Friday, October 23, 2020

A Wideness is Not Enough

It quickly became apparent to me in my late teens as I began studying Christian theological history was
that there are only so many theological solutions available. That is, for any 'problem' posed by beliefs derived from the Bible, multiple solutions were thoroughly explored centuries ago. There is very little genuine novelty in the field. An example of this can be found in 'On the Great Extent of God's Blessed Kingdom,' in which Celio Secondo Curione argues that the unevangelized in distant lands can still be saved without the Gospel. Published in 1554, Curione had this to say:

This is the law of our king, and his very just ruling: to the extent that, having heard the Gospel, a person believes, he is saved. And he who, having heard the Gospel, does not believe, is condemned. From this it follows that he who has not yet heard the Gospel is not by the Gospel to be condemned. Those who are condemned are condemned because they have rejected natural law and the Witness and judgment of their own conscience. (McKanan, 2017)

With just that quote you could be left with the impression that one way or the other, people who haven't heard the Gospel in places without Christianity will be condemned anyway, based on what little they did know from nature and conscience. The words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (mid-50s CE) could also be construed to have this meaning. 

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them. (Romans 2:14-15 NRSV)

What I think Paul was trying to do here was simply explain that everyone knows right from wrong, and that's why the pagan philosophers thought about ethics and their nations established laws. From the evangelical Protestant perspective the law can only condemn. Within that framework, any sin separates a person from God, requiring rebirth and regeneration as a Christian to be saved. From some other viewpoints, this could instead be understood to affirm that while the law condemns, the conscience is part of the 'light' available to those without the Christian gospel, showing them the way to live if they will only heed it.

"Even in the most remote nations he can stir up people by his spirit and send them out to teach others. He himself can also enlighten his people within, that they may know about him. For his divine goodness never left anyone without knowledge of him." (McKanan, 2017)

Here Curione is saying two things. First, that people can be called in far away lands to preach, and second that people can be inspired directly. What is unclear to me is whether in the first part he's saying that these are Christians in distant places who will be called to preach the Gospel, or whether he means these will be prophets of a sort, preaching Good News as led by God. The text available to me in McKanan's 1st volume "A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism" doesn't provide sufficient context, and I haven't been able to find another copy of Curione's text online. As for the second part, in which people can be enlightened within, these would seem to contradict the principle that faith comes by hearing the word (Romans 10:17).

As I said at the outset, none of this is pondering over the fate of the 'unsaved' who never heard 'the Gospel' is new to Christianity. Ever since it went from being about declaring a subversive message about a king other than caesar to preaching heaven and hell decided by faith and possibly sacraments administered by the church, 'missions' turned into a question of saving the unwashed masses of humanity 'out there.' It tied in easily with the colonizing endeavors of Europeans, even facilitating the subjugation of peoples. In our times that false sense of cultural superiority remains, of course. 

Still, in centuries past and today, there have been and are plenty of missionaries who see what they do as for the benefit of those they contact. In our times there is at least some self-awareness in the teaching of missiology, with instruction about separating culture from faith, and respecting the self-determination of groups of Christians that form in foreign lands. The question of whether mission work is even necessary hinges on the availability of salvation to those having no contact with Christianity.

Evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock expressed in a book published in 1992 both the classic problem under discussion here, and also the alternative solutions to it. 

The eternal destiny of a very large number of people throughout history who have not had access to the Gospel, and who enter eternity not knowing Jesus Christ, is a pressing problem for theology. It pits access against urgency. If we say there is equal access to salvation for all, including the unevangelized, we will be charged with eliminating the urgency of mission. But if we preserve the urgency, people will protest that this means millions will go to hell without any chance to avoid it. No decision is free from serious objections. (Pinnock, 1992)

On the one hand, if there is no need to hear and respond to the 'good news' about Jesus, as the evangelicals understand it, then why spend time, energy, and resources on mission work? On the other, if salvation is only available through hearing the Gospel, then how monstrous God must be. 

Here's Pinnock's answer to the problem, one that should by now seem very familiar:

People cannot respond to light that did not reach them. They can only respond to revelation that did. Scripture and reason both imply that no one can be held responsible for truth of which they were inculpably ignorant; they are judged on the basis of the truth they know. A person is saved by faith, even if the content of belief is deficient (and whose is not)? (Pinnock, 1992)

While Pinnock is voicing a well-worn viewpoint, in discussing available 'light,' he also does something interesting. He says, "[a]ccording to the Bible, people are saved by faith, not by the content of their theology." For traditional Protestantism this can be somewhat mind-blowing, as it is considered true for the most part that there is a minimum to be believed in order to be saved. The most common minimum in evangelicalism, that preached by Billy Graham, is believing that Christ died for our sins, that God loves us, and trusting in Jesus alone for salvation. Of course there is an expectations that newly-minted Christians will learn beyond that, but that is the minimum. What Pinnock is suggesting here is that for those who have not heard the so-called 'facts' of the Gospel, the minimum can be even less. 

As an aside, the more fundamentalist Christians tend to associate knowledge of their sect's beliefs with making certain of salvation. This usually means a lot of Bible study (and in my experience, painfully little action for the benefit of others), but it can also translate into a sense of insecurity for some. When I was at Harding University studying for the ministry (the first time around) a classmate arrived late one day, explaining that he had been out baptizing his wife's grandmother. Everyone began congratulating him, which he cut short by explaining that she had been baptized as an adolescent and been a faithful Christian ever since, but was worried now because she wasn't sure she knew enough when she was younger. I couldn't help but observe the terrible light this cast God in, suggesting that someone could do their utmost to serve him for decades but still go to hell on a technicality.

Moving along, Pinnock goes on to put the emphasis on the attitude of the spiritual heart, writing that "[t]he issue God cares about is the direction of the heart, not the content of theology." However, lowering the minimum as described above, and shifting the focus to one's spiritual and moral leanings, doesn't answer some fundamental questions raised by orthodox Christianity. Most significant is that of when a person who lives and dies 'unevangelized' has been saved. Salvation in this theology is more than an adjustment to a divine ledger; it's also meant to indicate a fundamental change in the nature of a person. Someone who becomes a Christian is promised, in addition to forgiveness, regeneration of their inward nature, and the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. In Pinnock's proposed soteriology it's unclear when or if this would happen for people in times and places without Christianity.

Now, to me, this is all nonsense. Sure, I find it interesting to think about and pick apart, but none of it reflects reality. People live as though these things were factually true, when they are just religious fiction. This has caused enormous pain, as I've already discussed, in facilitating colonization and subjugation. 

