UU Minute #35

The Dissipation of Socinianism

The Minor Reformed Church, that is, the early unitarian church, began in Poland because Poland in the 16th century was tolerant enough to allow it. But in the 17th century, Poland proved not tolerant enough to allow it to continue. In the half-century after Fausto Sozzini’s death in 1604, oppression increased and worsened until, in 1660, the Socinians were forcibly expelled.

Some went to Transylvania where Polish-speaking unitarian churches were then established -- these eventually assimilated. Some exiles went to Konigsburg, Prussia, where, for another century, Socinian congregations survived. The Socinians who made it to Holland established the congregations that endured the longest.

Fausto and Elizabeth Morsztyn had had one child: a daughter, Agnese. Agnese grew up and married Stanislaw Wiszowaty, and they had a son, Andreas Wiszowaty, born 1608. Andreas, Fausto’s grandson, was a theologian in his own right and minister in the Socinian churches of Holland, as were both of Andreas’ two sons. After the generation of Fausto’s great-grandchildren, for all practical purposes, Sociniansm as an organized religious movement died.

The ideas, however – the thought printed in Fausto’s books which had been leaking into England since 1590, continued to filter in over the next two centuries and fuel a Unitarian movement there. Through those writings, Fausto Sozzini was, as David Parke writes, “More than any other person, the architect of modern Unitarianism.”

We are his heirs. Not because we share his doctrines. Most of us do not. We are his heirs because we Unitarian Universalists today continue the conversation to which Fausto Sozzini so substantially contributed. We have expanded upon his commitments to tolerance of diverse viewpoints, and we retain his emphasis on religion as what we live, one example and model of which is the life of Jesus. May we be worthy of this rich inheritance.

NEXT: England: Wycliffe to Henry VIII


Hypocrites! part 1

Here’s the roadmap. We’re going to go through Browning, the nature of art, and why hypocrisy, as commonly thought of, isn’t a problem. We’ll swing briefly by Mary Katherine Morn, and then go to ancient Greece. We’ll see that integrity and belonging are really the same thing, and drop in on Brene Brown. In part 2, we’ll hang out with Jesus for a while, see what spiritual practice is for, and how we answer our call. It’ll be fun. We ready? First stop, Browning.
“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?”
wrote Robert Browning in 1855. A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp. A person’s reach should exceed zir grasp. We should aim higher than we can actually attain.

Browning is describing the creative imperative. The line appears in Browning’s poem, “Andrea del Sarto.” Del Sarto was an Italian renaissance painter, known as “the faultless painter” due to his exceptional technical abilities. Browning seems to be suggesting that art can be faultless only if you know when you start out exactly what you’re aiming at, and then you attain that aim. You grasped exactly what you were going for – and then you reached what you had grasped. But Browning is calling for a creativity that doesn’t have the goal clearly in mind, creativity driven by a vague and inchoate yearning for je ne sais quoi – something, I know not what.

This is a creativity that reaches for what has not been grasped, that seeks to create something that cannot be understood until it is created. Such an art cannot be faultless – and, for that matter, cannot be flawed -- for there is not a standard against which fault or flaw may be assessed.

We are all artists, creating a life. Our every act is a brushstroke, a word in a poem, a musical note or chord, a dance step. And in creating the art of our lives, we reach for what we cannot grasp.

Some of what we reach for we can articulate and measure. Some of what we reach for, we can articulate, but can’t measure. Some of what we reach for, we can’t even articulate, though we feel that we’ll know it when we see it.

So hypocrisy, as it is commonly understood, is not something I worry about much. Our theme for March is Integrity, and our ideas about hypocrisy are bound to be one aspect of our ideas about integrity. But if hypocrisy means that we don’t live up to our ideals, that’s not a problem. If that’s what hypocrisy means, then we are all hypocrites, and we should be. We need ideals that we don’t live up to. In fact, if you’re living up to every one of your ideals, then it’s time to get some new ideals. Someone who seems to you to not be practicing what they preach is probably trying to – and that’s a good thing. We must reach beyond what we grasp.

