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THOUGHTS ON THE TRINITY BY A UNITARIAN CHRISTIAN (what and huh?)

Note: Please hold this quote from Walt Whitman while reading today’s blog: “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Ever since my days with the nuns (the real ones, who by the way I drove crazy with my incessant questioning during Catholic catechism classes), I have struggled in vain with the dogma of the Trinity. Try as I might, my rational mind has always found it to be too much philosophy and too little of the practical.  It has been only recently that I have begun to admire its poetry, for me personally, its’ saving grace. 

The construct of the Trinity originated with a handful of  Church Fathers, around or about 345 CE.  Before that, Christians had their own local “covenant groups”as it were, which met in people’s homes or shops. Ideas about who and what Jesus was flowed freely and unencumbered.

First, let me try to explain what the meaning of the Trinity is.  It means one God in three persons. They are all coeternal with one another (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). They all have their own substances, but at the same time are consubstantial.  And oh yes, they are all one essence (and other stuff called hypostasis, which means the substance, essence, or underlying reality).

What is an essence?  You must look to the tomes of Greek philosophy for this.  Words such as substance, consubstanital, essence, all have their roots in the Greek philosophers’ discussions of ontology (the study of what it means to be, to exist).  Thank you, Aristotle… NOT! 

So I’ve decided to blame the early Christian clergy’s infatuation with Greek philosophy for introducing a tradition that I can’t find in the Old or the New Testament.  In fact, in John 20:17- Jesus refers to, “my Father and to your Father, and to my God, and to your God.”  How could Jesus say that and then add, but my Father is me and my God is me? I guess  maybe because he was in his human body and at that point had limits in his knowledge of actually being God himself?Also, Jesus was a pious, practicing Jew, which means that he was a strict monotheist.  “The Lord our God is one God.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

A multitude of proponents point to the familiar refrain of the “unfathomable mystery” of the Trinity. I’m all for unfathomable mysteries, although life itself is already a mystery,  do we need to make it any more complex?” Yet, I quote humbly from the words of Simone Weil: “I am not a Catholic; but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of the centuries has nourished all of our European civilization, as something that one cannot renounce without being degraded.”

Nun Tuck may be a heretic, but at least one in good company.  In 1531, a scholar named Michael Servetus wrote a treatise called “De Trinitatis Errorbus” or “The Errors of the Trinity”.  He was promptly burned alive at the stake for it.  He spoke of the Oneness of God, the Unity of God.  Many Unitarians consider him to be the first Unitarian martyr. 

I wonder if it would have helped any if they had known about the popular slogan, “What would Jesus do?” before choosing to burn him alive.  It’s difficult to believe that the Jesus in the Bible would have been as intolerant. Instead, if someone disagreed with him, Jesus would have done as he advised his apostles in Luke,  “Shake the dust out of your sandals”…  forget about it (or them), and move on.

For me, being a Christian means that if I follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, I will live wholly and holy.  It’s hard work with limited success, but like those who follow Buddha or Muhammad to the best of their ability, life is more abundant.

I mentioned earlier that what moves me is the more metaphorical understanding of the Trinity; a phrase that resonates for me is “The Dance of the Trinity.” Modern poet Ruth Duck describes it beautifully:

“Holy Spirit, who moved at the beginning of creation, teach me your divine dance, that I may move with you./Through my hands, invite others to the circle of love, that we may move in rhythm together./Praise to you, Spirit, who breathes the pulse of life, through Jesus Christ, who danced among us, to the glory of God the Source, in whom we live and move and have our being.”

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A SNAPSHOT OF AMERICAN UNITARIAN CHRISTIANITY

I ended yesterday’s post with a thought from Forrest Church, who in his full life of serving as the senior minister for All Souls Church in NYC, as the author of a host of spiritual books, and as a committed and articulate champion of  Unitarian Universalism, was also able to say yes to Jesus without acquiescing to any of the supernatural implications, creeds, or dogmas.   