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20 NRSV)

It also makes life difficult for people raised in Christian families but who don't accept the religion into adulthood. In particular, lgbtq+ youth are routinely mistreated and forced out of the home by religious parents who can't accept who they are, regardless of whether the kids still think of themselves as Christian. The demand for conformity in the mission imperative is simply overpowering, dampening even natural parental bonds.

The text by Curione was included in a documentary history of Unitarianism and Universalism because his theology seems like a proto-universalism. Unfortunately, in my estimation it is still deeply flawed, hopelessly vague, and does nothing to right any wrongs committed in the name of Jesus.


McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

Pinnock, C. (1997). A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Racovian Straw Man?

via Andover-Harvard Theological Library

The Minor Reformed Church in Poland deserves far more attention, in my opinion, than I've generally seen it given in church history. To me it's an early indication of what can happen when religious freedom and tolerance is law, a foreshadowing of the developments in 19th century North America. Part of their legacy is found in the Racovian Catechism, a document that Faustus Socinus played no small part in pulling together.

This Socinus wasted no time in retrieving the papers and books of his uncle, Laelius Socinus, after the latter's death. These provided fuel for Faustus' theological studies, and although he did not hold to quite the 'literalism' of his uncle, there is a continuity to be found in their theologies. Faustus would go on to become a leading theologian of the Minor Reformed Church in Poland, helping to shape and articulate that church's beliefs. Strangely, he was never officially accepted as a communicant member of the church he promoted and defended because he rejected the necessity of adult baptism by immersion. This means that although he engaged in debates and published materials in support of the church, he never participated in the Lord's supper with them.

Prior to Unitarian Universalism I was associated with the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ for nearly two decades. This group is part of a larger 'Restoration Movement' that began in the United States in the 1800s, and like all back-to-the-Bible movements they believed that all 'human traditions' should be stripped away and replaced with the 'pure word of God.' This meant dropping all creeds and received beliefs in favor of a fresh reading of the Bible, and in particular of the New Testament, with a view towards putting it into practice and thus achieving the 'restoration' of Christianity. This was by no means an original idea, with many coming before and after them with their own rereadings of the Bible. While the conclusions of the Minor Reformed Church would be anathema to contemporary independent Christian Churches, the spirit is much the same. 

When I was in my 20s I had a subscription to the newsletter of a very conservative minister of this denomination. One of his favorite things was to write out straw man arguments between himself and people who taught 'false doctrine.' Always the Calvinist or whoever in the question/answer piece would come out stymied and looking like an idiot. Always when I read it I was annoyed that the opposing side was so poorly represented, often showing that the writer didn't really understand their perspective, or was intentionally misrepresenting it. It's occured to me in recent days that as bad as those straw man articles were, catechisms are fundamentally worse. 

At least with a straw man dialogue the reader has the opportunity to notice weaknesses in the favored position, or gaps in how the opposed beliefs are defended. By contrast, with a catechism you're getting really only one side of the story. There's a question, and then there's an answer. The answer is the only acceptable one, as is the question. Everything is defined and there's nothing else covered that's worth talking about. I don't like it.

The Racovian Catechism wasn't really used to indoctrinate young people in the faith, as would usually be the case with a catechism. Instead, it was meant to function as more of an apologetic for the Christian faith as understood by the Polish Brethren (as they sometimes preferred to be known). Maybe this helps redeem it a bit in my eyes. Also, the style has more of straw man than catechism about it as well, with the inquirer expressing acceptance and understanding along the way. 

Two items that I think are worth mentioning from the Racovian Catechism are its affirmation of a restorationist approach to reformation, and its low Christology.

Q. That the sacred Scriptures are firm and certain, you have sufficiently proved, I would therefore further learn, whether they be so sufficient as that in things necessary to eternal life we ought to rest in them only?

A. They are altogether sufficient for that, inasmuch as Faithon the Lord Jesus Christ, and obedience to these Commandments (which twain are the requisites of eternal life) are sufficiently delivered and explained in the Scripture of the very New Covenant.

Q. If it be so, then what need is there of Traditions, which the Church of Rome holdeth to be necessary until eternal life, calling them the unwritten Scripture?

A. You rightly gather that they are unnecessary to eternal life. (McKanan, 2017)

This part fits well generally with the Protestant Reformation, in that it expresses rejection of the traditions of 'the Church of Rome.' However, it should be noted that this approach, like that of Calvinism, is at variance with Lutheranism. In historic Lutheranism the internal theology was reworked considerably, but the outward forms were maintained by and large. Changes came to the Mass, but it continued to be celebrated in a revised form. There continued to be bishops (although in North America many branches of Lutheranism would abandon episcopal polity) and all the signs and vestiges of Catholicism, minus the adoration of saints or veneration of relics. Calvinism, Anabaptism, and the Minor Reformed Church all advocated for a more complete return to the New Testament that involved a radical simplification of liturgy and other practices.  

As for the low Christology, it's interesting that this part of the Racovian Catechism demonstrates the appreciation that Faustus Socinus had for reason. When the question of the two natures of Jesus as God and human comes up, the first justification for Jesus having only human nature comes from reason. Speaking through the catechism, Socinus argues that mortality and immortality cannot be compounded because they are completely different. After making this argument, holy writ is brought in with numerous verses cited for reference. Rather than going the strictly biblical route of his uncle Laelius, Faustus leaned on reason as well. 

The Minor Reformed Church died out through wars, persecution, and oppression. They were the first to really clarify and define the position we recognize today as unitarianism, and would have have found much in common, I believe, with the Unitarian Christianity spoken of by Rev. William Ellery Channing. Also, since four congregations were established in Cluj centuries ago, where they were given a warm welcome by the Transylvanian Unitarians.

Another substantial group made its way to join fellow-Unitarians in Transylvania, where one of the four Polish congregations they established lasted for more than a century before becoming fully assimilated into the Hungarian culture. Several descendants from these families made outstanding contributions to Transylvanian Unitarianism. (Hewett, 2004)

The last church distinctively of this communion closed by 1803, and yet their example, influence, and spirit continue on.


Hewett, P. (2004). Racovia: An Early Liberal Religious Community. Providence, RI: Blackstone Editions.

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: 
Skinner House Books.

