BLESSED BE OUR HERETICAL CHRISTIAN ROOTS
There is a story of a Unitarian who was driving by the Catholic church one Sunday morning. She noticed a little boy on the steps of the church with a big box and a sign that said, “Catholic Puppies Looking For a Good Home.” Wishing good luck to the boy and the puppies, she drove on to her own church.
Two weeks later, she found the little boy and big box in front of the Unitarian church. This time the sign said, “Unitarian Puppies looking for a Good Home.” She asked him, “Weren’t they Catholic puppies before?”
“Yes,” said the little boy, “but now their eyes are open.” [from A Unitarian Universalist Joke Book]
I confess I enjoy that little story – but isn’t there something very dubious about it? Do we have any business claiming the superiority the story implies? Why do we like such tales?
Our relationship to our Christian roots is often fraught with tension and ambiguity. In many regions of the world, congregations such as our partner church still affirm a liberal Unitarian Christian identity. Individual Unitarians in most of our churches find such an identity meaningful. Yet for five decades or so in Canada a large portion of those who identify with our tradition would not consider themselves Christians. Many offer all other major world religions a respect that is denied to Christianity. At the same time, there are theologians and leaders among us who insist that we are in denial – that the core of our faith is to this day liberal Christian. While I understand where they are coming from, my own hunch is that in our time we are a genuine creative hybrid!
When we look at the heritage of Unitarian Christianity, we need to remember that its roots are as old as Christianity itself. Any number of people were denounced through the centuries for holding ideas resembling ours. They were ex-communicated, jailed and sometimes burned as heretics. If we do not claim them and carry forward their stories and the ideas they gave their lives for, who will?
I made an exciting discovery this past June, at a week-long workshop with Diarmud O’Murchu, a radical Catholic priest – exciting to me, anyway! One of the heretical ancestors we claim is Pelagius, or Morgan of Wales – pictured on your order of service with words denouncing him as “accursed.” He was persecuted for his disbelief in original sin and his conviction that both nature and humanity were essentially good, and imbued with spirit.
My discovery was that he is also claimed as a founding theologian by the Celtic Christian tradition! It seems that at the time of his ex-communication in 416 CE (as a result of St. Augustine’s efforts), the Romans were departing from Britain. For 200 years or more, Pelagius’ ideas thrived there. Druids and Christians lived together in peace. The earth was honoured. Women held positions of importance. St. Patrick said, “Christ is my druid.” Not God – but shaman and teacher.
Even after the Roman influence returned, these ideas lingered in Celtic rural areas – and were transplanted to Canada through Icelanders and through Scots displaced by the Clearances of the Highlands. The first Unitarian minister in Canada was Irish – and Robert Burns embraced many of the earth-centered, accepting attitudes that came down through that Celtic tradition. That is a heritage we can wholeheartedly claim!
We tend to be more familiar with the beginnings of our modern movement in the radical wing of the Protestant reformation. And we are still related to that stream of history, make no mistake about that. Many of the key ideas and attitudes we claim come straight out of that stream.
James Luther Adams, the most respected UU theologian in the latter half of the 20th century, tells us that “Liberal Christianity, in its religious and social articulation, might be defined as “a protest against pecking orders.” (An Examined Faith:308). Resistance to authoritarian church organization was a central characteristic of the Radical Reformation. These forebears insisted that no priest needed to mediate between people and their god. They promoted freedom of conscience.
Already, five hundred years ago, there were those who did not believe religious fellowship required “uniformity of belief” – who eloquently promoted the idea of the “free church.” Religious communities with a high degree of local autonomy evolved. By the 18th century, the Enlightenment worldview supported a “vigorous anti-traditionalism, a belief in the perfectibility of humanity through progress, freedom of inquiry, and the test of reason.”
Liberal Christianity today, though it has a somewhat chastened confidence in humanity, protests against the “doctrine of total depravity.” It has become open and sympathetic towards other religions. It displays a passion for rationality, and eagerly integrates the values of culture and science.
These ideas are a part of our identity as Unitarians. In fact, aren’t they why we might claim that a Unitarian puppy’s eyes would be open? Yet these are also ideas held by people in liberal Christian churches – and Reform Jewish temples as well. So why do Christian Unitarians hang out with us?
In my work with the UUA Commission on Appraisal, I took part in a discussion with leaders of the UU Christian Fellowship. The phrase they repeated over and over again was “the Free Church.” One said that, if people tried to push him out because he was Christian, he would hang on to his place in the Free Church like a fierce “junkyard dog.”
