“It doesn’t make an iota of difference,” goes the phrase meaning it couldn’t matter less. That phrase comes from an old theological fight over the letter “i”. The homousians and the homoiusians had it out over whether the iota should be there. One side claimed Jesus was of the same nature as God. The other claimed he was of the same substance. For this iota of theological difference, hundreds were killed.
More important than an “i” in a word is the “I” in you. Who are you? How are you? What is your relation to your nature and substance? Should you be bossed into believing someone else’s adamant belief about your being or God’s? Is the divine known to a select few, only one, or any one? Let us track the development of theology as we have inherited it, reaching back to an early problem and remember the gradual correction of it.
Unlike India, where variations are added to the pluralistic mix of theological ideas, in the West, variations are labeled wrong, evil, anathema. There is orthodox thinking (coming from the root “straight thinking”) and there is heresy (from “to choose”). The orthodox seize the argument and declare their ideas true, eternal, and unchanging, and they impose them as dogma, exiling or executing those who won’t agree. Dogmatism isn’t unique to the West, but it certainly is inherent in its religious history. Heretics play catch up when they’re not dying for their cause or hiding out because of it.
A couple of thousand years of this and we grow skeptical of theology in general. We think of theology as problematic or irrelevant. We think it’s about as important as the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Yet, that very question takes us into micro reality. It depends on how big the angels are. If they were very small you could fit hundreds on a single pin head. It they were smaller still, you could fit thousands. The doorway to the very small is opened by this sensible curiosity. But this avoids a related theological issue: Should angels be dancing at all? Shouldn’t they be churchier, more solemn, more dignified and boring?
Whether angels should dance and how big they might be aren’t questions that compel us to live one way or the other. But theological assumptions do matter in how we live inside ourselves, with each other, and in nature. From whom we elect president to how we feel inside, theology influences us.
Theology: the study of God. This is related to religion, which some take to mean relating to God, but which really comes from an etymological root meaning “to bind back to the root; to be whole again”. What are we estranged from and how do we get whole again? God? Nature? Our own nature and abilities? To answer these questions we engage in arguments. But arguments mean different things to various people. To some they mean getting mad, insulting the opponent, and winning by whatever works. To others arguments mean reasonable ideas compared and combined to seek valid, truthful outcomes. In classical Christian theology, the former form of argumentation has prevailed until recently. The latter, more logical and agreeable form, was present in the earliest Jesus Movement, and then was eclipsed by dogmatism, and it has only gradually been honored again.
Christianity has been fanatical from the get-go. Jesus was not a Christian. His last name wasn’t Christ. Christ was a title applied to Jesus long after he had gone. It meant “the anointed one.” The real first Christian was Paul. When Paul was Saul he thought he knew it all. He came to persecute the followers of Jesus but had a mystical experience that led him to claim a supernatural Christianity. He wrote, “If He did not rise our faith is in vain.” To him, Jesus transcended the laws of life and death. He saw the fall in the Garden of Eden as marking us for death and Jesus as rescuing us from it.
Many generations after Paul, Augustine expanded on him, declaring that all humanity was tainted by the original sin of Adam and Eve, and that by merely partaking of the Church’s sacraments one could be saved from death. By 325 the Nicene Council decided Jesus was co-equal with God and the Holy Spirit according to the Holy Trinity. A canon of approved scriptures was codified, casting into obscurity and oblivion many other ideas and forms of the early Jesus Movement. The sensible ideas of Philip were buried. For two thousand years, this lock on theology held. Though the new ideas of Luther and Calvin in the Protestant Reformation of 16th Century were met with great resistance (with large-scale exiling, torture, and executions) the divinity of Jesus and His place in the Trinity went largely unchanged.
The theology went something like this. Because Adam had shown rebellious disobedience we all inherit Original Sin, which would consign us to hell were it not for the expiatory sacrifice of Jesus, whose intercession saved us from wrath if we simply accept him, believe in him, and if Catholic, take the sacraments. Life is and should be painful, for pain can be used to bring us to God. God is real but hard to know. If we trust the church, which has the book, we’ll know the nature of God, Jesus, and how we’re to act. We’re to act obediently to God’s primary agents, known as king or pope. Questioning this divine order is like Adam’s sin of seeking knowledge. Believe and obey. Don’t question or differ.
Some questioned and differed, not to be rebellious, but to be truthful. The Bible itself says almost nothing about a trinity, and even on the divinity of Jesus it varies from the matter-of-fact Mark to the matter-of-fancy John. The trinity had grown up from liturgy in the tradition. The rites using such imagery were interpreted as theology. Plus, the whole notion of God’s son also being God, sent to die to save the same souls God had heading to hell was mind-twisting. So was hell itself, for the Bible really speaks of the grave and the garbage dump, which eager zealots expanded into divine torment. Why would Jesus pray “Our Father” if he were one and the same as the Father? Why be forced to believe in such a convoluted plan?
Instead of a humane Jesus moving with compassion for a wide array of lowly persons, from prostitutes to tax collectors, Christianity identified more with dogmatic zealots determined to make all believe in their odd scheme, imposing it by force of law and threat of the stake. Domination became their dominion. The dominion built in by Creation as noted in Genesis One, that is, the sovereignty we freeborn earthling humans each has, was turned on its head. To be a good Christian you didn’t think, you believed, you didn’t will, you obeyed, and you didn’t value this world, you maneuvered for the next.
