“Our Story, Part 1: From Ancient Creeds to the Reformation”

Kevin M. Carson
A sermon given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, September 23, 2018

To appreciate our inclusive and diverse religious tradition, I believe it is important to understand our history.  Over three Sundays, we will explore the fascinating story of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Part one of this three part series looks at the theological origins of Unitarianism and Universalism leading up to the Reformation.

Most people who identify as Unitarian Universalists are either born into the faith or, more often, accidentally find their way to one of our congregations during some period of spiritual searching.  We are not very good at evangelizing the “good news” of our faith the way we probably should, but perhaps this age of social media will help our liberal faith grow, despite the fact that church-going in general is in decline.  I believe we have a lot to offer the world, and our approach to religion seems like a good fit for what many contemporary people are searching for, especially those who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” And even though we are a “modern” faith in many ways, we have values and principles that have developed over the course of centuries.  We have a deep history and a compelling story.  

Unfortunately, most Unitarian Universalists only learn our story in dribs and drabs if they spend enough Sundays in church, perhaps learning about a few “famous UU’s” (or at least famous people we like to claim as our own) who shared some of our theology and values.  So, I decided to take a more direct approach and really look at our story, starting with my sermon today, and continuing the next two times I will be preaching here.  I believe it is important for us to know our story in order to understand who we are as a people of faith and how we got here.  It enhances our sense of identity and might even give us some idea of where our faith might be headed in the future.  Who knows?  You might be so inspired by our story that you feel compelled to tell the world about us – to heed the words attributed to Rev. John Murray, and “go out into the highways and byways of America, and give the people something of your new vision.”

Now, if you go to our denomination’s website at UUA.org, and work your way to the “history” page, you will see the following brief description of our faith:

“Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religious tradition that was formed from the consolidation of two religions: Unitarianism and Universalism. In America, the Universalist Church of America was founded in 1793, and the American Unitarian Association in 1825. After consolidating in 1961, these faiths became the new religion of Unitarian Universalism through the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).”

This is basically accurate at a highest level.  Before the merger in 1961, you belonged to either a Unitarian or a Universalist congregation, but I know a number of people who would disagree with the idea that we became a “new religion” in 1961.   This description also doesn’t say anything about who we are, or what we believe, or even what Unitarians or Universalists believed in the past for that matter.  

After a few more clicks of the mouse, you can read an excerpt from a nice pamphlet about our history that does say more about the religious trends from the early days of Christianity to the present that influenced the development of our faith.  These are important points that I will touch on in my sermons, but to really understand our story, I think you have to begin earlier in human history – much, much earlier.  You have to look back a few hundred thousand years and think about why we have an impulse to be religious in the first place.  So, let’s borrow Mr. Peabody’s “Wayback Machine” for a few minutes and begin at the beginning.  Along our journey, I have cherry-picked some important moments in the interest of time, and there are lots of others that I would love to mention.  Maybe we can have a class someday.  It is all so fascinating.

We have no written record of the beginning, of course, but it is easy to imagine that long ago, an ancient ancestor of modern humans first looked up at the night sky, or at some spectacular natural vista, and felt an incredible sense of awe and wonder.  From that first moment in our evolutionary journey, on down to the present, we primates of the genus Homo have been spiritual creatures. We beheld the beauty of the natural world as well as the terrifying forces that nature could unleash upon us.  We gazed in wonder at the miracle of a newborn child.  We pondered the mystery of death, as we felt the grief of losing loved ones.  Our ancient ancestors probably recognized an undeniable “sacredness” about existence long before they invented religion.  There was a time when everyone alive could probably be called “spiritual but not religious,” but it depends on how you define such terms.