The Christian tradition begins as a story of liberation. It is the story of a community -- a community of those who left behind their former lives to follow Jesus of Nazareth. In that community, they were free of the shackles of their former identities, whether tax-collector or prostitute, fisherman or scribe -- free to claim their identity as children of God.
It appears, from the Gnostic gospels especially, that women were respected, and probably full disciples. Jesus refused to be coerced by Jewish Laws that forbade healing on the Sabbath, declaring that the laws were made for people, not people for the law. People were freed to follow the spirit of compassion instead. Jesus “addressed the coercion in people’s lives by freeing them of expectations that cheapened and eroded their humanity.” (Brueggemann p. 49). Not much to argue with there!
Where, then, are the places of discomfort between Christian Unitarians and others in our congregations? Three such points are the place of Jesus, the idea of human “brokenness,” and the question of God.
Those who do not identify as Christian may discount Jesus’ role altogether. Yet I think that is a mistake, for his story has much to offer us. Jesus was a stranger within his own culture, and not quite what he seemed. His behavior challenged consensual norms. He had an ability to live in the moment. His teachings reversed accepted views of reality. They juxtaposed elements of structure and chaos in unexpected ways. Above all, he catalyzed transformation in those around him. For all those reasons he deserves our respect.
Unitarian Process Theologian Henry Nelson Wieman put it this way:
[There] occurred in the fellowship about Jesus a complex, creative event, transforming the disciples. . .The creative transformative power was not in the man Jesus . . . Rather he was in it. . . . The creative power lay in the interaction taking place between these individuals. It transformed their minds, their personalities, their appreciable world, and their community with one another and will all [people]. . .
The Christians among us remind us to be open to a creativity in the midst of our community that can transform us – whether or not we call it God. They remind us of the prophetic voices, heard primarily within Jewish and Christian traditions, calling us to “address evil with the transforming power of love.”
Many of us shy away from the notion of humanity’s “brokenness.” On the one hand, we have gratefully left behind the belief that “there is no health in us.” Yet in our rush to say “I’m OK, you’re OK,” we may have missed something. Again I find Wieman’s words powerful:
We must be broken because there is a good so great that it breaks the bounds of our littleness. . . . We must be broken because there is, day by day, the creating of a kingdom of goodness in depth and height and scope so far beyond the reach of any human plan that it must not be constricted to our imposed directive. We must be broken because above, us, above the breakdown and the ruin of plans and persons and ages and nations, there is a beating of great wings. (Wieman, The Source of Human Good:116).
Wieman’s poetry brings us to another tension point. Is there a place for a concept of God, metaphorically and poetically if not literally, in the centre of our faith? Most, though not all, who identify as Unitarian Christians say yes. Among the rest of us, answers to that question are diverse, and will always be. We are reminded once again “not to think alike but to love alike” – and to some God is that very love that holds us together.
If we can share the metaphor of the “Interdependent web” -- if we are attentive to the depth dimension of our own lives, however that manifests – if we can be open to creativity, I personally believe we have sufficient common ground.
We cannot gloss over the pain many bring into our congregations from past experience with the more authoritarian branches of Christianity – nor the pain inflicted even upon those of us raised Unitarian Universalist simply as a result of living in a so-called Christian nation. A professor from one of our UU Seminaries recently called the Jewish and Christian traditions “retroviruses” that carry destruction with them. When we see the harm done as a result of attitudes carried by conservative and fundamentalist Christians, such as the insidious effects of sexism and heterosexism, we may wonder if that is true.
Yet so much that is rich in our heritage comes from our liberal and heretical Unitarian Christian roots. The Unitarian and Universalist Christian voices among us continue to be important contributors to our dialogue. They keep us grounded in our roots and nudge us to continue challenging the comfortable, complacent conformity rampant in our society. They call us to give our lives over to something larger than our small individual needs and concerns. They challenge us to continue wrestling with how we understand and name the depth dimension of our lives – and how we do not.
These voices keep before us the remarkable story of a radical rabbi in Palestine 2000 years ago, a man who deserves our respect and attention, though not our worship. Let us, then, remember to honour that heritage -- those whose courage and integrity cost them their freedom and sometimes their lives -- those who remind us of the gifts it carries, -- even as we reach out more broadly to weave together many strands into the tapestry of our faith community.