The Diversity Thing

Diversity isn’t as simple as it sounds. Increasingly the business world is paying attention to multiculturalism and cultural diversity issues. They're training their people to recognize those differences between workers that are grounded in the worker's culture-worthy-of-respect. Doesn't sound complicated.

At my congregation, and in my denomination (Unitarian Universalists), we have a lot of certain kinds of diversity. Like many UU congregations, the membership of mine includes pagans, and Christians, and Buddhists, and humanists – all sitting side by side, walking hand-in-hand, sharing in the faith that life is good, that justice is attainable, that caring redeems us, and that joy is one another’s company. Some UUs journal, some take quiet walks in the woods, some (like me) meditate, some of us turn to scriptures of Eastern or of Western religious traditions – yet we are unified by our covenant to stand by each other, stand for our seven principles, and stand on the side of love. How much more diverse would we -- or any group -- want to be? What are reasonable and fair aspirations when it comes to diversity? That's where it starts getting complicated.

There is something that we might call a Unitarian Universalist culture. We UUs are predominantly white, upper middle class with an average of 17.2 years of schooling, which puts us at a Master’s degree in our educational level, and that’s significantly higher than the general population. Rosemary Bray McNatt in the recent issue of our magazine, UU World, characterized UU culture this way:

“Many of us are the people who brag about not owning televisions because there is nothing worth watching, unless it is PBS. Many of us are the people who refuse to listen to popular music because it is misogynistic and violent, and more than a few of us regard rap music as nothing more than noise and confusion. Many of us change the channel, and listen to NPR and love Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, and laugh when Keillor makes fun of us. Many of us are unapologetic nature lovers, and the only thing we might love more than hiking in the woods is building our congregations in the woods, complete with tiny elegant signs that blend in well with the natural environment but cannot possibly be seen by a seeker on the highway. Many of us eat locally, we shop at farmer’s markets, and we would never be caught in Wal-Mart, unless it was a dire emergency. Many of us do look ahead in our hymnal to see whether we agree with the words, and forget that the person sitting next to us may need exactly the words we are refusing to sing."

We have a kind of culture. And even though UU congregations include a lot of members of whom McNatt’s description isn’t at all true, we have managed to be the sort of place where people who do more-or-less fit McNatt’s description feel at home. This in itself doesn’t mean we aren’t diverse. We may have a higher proportion of Public Radio fans than the general population, but we also have a number of members who don’t listen to Public Radio at all.

My colleague, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, an African American Unitarian Universalist minister, insists that Unitarian Universalism is an ethnic faith. He spoke of his multi-ethnic neighborhood in Toronto where there are a large number of houses of worship which are predominantly of one culture or ethnicity: a Korean church, a Thai Buddhist Temple, a Mosque, a Greek Orthodox church, all within walking distance.

Morrison-Reed says the Unitarian Universalist Congregation is every bit as much an ethnic faith as those others. The Armenian Orthodox church in town is a center of Armenian culture; the Cambodian temple a center of Cambodian culture. These institutions don’t try to be culturally diverse – it’s a large part of their function to maintain their own one culture. Maybe we Unitarian Universalists should lighten up on ourselves – stop flagellating ourselves for not attracting more people from more widely varying cultures – settle for the wide and impressive theological diversity that we already have, and accept that we are an ethnic church, a culture center for Prius-driving, fair-trade-coffee-drinking, PBS-watching, vegetarian, world religion dilettantes.

Well, no. That’s a caricature of Unitarian Universalists, of course. Most UUs aren’t that way. So what are we? To describe the Unitarian Universalist culture a little more fairly and accurately: We’re people who have a style of worship that is basically Protestant – in its structure and its form, though not its content. We light a chalice, which, for us, symbolizes the flame of divinity held in the container of community. And we sing from, and read readings out of, a particular hymnal: Singing the Living Tradition. If you had to point to one thing that is characteristic of just about all UUs and no non-UUs, this hymnal would probably be your best bet.