Monday, October 19, 2020

A Unique Interpretation of John 1

via Wikimedia Commons

The 1500s in Europe was a time of religious foment and novelty. This was the era of Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli. In my study of church history I learned quite a lot about them. Only with my study of Unitarian and Universalist history am I learning about 'heterodox' leaders and teachings of that era in any depth. One of those influencers was Laelius Socinus, who among other things wrote 'A Brief Exposition of the First Chapter of John.' In it he departed radically from standard thinking about the meaning of that text and the nature of the incarnation. Before I dive into an analysis of his thinking, here are the opening verses of the chapter in questions.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." John 1:1-5 NRSV

The most significant variance from the norm in Laelius' interpretation of this chapter is in how he handles the first few words: "in the beginning."

John teaches that the Word was with God but adds 'in the beginning,' that is the beginning of his ministry and service ... For in that beginning Christ began to be the Word to us, both as a teacher and a prophet, proclaiming his father's commandments. (McKanan, 2017)

Socinus goes on to remark on how amazing it is that theologians have misread this text, making Jesus part of the godhead and framing this chapter in the context of the creation of the cosmos. It's almost amusing to me that Socinus came up with this idea and apparently didn't think it odd that every theologian going back to when the Gospel of John first appeared got it wrong, and somehow he in the 1500s managed to get it right. This was, indeed, the spirit of the times in which he lived and reflective of the attitude of every religious reformer who yearns to go back to 'the original church.' Somehow everyone got it wrong before someone came along and got it right. This is something I experienced in the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, for example. Those churches are part of a 'Restoration Movement' that began with the idea that we need to scrape away centuries of traditions, councils, and creeds and instead base the church entirely and exclusively on what is found in the New Testament. 

As if it were so easy. And, as if the result won't be new formalized theologies to replace the old formalized theologies. 

The Gospel of Mark opens with these words: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Maybe Socinus could point to this as an indication that the author of John was speaking of the same time period. If Mark was discussing the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, then so perhaps was John. However, read in full, I wouldn't agree with that assessment. 

Notice again where it says: "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being." That Word is the agent through which creation came to be. Socinus should have also been familiar with Colossians.

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him."Colossians 1:15-16 NRSV

Here again we see a high Christology in which the the birth of space and time is attributed to Christ. While I now could resolve the matter by pointing out the late date of the Gospel of John and Colossians (end of the first century). Earlier Christian writings tend to be more conservative in describing the attributes of the Messiah, and as decades passed the theology grew commensurate with the elaborations of retelling. None of this would have been known to Laelius, though, and of course he was something of a literalist.

For example, in his 'Exposition' he says the following to close down the possibility of John referring to the beginning of time:

Moses accurately describes creation and no one else gives a better day-by-day account of the creation of all things (for this duty was given by God to him alone). He even enumerates all of the living things: the beasts, the insects, the vegetation, and everything after its kind." Can you tell me where the Son of God appears in the story of creation? Can it be that moses did not think him worth mentioning? (McKanan, 2017) 
Evidently Socinus never noticed that Genesis 1 and 2 each contain a different creation narrative, or that other descriptions of creation can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. For him, the one account that matters, and that should be taken as concrete and infallible, is that of Genesis 1. It would be my guess that if he considered the variation between the first and second chapters of Genesis at all, he took the shortcut now common in evangelicalism of saying that chapter 2 represents a change of focus rather than a different account. A lot has to be ignored to make that happen, but people do it. 

For all his novelty, speculation, and literalness, Laelius Socinus was willing to stand apart from received tradition and question it. In the era in which he did so there was danger involved in doing so, and I'd say his inquiring mind, inventive analysis, and courage are worthy of respect even if his conclusions don't hold up. 


McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the 
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Calvin's Shame

Uncounted numbers of people were victims of religious persecution in Europe during the Protestant Reformation, dying either by execution or in a war of religion. And yet, one man's death burning at the stake casts outsized shadow over the legacy of John Calvin.

"To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine. It is simply to kill a man."Sebastian Castellio

Miguel Serveto (hereafter 'Michael Servetus') was born in the early 1500s in Spain, not long after the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. After he left his homeland in 1529 he never returned, spending the remainder of his life in different regions of Europe. He was evidently a very intelligent man, even documenting blood flow in the lungs for the first time, and was able to read Greek, Hebrew, and Latin from a relatively young age. For a long time I've question his practical intelligence (aka 'street smarts') because while on the run for heresy he stopped over in Geneva and went to church. In so doing he got himself caught, and ultimately was executed for his beliefs. Based on what I've read in 'For Faith and Freedom,' perhaps he deserves more credit than I've given him.

There has been much speculation as to why Servetus went to Geneva in the first place. Perhaps he wished to make common cause with the Libertines, a political group that strongly opposed Calvin's iron-hand rule of the city and that was struggling to gain control. Perhaps it was to seek his own death as part of an apocalyptic vision that the end of the age was at hand. More likely it was for the reason that he gave later at his trial: that he was simply passing through on his way to Naples, where he planned to study medicine. (Howe, 1997)

Servetus had a history of skipping town when things got too hot where he was, and so it makes sense to me that he'd be passing through Geneva on his way to Naples when he was caught. As for why he attended church in Geneva, of all places, can also be explained. 

August 13 was a Sunday, and Servetus was in church as part of his plan 'to keep himself hid as much as he could,' for not being in church would have brought suspicion on anyone in Geneva in those days. But 'certain brothers from Lyons' spotted him in the congregation and reported him to Calvin. He was arrested and imprisoned at once, never to see freedom again. (Howe, 1997)

In the early 1500s Geneva had over 10,000 residents and was continuing to grow rapidly with the arrival of Protestants seeking refuge. For comparison, London in 1500 had 50,000 inhabitants. For that era, these were large cities. I would have thought that if Servetus was just passing through, he could have laid low while there and continued on as quickly as possible. Given the number of people in the city, how noteworthy could it have been if a traveler missed church? That isn't to victim blame, by any means. Servetus' trial was a miscarriage of justice, and his execution a disgrace for Reformed Christianity.

What got Servetus in hot water in the first place was his outspoken opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity. As a younger man he had discovered that the Bible doesn't contain much of the theological language of the later creeds that defined what would become 'orthodox' Christianity. In my opinion, he fell into the common mistake of expecting more developed theology in the Bible than it has available. While the New Testament doesn't contain the word 'trinity,' and the related technical language of later centuries, many parts of it give rise to questions that were answered by trinitarian theology. The absence of certain words does not necessarily mean the absence of a particular doctrine. 

There is a certain sense in which Servetus was a trinitarian, in that he advocated what works out to be a form of Modalism. This view, which was present in parts of the church during the first centuries of the common era, held that there is only one God, and that 'he' is revealed in three modes: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These aren't three persons, but rather three manifestations of one God. 