Like the liberal theological stock that came before him , Church was able to bring forth his ideas, using the light of reason.  His voice, along with others in American Unitarian Christianity (and Universalism), emerge from a common historical prism and context.  While today there is a great variance of beliefs amongst congregations and congregants (this is an understatement!), they each evolved from the Age of Enlightenment. Yet…

All of this was seated in an era which began in Western Europe with theories of philosophical and scientific luminaries the likes of (DesCartes, 1633 and Issac Newton, 1688, respectively),who  gave the human mind preeminent status over the rest of the body.  This glorification of human reason,which would in hindsight have its own set of limitations, allowed for fresh breezes to blow through the unyielding and sometimes suffocating interpretation of scripture and tradition. 

While hotly contested, many theologians and parishioners began to believe that the meaning in Christianity should be focused more on this life and less on the here after.  It is what Jesus said and did that were paramount, not who he was or wasn’t.  These faithful did not consider themselves to be blasphemers or even heretics.  They simply felt that this was the natural and logical progression of Christian faith, whose seeds of dissent were planted at the time of the Reformation (1517) and were borne from the much rockier soil of turbulent Jerusalem.    

William Ellery Channing, educated in the Congregational spirit at Harvard, became the foremost Unitarian preacher in the U.S. during this time of widening and shifting viewpoints. Channing extolled the possibility for revelation through reason rather than solely from scripture.  Noting in his sermons, “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) and “Likeness to God”, we could choose to reject the notion of divine election put forth by the Calvinists or the idea of human nature coming from a state of total depravity, and instead believe in human goodness and human potential.

“We do then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity…to us, as to the Apostle and primitive Christians, there is one God, ever the Father.  With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God.  We are astonished that any man (person) can read the New Testament and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God.”

Today’s Unitarian Universalists form a wide swath of belief;  there are those who believe in a traditional God, another kind of God, no God, or Something Else. Like Channing and his fellow theologians, among them Henry Ware, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, UU’s bring to Reason their American sensibilities, namely, freedom and democracy. It has been this contagious spirit of liberty that has allowed God talk  to continue to evolve, in many ways unfettered, in the universities, the pulpit, and the pews.  Combined with the rapid and dramatic changes in the world in the past several centuries, in the areas of science, technology, business, and warfare (the first two World Wars taking place in the 20th century) the conversation continues, always rendering more questions.    

Book of the Day, Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism, Essays, Kathleen Rolenz, “Unitarian Universalists need Jesus, too. First of all, we need to connect with our own history.  We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Jesus.  We neglect our own history at our peril. We also must become more comfortable with traditional religious language.  We must be able to speak the language of another’s religious tradition without hesitation or fear.  we don’t want a marginalized faith on the world’s stage.  And finally, I believe we must genuinely embrace the religious diversity of our own church members-including the Christians among us.

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A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST APOLOGETIC (Part II)

The Unitarian and Universalist movements are quintessentially American in their ideals.  In fact, Thomas Jefferson predicted that “Unitarianism, ere long, will be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt”. (Oops, Thomas.) In addition, during the late 17th and early 18th century, the Universalists were the 6th largest denomination in the U.S.  (Yet, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, neither of these faiths were focused on promoting their religion while many other denominations were primarily intent on building large numbers of  converts.)

Still, a great many important figures in American history were prominent members of the Unitarian and Universalist faiths. Before discussing them however, it is important to say a few words about what was  happening “across the pond” as a necessary preamble to placing the two movements (now one religion) into context.

The antitrinitarian Michael Servetus whose heretical ideas of the Unity of God was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553.  In Transylvania, Francis David (a Catholic bishop) preached “Unitarian” ideals around 1560.  His words, “We need not think alike to love alike” are still spoken by Unitarians today. He was imprisoned for his beliefs and died there in 1579.  His contemporary, Faustus Socinus was an Italian scholar who developed a school of thought known as socinianism while in Poland and Transylvania. These ideas were the forerunners of  Unitarianism. 

