The Price We Pay

Who Are These People? part 3

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.”

Those who whose vision and courage wholly guides them are essentially saying that, too. "Hey, y'all, watch this." Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Michael Servetus, Katherine Vogel, Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Che Guevera, Rigoberta Menchu, Mother Teresa, Stephen Biko. Hey y’all. Watch this.

If we do watch -- if we take a careful look at what they are doing and represent -- we are likely to be awakened to new depths and possibilities of human life. We are likely, thus, to be redeemed from a life constrained into more narrow concerns. All our many failures to be all that we wish we were may be 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 purgatory 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? Who are we? We are the inheritors of a long and a deep and a rich tradition of free and thoughtful people making together religious community.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Who Are These People?"
See also
Part 1: Hosea Went Universalist
Part 2: Atoning For Us All

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