Last week, if you were with us, you heard Rev. Mary Katherine Morn say,
“If we lived in full and vivid awareness of how we are connected, how different our world would be. Have we learned this? Will we? I forget, every day. But I promise I will continue to call myself back to this -- to hear the call that arises in our communities of faith and conscience -- to remember the call of people around the world who need us to know this.”
She forgets every day. I do, too – I forget to live in full and vivid awareness of how we are connected. Maybe you do, too. Many Unitarian Universalists – like Mary Katherine, and me, and perhaps you – recommend living in that full, vivid awareness of connection. But we forget to. If hypocrisy means not living up to our own ideals, then we are hypocrites.

In politics, each side accuses the other of hypocrisy. In anything as large and varied as a political party, there are going to be some cases of people acting in ways that are easy enough to interpret as violating the very principles that party criticizes the other party for violating. “Hypocrisy” is such an easy charge to level against whichever party for you is the OTHER party – but I don’t think that’s what hypocrisy is really about.

I preach. Do I practice what I preach? Some of it. On a good day. But I don’t think hypocrisy is about how well or poorly I practice what I preach. Hypocrisy means pretending to virtue. This may include, as philosopher David Runciman says, “claims to knowledge that one lacks, claims to a consistency that one cannot sustain, claims to a loyalty that one does not possess, [or] claims to an identity that one does not hold.” So if you frankly acknowledge falling short of your own ideal – as Mary Katherine did -- then that’s the opposite of pretending to virtue, the opposite of hypocrisy.

Of course she falls short; of course we all do. Our reach must exceed our grasp.

The word hypocrisy comes from “hypo,” and “crisy.” “Hypo” means low, or under, as in hypoglycemia for low blood sugar – hyposensitivity for undersensitivity – hypotension for low blood pressure – hypodermic for under the skin. It’s the opposite of “hyper.”

“Crisy” comes from a root that originally meant to sift, decide, to sieve and thus to discriminate or distinguish. In classical Greek, the meaning evolved from “separate gradually” to “answer” – as one might sift or weigh one’s answer to a difficult question. From there, the meaning evolved to “answer a fellow actor on stage.” The ancient Greeks, remember, had theatre.

And from, “answer a fellow actor on stage,” it generalized to mean “play a part.” So hypo-crisy is under-playing a part – that is, not really living up to the part – in particular, claiming the part of a virtuous person, without actually having the virtue. The hypocrite plays the part only when on the stage – but underperforms by not following through when no one is watching.

We think of hypocrisy as being about integrity, our March theme. And it is. But to dig deeper, what’s going on here is ultimately about belonging – our February theme. What we begin to see, exploring this issue of pretending to virtue, of showing off, and where it comes from, is that integrity and belonging are interwoven. Showing off comes from trying to belong – to fit in.

When we truly understand our inherent belonging, then we can just be who we are. What appears when we are on stage coheres with who we are out of sight. We come into a wholeness that is the ground of integrity.

True belonging, as we saw in February, means belonging to ourselves – the courage to stand alone. And that courage comes from the recognition that we are never alone. So, yes: the courage to stand alone comes from knowing that we never stand alone. We are connected to one another – not by membership in a group that we tried so hard to fit into, but connected by love and the human spirit – indeed, our animal spirit.

We are connected by and through being part of the same spiritual story. As we read from Brene Brown for February, “fitting in” is the opposite of true belonging. “True belonging means abandoning our ideological bunkers and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt.”


Integrity, part 2

I’m reminded of how democracy is a skill. The habits of hearing diverse viewpoints, of weighing other people’s interests and perspectives with our own, of running meetings, and participating in meetings so that your voice, and all voices, are heard without your voice or any voice dominating, of reaching decisions efficiently when they have to be efficient, and of taking time to consider more complicating factors when efficiency isn’t so pressing, and of being able to discern the appropriate weight to give to efficiency – these are all skills: skills we can learn and skills we can improve. Meeting in committees is how we learn and hone those skills, and a populace that has come to find committee work onerous, that increasingly avoids it, is a populace that is losing the skills of democracy – a populace that is growing ripe for acquiescing to authoritarianism.

