From this month forward, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Association in May 2011, I thought it would be fun to focus on “the UU Top Ten.” What are ten main things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? My vision is this: By next spring, we will all be in possession of ten solid items of essential information about UUism, and because of this, we’ll feel more connected to our UU identity. We’ll also feel more confident and calm as we talk about our chosen faith with others. That’s the vision: connection—confidence—calm.
So we begin the Top Ten list with Number Ten: 325AD and 544AD. These two dates represent key early moments in the evolution of the separate traditions of Unitarianism and Universalism.
325AD is the date when “Unitarianism” in its classical meaning (the belief that Jesus is not equal to God—Jesus is not God—God is one) was formally declared heretical.
544AD is the date when “Universalism” in its classical sense (the conviction that God will gather up all beings into himself, and no one shall be lost in hell for all time) was declared heretical as well.
Now pause here for a moment. Consider what this means for us as a religious people. Not just that our religious origin goes way back to the beginnings of the Christian tradition. But also this: that at our roots, we are a people of heresy.
And this is a source of great risk. Always has been. Back in 325AD and in 544AD, our ancestors heard the orthodox say that their souls would be condemned. Then there were heresy’s political ramifications. In ancient times, theology and politics reflected and formed each other (and they do so still, to some degree or another, even where there is separation of church and state). And so, for example, to stake your claim on Unitarianism 1700 years ago was, in essence, to reject the absolute God-ordained lordship of the emperor at the time (who happened to be named Constantine the Great). Not a convenient thing to do back when Constantine claimed his rule was God-ordained. To solidify this, in fact, Constantine used military might to gather up all the most important religious leaders of his day, and he charged them to define a single, authoritative set of proper Christian beliefs. As it turned out, the religious leaders (all too human) ended up dickering and dithering and multiplying distinctions and tiny differences—clarity was not happening—which frustrated the Emperor to no end. Ultimately, to get his way, he threatened them with the sword to get their act together and vote like he wanted them to: against Unitarianism and for Trinitarianism. History calls this … the Council of Nicea.
Being a heretic is neither convenient nor safe. But our religious tradition is not built on foundations of convenience. Heresy in its most positive sense means “to choose.” It means to think and act on the basis of one’s personal integrity, no matter what. It is courage. That’s what item Number 10 in our UU Top Ten ultimately represents. These two dates—325 AD and 544AD—remind us that, fundamentally, we are a people of integrity. We must never forget this. Our religion was never meant to be easy.
Stay tuned for Number 9, coming next month!
Rev. Anthony David