© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 25, 2012
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How many of you know the story of where the Unitarian half of our name comes from? Today we are going to be talking about truth and how many ways there are to tell a story. The way some of our ancestors got named Unitarians is a great example of how many truthful ways there are to tell the same story.
Some people like to tell the story of our Unitarian name from a theological perspective, to trace the concept of Unitarianism from the time of Christ to our present day. This is a story about ideas, and its truth is about how one idea refuses to go away. It begins something like this: As the early followers of Jesus began to write down and codify the words and memories they had of his life, different narratives began to take shape that were in competition.
About 300 years after his death a council was called in Nicea, a city in present day Turkey. The council was charged with making decisions about what was and what was not within the official Christian canon, that is, what would the truth be going forward. As you can imagine, many decisions were made based on who had the power and sphere of influence to get their way, and one line that was drawn in the sand was god-in-three parts, more popularly known as the doctrine of the trinity.
It was an idea created to make sense out of the three different ways that God appears to act in the stories that were being told of Jesus' life. In some parts of the story, God speaks from above, with no body, about Jesus and refers to him in paternal-type terms. In another part of the story, a dove lands on Jesus and is meant to represent the physical blessing of this invisible God from above. And finally, we are told that Jesus was God in a human form. So the trinity was created to explain that all of these manifestations were the same God in different forms; one God, in three parts. But some rejected this interpretation and believed in one god, without this division of roles. They were dubbed Unitarians. That camp lost the vote at the council of Nicea and thus was made one of the original heresies, something many of us are still proud of to this day.
As I said, one way to tell the story of our name is to tell it as a story of the evolution of the theological concept of Unitarianism. It would continue from the council of Nicea to several more instances through history of the theological concept of Unitarianism rearing its head. But honestly, it's not my favorite way to tell the story because I don't think it has a lot of relevance to how we understand our present-day configuration. That is, not many of us are here because we believe in a strict Unitarian theology.
Some others like to tell it as a story about people, about the men and women who have called themselves Unitarian over the years, who were willing even to die for the right to identify this way. This story is one of symbolism, as these few people and the details of their struggle are meant to represent larger truths about our movement.
In this telling of our story. you would learn about people like Michael Servetus. Servetus lived in Spain in the 16th century during the Renaissance. He was a gifted map maker and a scientist (he was the first European to correctly describe the function of pulmonary circulation), and he also worked in a great many other fields. Unfortunately, it was his work as a theologian - specifically his writings in which he developed a Christian non-Trinitarian doctrine - that got him burned at the stake as a heretic. We tell his story to remind us that our ancestors were trailblazers. There are many more fascinating and brilliant characters between Servetus and us. This makes this symbolic story about the men and women who died for the right to believe what we now take for granted - the freedom to explore our faith - a very engaging way to tell the story.
But yet still others would choose to tell the story as a series of dates, marking important moments in our movements history. This is a story of facts. Its truth is one of logic and rationality. It would begin perhaps with the Edict of Torda in Transylvania in 1568. This was the first ever declaration of religious tolerance and was made by the only Unitarian King, King Szigismund of Transylvania, who wanted to create a space where people could be free to believe what they wanted, not what the Catholic Church prescribed.
So that is three different ways to tell the story of where our Unitarian name comes from: one that is theological, one that is symbolic, and one that deals with the known facts. Of course, there are even more ways to tell this story and although none of these stories sounds the same, each one is true in its own way. When I tell the story of our name, I try to tell what I think is the theme that unifies all the different kinds of stories we tell, and for me that means telling the story through the lens of religious freedom.
This story reveals the truth that many early Unitarian ministers did not particularly care about the theological difference between Trinitarians and Unitarians; they just wanted to be allowed to have an open and free conversation about the Bible. In the early 17th century in America, people finally found an environment tolerant enough to let them begin using on the Bible all the new and exciting tools being developed in the area of social sciences. This would have been impossible in Europe. One would instantly be arrested and locked up and would be lucky to get away with a humiliating public retraction, if not much more serious repercussions.