The skills of democracy are the skills of love. This is how equality of concern and respect is realized, how inherent worth and dignity of every person is affirmed and promoted. If spirituality is the meaning our lives have through being part of something bigger than ourselves, then democratic practice is quintessential spiritual practice.

Our collective health and wholeness, our communal well-being, is a function of every voice being cared for enough to be heard, all needs and interests taken into consideration – and no voice dominating, overbearing, or becoming dictatorial. In other words: democracy.

In the ideal democracy, which actual democracies sometimes approach, everyone has a seat at the table, and everyone at the table is there to serve the greater good to the best of their capacity to discern it – to serve the flourishing of the group for the sake of the freedom of its members, and to serve the freedom of its members for the sake of the flourishing of the group. The skills of democracy – the skills of e pluribus unum, of fashioning from many, one wholeness – are also the skills of personal integrity.

Each of us is an unruly and raucous parliament of voices, each voice looking out for one of your many and competing interests. Your decisions are products of constantly shifting coalitions of inner voices that are able to, for a time, have the votes to get motions passed. No single voice is in charge in there. You aren’t a monarchy. You’re a democracy.

But democracies can get distorted. Certain interests can manage to hold disproportionate power and ignore and suppress certain other voices. The same thing happens to us individually. At its healthiest, a democratic state or a person, hears all voices, allowing none to gain enough power to suppress any. Where all the voices are integral, and integrated, there is integrity – wholeness. E pluribus unum is then an unfolding reality, whether of a people or of a person.

Integrity is never a finished product. We get broken – and bringing the parts back together, re-integrating into a whole – is the ongoing project of life: always healing, never healed. Rachel Naomi Remen is an M.D. with a psychological approach to people with life-threatening illness. Her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, is a book about healing, about wholeness, about the integrity that comes to us slowly and takes us unawares, yet can appear full-blown in times of crisis or loss. There’s a selection from Kitchen Table Wisdom in your Journey Group Packet this month, and you’ll have a chance to explore that passage in your group.

I’d like to leave you with a different story from Kitchen Table Wisdom – a story about the emergence of wholeness, of integrity, from brokenness. It’s a story of a young man who lost his leg – his leg had to be removed at the hip to save him from bone cancer. This young man was one of Dr. Remen’s patients. She writes:
“He was twenty-four years old when I started working with him and he was a very angry man with a lot of bitterness. He felt a deep sense of injustice and a very deep hatred for all well people, because it seemed so unfair to him that he had suffered this terrible loss so early in life. Over the course of more than two years, slowly a profound shift began. He came to look beyond himself, to reach out to others who had suffered severe physical losses, to make visits. Once he visited a young woman who was almost his own age. It was a hot day in California. He was in running shorts, and his artificial leg showed as he entered her hospital room. The young woman had lost both her breasts to cancer. And she was so depressed that she would not even look at him. The nurses had left a radio playing, so, to get her attention, he unstrapped his leg, and began dancing around the room on one leg, snapping his fingers to the music. She looked at him in amazement, and then burst out laughing and said, 'Man, if you can dance, I can sing.'” (Remen)
A year later, Remen says,
“We sat down to review our work together. He talked about what was significant to him and then I shared what was significant in our process. As we were reviewing our two years of work together, I opened his file and there discovered several drawings he had made early on. I handed them to him. He looked at them and said, ‘Oh, look at this.’ He showed me one of his earliest drawings. I had suggested to him that he draw a picture of his body. He had drawn a picture of a vase, and running through the vase was a deep black crack. This was the image of his body and he had taken a black crayon and had drawn the crack over and over again. He was grinding his teach with rage at the time. It was very, very painful because it seemed to him that this vase could never function as a vase again. It could never hold water. Now, several years later, he came to this picture and looked at it and said, ‘Oh, this one isn’t finished.’ And I said, extending the box of crayons, ‘Why don’t you finish it?’ He picked a yellow crayon and putting his finger on the crack, he said, ‘You see, here – where it is broken – this is where the light comes through. And with the yellow crayon he drew light streaming through the crack in his body.” (Remen)
That man’s one-leggedness became the way that he was able to shine in this world. The broken-ness brings emergence of a new wholeness.

