General Assembly is the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists from around the world, and every year it’s a different place we land.
It was several years ago at the General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, when I found myself absorbed by the sight of the thousands of people streaming through the corridors of the Greater Columbus Convention Center. I found myself imagining what I was seeing as a human version of lux aeterna, a stream of light with a far distant origin and purpose, and we are at the forming edge of it and it goes beyond us too, on and on.
That’s what I want to talk about, on a morning when we have just experienced spiritual illumination in the form of music. Our Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism is a source of spiritual illumination too, a stream of aliveness that comes to us from long ago and far away and sweeps us up in its golden power and flow and carries us forward and does not stop, will not stop, goes on and on.
I’ll begin by noting something perennially tragic about what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience. There are always the haves and always the have-nots. There are always insiders and there are always the rejected, the outcast.
Two thousand years ago, Roman rulers spoke of this as a kind of peace. They called it the “peace of Rome,” and it was a rigidly-hierarchical way of life in which the Emperor was at the very top of the pyramid, then right below were wealthy men. Only these had inherent worth and dignity; everyone else was a tool to be used, controlled, subjugated, humiliated. There was no compassion for the people at the bottom, who were poor men, and women, and slaves, and the conquered.
This was the way of Rome, the way to a peaceful, unified empire. Try to fight Rome on this—serve any gods that contradict the Roman way—and you have just declared war.
And with that, our Living Tradition begins. With the grungy followers of a discredited rabbi whose teachings were judged as treasonous and he was crucified. Pontius Pilate thought that that would have been enough to crush the spiritual rebels but it was not to be so.
The love of Rabbi Jesus was too powerful to die.
Rabbi Jesus died but his spirit was resurrected in the lives of his followers, who refused the status-quo peace of Rome. The followers of Jesus believed in a different kind of peace, which was a peace that is not so much about the absence of struggle as the presence of Love stirring in our midst, calling us to acts of compassion and justice, and sometimes this sort of peace is disruptive, and needfully so, when the status quo benefits some at the expense of others.
The early Christians refused to be pacified. They resisted and it was all about Love. Justin Martyr, one of these early Christians, who lived around 70 years after Jesus’ death, said, “We who formerly valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possession, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies.” That’s what the Jesus followers did. Religion wasn’t so much a matter of what you believed as what you did. Sharing wealth, so no one had to go without. Engaging diversity, so that very different people might look at each other and value the differences but see beyond them too, see how we are all ultimately kin and part of one human family.
Everyone get inside the circle.
No more insiders and outsiders.
So you can imagine what the powers of Rome thought about the apostle Paul when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”—which is to say that everyone has inherent worth and dignity and not just some.
Teachings like this made Paul and every person who received them into their hearts at war with Rome. Criminals. For hundreds of years, the Christians were persecuted, but the Love that refuses status-quo pacification would not die.
And then a strange thing happened.
The Emperor of Rome had a dream. It was the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, 312AD. Emperor Constantine dreamed that Jesus visited him and showed him the first two letters of the Greek word “Christos,” and his dream version of Jesus said, “Under this sign, you will conquer.” Didn’t matter that up till that time war and violence were condemned universally by all Christians. It was Emperor Constantine we are talking about, his dream, his pride, and he would have a banner fashioned that featured the two Greek letters, and under that banner he fought, and he did conquer, and he proclaimed it righteousness.
Strangest things can happen. The divine Love that Jesus served, that Justin Martyr talked about, that Paul preached, was suppressed and sold out; but the external forms of the faith were carried forward, and they served to rally the people, but to ends that were oppressive!
This is just more of the perennial human tragedy.
Before Constantine, Christianity was, ideologically speaking, a mess. Ideas about Jesus and God were all over the place. “Unitarianism” (which originally meant “Jesus is not equal to God, God is one”) was one of these ideas, and so was “Universalism” (which originally meant, “there is no such thing as eternal hellfire and damnation”). Lot and lots of ideas: the Christians of this time were brimming with varied ideas, just like we Unitarian Universalists are today! And that was ok; Christianity was fundamentally about Love.
Love united the people.
But Constantine wasn’t interested in Love. He wanted power. He wanted to use the power of Christianity’s external forms to rally the people; and he realized he needed an additional external form: an authoritative list of doctrines that define orthodoxy. What people must believe to be insiders, and if you don’t believe, you are doomed.
So it was in 325AD that Constantine gathered up all the most important religious leaders of the day and charged them with defining orthodoxy. The leaders gathered, and then they proceeded to resemble what we see today in gatherings of Unitarian Universalists discussing religious ideas: free debate among creative minds. No sense of urgency to get to definitive orthodoxy. So Constantine gave them a sense of urgency: he threatened them with violence.
