UU Minute #22

Transylvanian Unitarianism Down to this Day

The Unitarian Church in Transylvania was first recognized by the 1568 Edict of Torda, which also established religious toleration among the four allowed religions: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Unitarian. In its early years, the Unitarian Church attracted members in large numbers, and grew to 425 parishes.

Still the Catholics as well as both Protestant churches reviled the Unitarians as heretics. Transylvania’s King John died in 1571, just a couple years after officially converting to Unitarian himself. Having no heirs, he was succeeded by Istvan Bathory, a Catholic.

The press of Gyulafehérvár was taken away from the Unitarian control.

The Diet of 1572 did not dare to repeal the Edict of Toleration, so it prohibited anyone to change religion. The people of Transylvania had freedom of religion – but only once. A person could freely choose, once – and then was stuck with the choice.

Also in 1572, Ferenc David, whose mind was always probing and questioning, as Unitarian minds tend to do, went so far as to deny the necessity of invoking Jesus Christ in prayer. Prayer, he said, may be addressed simply to God. This was deemed to be a change in religion, and David was arrested and imprisoned. He died in prison 7 years later.

Without a sympathetic king, and without its leading advocate, Transylvanian Unitarians had a hard go of it for about a century, but the faith survived, even down to this day. Today, in Romania, there are 110 Unitarian priests and 141 places of worship. Church officials in Romania estimate 80,000 to 100,000 Romanians are Unitarian – an enduring legacy of the innovative thinking of Queen Isabella, her son, King John Sigismund, and the impassioned advocate of freedom, Ferenc David.

NEXT: The Reformation in Italy


UU Minute Christmas Special

Our Holiday

Unitarian History makes clear that Christmas is the Unitarian Holiday!

Prior to 1850, Christmas celebration was
"culturally and legally suppressed and thus, virtually non-existent. The Puritan community found no Scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry." (Wikipedia)
Then, a radical transformation of Christmas began, and Unitarians were at the forefront in most of the transforming.

Christmas today means putting a tree indoors, and decorating it. That was a practice in Germany, brought to the United States in the early 1800s by the Unitarian minister Reverend Charles Follen.

Christmas means Old Ebenezeer Scrooge’s heart opens up to compassion and joy. In 1843 a Unitarian named Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol remains the most widely read-aloud book in the English-speaking world, and is theatrically performed in hundreds of venues around the country every year. Other popular Christmas tales such as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" are but re-workings of Charles Dickens' Unitarian gospel. Dickens’ tale of generosity, gratitude, and the joy of family gathering is fundamentally Unitarian.

Christmas means dashing through the snow, one-horse open sleighs, bells that jingle, and laughing, all the way. That’s the song “Jingle Bells,” by the Unitarian James Pierpont. "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is by Unitarian Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. John Bowring, who gave us "Watchman Tell Us of the Night," and Noel Regney, who wrote “Do you hear what I hear?” were also Unitarians.

Christmas also means a focus on ending war and violence. “Peace on Earth, to all goodwill,” say the angels in the gospel of Luke. For most of the history of Christendom, Luke’s angels have been taken as referring to a private, personal peace. Few imagined that peace on earth actually meant we should stop killing each other.

Then, in 1849, with a war in Europe, and the US war with Mexico weighing on his mind, Unitarian Minister Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote a carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” that made “peace on earth” about ending war.
"Beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong,
And man at war with man hears not
the love song which they bring,"
he decried.

His lyrics raised objections from a number of Christian conservatives of the time. They said, contemptuously, that Sears’ hymn was just the sort of thing you would expect of a Unitarian. They were right about that.

If Christmas season today is a time when our hopes turn to ending war and truly bringing peace on earth, it is because a Unitarian minister wrote a song inviting us to imagine the day,
"when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world give back the song
which now the angels sing."
This really is our holiday. From the Christmas tree, to the jingling bells, to the Scrooge story, to the message of peace on earth, Unitarians made Christmas what it is today.


UU Minute #21

The Connection: Reason

Unitarians have been around 450 years, and our history is rooted in two ideas:
  • rational critique of the trinity, and
  • tolerance of diversity of opinion.
Is there a logical connection between them, or is it an accident of history that these two ideas happened to come in the same package?