When we are cracked open, we may then discover the integrity which had been hidden.

May it be so. Amen.

Integrity, part 1

Integrity. That’s our theme of the month for March. One of our Journey Group facilitators pointed out to me that there’s something a little odd about having integrity month. If you’re only doing it for a month, it isn’t integrity. Having a consistency and steadiness through the years is part of what integrity is about.

The concept, "integrity," has three features, according to standard dictionaries. My first question for you – the first question offered by this month’s Journey Group packet – is: what ties these together? What gives integrity to the idea of integrity? The three features are:
  1. Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
  2. The state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.
  3. A sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition, as for example we might speak of the integrity of a ship’s hull.
What’s the connection between wholeness, being structurally sound, and being of good moral character?

I think there is a fabric of integrity that weaves those three strands together, but I’m interested in how you would articulate how they weave together, and you’ll have the chance to do that in your Journey Groups this month. (And if you’re not in one, you can sign up for one at any time – the sign-up form is on our website.) There’s also that feature of steadiness and consistency, which a sound moral character implies and provides.

This doesn’t mean you don’t change and grow and learn. Many of us put a high value on growing – on lifelong learning – and we don’t conceive of learning as simply amassing an ever-larger database of information. We think of learning as really meaning something: it matters to who we are, it changes us. And that’s also a puzzle for us to chew on this month: when does personal growth and change threaten our integrity? When does the growth and change of our congregation threaten its integrity?

For some of you, perhaps, this is not a purely hypothetical question. You may have had an experience where something you were a part of – your congregation, your workplace, your marriage – changed so much that it didn’t have the integrity that it had seemed to have. Others around you may have felt your integrity was a bit fuzzy, or dubious, when you underwent some big learning and change. What’s our story about how a life of integrity and a life of learning go together? We probably want to say that they seem at odds only if there’s some misconception about learning, or about the nature of integrity. So what is the correct conception?

Sometimes it’s my job to offer you answers. I don’t GIVE you answers – certainly not THE answer – Unitarians don’t do that. But sometimes I offer what I hope are helpful angles of approach. And I’m going to do that today. But for starters, I just have questions for us, and an invitation for each of us to wrestle with them. Because if integrity is anything, it’s not something some one else can give you. You have to work out what it is, and what yours is.

I do appreciate the writers who call attention to wholeness. I was intrigued to learn, as I was looking into the etymology, that integrity comes from the word “integer.” An integer is whole – no fractions or parts. Integrity means all of who you is included -- all the parts of you get welcomed in – no part is exiled, excised, repressed or suppressed. There’s a lot of pressure to parcel yourself, as Courtney Martin says – “to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places.”

The term, “Performative Self” was developed by sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman’s groundbreaking 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, looks at how, when a person comes in contact with other people, ze will shift zir setting, appearance, and manner in an attempt to control the impression that others might form. We primarily seek to avoid embarrassment, so we look for ways to highlight our most positive aspects. We perform a version of ourselves through our manner, and appearance.

As a performer, we might often work with others in teams jointly committed to a shared performance that maintains a certain storyline. Think of a formal dinner where someone trips and the others pretend not to see the fumble – a collective collaboration in saving face and maintaining the illusion that anything that might be embarrassing does not exist.

Such shared willed credulity happens on every level of social organization. Impression management is particularly in evidence in social media. Users create a profile and share very selectively and specifically what they like with their friends, family, or the world. So our increasingly on-line world amps up the pressure to parcel ourselves, present slices. We are curators of ourselves, deciding which exhibits to put on display.

It’s an act of rebellion, notes Courtney Martin, to be a whole person.
“It’s an act of rebellion to show up as your whole self, and especially the parts that are complex, that are unfinished, that are vulnerable.”
Before we can show up as a whole self to others, we have to show up as a whole self to ourselves. Or, rather, maybe it doesn’t have to be before. Sometimes maybe it comes after. Some part of ourselves might be revealed in a social context that surprises us – that we hadn’t revealed quite as much or in quite that way to ourselves.