Unitarian Universalists do constitute and comprise a distinct culture. That doesn't mean, however, that the average UU knows her own culture very well. It's important to respect and honor diversity. At the same time, our congregations would do well to keep in mind that they are never going to attract significant numbers of people who want something different from what Unitarian Universalism is. By knowing who we are, and being authentic to who we are, we will be able to attract more people who are like us even if their cultural background is nonwhite.

It's also worth reminding ourselves that change will come whether we want it or not. Unitarian Universalists have (or are) a culture, but it's a different one every year -- every day -- and like the rivers of which Heraclitus spoke, the same one cannot be stepped in twice. If you want us to change, have no fear. It is inevitable. Society around us is changing, and we change with it. As more African Americans, Asians, Latinos and Latinas infiltrate all strata of society, more of them will come to want the sort of approach to religion that Unitarian Universalism especially emphasizes -- an approach that:

- does not tell them the one way they must believe;
- urges people to think hard and diligently about what to believe, but that ultimately does not define one’s religion in terms of belief;
- shares a covenant to affirm seven general principles and no theology more specific than that;
- insists that every birth is a blessing, that everybody’s actions matter, that no experience of divinity can be lightly dismissed, and that no one has to go it alone – and that anything much more specific than that is optional as long as, together, we stand on the side of love;
- sings and reads out of “Singing the Living Tradition”, that lights chalices, and politely mentions Jesus from time to time – at least on Christmas and Easter;
- carries forward a history of free and thoughtful people wrestling with religious questions and church governance, a history going back 400 years to the early years of the Reformation itself;
- stands upon the shoulders of William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodor Parker, Olympia Brown, Eleanor Gordon and Mary Safford, John Dietrich and Curtis Reese and peers into a still more glorious dawn that they upon whose shoulders we stand could not have imagined.

When the barrier to inclusivity has been gender, Unitarian Universalist history shows that we have moved well to surmount that barrier. It’s true that we had a number of women ministers in the late 1800s, and that a backlash against women Unitarian minister meant that there were virtually none by 1920. But it’s also true that when second-wave feminism came in the 1960s, our congregations accepted large numbers of women ministers more readily than any of the mainstream denominations.

When the barrier to inclusivity was sexual orientation, Unitarian Universalist history shows that we have moved well to surmount that barrier. We performed same-sex unions (in some congregations as far back as the 50s), and eventually began observing them as simply marriages – religious marriage rather than civil marriage. We came to accept gay and lesbian ministers – and eventually transgender folk in our pews and in our pulpits.

These moves to tear down barriers to inclusivity have been matters of being authentic to what Unitarian Universalism is. Freedom, reason, and acceptance are the very definition of liberal religion.

But when the barrier to inclusivity has been culture, we run into trouble. We are good at tearing down barriers by being true to who we are. Not surprisingly, we aren’t so good at the kind of tearing down that would require us to stop being who we are. So our level of diversity in terms of race isn’t nearly as high as our diversity in terms of theology, gender, and sexual orientation.

And race is culture. The scientists tell us that, biologically, there is no such thing as race – that genetically, the differences within the group we identify as “black” and the differences within the group we identify as “white” are larger than the differences between white and black. If race is not biology, then it can only be culture. Yet culture is not monolithic, it isn’t fixed. It is always changing, and the efforts of some to preserve their culture can succeed at some levels but are doomed to fail at others. Mostly you can preserve the artifacts of a culture: you can, sometimes with some success, deliberately motivate a group to keep wearing certain kinds of clothes, keep cooking and eating certain kinds of foods, keep making and listening to certain kinds of music, and keep speaking a “native” language, but these artifacts of culture inevitably take on new meanings as history and the wider context rolls on, and the artifacts preserved will inevitably come to feel more and more like museum pieces and less and less like un-self-conscious manifestations of a way of life.

