Monday, October 16, 2017

Roots Run Deep and Wide

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you have made castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.”

I cannot tell you how many people, over the years, have told me that they discovered Unitarian Universalism at some time in their adulthood, recognized it immediately as the spiritual home they had been searching for, and thought that it had to be something new, something that had come into being recently, bursting onto the religious scene, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.  They are often shocked to know that modern Unitarian Universalism has roots that go back thousands of years.

At the Council of Nicea, in 325, a priest named Arius argued that Jesus was not eternal, that he was created by God at a particular point in history, and, therefore, that Jesus was not God.  This heresy is sometimes named after Arius – “Arianism” – and sometimes by its more technical name – “monarchism.”  By any name it is the theological position that the Christian God is not three persons, but one.  In other words, it is an anti-trinitarian theology.  In other words, it is unitarian theology.  The Unitarian roots of modern Unitarian Universalism go back to the beginning of the Christianity. 

So, too, the roots of the other parent of our faith, Universalism.  During the first 600 years of Christianity there were six major schools of Christianity, four of which were one or another form of universalism.   This was the belief that no soul would be condemned to eternal damnation; that all souls would, at least eventually, be reconciled with God.  In other words, four of the six earliest theological traditions within Christianity affirmed some form of universal salvation.

If you have ever thought that modern Unitarian Universalism was something new, an example of creation ex nihil (creation out of nothing), then you should know that there are actually some pretty solid foundations under this seeming cloud castle.  You should know that we have roots that go pretty deep. 

And the reason that it’s important to know about these roots is that it is hard to understand – or to understand fully – why we are as we are without knowing at least something about who we’ve been.  Roots – a person’s or an institution’s, no less than a plant’s – feed the organism, and as we all know, “you are what you eat.”

In the Polish Brethren of the 1500s in Rakow, Poland you can see the seeds of our commitment to the principle of the separation of church and state (a principle they advocated long before Jefferson opined that there should be a “wall” between them).  These early anti-trinitarians saw all people as kin to one another, and believed that within the religious sphere all people should be treated equally regardless of religious “rank.”  Our current affirmation of the “priest and prophethood of all people,” or the recognition of that both lay and ordained people are, truly, ministers with distinct but equal important callings, can be traced here.

Around this same time, King John Sigusmund of Transylvania was issuing his famous Edict of Toleration which declared that within the borders of his kingdom there would be no religious favoritism nor discrimination.  This was a big deal, because in other kingdoms during this period people were being burned at the stake for holding the wrong theology.  (Michael Servetus, for instance, was burned at the stake by John Calvin because of his book On The Errors of the Trinity, and Calvin had a copy of the book bound to Servetus's body so that when he arrived in hell they’d know why he’d come.)  But in Transylvania, there was an edict of the king affirming religious freedom.

…[I]n 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 […] no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone […] for faith is the gift of God ...

The “freedom of the pulpit” we affirm can be seen to have its roots here.  And while this no doubt was primarily focused on a freedom for anyone in the Christian traditions to be free to hold their views, it should be noted that King John was no doubt influenced by his mother, Queen Isabella who, when her reign was under attack, sought and found safe haven with the Muslim Emperor Saladin.  That experience must have affected young John, and most certainly affected his mother.  The value of religious freedom which we so cherish flows into us through our well-established roots.

I could go on, talking about educators, social reformers, artists, activists, pioneers and exemplars of much of the liberal religious and political perspectives that form our faith today.  They are legion, and their enumeration can be a source of real pride.  Google “famous Unitarian Universalists” and you’ll find a number of such lists.  Champions of abolition, women’s suffrage, humane treatment of people with mental illness, peace, the vision of a united world, humanism, universal literacy, religious freedom, civil rights for people of color and the LGBTQI communities … I could go on and on. 
And it’s important to know our roots because we cannot understand why we areas we are without knowing at least something about who we’ve been.  And we’ve been some very good things.

Yet those are not our only roots.  Rarely are one’s roots entirely healthy.  I have said here before that on my mother’s side of the family I can trace my roots back to Berowold, the first laird ofInnes, in 1160.  That’s something I sometimes puff my chest out a bit about.