So let’s say, rather, that there’s a back and forth. We may consciously intend to show up as a whole self – including the complex parts, the unfinished parts, the vulnerable parts. We can specifically aim to present ourselves as works in progress, which of course all of us are.

That’s our theology: revelation is continuous, including revelation of the self, and it has to be, on both of two levels: both because the whole thing can’t be presented in a single view, every exposure is necessarily from just one point, pointed in just one direction -- and because the whole thing is constantly changing. Even if the whole universe – or the whole universe of you – could be revealed in one mind-blowing flash, the next moment the world is different. The next moment you’re different.

We can specifically aim to notice when we’re presenting a pat package, and look for a way to acknowledge and reveal the un-pat, making-it-up-as-you-go, feeling your way reality that’s behind any given presentation of assured competence. If we look to reveal more of ourselves in social contexts, this helps us reveal more of ourselves to ourselves – in our private reflections. And as we look to show up in more of our wholeness to ourselves, this helps us reveal more in social contexts. That’s the back and forth.

UU Minute #34

Roots Intertwined with Mennonites

Fausto Sozzini’s Racovian Catechism outlined the basic tenets of what was beginning to be called Socinianism.
  • The Ten Commandments and Christ’s teachings were to guide personal and social behavior.
  • Christians may hold public office and bring suit in court.
  • Common swearing is forbidden, but civil oaths are permitted.
  • Self-defense is permitted, but not the taking of human life.
  • Ownership of property is permitted, but not the accumulation of wealth above one’s needs.
  • Self-denial, patience, humility, and prayer” are the primary responsibilities.
  • Only one sacrament is recognized, that of the Lord’s Supper.
  • Baptism, while having no regenerative power and inappropriate for infants, is recognized as an appropriate act for welcoming converts.
In the years after Fausto’s death in 1604, the Socinian church grew. There were yearly synods. The 1611 synod drew about 400 ministers and lay leaders; later synods, even more. According to Jack Mendolsohn, “it is generally believed that by 1618 there were more than three hundred Socinian congregations."

There was a high emphasis on morality. Members were expected to take seriously the obligation to live by Christ’s model as much as possible.

It bears remembering that our history and the Mennonite history are intertwined at their roots. The Mennonites are also antitrinitarian, and continue to have the views about baptism that the early unitarians had. And while Sozzini took the moderate view that self-defense, bringing suit in court, and owning property is permissible, you can see in the culture of those Polish unitarian congregations certain similarities to Mennonite life – the pacificism, the repudiation of wealth above one’s needs, the self-denial, patience, and humility.

If the Minor Reformed Church hadn’t had such high standards, we might have had even more members. Our rules today are a bit looser than they were then, yet we continue to emphasize that religion must be lived, not merely believed.

NEXT: The Dissipation of Socinianism

UU Minute #33

Rakow, and the Racovian Catechism

The town of Rakow, Poland is 120 kilometers northeast of Krakow and 190 kilometers south of Warsaw. The antitrinitarian Polish Brethren, also known as the Minor Reformed Church – founded Rakow in 1569, 10 years before Fausto’s arrival in Poland.

Rakow was founded specifically to be a place of religious tolerance – illustrating once again the connection between critique of the Trinity and religious toleration. In 1602, the Socinian Racovian Academy was founded there, based on the ideas of Fausto Sozzini. Although Rakow, Poland today is a small village of 1200, in the 1630s, its population had grown to 15,000, with faculty, students, and businesses centering on the Academy, and the Minor Reformed Church’s Press.

Fausto Sozzini wrote prolifically, and both his books and his church spread.
“Much of Sozzini’s writings never appeared in print during his lifetime because of lack of funds. After his death, however, the Minor Church, determined to preserve his legacy, collected his writings, publishing those that had appeared only in manuscript and reprinting those that had been previously published. For the next quarter of a century, a steady flow of his books emanated from the church’s press at Rakow, some of them in German and Dutch translation” (Howe 75).
The best seller amidst Sozzini’s vast posthumous output was his Racovian Catechism, which first appeared in Polish in 1605, one year after his death.