For a few brief years the dawning of democracy, rationality, and religious freedom took root in Transylvania. We remember the young, frail King John Sigismund as passing the edict of religious toleration that allowed four “received” religions to peacefully coexist – Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Unitarian. Most credit for this goes to Francis David, the philosopher advisor to the king who had been Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist before choosing the newly named Unitarian (because God is One, not Three). But two other crucial influences helped the young king. One was Dr. George Biandrata, physician and scientist, who eschewed supernatural arguments altogether. His was an early form of the Humanist influence. The other was Sigismund’s mother Isabella, who imparted her basic feeling that if people were free to believe as they wished, without compulsion, a great impediment to humanity’s union could be removed. The Diet of Torda in 1568 lasted ten days (starting each one at 5 AM!) ending in an edict of toleration, saying each congregation could decide for itself what to be. Democratic pluralism temporarily displaced authoritarian dogmatism. Though the young king soon died and his advisor David was sent to prison where he died, some many hundreds of Unitarian churches were established, many of which persist still. Unfortunately, a “no innovations” clause held sway.
Francis David had earlier developed his liberal position in Poland, which had hosted a young, brash Faustus Socinus. Socinus wrote a book on the errors of the trinity, which finally resulted in his being burnt to death at the stake in Geneva at the behest of John Calvin. Liberal Poland later succumbed to the Catholic Counter-reformation and all free-thought was banished. But David went to Transylvania and free-thought went to Holland. However, the connections between these early European flowerings of a more liberal Christianity were unknown mostly by the same independent developments that emerged later in England and America.
A few innovative thinkers came to America from the tumult of ideas in Europe. The Great Awakening, a fundamentalist revival, had spent its course here, resulting in a longing for rational religion. Jonathon Edwords’ fiery hell images were dramatic but wearing. George de Benneville (a signer of the Declaration of Independence), John Murray, and Joseph Priestly all made their way to the New World to preach either universal salvation, rational religion, or both. In 1785 the liturgy at King’s Chapel, Boston, was revised slightly to exclude the trinity and make Christianity less fantastic. However, again, a sort of no-innovations mindset kept that church mostly Anglican recast with Unitarian theology in the liturgy. John Murray and Hosea Ballou preached an inclusive universalism that wouldn’t accept the “go to hell” attitude of those who loved to judge and exclude. In America, rationality, tolerance of diversity, free thought, and inclusivity would gradually become the norm. The “no-hell Christians” loved all.
Though Tomas Jefferson wasn’t a Unitarian proper, he admired the religion. William Ellery Channing promoted “Liberal Christianity” until someone accused him of being Unitarian (harkening back to the old European heresy). He accepted the label. Though meager and located mostly around Boston, the liberal Christians took on the name. Jefferson’s contribution is one we UU’s admire but can’t claim. His gift to humanity, spelled out in the Virginia constitution, held freedom of belief to be sacrosanct. This worked its way into the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights, a document with principles far wider and more important than any denominational accomplishment. Humans aren’t fallen sinners bound to believe and obey; we are free agents of Creation imbued with sovereignty and responsibility. Free from the dictates of monarch and pope, we have the chance to create a democracy that has both freedom of religion and freedom from it.
Young Ralph Waldo Emerson heard the elder Channing expound on Liberal Christianity and rational religion. It inspired him, but the stodginess of the Unitarians bothered him. They were “corpse cold.” Boldly, he addressed the small graduating class of divinity school students at Harvard in 1838. Though Emerson was of a Unitarian family he served as a minister for only a couple of years; he wouldn’t pretend to transubstantiate the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and he objected to believing in a supernatural Christ more than in the miracles inherent in nature around and within. Don’t dwell on Jesus, he advised (in “Self Reliance”), for “envy is ignorance” and “imitation is suicide.” Wisely, he urged a wider American audience, “Your genuine action will explain itself,” while “[your] conformity explains nothing.” He warned the seminarians about conformity: “We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression.” Boldly be yourself, he advised, for “always the seer is a sayer.” However, “the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.” More than this, he dared to say, “historical Christianity destroys the power of preaching,” for it “dwells with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” “Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches … is Monster,” he dared to say, for it “is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” “Only he [or she] can give, who has; he [or she] only can create, who is.
This didn’t sit well with the faculty at Harvard nor almost all of Emerson’s Unitarian colleagues. He was banned from their pulpits. Though now he is claimed, then he was scorned, an embarrassment, a scandal. Unitarianism was suspect to begin with and now it was deplorable because of Emerson. But Theodore Parker felt Emerson’s primal point. He went on to argue the Christianity doesn’t rest on fantastic miracles, but on the inherent truth that love conquers sin in our selves and in society. It was his words that Lincoln lifted to our honored lexicon: government by, of, and for the people. But as the movement moved west the embarrassing free thought aspect was disfavored by Boston, which largely clamped down the Free Religious Movement. That pesky “no innovations” unease slowed the change from Liberal Christianity to a natural and humanistic religion.
Even today this tension persists. Are we at all Christian, or is Christianity by definition alien from rational thought and natural existence? Whether to restore religion to something closer to what Jesus exemplified or give Christianity over to those who still insist belief is more important than behavior? This is a core theological issue that isn’t just angels dancing on the heads of pins. Yes, if you look close enough, there’s room for dancing on the head of a pin. And if you look from far enough away, all of Earth is a mere head of a pin, and we’re the angels on it. If we’re freeborn earthlings, sovereign agents of Creation, we can dance too if we’re bold enough to be ourselves, like Jesus and Emerson were themselves. In us, and for our democracy, and for the world of nature that it lives in and serves, it makes an iota of difference and then some, not for the “i” in some old word, but for the “I” in every one. We thank those who helped us come alive to our abilities and responsibilities, from Jesus to Jefferson, from Transylvania to Concord. This is not just a nod to the past; it is an inner call to the persons and society of today.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© September 13, 2009