Now, there are three divine dispositions, but not by some distinction of beings in God, Rather, that God might bring about our salvation, there are various aspects of deity. (McKanan, 2017)

Having redefined the trinity, Servetus' Christology would of necessity depart from the norm as well. While he affirmed that Jesus was fully God and fully human, he departed from Nicene Christianity in how he described that working in practice. He saw God extending his divine nature to believers as a key part of the Christian life, and interpreted scripture to understand that the presence of God was uniquely powerful in Jesus.

God is able to share the fullness of deity with a human being, and to give him a name which is above every name. If, indeed, we grant that Moses was made a god to Pharaoh, then, in a far more powerful and superior way, Christ became the God, Lord, and Teacher of Thomas and of us all. Because God was in him in a unique way, and because through him we have access to a merciful God, he is expressly called Emmanuel, that is, God with us. (McKanan, 2017)

To his credit, 2 Peter 1:3-4 at least seems to support his idea. Notice in particular the final words of verse 4:

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature." (NRSV)

Unfortunately, Servetus also has some unfortunate habits and blind spots in making his case. Calvin complained that he cited Tertullian almost entirely to the exclusion of all the other early church fathers. That's not a great look for an alleged heretic, given that although Tertullian was an early apologist for Christianity, later in his life he became an adherent of the New Prophecy. This was a variety of Christianity that affirmed the continued gifts of the Holy Spirit, including prophecy, and which also practiced a form of asceticism. When orthodoxy was defined, it was labeled as heresy under the name 'Montanism.' This is something that a theologian like John Calvin would most certainly know and have in mind as Servetus argued his case.

Another flaw was that Servetus cited Muslims and Jews in his writing, saying that trinitarianism would be foolish to them, and a stumbling block for the conversion of the Jewish people. Even mentioning those two groups, given fears of a Muslim invasion of Europe and the anti-semitism prevalent at the time, could put him in the enemy's camp people's minds. To be clear, he never supported their beliefs, disavowed association with any Jewish people, and referred to the Qur'an as 'an evil book.' This is more about how he was perceived because of what he said and how he said it.

What strikes me as I read Servetus is that he was arguing for the restoration of original Christianity. While this was arguable the aim of the entire Reformation, it was at variance with the Lutherans who were more concerned reforming existing Catholic Christianity in a positive way. At the same time, both Calvin and Zwingli called for a return to apostolic Christianity, but like Luther they accepted the conclusions of the early church councils about the nature of God and Christ. Servetus was questioning what others were unwilling to re-examine. This call for a return to simpler, 'New Testament' Christianity has been made by many Protestant traditions. Interestingly, it's also part of the theological history of Unitarianism in the United States. Consider the words of William Ellery Channing in his sermon on 'Unitarian Christianity.'

If you remember the darkness which hung over the Gospel for ages; if you consider the impure union, which still subsists in almost every Christian country, between the church and state, and which enlists men’s selfishness and ambition on the side of established error; if you recollect in what degree the spirit of intolerance has checked free inquiry, not only before, but since the Reformation; you will see that Christianity cannot have freed itself from all the human inventions, which disfigured it under the Papal tyranny. No. Much stubble is yet to be burned; much rubbish to be removed; many gaudy decorations, which a false taste has hung around Christianity, must be swept away; and the earth-born fogs, which have long shrouded it, must be scattered, before this divine fabric will rise before us in its native and awful majesty, in its harmonious proportions, in its mild and celestial splendors. (Klein, 2010)

Although strange religious ideas were suspect in the early days of the United States, they also weren't terribly uncommon. People could be terribly harassed if their beliefs departed too far from the norms of the community, but for the most part could at least live their lives. The era Servetus was in was too upheaved and dangerous for people to stand out. At least, not without an army. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli had something Servetus never attained: political power. Luther had princes, and Calvin and Zwingli had city council to back them and give them authority. Servetus had no patron, benefactor, or protector. Perhaps he lacked personal charisma to win such support, or else maybe he was just really unlucky. 

After his arrest, Michael Servetus was refused legal counsel, held in a lice-infested jail, and only allowed to change his clothes occasionally. He was in miserable circumstances, and yet he held firm to his convictions. From the description of his execution, he was clearly terrified. That's hard to think about. It's said that he was most afraid that the pain of his death would cause him to recant, but history records that he did not. 

Very shortly after his death, Matteo Gribaldi published an 'Apology for Michael Servetus.' This glorious paragraph is part of it:

Look at what you have done, you evangelicals! You have basely and disgracefully slandered and horribly and savagely killed this harmless man, this stranger and sojourner who trusted in your evangelical profession and Christian charity. Although he trusted you, did not stir up any trouble or sedition, and caused you no harm, you have accused him of crime, detained him by treachery, tossed him into prison, prosecuted him, and finally, totally casting aside all humanity and mercy, burned him alive on a blazing pyre. What a noble crime, whose memory ought never to be obliterated! (McKanan, 2017)

Theologically, Calvin should have had nothing to fear from Servetus. In Calvin's theology, nothing could perturb the salvation of the elect. So, either Calvin was being inconsistent, which is possible, or else he had something else in mind. I can't help wondering if the larger political situation was at issue. The Catholic states were a perpetual threat, the Libertine faction in Geneva was an internal risk to political stability and control, and there were looming fears that Muslims would invade Europe. Had Servetus only had some strange ideas that didn't elicit fears of losing political control he likely wouldn't have been executed, in my opinion. His beliefs were quite possibly perceived as a threat to the tenuous status quo.


Howe, C. A. (1997). For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe. Boston,
MA: Skinner House Books.

Klein, J. (2010, August 25). Unitarian Christianity by William Ellery Channing. Retrieved 
October 16, 2020, from 

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: 
Skinner House Books.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of 
the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Inverted Calvinism

via Instagram
The chapter ‘Calvinism improved’ in The Universalist Movement in America, 1770 - 1880 really shed a lot of light for me on the nature of early Universalist soteriology.

“Soon afterward, a London preacher named James Relly became Murray’s mentor. Also a Whitefield convert, Relly had preached universal salvation to a London congregation between 1757 and his death in 1778. His Union or, A Treatise on the Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and His Church proposed that because Christ bore the burden of human sin, his death was the salvation of all; humanity was one in redemption as well as in the fall. Both men believed that all souls were effectively “redeemed,” but all had not yet come to the realization that brought salvation itself, and to effect this transforming realization was the purpose of preaching the gospel.”
It seems that while ‘Arminianism’ was making inroads among the Congregationalist, eventually resulting in the Unitarians, a sort of reverse Calvinism was going to seed in the form of Universalism.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” — Ephesians 2:4–7 English Standard Version

In Arminian theology, faith precedes regeneration. Faith is only possible because of ‘prevenient grace,’ which enables people to believe. The current United Methodist Book of Discipline describes it as "the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our 'first slight transient conviction' of having sinned against God. God's grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith."
For Reformed (Calvinist) theology, on the other hand, regeneration precedes faith. That is to say, a person can only believe once God has regenerated them, and they’re regenerated simply because they’re part of God’s elect, chose since the dawn of time. If someone never comes to believe, it’s because they aren’t part of God’s elect.