The Racovian Catechism outlined Sozzini’s basic beliefs. Socinian Christology says that Christ did not exist in any way before being born from Mary. This distinguishes Socinian AntiTrinitarianism from Arian Antitrinitarianism, which said that, while Christ was not coeternal with the Father, Christ was the incarnation of the preexistent Logos – and so, in some abstract form, pre-existed his birth from Mary.

NEXT: Roots Intertwined with Mennonites


UU Minute #32

Sozzini Feels the Love -- and the Hate

In 1583 -- four years after Fausto Sozzini’s arrival in Poland – the Jesuits established a center in Krakow, and began assaults on the Minor Reformed Church. Enemies were becoming suspicious that Sozzini had indeed authored the works he published anonymously – notably “On Jesus Christ the Savior,” completed in 1578, the year before his arrival in Poland, where Sozzini had argued that Christ is our Savior because his teaching and his example show us the way of salvation, not because his death paid off our debt of sin.

Sozzini was also under attack because:
“Sozzini insisted that the command not to kill is clear and without exception for Christians. Therefore, Christians could not engage in warfare or in any activity that might cause them to take a life. Nor was the punishment of criminals a Christian office. . . . Jesuits and other critics insisted that by refusing to accept an obligation to support the nation when it was at war, Sozzini was undermining the authority of the King and the security of the state.” (Bumbaugh)
With the danger in Krakow mounting, Sozzini withdrew to the nearby estate of a sympathetic nobleman, Christopher Morsztyn, who had a daughter named Elizabeth. In 1586, Fausto Sozzini, now age 47, and Elizabeth Morsztyn were married. Within a year, the couple moved back to Krakow and a daughter, Agnese, was born to them. Alas, a few months after the birth, Elizabeth died. The last 17 years of his life, Fausto Sozzini continued to write, was a single father to Agnese, and, as the acknowledged leader of the Minor Reformed Church, bore the contempt of that church’s outraged critics.

NEXT: Rakow, and the Racovian Catechism


UU Minute #31

Sozzini and the Minor Reformed Church

This church in Secemin, Poland, 90 kilometers north of Krakow, is where, in 1556, Peter Gonesius issued Poland’s first challenge to Trinitarianism. Twenty-three years later, in 1579, Fausto Sozzini moved to Poland. He investigated the churches in the area. And he liked the antitrinitarian Minor Reformed Church best. They were the most liberal game in town.

They weren’t all that liberal though, then. They required that he be baptized as a condition of membership. So he never joined. He offered to be baptized
“on the condition that he first could state publicly that he believed baptism unnecessary and that he was participating simply for the sake of closer fellowship. His proposal was rejected, and repeated attempts to persuade him to change his mind all failed.” (Howe)
He worshiped with them, participated in their discussions, lent his administrative skills to the development of their organization, taught their students, trained their church leaders, defended them in correspondence and public debates. But he never actually joined.

When Sozzini first arrived
“the Minor Church at that time was in a state of disarray, with neither leadership nor doctrinal agreement. Perhaps forty congregations existed of varying sizes, composition, and emphases. Some were little more than chaplaincies on the estates of nobles; a few were sizable congregations in the larger towns and cities.” (Howe)
In his writing and his public speaking, Sozzini brought a coherence to the fledgling movement. We can admire two things about that church. It was tolerant, for its time. And under Sozzini’s influence, it came increasingly to emphasize Jesus’s life, rather than his death, as the model which can save us. This lead to an emphasis on social action, social compassion, and pacificism.

NEXT: Sozzini Feels the Love -- and the Hate

UU Minute #30

Our Socinian Roots

Four and a half centuries ago, in 1579, Fausto Sozzini – in Latin, Faustus Socinus – migrated to Poland. He was a 40-year-old Italian of mild manner, saintly and scholarly. He became a friend, but not a member, of the antitrinitarian Minor Reformed Church there. In writings and public debates, he became the Minor Reformed Church of Poland’s principal defender and the chief explicator of its theology. After his death, the Minor Reformed Church – also called the Polish Brethren -- maintained publication of his prolific writings, and thus the church came to be called Socinian.

