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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
I don't know if you watch the PBS news broadcasts. If you do, you are familiar with occasional segments they call "explainers." These are pieces that provide background to particular issues or concepts that are important to a current story, but which are likely to be unfamiliar to many viewers. I am a big fan. Many times they have rescued me from significant confusion. The ones dealing with economics have been especially helpful over the past year and a half. I am not talking about economics this morning. But I do want to start with an explainer.
So here goes: About a decade ago, I heard one of the Balacz Scholars explain how the Sunday nearest November 15th is a church holiday for Unitarians in Transylvania. Neighboring congregations gather together. They have parties with speeches, the children perform special poems and songs, music plays. Youth groups take field trips that weekend. The reason is that Nov 15th is Frances Dávid's birthday and he was the founder of Transylvanian Unitarianism. Well, I knew American Unitarian Universalists weren't about to do things like that, especially since it's fairly close to Thanksgiving, but shouldn't we do something? So I decided that I would mark the day by talking about some feature of European Unitarian or Universalist history. In past years, I've preached about Transylvanian Unitarians, the Polish Brethren, Czech Unitarians, Michael Servetus, the rise of English Unitarians and Universalists, and, of course, the life of Frances Dávid. A nice side benefit of all this is that it makes me keep up with our history and sometimes even find new developments.
Along the way, I have talked about King Sigismund, the only Unitarian king in history, and about the Edict of Torda, which was adopted by both the King and the Diet in 1568 and long stood as the most progressive statement of religious toleration in Europe. Now UUs tend to be pretty proud of that Edict and many UU congregations have, on their wall somewhere, a copy of an old etching that shows Frances Dávid, arm outstretched and bathed in a single ray of light, proclaiming the Unitarian message and the need for the Edict. The reality, of course, is rather more complicated. Both Earl Morse Wilbur, who researched and wrote the first real history of Unitarianism (he learned six or seven languages, including Polish and Hungarian to do it), both Wilbur and Harvard historian George Huntston Williams explain how the King's mother, Isabelle was interested in classical humanism and studied Erasmus, and that she issued an earlier version when the king was still a child. Two Unitarians, George Biandrata and Frances Dávid, were part of the court and influenced her ideas, and later those of the young king. After Sigismund took the throne, he strengthened the wording and issued the 1568 Edict, which I'll read in part.
... in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well: if not, no one shall compel them, ... none ... shall annoy or abuse the preachers on account of their religion. or allow any to be imprisoned or be punished ... for faith is a gift of God.
Now this statement was adopted in the midst of the often violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestant reformers of various kinds. The Inquisition was still active and all sides were often willing to use banishment, fire or the sword on those they deemed to be heretics. Yet in Transylvania, no one was to be annoyed on account of religion. Furthermore, in a time when the local ruler usually dictated the religion his subjects would practice, King Sigismund provided for equal rights among four "received" religions, among them Unitarianism. This was radically progressive stuff.
With the Edict as a prime example, Wilbur made a case that tolerance of different theological beliefs was, and is, one of the foundations of Unitarianism and now Unitarian Universalism. He traced the thinking of various Christian reformers and concluded that tolerance was an outgrowth of their explorations and their penchant for interpreting Scripture in the light of reason whether or not that agreed with established doctrine. Thus endeth this morning's explainer.
When I was a seminary student at Starr King, I read Wilbur. (I was lucky to have been given a copy of his two-volume history at a time. It was out of print and my classmates were struggling with Xeroxed copies of copies.) I had - and still have - a lot of respect for the work Wilbur did, mostly between the two World Wars. Digging around in old libraries and dank storage rooms, he found and deciphered the aged books and records that had survived, some for more than 450 years. In the midst of geopolitical tensions and the rumblings that signaled the beginning of the second World War, he persisted in his quest to rescue the old records. But as I read his account, I couldn't help but wonder whether the facts that Sultan Suleiman protected Transylvania and that her people were in contact with Muslims had something to do with the development Unitarian ideas valuing toleration. And I knew that Transylvania was historically part of the Silk Route, which meant that traders of many cultures would have traveled through. Surely these things were connected!
