The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
AN INCONVENIENT MARRIAGE
Though I have spoken on this particular topic quite recently, I am doing it again from some other angles, since we never seem to get quite clear on it, and a series on the primary influences on our faith is a good introduction to the course on Unitarian Universalism and the story of this congregation that I am giving in March The relationship between the religion of Unitarian Universalism and Christianity is at best an uneasy one. This is not surprising since it is always family quarrels that are the most difficult to resolve. Compounding the problem is that the uneasiness comes from more than one direction and is continually fed by ongoing differences and new participants in the battle. We are asked if Unitarian Universalism is a Christian religion, and we can’t even answer a simple yes or no, although the National Council of Churches could easily decide that we are not and deny us membership, while giving us observer status along with national Jewish organizations. To some of us that was a reasonable decision, and some even rejoice in it, but to others it is a continuing source of pain and indignation. It is not merely that Christianity cannot come to terms with us, but also that we cannot come to terms with our own internal connection to it.
Both Unitarianism and Universalism began as early heresies in the Catholic Church — heresies which existed long before those of Martin Luther that founded Protestantism. Actually, they were originally rather respectable strains of Christianity, firmly based in the gospels, until they were found heretical by various church councils and popes. Universalism, in its origin, seems almost, to the modern point of view, fundamentalist in its way of looking at the question of salvation. They argued that if Paul’s interpretation of the consequences of Jesus’ sacrifice were correct, and all Christians, of course, agreed that it was, since Paul was far more the founder of Christianity than was Jesus, then it logically followed that all human beings were saved by it, not just certain ones. After all, the sacrifice of God himself must be of universal efficacy. The fear, of course, was that such a belief would lead to immoral behavior since there was no fear of eternal punishment, and it was rigorously suppressed, although it had a tendency to arise anew whenever it was given the opportunity. Even Luther’s notion of salvation by grace came from the same root, although he limited it to believers. Oddly enough, a belief in universal salvation seemed to increase the likelihood of moral behavior rather than to decrease it, but given its origin, it was even stranger still that the latest resurrection of the belief in Universalism became tinged with Unitarianism in the early 19th century, when many Universalist ministers, most notably Hosea Ballou, began preaching the doctrines of Unitarian Christianity.
That’s what it was called then: Unitarian Christianity. It, too, harked back to the early days of the Christian church for the authority for its beliefs. Although the two heresies to which it clung were named for their most famous advocates who lived a few hundred years after the gospels were written, evidence for the truth of their interpretations was also found in the New Testament. Arias said that although Jesus was the perfect man and offered the true divine revelation, he was not, in fact, God, however much his message came from God, and Arianism was born. God is one, it argued, not three. That was certainly a heresy with a lot of intellectual support. After all, you can find plenty of texts in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in which Jesus explicitly denies his divinity, and the history of the doctrine of the trinity shows it as a comparatively late arrival. However, the Catholic Church considered Arianism a dire heresy, and Protestantism did not differ from them on this. Merely to call a belief Arian (or Unitarian) was to offer the deepest criticism of it. Michael Servetus was burned at the stake for it by John Calvin, although if you read what he said on the subject, it is hard for a modern Unitarian to call him one of us. Although he argued that Jesus’ substance differed from that of God, it seemed also thoroughly to differ from that of a human being. Sort of a demi-god I suppose. Anyway, Calvin burned him as a Unitarian, so we claim him as one of us.
But Arias was only one of the heretics whom we were (quite truthfully) accused of following. The other was Pelagius, and perhaps this is the portion of Unitarian heresy, which attracted the Universalists to it. Pelagius refused to believe that human beings were condemned to choose the wrong unless God himself controlled our evil impulses. The church doctrine was, and in some places and cases still is, that human beings are irremediably evil, worthless and steeped in sin, that only through attaching themselves to God and following the holy will can we escape from utter iniquity. Pelagius said, no, on the contrary, human beings can know good and evil and can choose the good. He went so far as to argue that the mere fact that they chose to follow the Christian religion when they could have chosen otherwise is evidence of his position. Pelagius was called to Rome and subsequently disappeared from history, but his arguments, though named for him were not new and did not disappear with him. Perhaps even more important than their insistence on the use of reason in religion and the unity of God was the Unitarians’ rejection of the notion of total human depravity.
