“The test of a man or woman’s breeding is how they behave in a quarrel.” –G. B. Shaw
The Pope visited Greece this week in an attempt to heal some of the old wounds that date to the year 1204 when Crusaders from Rome sacked Constantinople.
He was not well-received by the majority of Greek Orthodox religious leaders. Old hatreds run deep and religious leaders are, of course, invested in keeping those hatreds active.
Let me repeat that: leaders are invested in keeping old hatreds active. Alive. Active.
We are often united by our enemies. There’s nothing like a good enemy to keep a group together, whether it’s the Hatfields and McCoys–none of whom remember what started the feud–or whether it’s Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims, Hindu and Buddhists, etc.
Most of the religions of the world were born out of conflict, and our Unitarian and Universalist has lots of examples of controversy with other religious groups, and controversy within our Association itself, and within our congregations.
Just last week I learned about a group of dissident members of the Unitarian church in Alexandria, Virginia who say there’s not enough God-talk in their church, so they decided to form their own.
The press has picked up on their little internal battle and seems to enjoy writing stories like the one in the Chicago Tribune that had a headline saying that people who believed in God were apparently not welcome in that church.
It’s hogwash, of course. But it makes a good story. Some of my colleagues have suggested a right-wing conspiracy is at work here- they think the religious right is sending people like the folks in Alexandria into our congregations to cause dissention, hoping to split congregations.
I don’t think so. I think there’s something deeper at work, and it’s a subject for psychologists and sociologists more than theologians.
The Chicago Tribune writes:
Two dozen dissidents have charged the nation’s most famously accepting church with, of all things, being ‘extremely intolerant.’
The UUA, they contend, may welcome humanist, pagans and Buddhists, but it has little room for people who want to talk about God.
On Saturday (April 28) disgruntled members will meet in Virginia to discuss plans for a new church body for Unitarians who want more God and less politics in church. The move raises questions about just how inclusive even a liberal church can be, and who can claim the mantle of Unitarianism.
‘The Unitarian tradition…draws inspiration and sustenance from the divine,’ said attorney David Burton, a co-founder of the new Virginia-based group. ‘But Unitarian Universalism as it’s practiced today is almost devoid of religious content.’
‘Atheists and theists,’ he said, ‘can’t be in the same religion.’
The problem came when this group of dissidents tried to take the name American Unitarian Association, the original name taken in 1825. John Buehrens, UUA president, has filed suit against them.
(Burton) said it is impossible to generalize about how his group’s members see god, except that it’s not a Trinitarian conception. He consider himself a deist, meaning that God created the world but does not providentially guide or supernaturally intervene in nature or in human affairs.
Controversy in our History
When I heard about this conflict I was reminded of our history, and the ancient roots out of which that history developed. I want to make a quick run through our Unitarian Universalist history and dig into the roots just a bit.
Our history as a separate, identifiable group dates to 325.
The controversy at that time was over the question of the nature of Jesus…was he God or man or both?
Those who said he was not God–only the Son of God–lost the debate. Arius, bishop of Alexandria, said that Jesus was begotten…that is, there was a time when Jesus did not exist, whereas God was wholly transcendent and eternal. Arius distinguished between God and Jesus.
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, formulated the homoousian doctrine, which said that the Son is of the same essence as the Father, thus laying the ground work for what would later become the doctrine of the Trinity, the foundation on which Christian theology was built. Athanasius was eventually granted sainthood by the church, while Arius was labeled heretic.
Those who sided with Arius were accused of being Unitarians. We were born in this controversy. Heretics. The name Unitarian came from this basic controversy- it was, on the surface, a controversy about the nature of Jesus. Eventually the Trinitarian formula grew from seeds planted at the Council of Nicaea. At the Council of Constantinople, in 381, the Holy Spirit was added to the Father and Son to finish the doctrine of the Trinity.
One of our roots–as opposed to our history–can be found in Egypt in 1350 B.C.E. with the Pharoah Akhenaton, also called Amenhotep, whose wife was the famous Nefertiti. He is considered by historians to be the first monotheist and he established a new religion based on the worship of Aten, the sun god. Historians speculate that it was Nefertiti who was responsible for persuading her husband to move away from the old polytheistic religion toward a new, nature-based monotheistic religion.
After Akhenaton’s death the old religion was reestablished.
Our Unitarian and Universalist roots are firmly planted in this kind of soil- the willingness to take a fresh look, to replace the old gods…the wish to combine the rational mind with the spiritual, and to move from super-naturalism to naturalism, or to see Nature and God as synonymous.
That’s why our history is found in all kinds of conflict- the kind of conflict seen in the story of Moses who liberated his people from bondage or the conflict of Jesus who challenged those who were more concerned about the letter of the law than the spirit of the law.
Our history can be traced directly to Transylvania and the preaching and teaching of Francis David who challenged the old Trinitarian formula. Francis David preached a Unitarian theology with an Arian view of Jesus as the Son of God, and not co-equal with God. King John Sigismund of Transylvania approved and issued an edict of religious toleration, saying that it was time for religious people to stop maligning and killing one another in the name of God. A good idea, and too bad it hasn’t caught on, yet. Many who preached this heretical, anti-Trinitarian idea were martyred for their heretical views- burned at the stake.
