? A more theoretical question, but one that insists upon an answer: Are even those who commit the most evil acts capable of being redeemed by this love? And the personal question: Is it necessary for us, imperfect human beings that we are, to learn how to love in this all-inclusive way in order to find happiness and peace in our lives?
If you are on Facebook as often as I am, it is inevitable that you have seen the videos. You know the ones, where a dog adopts a brood of baby chicks, or a gorilla takes in a stray goat, where a turtle bonds with a donkey. In other words, where inter-species bonds of caring are formed in spite of everything we have learned about how species interact with each other.
Sometimes, it appears to me that universal love means that there is in fact something called love that is real and that lives in all kinds of beings, needing only an opportunity to make itself known in action. Hosea Ballou says that No faith, however true it may be, can be of any real service to the believer, unless it be accompanied with the spirit and life of that truth in which it is grounded.
What is true for faith is no less true for love, that it does not exist as a term or an abstraction. Words just point the way towards it. It exists as a spirit that needs expression and that becomes real when it finds expression. In whatever ways we try to capture it in words, we are doomed to fail. A mother holding her child in her arms, friends clasping one another in a hug when they meet or when they part, lovers embracing—love makes itself known through actions, through physical touch, through acts of devotion and sacrifice.
And yet, love can be romanticized to the point of danger. The human need for closeness can excuse acts of violence as signs of love awkwardly expressed. The desire to bring love into the world can open us to exploitation and violation. We can thirst for love with such desperation that we twist the meanings of all kinds of exploitative acts as love trying to find its way. So, I counsel against romanticizing love, of turning it into an idol instead of understanding it as both a vehicle and an entity capable of transformation.
In the song by Enya that we played during the offertory today, we heard “May it be when darkness falls your heart will be true.” That’s a prayer for love to be present when fear obscures the way. Only a belief in love will make love real. And that belief derives from experience.
I try to remind myself, when these days are dark, that those who act out of meanness and spite and suspicion and vindictiveness may never have known love as a real experience to be enjoyed and shared with the world. And yet self-love and the need for self-preservation, and the desire to see others treated with respect, remind me that caution as well as the desire for love is a blessing to the world.
The early Christian Universalists like John Murray and Hosea Ballou believed in a God who embodied and embraced all with a love that was and is universal. Many Christian Unitarian Universalists believe that today. But, if you find that such a belief is not commensurate with reason, perhaps you would do better to just imagine that the love you have experienced in your life may well be capable of being magnified to a level where the distinction between love and judgment has been erased and love has reached the dimension of infinity. The warmth of that embrace subsumes the terror of the void.
If we want a more loving world, we must bring more love into it. To bring love into the world, we must feel its living impulse in our hearts. To keep our hearts open in the presence of things that make us fearful is an act of faith—the faith that love is a larger force than fear and can transform us even as we seek to transform the world.
- Wikipedia: “John Murray (minister);” “Hosea Ballou;”“Universalism;” “Gravity (film)”
- uudb. org/articles/: Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography: Hosea Ballou; John Murray
- www.danharper. org: A Treatise on Atonement by Hosea Ballou
- Religions of America edited by Leo Rosten. Simon and Schuster, NY, NY. 1975.
Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly
at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green
on March 5, 2017