October Ministry Theme


By Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee

Hosea Ballou, an influential 19th century Universalist preacher, redefined the Christian doctrine of atonement in his book A Treatise on Atonement. Ballou came from our back yard, a man of the central hill country in New England: southern New Hampshire and Vermont and western Massachusetts. He was raised a Calvinist Baptist and in his teens he became exposed to the concepts of Universalism and Unitarianism being preached in the pulpits of the time.

Atonement in this case would mean amends or reparation for an injury or a wrong that’s been committed. Strict Christian doctrine on atonement stated that Jesus was the source of expiation of the sins of humanity: his death satisfied divine justice and appeased the Christian God. This God was disillusioned and angry, but Jesus’s death managed to fix that by absorbing humanity’s sins and restoring the relationship of God to the world.

It wasn’t up to humanity to feel better about God; it was about God feeling better about us. And seeing as how only Jesus could do that, there wasn’t much hope for humanity. Combined with the doctrine of Calvinist predeterminism, Protestant Christian life was pretty harsh, stern and severe. You were either definitely going to burn in Hell, or if you weren’t going to Hell, chances were God hated you for your weaknesses anyway. I suppose it’s no small wonder that other ways of interpreting a relationship with God started developing, including a migration away from the concept of God altogether.

The Shift

Hosea Ballou took issue with this doctrine of atonement, reflecting this theological shift in Christian thinking. He took the idea of a God of infinite love and ran with it. He said that a God of infinite love could never have been offended by humanity. Ballou said that instead of appeasing an angry God, we have the task at hand of figuring out how to reconcile ourselves with a loving God, especially given our human shortcomings. We have to figure out how to love God again, he said, especially because all God wants is love and salvation for everyone.

Ballou felt that people would naturally gravitate toward a life of love and good works if they felt it brought them closer in synchronization with their universal
infinite notion of God.

What This Means for Us

My interpretation of Ballou, then, says that we are called to grow ever closer to that notion of universal love. The practice of atonement, then, brings us in sync with that universal love by addressing actions that may have caused harm or injury. Atonement, then, might be said to be an act of love.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are asked to consider the concept of the universal, interdependent web of all existence – some may include a concept of God or gods in their interpretation, some may not. When we contemplate making atonement for an injury or wrong that we have caused, we are considering our effect upon one locus of the web. But, our belief in the interdependent connections of existence lead us to the idea that our efforts at atonement affect the entire web, not just one point. How does this play into the role of atonement in your life?

Questions to Consider

What place does “love” as an abstract concept or an attribute of the divine have in your personal theology? How does it affect the way you approach atonement? Do you resent practicing atonement, expecting resentment in return? Do you approach making amends as if the world is an endless source of light and love? What is your core purpose for atoning for your actions? Do you practice atonement in order to feel closer to your God or gods? Do you practice atonement in order to feel closer to other people?