I think of the term spirituality as describing how we think and feel about our place in the universe – how we experience awe and wonder and a sense of the sacred.  Religion, on the other hand, is what we do to express our spirituality.  Religion is expressed in rituals, prayers, the creation of sacred stories and texts, and so on.  Using these definitions, it is impossible to say when exactly spirituality began among our humanoid ancestors – possibly millions of years ago – but we have archaeological evidence about the beginning of religion.   As early as 225,000 years ago, there is some evidence of burial rituals, and this is definitely the case among Neanderthals around 100,000 years ago.  By 40,000 years ago, our ancestors were creating sacred art and cremating the dead, and by 10,000 years ago, people began worshipping in sacred temples and holy places like the Göbekli Tepe complex in modern Turkey, and at Stonehenge in England.  Rituals became more complex and focused on placating cosmic forces beyond our control, honoring the gods and the spirits of animals and plants upon which human life depended, or venerating the seasons and other recognized cycles of life.

Human beings have been very creative in our religious imagination, and with the arrival of the Bronze Age around 3500 BCE, the story of our faith begins in earnest.  The major religious traditions that would one day influence the development of Unitarian Universalism began in agricultural civilizations that arose during the Bronze Age around three great river systems: the Nile River in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, and the Indus River in the northwestern Indian subcontinent.  Most of what I will spend the rest of my time talking about today concerns the first two regions, since they combined to form the so-called Fertile Crescent that gave birth to Judaism and Christianity, but it is worth mentioning the Indus Valley Civilization, because it is there that Hinduism emerged around 1700 BCE, and it later gave birth to Buddhism around 563 BCE.  Both of these ancient Eastern traditions would one day alter the trajectory of our faith, and you’ll hear more on this in the third sermon.

In Mesopotamia, the invention of cuneiform writing on clay tablets gave us the first written records of religion.  The earliest “scripture” discovered to date is the poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Sumeria, which dates to between 2750 and 2500 BCE.  It records the adventures of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, as he interacts with gods and other characters.  It even tells the story of a Great Flood that is likely the origin of the story of Noah that appeared in the book of Genesis many centuries later. 

According to tradition, Mesopotamia is also the birthplace of Abraham, sometime around the year 1900 BCE, the patriarch claimed by the three great traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, although there is no archaeological evidence that Abraham was a real historical figure.  What is more certain, though, is that toward the end of the Bronze Age, around 1350 BCE, the idea of monotheism – that there is only one God – developed among the different peoples of the Fertile Crescent.  In Egypt, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaten, disavowed the old gods in favor of worshipping one god, the “Aten,” represented by the sun disk.  This did not go over well, since he was branded a heretic after his death, but his ideas may have inspired the nearby Hebrews, who were influenced by Egyptian civilization, to shift from polytheism to monotheism, reimagining their sky god, Yahweh, as the one God Almighty.

During the Iron Age, from 1200 to 800 BCE, the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah were established, and there is some evidence to support the stories of King Saul and David, and the so-called monarchial period.  It is believed that the first texts of the Torah were written around 950 BCE, and the lives of the prophets Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah spanned the next couple of centuries.  By the time of the Babylonian Captivity, from 597 to 538 BCE, when most of the educated class was taken from Judah into Babylon, Judaism was well established with the earliest texts, rituals, and beliefs.  There would be undeniable influences, though, from the time spent in Babylon, especially coming to terms with what it meant to be a Jew away from the Temple in Jerusalem.  After their emancipation by Cyrus the Great of Persia, when the Jews returned to Judah, a new flourishing of Jewish thought and identity began that continued through the conquests of Alexander the Great in 325 BCE and the Romans in 63 BCE.  

It is hard to overstate the influence that Alexander had on the ancient Near East.  The Hellenistic philosophy of Plato and others that followed along with Alexander highly influenced Judaism, and it was so essential to the formation of Christianity that I know a few scholars who suggest that Christianity really began in 325 BCE – three centuries before the birth of Jesus.  Even basic beliefs about the soul and the afterlife show this influence – are we made of spirit or matter or both, for example, and is spirit sacred and matter profane?  By the time Jesus was born, around 4 BCE, Palestine had become thoroughly Hellenistic, and almost everyone – including Jesus – spoke at least some Greek.  It is possible Jesus even preached in Greek at times when the audience was mixed.  This is certainly the case among the apostles as the Jesus Movement spread throughout the Roman Empire.