Unitarian Universalist culture is changing – and each slight change makes this faith tradition attractive to a slightly different sort of newcomer, and each newcomer shifts our culture still further. In my lifetime as a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist, I have seen us increasingly recognize that scientific understanding is compatible with disciplining ourselves to exercise to strengthen certain neural pathways that help us have more joy and more kindness in our life. I’ve seen us develop more taste for reading a certain kind of writing sometimes called “spiritual.” I’ve also seen, in my life time, that substantial lowering of the barriers to inclusivity of women and GLBT folk. Our Unitarian Universalist culture is changing, and the African American culture is also changing, and all the various nonwhite cultures are evolving.

It’s true that our membership roles under-represent nonwhites. In 10 years, 1998 - 2008, the proportion of the US population that were people of color (either nonwhite or Hispanic or both) climbed from 28 percent to 34 percent. In the same 10 years, the proportion of UUs that were people of color climbed only from 9 percent to 11 percent. Yet, as Morrison-Reed points out, the people of color who do become Unitarian Universalist are those happy to operate within our norms. As more people of color become comfortable with those norms, we’ll see more of them. And as we see more of them, they will shift our norms – incrementally, in small steps. One sign of our moving culture was the appearance a few years ago of our hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, with more current and popular styles of music represented.

While cultural evolution has an organic component to it – it happens willy-nilly (will-ye-or-nil-ye), and in ways we cannot predict – there can also be a thoughtful, intentional component. Unitarian Universalist culture represents the combined efforts of centuries of free and thoughtful women and men looking for a way to nurture our spirits and help heal our world. We mean to be respectful of other religions, we mean to learn from them, we mean to honor and accept and celebrate what they show us of human creativity in response to the conditions of life. Their example teaches us profound lessons about human capacity – we learn what we too would have been had we merely been raised that way.

For all our respect and open-ness to learn from other religions and other cultures, we have our own. And our own is necessarily our best guess about how we can nurture our spirits and help heal our world – this we, in turn, offer back to the world insofar as it is willing to respect and learn from us. To put it bluntly: we do think we’re right. Right, that is, about the modest claim that this Unitarian Universalist path is the best way for people more-or-less like us to nurture our spirits and help heal our world. That’s our claim. If we didn’t think this was the best way for us, we wouldn’t be doing what we do. If we thought that something else was better, we’d have adopted it.

The trouble with diversity comes if our respect and open-ness to learn leads us to view all cultures as needing to be preserved. Some diversity, our planet is better off without. The African American culture that grew up under Jim Crow, was a testament to human resilience under difficult conditions. It was a paragon of community solidarity, and ingenuity and courage and leadership under oppressive circumstances. There is much to admire and much to learn from. Some in the African American community have sometimes seemed nostalgic about those days because of the solidarity people showed. Even so, the culture that arose as a response to Jim Crow is a culture that we can be glad, all things considered, doesn't exist anymore.

A culture is a set of interlocking coping strategies. So when we remove horrific things that have had to be coped with, a culture is lost. As we move forward, we can remember the flowers that bloomed amidst the pain of what we left behind – yet let us, indeed, not fail to leave it behind.

It’s possible, for example, that we might one day be able to eliminate deafness. Widespread access to cochlear implant and gene therapy might someday make every human on the planet able to hear. This might be many years away – conceivably, it might not be so many. Would this be a good thing? I think so, yes – although there would be a loss. There are deaf activists who regard the cochlear implant as cultural genocide. Deaf people have a culture and a language – ASL, American Sign Language – and part of the richness of the world of diversity is inventive coping strategies these humans have come up with. That’s a culture to respect, to cherish, to honor, to learn from, to be inspired by. It’s also, I believe, a culture to be eliminated if we can do so by eliminating deafness.

Take, for another instance, poverty and the culture of poverty. There are growing disparities of wealth in the US – and not just between the very rich and the very poor, but between the “kinda rich,” say the 80th percentile of income, and the “kinda poor,” say the 20th percentile of income. In constant inflation-adjusted 2004 dollars, the gap between an income at the 80th percentile and an income at the 20th percentile has more than tripled – from under $24,000 in 1947 to over $75,000 in 2005. (Remember: those are inflation-adjusted 2004 dollars!)