To early Universalists in the United States, everyone was part of God’s elect, and therefore everyone was regenerated. They only needed to be told, and that telling is the Gospel.

Although I held to a Reformed faith for a time after leaving the Roman Catholic Church, for the majority of my 20 years as an evangelical Christian I held to a form of Arminianism. That being the case, I have a hard time now wrapping my head around the idea of a nonbeliever being forgiven, regenerated, and given the Holy Spirit before they even believe. The internal logic for Calvinism checks out, until I try comparing it to the New Testament.

The same sort of struggle happens for me with the inverted Calvinism of Universalist Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries. While in Reformed theology regeneration precedes faith, it’s usually not by a lot. Generally it’s understood that very near the time a person is regenerated they will believe and repent. Not so with classic Universalism, where most of humanity lives and dies without ever knowing they’ve been ‘saved.’

A lot of parts still don’t fit together for me, so hopefully I’ll have a UU theology course somewhere along the way. For example, there was a time among US Universalists that the question of whether ‘sinners’ would suffer for a time after death or not was the hot (pun intended) debate. If people never believed but were already regenerated prior to death, I don’t see how the viewpoint of those upholding post-mortem punishment could hold up. Perhaps, in reality, that was the core of the debate. At this point, I really don’t know but should probably find out.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Origen, Arius, and Unitarian Universalism

Arius and Origen are probably more appropriate for modern-day Unitarian Universalists to identify with than they were for the Unitarians and Universalist of the 18th and 19th centuries. The trinitarianism of Arius and the universal redemption of Origen don’t fit well with the historic theologies of Unitarians and Universalists in the United States, but their heterodoxy certainly would find a welcome place in UU congregations today. Still, contemporary Unitarian Universalist congregations might not be as interested in this type of theology as anything other than a historic curiosity. The thing is, the views of Arius and Origen suffered the development of what became 'orthodox' Christianity.

“Theology takes a long time to develop, and once it does, earlier views, even intelligently expressed ones, can appear unrefined and even primitive.” (Ehrman, 2014)

When it comes to the theology of the early church, what was orthodoxy for one generation could easily be condemned as heretical in the next. Justin Martyr, for example, has long been claimed as a champion of orthodox theology, even though by a strict application of later developments his perspective was sorely lacking, not even incorporating the Holy Spirit into his descriptions of the Godhead. The weaknesses of his more rudimentary theology were likely overlooked by following generations of theologians because of his status as a hero of the faith. Neither Origen or Arius received this benefit of the doubt.

“Origen delved into theological areas that had not yet been examined by any of his predecessors in the faith, and as a result he came up with many distinctive and highly influential ideas. Later theologians questioned his orthodoxy, and he was faulted for developing ideas that subsequently led to … the Arian controversy. But he was working in virgin territory.” (Ehrman, 2014)

This is the risk of breaking into 'virgin territory' for a theologian. While it can be satisfying to sort through big questions that no one has yet addressed, there’s also no guarantee that one’s perspective will ultimately win the day. In the early church there were multiple different theologies in circulation, and the canonical New Testament was only really defined in the 300s. In that environment, there was never a guarantee that what we now know as Nicene Christianity would end up being the established orthodoxy for the church. 

Speaking of scripture, consider how Origen interpreted holy writ.

“Allusions to this are found also in the holy scriptures. For instance, in Deuteronomy the divine word threatens that sinners are to be punished with ‘fevers and cold and pallor,’ and tortured with ‘feebleness of eyes and insanity and paralysis and blindness and weakness of the reins’ (cf. Dt 28:22, 29). And so if anyone will gather at his leisure from the whole of scripture all the references to sufferings which in threats against sinners are called by the names of bodily sicknesses, he will find that through them allusion is being made to either the ills or the punishment of souls.” (McKanan, 2017)

It would be very difficult to find a contemporary evangelical theologian or preacher who would go out on a limb with such an application. The grammatical-historical approach in current use requires that the original meaning, intent, audience, and context of scripture has to be taken into consideration before anything else. Origen, like others of his time, had a more Hellenistic, philosophical approach to the Bible. Origen specifically held to an allegorical interpretation of the scriptures, in which he divided it into three levels: flesh, soul, and spirit. The fleshly level was that which took the text more literally as history and commandments. Origen believed that this level could produce only nonsense interpretations, and that the only way to understand scripture was allegorical. Although the specifics of this approach were very much those of Origen, that are not without precedent. In the Second Temple Period, when the writers of the canonical New Testament lived, it was common to interpret Scripture using midrash.

“What has been a recurring problem, however, for many Christians is how the New Testament authors themselves handled the Old Testament. This phenomenon is somewhat troubling, for it seems to run counter to the instinct that context and authorial intention are the basis for sound interpretation.” (Enns, 2005)

Reading the New Testament we can end up with the same sort of head-scratching interpretations that we find in Origen and others of his time.

“Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, ‘Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married.’ Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? ‘Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.’ So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.” — Galatians 4:21-31 NRSV

Had I ever submitted a paper exegeting scripture like that when I was studying for my BMin, I would have gotten an F and probably been referred for counseling. And yet, the reasoning in that passage made sense both to the writer and their readers at that time, because this is how their interpretive framework functioned.

“Still, we have a broad but accurate sketch of Second Temple interpretation in both the exegetical techniques they employed and the interpretive traditions they adopted. These biblical interpreters exhibit for us an attitude toward biblical interpretation that operates on very different standards from those of modern interpreters. They were not motivated to reproduce the intention of the original human author. They were much more concerned to dig beneath the surface to reveal things (“mysteries” as the Qumran scrolls put it) that the untrained an impatient reader would miss.” (Enns, 2005)

Even taking into account the looser interpretive model he was working with, Origen really goes out on a limb even for his time in his “One First Principles” with affirmations like this one:

“We must not think, however, that it will happen all of a sudden, but gradually and by degrees, during the lapse of infinite and immeasurable ages, seeing that the improvement and correction will be realized slowly and separately in each individual person.” (McKanan, 2017)

How he managed to come up with this is beyond me, as I don’t find anything directly like it in the Hebrew Scriptures or the canonical New Testament. Then again, Origen was operative in the 200s of the Common Era, prior to the New Testament canon being defined. Perhaps he drew from other sources. As we’ve seen, though, he could well have been using familiar texts in ways we would now find quite unusual. In any event, his view on progressive progression of souls through the ages solves the problem of history being interrupted as Pauline theology would have it with a bodily resurrection, new heavens and new earth. At the same time, it would be part of what got his work condemned decades later.