Actually, there is a logical connection: reason. It was the exercise of reason that produced the rational critique of trinitarianism. And the proper function of reason depends on the freedom allowed by tolerance. Any ideology that isn’t rationally defensible can only rely on authoritarian coercion to secure adherents.

Ferenc David, the Transylvanian theologian and King John Sigismund’s court preacher, was an impassioned advocate for both the unity of God and freedom of conscience. His words are part of Unitarian Universalism to this day, and appear in the back of our hymnal, reading number 566, which includes the words in David’s native Hungarian:
Egy Az Isten
– meaning, God is one. As selected, adapted, and arranged by UU minister Reverend Richard Fewkes, here is that reading from Ferenc David:
In this world there have always been many opinions about faith and salvation.
You need not think alike to love alike.
There must be knowledge in faith also.
Sanctified reason is the lantern of faith.
Religious reform can never be all at once, but gradually step by step.
If they offer something better, I will gladly learn.
The most important spiritual function is conscience, the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.
Conscience will not be quieted by anything less than truth and justice.
We must accept God’s truth in this lifetime. Salvation must be accomplished here on earth.
God is indivisible.
Egy Az Isten.
God is one.

NEXT: Transylvanian Unitarianism Down to this Day


Principles and Promises, part 2

The principles of the Unitarian Universalist association express our covenant, it’s true. The words of Community UU Congregations's mission are also covenantal:
“We covenant to nurture each other in our spiritual journeys, foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community, and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.”
That’s also an expression of covenant. But CUUC was a congregation held by covenant long before 2014 when we adopted our current mission statement, and Unitarian Universalists have been a people of covenant from long before 1985 when we adopted our current set of principles.

Before that, the covenant was expressed along similar lines in 1961 in the initial documents when the Unitarian Universalist Association was created from the consolidation of the Unitarians and the Universalists. And before that both Unitarian and Universalists had expressed the covenant in various ways. In the late 19th-century, for instance, James Blake expressed it in words that are still in our hymnal today:
“Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
The expression of the covenant is not the covenant. The word "moon" is not the moon. The expression of the covenant is some set of words. The covenant itself is the mysterious force that holds us together and is ultimately beyond words. The covenant of love, of fidelity to one another, the sacred promise to walk together – the whole truth -- is eternal. The ways that we give expression to that eternal must fit the particular culture and time.

Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have long understood that every generation should give its own expression to the covenant that binds us. In 1961, when Unitarians and Universalists came together to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, our initial documents included a set of principles. One generation later -- right on schedule -- we engaged a process to re-write them. That process culminated in the 1985 covenant of principles.

Another generation went by, and that brought us to the late aughts. For two years, our congregations were enjoined to discuss possible revisions to our Article II by-laws, which includes the principles, and submit ideas to the Commission on Appraisal. I remember leading classes and meetings about that at the congregations I was serving at the time. The Commission received the input and produced a proposed revision, which came before the General Assembly in 2009 in Salt Lake City for initial approval. Initial approval would have sent the proposal to the congregations for a year of discussion, with final approval subject to vote of the 2010 General Assembly.

The proposed changes in the principles themselves were slight. There would still be seven of them. The third principle was shortened from
“acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”
to simply
“acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth.”
The fifth principle was similarly shortened from
“the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”
to simply
“the right of conscience and the use of democratic processes.”
The seventh principle changed
“respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”
“reverence for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
The other four principles were not changed at all. A more substantive change was proposed for the preamble to the seven principles. It would have changed from:
"We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:"
"Grateful for the gift of life, we commit ourselves as member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association to embody together the transforming power of love as we covenant to honor and uphold:"
The proposed changes to the sources section was much greater – it would have replaced our six sources with three descriptive, rather prosaic, paragraphs.

Moreover, the proposal added a paragraph after the principles, and then added a section on inclusion that said:
“Systems of power, privilege, and oppression have traditionally created barriers for persons and groups with particular identities, ages, abilities, and histories. We pledge to do all we can to replace such barriers with ever-widening circles of solidarity and mutual respect. We strive to be an association of congregations that truly welcome all persons and commit to structuring congregational and associational life in ways that empower and enhance everyone’s participation.”
This would have replaced the existing section on anti-discrimination with this fuller expression of commitments to antiracism and multiculturalism (Report of The Commission on Appraisal On The Mandated Review of Article II of the UUA Bylaws).

