I begin this series of lectures on Unitarian Universalist history and theology in a way that is extremely unusual. I want to tell you about toadstools on the islands of Java in Indonesia. I want to read to you a quote from the famous anthropologist Clifford Geertz:
When a peculiarly shaped, rather large toadstool grew up in a carpenter’s house in the short space of a few days (or, some said, a few hours), people came from miles around to see it, and everyone had some sort of explanation – some animist, some animatist, some not quite either – for it…This first lecture is about historiography. My goal in this lecture is to introduce you to different ways that people have told the story of Unitarian Universalism. How we tell the story is important for two reasons. First of all, if we understand our history we are better able to understand the way our churches behave now, and that understanding is important for us as leaders. I believe we continue to live out the struggles of our past. Secondly, without a compelling story of our churches, we can fall into the habit of thinking of our churches as strange toadstools.
Toadstools play about the same role in Javanese life as they do in ours, and in the ordinary course of things Javanese have about as much interest in them as we do. It was just that this one was “odd,” “strange”, “uncanny” – aneh. And the odd, strange, and uncanny simply must be accounted for—or, again, the conviction that it could be accounted for sustained. One does not shrug off a toadstool which grows five times as fast as a toadstool has any right to grow. In the broadest sense the “strange” toadstool did have implications, and critical ones, for those who heard about it. It threatened their most general ability to understand the world, raised the uncomfortable question of whether the beliefs which they held about nature were workable, [and whether] the standards of truth they used [are] valid. [Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 101]
I think when newcomers visit our churches for the first time they might be tempted to regard us in the same way as the Javanese townspeople regarded the toadstool in the carpenter’s house. If you think of your church, you’re probably the only UU church in your town, or maybe one of only two or three. There very well may not be another UU church within an hour’s drive. When a visitor walks in we know to expect certain popular refrains, “I wish I had known about this church decades ago!” or, “I never knew a church could be like this!” Vistors to our churches may have come out of Catholicism or Protestantism or out of a secular upbringing that prejudiced them in certain ways against religion and, compared to their assumptions, we seem strange, or uncanny, or odd in a good way (even if we don’t grow five times as fast as other toadstools.) To paraphrase Geertz, our congregation threatened their most general ability to understand religion, and raised the uncomfortable question of whether the beliefs and assumptions which they held about religion were workable.
If you have ever witnessed a new visitor gush, you know how it is easy to get swept up into this effusive enthusiasm and to forget that the church, the congregation, by virtue of it being not only a house of the holy but also a house of the human, is bound at some point to disappoint. To loosely borrow terminology from the French theologian Paul Ricoeur, we require a strong narrative to lessen the pain of the loss of naïveté.
We are a faith with a past and we continue to embody some of those tensions from the past. So, if our congregations are not strange toadstools that sprung up in the places where they now exist, how did we get there?
I want to introduce you to some different ways of telling our story. And I am going to explain why I’ve chosen to focus on one specific way. I want to admit my own agenda. My agenda is to tell the version of our history that best accounts for how we have come to be the way we are. My agenda is also to tell the story of our history in a way that makes you more aware of history’s contributions to the challenges you are likely to encounter as leaders.
There is one popular version of Unitarian Universalist history that is a story about certain historical figures possessing a special insight into Unitarian or Universalist thought. On the Unitarian side, the original figure we love to lift up is a man named Arius. Arius hailed from Alexandria in what is present-day Egypt. He lived from the mid-third to the early-fourth Century. Late in his life Arius was a participant at the Council of Nicea, the contentious church council that gave us the Nicene Creed, a central defining document of Trinitarian thought. Arius was a leading figure in what was called the Arian controversy, a big theological dispute about the nature of the godhead. Arius’ chief antagonist was the church father Athanasius, whom we often cast as a villain. But Arius wasn’t exactly advocating a theological position that we would embrace today. You know the Christian position that holds that Jesus was fully human and fully divine? Well, Arius took issue with that, arguing that Jesus was something like half-human and half-divine. A demi-God, perhaps? Some kind of creature that wasn’t fully one thing or another. Another problem we have is that we don’t have any of Arius’ writings. After the Council of Nicea they were all destroyed. What we do have are quotations of Arius’ writings in the writings of Athanasius.
If Arius is the most famous proto-Unitarian, Origen is the most famous proto-Universalist. Origen was born about a century before Arius and his theology was all over the place, as was all theology in general before the church councils. Origen sort of believed in Universalism. He believed that, after death, souls continued to work their way towards an eventual union with God. It is unclear whether he persisted in this view throughout his life. Origen was and remains a controversial figure. His brilliance was unparalleled but, at the same time, he held some ideas that would prove too controversial for the later Church to handle. Historians also widely believe that he castrated himself. You can recant a theological argument. You can’t take back auto-castration.
