Free Faith, Hard Won

Some may recall a sermon last spring in which I mentioned that,
calling for information about Unitarian Universalism, a woman had once
asked me if we are a cult. I informed her that Ralph Waldo
Emerson, the Bronsons and the Alcotts, some say Thomas Jefferson —
definitely the two Adams presidents
— and a host of other
major contributors to American culture had all been Unitarians. A
respectable American religious history, I'd say. So, if you
yourself have discovered us only recently, and know little about our
history, let this record of respectability reassure you that you have
not stumbled into some cultic fad that started down behind the MARTA
station.

And, actually, Unitarianism, as a theological position, began long
before some Harvard-educated New England Congregationalist ministers
began preaching early in the nineteenth century against the doctrine
of the trinity. In fact, though some would have you believe that
Christian truth is the same yesterday, today, and forever, there has
never been a time in Christian history when there has not been
contention and division over precisely who this Jesus of
Nazareth
was.

One of our older Unitarian Church School curriculum books — pretty
much out of use these days — is called Who Do Men Say
That I Am?
The title is taken from a question Jesus
purportedly asked his disciples, indicating that there was confusion
abroad about who he was and what he was. The disciples said that some
were saying he was the prophet Elijah, reincarnated
in the form of this Nazarene teacher. Others were saying that he was
John the Baptist, likewise making a return visit.
Then, according to the account, Jesus turned to the disciple,
Peter, and asked, "Who do you say that I
am?" Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the
Living God."

Of course, had Peter said anything like that, Jesus would not have had
a clue as to what he was talking about. “Christ” is not a term he
would have been familiar with as a Jew — or as anything else for that
matter, since the church had not yet invented the title. The third
century church added this scene into the gospel accounts to support
the doctrines it had developed through the generations after Jesus’
death. What the passage does indicate, again, is that the question of
the identity, the nature, of Jesus has always been an open question
and that one view or another has always needed to be defended.

In the early part of the fourth century, the ceaseless debates in the
councils of the fledgling church tried the patience of emperor
Constantine. In 325 a.d., he ordered the leaders of
the church to shut themselves up in chambers in the city of Nicea.
They were not to adjourn until they had resolved the question of the
nature of Jesus. Party to the debate was a theologian named
Arius. Arius took the position that, while Jesus was
of a like substance to God, he was not of the
same substance as God. In short, for Arius,
Jesus was not God. It was a unitarian — God is one — position in
opposition to those who declared that Jesus was of the
same substance as God that is, that
Jesus is, in fact, God.

An interesting sidelight to this great debate — interesting, at
least, to people like me who have no idea who plays third base for the
Yankees — is the matter of the iota.  You've heard the
phrase, “It doesn't make an iota of difference?” Well, this is
where it comes from. The “iota” is the Greek letter “ι” In Greek, the
word homousios means “the same substance.” By
inserting the Greek iota, or i, you have homoiusios
,
which means “of like substance.” After weeks of very
unchristian-like heated argument, the Council of Nicea voted in 325
a.d. for homousios. Jesus was proclaimed by
the Council of Nicea to be of the same substance as God. In effect, by
vote, Jesus was proclaimed to be God. Had the iota been in the term,
it would have made all the difference. We would have been the church
with the eleven thousand members and Dunwoody Baptist would have a few
hundred. Following the Council of Nicea, Arius and arianism — the
contention that Jesus was not God — was declared to be heresy. Heresy
or not, the unitarian/arian view of Jesus, the anti-trinitarian view
that Jesus was especially chosen by God but was not God —
persisted.  It was never a safe view to hold or to proclaim.
Michael Servetus was a Spanish physician and
theologian. His description of the pulmonary circulation is considered
a classic passage in physiology. Servetus angered both Catholic and
Protestant authorities by publishing a treatise called
contra trinitarius “Against the Trinity.”
John Calvin, one of the chief leaders of the
Protestant Reformation, condemned him for not conforming to accepted
doctrines. He inveigled Servetus to travel to Geneva, supposedly to
join him in debate. Instead, Calvin had him imprisoned and burned at
the stake. And you thought it was easy to be a Unitarian.


For centuries, theological debate,
mortal and immortal conflict — often ending in fiery resolution —
raged throughout Europe. In the small country of Transylvania, in the
mid-sixteenth century, a significant event in the history of religion
took place. King John Sigisimund had come to the
throne at the age of twenty. He fostered a remarkable policy for his
time — free and open discussion in matters of religion and a broad
toleration of all religious viewpoints. The young king made
Transylvania the freest country in Europe in matters of religion.
Sigismund issued a decree of religious toleration at the Council of
Torda in 1568. It is worthy of being read here:

His majesty reaffirms that in
every place the preachers shall preach and explain the gospel each
according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like
it, well, if not, no one shall compel them, for their souls would
not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher
whose teaching they approve. Therefore (no one) shall be reviled
for his religion by anyone, according to the statutes, and it is
not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by
imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching, for
faith is the gift of God …

Sigismund had arrived at his decree
in no small measure through the efforts of the minister/theologian
Francis David (pronounced Daveed
). David had been ordained a Roman Catholic priest. He later
accepted the Protestant Reformation and became a Lutheran pastor.
Then, ever a seeker, he became a Calvinist with, strangely enough,
unitarian leanings toward the idea that God is one, not one in
three.

After the early death of young King
Sigismund, the tide quickly turned again. Francis David’s colleagues
in the great debates turned against him to save their own skins. He
was imprisoned by Sigismund's successor, King
Stephan.
His crime was taking the position that “Christ”
should not be invoked in prayer. He died in prison as the martyr who
declared to his death that “God is one!”

