Sunday, May 9, 2010

Don't worry, be happy - Bobby McFerrin or Hosea Ballou?

Hosea Ballou is an interesting minister who was a pioneer in the Universalist movement in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He is covered in the Tapestry Of Faith Program For Adults as the first UU theologian studied.
Ballou, in reaction to the Calvanist doctrine of the day, believed and preached that everyone deserves to be happy. This is not a new idea but in the historical context of colonial America it was startling contrast to Calvanist preaching of hell fire and brimstone and predestination.

Hosea Ballou wrote in his A Treatise On Atonement:

I know it is frequently contended that we ought to love God for what he is, and not for what we receive from him; that we ought to love holiness for holiness' sake, and not for any advantage such a principle is for us. This is what I have often been told, but what I never could see any reason for, or propriety in. I am asked if I love an orange; I answer I never tasted of one; but I am told I must love the orange for what it is! Now I ask, is it possible for me either to like or dislike the orange, in reality, until I taste it? Well, I taste of it, and like it. Do you like it? says my friend. Yes, I reply, its flavor is exquisitely agreeable. But that will not do, says my friend; you must not like it because it its taste is agreeable, but you must like it because it is an orange. If there be any propriety in what my friend says, it is out of my sight. A man is traveling on the sands of Arabia, he finds no water for a number of days; the sun scorches and he is exceedingly dry; at last he finds water and drinks to his satisfaction; never did water taste half so agreeably before. To say that this man loves the water because it is water, and not because of the advantage which he receives from it, betrays a large share of inconsistency. Would not this thirsty traveler have loved the burning sand as well as he did the water if it had tasted as agreeably as did the water? The sweet Psalmist of Israel said, "O taste and see that the Lord is good." And an apostle says, "We love him because he loved us first." What attribute do we ascribe to God that we do not esteem on account of its advantage to us?

Today with the advance of secularism and the Positive Psychology movement and our materialistic consumerism, Americans hear constantly that they not only deserve to be happy but they can be happy if they buy this product and/or partake of this service. Advertising barrages people with messages about what can make them happy. It leaves no doubt in the modern mind that people are suppose to pursue their own happiness and, even further, are entitled to it. It has become the American way according to our secular faith.

So what does Ballou's theology have to offer people in our secular society where the pursuit of happiness is not only expected but is everyone's constitutional right?

Perhaps it is not that they deserve to be happy, people accept this as a given unlike in Ballou's time, but rather what will make them happy. More stuff probably won't do it. More entertainment, more power, more sex, a better figure, lots of money helps, but isn't ultimately going to cut it.

What will make a person spiritually happy?

I am not sure what Ballou would say, but it seems that it is something to do with the experience of the transcendent. Ballou would say that it is not knowing about the transcendent, but the actual experience of the transcendent which will make a person happy. I don't know if Ballou has suggestions for how to experience the transcendent? Does anyone know?


  1. Secularism is not a faith. It is the natural state of living things before the thought (and behavior) controlling interference of humans bent on inculcating and manipulating others to believe in (faith) and act in a proscribed manner.

    The pursuit of happiness, both the phrase, by Jefferson (and Franklin) found in the United States constitution, and the concept with origins in the Enlightenment, is thought to have been first articulated and subsequently used as an alternative to property i.e. Life, Liberty and Property v. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

    In William Wollaston's 1722 book The Religion of Nature Delineated he describes the "truest definition" of "natural religion" as being "The pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth."
    Reason and truth

  2. Dear Jeremy:

    Thank you for your post and you make good points.

    I think human beings have always been religious though. They were a supersitious bunch who were animistic in their origin and prayed to the weather gods, animal gods, etc.

    Religion is built into us and comes along with consciousness I suspect.

    The idea that secularism is is the naturual state of living things is not correct. It came with the enlightenment as you point out. It is a very new phenomenon in the history of homo sapiens.

    All the best,

    David Markham

  3. I disagree. Every baby ever born is a secularist. I disagree also with the misguided notion that humans are born hard wired to be religious. Chomsky believed humans are hard-wired for language too, but this hard-wired theory is not proof, and contemporary thinkers believe Chompsky and Armstrong are mistaken. Secularism does not have an enlightenment origin, much earlier Greek and Roman philosophers thought and wrote about Secularism. Enlightenment figures simply expounded upon the concept. Animism, I would argue is not equivalent to religion although neither is it based on reason and truth. But, that humans are subject to delusion seems, alas, to be a fact.

  4. Well, as someone who has spent a good deal of time reading and studying him, I'd have to say the Tapestry of Faith curriculum misinterprets Ballou. Ballou's major theme in the Treatise is not happiness per se, it is sin and salvation. In the Treatise, Ballou argues that original sin is a concept that was applied to the Bible by later thinkers; that there is no such thing as hell; that Jesus did not die to atone for humankind's sins; that all persons will go to heaven after death. Along the way, Ballou also argues for a non-Trinitarian understanding of God; he also comes to the conclusion that free will is significantly restricted. (The passage you quote actually has little or nothing to do with happiness; Ballou is making an argument about the nature of God.) Ballou's argument about happiness has to do with what happens after death, not what will happen in this life.

    I also have to say that the Tapestry of Faith curriculum is steering you wrong if they're calling Ballou a UU theologian -- he was very definitely a Universalist theologian; and he wrote the Treatise in 1805, 20 years before the American Unitarian Association was organized.

  5. Dear Dan:

    Thanks very much for your illuminating comments. I have not read Ballou myself and only know what the Tapestry Of Faith has written and taught about him. I suspected that the situation was just as you describe. Is Ballou worth the effort of reading?

    I appreciate your clarifications a great deal.

    All the best,

    David Markham