So, in regards to Arius and Origen, are we going fishing for early heretical figures or are we trying to claim that the seeds of Unitarian and Universalist thought reach back to some of the earliest days of Christianity?
Regardless, after Arius and Origen comes a long, long, pause. Jump forward about 1,100 years to the 1500s and we find a Spaniard named Michael Servetus, another heretical Christian who also questioned the doctrine of the trinity. For his heresy, and for being a pain in everybody’s side, Servetus was hunted by both the Protestants and the Catholics. The Protestants caught him and Calvin ordered him burned at the stake in Geneva. The Catholics felt so badly about being left out that they burned him in effigy, along with copies of his books that included one with the title, On the Errors of the Trinity. As with the conflict between Arius and Athanasius, we tend to make this a story of good guy versus bad guy with Servetus the good guy and Calvin the bad guy, a role in which he is easily cast. One of the many problems that the example of Servetus poses is that he is difficult to connect with those of a similar theology who lived before or after him. We can’t connect Arius with Servetus and we can’t really connect Servetus with early American Unitarians.
Another way to tell our history is to go to Eastern Europe and to study the Unitarian movement that was launched in Poland by Faustus Socinus. Socinus, an Italian, carried his theology to Poland. Following persecution there he traveled to Transylvania where his theology had an impact on Francis David and King John Sigismund. When Sigismund died the throne was passed to a Catholic who did not share Sigismund's commitment to religious tolerance. Francis David, whose theology was now deemed heretical, was out of luck. He was sent to prison where he died.
The problem that we face is that when Unitarianism began to flourish in England and in the United States, it wasn’t terribly aware of or influenced by people like Servetus, Socinus, or David. The circumstances that gave rise to Unitarianism in Transylvania were a struggle with Catholicism.
In fact, in the present day, we know of indigenous Unitarian movements that began not only in Poland and Transylvania, but also in India, the Philippines, and in various countries in Africa. These groups are sincerely interesting and I believe it is certainly the case that we have something to learn from partnering with them, but their stories are not our story. We arose in a different context.
What do we gain by invoking all of the people I have just invoked? I believe that invoking Origen and Arius and Servetus help us to feel somehow justified. Our religion, which is so small today, seems easier to take more seriously if we can claim Unitarians and Universalists lived almost 2,000 years ago. Never mind the gap of more than a millennium in the historical record.
Similarly, when we invoke, say, Francis David, we feel elevated by his story, his courage, and his martyrdom. Identification with a persecuted minority can help us to feel special or even entitled. Over-identification with persecution or minority-status can also lead to group cohesion against an outside enemy and can become a kind of convenient excuse for whatever we want to conveniently excuse.
Before I come around to describing the story of Unitarian Universalist history that I do plan to tell over the course of this week, I want to revisit for just a moment the temptations that may lead us to approach UU history from a perspective that may lack both rigorous historical accuracy and helpfulness. I’d like to share a story of my ancestry (I think.) The surname Belote comes from the south of France and while I am not all that interested in genealogy, I have found out something interesting about my last name. In the town of Montaillou in the south of France, there was a prominent town family with the surname Belote who lived there around 900 years ago.
How did I find this out? I was sent a book about the town by a cousin of mine who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee and is a Unitarian Universalist there. As it so happens, Montaillou was a region inhabited by a religious group known Cathars and a very detailed description of the town was written by the Catholic leaders who oversaw the inquisition and later the annihilation of the Cathars in the south of France. If I remember the book correctly, the Catholic leader in charge of this inquisition did it so well that he later got a cushy position in Rome. This is perhaps why an account of the town still exists.
When I told this story about the Cathars, I bet a lot of you felt a sense of identification with them and maybe even felt your pre-existing criticisms of Catholicism enhanced. At the same time, the Cathars come from a theological origin that is quite different than ours. I am told that their theology was based in gnosticism, and many of their faith practices are not ones that we would share with them. The point I am trying to make here is that when we hear about any oppressed religious group or person, whether it’s the Cathars, Arius, or Origen, the temptation is to want to identify closely with them, whoever they are, even if we are quite distinct.
What is the historical story of Unitarianism and Universalism that will frame this series of lectures? That will be revealed during the second lecture.
Over your time as a UU, what understandings have you held of how our faith started?
What stories about the origin of our religion were considered sacred?
Can you relate to the “odd toadstool” metaphor I used at the beginning of this lecture?