But in America, for the first time, people began using tools like text criticism on the bible. When they began dissecting the text from a rational basis, they discovered some glaring issues, like the fact that it was hard to miss that the Old Testament was the product of many hands and revisions and had serious discrepancies. And, when the synoptic gospels of the New Testament were lined up, they too had some serious disagreements on what the facts of the story were. On top of that, major bedrock theological concepts like the doctrine of the trinity simply didn't exist at all in the text, but rather were interpretation later laid back upon it. That is to say, nowhere in the New Testament does it ever mention the word or concept of the Trinity, the winning idea from that long-ago council in Nicea, but it must be inferred through the reading, and there are other valid interpretations beyond one god in three parts.
As you can imagine, this kind of free thinking and poking around really alarmed many of the traditional Christians in the early new world, especially the Calvinist Minsters who were at that point some of the most influential people in the American colonies. They felt very threatened by this work, and decided that the best way to shut it all down would be to smear it as publicly and heinously as possible. So they reached back into history and charged those doing this text criticism work on the Bible with one of the original heresies by dubbing them Unitarians. As I said, most of those doing this work didn't care about god in one or three parts, but rather in setting the record straight about what we could and could not get from the Bible.
Rather than run from this smear campaign, they claimed the title proudly, hearing in it the echo of all those names, and dates, and theological concepts that through the years had been associated with not just an argument about how to understand god but rather, if we had the right to explore at all, to think freely and talk amongst ourselves about what we thought and felt about God, to find our own truth. And thus our modern Unitarian movement began.
Which leads me finally to today, to Easter, and more specifically to what the truth of its story is. Because for me, as a UU, and as someone who has studied the bible with all these amazing tools of the social sciences, Easter is complicated.
The main way the Easter story is told in traditional Christian communities is one of bodily death and resurrection. We are told that three days after dying on the cross and being entombed in his final resting place, Jesus came back to life, and reappeared to some of his closest earthly friends in fully healed bodily form.
But that is not the only way this story has been told. Just like with our name, there are many other ways to tell this story. For instance, when those same trail-blazing theologians in the early Americas began looking at the historical data, it became clear that the gospels that we have were not written until at least a few decades after the events in question. Mark is believed to be the oldest Gospel and it is thought to have been written between 20-40 years after Jesus' death. Think for a minute about how much a story can change in 20, 30 or even 40 years.
Further, it is clear that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with Jesus dead in the tomb without the resurrection story. The piece that follows and begins that tale of a resurrection was appended over two hundred years later to bring it in line with how the later gospels evolved the story. In fact, all written records from the first hundred years after his death make it clear that his resurrection was only understood metaphorically, that there was no claim of bodily resurrection until the early Jesus communities began to grow into a larger movement.
Further complicating the true story of Easter, as Paul spoke about earlier [in the children's story], the holiday that Christians have evolved to remember and mark this important part of their theology has been heavily influenced by the pagan climate it was created within. "In ancient Anglo-Saxon myth, Ostara is the personification of the rising sun. In that capacity she is associated with the spring and is considered to be a fertility goddess. She is the friend of all children and to amuse then she changed her pet bird into a rabbit. This rabbit brought forth brightly colored eggs, which the goddess gave to the children as gifts. From her name and rites the festival of Easter is derived." [from the Huffington Post] So it is no surprise that most of us are a little confused about what the heck it is we are celebrating this Sunday.
Just as all the different ways we can tell the story of our Unitarian name have the unifying theme of religious freedom, all the different stories that we could tell of Easter have the unifying theme of hope in the darkness, of rebirth after a long cold winter, of life following in the footsteps of death. So that is the truth I choose to focus on as a modern day UU, knowing all that I do, when this holiday rolls around every year.
Just as it is inspirational for Christians to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus after the forty dark days of Lent, just as people worshipped a sun goddess of fertility at this time of year, the earth is crying out with the celebration of hope over fear, of life over death, of light over darkness. What I am reminded of is that there is always hope. Even in the darkest of moments, when hope feels like the farthest thing from reality, it is there. It doesn't quite make as much sense here in the Bay Area where there is no bitter winter. But spend just one winter season back east, locked inside for months of snow that obscures all life. Then you truly understand what a revelation spring is.
So, whether the resurrection was literally of the body, or rather a gorgeous metaphorical flourishing of a beautiful message after the bodily death of a wise teacher, there is important truth in this story, in this ritual, in remembering at this time every year that even when the darkness feels all encompassing, all the hope we need to continue on lies dormant right there in that seemingly broken moment.
May we all carry the warmth of this truth with us, whatever story we wrap it in.
May it be so. Ashe.
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