a talk presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois (the town where I grew up)
Edith Wharton said: "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it."
I’ve found that I don’t have to believe a theology to appreciate its beauty. And of all the Christian theologies I know, I think the most beautiful one comes from the early 19th century Universalist Hosea Ballou.
Orthodox Christians of Ballou’s day taught — as many still do — that human sin made God angry, and that his anger could not be put aside until someone had been punished. According a the doctrine called substitutional atonement, that was what Jesus did: he took the punishment on himself, so that anyone who believed in him could escape God’s anger and have salvation.
Early Universalists like John Murray had extended this notion of atonement by saying that Jesus’ payment was good for everybody, whether they believed or not. So everyone was going to Heaven.
But Hosea Ballou turned the whole atonement doctrine upside down. God’s love, Ballou said, was unshakeable, and so he had never been angry with us, much less desired our eternal punishment. Sin had affected not God, but us. It caused us to lose our awareness of God’s love. And feeling unloved, we became angry with God. [Interestingly, this same motif —the creature who is angry with his Creator because he feels unloved —shows up 13 years later in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.] So in Ballou’s theology, that’s why Jesus had to come: not to appease God’s anger, but to appease our anger at God, by showing us that we had always been loved.
In Ballou’s view, all those theologies of a wrathful God were what later psychologists would call projections: Picturing God to be as vicious and small-minded as we are, theologians had hidden their anger with him behind the anger they imagined he had for us. In this reading from Ballou’s 1805 classic A Treatise on Atonement, he summed that projection up in a wonderful metaphor:
Unhappily, men have looked at Deity through the medium of a carnal mind, and have formed all their evil tempers in Jehovah; like the deceived astronomer, who fancied he saw a monster in the sun, occasioned by a fly on his glass. The creature, being in the medium of sight, was supposed to be in the object beheld; and though it was small in itself, and would have appeared so, could it have been seen where it was; yet carrying it into the sun, it magnified to an enormous size.
So it is with the vile and sinful passions. Could we behold them in ourselves, and view them as they are, they would appear in their finite and limited sphere. But the moment we form those passions in Deity, they magnify to infinity.
How many various calculations have divines made on the fury and wrath which they have discovered in God! How much they have preached and written on the awful subject; and how many ways they have invented, to appease such wrath and vengeance!
When we come to see the error, and find those principles in ourselves, all those notions vanish at once. The fly on the glass might easily have been removed, or destroyed. But had there been a monster in the sun, what calculations could mortals have made to remove it?
Nearly a century later, William James gave the lectures that became The Varieties of Religious Experience. In one lecture he collected case studies of what he called saintly behavior. And in the next lecture he asked a question that until that moment had been completely unthinkable: What was saintliness good for? And he answered it like this:
Herbert Spencer tells us that the perfect man’s conduct will appear only when the environment is perfect: to no inferior environment is it suitably adapted. We may paraphrase this by cordially admitting that saintly conduct would be the most perfect conduct conceivable in an environment where all were saints already; but by adding that in an environment where few are saints, and many the exact reverse of saints, it must be ill adapted.
We must frankly confess, then, using our empirical common sense and ordinary practical prejudices, that in the world that actually is, the virtues of sympathy, charity, and non-resistance may be, and often have been, manifested in excess. The powers of darkness have systematically taken advantage of them. The whole modern scientific organization of charity is a consequence of the failure of simply giving alms. The whole history of constitutional government is a commentary on the excellence of resisting evil, and when one cheek is smitten, of smiting back and not turning the other cheek also.
You will agree to this in general, for in spite of the Gospel, in spite of Quakerism, in spite of Tolstoy, you believe in the excellence of fighting fire with fire, in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves, and freezing out vagabonds and swindlers.
And yet you are sure, as I am sure, that were the world confined to these hard-headed, hard-hearted, and hard-fisted methods exclusively, were there no one prompt to help a brother first, and find out afterwards whether he were worthy; no one willing to drown his private wrongs in pity for a wronger’s person; no one ready to be duped many a time rather than live always on suspicion; no one glad to treat individuals passionately and impulsively, rather than by general rules of prudence; the world would be an infinitely worse place than it is now to live in. The tender grace, not of a day that is dead, but of a day yet to be born somehow, with the golden rule grown natural, would be cut out from the perspective our of imaginations.
I’m not sure how obvious this has been, but most of the talks I’ve given here over the last few years have had a common theme: What should we do with the legacy of traditional religion?
As you know, I was raised as a fairly conservative Lutheran, believing in the literal, historical truth of the Bible — the Flood, Jonah inside the whale, and all the rest. God was a real person, and Heaven and Hell were real places.
Many of you were also brought up in more orthodox traditions. And even if you weren’t, Christianity so dominates this culture that it’s nearly impossible to avoid having an opinion about it and a relationship to it.
