To start at the beginning: the roots of what we now call Unitarian Universalism lie in early Christianity, which itself emerged from pre-Rabbinic Judaism in various urban centers around the Roman empire. Early Christianity had no central authority, no commonly accepted scripture, no commonly practiced liturgy, no orthodox theology. Early Christians were a scattered and diverse mosaic of different practices and beliefs. And they squabbled about that. In particular, was Jesus of Nazareth the latest in a long line of prophets calling the human community to righteousness and piety? Or was he something more? And, if more, what, exactly? There was tremendous pressure to determine what was the true faith, so orthodoxy was eventually established. But alternative voices were never entirely snuffed out. We today are the heirs of those alternative voices.
UU Minute #2: Trinitarianism is NOT Biblical
We are called "Unitarian," as opposed to "Trinitarian," even though that particular theological dispute was never central to what we have been all about. The orthodox called us "Unitarian," and -- this may come as a surprise -- we couldn't come to consensus about some other name to call ourselves, so the name "Unitarian" stuck. Which raises the question: How did Trinitarianism become orthodox in the first place? It's not in the Bible. The closest thing in the Bible is that passage where Jesus tells his followers to go forth "and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit."* But that doesn't say anything about father, son, and holy spirit being, in fact, one, rather than three, which is what Trinitarianism claims. How did Trinitarianism become orthodoxy? That's the question for the next episode of the Unitarian Universalist minute.
UU Minute #3: How Trinitarianism Became Orthodox
Roman Emperor Constantine's reign began in they year 306 when he was 34 years old. His reign would last 31 years, and his administrative and financial reforms strengthened the empire. Six years into his reign [at age 40], Constantine converted to Christianity, becoming the first Christian Roman Emperor after centuries of Christian persecution at the hands of the Romans. The Christianity of the time was scattered and diverse: no central authority, no commonly accepted scripture, no commonly practiced liturgy, no orthodox theology. For Constantine, devoted to bringing administrative order to his empire, this had to be fixed. So, in 325, Constantine convoked the Council of Nicaea, calling all the bishops together to hash out just what Christianity was. Jesus of Nazareth was the religion's central figure, but was he the latest in a long line of prophets calling people to righteousness and piety, or was he something more? And, if more, what? Constantine didn't care how these questions were answered just so long as there was a uniform answer. He invited all 1,800 Christian Bishops, and more than 250 of them actually went to Nicaea that summer*, representing every region of the Roman empire. Constantine himself was there for some of it. For three months they discussed and debated,* drafted and revised statements, and in the end the adopted a statement that established Trinitarianism as orthodoxy, and the more unitarian form of Christianity advocated by a priest named Arius was declared heresy. We've been the heretics ever since.
*add in each bishop's retinue of priests, deacons, subdeacons and readers, and the number approached 2,000 -- filling the inns of Nicaea to bursting with over a dozen men per room.
**The picture showing two clerics shoving each other is a 2016 painting by Giovanni Gasparro depicting Bishop (later, Saint) Nicholas slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea. Yes, THAT Saint Nicholas. So we came out of Nicaea not only heretics, but on Santa Claus' naughty list.
UU Minute #4: Universalism IS Biblical
The Council of Nicaea in 325 was bad news for unitarian Christians. Arius argued that the divinity of the father was greater than that of the son. Jesus was divine -- was more than human -- but was not God. This Arian Christianity lost out to the Trinitarian view that father and son were of the same substance: co-eternal, co-equal. But no matter which side had won in Nicaea, the effect of the Council was to emphasize the importance of having the right doctrine, and de-emphasize the ethics and values of living a Christian life. And that was bad news for the other side of our heritage: the universalist Christians.
Virtually from the beginning, some Christians had understood that everyone was going to heaven: universal salvation. They had Biblical support:
2 Peter 3: "The Lord [does] not [want] any to perish, but all to come to repentance."
1 Corinthians 15: "For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ."
Romans 14: "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God."
Sure sounds like salvation was to be universal. But as Christianity pivoted to a doctrinal emphasis, universalism had to be squelched -- because: if we're all going to heaven anyway, it's hard to make the case that you only get in if you have the right doctrines.
UU Minute #5: Pandemics, and Printing Presses, and Protestants. Oh, My.
Pandemics are nothing new. They have been a periodic part of human life ever since we’ve had cities. The Bubonic plague in the middle-1300s killed one third of Europe’s population, creating labor shortages, which created pressure for innovation. For instance, as long as there were plenty of people to copy things by hand, it didn’t occur to anybody that a printing press sure would be handy. Even so, it was a century after the worst plague year before Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type came on line. Some sixty years after Gutenberg’s press, in 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. Coincidence? Hardly.
- For one thing, the Catholic Church jumped on the printing press to crank out the certificates for indulgences – confirmation of going to heaven for those willing to pay enough to the church. Increased traffic in indulgences highlighted the corruption in the Church that motivated Luther’s reforms.
- Second, the printing press produced Bibles in the vulgar tongues. Suddenly more or less ordinary people – if they were literate – no longer had to rely on what Priests reported the Bible said.
- Third, Luther’s complaints about the church echoed complaints that others had been making for centuries – but those others didn’t have this new printing press contraption. The 95 theses that Luther famously nailed to the church door in Wittenberg were also taken to the Wittenberg printer, where they became a pamphlet that spread through Europe* – so Luther’s theses had an influence far greater than previous church critics had.
*The 95 Theses were nailed to the church door on Oct 31, 1517. By Nov 17, broadsheet copies of Luther's document were being printed in London, over 1,000 land-kilometers, plus an English Channel, away. Luther followed-up that document with Europe's first media blitz: from 1518 to 1525, Luther’s writings accounted for a third of all books sold in Germany. His mastery of the new technology allowed him to succeed where Jan Hus (1369-1415) a century before had met with execution.