Get it done, or die.
To get to orthodoxy, it takes the threat of the sword. No wonder orthodoxy itself cuts sharp, cuts families up, cuts people up.
History calls this the Council of Nicea, and its product: The Nicene Creed.
It turns out that the ideas which are near and dear to us, “Unitarianism” and “Universalism,” were declared heretical. “If at rare intervals,” says the great historian of Unitarianism, Earl Morse Wilbur, “heretics were rash enough to raise their voices and call into question an old doctrine, or proclaim a new one, they were soon put to silence. By this means Christian thought was kept nearly stagnant for over a thousand years.”
But then came enlightenment. Fast-forward a thousand years. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 scattered the Christian scholars living there, who were studying classical authors that had been long forgotten in the West. They came home and the result was the Renaissance: the beginnings of modern art, modern science, modern literature. Couple this with the invention of printing and people being able to read the fountainhead of their faith: the Bible. And then there was the so-called “discovery” of the New World—Native Americans would never call it discovery—but to the European mind, it was a discovery of heretofore unimaginable new horizons.
This is what happened after all the years of stagnation and the shadow of the Dark Ages, and it lit people up.
New thirst for freedom and reason and tolerance.
And with this, we have the next phase in our Living Tradition story. The beginning, as we saw, was Love as Jesus the Rabbi taught and his immediate followers showed; and now it surged forth as independence of thought.
And Rome still had a part to play in all of it, despite its supposed downfall. I know that sounds odd, but here’s what I mean.
The Enlightenment sparked the Reformation, in which leaders like Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Switzerland challenged the supremacy of the Catholic Church. Initially the hope was for a reformed Catholic Church; but the ultimate result was schism and an utterly new thing called Protestantism. Also new was the Bible’s elevated status. Whereas the Church used to be seen as the ultimate authority on all things, for the Protestant Reformers it became the Bible.
At least, it was supposed to be. But leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin didn’t actually go that very far. For example, they insisted on carrying forward the fusion of church and state, and the use of the military to enforce orthodoxy. On the other hand, our direct spiritual ancestors thought that church and state needed to be separate, and guess what title they earned because of it? They earned the title of “Radical.”
Our spiritual ancestors are the radical reformers. Radical Reformers like Micheal Servetus who read the Bible very carefully, reasoned very thoroughly, and couldn’t help but conclude that the dogma of the Trinity was unbiblical and therefore false.
John Calvin (acting just like a Roman Emperor, enforcing orthodoxy) sicced the police on him, and had him burned at the stake.
Rome can be seen as a metalogic of oppression that has far outlived the actual historical empire.
And once again, our Living Tradition is a tradition of resistance to that. Our spiritual ancestors risked life and limb in simply thinking for themselves. Our spiritual ancestors rejected the fear-based religious way, and they trusted that even from error people can learn, and that truth will always, eventually, emerge.
Thus they called for tolerance. “Tolerance” was the watchword of our resistance movement! Listen to another Radical Reformer, Sebastian Castellio, who is responding to Servetus’ death: “To burn a man is not to defend a doctrine. It is to burn a man.” “Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours. At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one other? […] There are, I know, persons who insist that we should believe even against reason. It is, however, the worst of all errors, and it is laid on me to fight it…. Let no one think he is doing wrong in using his mental faculties. It is our proper way at arriving at the truth.”
This is Sebastian Castellio, 1553.
What he is saying—freedom, reason, tolerance—we take for granted today. But to get from then to now, countless people suffered. Countless people were impoverished, tortured, imprisoned, killed, because they stood up for freedom.
You know, I’m going to be the first to make vampire jokes when we speak of Transylvania and our Unitarian churches there. But did you know that, back in the 1500s, our spiritual ancestors were hounded out of Germany and Switzerland and practically everywhere else in the Continent and it was only in Poland and, yes, in Transylvania, where our folks were able to settle in SOME measure of safety and peace? 1564 in Transylvania and 1565 in Poland. (If you want concrete birthdates for our religion, here they are.) These are our very first congregations. And it is only in Transylvania that our congregations have survived to this very day, and that through hundreds of years of persecution. In Poland, in 1660, our people were banished by the government. Told to get out. So they went into exile. They wandered the face of the earth, miserable, like the undocumented immigrants of today.
But our people persisted. Ours is a Living Tradition that won’t die.