Even if you personally don’t have a history with Christianity, Unitarianism and Universalism do. That’s why we meet on Sunday mornings and sit in pews and sing hymns. The great names of our history, people like William Ellery Channing and Hosea Ballou, interpreted the Bible very differently than most other preachers of their day, but God was very real to them, and the Bible and Jesus were very important.
So both individually and as a Unitarian Universalist, what should I do with that legacy? In one way or another, that’s what I keep talking about.
And I think I’ve made some of you nervous, with all the times I’ve read to you from the Bible or quoted some saint. Because you know how that goes: A Bible-quoting person may sound reasonable at first, but sooner or later he’s going to work around to explaining why you’re going to Hell.
I think that’s why many Unitarian Universalists feel that we have to go one way or the other. Either reject that Christian legacy firmly and leave it all behind, or eventually the currents of the larger culture will pull us back in.
I haven’t been taking either of those paths. So what have I been up to?
In my own mind, I sum it up with an image from Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe has run away from England, where his parents wanted to make him a lawyer, and after a number of adventures he has become a plantation owner in Brazil. Subsequently, he is sailing to Africa to get slaves when a storm wrecks his ship. Everyone else drowns, and he washes up on a deserted island. After spending an anxious night in a tree, the next morning he sees that the ship did not go to the bottom, but has gotten stuck on a sandbar close to shore.
At this point there are three ways the story could go. Crusoe could ignore the ship and say, “I’m not going anywhere near that death trap.” Or, if the story were more of a fairy tale, he could repair the ship, and single-handedly sail it home.
What he actually does, though, is build a raft, and scavenge the ship for the things he needs to survive on the island: food, clothing, a hunting rifle, and so on. But one thing is worth more than all the rest. When he finds the carpenter’s chest of tools, he describes it as “much more valuable than a ship-loading of gold”.
Maybe you can already guess where I’m going with this metaphor. For me, traditional Christianity is a wrecked ship. It didn’t take me where I thought it was supposed to go, and when it all fell apart on me I considered myself lucky to wash up where I did.
Now, I understand that the old-time religion is not a shipwreck for everyone. Back in 1966, when Time magazine’s cover asked “Is God Dead?” one of the churches here in town answered on its signboard: “Our God is alive. Sorry about yours.”
I have no complaint with that viewpoint. If traditional religion is working for you, if it gives you a sense of direction and purpose, and makes you a more loving, more compassionate person, then I have no desire to talk you out of it.
But the Christianity I was raised in is a shipwreck for me. And yet, it didn’t sink to the bottom of the ocean. There it still is, run aground, but within swimming range. What to do with it?
Some people will say: “Get as far away from it as you can.” And others will say, “Maybe it’s not as far gone as you think. If you fix it up a little, it might still get you home.” But I want to do something else. I want to scavenge it for tools.
That theme has been running through almost all my talks. One by one I’ve been picking up pieces of the old religion and not asking “Is this true? What are the arguments pro and con?” but rather “What is this for? What does it do? Can I make use of it? And if not, can I reverse-engineer something from it that I can use?” That approach, I’ve found, takes me out of the usual religious arguments that go round and round without convincing anybody, and sets me on a path I find more productive.
So when I led the Easter service, I spent no time at all on whether the historical Jesus did or did not rise from the dead. Instead, I looked at the tradition of spring holidays like Easter, Passover, and the pagan equinox, and I asked, “What do these holidays do? What are they for? Is there something an appropriately constructed spring holiday could do for us?”
And I concluded that there was. A spring holiday could be an occasion to re-examine our commitment to life, to ask ourselves whether we’ve really been living, or just marking time and getting by, waiting for the bad times to end. It could be a time to re-commit, to leave our safe but joyless places and start doing more with the gift of life. In short, we could reverse engineer Easter and make it our tool.
Another time, I talked about the afterlife. And again, I spent no time at all discussing whether or not Heaven is real. Instead, I asked, “What does the afterlife do? What is it for?” And I decided that of all the things it did, the one I envied most was that the afterlife helps people project their life stories into the future in a satisfying way. It helps them motivate future-directed action, in spite of the fact that they may not live to see the results. And then I discussed secular techniques for telling a life story that achieve a similar purpose. That was how I reverse engineered the afterlife.
The tool that I want to reverse engineer today is the love of God. Not the love that the believer has for God, but the love that supposedly streams down from Heaven onto all of God’s creatures.
When I read Hosea Ballou, the love of God comes to seem like a very real thing, not just an abstract principle or a phrase in some recited creed, but a powerful presence that he felt every moment of his life.