It is to the Socinian church that we trace the origin of the Unitarian half of our institutional history. Michael Servetus did nothing to found or develop a church. And Unitarianism in Transylvania was isolated, not spreading beyond the Carpathian mountains. But Socinianism spread – both its ideas and its congregations – from Poland to Holland. From there the ideas spread to England. From England to America. To us.

In the face of the many schisms that rivened Christendom – the Polish Minor Reformed Church embraced toleration of difference. They would even have tolerated trinitarianism, except that the Trinitarians wouldn’t tolerate them.

The Polish Brethren also emphasized that religion must be lived. Theology is ultimately subordinate to ethics. Not that theology isn’t important -- but theology takes its meaning from the ethical life to which it is connected. By a theology’s fruits ye shall know it. And that’s an essential part of the Unitarian Universalist good news that continues to be preached today in the some 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America.

NEXT: Sozzini and the Minor Reformed Church


UU Minute #29

Antitrinitarianism in Poland: The Minor Reformed Church

As you’ll recall – 1517, the Protestant Reformation began. At first all the Protestant churches were called Reformed, as opposed to the unreformed Roman Catholic church. Then, within the Reformed Churches, a big fight arose over the communion – the Lord’s Supper. One side held that the body and blood of Christ are present in the bread and wine; the other side said the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood. The first side, followers of Martin Luther, began calling themselves Lutheran. The other side, followers of John Calvin, kept the name Reformed.

In Poland, the first Reformed – i.e. Calvinist – Church service wasn’t until 1550, near Krakow. Within 15 years, the Reformed Church had itself schismed, and this schism was over the issue of the trinity. By 1565 the trinitarians in Poland refused any further association with the antitrinitarians, who formed their own association of congregations as the Minor Reformed Church.

The new Minor Reformed Church had its own divisions. They were divided about Baptism. For infants, or only for adults who can make a considered decision? While the Minor Reformed Church was antitrinitarian, and agreed that Christ was not God, some said Christ was a deity, subordinate to the Father, and existed prior to conception in Mary. Others, Unitarians, said Christ was not a deity, and did not exist prior to conception in Mary.

And here’s where something special happened. This Minor Reformed Church adopted a principle. Not a doctrine, but a principal that said freedom of conscience would be allowed. Once again, the people who rejected the trinity were the people who embraced toleration.

NEXT: Our Socinian Roots


Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, part 2

When Thomas Jefferson imbibed John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), and summarized Locke’s philosophy in this country’s foundational document, The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson made one crucial emendation. John Locke had said that people have inalienable rights – rights based in a foundation independent of the laws of any particular society – and Locke listed these rights as life, liberty, and property. Jefferson’s tweak was to say that all are endowed with “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” -- replacing "property" with "pursuit of happiness."

I appreciate Jefferson’s impulse to dig a little deeper, to ask, what is property for, and to point instead to the purpose of having property at all. That purpose is to facilitate the pursuit of happiness, which is a purpose one may well choose to pursue without much property. But this pursuit of happiness idea has been interpreted as pursuit of instant gratification of desires – when what Jefferson had more in mind, we know from his letters, was limiting desires, cultivating friendships, and rejoicing in the moment.

If Jefferson had said instead that governments are instituted among people to secure the rights to life, liberty, and the means to construct for themselves the meaningful life to which they are called, he’d have avoided the implication that every unhappiness was a bad thing, that the purpose of life was to chase away every dissatisfaction. If, instead of “pursuit of happiness,” he had spoken of the means to construct a meaningful life, then he’d have better said what his letters make clear he had in mind.

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After almost twenty years of starting up and leading Zen meditation groups -- in El Paso, Texas; Gainesville, Florida; and White Plains, New York -- I have a pretty good idea of the range of reasons people come to meditation. After a lifetime of being part of Unitarian Universalist congregations – and 17 years as a UU minister – I have to say that people coming to congregational life seem to have a wider range of reasons – and any given person is likely to have a number of them.