I suspect all of you are familiar with the essentials of Christianity: Jesus was born; he became a healer and spiritual teacher in Galilee; he traveled to Jerusalem where he was arrested by the Romans and crucified; he was believed by some to be resurrected from the dead; he appeared to his followers after death, and then he ascended into heaven.   Some of this is mentioned in the Nicene and other creeds of course, but the creeds mostly represent beliefs about the “post-Easter” Jesus – who was he, and what does his death and claims of resurrection mean for the believers who remain?   The creeds largely ignore what Jesus taught during his life, which focused on the coming “kingdom of God.” For those of us who can step outside of the tradition that developed after his death, it seems clear that Jesus was concerned with the here and now – a new reality on this earth, and not some otherworldly existence. 

Contrary to the mythology that some “orthodox” version of Christianity was handed down unchanged through the centuries, it wasn’t long after the crucifixion before different interpretations of the teachings of Jesus, and the meaning of his life and death, diversified into multiple forms of Christianity.  Biblical scholars now describe a story of early Christianity that is much more complex and messy than was once believed, and there were multiple centers where distinct “Christianities” developed, including Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Thessalonica, Corinth, Constantinople, and the Egyptian desert.  Even the New Testament canon wasn’t finalized until over a century after the crucifixion, and often a particular Christian sect would favor one gospel or other text over another.  It is during these first few centuries of Christianity that the theological ideas that would be labeled unitarian and universalist developed, but even these terms are not monolithic.  Over the last two thousand years there have been many nuanced varieties of both unitarianism and universalism.

Unitarian was attached to the idea of the oneness of God.  It generally refers to the belief that Jesus is not the same as God, though most early unitarians considered Jesus to be divine by birth, or to have become divine by adoption by God.  Some unitarians, then as now, have disavowed the idea that Jesus was divine at all, but instead considered him a completely mortal prophet or moral exemplar.  It is a different theological position than the trinitarianism of traditional Christian belief, which asserts that God exists in a three-person, or triune, Godhead consisting of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  How they relate and coexist in this state is one of the so-called “mysteries” of traditional Christianity that is called the perichoresis, which literally means “rotating” or “dancing around.”  Unitarians have argued since the beginning that the concept of the Trinity is not biblical, and in fact, the doctrine was not fully developed to include the Holy Spirit until the end of the fourth century.

Universalism refers to universal salvation, and it is the belief that everyone is ultimately reconciled with God, or “saved,” or at least that everyone has the potential to be saved.  Different varieties of universalism split over whether a period of atonement is required after death, or whether you even have to be Christian to be saved.  A restorationist universalist, for example, believes that, eventually, all souls will be saved, but your soul must be restored to God after death by enduring some period of punishment for the purgation of sin.  An ultra-universalist, on the other hand, believes that everyone is saved without exception, and no period of punishment is required.

A number of the early Christian theologians, often called the Church Fathers, could be called unitarian, unviersalist, or both.  Origen of Alexandria, who lived between the years 184 and 253, is a good example.  He was a very well respected theologian who taught that Jesus, as the Son of God, was subordinate to God the Father, and that all of Creation – even Satan himself – would ultimately be saved, an idea known as apocatastasis.  He would be considered a unitarian and an ultra-universalist.  Incidentally, his teaching on universalism remained the dominant position of the Church until it was officially labeled anathema in 553 at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople.  Once revered as virtually a saint, he was condemned and the Council ordered his bones to be exhumed and cremated just to make a point – 300 years after his death.  

Arius of Alexandria, who lived between the years 256 and 336, just after Origen, is another good example.  His teachings expanded on the idea that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father, arguing that since Jesus was born, there was a time that the Son did not exist, and therefore the Son was not eternal. Because of Arius’s popularity, this unitarian position became known as “Arianism,” and it was one of the principle issues debated at the famous Council of Nicaea convened by Emperor Constantine in 325.  At that Council, Constantine insisted that the bishops gathered from around the empire codify one set of Christian beliefs that would then become the official Christianity of the state.  It is likely that Constantine really didn’t care what they came up with; he just wanted one official set of beliefs to promulgate throughout the empire for political purposes.  Even though he is considered the first “Christian” emperor, Constantine did not actually convert until shortly before his death, when he was baptized by the Arian bishop Eusebius.