Universalists in Ballou’s day always ran into the argument that Hell was necessary. Without the threat of Hell, critics said, people would do whatever wickedness they thought they could get away with — steal, cheat, kill, whatever. And so, they thought, Universalists must constantly fall prey to all manner of temptation, and a Universalist church must be a complete den in iniquity.
Ballou always responded to these arguments with bewilderment. Because he knew that if you lived with a constant awareness of God’s love, if you felt it shining down on you every moment of every day, filling you with the joy of life, then what could you possibly do but reflect that love out onto others? In Ballou’s theology, sin didn’t mean giving in to pleasure, it meant turning away from the greatest pleasure of all, which was to bask in the unshakeable love of God.
Now, a theologian might examine whether Ballou’s perception was accurate: Is there really a God? Does that God love us constantly and unconditionally? Or does he instead love us when we’re good and hate us when we’re bad?
But as a religious engineer, as a scavenger on the shipwreck of faith, I ask a different question: That vision of the love of God — what did it do for Ballou? And when does my own life make me wish for a tool like that?
My answer is probably not what Ballou would have expected. Like his critics, Ballou was focused on the question: Why be good? The orthodox Christian answered with the threat of Hell, and Ballou answered with the love of God. Both would have expected doubters to struggle with that question.
But in fact we don’t. Contrary to expectation, ethics seems to come from somewhere deeper than theology. In my own life, there have been times when I believed in God and times when I didn’t. I can’t tell that it made any difference in how good I was. And whether you believe in some kind of God or not, I expect most of you have enough experience with atheists and agnostics to notice the same thing I have: that their overall morality is no worse than that of believers, and maybe even a little better sometimes.
No, when I try on Ballou’s vision of the love of God, I see a different benefit. My problem isn’t why to be good or how to be good, but that when I try too hard to be good, I burn out. Trying to be a giving person, a compassionate person, somebody who listens to everyone and takes their problems to heart, who (as James said in the reading) is “ready to be duped many a time rather than live always on suspicion” — it very quickly gets to be too much.
Maybe you feel it too. Every news cycle brings new horrors and atrocities. Do I really have to care about ebola in Africa or what climate change is doing to Bangladesh? About every panhandler who accosts me on the street? About every bad day in the lives of all my Facebook friends? It’s overwhelming.
James observed that his world was not conducive to sainthood, and ours seems even less so. In today’s consumer society, you are surrounded 24/7 by people who want something from you — your money, your attention, your time and effort. And if they can give you little or nothing back,so much the better.
To be a good person in such a world, to be caring and giving and compassionate, can make you feel like the only warm-blooded animal in a swamp full of mosquitoes. The constant pinpricks, losing a drop of blood here and another there, and feeling nothing afterwards but irritation. How long can you live like that?
One summer when I was feeling particularly burnt out, I spent a lot of time sitting in the sunlight. It was satisfying in a primal way that it took all summer for me to put words around. What I loved about the Sun was that it was too big for me to affect. The Sun couldn’t want anything from me, because there was nothing I could do for it. And yet, it shone down on me anyway. That was what I needed.
And that’s what Ballou gets from his vision of the love of God. Ballou’s God is too big and and too grand to spend his time weighing the virtues and vices of us tiny creatures. He just shines. And when you feel his love shining down on you, what can you do but reflect it out?
Ballou’s theology has a kind of balance that secular visions of goodness often lack. Love flows in, love flows out. Ballou doesn’t see himself as a generator of the world’s love. The generator is elsewhere. He is just part of the distribution network. In Edith Wharton's terms, he sees himself as a mirror, not a candle. And mirrors don’t burn out.
One thing a religious engineer knows is that not everybody can use every tool. Just because it would be convenient to believe something, that doesn’t mean you can. I feel that very strongly when I contemplate Ballou’s God and imagine experiencing the power of his love. I can envy that experience, and I can try on the worldview that evokes it. But it doesn’t stick. I don’t seem to be capable of maintaining a belief in that kind of God.
So what can I do? Is there a tool I can use that is like God’s love, that works on that same problem in a similar way?
When you hold a question like that in your mind, sometimes clues turn up in the most unlikely places. I used to watch HBO’s gangster series, The Sopranos. (Talk about a world that is not conducive to sainthood.) I loved the theme song:
You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.
Mama always said you’d be the chosen one.
And the next line I couldn’t make out until I looked it up on the internet. It says:
You’re one in a million, you gotta burn to shine.
You gotta burn to shine. That’s the problem in a nutshell. Hosea Ballou didn’t have to burn to shine. He could just reflect the light streaming down from God.
But if you are trying to shine in the darkness, if you are one shining person surrounded by a million others, who suck up that light and reflect nothing back, then the only way you can keep shining is to burn some kind of fuel inside yourself. And since people are finite, someday you’ll burn it all up.