When I think back to the response I got in raising these questions, I am reminded of times in childhood when I was figuratively patted on the head. `Oh, that's an interesting idea, dear, but we can't really know much about it because.' Since I was interested in congregational ministry rather than academia, I didn't pursue the issue.
Well, fast-forward fifteen years or so, and perspectives on this period have changed a lot. Starr King now has a faculty member deeply trained and interested in the multi-religious history of Eastern Europe. Two others, one a former Starr King instructor and the other currently a part-time faculty member, are specifically working on the complex cultural context of the ideas of our religious ancestors.
During the first half of this year, one of them, the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, presented much of her work when she delivered the Minns Lectures. (This is a well respected UU lecture series presenting scholarly work.) She delivered the fifth and final lecture of the series at our General Assembly last June and I attended. I found myself increasingly engaged and excited as she explained evidence of connections I had suspected all along. (Nothing like an I-told-you-so moment!) Later I checked the Minns website and read the other four lectures. I pulled out my copies of Wilbur and Williams and reread the sections about the Reformation in Transylvania and its neighbors. My ideas about the development of Unitarian ideas, positions and practices have become more complex and nuanced. Along with the thinking of Christian reformers and the Radical Reformation, the influences of Judaism and Islam played major roles in the beginnings of our religious understandings. We have multiple, braided roots.
Dr Ritchie looks at the cultural developments that were associated with theological changes, both those shaping doctrines and those resulting from changes. For example, most church historians have recognized the influence of the Emperor Constantine in the adoption of the Nicene Creed. He wanted a unified religion to promote the aims of empire. But I had not heard that he also aimed at definitive separation between Christianity and Judaism. Constantine wrote about that goal and the way we determine the date for Easter was separated from Passover right at that time. Constantine was quite negative about the Jews and some blame him for the origins of Christian anti- Semitism. Furthermore, Ritchie explains that anti-Trinitarians (they would be our theological ancestors) became associated with the Jews in the minds of traditional Christians.
Her explanation throws some light on another thing that puzzled me as a beginning student of UU history. You see, Frances Dávid was a restless thinker. He started as a Catholic and moved through the Lutherans and Calvinists before reaching Unitarian theological positions. Once he concluded that there was no Biblical evidence for the idea that Jesus was God, he began to explore the implications of that position. What did it mean about the sacrament of communion? Was it really proper to pray to Jesus at all? What about other practices? As he raised these questions, opponents accused him of being a "Judaizer." This didn't make much sense to me then - but with this new information, things begin to connect.
In addition, Ritchie claims that a major theme for many reformers (she particularly references Michael Servetus) was a desire to heal the rifts between Christians and Jews. Servetus used anti-Trinitarian arguments drawn from writings of Jews who had been exiled (or "converted") in Spain only a few decades earlier. No one seems willing to claim that Servetus was himself one of the "New Christians" but historians do agree that he was well versed in their literature and opinions. Furthermore, Williams, in a passage I didn't really notice as a student, writes, "It should be remarked further that in the whole Kingdom of Hungary and its subsequent divisions, the use of Hebrew by the preachers of the Reformation was very prominent, as also in Lithuania, leading in both regions to philosemitism." (p 1112) In other words, the atmosphere in these regions became appreciative of Judaism. Trinitarians didn't especially care for that. Ritchie argues that Anti- trinitarian debate has always been about multi-religious tolerance.
Another reforming thinker, Jacob Paleologus had studied the Middle East and the Qu'ran, and served as rector of the Unitarian school in Kolosovar. He wasn't the only connection with Islam. Looking again at the development of the Edict of Torda, Ritchie discovered that, along with the influence of Erasmus and the early Transylvanian Unitarians, the Ottomans had quite a role.