Our second reading this morning gives you a glimpse at how contentious competing Christian theologies had become in the fourth century, and it was especially so in Alexandria, where Arius and his rival Athanasius, who was a Trinitarian, both had strong factional support.  It was not uncommon for street fights to break out over theological questions, or for gangs to burst into rival places of worship, beating the worshipers and ransacking the church.  And you thought committee meetings were sometimes rough!  In a sermon given by Gregory of Nyssa in Alexandria in 381, he said:

“If in this city you ask a shopkeeper for change, he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten.  If you inquire about the quality of the bread, the baker will answer, ‘The Father is greater, the Son is less.’  And if you ask the bath attendant to draw your bath, he will tell you the Son was created ex nihilo.”         

By 323, it had gotten so bad that the bishop of Alexandria sent a letter to Emperor Constantine urging him to convene a Church Council, and so he invited 400 bishops to the Council of Nicaea, and roughly 250 attended, along with many priests, such as Arius and Athanasius, who played no official role in the debate.  The political maneuvering that occurred at Nicaea is fascinating but too complex to detail this morning, but one of the main arguments that would determine the fate of Christian orthodoxy rested on the choice of a single word.  The debate was between the Greek words homoousios, which means “same substance,” and homoiousios, which means “similar substance.”  The question was whether the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were of the same substance or only a similar substance. The difference between the two words is a single letter – an iota or “i” – and if you have heard the phrase, “it matters not one iota,” this is one time that it really, really mattered.  In the end, the homoousios position favored by Athanasius won the day and was included in the Nicene Creed.  Arius, and all who favored his more unitarian view, were branded heretics, and most were sent into exile.  The pendulum continued to swing for many decades, though, and even Arius was about to be redeemed by the Church when he died mysteriously, probably from poisoning.

After Nicaea, orthodox Christian doctrine continued to be refined in a series of Church Councils that continued after the Fall of Rome in 476.  Europe entered the so-called “Dark Ages,” which really weren’t that dark as it turns out, and in other parts of the world civilization and religion continued to flourish.  Islam spread across the Middle East and North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries, Buddhism developed into many sects in Asia, and great civilizations developed in the Americas and Africa.  Many ideas from this era would also influence Unitarian Universalism along the way.

In the Middle Ages, Christian theology continued to evolve, for better or worse, in monasteries and the first universities.  Anselm of Canterbury, for example, developed the idea of substitutionary atonement – that the sins of humanity were so great that it required the suffering and death of Christ to atone for us.  Thomas Aquinas explored all sorts of ideas in his Summa Theologica, including the idea that one could earn meritorious grace through good works.  This was also a time of great mystics like Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart.   And, it was also a time of bloody crusades in Palestine.

In 1054, in part because of another single word in a creed, the Eastern and Western Churches split in the Great Schism, and they are still not reconciled.  In this case the word in Latin was filioque, which means “and the Son,” and it was included in the revised Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, but only officially recognized in 1014.  The issue centered on whether the Holy Spirit emanated from God the Father alone, or from God the Father and the Son.  The Eastern Church felt it was subordinating the Holy Spirit to add the clause.

I have glossed over the Middle Ages a bit in the interest of time, and because, honestly, not much specific to Unitarian Universalist history happened in this time of Orthodox hegemony.  It is worth noting that pockets of unitarian and universalist thinking continued to survive, and the fact that we are here today should attest to this fact.

So, that brings us to the brink of the Protestant Reformation, which is most often associated with the year 1517, when Martin Luther supposedly nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany.  It is probable that someone else actually nailed a copy of his Theses, since Luther did not live there at the time, but it was an important event nonetheless.  His document which criticized many practices and doctrines of the Catholic Church quickly spread across Europe thanks to the printing press, which was invented in 1450.  Luther was not the only, or even the first, troublemaker of the Reformation though, and many reformers were unitarians and universalists.  This is where we will continue next time.