Speaking of condemnation, we also have Arius to consider.

“Arius’s interpretation was one that may well have been acceptable in the theological climate of orthodox Christianity during the century or so before his day, but by the early fourth century proved to be highly controversial.” (Ehrman, 2014)

Arius didn’t have the benefit of writing at a time when trinitarianism was more vaguely defined. His perspective, although definitely a type of trinitarianism, ran counter to the favored interpretations of his age.

“Or rather there is a Trinity with glories not alike; their existences are unmixable with one another; one is more glorious than another by an infinity of glories.” (McKanan, 2017)

In just this one tiny snippet from his “Thalia” we can see a monumental problem for what would become orthodox trinitarianism. While the part about the divine persons being ‘unmixable’ would be acceptable, they could not be described as any being greater than or less than the others. Certainly he saw the Son as subordinate to the Father, not just in role but in nature, and so I assume he had the Holy Spirit at the bottom rung of that ladder. In that one element of Arius’ thought I have all the explanation I need for why his teachings were declared heretical.

As I said at the outset, I don’t think that the specifics of the theologies of either Origen or Arius could have received general acceptance among Universalists and Unitarians of earlier generations in the United States. However, it makes sense to me that advocates of these faiths would have identified with Origen and Arius in order to obtain a sheen of legitimacy from their antiquity. As for now, I feel like what Origen wrote is something I might hear from a visitor at coffee hour, and the theology of Arius the topic of a study group. Either would be welcome, but neither would really represent Unitarian Universalism. Those two certainly seem like they'd fit in with our merry band of heretics, though.


New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ehrman, B. D. (2014). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Harpercollins.

Enns, P. (2005). Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism Vol. 1: From the Beginning to 1899. Skinner House Books.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Universalism Is Here to Stay

Universalist Meeting House of Sheshequin, listed on the NRHP on September 18, 2013
When the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association there were fears that the latter would be absorbed and forgotten. When I consider the alternatives to consolidation for the Universalists, and the history since consolidation, I’m led to believe that Universalism is more secure and even prospering in the present scenario.

Aside from John Murray, Hosea Ballou, and to some extent Adin Ballou, I haven’t heard as much about Universalists in history as I have Unitarians. There are many noteworthy Unitarians and former Unitarians (like Emerson) who are easily identified for their contributions to literature, American religion, or abolition. With very few exceptions, the same really can't be said of the Universalists. And yet, when American Universalism is discussed, there’s maybe something more compelling about it that American Unitarianism. 

We have a lot of Unitarian history that is easy to talk about, and it can at times suck the air out of the room for Universalist history. And yet, Universalist sentiment is simpler to convey than any feeling about Unitarianism. In Universalism we find an expansive theology that makes room for all, and which calls us to look for the redeeming qualities or potential for improvement in everyone, even those we would deem most unlikely. Unitarianism really doesn’t do anything similar. Most would be hard-pressed, I think, to come up with a compelling Unitarian theology that would warm hearts (perhaps that could be a nice challenge for someone).

Well before the consolidation in the 1960s, Universalists in the early 20th century had eagerly pursued the possibility of union with the Congregationalists. Such a merger would have made good sense, considering that the Universalist churches were (mostly) autonomous and more often than not identified with the Christian tradition. It is this similarity, in addition to the softer stance on eternal punishment among Congregationalists at that time, that I believe would have spelled the end for Universalism as a distinctive tradition.

The Congregationalists ended up uniting with the O’Kelly Christians (Christian Connection), and then the new denomination that they formed almost immediately began talks with the Evangelical and Reformed denomination toward another merger. This union of four Christian denominational traditions resulted in the United Church of Christ. While it’s a fine, liberal Christian denomination, and they do teach their history to some extent, the various traditions that went together to create it don’t tend to get a lot of individual attention. Sure, from what I've observed some of their churches preserve distinctively Lutheran customs, but generally their theologies have been unified into a soft-edged mainline Protestant ethos with plenty of room for individual interpretation.

Unitarian Universalism has what I consider an integrated basis for theological formation, but it’s one in which the Unitarian and Universalist traditions can be appreciated in their own right. In RE classes I’ve shared with children about the history, ideals, and concepts behind the two traditions, and in sermons I’ve heard thinkers and doers of both quoted. As I’ve already indicated, Unitarianism has a lot of interesting facts, but I find Universalism to have a more inspirational and demanding message.

I believe that every church and organization that was founded Universalist prior to the consolidation could close, and Universalism would still continue to thrive within Unitarian Universalism. The tradition and theology are too deeply embedded and too meaningful to really go away. Through the consolidation, Universalism’s future was secured.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Humanism That Both Troubles and Sustains Me

This will get to the point in the end. Just bear with me as I make my way there.

When Humanism is mocked within Unitarian Universalist circles, it hits me on a personal level. At a point in my life when my Christian faith had disappeared and I felt ‘lost,’ Humanism gave me a perspective that made the situation manageable, and showed me a path forward. Humanist principles and ideals have sustained me through some very challenging times over the past several years, and has been far more stabilizing than my Christian worldview ever was for me.

Still, I understand why UUs might deride Humanism. If you read the early thinkers like Reese and Dietrich, it’s pretty absurd the extent to which they extol the virtues of reason and the human capacity for progress. The same could be said, though, of much that was written by early Unitarians and Universalists, which can come across to us now as fanciful and overly optimistic. Their flights of fancy back then don't keep me from being a Unitarian Universalist now.

On December 26, 2013 I boarded a plane to rejoin my wife and kids in Brazil, who had moved there 14 months before. When I got on the plane I had considered myself an evangelical Christian for 20 years. When I disembarked in Sao Paulo the following day, I was an atheist. It wasn’t a particularly bad plane ride! In reality my faith had been troubled for a couple of months preceding. One way or the other, when I could no longer see the world through a theistic, Christian lens, that was the end of it. The question that lingered with me for three days was ‘now what?’

