This month marks the 450th anniversary of the execution of Michael Servetus for the religious heresy of denying the Trinity. A quick recounting of his life will set the stage for the message of this sermon.
Miguel Serveto was born in 1511 to a noble family in Northern Spain. A young man of great privilege, Servetus had access to wealth and education. At age 14 he was sent to study under a Franciscan Monk. Guess what happens when you give an adolescent the tools to think for themselves and think critically about the Bible and theology? Well, what happened was the same thing that happens to our teens when they do Coming of Age. Servetus had an eagle-eye for finding inconsistencies, irregularities, and logical fallacies and was as argumentative as any teen would be. At age 20, he published “On the Errors of the Trinity.” a long theological treatise of disputes and complaints against Orthodox doctrine. The book was filled with vituperative rhetoric and scornful attacks. It was not received well. At the time he was living in an early Protestant community in France. They grew tired of his theological disputes and asked him to leave. Down in Spain, the Inquisition had gotten hold of his book and were looking to try him. Servetus went underground, adopting a pseudonym and going to medical school in Paris. While there he made the discovery that the lungs played a role in the circulatory system.
But theological dispute kept drawing him back. During his schooling he formed a relationship with John Calvin and the two debated theology. Both he and Calvin got into trouble with the Inquisition in Paris, and each left town. Calvin went into hiding and resurfaced as a Protestant leader in Geneva. Servetus meanwhile moved to Vienna. At this time, Servetus began work on his magnum opus, “The Restitution of Christianity” and engaged in a long written correspondence with Calvin. Filled with moxie, Servetus had the chutzpah to publish a version of this book prefaced with the correspondence between himself and Calvin, an argument he had clearly won. This upset Calvin, so he betrayed Servetus’ identity to the authorities. They arrested him, convicted him, and sentenced him to death. However, Servetus managed to escape right before his execution. On the run, wanted in Spain, Vienna, and Paris, where does he go, but to Geneva and tries to start up yet another fight with Calvin. There, he is arrested, sentenced to death, and was burned at the stake 450 years ago this month. The Catholics, meanwhile, were so mad that they didn’t succeed in executing him, that they burned him in effigy a month later.
The legacy of Michael Servetus in Unitarian Universalism is interesting. We claim him as one of our upper-echelon martyrs. At least two UU churches, one in Minnesota and one in Washington, have named themselves after Servetus. It is somewhat ironic that we celebrate Michael Servetus, because every single one of American churches traces its historical roots back to the Reformed tradition of John Calvin, not to the watered-down Christology of Michael Servetus. But, as Unitarian Universalists, we like rooting for the underdog. We like celebrating people who have opposed Orthodoxy, even if the heresy proposed as an alternative is not a particularly desirable one. (My family’s roots go back to the Cathars of France, a heresy within Catholicism during the Thirteenth Century. It is tempting to cheer my ancestors for what they rejected, but what they accepted wasn’t exactly much of an improvement.)
So, as many Unitarian Universalists gather this month to remember Michael Servetus, a powerful theological mind, a victim of religious intolerance, a man who faced his own death courageously, part of me does begin to wonder. Is this the end of the story? Is this all there is? Do we stop there with the simple proclamation: Hooray for Heretics! Boo for religious intolerance! I want to travel deeper here.
The word heresy is interesting. The word means deviation from orthodoxy. In fact, if there were no orthodoxy, there could be no heresy. This is an important point: the two are bound. You can’t have heresy without an orthodoxy. There is a second interesting meaning to the word as well. In Greek, the root of the word “heresy” means to choose. To choose. And this idea of choice is fascinating, because when it comes to what we believe, we do not have choice. I can no more choose to believe in God or not believe in God, or believe in the Trinity or not believe in the Trinity, that I can choose to believe that the sky is blue. You either believe or you don’t. In Unitarian Universalism, we don’t say that you can believe in anything you want to. We say that you are required to act in accordance with what you do believe. The matter of choice, then, in the word Heresy, signals a different kind of choice. A choice whether to follow what you believe. The heretic chooses to follow their conscience.
And boy, was Servetus good at following his conscience or what? He followed that conscience all over Europe, followed straight to Geneva, followed to the stake, followed his convictions all the way to the end.
But here is where I want to shake things up a little bit. I want to say that in our Unitarian Universalist heritage, which is a heritage of heretics, a heritage of choosers and conscience-followers, not all heretics are created equal. So, I ask, what type of heretic are you? What type of heretic are you?
Let’s face it, if Michael Servetus walked through that door, sat down, I would hope that he would not stay very long. Servetus would not be very patient with me, and he would probably strain my patience. Servetus was argumentative and arrogant. Belligerent and bellicose. Combative and cantankerous and contentious. Debate-prone and disputatious. He was rancorous, truculent, inimical, polemical, and irascible. He was the very embodiment of a confrontational, contrarian, an oppositional personality. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a jerk.
Servetus represents the kind of heretic we should not aspire to be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire towards following our convictions or being determined, only that we should not aspire to destructive or self-destructive behavior. With Servetus one gets the impression that he did not only believe in his ability to believe differently. He believed he was absolutely right, and he was going to flaunt it in the face of everybody else. So that is one type of heresy: It says to the Orthodoxy, “You’re wrong and I’m right!”
There are others ways to be a heretic too. One can be a heretic just by choosing to reject orthodoxy. This is the second type of heretic who does not know what they believe, only what they do not believe. This is the kind of heretic who says “no.” God – nope. Jesus – nope. Father, Son, Holy Spirit – nope, nope, nope. Grace – nope. Heaven – nope. Sin – nope. Prayer – nope. Church – nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. If the word Heretic means to make a choice, this type of Heretic has not really chosen, so much as this type of heretic has narrowed down the list of choices. In fact, one wonders whether this is really heresy at all, or whether it is an extreme form of anti-orthodoxy.