What I would like you to think about in the meantime is that our faith, and the faith of our spiritual ancestors, has always been a faith of heretics.  I say this because the word “heresy” comes from the Greek root meaning “choice.”  We have already explored how contentious, and sometimes bloody, our story has been, and – spoiler alert – it is about to get even bloodier in the century after the Reformation began.  But, like our ancient human ancestor who first experienced the feeling of awe and wonder, it is faith informed by personal experience and chosen individual belief.  We are a much more diverse faith today than the ancient doctrines we have discussed so far, and that expansive diversity in community is what makes us a stronger faith.  I also think it is interesting to speculate about how different the world might be if the Arians had won at Nicaea.  Would Unitarian Universalism even exist?   Stay tuned for episode two.


Opening Words Prayer to Practice the Golden Rule by Eusebius (263–339)

May I be an enemy to no one and the friend of what abides eternally.
May I never quarrel with those nearest me, and be reconciled quickly if I should. 
May I never plot evil against others, and if anyone plot evil against me, 
may I escape unharmed and without the need to hurt anyone else.
May I love, seek and attain only what is good. 
May I desire happiness for all and harbor envy for none.
May I never find joy in the misfortune of one who has wronged me.
May I never wait for the rebuke of others, but always rebuke myself until I make reparation.
May I gain no victory that harms me or my opponent.
May I reconcile friends who are mad at each other.
May I, insofar as I can, give all necessary help to my friends and to all who are in need.
May I never fail a friend in trouble.
May I be able to soften the pain of the grief stricken and give them comforting words.
May I respect myself.
May I always maintain control of my emotions.
May I habituate myself to be gentle, and never angry with others because of circumstances.
May I never discuss the wicked or what they have done, but know good people and follow in their footsteps. 

Reading Nicene Creed (original version from the First Council in 325)

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.  And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.  By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.  And in the Holy Ghost.  But those who say: 'There was a time when he was not;' and 'He was not before he was made;' and 'He was made out of nothing,' or 'He is of another substance' or 'essence,' or 'The Son of God is created,' or 'changeable,' or 'alterable'— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Reading an excerpt from When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome by Richard E. Rubenstein

“Alexandria, December 24, 361.  Midmorning.  By the time the men at the front of the mob smashed through the prison gates, the crowd had grown until it overflowed the square like water pouring over the sides of a full jar.  Even for Alexandria, where riots were as common as Mediterranean gales, this demonstration was unusually large. More unusual still, the mixed crowd formed a unified mass. Instead of fighting among themselves as the so often did, pagan and Christian rioters stood side by side, bellowing for blood.

A roar of approval greeted the splintering of the gates. Minutes later the invaders reemerged from the prison bearing their trussed-up quarry on their shoulders like hunters returning from the desert with a prize antelope or lion.  Three prisoners, their hands and feet still chained against the possibility of escape, were their catch.  As the demonstrators began to toss them about the square like toys, the helpless captives squealed in pain and terror.

Two of these unfortunates were high government officials.  They had earned the crowd’s hatred by carrying out the Roman emperor’s orders to close pagan temples, expel ‘heretical’ Christians from the churches, and punish protestors.  The mob’s prime target, however – the third man in manacles – was a figure of greater importance than any civil servant.  This was George of Cappadocia, the metropolitan bishop of Alexandria and titular head of Egypt’s huge Christian community.

Bishop George owed his recent preeminence and present agony to Constantius II, the son and successor of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great. Like Constantius, George was an Arian: a Christian who believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but not God Himself.

[George] was widely known for his religious zeal and owned one of the finest private libraries in the empire.   ... After sending the current bishop of Alexandria, a local man named Athanasius, into exile [the emperor] brought George in from Asia Minor to replace him.  

The appointment was a disaster from the start.  Replacing a native Alexandrian with a Cappadocian “foreigner” who could not even speak Coptic, the language of the common people, was Constantius’s first mistake.  His second was to name as bishop a militant Arian who considered it his duty to persecute both pagans and Christians opposed to his theology.

Even with the aid of imperial troops, he could not establish control over Alexandria’s turbulent Christian community.

Punishment was duly administered.  George and his fellow prisoners died in the prison square, presumably as the result of lethal beatings.  A fifth-century historian reports that after the rioters killed their victims, they paraded their corpses through the middle of the city.”