In my prior ministry study I had learned that Unitarians were essential in launching modern, non-theistic Humanism. With that in mind, I found a couple of Kindle books online (by more recent writers), and found that this was a perspective that aligned with where I found myself post-Christianity.

I’ve found in both the Humanism independent of Unitarian Universalism, represented organizationally by the American Humanist Association, and in the ‘religious Humanism’ within the UU, that there is a serious generation gap. Boomers and older Gen Xers tend to defend ‘freedom of speech’ which includes some racist attitudes, and the younger Gen Xers and Millennials tend to be working for progress and social justice. To the former group, ‘anti-racist’ and ‘intersectional’ are offensive terms, and you can even hear some of them say that BIPOC folks are 'too thin-skinned.' 

All this is to say that I see the future of Humanism and Unitarian Universalism bound up together, not because of a tie that needs to remain in place, but because of a historic connection and an ugly, persistent similarity in being structured to favor white supremacy. At the same time, while I encounter many people in my local congregation who fit the ideological profile of being Humanists, they do not identify with that term. In my assessment, Humanism will and should remain as part of the UU identity, but I don’t know how likely it is that it will continue to be named as such in our circles.

Then again, as Amos said to Amasias, I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet. As far as I can see, it’s anyone’s guess which way UUism and Humanism will go in relationship to each other. I just hope that in the meantime, we can learn to be a little more gentle with one another.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Water Communion 2020

A couple of weeks ago, despite the pandemic, my congregation managed to celebrate our annual Water Ingathering. Also known as 'Water Communion,' we use this as part of the kick-off for our church year which begins in September. Congregants bring water either from someplace they went over the summer break, or from home (or really from anywhere that suits them), and in a ceremony we pour the waters together. Here's a bit about the practice from the UUA website:

The Water Communion, also sometimes called Water Ceremony, was first used at a Unitarian Universalist (UU) worship service in the 1980s. Many UU congregations now hold a Water Communion once a year, often at the beginning of the new church year (September).

Members bring to the service a small amount of water from a place that is special to them. During the appointed time in the service, people one by one pour their water together into a large bowl. As the water is added, the person who brought it tells why this water is special to them. The combined water is symbolic of our shared faith coming from many different sources. It is often then blessed by the congregation, and sometimes is later boiled and used as the congregation's "holy water" in child dedication ceremonies and similar events.

Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, where I am a member, has been doing this for over 20 years, and each year a bit of the water from prior years is added to the mix. This time around, because of the need for social distancing, we held the ceremony in two parts. First, we met in several parks, so as to distribute people widely enough to be safe, and poured our waters together. Second, representatives from each group took the water that had been gathered and poured it together into a vessel at the meeting house. The image above is a panoramic shot I took at the Maplewood Park event that my son and I attended. The video below shows the closing ritual, which was recorded and played during the following (online) Sunday service.

Is this a 'made up' ritual? Oh absolutely. But then all rituals are. It's just a question of how long they've been practiced. Baptism (immersion in water) began as ritual baths prior to the spawning of Christianity from Judaism. The Lord's Supper (aka 'Communion' or 'the Eucharist') started out as communal meals in the early gatherings of the Christian church. The way each has been carried out has evolved considerably over the years. The objections from significant segments of contemporary Christianity notwithstanding, I doubt that Christians of the first and early second centuries of the Common Era would recognize either the christening of infants or the pomp and circumstance of a high mass as the same as their rites.

Unitarian Universalism only came together in 1961, and the traditions that preceded had only been distinctive within Christianity for about 200 or fewer years. Those forerunner traditions held essentially the same ordinances as the wider Christian faith, but over time they faded as they became less relevant to our theology. Of course, there are still Christian churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association that celebrate traditional sacraments, and that's just fine. For most of us, though, they just don't work. And so they've been replaced with new ways of honoring time and our place in the world. Aside from Water Communion we also have Bread Communion, Fire Communion, and Flower Communion. There are also less common but cherished practices, such as Cornbread and Cider Communion, in specific congregations or regions. 

We humans are social, meaning-making creatures. In Water Communion all we're literally doing is combining water molecules. Symbolically, we're doing something more. We're recognizing our interconnectedness and celebrating our reunion to join in seeking what is true and working for a more just world. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Starr King School for the Ministry - September 2020 Chapel: "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing"

The September 2020 chapel service of Starr King School for the Ministry, which I am attending to fulfill the UU studies requirement for ordination and fellowship in the Unitarian Universalist Association

From the description:
This is the recorded and edited version of our first Chapel service of the 2020-2021 academic year. Chapel was led by Pastor Jacqueline Duhart (Director of Spiritual Care) and Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt (Associate Professor of Unitarian Universalist Theologies and Ethics).

Music & Reading Credits:

Composed by Kate and Justin Miner
Performed by the UUA General Assembly 2020 Virtual Choir
Audio Editing by Sam Plattner

“Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around”
Public domain folk gospel song
Performed by Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt

“We Need Each Other” Reading
#468 Singing the Living Tradition
Written by George E. Odell
Spoken by Li Kynvi & Matthew Waterman

“Comfort Me”
#1002 Singing the Journey
Composed by Mimi Bornstein-Doble
Performed by Li Kynvi

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Beacon UU Congregation - Sunday Message - "The Power of What If"

The following is the worship service for Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, NJ for September 13, 2020. Rev. Emilie Boggis is preaching, and I've cued the video to when she starts speaking. This is the congregation where I am a member. 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Entropy & Purpose

In a recently published paper, Germain Tobar and Fabio Costa attempt to demonstrate mathematically that time travel is possible without creating a paradox. I am in no way qualified to speak to the quality of the math used or explain details of the theory, but here's the practical application, as described in a press release from the University of Queensland:

"Say you travelled in time, in an attempt to stop COVID-19's patient zero from being exposed to the virus. However if you stopped that individual from becoming infected - that would eliminate the motivation for you to go back and stop the pandemic in the first place. This is a paradox - an inconsistency that often leads people to think that time travel cannot occur in our universe. Some physicists say it is possible, but logically it's hard to accept because that would affect our freedom to make any arbitrary action. It would mean you can time travel, but you cannot do anything that would cause a paradox to occur."  
However the researchers say their work shows that neither of these conditions have to be the case, and it is possible for events to adjust themselves to be logically consistent with any action that the time traveller makes. 
"In the coronavirus patient zero example, you might try and stop patient zero from becoming infected, but in doing so you would catch the virus and become patient zero, or someone else would," Mr Tobar said. "No matter what you did, the salient events would just recalibrate around you. This would mean that - no matter your actions - the pandemic would occur, giving your younger self the motivation to go back and stop it. Try as you might to create a paradox, the events will always adjust themselves, to avoid any inconsistency."

