© Paul K. Davis, 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
September 4, 2011

In some ways we consider Unitarian Universalism to be one of the most modern and up-to-date of religious movements. However, from my readings in history and philosophy, I have concluded that our roots actually go back thousands of years. Today I would like to share with you some of what I have learned, and why I think our ancient roots are important.

I cannot possibly recount all of our sources. Some that are particularly important to me are within the Christian tradition, the ancient Greek philosophers, and the Hebrew prophets. Unitarian-ish and Universalist-ish attitudes have also developed in other world cultures, but my knowledge of these is much more limited.

To properly treat this subject I would have to define Unitarian Universalism first. But I'm afraid I can't do that. Originally, Unitarianism as it formed in modern times in the 16th century, was the belief that, while Jesus deserved respect as a religious teacher, he was not one of three fundamental components of God. Universalism, as it developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, was the belief that no soul was condemned to Hell for unlimited punishment. We have developed from these modern roots. A key component of our present tradition is that values are more critical than theology. Our seven principles sketch our current understanding of values.

Granted this ambiguity concerning what Unitarian Universalism is, I found myself somewhat uncertain how to organize this presentation. What I will try to do is perhaps unusual, namely, I'll move backwards in time, starting just before the Protestant Reformation.

My first stop, backwards in time, will be in the late 12th century, in east central France. A man named Peter Waldo began preaching his own version of the Gospel. We are not certain of details of his beliefs, because he and his followers, later known as Waldensians, were declared heretics and their writings destroyed when possible. One thing we do know is that his movement included women preachers, a precedent that would later be followed by the Universalist Church of America, the first national denomination to ordain a women in the United States. Her name was Olympia Brown, and she was also active in the suffragist movement. A few Waldensians survived the persecution, especially in northern Italy and Switzerland. According to Wikipedia, "The contemporary and historic Waldensian spiritual heritage describes itself as proclaiming the Gospel, serving the marginalized, promoting social justice, fostering inter-religious work, and advocating respect for religious diversity and freedom of conscience." Sounds good to me.

Going back a few decades to the early 12th century in north western France, the more famous Peter Abelard taught a rationalist version of the doctrine of the trinity. He was disgraced because of his ill-fated love affair with Heloise, and condemned by the church at the instigation of Bernard of Clairvaux. Nevertheless, his introduction of Aristotle's logic into theological debates had a lasting effect.

Further back, in the early 9th century, Elipandus, a Christian bishop in Moslem-ruled southern Spain, espoused a version of the trinity in which Jesus had become "Son of God" by virtue of adoption. This view prompted some discussion, and was condemned by the bishops of Charlemagne's empire.

Also in the 9th century, but at the other end of the Moslem world, the Zoroastrians of Persia made a collection of their religious writings. In book 4, section 101, of this collection, called the Denkard, we read "Attention should be given to the writings of (the men of) other countries, and the same should not be destroyed." This is one clause in a more extensive explanation of how Zoroastrians should make use of the religious writings of other traditions. I see here a precursor of our tolerant attitude, and our acceptance of multiple sources. Also, as I will mention later, Zoroastrian tolerance goes much further back in history as well.

Among the Moslems of Persia in this same century, Muhammad ibn Zakariya, who is known as al-Razi (or Rhazes), wrote a book, "On the Refutation of Revealed Religions", in which he asked: "On what ground do you deem it necessary that God should single out certain individuals [by giving them prophecy], that he should set them up above other people?" He also outlined scientific method and wrote a medical encyclopedia which circulated quite widely in both the Moslem and Christian worlds.

Returning to our Christian roots, there had been a branch of Christianity, prominent in the 4th through 7th centuries, called "Arianism". The name derives from its founding theologian, "Arius", and has nothing to do with the ethnic and racial term "Aryan". Arius had taught that the "Son of God" is subordinate to "God the Father" and had not existed for all time. His views were condemned by the church council at Nicaea called by the Emperor Constantine, in favor of the doctrine of the "Trinity", in which "Father", "Son" and "Holy Spirit" are equal and eternal persons of "God". Despite official condemnation, two later Roman emperors subscribed to the Arian belief, and it was Arian missionaries who first translated the Bible into a Germanic language, and converted many of the Germanic tribes. Some modern Unitarians, especially in England, use the term "Arian" and consider the ancient Arians to be their intellectual predecessors.

While the Roman empire was trying first to stamp out Christianity, and then to stamp out non-Trinitarian Christianity, the Persian empire was wavering between establishing the Zoroastrian religion and allowing religious freedom. In the mid 3rd century the Persian emperor Shapur I had proclaimed that "Magi, Manichaean, Jew, Christian and all men of whatever religion, should be left undisturbed and at peace in their belief in the several provinces of Persia."