Emerson’s famous statement about foolish consistence comes to mind: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do…”
The Unitarians that broke through the old soil in Transylvania were the left wing of Reformation in the 16th century.
A more recent chapter in our history is traced to the early years of Protestantism in America. After the Revolutionary War there were many people, like Thomas Jefferson, who advocated Unitarian ideas about God and Jesus, but more importantly the Unitarian idea that each person ought to be free to think for him or herself; that it is the task of each individual to live out his or her religion, not simply talk about it.
Jefferson said that Christianity had become a religion about Jesus, rather than the religion of Jesus. So he wrote a book he titled ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.’ The book consists of those passages in the Gospels that indicate the religion of Jesus, and emphasize that Jesus was a man, a fully-developed, moral man. By saying that Jesus was from Nazareth, Jefferson is locating Jesus on the earth- as opposed to a god visiting from the heavens. Unitarianism is identified with the Enlightenment- emphasizing the use of reason in all things, including religion.
Unitarianism in America was the child of controversy.
Our history of conflict can be seen in the abolitionist movement, the women’s rights movement, the public school movement. Since Unitarianism emphasized the reality of the here and now, rather than speculation about an imagined hereafter, our forebears brought about many humanitarian reforms.
Today Unitarians express disagreement about social issues like the death penalty, economic justice-welfare, wages and so forth.
We’re reminded that the 19th century Unitarians had their own internal controversies- they did not all agree on the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, public education or the civil rights movement and so forth.
Many of the controversies were internal- disagreement among those who consider themselves to be Unitarians and Universalists is expected. One could say it is required.
To paraphrase Shaw, the test of a Unitarian Universalist is their willingness to disagree without being disagreeable.
That’s why David Burton, quoted in the news article above, is not a Unitarian Universalist but he doesn’t know it. We often say that someone is a Unitarian without knowing it. The problem with that idea is that it suggests that a person’s ideas make him or her a Unitarian Universalist- but ideas alone are not enough. One must walk the walk, not just talk the talk, as they say.
Emerson’s ideas were certainly controversial, and some of my colleagues blame poor old Waldo and his emphasis on individualism for the apparent lack of institutional strength with which we struggle.
Emerson didn’t invent individualism–his ideas are grounded in Greek philosophy, but were not limited to it.
Emerson talked a lot about the need for good, strong, preaching- he challenged the ministers of his time to offer sustenance for the soul; his individualism was balanced by his expressed need for good, supportive, authentic relationships of all kinds.
It’s just that he was critical of shallow-ness in relationships which perpetuated a kind of conformity which stifled individual growth. He was perhaps overly critical of poor preaching, which he described as preaching that lacked a personal context: “The office of the true preacher is this, that he (sic) deal out his life to the people, life passed through the fire of thought.”
After his famous Divinity School Address, from which this quote is taken, Emerson was persona non grata at Harvard in most religious circles. His assertion that Hindus and Buddhists were the most enlightened spirits did not sit well with the Christian clergy of his time- even the Unitarian Christian clergy.
When Emerson later became famous, he was invited to sit on Harvard board of overseers.
Arguments About God
There are, of course, some among us who would like to keep arguing about God: does God exist, and are we capable of understanding or knowing God?
Arguments about God are an expression of the internal struggle we thinking, rational human beings have about the Supernatural. I’ve long realized that this internal battle, in myself, will go on forever. I affirm a belief in God, while at the same time my rational mind rejects all notions of God. How can we live with such opposing thoughts?
Arguments about God are an external expression of the universal internal struggle with which we as rational beings must wrestle.
This is the meaning of the famous story of Jacob who, we are told, was alone and wrestled with a man. The man with whom he wrestled was his deeper self, his emerging self or soul. He wrestled with God, as we all do. At dawn he refused to let go until he got the blessing. His name was changed to Israel. God wrestling is a transformative experience.
Arguments about God are in a different category. Those arguments simply reveal the internal struggle that only begins when the argument with others ends, and the focus is internal.
Many Unitarians carry baggage from their former religion and need an opportunity to wrestle them through.
Some want to continue the Jesus controversy because that’s their unresolved baggage, which we can see historically in the arguments that took place in 325 at the first Council. Some need to continue the God controversy, or the internal conflict about prayer, or an afterlife.
The religious controversies are Rorshcach ink blots. Each one indicates real, internal controversies- the wars that Miller Williams refers to when he says: “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears cynicism, conceit or bad manners is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
Behind all our controversies there’s a person, a soul-in-the-making, to put it in religious or spiritual terms.
Our task in life is to deal with those internal battles and to acknowledge that we can actually hold two opposing thoughts or ideas or opinions at the same time. The religious controversies are like Rorshcach’s ten standard inkblots that can be analyzed to measure our personal spiritual or religious growth.
The poets often say it best. Whitman, in Song of Myself, says:
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
for I who am curious about each am not curious about God.
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace
about God and about death.)
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God
not in the least…
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four,
and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God,
and in my own face in the glass.
Take a look in the mirror, and take another look at the person next to you at the breakfast table. What do you see? In the faces of those men and women you might see God, and in your own face in the glass.
We are One.