The culture that emerges as a group of people together copes with its economic oppression is something we can learn from – and we can admire lives of dignity and integrity in the midst of deprivation. But all things considered, we would be better off without that culture and the poverty that produces it. Since the days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, concern with poverty and flat-out economic injustice has all but dropped completely out of the national discourse. When was the last time you heard a politician advocate redistribution of wealth? There’s a real need to reawaken attention to poverty, to economic inequality – to the elmination of poverty if we have the will and the means to do it, even though that would also mean the passing of a certain culture.

On the troubling question of cultural diversity, it comes to this:

- Your own culture: know it well. Go deep into it.
- Other cultures: respect them and learn from them.
- Cultures that arise as responses to oppression, injustice, or disability: respect and learn from them, too -- while also working to remove the harmful conditions that make them necessary and possible.


Atheists & Agnostics & Unitarian Universalism


One criticism of professing atheism is that it’s presumptuous to claim to know – and that the atheist and theist alike claim to know what is fundamentally unknowable. This criticism is silly. Atheism and theism are not, except peripherally at most, about knowledge. They are about deciding how one is going to live. Are you going to live as if there were a God, or as if there were not one? That’s the question.

It is true that a certain arrogance can sometimes affect a person of either persuasion. Some atheists and some theists will regard you as benighted – ignorant (perhaps malignantly) or stupid (perhaps malignantly) – if you do not agree with them. But let us set aside this issue of hubristic certainty, for theism and atheism come in both arrogant and humble variants, and neither arrogance nor humility is a characteristic of either atheism as such or theism as such.
My complaint to the atheist is not that she presumes an unattainable certainty (after all, who am I to be so certain that her certainty really is unattainable?). My complaint is that “atheism” is not an answer to any question I’m interested in asking. If I am interested in your faith, in your spiritual life, in your religious practices or beliefs, and you tell me you are an atheist, you have only told me what you don’t believe. But what I would be wanting to know is what you do believe. Or, better yet, what you practice. What do you do cultivate in yourself the qualities that you most want to have, to be the person you most want to be? What do you practice to help you develop the spiritual virtues? (I use "spiritual virtues" to refer to: inner peace, equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, joy, intuitive wisdom.) What groups do you join with, or would you consider joining with, in spiritual community to foster together those spiritual virtues? What rituals does that group perform to strengthen the communal connection of its members? What other ethics and values do you adhere to as supportive of your path toward the cultivation of those spiritual virtues? What experiences of transcendence, or one-ness, or interconnection, or wholeness have you had that have had lingering effects on your interest in the spiritual virtues? All of this, I would be interested in hearing about from you. And saying, “I’m an atheist” doesn’t answer any of these questions – or any question that I would care to be asking. “Atheist” leaves all of my questions unanswered, still on the table, awaiting your response. (Saying, “I’m a theist,” if that's what you are, is a little more helpful, but only a little.)


Consequently, “agnostic” is no improvement over “atheist” as a way to identify yourself religiously. Now you’ve told me what you’re not sure about. But I’m not asking what you are or aren’t sure of. I’m only asking what you are willing “to do with your one wild and precious life” (as Mary Oliver puts it) vis-à-vis those spiritual virtues, communities, experiences. Let us grant that we do not have certainty. Now what? What ethic and values shall we live by? What community shall we join and build? What intentional practices shall we undertake to sharpen our perception of the luminous quality of existence? These are questions to which living cannot help but offer up an answer, one way or another, by default or by deliberate purpose.

Unitarian Universalism

Both the self-identified agnostic and the “true believer” have in common that they take as central the question, “What can I know for sure?” “Nothing,” insists the agnostic. Fine. But for Unitarian Universalism that is not the central question. For us, the question is more like: "What shall I be in the world? How shall I practice awareness and bring to the world compassion and wisdom?” Our answer to these questions identifies our religion – and “agnostic” is not an answer to these questions. Saying you're agnostic – just as saying you’re atheist -- answers a question that we're not asking.