Earl Morse Wilbur tells how “a young Unitarian officer in Transylvania, upon being dismissed from his office on account of his religion, wrote to his father, ‘I will beg before I give up my religion.’” Earl Morse Wilbur goes on to say, “Such noble families as still remained were the most generous to their church. The fewer they became, the more they comforted and helped one another. Their persistence in hanging together, and their willingness to sacrifice for their faith, became proverbial. The result was that persecutions which had been intended to destroy them not only failed of their purpose, but left them instead a united band of heroes; and this quality has persisted to this day.”
Another story is told of the persevering Transylvanians who believed in freedom, reason, and tolerance as we do. The date is 1821. Our spiritual forbearers were just emerging out of a period of terrible persecution, in which (among other things) children were taken away from their parents by force to be educated as Catholics; Unitarian schools were closed; schools, churches, and parsonages were seized; and mobs terrorized congregations at worship. It was terrible.
But it wasn’t going to stop them. After all, these Unitarians in Transylvania—our folks—are nothing less than descendants of fighters from the army of that 5th century scourge Attila the Hun. This is one tough people.
But still, there was despair in the heart. They thought themselves to be all alone in the whole world, the only Unitarians. They used to have connections with their Polish brethren but Unitarianism in Poland had long been exterminated.
So it was thrilling when, in 1821, a certain book came upon them: The Unitarians in England: their Faith, History, and Present Condition briefly set forth. “It was,” says Earl Morse Wilbur, “like receiving powerful reinforcements at the end of a long and exhausting fight. An answer was sent in due time and communications have been kept up between the Unitarians of the two countries ever since. The Transylvanian brethren began to visit England, where they were most gladly received; a few years later two of them went to America, where they reported a yet more flourishing body as then sweeping all before it in Western Massachusetts. It was a great tonic to the weary strugglers, and a prophesy that the cause they had fought for so long was going to win at last.”
Fast forward now to that General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio I attended, not so very long ago. I felt that prophesy then, watching the thousands of Unitarian Universalists from all over the world streaming like light through the corridors of the Greater Columbus Convention Center. It’s hard to be among thousands of Unitarian Universalists and not feel cheered and connected to something way larger than one’s own self.
Our way of winning can never be through conquest, never by the sharp sword of dogma and orthodoxy. Our way of winning is building communities that teach and encourage people to be free and responsible thinkers in matters of religion. Our way of winning is building communities where Love stirs at the center—and this actually goes deeper than thinking, this is deeper than theories, this is when the Love stirring at the center feels like music that is irresistible, music that speaks directly to our souls. We feel called. Called to give away our wealth of time and talent and treasure so that no one goes without. Called to engage diversity and learn to appreciate and enjoy the ways we are different but to see beyond that, too, to how we are all ultimately kin and part of one human family.
We win, when we are answering the call within these walls, and also beyond these walls. Within is never enough.
We win, when we are inspiring more people to live lives of meaning and purpose.
That’s how we win.
Resisting the peace of Rome, which still persists today as a metalogic of structures of oppression, which entrenches a system of haves and have-nots, privileged and oppressed, saved and damned. Resisting that. Doing all this in the manner of our spiritual ancestors who showed us how. Who went before us. Who suffered and died so we might not have to.
That moment at General Assembly, absorbed by the sight of thousands of people streaming, which I imagined to be lux aeterna in human form, illumination with a far distant origin and purpose and we are at the forming edge of it and it goes beyond us too, on and on…. Our Living Tradition. All our heroes from Poland and Transylvania, England and America over the course of our 500 years. Faustus Socinus, Francis David, John Biddle, Theophilus Lindsay, Jane Leade, Joseph Priestley, John Murray, Judith Sargent Murray, William Ellery Channing, Hosea Ballou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Egbert Ethelred Brown.
I thought of that unnamed Unitarian officer and his letter to his father, saying he would not quit.
Then I went to the very source of our Living Tradition. I thought of Jesus the rabbi. I thought of Justin Martyr. I thought of Paul and his great Biblical saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”—and then, knowing Paul would not mind, I expanded the Bible verse to make it sound like this: “there is neither gay nor straight, there is neither transgender nor cisgender, there is neither disabled nor abled, there is neither Christian nor Buddhist nor Muslim, there is neither atheist nor theist, there is neither black nor brown nor yellow nor white, for all are one in the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Love, which bears all things, hopes for all things, endures all things, is greater than faith, greater than hope, never ends.”
I don’t care how powerful Rome was, or its current versions. The Love that stirred in Jesus’ life, and that stirs in our midst now, will never die.
That is why the Tradition Lives.
And now, here we are, together.
Together, over the course of what I hope is many years, let us learn about our Tradition, know about, care for it!
Strengthen it, build it, together!
Give it to our children, give it to our friends!
Give it away as fast as we can!
Our Tradition Lives!