There is a song in Singing the Journey (the turquoise hymnal) that has been singing itself through me lately. The author is the great Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, member of Sweet Honey in the Rock:
For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe
who we are.
We are our grandmothers’ prayers
and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.
The song is, “We Are,” and for a moment just absorb that image:
We are our grandmothers’ prayers
and we are our grandfathers’ dreamings…
I want to talk about some of the prayers and dreamings of our ancestors, today.
We reach back hundreds of years, to help us understand what we mean to the world and to each other, when we show up here and now.
And in view of the fact that Unitarianism tends to get more press (at least that’s my sense of it), we’re going to focus on the Universalist side of our heritage.
Because you know what Universalism is all about?
It’s about loving the hell out of the world. Someone asks you about the Universalism part of your Unitarian Universalism, and in reply just say: it’s about loving the hell out of the world.
But then you know they’re going to come back with, But what does that mean?
Tell them you’re so glad they asked. Here’s what you might say:
Begin with the insight that if there is a hell, it’s here in our world. Universalism does not believe in a hell somewhere beyond, in some supernatural space, but it vehemently believes in the hells that are spread out among us right here and right now, that human beings create for each other.
The violence and hatred and greed.
This-world hellishness, in fact, helps to explain where the idea of a supernatural, beyond-this-world hell might have come from to begin with.
The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) refers to sheol, which is an underworld place, to which both the righteous and the unrighteous go upon death. Everyone goes there, and they go as shadows of themselves. There is no fiery torment to be found there. It is a place of stillness.
This is the traditional Biblical sense of the afterworld.
Until the 6th century BCE. That’s when something horrible happened to Israel, and it would provoke the Hebrew prophets of the time to give birth to fantasies of the wicked experiencing divine retribution, while the righteous are lifted up. What happened was Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylon empire came in to smash the Israelite nation, to destroy the city of Jerusalem, to rape and imprison and enslave the people.
“Apocalypticism” is the theological name given to the revenge fantasies that the Hebrew prophets were dreaming up in response to the hell inflicted upon their people. Isaiah 66:24 says, for example,“ And they (the true worshippers of God) shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence unto all flesh.” This is a cry of outrage from a traumatized people who have no hope of exacting revenge in this life. So that revenge must happen someplace else.
An otherworldly hell.
But the thought of it comes from this-world hellishness. The incredible suffering of the Israelites, under the brutal dominion of Nebuchadnezzar.
Eventually, the suffering ended, and the Israelites would eventually reclaim their nation and the city of Jerusalem, but this would not stop the spread of apocalypticism as a way of imagining the otherworldly destination of evildoers, or of the kind of God that would incorporate eternal hellfire and damnation into His system of cosmic justice.
Let’s talk about this kind of God, right now.
Yet another form that this-worldly hell can take.
Because when this image of God becomes active in human relationships, it just spreads the trauma. There’s a lot of talk these days about walls, and some of the oldest talk ever takes the form of dividing people up between the spiritually saved and the spiritually damned. The sheep and the goats.
It’s hellish because, besides creating divisions and strife, this image of God undermines genuine moral learning and growth. Spiritual life becomes all about perfectionism. Mistakes aren’t opportunities to learn and grow. Mistakes aren’t really about breaking open our hearts so we are less judgmental and more compassionate and understanding towards our fellow sinners.
The god who demands perfectionism (or else) creates in us spiritual neurosis. Moral one-upmanship becomes the name of the game we play, rather than compassionate collaboration between imperfect beings who are trying to do the best they can. No. We shame ourselves and we shame others.
This leads to how the emotions most associated with religion become not wonder, not joy, not love, not peace, not gratitude—not these. The emotions become anxiety and shame, first and foremost.
How otherwise can we imagine people allowing themselves to be traumatized by religious leaders like Jonathan Edwards? Jonathan Edwards was a preacher in late 18th century America, and he fervently believed in the God whose sense of justice requires an otherworldly hell. The primary characteristic of this god is holiness or purity; therefore, imperfect human beings could not hope to stand in God’s presence and not be instantly obliterated.
One time Jonathan Edwards said this: whenever God catches the scent of humanity, the human smell is so foul and putrid it causes God to “flair his nostrils in disgust.”
Sometimes in the pulpit, he would tear his clothes in angst and self-disgust.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is among his top ten sermonic hits. Just listen to this excerpt:
The world of misery, the lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you…The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you. You have offended him…O Sinner! You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it …
This is the God that Jonathan Edwards preached. Horror show. People in the pews would faint, cry out, wail in fear—and they would keep on coming back.
This is exactly the sort of hellishness that needs to be loved out of this world.
Enter the Universalists, and in particular, enter Hosea Ballou, the greatest preacher of Universalism in nineteenth-century America, whose articulation of it became classic.