As the hymn says, “In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword.” The unitarian faith in One God and in the
freedom to forge one's own religious convictions, withstood it all
and endured. Free faith and free churches spread across Europe,
settled in the Free Scottish churches, and moved even into the shadows
of England's cathedrals. Look for them with determination enough
as your travel through England and you'll find centuries-old
Unitarian churches indistinguishable from the city or village
buildings adjoining them, hidden from the street in courtyards, tucked
away behind modest houses. An English scientist Joseph
Priestley
— the discoverer of Oxygen — was also a minister,
preaching unitarianism. Mobs of good Christians burned down his
laboratory, causing him to flee to America, bringing his unitarianism
along with him. And, so, those young Harvard Divinity School
graduates, preaching unitarianism in New England, inheritors of a long
and perilous history, stood on hallowed theological ground — as do
we.


Last month, I visited some of the Unitarian
churches of Transylvania, including the congregation in the town of
Udvarhely, which is our partner congregation. There are about 80,000
Unitarians in Romania — Transylvania, no longer a kingdom, is now a
region of Romania — and there are about 25,000 more Unitarians in
Hungary.

Having been raised in England, I've seen a
lot of old churches. I've had tea in the crofts of cathedrals that
were already five hundred years old when Henry VIII
took them over from the Catholics. Still, it was a moving experience
to be in Unitarian churches that were not built thirty-five years ago
in suburban America or even 150 years ago in Emerson's New
England.

I visited one fortress church, seven hundred
years old, and saw the charred timbers in the outer walls where the
Turks had attempted to burn their way in. This had been a Unitarian
congregation when King Sigisimund had declared its people to be free
from fear and persecution. I visited another which had been attacked
by the Roman Catholics in the early 1700s because the Unitarian
village it served refused to pay taxes to the then-catholic state. I
talked with a minister who had served his Unitarian church and village
for forty-three years –his entire ministry — and was about to
retire. I asked him if he would be sad to leave. “No,” he said, “I was
built here. My heart and soul will always be in this
village.”

It has only been a little over ten years since
the communists and the dictator, Ceacescu, abandoned
Romania. During Ceacescu's rule, Our partner church minister,
Moses Kedei, and his colleagues were not allowed to leave their
districts. They were not allowed to hold any meetings other than the
Sunday services, which were frequently watched by agents. Several
Unitarian ministers were imprisoned in those years. A religion which
encouraged free thinking and individualism, whose ministers were
well-educated people of conscience, was considered a threat to the
social order. At the time of the 1989 revolution (or, as some insist,
no revolution but a coup d'état )
and the death of Ceacescu, he had been about to bulldoze out of
existence many of the medieval Unitarian villages I visited under the
pretext that the land was needed for collective farms. During the
communist rule of Romania, the Unitarian churches were not permitted
to be renovated or even repaired. The intent, I suppose, was that
those that were not destroyed would eventually simply fall
apart.

As a consequence, many of the Unitarian
churches in Romania are in sad condition. They are also abysmally
poor. When the communist regime was ousted, the already-wasted economy
was devastated. Factories, railways, roads and farms were simply
abandoned. Once-paved roads are mostly rubble. Village roads are awash
in mud. There is no viable infrastructure and no capital to rebuild.
Churches are not high priority. Our partner congregation, one of the
largest in Romania, with some two thousand members, pays its minister,
Moses Kedei, the equivalent of about $1200 a year from the pennies the
people are able to contribute. He is the only minister for that
congregation and, in addition, he is the district minister,
responsible, administratively, for 21 other congregations. Any outside
assistance to the congregations of Romania was impossible during
communist rule. Until ten years ago, there was nothing we could have
done to help with the collapse of the regime in 1989, our American
Unitarian congregations were able to form partnerships with
congregations in Romania. Through these partnerships, beautiful
buildings, formerly doomed to destruction or disuse, are being
renovated, restored and rebuilt. Congregations are being revitalized
through the restoration of the people's hope for the future.
Where, not so long ago, the people met in cold, joyless, decaying
churches, suspicious of any visitor, devoid of hope, I saw pride and
joy in their meeting place and personally experienced gratitude and
love. Thanks to your generosity, the interior and the exterior of the
church in Udvarhely has been completely restored to its original
beauty (On a bulletin board in the hallway, you can see me standing in
the beautiful high oak pulpit side by side with Rev. Kedei).

In my sermon from that pulpit, I acknowledged
your contribution to the restoration both of place and of hope, but I
also stressed that we, too, are beneficiaries of our partnership. I
want to share with you the closing portion of my sermon in the pulpit
of the Unitarian church of Sekeudvarhely, Transylvania.

A partnership serves both partners
equally. And what can you offer us too-rich Americans? You can, and
you do, offer us the richness of your enduring faith. You stand for
us as a living reminder that faith does not always come with ease
nor is faith always sustained with ease. We in America have not
suffered as you have for your beliefs. Our ministers have not been
imprisoned, as yours have, for their beliefs and their work for
freedom. We have not had to fear the destruction of our homes and
villages by despots and dictators. And so you are for us the
hard-won lesson that we have been spared, that we have not been
required to learn for ourselves–that faith withstands all
oppression; that no outward circumstance can weaken that which
sustains our human spirit; and that the love for each other in our
congregations overcomes all and is of the highest human value.

It is for these reasons that such visits
as mine–now and in the future– will continue to be so important
to us. We need the inspiration of your faith. We need the example
of your strength. We need to experience the pure joy you experience
simply in being together.

I mentioned the 700 year old fortress church:
That church is not heated. I asked the minister if the people
didn't suffer with the cold on winter Sunday mornings. The
minister said, “Ah, no, for centuries we are comforted by the heat of
the Word from the pulpit, by our body of the faithful huddled close to
one another, and from the warmth of the Spirit.”