Thomas Starr King, the minister after whom the Starr King School for the Ministry, in Berkeley, CA is named, credited with almost single-handedly keeping the state in the union during the Civil War, and considering himself both a Unitarian and Universalist, was asked the difference between Unitarians and Universalists. He said that Universalists believed that God was too good to damn humankind, and that Unitarians believed that human beings were too good to be damned. The direction of approach was different, but the journey ended in the same place. However, despite that, and despite the Unitarianism of much of its leadership, and despite the fact that it was probably more heartily feared and hated than any other, no one ever questioned that Universalism was by itself, however heretical, a Christian sect. This was entirely true until well into the 1940s when some of our thinkers began to redefine Universalism as world religion, accepting truths from all of the world faiths, preaching that the differences were only on the surface and that all of them taught essentially the same thing. One of the main reasons that some Universalist churches — the ones that had not joined the move to redefine their religion — refused to be involved in the merger of the two religions in 1961 was their perception of Unitarianism as a non-Christian religion. That being the case, without even trying to deal with the naïve and simplistic nature of the idea of the identity of world religions, which was merely the first step of the Universalists to ultimate merger with the Unitarians, I will concentrate for the rest of the sermon primarily on the Unitarians, since they seemed always to be the ones whose relationship with Christianity seemed most problematic. The Universalist heresy, though terrible, was clearly a Christian heresy. The Unitarian one, it seemed, might take them completely outside the pale of the Christian faith.
The Unitarians of 200 years, and even 100 years ago did not believe that. They felt that theirs was the true, pure Christianity from which both the Catholic and Protestant churches had fallen away. The Bible, though to be interpreted in the light of the times and circumstances within which it was written, and with the use of reason, was the source of religious authority. The story of Jesus, his moral teachings and even his crucifixion and resurrection, was the center of their faith, though they considered him the perfect teacher and model rather than the divine son of God. Today there are many Christian Unitarians whose religion is much the same as that of the original Unitarians in the United States, although there is probably more skepticism among them as to the precise facts of the miracles and the physical resurrection of Jesus. There is even something of a rise in the numbers of professing Christians in our movement, particularly among the younger clergy, probably because their education is usually in liberal Christian theological schools, or closely connected to them, and their teachings are so close to those of Channing and the early Unitarians, so easily kept within the bounds of reason, that it is still (or perhaps again) possible to be that kind of Christian and be a Unitarian.
There are many, of course, who would say that this is not true Christianity, that if you do not believe in the divinity of Jesus as one of the three parts of the single triune God, you are not a Christian. Nevertheless, there are also many in the main-line Christian churches, who never question that they themselves are Christians, who believe precisely as do those who call themselves Christian Unitarians. Some of them are even ministers. Some of them are even Jesuit priests. I’ve met several of those myself. The difference isn’t even one of degree, but merely between those who are willing to spend their time making liberal interpretations of statements of belief, and those who are not, those who can say a creed with an easy conscience, and those who cannot.
Unitarian Universalism is the natural and inevitable consequence of the revolution that Martin Luther started at Worms when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral. (I read recently that he probably didn’t actually do that, though he did have 95 theses, and I say pooh on revisionist history. I much prefer to think that he really sneaked out on All Hallows’ Eve with his hammer and nails and sheaf of paper and tacked them right up there for all to see. It doesn’t change the point of the story at all.) Probably the most important point that Luther made, in light of later consequences, was that there need be no mediator between a human being and God, that on the contrary it was both the right and duty of individuals to be in direct relationship to God. That meant that they had to be able to read the Bible, which meant that it had to be translated into the language of the people and that they had to learn to read. Education, and the idea of universal individual responsibility for knowledge gave birth to the Enlightenment. It was the inconvenient marriage, disapproved by almost all its relatives, of the Enlightenment and radical Protestantism that gave birth to free and rational religion — the religion of which we are adherents. From Luther through Calvin to the Puritans, to early Unitarian Christianity, to what we have today. It is a straight line, and it could not be clearer. Even our church services are quite obviously in the Protestant tradition with preaching as the central activity, but surrounded with hymns and readings, also many straight from our Protestant past.
It is the inconvenience of this marriage that bars us from the National Council of Churches, and allows some of us to feel that it is appropriate that we not be a part of an organization that is made up of Christian churches. Despite the large numbers of Christians still among our membership, the National Council of Churches is correct. Though our modern beginnings were in Protestantism, we are now something so different, that it can no longer be called the same religion. Just as Judaism gave birth, however reluctantly, to Christianity (and however reluctant Christians are to remember that), so did liberal Christianity give birth to the new religion of Unitarian Universalism. We do not share the same source of authority. However much many of our members may revere the Bible, in knotty questions, the authority must remain in the experience and reason of the questioner, not in ancient revelation.