I was there in Salt Lake City, 2009, when moderator Gini Courter called for the vote on the Article II bylaws change -- and the yellow voting cards were held aloft by those in favor, and then by those opposed to the proposed revision. It looked like the same number on each side. So she called again for the Pro to raise their voting cards, and this time the GA counters systematically went down the rows tallying the votes, and then the same was done for the Con. When the final tally was in, 573 delegates had voted to send the proposal to the congregations – and 586 voted not to.

I voted for the revisions, but the stronger feelings in the room tended to be on the Con said – and most of it was related to the change in the sources. The new section on inclusion was generally supported, but our rules didn’t allow us to vote on the parts separately. The Commission on Appraisal's proposal had to be voted up or down as a whole. And it was voted down.

Today the process of considering changes is again before the denomination. The covenant is eternal. The words we choose to express the covenant must address the needs of the time. More than a decade after our last concerted effort to freshen our expression for a new generation yielded no results, our Association has again initiated the process for review. One proposal is to add an 8th principle.
Affirm and promote journeying toward spiritual wholeness.
How shall we journey toward wholeness?
By working to build a Beloved Community.
What kind of Beloved community?
A diverse, multicultural Beloved Community.
How shall we do that?
By our actions.
Actions that what?
That dismantle racism and other oppressions.
Can’t do that without accountability.
Right. Actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions.
And where is this racism and other oppressions we’re going to accountably dismantle?
It’s in ourselves and our institutions.
So let us say – say out loud and say officially – that the call of covenant, the call to live bound, and bound together, by promise, includes that we promise to
affirm and promote:
journeying toward spiritual wholeness
by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community
by our actions
that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions
in ourselves and our institutions.
May it be so.

Principles and Promises, part 1

We are Unitarian Universalists. We are a people of passion and intelligence – of moral imagination, creativity, and engagement.

We are a people NOT of creed; we are creedless. In this regard, we are not unique. We have this in common with, oddly enough, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is officially creedless, as is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

We go a little further in declaring not only that we have no creed, but that, for us, religion itself is not about what one believes. Beliefs are an incidental, peripheral, and ultimately unnecessary aspect of religion, of spirituality. For us, religion is about three things:
  • Religion is about how you live: the ethics and values that guide your life.
  • Religion is about community – the people you come together with, and share rituals to affirm your community connection.
  • And religion is about experience – the experience of awe and wonder, of mystery, transcendence, oneness – the experience of simultaneous intimacy and ultimacy.
Believing – holding certain declarative sentences to be true – may be a part of one’s approach to religion, but it is optional. What is essential are moral values, community, and direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.

We are a people not of creed. We are also a people not of canon. We have no canonical bible. Of all the words and writings offering insights, telling the story of who we are as people, of how reality is – powerful words of wisdom and inspiration – we do not select a few of them to designate as our holy scripture while all else is, at best, supplement or commentary, or else entirely secular.

For Jews, the canon is the 39 books of the Tanakh, and especially the 5 books of the Torah. For Catholics, those 39, plus 7 more, plus the 27 books called the New Testament, making 73, are canonical. The Orthodox Bible adds 6 more books, for a canon of 79 books. When the Protestants came along, they pared back to just 66 books: the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible, plus the 27 New Testament books.

We are canonless as well as creedless. We look to all the world’s traditions for wisdom and insight, and are ever open to new work that we may find limns the ineffable, reaches for what cannot be grasped, or points us a way. Our canonlessness more radically separates us from other Western faith traditions than our vaunted creedlessness does.

We are a people neither of creed nor of canon, but of covenant. We are bound, and bound together, not by common belief, nor by common scripture of study, but by a common promise. Covenant – in the religious sense – is not like a contract, where if one party doesn’t live up to their part the other side doesn’t have to live up to theirs. Covenant continues to bind us even when we break covenant.