 The English theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, known for discovering the gas oxygen and inventing soda water (1733-1804)embraced socinian ideas, and developed a Unitarian congregation in England.  He was so persecuted for his beliefs, he left England for Pennsylvania, where he founded the first Unitarian church in Philadelphia in 1793.    

The American Universalists were initially from England, but after settling in Pennsylvania (a mecca of religious liberty), they added to their ranks a combination of immigrant Anabaptists from Germany, Moravians from the area of Czechoslovakia, and the Quakers of England and Holland.  While these variant Protestant denominations differed in certain beliefs, they all agreed on the universal salvation of every person after death…no eternal damnation.  Their first official church was in Philadelphia by Elhanan Winchester, who also printed the first German bible in America.  

So, some were mainline Protestants, others were progressively liberals, and all took an optimists’ view of God.

While I will (in some future post) go into more detail on the deeper history of on Unitarianism and Universalism and their somewhat recent union, here is the promised (not exhaustive) list of UU contributors to our country:

John Adams (2nd president of the US) /  Abigail Adams (“Remember the women”) /  John Quincy Adams (6th president of the US)/    Millard Filmore (13th president of the US)  / Dorothea Dix (a social reformer, activist for the mentally ill, instrumental in creating the first hospitals for the mentally ill, also Superintendent of Nurses during the Civil War)/ Susan B. Anthony (suffragette, allowing the women the vote) / Ralph Waldo Emerson (writer, minister, and philosopher)/Louisa May Alcott (writer, famous for Little Women) / Herman Melville (writer, famous for Moby Dick)/ Horace Mann (father of our public school education system) /  Thomas Jefferson (not officially, but in spirit) / William James (Father of American psychology)/  Nathaniel Hawthorne (writer, famous for The Scarlet Letter) / Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (prolific poet and writer) / Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross) /  PT Barnum (Circus Fame and benefactor of Tufts University) / Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone)/Samuel Morse (inventor of Morse Code) / Walt Whitman (writer and poet, famous for Leaves of Grass) /      Fannie Farmer (cook and cookbook writer)/George Pullman (inventor of the railroad sleeping car)/ Paul Revere (patriot and silversmith)/ Linus Pauling (Chemist, Peace activist, winner of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, considered the Father of Molecular Biology)/  Henry David Thoreau (naturalist, philosopher, writer of Walden Pond)/  William Ellery Channing (foremost early preacher of Unitarianism in the US, his approach was a gentle, loving relationship with God, grandfather signed the Declaration of Independence)

The common thread that ran through the lives of these writers, social reformers, politicians, scientists, ministers, inventors, business tycoons, and patriots, was the call to live out their convictions about justice, freedom, liberty, and love in action.  They did not just think about these lofty ideals, they used their talents and time in ways they made a difference.  Today’s Unitarian Universalists are called to the same task. 

Book of the Day, Lifecraft by Forrest Church

Quote from the Book of the Day: “I do my best to follow Jesus’ teachings, and sometimes (on my good days) I call myself a Christian, but given the manifold possibilities for discovering and creating meaning, I cannot embrace a dogmatic creed, even one established in Jesus’ name.”

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A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST APOLOGETIC (Part I)

Several months ago, I was casually listening to a piece on NPR when I was stirred, no, perhaps more accurately shaken, out of my decidedly complacent Unitarian Universalist perch.  A fellow on the airwaves had lost his religion and feeling very happy and free about it, wanted to share his experience with the rest of us, in the form of a book he had written.  Most of it was pretty standard fare-devout Christian background (Episcopalian I believe-but you could fill in the blanks here- I have heard Catholics and Southern Baptists relate similar tales), followed by feelings of disillusionment, first with their particular brand of religion, and then belief all together. 

Callers ranged from those wanting to cajole him back to some sort of faith, ones who wanted to argue, and a much smaller number calling to say, “Good for you.”  But when one caller asked if this gentleman had ever visited a Unitarian Universalist church or considered the UU faith, he responded, “Unitarianism is like drinking non-alcoholic beer, what’s the point?”