That’s the problem with shining in the darkness, shining alone, shining as one in a million. People can’t do that for long, because it’s unbalanced. In the long run, goodness doesn’t come from us, it has to flow through us. We can hope to amplify it a little, to give a little better than we get, but we can’t generate goodness out of nothing, not for long.
Ballou’s theology helps him cope with that limitation. By imagining an ultimate source of goodness, of light and love and joy and inspiration, by calling that source God, and placing it at the center of his world, Ballou was forcing himself to pay attention to that side of the equation.
Whenever he began to feel drained and cynical (as I’m sure he must have at times), his theology told him to work on his relationship with God, to read and pray and meditate and do all the other things that nourished his soul. Activities that in a secular framing might seem self-centered, his theology re-cast as centered on God.
We can learn from that. Yes, it’s vitally important that goodness flow out of you, that you do good things and make the world brighter. But that’s not sustainable unless something is also flowing into you, unless your antenna is attuned to the sources of goodness in your life.
Sources. Did you catch what I did there? I made it plural. Because if I can’t maintain a belief in one ultimate source, I also can’t deny that many things in life nourish me, restore me, and make it possible for me to keep shining: the Sun, obviously. The beauty of Nature. Also the created beauty of art and music and literature. Sometimes through museums or books I can feel the brilliance shining from those ancient masters, as if they were distant stars whose light is just reaching us now.
Through the media, I also receive the gifts of today’s artists and musicians, as well as the stories of scientists searching for truth, activists fighting for justice, and all those compassionate people who are healing the sick and feeding the hungry and grieving with those who have suffered enormous losses. Their examples also keep me shining.
But, you know, there’s no substitute for the people you meet face to face. And that’s why I belong to a congregation.
That’s something that puzzles a lot of people about Unitarian Universalists. They can sort of get that we have a different philosophy and look at life a different way. But why do we do the church thing? Why do you come here? Nothing we do this morning will get you to Heaven or forgive your sins, or improve your chances in the lottery. So why did you come?
For me, it’s that I need to be in the presence of people who are trying to shine, who are trying to give something to the world rather than just take as much as they can. That’s what draws me to my congregation at home, and that’s what I see here.
I only spend a weekend or two a year in Quincy, so there are only a few of you that I know to any depth, and I’m sure all of you do many things I never hear about. But even with my limited exposure I feel nourished and inspired and energized by the glow of this community.
I’m inspired, for example, when I drop by the mechanic’s workshop that Joe has turned into his studio. Because here’s somebody at a point in life where he can do pretty much what he wants, and what he wants to do is make beautiful things. I’m inspired by Carol, and so many others here who make music and look for ways to share it with the world. I’m energized by the infectious enthusiasm of Mike talking about restoring cool old cars, or when Rob brings up long-dead philosophers as if they were personal friends that he’s sure I’d hit it off with. More people than I have time to name have told me about community projects or political causes that they support and work on, not because they’ll benefit personally, but just to make the world better.This is a community full of people who want to shine, who have found a source of joy in life and want to share it.
Two years ago, when my father was dying, I felt this community’s light very personally. Several of you made sure that when I didn’t have to be at the nursing home or the hospital, I had somewhere to go and someone to talk to when I got there. I will always be grateful for that.
There is a lot of light shining in this community, and a lot of places to look for nurturance and inspiration.
But you do have to look. You have to pay attention. Opening up to the sources of light and love and joy and inspiration in a Unitarian Universalist church today may not sound as important as opening up to the love of God was in a 19th-century Universalist church. But it is, because that’s how you balance the equation.
If you don’t, then this all becomes just another drain, another set of responsibilities, another list of good deeds to do. There’s money to give and classes to teach and social action projects to organize and committees to chair and somebody has to make the coffee and on and on and on. More mosquitoes. More drops of blood. More irritation.
If you just keep your head down and work, you can start to believe that you are a single light shining in the darkness, and that the only way to keep shining is to keep burning up something finite and precious inside yourself. That misses the whole point of a Unitarian congregation. Lights are shining around you. On a regular basis, you need to look up and just bask in the glow.
The closing hymn is # 118, “This Little Light of Mine”. But before we sing, I have to confess that until recently I never liked this song, because I sang it wrong. I thought it was all about me promising to shine brighter, to do more. And where was the energy for that going to come from?
I was missing the significance of singing the song together. This isn’t just about you promising to shine brighter for others, it’s also about the rest of us promising to shine brighter for you. So as you sing, don’t just make a promise, accept the promises of the people around you. Not all of those promises will be fulfilled, but many will be. You aren’t going to have to shine alone. This community is full of light and love and the desire to give and create and do good. You don’t have to generate that, you just need to conduct it and reflect it out into the world.
So let’s sing.