The “nope-nope-nope” heretic is not so much choosing as rejecting, not so much constructing as rebelling. People make powerful lives rebelling. We all know people who live lives of rebellion. Rebellion from parents, from religions, from the authority in general. Parents tell you not to smoke – you smoke. Parents tell you not to move to California – you move to California. Or maybe they don’t even tell you, maybe you just think they might, so you do. Many people live lives of intentional rejection of this or that. It is not like the orthodoxy of their parents or their religious homes have disappeared. That orthodoxy still lives in their minds, is constantly there for them to say “no” to.
There is a third kind of heresy that is not so much based in rejection as based in construction. This kind of heresy involves the stitching together of an alternative system of belief. It is not so much the choice to believe differently, as the choice to do the work of exposing yourself to an environment in which you can deepen and grow. This the heresy of building your own theology. Not an oppositional personality, but a constructive personality. The oppositional person has not moved very far from the orthodoxy. They can move to California, but their parent’s voice stays with them. They can reject the Trinity, but the Trinity is still very much with them.
In the book, “The Search for God at Harvard,” there is a story about moving from rejection to construction. In this book a Jewish religion reporter for the New York Times spends a year studying at Harvard Divinity School. At first he has these visions of his childhood Rabbi waving a finger and accusing him. He writes, “Rabbi Siegel still catches up with me sometimes, waving his finger and warning of the dangers of interfaith encounters. But I have other visions as well. Sometimes I see my Catholic neighbor who inspired me to be my own rabbi. At other times, I see my classmates, whose lives show me that deep and abiding spirituality can express itself through many paths. Or, in my mind’s eye, I see Prof. Diana Eck, who taught me that one can look at religion from within.” In this passage, Ari Goldman, the Times reporter, is moving from the voices of orthodoxy, to his own constructed faith, a constructed heresy built on his own.
Many of us have our own voices of disapproving authority figures, but are trying to build a spiritual system with a new cast of characters, a cast of characters that perhaps include the person sitting next to you, the person in your adult education class, the person in the choir or in your small group.
There is though, even another kind of heresy. It is not the argumentative and belligerent heresy of Servetus. It is not the anti-orthodox heresy of rejection. It is not even the constructive heresy as you form your own positive faith. What I am going to try to describe is a fourth way of being a heretic that isn’t oppositional or distant towards orthodoxy, a way of being a heretic that closes the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy, because the two are perpetually bound. There can be no heresy without orthodoxy.
If you are or have ever been in a close relationship, I want you to imagine that. It can be your husband, wife, partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, even a real close friend, or a relative. Now imagine something that you are different, or opposite about. You are clean and they are messy. You are introverted and they are extroverted. You are reserved and they are adventurous. In relationships, we do this, don’t we: I’m messy; she’s clean. I’m a morning person; he’s a night owl. I’m organized; she’s disorganized. Got it? Take a moment and come up with your own example? I want to propose that some of these dualities we think of are not absolutely true, but are for us sort of a myth. That we are not really all the time either one thing or the other, but we are a lot of times both. And your partner is both too. Most people are both messy and clean. Both outgoing and shy. Both reserved and adventurous. Sometimes one and sometimes the other, but that within each of you individually there lies some trace of both of these. However, we tend to polarize our differences to construct our own identities, but these identities, in turn, don’t allow us to be wholly who we are.
I’m proposing that we are all, in a way, actually both orthodox and heretical. What if there was a way to build a bridge between the polar opposites? The orthodox with a place for heresy within it and the heresy with a place for some orthodoxy. Not everything there so bad. Not everything here so good. The realm of what is possible expanding. It is my belief that in our relationships we sometimes build these myths that make things predictable, reliable. Roles that we follow. But sometimes these roles can be barriers as well. There is room to expand the roles, to leave the known roles and bring forth another side of your identity.
This is perhaps the greatest heresy of all. The heresy that ever seeks to expand upon any belief system or doctrine or religious institution, the heresy that proposes that yet more may be possible. The heresy that may bring back as new what had formally been rejected, that sings old words but sees them made new. The heresy that connects things and makes them whole, and frees us from assigned roles, frees us from reactivity and rejection, that frees us even from the new roles and definitions we’ve constructed for ourselves.
What I’m speaking of is the heresy of transformation. Not only in our actions, but in our minds and spirits, and in our whole selves. That is the greatest heresy of all, that there is something more as well as something else. It’s going to, I suspect, take a whole army of heretics such as these to transform this hurting, confused world, that always seems to be looking for another orthodoxy to adopt and follow. May we be shaken from the orthodoxies where we roost and always desiring a higher perch and a larger vantage point. May we not take for granted the freedoms and protections which Michael Servetus did not enjoy. For if we only build new orthodoxies, his martyr death would be for naught. Let us celebrate then, if not his personality, if not the theological system, now outdated, he proposed; then perhaps this, as Duncan Howlett has written of Servetus:
His was a very contemporary problem. What does a person do when they find themselves thinking what the rulers of society regard as “dangerous thoughts”? . . . Michael Servetus was not able to remain silent. He spoke the truth that was in him, and paid with his life for doing so. His was the problem of the ages, and so it is ours.
So, I ask that we strike some balance between speaking the truth we do know with bravest fire, and heretically remaining ever open to newer truth, that makes us whole and sets us free.