I suppose if this were just one man’s opinion on a talk radio show, I would have just let it slide.  But it’s not.  Over the years, my mother has affirmed, “Unitarian Universalism, it’s not even a religion really; it’s more like a philosophy.” My friends ask if we ever even talk about God in our services, never mind Jesus. 

Mostly, I get condescending little chuckles at social events and the like, conveying a good-natured tolerance of my folly.  Sometimes it’s a small, woeful smile, an “Oh, you’re one of those.”  What they mean, of course, is that I am a member of a loosey goosey, Birkenstock wearing, noncommittal, not as legitimate as their faith, only “kind of” a  church.  And aside from having a liberal bent, I can attest to having none of these attributes.   

As a trained theologian who arrived at my faith by a long process which involved both head and heart, I feel compelled to respond to that off-handed comment.  To infer that there is no meaningful effect on one’s life and the community or no tangible compass by being a member of the Unitarian Universalist faith is simply wrong.  It continues to be perpetuated by the reticence of Unitarians to feel that they are trying to “sell” their faith to anyone combined with the fact that other religions in the U.S. have most successfully evangelized theirs. 

It’s a tenaciously held prejudice, a myth propelled by a shroud of misinformation, which I attempt here to dispel.  It has become abundantly clear to me that the time has come for someone to defend this little known, oft misunderstood faith.  So,  following in the tradition of the early Christian Apologists, remembering Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, defenders of their young faith amidst an onslaught of skeptics and persecutors, (while unlike them, without the fear of being martyred), I hereby humbly submit a Unitarian Universalist Apology to the mainstream Protestants, fundamentalist Christians, and all strata of Roman Catholics of these United States of America.

Theologically speaking, I am going to climb out on a limb here and state that Unitarianism has been around since the first groups of Christians were meeting to worship God and Jesus in their own physical locations and with their own unique emphasis.  This went on for several hundred years in a relatively non confrontational way (amongst the Christians themselves at least) until 320 or so, when the lack of uniformity posed a threat to the social and political order of Constantine I (the first Roman Catholic emperor). His desire was that these “divisions” be quelled.

Citizens were certainly having heated arguments over who exactly Jesus Christ was, what his relationship with God the Father was, and whether he was God or not.  There were a host of variant but equally passionate opinions; there were almost as many ideas about Jesus as there were people to convey them. These discussions were taking place in  local shops, at the bakery, the dinner table; it was the topic of the day.  

The debate took on an increasingly ferocious nature as Arius, a priest from Egypt, and his followers (Arians) believed that Jesus was not coeternal with the Father.  There was a time that Jesus was not.  God was the Eternal One, a Unity unto Himself.  The seeds of Unitarianism planted.  His opponent, Athanasius, a priest also from Alexandria, hostilely disagreed (an influential predecessor to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity).  Not only was Jesus cosubstantial with the Father, so was the Holy Spirit. They all had been around since the beginning of time.

When Constantine demanded coherence and orthodoxy as the Church became an accepted political force, 22 bishops descended upon Nicaea in 325CE to determine an official theology.  Athanasius’ theology won the day. Arius was labeled a heretic (318CE) (a sentiment libeled against Unitarians over the ages).  He was excommunicated, banished, and many say, finally poisoned.

Open and lively discussions were then funneled from a continuous stream of diverse dialogue to a (one size does not fill all) limit imposing creed.   The vague philosophical language being bandied about (substance, cosubstantial, coeternal) were conjured up by the closed circle of bishops and religious authorities. Political power and not spiritual presence was the real motivation for these councils and their formulas. 

Yet the conversation still continues, with heretics still having their say…tomorrow I will share some of the American voices that embraced the Oneness of God and the belief in universal salvation.

Book of the DayA House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker    

Quote from the Book of the Day-“Do you want to know how I believe we are saved?” my grandmother once asked me.  “We aren’t saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.  People who believe that focus on hocus-pocus and avoid having to live out the teaching of Jesus.  We are saved by every person in every time and place that has stood up for what is true in spite of threat.  Like Socrates did.  Like Jesus did.  Like many others have done.”

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