RELIGIOUS HISTORY YOU CAN UUSE:

GREAT MOMENTS ON THE INEXORABLE MARCH TOWARD BOTHANDIA
- EASTERN EUROPEAN ROOTS -

A Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church - April 3, 2005

Just so there's no confusion, if you were to search the internet for references to the term BothAndia (as one Paint Brancher did after seeing the newsletter blurb for this sermon), you would only find mention of it-so far-in works associated with me, so I have to be accountable for whatever fallout there is from this invented word. Barbara and I have used it in a few previous sermons and will take it on the road next weekend when we are theme speakers at another UU district's annual spring conference in Boston.

I find it to be a very handy and expressive tool, BothAndia, especially as an adjective-"bothandian." But more than that, it helps me clarify an important, maybe even essential liberal religious value: inclusion. And today I will draw your attention to the early Eastern European roots of the Unitarian side of our religion, and at least two pivotal moments that are decidedly "bothandian."

I believe the arc of the universe is leading us, slowly, perhaps, but inexorably toward BothAndia, where "both/and" solutions to group dilemmas are eagerly utilized to strengthen the common good. And that, in a nutshell, is where we come from, in small steps, and where we're going, hopefully in leaps. This inclusive vision is in contrast to reliance on more closed and often absolutist "either/or" responses to life's challenges.

My hope is that after listening to me this morning, any of you will be able to better explain what we stand for and why our heritage matters, both then and now. And if you want some good practice at this, take note that a four-session class on "Articulating Your UU Faith" begins this coming Wednesday evening.

To be able to adequately speak up for our religious perspective in the current national climate is a challenge I hope none of you will shy away from, since we are the latest generation of both caretakers and innovators of a "freedom that reveres the past but trusts the dawning future more."

Do not allow anyone to denigrate or minimize what we call our "living tradition," which is a bothandian ideal itself. To the extent that any of us know about and can speak to it, we are deeply grounded in a rich history that is both a strong tradition and very much alive and unfolding-thus a "living tradition." For we guard and uphold the tradition of heresy, if you will. You may have heard that the word heresy comes from the Greek, hairetikos, meaning "able to choose."

Often, our liberal religious ancestors chose to walk a path that was inclusive, affirming liberty of belief, and I am now going to tell you two highly abridged stories that put some flesh on this abstract skeleton. If I do my job reasonably well, your job will be to try to retell these stories later to someone who isn't among us right now. (The text will soon be up on our web site, and you're allowed to refer to it, if needed.)

 

The first scene unfolds in an unlikely region, made so only because today it is such a dominantly Catholic country, Poland. But Poland wasn't always the religious mono-culture that it seems to be now. Journey back with me five hundred years, to the early 16th century, as the Protestant Reformation is about to unleash sectarian diversity in Christendom.

In this era, Poland is the size of Texas and includes Prussia and Lithuania. It's a long distance from Rome and thus on the fringes of Church influence, having only been converted to Christianity a few centuries earlier. (And remember there was only one Christian Church in Europe before the Reformation, after which it had to be differentiated as the Roman Catholic Church. Before that it was just "The Church.")

What Church authority was there in Poland 500 years ago had become emblematic of why the Protest-ant Reformation was about to happen, which was to "protest" the corruption of church officials who frequently became rich men behaving badly. They had lots of power but little credibility. For instance, the Bishop of Crakow of that time is on record with this telling remark: "Believe in a goat if you like, provided you pay me my tithes." (Hmmm. Note to self: Consider new slogans for next year's pledge drive.)

The fiercely independent Poles did not take kindly to any foreign authority, and, as a frontier state, had already learned to accept a variety of religious practices, including those of Jews, Greek Orthodox and Moslems. Meanwhile, there were many indigenous Slavic peasants working the land, with communities of other European groups as artisans and merchants in the cities. Then the Polish King married the daughter of an Italian duke, and she brought a large entourage of other influential Italians with her, freshly inspired by the emerging Reformation.

So, we've got fiercely independent Poles, a long way from Rome, a weak and corrupt Church, with lots of other Europeans around. It all makes fertile ground for the Reformation-which the Church hierarchy fought, but unsuccessfully. Various new groups sprang up quickly, including the suitably named Reformed Church, through which the seed of anti-trinitarian thought was planted. And that idea is at the root of our Unitarian heritage.

Most Protestants, including many within the Polish Reformed Church, still affirmed the Doctrine of the Trinity-a three-part God: father, son, holy ghost, all co-equally divine. (The Reformation was not so much a protest against the theology of the church as it was an attempt to change the corrupt practices of the church fathers. So doctrines such as the Trinity were not at issue as much as, say, the selling of indulgences, whereby one could purchase a stairway to heaven from the local bishop.)

But more and more people were reading the Bible for themselves-thanks to the invention of the printing press not too many decades earlier. And the more open-minded and curious among them were often unable to find any justification for the Trinity in there. The most outrageous of these free-thinkers began to suggest the full humanity of Jesus, who was also, therefore, not to be an object of worship. All this was, of course, quite a challenge to the Trinitarians, who still had the power to persecute such heretics, which they did.