To approach the matter another way, once we acknowledge uncertainty – that there's always more to learn, and nothing is permanently exempt from revision – then either we have to say there is no such thing as knowledge, or else we must conceive of knowledge as allowing for change and growth. The latter course seems the better. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition inclines toward a view of knowledge as doing – specifically, as effective doing (while ignorance is ineffective doing). If this is what “knowledge” is, then we UUs are not a people who “don’t know.” We act, and our action's effectiveness is the embodiment of what we know. So, no, Unitarian Universalists are not agnostic, for we do not profess ignorance. Indeed, our knowledge is displayed in all our doing; and our religious knowledge is manifest as our way of living in community, with care, and for justice.


Meditation as a selfish thing?

Minnesota native Jim Reynolds became a Theravada Buddhist monk in the Thai tradition. Now known as Ajahn Chandako, he is the abbot of a monastery near Aukland, New Zealand. Recently he was visiting his home state giving a series of talks. About his physical and spiritual journeys, he said:
“I could have gone off to the Amazon and become an ecoterrorist, blowing up bulldozers that were ruining the rainforest. But I knew that would potentially harm other people, and it wouldn’t come from a peaceful mind. If one is practicing meditation correctly, it naturally leads to a reduction in anger and selfishness and greed. It very directly affects the people around us, our family and friends, the people we know best. Ripples start to go out in unseen ways. Immediately, the idea of meditation as a selfish thing doesn’t make sense. It has immediate effects.”
Friends, this struck a chord, because, frankly, those un-blown-up bulldozers really are wreaking an atrocious toll on the rainforest, and, yeah, I’ve got some anger about that. I can see the appeal of taking direct action to equalize the ratio of blown-up bulldozers to not-yet-blown-up bulldozers. Ah, but the good Ajahn is right. Such playing with incendiary devices is not the product of a peaceful mind. Not to mention that it would harm other people.

Compassion and understanding toward the downtrodden – the people and ecologies bulldozed by injustice and greed and fear and consumerism and ignorance – is easy. The trick is to bring compassion and understanding to the bulldozers, too. In the end, only this can effect real and permanent good.

Does spiritual practice help you feel better?
It also cultivates the peace and compassion that our world so desperately needs.


Who Are These People?

(This is a revised version of a sermon I delivered yesterday at The First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches in North Palm Beach, Florida)

I grew up Unitarian Universalist. I grew up in the Southeast: in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. In adulthood, I lived in Atlanta, Georgia; Waco, Texas; Charlottesville, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; Rochester, Minnesota. That was all before I became a minister. However strange a new town might feel, however adrift in unfamiliar streets and customs I might be, I would look up the local Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Yellow Pages. (You remember Yellow Pages? It’s what us old timers used to use before there was the internet.) I would show up on Sunday morning and there I would be among my people. I would be home.

Yet even I, born and raised Unitarian Universalist, would occasionally have a certain experience. It must be even more common among the many people who do not come to Unitarian Universalism until adulthood. I’m talking about those times of looking around the room – around the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, or at a committee meeting, or a potluck dinner – and thinking: Who are these people? They’re not really like the (fill-in-the-blank) other people.

Unitarian Universalists today are the inheritors of a long and a deep and a rich tradition of free and thoughtful people making together religious community.

Heaven, hell, and sin are big concepts. Many of those who do find themselves landing at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in adulthood after growing up in some other tradition have journeyed through significant evolution of their concepts of what heaven and hell and sin are. The individual journey that many Unitarian Universalists have taken recapitulates the journey of Unitarianism and Universalism. The liberal religious movement in this country went through stages, just as some current Unitarian Universalists individually did. Before we could come to a place of affirming both heaven and hell as experiences in this life, we started by saying there was no hell of eternal afterlife punishment.

