The Living Tradition


At this week’s General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, there was a moment where I found myself absorbed by the sight of the thousands of people streaming through the corridors of the Greater Columbus Convention Center and I fantasized that it was a human river, a river 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. Our Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism. The living stream that comes to us from long ago and far away and sweeps us up in its 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 in human history. Always the haves and the have nots. Always insiders and always the rejected, the outcast. Two thousand years ago, Roman rulers spoke of this as a kind of peace. The peace of Rome was a way of life in which the Emperor was at the top of the pyramid, then wealthy men right below. Only these had inherent worth and dignity; everyone else was a tool to be used, controlled, subjugated, humiliated. No compassion for these people: women, poor men, slaves, and the conquered.

But this was the way of Rome, the way to a unified empire, the way to true peace. Fight Rome on this—serve any gods that contradict the Roman way—and it’s war.

And now begins our Living Tradition, 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 peace of Rome. They 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. To care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick. Subvert the perennial tragedy of human history. Resist the peace of Rome. No more have-nots.

Everyone get inside the circle.

So you can imagine what Rome felt 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 criminals.

For hundreds of years, the Christians were persecuted, but the Love that refuses 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 the dream Jesus said, “Under this sign, you will conquer.” It led Constantine to have a banner fashioned that featured the two Greek letters, and under that banner he fought, and he did conquer. He would go on to legalize Christianity, and more than that: he would never stop using Christianity as a military and political tool to solidify his reign.

All this is so strange, because how can the Love that Justin Martyr talked about, or Paul, be used as an instrument of conquest?

It can’t; but people can. People can think they are acting in the name of Rabbi Jesus but, in reality, they are caught in the Matrix. Rome is working through them. The only peace they’re spreading is Roman peace which is just more of the perennial human tragedy, not less.

So it was in 325AD that Constantine gathered up all the most important religious leaders of his day and charged them with defining the proper articles of proper Christian belief. “Unitarianism” (which originally meant “God is one”) was one of the candidate ideas being considered, and so was “Universalism” (which originally meant, “no hell”). Lot and lots of ideas: the Christians of this time were brimming with ideas, they were all over the place in what they believed—just like we are today! And that was ok; Christianity was fundamentally about Love. Love united the people. Which explains why Constantine saw the religious leaders endlessly dickering and dithering and multiplying distinctions and tiny differences. Clarity and uniformity of doctrine was not happening and wouldn’t ever happen in the natural course of free debate among creative minds. So Constantine made the course of events UN-natural: he threatened them with violence. He wanted dogma, sharp as a sword. Because that’s what you need, if you are all about conquest.

And he got it. He got his sharp-as-a-sword dogma. History calls this the Council of Nicea. The Nicene Creed.

Creed after creed that had no room for the ideas of “Unitarianism” and “Universalism” piled up, over the years, and all were used as instruments of control. “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. 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 discovery of the New World and 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 here we have the next phase in our Living Tradition. 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.

But Rome is never out of the picture, in some form or fashion. Here’s what I mean.

The Enlightenment sparked the Reformation, in which leaders like Luther in Germany and 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 Luther and Calvin only went so far with that. Unlike the RADICAL Reformers who are our direct spiritual ancestors. Radical Reformers like Michael 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. And Calvin (acting just like a Roman Emperor would) had him burned at the stake.

Our Living Tradition over the years has seen immense tragedy and suffering. Religion had so thoroughly become an affair of the mind—people were so afraid of believing the wrong things and therefore being damned—that our spiritual ancestors risked life and limb in simply thinking for themselves. But they trusted that even from error people can learn; and that truth will always, eventually, emerge. Thus they called for tolerance. 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.” Sebastian Castellio, 1553.

What he is saying—freedom, reason, tolerance—we take for granted today. It is easy as pie. 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 forbears 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. Now 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. “

I felt a little bit of that myself this past week, there at General Assembly. It’s hard to be among thousands of Unitarian Universalists and not feel like we’re going to win. Never through conquest, never by the sharp sword of dogma. But through resisting the peace of Rome, which is the peace of a status quo that entrenches a system of haves and have-nots, saved and damned. Resisting that. Being free in our hearts and minds. Exercising reason and tolerance. Loving one another. 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, where I found myself absorbed by the sight of the people streaming through the corridors of the Greater Columbus Convention Center and I fantasized that it was a human river, a river 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, Joseph Priestley, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson. 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 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 on it like this: “there is neither gay nor straight, there is neither Christian nor Buddhist nor Muslim, there is neither atheist nor theist, there is neither black or brown or yellow or 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. Love like Jesus loved and like we love will never die.

That is why the Tradition Lives.

And now, I give it to you.

Make time for it!

Learn about it, know it!

Care for it!

Strengthen it, build it!

Give it to your children, give it to your friends!

Give it away as fast as you can!

Our tradition Lives!