Remember that Queen Isabelle wrote an early act of toleration. She had been widowed just weeks after the birth of her son. This caused a struggle for succession with the Hapsburgs. Isabelle's forces were near collapse when Sultan Suleiman sent a large force to support her. On their success, Suleiman claimed much of lower Hungary and took Buda, now part of Budapest, as his capital. Transylvania remained under Isabelle.
There's much to be said about these developments, but one particular story is important for the establishment of religious tolerance. In 1548, local Catholic authorities in Tolna asked the Sultan's representative to take action against a Protestant pastor who was preaching reformed theological ideas. They wanted him killed or banished. The Pasha denied their request and also issued an edict of toleration, which said in part that "preachers of the faith invented by Luther should be allowed to preach (to) ... whoever wants to hear, freely and without fear, and that all Hungarians and Slavs (who indeed wish to do so) should be able to listen to and receive the word of God without any danger." Sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it?
Ritchie states that no direct textual connection to Torda has been found. But a connection is not far-fetched, given the protection the Sultan offered to Transylvania and the fact that a classmate of Francis Dávid, whose letter to another friend provides the account of the Pasha's decision, lived not far from Dávid at the time. Also, we know of other cases when Unitarians turned to the Pasha for protection. It's interesting that Sigismund provided special status only for the four varieties of Christian faith common in Transylvania. This might have been because theirs was the theological conflict of the time, or it might show a European influence and bias. But the result was that Judaism and Islam were considered "tolerated" - and so less privileged than the "received" religions.
Transylvania more fully became a border state, linking the Christian Hapsburgs and the Ottoman Empire both geographically and culturally. The protection of the Ottomans and their practice of both religious and cultural toleration, fostered the development of safety for Christian reformers in Transylvania. Many of the Spanish Jews exiled in 1492 had taken refuge with the Ottomans. Jews were received as "people of the Book," a phrase which encapsules the Islamic belief that the three Abrahamic faiths are kin. And some of the most radical of the Unitarian theological work was actually published in the Ottoman Empire because it was too dangerous in Europe.
All these influences became part of daily life in Transylvania. Surviving accounts often center on legal developments and declarations, or on particular leaders. But Ritchie recounts examples of inter-marriage and cooperation between Jews, Muslims and Transylvanian Christians, including the Unitarians. She refers to work remaining to be done in this area, and urges scholars to pursue it with "an eye to the many ways in which the borders between the Ottoman and Hungarian cultures were in this period crossed, renegotiated and re-crossed..The grounds for religious toleration were prepared for in the everyday lives of actual persons, who experienced the negotiations of intermarriage before any legal proclamation of toleration, and who knew the attractions of Islam and the safety it accorded progressive Protestants."
All this work, and more, brings us to a different understanding of our heritage. The multi-religious roots of our Unitarian Universalist faith means that we have a sort of birthright interest in building good relations among people of different faiths, different backgrounds and different cultures. Our roots were formed from their braided influences.
Our US record in this regard has not been all that distinguished, though. Bright spots stand out, of course, but we prefer to overlook the ways we have let our social and economic position limit our relationships with those different from most of us. Not that we are alone in this. America's history is full of it. And especially in the past 50 years or so, we have made significant, if not consistent, efforts to stand with those our society casts aside. It's ongoing work for UUs both nationally and locally. Our co- sponsorship with the NAACP of the Study/Action Circles on Race and Diversity is a current effort in our own community. We can be pleased with these conversations and both the connections and the work that may grow from them.
Yet we know that the Circles are just one step. We need to be alert for ways to improve our connections with those of different faiths and cultures. We need to speak up when we hear derogatory comments and jokes. We need to be part of interfaith efforts, and to be supportive when a faith group has been a target. We know that our Muslim neighbors are nervous after this week's tragedy. How shall we respond? As we find different ways to meet these needs, we honor our religious forebears, people who lived in creative relationship with neighbors who were different, and who chose tolerance, acceptance and connection as the larger, better path. Just as they did, we make that larger way by walking it.
November 8, 2009
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We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.