To illustrate this evolution, let’s look at the life of an early Universalist: Hosea Ballou,  born in 1771. His father, Maturin Ballou, was a preacher in Rhode Island before American independence. Then he headed out for that harsh New Hampshire wilderness for a new life. It was a tough life. With the tools they had, and the stony ground, and the short growing season, only the scantiest of living could be wrung from the land. And on Sundays, Maturin “preached without pay in the plain little meetinghouse where the members of his own household provided a large portion of the congregation” (Scott 58). Hosea was Maturin and Lydia Ballou’s eleventh child – so that congregation wasn’t quite so small as might have been supposed. When Hosea was two, his mother Lydia died, worn out and without medical care.

It was a life of arduous toil. Hosea was 19 years old before he first went to school. And the only reading matter in the house was one Bible, one old almanac, one battered dictionary, and one pamphlet about the Tower of Babel.

Maturin was a strict Calvinist Baptist. He preached that God willed eternal damnation for most of the human race. As Hosea was growing up, gradually the hamlet near the Ballou farm, Richmond, New Hampshire, grew. There were more people in the church.

And Maturin stepped down from the pulpit before Hosea was baptized at age 17. By full immersion. Out of doors. In a New Hampshire river. In November.

About that time, Hosea began to think about “the reasons for the faith he had accepted. There was no use asking his father questions; he already knew what the answers would be. So he went to the Bible” (Scott 59-60). He went to see for himself what it really said. What he saw was disturbing. What he saw were a lot of passages that seemed to contradict what he’d been taught all his life. What he saw didn’t say anything about most of humanity being condemned to hell forever.

Then, as if on cue, as if to compound Hosea’s uncertainties, word started to drift over from Warwick, New Hampshire, about six miles away, that there was a minister there named Caleb Rich who was preaching a strange doctrine called Universalism. And occasionally some cohorts of Caleb Rich came and visited Hosea’s church just for the purpose of raising embarrassing questions. “How could a good God be responsible for endless suffering in hell of creatures of his own making?” And what about this passage here, Romans chapter 5, verse 18: “Therefore as through one man’s offense [Adam’s], judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one man’s righteous act [Jesus’s] the free gift came to all men resulting in justification of life.” All men, it says – all people, to use a better translation. What’s up with that?

These universalists were starting to get a following in Richmond, New Hampshire. The Calvinists resisted strongly, but some substantial Baptists were won over. A whole family of Ballous – cousins of Hosea – were won over. This universalist threat had to be countered. Hosea went to the Bible to find the refutations that would confound these wrong-headed universalists once and for all. But instead, he found himself forced to yield more and more ground.

Hosea really struggled. “Could it be that his father missed important passages in the Bible? Is the doctrine of ‘election’ really true? Is the great majority of humanity doomed to endless suffering?” (Scott 60). Hosea felt like: “Hey, if it were up to me, I’d let everybody into heaven. “It’s not like it’s going to get too crowded – it’s infinite. Could God be less kindly than I feel?”

Finally, Hosea Ballou came to resolution of that struggle. He let go a part of his inheritance. Yes, there were still parts of the Bible that did raise questions that he could not answer, but a basic clarity came to him. Certain clouds rolled away, and he said, “That’s it. I am a Universalist.”

Many Unitarian Universalists today can relate to what that moment must have been like. While I was born to this denomination, most of those who are Unitarian Universalist now reached a time in their adult life when they said, “That’s it. There are things I am still struggling with; my quest, my spiritual journey, does continue, but I am a Unitarian Universalist. It’s what I am. My lot is cast with these people.” (For many of them, the very next thought was: “Oh, my, how do I tell my parents?”)

Here’s a story: “One Sunday afternoon as young Hosea sat in the corner of the kitchen, Maturin his father asked, ‘What is that book you are reading?’ and Hosea answered, ‘A Universalist book,’

‘I cannot allow a Universalist book in my house,’ declared the father.

So Hosea walked out to the woodshed,” and, knowing his father would be watching him, in plain sight hid the book “in the woodpile. After Hosea had gone to bed Maturin went to the woodpile, and discovered that the forbidden book was the Bible” (Scott 61).