In that same lineage, though, I have ancestors who owned slaves, and one, John Harper, according to a paper of the time, held on his property a “mock lynching.”  His brother and sister had been murdered, and although evidence seemed to point to one of his nephews, it was apparently easier to blame some of the black people who worked there, so he took them, put nooses around their necks, and said that he would hang them if they didn’t say what they knew.  He released them when it was clear that they knew nothing, but he did that, and that is one of my roots.

And while we as a faith tradition justly celebrate the pride of our past, it is important to remember that modern Unitarian Universalism has not just strong and lovely roots, but rotted and poisonous ones as well.

So we celebrate Theodore Parker, who preached with a gun in the pulpit because he knew that in the church basement there were runaway slaves, but we also have Millard Fillmore, the President who signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law.

And we have often been at the forefront of civil rights movements, it is also a part of our faith tradition’s history is that we very systematically undermined promising ministries by and among people of color.  We could be now growing in places we wish would could be, but we intentionally ripped those roots out.

And along with our embrace and affirmation of life-affirming humanism,  many of our ancestors also advocated for eugenics – the so-called science that assumed that some people were genetically superior and others inferior, and that measures should be taken to ensure the growth of the former and the decline of the later.

For some years now, it has been the practice at our General Assemblies to acknowledge that the land on which we meet once belonged to someone else.  And so we seek out representatives of the indigenous peoples of the area to ask for their welcome.  When we met in Boulder, Colorado, though, then President Bill Sinkford asked not only for a welcome from a Ute leader, but forgiveness as well.  A part of our history includes the 1870s, during which Unitarians were among the religious denominations that sent missionaries to “civilize” native peoples in that region. 

We cannot know why we are as we are without knowing the whole of who we have been … and who we have been has been a decidedly mixed bag. 

And who we are today – not just our movement, but also this congregation – is a decidedly mixed bag. When I stand here and praise Unitarian Universalism I always begin with the qualifier, “At our best …”  “At our best we are like this.  At our best we are like that.” 

In our faith tradition we affirm lay ministry, yet often – and even in this congregation – we distrust our leaders – religious professionals and lay leaders both – and we do not always affirm one another’s “inherent worth,” nor assume good intentions of one another.

And while embracing religious diversity is one of the cornerstone values we espouse, we can be as closed-minded about this as anyone else, and be convinced that some religious perspectives – particularly, perhaps, the ones we happen to hold – are better than others.  All too often, all too many of us believe this, and we demonstrate this belief with our actions.  In our movement – even within this congregation – there are people who won’t say what they believe because they believe that what they’d say wouldn’t be welcome, and that they, then, would be unwelcome.

We lift up as a virtue the freedom of thought and behavior that our roots carry to us from those earliest of days, yet this freedom can often lead to a lack of a sense of engagement.  Since this faith does not tell us what to believe or what should do, far too many of us – even in this congregation – far too often come when its convenient to do so, holding back from a full-on commitment to this congregation, in large part, because we do not feel compelled.  I think that one of the sources of the low level of the contributions of time, talent, and treasure so many have observed can be traced to this.

We cannot understand why we are as we are if we do not know – and own – all that we have been.  And while some of our roots have been deep and strong, others have been rotten and poisonous.
Yet my message this morning is not a condemnation.  For when we are not at our best we are not evil, we are simply as human, and our institutions are as human, as is so often true of anyone else.  To move forward, though, to live more often from our best, we can not ignore those roots we would prefer not to see.  If we do they will continue to exert their putrid and putrefying influence in ways we will not recognize, and might not even be able to imagine.

Our roots – both our powerful and our poisonous – affect who we are, yet they do not dictate who we will become.  That is entirely up to us.  From which roots we draw our nourishment is a choice, and we – as individuals, as a congregation, as a faith tradition, and as a society – must make that choice.


The good news is that our Unitarian roots remind us that we have the mind and the will to make such choices wisely, and our Universalist roots remind us that we will, in the end, always choose Love.


Pax tecum,

RevWik


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1 comment:

arthurrashap said...

This is so, SO, good, Wik.
The soil that this UU held and nurtured the seeds that became the living world we as those who have sought and live our spiritual lives within (or at least have as an influence) is laid out and I as ONE of the congregants can be in a place where the fruits that are harvested in the services and offerings and challenges are all in context

Thanks..
ArthurRashap