Ballou was born 30 years after Jonathan Edwards preached his horror-show sermon, and he grew up with a father who was on the same page with Edwards. But, growing up, Hosea Ballou found that he just did not emotionally resonate with the fire and brimstone vision of God. He grew full of questions. And then what he did was actually read his Bible.
Years later he would say, “Perhaps (you) may say we are not to use our reason in matters of religion. I answer: if we are not to understand the things of God by scripture and reason, I am at a loss to know how to come at them.”
Reason, applied to the careful study of scripture, got him his basic clarity. That the things he’d heard his father preach weren’t biblical or rational. That Jonathan Edwards’ theology of horror wasn’t true to the God of Jesus. That life can twist us up and we can do bad things, but God made people fundamentally good and religion is about calling us back to our essential selves. That God is not a distant, angry enemy but a loving parent who is in our hearts and within whom we live and move and have our being.
Essentially: that the real disconnect between God and humanity is not on the side of God. God is not displeased. The disconnect is on our end. How we have imagined God and how we have imagined ourselves.
Let me tell you a story. All sorts of stories about Hosea Ballou.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s eldest son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it when he went out late at night partying and carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!” (shared by Rev. Colin Bossin)
That’s the story. We are just loved with a wondrous love. The disconnect between God and humankind is on our end, not God’s.
Here’s another story, that illustrates specifically how the Jonathan Edward type of God image can pervert our sense of what it means to be human:
One day 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.” (shared by Rev. Richard Gilbert).
Hosea Ballou said this out of his Universalist conviction that God made our nature to be such that doing good deeply and lastingly satisfies us. That in acts of love and service, we realize the true depths of who we are.
This is a powerful vision of what it means to be authentic. Authenticity is not so much about being different from everyone else as it is about finding your unique way to be of service in the world. (20th century writer Frederick Buechner puts it like this: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”)
So the specific problem that this last story is trying to get at is how belief in hellfire and damnation—and in the perfectionistic God that comes with that—create unnecessary self-mistrust and unnecessary difficulties in expressing one’s authenticity. One’s natural inclination to do good gets covered up by an overlay of self-disgust and obsessive self-policing. You end up tensing up and gritting your teeth to do what’s good, rather than relaxing and letting the Zen of it happen effortlessly.
Abraham Lincoln said it this way: “When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.”
Religion just doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be simple, just like this.
Hosea Ballou had a special word describing when it IS simple, and we are living into our authentic natures as children of God. He called it being “happified.”
God wants to happify us all.
Now as an important side-note: maybe your personal theology doesn’t invoke the G word. We respect that around here. We respect that, in this, you and Ballou are not on the same theological page. But that doesn’t have to mean that his essential insights can’t work for you. What’s for sure is that we do get happified when we are living into the authenticity of our life’s true calling. So if the cause can’t be God, we can look to another kind of “something” larger than ourselves—Nature. Our design reflects the coming together of forces of Nature that are exquisitely complex and wondrous.
Nature wants us happified, if not God!
But now we return to the central historical thread. It might not surprise you to learn that Universalism in its early years experienced incredible resistance. For example, Universalists for a time were not allowed to serve on juries. The prevailing wisdom was that if you didn’t believe in eternal hellfire and damnation, there was something wrong with you. You could not be trusted to judge moral matters well.
On one occasion, Ballou was preaching in Boston when a rock crashed through the window and thumped down near him. Without missing a beat, he picked up the large stone and said, “This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither reasonable nor convincing.” Then, putting the rock aside, he added, “Not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth.”
And his mouth wasn’t shut up. Hosea Ballou. In his day, he was committed to loving the hell out of this world, and we need to be doing this too in our day. Hells of poverty and greed and racism and on and on. But also hellish theology that creates spiritual anguish in millions:
—Like the spiritual virus of apocalypticism, with its attendant revenge fantasies in which one’s enemies roast for all eternity and one’s friends go to the good place.…
—Then there is the other side of apocalypticism, which is when you are in anguish imagining people you love sent to hell because they didn’t believe this or do that….
—Both anchored by imagery of an angry, distant, disapproving God, who, even if you deny its existence intellectually, can still infect your soul….
—Leading to perfectionistic views of the spiritual life—how we can try to exert shame- and anxiety-based control upon our lives and upon others and basically act like the God we might not even believe in…
—And what about the obsessiveness and obnoxiousness and self-righteousness that come with perfectionism….
—And what about the self-doubt that grows in us, and how we fundamentally lose trust in our lives….
These all represent terrible spiritual knots–hells of the spirit!–and Universalism wants to love the hell right out of the world… To set us free!
Set us free to be authentically ourselves
Set us free to be as God or Nature made us
Set us free to be people who find a way to serve each other and the world, in compassion and love.
Set us free to find the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Set us free to be happified!
“When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.”
It’s just that simple.