Hosea scrimped and saved his pennies and, at age 19, bought himself one term at Chesterfield Academy. “He got his money’s worth, absorbing so much from his studies that at the end of the term he was granted a certificate that declared that he was prepared to teach school” (Scott 61). In September 1791, at age 20, he attended the General Convention of Universalists in Oxford, Massachusetts. Universalism had gained a foothold in communities on the Atlantic coast, and Hosea had the chance to hear those preachers speak.

Hosea heard the call, took to preaching. In his day there were many preachers who earned most of their living doing something else. Hosea would teach all week and preach on Sunday. His fame spread. He got ordained.

At age 25 some colleagues began to be a little concerned. He showed no signs of getting married. As far as anyone could tell, he had never had a love affair. His colleague universalist minister Caleb Rich explained to Hosea the hazards of an unmarried minister, and even produced a woman for Hosea: Ruth Washburn – amazingly both intelligent and willing. The marriage was long and happy and produced eleven children. (Perhaps eleven was the quota in those days?)

Through his preaching and his writing, Ballou reshaped Universalist doctrine. Ballou’s 1805 book, A Treatise on Atonement, is a major landmark in the development of our thought. His editorship of the Universalist magazine – creatively titled The Universalist Magazine – gave us our identity for more than a generation.

Unitarian Universalists today are both Unitarians and Universalists. We are Universalists, walking in Hosea Ballou’s footsteps, not to try to be like him, but to be who we are – to let each of our unique little lights shine. We are Universalists not because we believe what Hosea Ballou, or any other predecessor, believed. We are Universalists because we are the latest participants in the conversation that is Universalism – the conversation that Hosea Ballou reshaped with his powerful ideas. It is as participants in that unbroken dialog, that continuous conversation which in this country extends back 240 years, that we are who we are, not by adherence to any article of belief advanced in that conversation. We are Universalists because we today speak with each other continuing the ongoing conversation in which Ballou in his time so eloquently spoke. And we understand ourselves by understanding how we got here, how this conversation came to constitute us. We learn to see for ourselves, more independently and more confidently, by hearkening to the echoes of voices from our past.

In his Treatise on the Atonement Ballou addressed Christ’s act of atoning for our sins by dying on the cross. The Calvinist doctrine proclaimed limited atonement. Christ’s act atoned for only a few – the great majority of humankind was doomed to hell. This included, the Calvinists felt sure, all the nonCalvinists and even probably most of the Calvinists. Ballou’s point, like the other Universalist preachers, was that Christ’s atonement atoned for us all.

And I can agree with that.

Insofar as Jesus knew what he was risking, and did it anyway, insofar as Jesus saw for himself and dared to speak of what he saw despite the danger, then his brave compassion, which earned him crucifixion, redeems us, all of us. Insofar as Socrates’ saw for himself and refused to shut up about what he saw, insofar as he continued to urge others to also come take a look, then his civil disobedience for the cause of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which earned him a bowl of hemlock, redeems us, all of us. Insofar as Katherine Vogel in the sixteenth century saw for herself and spoke out saying God was one and not three, insofar as she would not recant, knowing the penalty, then her theology, which earned her fiery death at the stake, redeems us, all of us. For every act of imagination and vision and courage redeems the species that is capable of producing it. By such acts we are lifted out of our petty, small-minded, mean tendencies and we are shown of what we, too, are capable. Such acts speak to us, if we will listen, and they say, “Hey you, human being, look what your humanity has in it to do.”

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.” Yet it is essentially those words that are spoken to us by those who whose vision and courage wholly guides them: Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Michael Servetus, Katherine Vogel, Harriet Tubman, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Che Guevera, Rigoberta Menchu, Aun Sang Su Chi, Mother Teresa, Steven Biko. Hey y’all. Watch this.

And watching, we are awakened to a depth and possibility of human life. And we are redeemed from a life constrained into more narrow concerns, and all our many failures to be all that we wish we were, are 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 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? We are the inheritors of a long and a deep and a rich tradition of free and thoughtful people making together religious community.