But 16th century Poland had enough of an open atmosphere that it became a haven for heretics. Elsewhere in Europe the Church was relentlessly harsh on these anti-trinitarians, including, certainly, in Italy, and many radical thinkers fled to Poland to join the Reformed Church. The anti-trinitarians among them became known as the Minor Church; also as the Polish Brethren.

But within this group of otherwise unified dissenters there arose a different and very divisive issue: baptism, which brings me to the first BothAndian moment I want to portray today. The radical members of the Minor Church in the 1560s hotly debated whether infants should be baptized, an issue which nowadays lacks controversial oomph, but back then it was huge.

I'm now going to quote my colleague David Bumbaugh, author of "A Narrative History" of UUism [pg. 35] that we've been reading in the history class, because I can't do a better job of portraying the path they took in the face of this internal fight.

Some argued that since baptism was a sign of admission into the Christian community, and since participation in that community requires a conscious choice, baptism should be reserved for adults. Infant baptism, they argued, is invalid, and therefore those who have been baptized as infants must be rebaptized upon admission to the church. Others insisted upon the necessity of their children being baptized so that they might grow up within the Christian community.

There was much debate, and in the face of threatened schism, [they met in a synod-a council-and] resolved thatno one should be forced against conscience, and that all should dwell together in peace until the next synod. Subsequent synods ended with the participants giving and accepting forgiveness for any offense, and promising to live in peace together.

Thus, toleration of differences became an institutionalized custom among the Polish Brethren. In time, infant baptism would die out among them, without schism and without liberty of conscience being compromised.

So here we have a group of strong-minded free-thinkers, who had been pushing hard against the boundaries of trinitarian doctrine, now facing a significant disagreement among themselves regarding baptism. They probably knew quite well what it felt like to be suppressed by dominant authority, so they took a different route and modeled a bothandian resolution-to both disagree and live in peace.

This approach was very unusual in an era of uncompromising passion and oppressive power, but it characterized the proto-unitarian Polish Brethren in the Minor Church of Poland. They patiently allowed competing positions on baptism to each have some room, with respect for everyone's "liberty of conscience." This is also our religious heritage-the "toleration of differences [as] an institutionalized custom."

They even established a utopian town, called Raków, in which together they could live out their beliefs, based primarily on the Sermon on the Mount. For many decades, this town attracted anti-trinitarians and idealists who both lived a simple, egalitarian lifestyle, imitating the early Christian disciples, and created a rigorous intellectual climate.

Raków was called "a perpetual synod," with ongoing debates and explorations of religious issues, plus well-respected educational institutions. Residents there modeled how to both allow individual freedom and promote the common good, which remains an elusive balancing act to this day. Visitors came from all over Europe to witness this noble experiment in action. The community had some bumpy periods, but flourished.

Raków also became a strong publishing center, producing, among many other tracts, a very influential Racovian Catechism, in 1605. The spirit of this notable document was the same that guided the community's emphasis on tolerance: one can never be totally sure of exclusive truth claims, so allowing for difference and change is essential. Unlike most other catechisms, this one was designed to be updated. Sixty years after its first edition, a new preface explained:

While we compose a catechism, we prescribe nothing to any[one]; while we express our own views, we oppress no one. Let each be free to express [their] own mind in religionWe do not think that we need blush if our Church advances in some things.

It is difficult for me to adequately portray how revolutionary such attitudes were in 16th and 17th century Europe. Never before had anyone dared to profess such openness to change in religion, which was otherwise steadily authoritarian and rigid, relying on closed systems of theology and practice that could not afford to be questioned.

In fact, the sad end of the Minor Church in Poland reflects the threat they were perceived to be. The more orthodox of the Protestants also perpetuated their fair share of repression, but in just a few years around 1640, all traces of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance were wiped out by the Jesuits, who had been given a mission to rid the country of the anti-trinitarian heresy. They were effective, brutally and rapidly crushing the entire culture of the Polish Brethren, including the community at Raków, which was scattered and taken over by Catholics.

By the 18th century, Poland was one of the least tolerant countries in Europe, with nary a trace of the Minor Church. But this is not to say that the liberal religious experiment in Raków was futile, oh no! Their ideas-and their published documents-lived on in Western Europe and considerably advanced the inexorable march toward BothAndia.

 

Now our journey takes us south from Poland, to another portion of Eastern Europe, around the same period in time, for a perhaps surprisingly parallel story that deepens our heritage. And this story will feature a main character.

We land in the Transylvanian region of what was then 16th century Hungary, where, as in Poland, the hand of the Church was not very strong. In fact, Hungarians had never paid any tithes to the church hierarchy. Furthermore, the region's geography had also provided a lot of contact with non-Christian peoples, especially Moslem Turks. In fact, the strategic location of Transylvania between the Islamic east and the Christian west allowed it to experience a short period of independence-brief, but significant, with a somewhat happier ending than Poland's experiment.