Universalism also has roots in early Christianity. In the late 2nd century, Pantaenus, a Stoic philosopher in Alexandria, Egypt, converted to Christianity and developed a version of Christianity consistent with Greek philosophy. His student, Clement of Alexandria, analogously developed a Christian version of Plato's philosophy. His student, in turn, named Origen, expressed the belief that, in the end, all beings, even Satan, would be reconciled to God. While the writings of Pantaenus have been lost, some of the work of Clement and Origen has survived, and was influential throughout Christian history.

Earlier still, according to the historian Eusebius, there had been a group of Jewish Christians called the Ebionites, who believed in Jesus as an "ordinary man Who had been judged righteous through the progress of His character." Here I believe I see, concurrently with Jesus the historical man and Jesus the center of a theology, also the "Third Jesus" of Deepak Chopra, of whom we learned from Jackie Porter a year ago. And, of course, the early Christian communities included women preachers, as attested in the letters of Paul.

Christianity did not arise in a vacuum. People know, except those whose prejudice blinds them, that Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi and saw his ministry as enhancing, rather than replacing, the Torah. Jesus drew heavily on the Hebrew prophetic tradition, but I believe his teachings also had roots in Greek philosophy. For example, I believe his dictum, to be "born again", is derived from Socrates. According to Plato, Socrates had said, "My concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth."

Ancient Greek philosophy has especially been a root of those developments in Christianity which have led in our direction. I have already referred to a couple of instances, and I would like to briefly cite a few more cases where ancient philosophers have foreshadowed aspects of modern Unitarian Universalism. Ancient philosophy was also just as multi-flowered as modern U-U-ism.

Democritos of Abdera gave an early expression of atheism, saying "Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion." I see rationalism, and perhaps Deism in the words of Leucippus, that "Nothing happens in vain, but everything from reason and by necessity." Humanism can claim a source in Protagoras, who said, "Man is the measure of all things", and he also showed agnosticism in saying, "Of the gods I know nothing, whether they exist or do not exist: nor what they are like in form. Many things stand in the way of knowledge - the obscurity of the subject, the brevity of human life."

These Greek philosophical developments were possible because Greece had, quite surprisingly, been able to maintain its independence from conquest by the mighty and vindictive Persian empire. But this empire had been founded on other principles by Cyrus, who is called a Messiah in the Bible. He was apparently a Zoroastrian, and believed in religious freedom. He freed the Jews from the "Babylonian Captivity", and also returned to their respective cities the various idols which the Babylonian emperors had captured and taken to Babylon. In so doing he earned the loyalty of many of the ethnic groups in his empire, illustrating the quote from Zarathustra: "Doing good to others is not a duty, it is a joy, for it increases our own health and happiness."

I must halt the backward survey somewhere, lest I find myself describing the start of civilization or evolution of humanity. A good place to end is where we began this service, with words of the Hebrew prophet Amos, first brought to my own attention by Reverend Barbara Meyers in a class she taught for us some years ago. Amos, speaking for God, condemns ceremonies and sacrifices in favor of justice and righteousness. Is this not a proclamation of values and actions as the prime elements of religion? Earlier in his prophecies Amos had been more explicit than the abstract concepts of "justice" and "righteousness". He said, "Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and you take from him burdens of wheat: you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them." Here surely is a root which brought forth a stem in Jesus's teachings, a flower with the medieval Waldensians, and hopefully a fruit with ourselves in this age.

Why do I find this important, that Unitarian Universalism has such broad and deep roots? To me we are not some specialized sect with a specific and detailed message, but rather a part of a much deeper and broader process - the process of humankind improving in understanding and advancing in action. We are part of a process that began long before Francis David preached Unitarianism in 1565, or George de Benneville Universalism in 1750. This process was not finished in 1819 when William Ellery Channing preached the famous sermon entitled "Unitarian Christianity". Charles Hartshorne's publication, in 1990, of "The Darkness and The Light" is not and could not be, the final word. The process continues and I believe that, to continue this process, it is important to learn from those who have advanced the process in former ages.

And, on this Sunday before "Labor Day", I would also like to remember that it is not enough to search for truth and to espouse good values - we also seek to implement our values, to accomplish the justice and righteousness which Amos bids us to keep ever-flowing. There are many ways we accomplish this: in our individual actions, in interpersonal relations, and in organizational efforts. This includes our participation in this Congregation and in charitable work and organizations. It also includes our jobs, our daily work, in which we create the material and intellectual products that sustain us, and labor unions and other forms of cooperation, in which we protect each other's rights.

Thank you, and, as Francis Bacon said, "Let man endeavor an endless progress."

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