To live the way of covenant is to be constantly breaking it, to be constantly failing, and to be constantly called back, or called forward, to the promise of our promise. The Sufi mystic Rumi expressed this in a poem well-known to us in its Coleman Barks translation.
Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
These are the words of one of our hymns in our hymnal, but it is not the full poem. The rest of Rumi’s poem adds:
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come.
The covenant continues to call and to compel, to beckon us toward the promise of a life constituted by promising, no matter how many times we may have broken or will break our vow.

Also unlike a contract, which might lead the parties into court where a judge will render a ruling on what the contract’s terms mean and whether the party’s actions satisfy the terms, you alone are final arbiter of what the covenant requires of you now. We are each properly informed by our community and its collective discernments -- our understanding of the covenant's meaning is a product of our community engagement -- and then it's up to you to discern what the covenant means to you.

And what is our covenant, the promise that binds us, that fashions us into a people? I could tell you it is here in our principles set forth in the bylaws of the Association:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person [or: every being]
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
I could tell you that is our covenant, and that would be true. Those are words that call to us as Unitarian Universalists, that we experience, in proportion to the role that our faith has in our lives, as compelling and beckoning. Those are the promises that we keep as we can and sometimes break, that we orient our lives by – the vows that point our way, howsoever we stray.

It’s true this is our covenant, but it’s not the whole truth of the people we are. Not the whole truth.


UU Minute #20

The Edict of Torda

“...in 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. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.” (Edict of Torda, 1568)
The Edict of Torda, named for the Transylvanian town where it was adopted in 1568, gave state sanction to four religions: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Unitarian. A congregation that was one of those variants of Christianity could not be persecuted, and could freely elect its preacher.

Queen Isabella had made the first move toward religious toleration about a decade before. In 1557, she decreed that Catholic and Lutheran would each be recognized and allowed. A bit later, Calvinism had been recognized.

King John Sigismund’s court preacher, Ferenc David, and his counselor and physician, Giorgio Biandrata, together launched a series of publications and took part in public debates about religion, each lasting from several days to over a week. David and Biandrata interwove arguments for a Unitarian theology and arguments for religious tolerance – and persuaded the King himself. It was David who was the powerful and passionate voice in Torda in 1568 calling on the delegates to adopt the edict that he brought before them.

In the centuries after Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation, all of Europe was embroiled in religious conflict – often violent. When every other leader in Europe was choosing a side and seeking by force to impose it throughout their realm – under the assumption that a populace that shared a government must also share a religion -- Transylvania alone had the wildly radical notion of religious freedom -- of using the powers of the state not to promote the state’s preferred religion, but to protect multiple religions.

NEXT: The Connection: Reason


UU Minute #19

King John Comes Around

King John Sigismund’s rule of Transylvania began in 1559 when his mother, Isabella, died. He was 19.

John, like his mother, was unusually interested in religion – both as a tool of statecraft and from a genuine interest in discerning the truth for its own sake. Born and raised Catholic, John converted to Lutheranism at age 22. At age 24, John switched to Calvinism and appointed Ferenc David as Court Preacher.

David and Giorgio Biandrata, John’s physician and trusted counsellor, now at court together, began collaborating in the development of the two ideas that would be central to Unitarianism:
  • criticizing trinitarianism, including rejecting the deity of Jesus Christ – and
  • upholding religious toleration.
King John’s fascination with religious questions led him to organize a series of theological debates. There was the 1566 Synod at Gyulafehervar, the first open or public debate of trinitarianism, with Biandrata and David defending the “anti” position. Biandrata shrewdly stipulated that the only authority for the debate could be scripture – not doctrine or dogma or philosophy. This put the trinitarian side at quite a disadvantage since the trinity idea is not in the Bible, and only appears with the 325 Council of Nicea.

While the appointed auditors ruled the debate inconclusive, the king liked what he heard from Biandrata and David, and provided them a press with which to publish Unitarian ideas to a wider audience. The next year, 1567, Biandrata and David co-authored False and True Knowledge of God, echoing Miguel Serveto’s points. Repeatedly they insisted that Christ and the Apostles held a simple and straightforward doctrine, which was corrupted by philosophical sophistry epitomized by Trinitarianism.

By the end of 1567, King John was persuaded. He, along with Biandrata and David, were now Anti-trinitarians, though there wasn’t yet a Unitarian denomination. That would come in 1568, with the Edict of Torda.

NEXT: The Edict of Torda