The Protestant Reformation took hold there in Transylvania, first embodied in a big way by the two dominant competing strains related to Luther and Calvin. Gradually, mid-century, the anti-trinitarian notion began to catch on, largely due to the expert preaching and debating of one Francis Dávid, who had himself journeyed through both other Protestant theologies to become convinced of the worth of a unitarian posture. His personal lineage was also bothandian, in a way, with a shoemaker father and a mother from the noble class, each from different ethnic groups, even. Such a polyglot background was not at all common or favored in those days, but it never slowed him down.

Dávid's oratory skills gained him notice and he soon had the ear of the young, but sickly King of Transylvania, who had also been questioning the Trinity. His mother the Queen had slowly begun the liberalization of the religious landscape earlier in the 1560s and he continued it, naming Dávid as the official Court Preacher.

From that post, Francis Dávid and his allies used a crucial and ingenious strategy to promote the anti-trinitarian view. They insisted that only the language and concepts found between the covers of the Bible could be used in debate. This was a righteous argument, hard to counter. It effectively limited Trinitarian references, which only began to appear in Church documents after the formative Council of Nicaea in the 4th century.

In those days in Transylvania and much of Europe, religious debates between loud orators were high entertainment, lasting all day for weeks at a time, with large audiences, which sometimes would finally vote one or another of the partisans off the "island." Dávid and his allies were gaining momentum at such events.

They were also able to take advantage of the royal printing press to spread their views more widely, most notably in a 1567 broadside called "False and True Knowledge of God." This direct attack on the Doctrine of the Trinity raised the ante and the tensions, so the next year the King called for a debate on the very issue: Unity or Trinity.

For a week and a half in early March, 1568, the arguments unfolded (beginning at 5 am each morning!), with Dávid eventually carrying the day for the unitarian position. (This is unitarian with a lower case "u.") Reports of the aftermath tell of throngs mobbing the hero on his return home. He climbed up on a big boulder and preached the Unity of God some more, and that rock is a revered historical landmark.

But there was an ugly backlash from the other Protestant groups, who abused and slandered the emerging unitarians. So the King was moved to issue a formal and final decree that unequivocally declared freedom of conscience in religion. The different groups could debate all they wanted but were now ordered to not interfere in anyone's right to worship and believe as they see fit.

This was the first full Edict of Toleration in history, providing that both Catholic and Protestant groups would have protection of the law. It launched a Unitarian Church-the first anywhere with a capital "U"-that has been steadily active in Transylvania every since. That's the good news, especially compared to what happened to the anti-trinitarians of the Minor Church in Poland.

But the King of Transylvania died only a few years later and Catholics took over. They immediately decreed that the religions that existed at that time would still be protected, yes, but there could be no further doctrinal development. All belief statements were to stay the same from then on. So the Unitarians survived, but could not change, and didn't, really. Their worship today is evidently very similar to what it was centuries ago.

Meanwhile, back in the 16th century, Francis Dávid was summarily released from his post as Court Preacher, and chafed under the limitation that theology couldn't advance. He continued to argue, trying to present his evolving and often radical ideas as merely repair of previously wrong doctrine, but the authorities-Jesuits again-would have none of it and were happy to find him guilty of innovation and condemn him to "perpetual imprisonment."

Imagine that, guilty of "innovation"! Dávid sadly died in the dungeon, discredited, but the movement he helped launch in Transylvania flourished, with over 400 Unitarian churches there by the end of that 16th century, despite continued persecution. In the mid-18th century, for instance, the government actively funded the conversion of Unitarian children, prevented any non-Unitarian from marrying a Unitarian, and refused permits for repair of all Unitarian churches.

Transylvania, which is ethnically Hungarian, was unwisely ceded to Romania at the Treaty of Versailles after WW I, which led to more persecution. You may recall as recently as 1989, when the Romanian leader Ceaucesçu was about to raze most of the Transylvanian villages to create a huge agri-business industry on that fertile land. A people's revolution, led by a liberal minister, prevented this near-tragedy, and our earliest Unitarian churches survived again.

 

These two brief stories I've offered describe important and deep roots of ours in Eastern Europe. Things back then and over there looked very different from what we know here today, so we might struggle to assess the meaning of this part of our heritage. To me, it's about promoting inclusion when that was a very dangerous attitude. Freedom, Reason and Tolerance might not mean precisely the same things to us, but they are definitely open-minded, inclusive values, which is where, I believe, we must be headed as a conscious species on a crowded planet.

Practically, I advocate inserting into any discussion of any dilemma the following suggestion: "Maybe there's a bothandian solution here." My experience is that this opens up consideration of a wider selection of choices-some of which might be heresies, perhaps, but so be it.

The forces of exclusion, especially in religion, are still very much alive in our time, so we might take heart from our courageous ancestors, and do our part to urge the arc of the universe toward the beacon of BothAndia. Thus do we strengthen our Faith of the Larger Liberty (Hymn #287)

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