In Western Society, Zen is the newfangled thing that appears to offer a fix that ordinary American churches and synagogues don’t. Offer a fix. Most people that walk into a Zen center have an idea that something is wrong with them, and Zen might fix it. This talk they’ve heard about "enlightenment" sounds like just what they could use some of to straighten out what’s wrong with their life. If their Zen teacher is any good, or if they just read around much in the Zen section of the bookstore, they will be instructed that
“the life we’re already leading – this ordinary day-to-day life of ours is not the problem but, somehow, already the solution we’re looking for.” (Barry Magid, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide xiii)
But curative fantasy dies hard. Fantasies of being cured and brought into some model of a perfect life tend to persist. A curative fantasy, explains Barry Magid,
“is a personal myth that we use to explain what we think is wrong with us and our lives and what we imagine is going to make it all better.”
In this country, churches and synagogues have much deeper cultural roots than Zen centers, so in congregational life there tends to be a little less of the impulse to get fixed and a little more implicit understanding that attending and participating is not something that makes you special, or cured, but is simply a constituent of ordinary day-to-day life.

Congregational life appears to be fading from the cultural scene in the West, and increasing portions of what’s left of it are dominated by mega-churches purveying some curative fantasy of their own. Nevertheless, our culture still retains a wonderful sense of congregational life as simply an ordinary part of an ordinary life, an arena for making meaning and engaging in work that is real. Make some friends, and reflect a little bit about values and meaning – not because that will make you better, but because that’s how you be what you already are. Not that what you are is ever static.

Congregations are for making connections, having a community, learning things together, and doing some things together to ease a bit the world’s harshness. If Zen and meditation groups stick around for another couple generations, they will gradually move from the cultural space of
that place to get something called enlightenment, or bliss, or inner peace,
and move into the same cultural space that congregations have occupied when they aren’t devoted to curative fantasies:
one of the places where you play out the meaning of your life.
Zen Centers will then be understood, by members and outsiders alike, as churches and synagogues are understood: an ordinary part of an ordinary life -- a community within which to gradually age out of the genius of our youth and into the sagacity of our maturity and finally into the gentleness of our senescence. What could be more ordinary?

Unhappiness is not a disease from which we are suffering and of which we need to be cured. Depression needs to be addressed (whether at the individual level, or the family and friends level, or the social policy level), but simple unhappiness is just a part of the ebb and flow of an ordinary, full life – a way of calling our attention to the next challenge to bite off.

Meaninglessness needs to be addressed (at all appropriate levels), because we need meaning in our lives a lot more than we need happiness. If your life has meaning, you can put up with a lot of unhappiness. If your life has meaning, then unhappiness can take the form of purpose and drive.

Joyful creativity is urged on by an edge of dissatisfaction pushing us forward. Where life has meaning, we may even speak of the "joy of unhappiness" – an enjoyment of ongoing engagement with our very dissatisfaction. After all, to enjoy the fun of problem-solving – or just problem addressing -- requires having problems that feel meaningful.

So meaninglessness needs to be addressed. And isolation and alienation need to be addressed (at all appropriate levels), for those are the cousins of meaninglessness. But you don’t need to be happy all the time. If you are, fine. If you’re not, also fine.

Happiness works better as something you look back and notice has been with you as you were living out a life of meaning, rather than as something to chase after.

There’s a Zen verse that goes:
“Caught in a self-centered dream – only suffering.
Holding to self-centered thoughts – exactly the dream.
Each moment life as it is – the only teacher.
Being just this moment – compassion’s way.”
It’s not the dream that’s the problem. Humility should remind us that we don’t know reality – that our perceptions are inherently distorted by the bias machine that is our brain. So in some sense, it’s all a dream. But a self-centered dream only makes for suffering. The self-centered dream pushes against the world – to wrest our desires from a world that seems intent on withholding them. Instead, the meaningful work works with the flow of the world – as Piercy’s poem described it: “moving in a common rhythm” as “when the food must come in or the fire be put out.” We add our work to the current, rather than against the current. We don’t have to paddle upstream – but we do have to add our energy to assist in and be part of the "common rhythm."

So there’s another verse that isn’t from the Zen tradition – that every one of you, I think, knows and has known since childhood – and it is this verse I leave you with:
Row. Row. Row your boat.
Gently – down the stream.
Merrily. Merrily. Merrily. Merrily.
Life IS but a dream.
Blessed be and Amen.