If true, it's possible that details of history have already changed, but the overarching direction of history did not. We wouldn't know that details have changed, of course. How this would play out in other scenarios is beyond me. For example, if I were to time travel back and take my late father to the hospital early on the day he died, he could have survived the heart attack. However, since it was his death that compelled me to go back in time in the first place, does that mean that no matter what I did, he would still die that day? In that case, it's pretty much what we saw in The Time Machine (2002).

As for me, I'm of the uninformed layperson's opinion that entropy is the rule. The past is present and the future doesn't exist. Times arrow can't be reversed because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and increasing disorder (expressed in the dissipation of energy as heat) is inevitable and unstoppable. Just because we remember past events and can imagine future scenarios doesn't mean that either actually exist.

An understanding that follows from that, for me, is that the the 'purpose' of life is to disperse energy as heat. As explained in a Scientific American article several years ago:

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

Congratulations! No matter what you do, as long as you're alive, you're fulfilling the purpose of your existence.

Okay, so maybe that isn't very inspiring. I think it should be liberating, though. As human beings we are meaning-makers. We either generate meaning for ourselves or adopt it from culture and/or religion. Really it's a mix of of those, in differing proportions from person to person. Some think critically about their beliefs, while others outsource it completely to a religion or just go along with culture and upbringing. There are degrees to which we assert control over our worldview and the meaning we generate for ourselves. Since our biological, physical purpose is going to take place no matter what, then everything else is icing on the cake.

This isn't a license to 'sin,' of course. Empathy-based ethics informs us that it's still wrong to betray trust, murder, or otherwise harm others. What it does mean is that we are free to make what we will of our lives, within the boundaries of commitments we have made, and the rule of consideration for others. So, go be a wandering hippy, a scientist, a homemaker, a devout believer, an indefatigable skeptic, or whatever else you want to make of yourself. Be multiple things (because we already are). Make it interesting, or embrace the routine. 

The Summer Day 

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Roman Catholic Church Adopts Sectarian Baptismal Stance

Image by Jercy Rhea Senecio from Pixabay

The year began with the fires in Australia and the onset of a global pandemic, and has continued through tornadoes, earthquakes, more fires, and no end of terrible injustices against marginalized people. Fortunately, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has remained laser-focused on what really matters. For instance, this past June they declared that in English the only valid baptism formula is, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." They also made clear that this rule is retroactive, invalidating any baptisms that did not conform to these precise words. According to Religious News Service, if even 'I' is changed to 'we,' the baptism is invalid. Yes, indeed, the Roman Catholic Church is really on the cutting edge...of something. What follows is a selection of quotes from the RNS article, with my comments.

This caused absolute chaos in Detroit, where the Rev. Matthew Hood saw in a video of his 1990 baptism that Deacon Mark Springer used the “We” formula. As a result, Hood was not a Christian, let alone a priest, because he could not be validly ordained a priest if he was not validly baptized. 
Hood’s situation was quickly remedied on Aug. 9 with his baptism and on Aug. 17 with his ordination. But the archdiocese is trying to track down everyone baptized by Deacon Springer, who served in Detroit from 1986 to 1999. How many other priests and deacons around the country used "We" is unknown. 
But since his ordination in 2017 was invalid, people who went to Hood’s “Masses” did not really attend Mass and did not receive consecrated bread at Communion. It also means that his absolutions in confession were not sacramental. His confirmations and anointing of the sick were also invalid. When he performed these sacraments, he was not even a Christian, let alone a priest. 
Thankfully, his baptisms were valid because a non-Christian can perform a valid baptism.

That seems pretty bad, right? It could be worse, if you believe in these things:

In a worst-case scenario, there might even be a bishop who was invalidly baptized. Not only are his Masses, confessions and confirmations invalid, so too are his ordinations. That means the men he ordained are not priests and all of the sacraments they performed are invalid. 

By tinkering with such fine details around the foundational sacrament of orthodox Christianity the Congregation has managed to create massive chaos. Entire swaths of the church are possibly no longer validly part of the church. Catholics might not really be 'Christians' by the current definition of their church. Priests might not be priests, and every Mass they ever said was in error. 

This is all nonsense, of course. First because none of it is real in the sense of being based in factual reality. Second because if the underlying beliefs truly were real , then it'd ridiculous to think that a group of men could undo the work of God with their definitions. What they're probably trying to get at is that it's not their rule, but the reality of what works that's at issue. If they go back on this declaration, it can only be as an admission of error on their part, and the Catholic hierarchy isn't great at admitting to error. 

I can't help but wonder what this will do to their ecumenical relations.

In addition, the Orthodox churches have never used the Roman church’s formula. They use the passive voice: “May this servant of Christ be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit;” or, “This person is baptized by my hands in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Such Orthodox baptisms have been recognized as valid by the Roman Catholic Church since the Council of Florence in 1439.

This puts the Congregation at odds with a church council. Can they really mean that the exact phrase beginning with 'I' is the only correct way to state the baptismal formula? It would be strange for them to say that it's exclusively valid way, but for Roman Catholics only. And if they make an exception for the Orthodox, then why not for the Protestants? When I left the Roman Catholic Church I joined a Presbyterian parish. The pastor asked me prior to joining whether I'd been baptized, and I said that yes of course I had been, in the Catholic church. That was enough for him, in keeping with the ancient decisions of the Christian church about what makes a baptism valid. Later on, after leaving the mainline, I was baptized by immersion. That was aligned with my newfound understanding of the proper mode of baptism. In the eyes of more traditional Protestant churches as well as the Catholic and Orthodox communions, that was an unnecessary 'rebaptism.' Now, the Congregation has managed to really muddle things.

Now, there is one such declaration they've made that I agree with, in the sense that they're reasoning from a Trinitarian standpoint.

This isn’t the first time the formula, which the congregation holds was mandated by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, has been tested. Some priests have tried gender-neutral nouns: “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier.” Others used “Creator, Liberator and Sustainer.”

This newer phrasing has reportedly become popular among mainline churches, particularly among clergy attempting to avoid the patriarchal tone of 'father/son' language. The trouble is that it reflects a Modalist theology. Modalism denies that God is three persons in one being, affirming instead that there is one God who reveals himself in three different 'modes.' Speaking of a 'Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier' certainly looks like a boiling down of the persons of the godhead into modes. 

As a Unitarian Universalist this really isn't my ballgame. We don't require any form of baptism, though we do have some few congregations that practice it. King's Chapel in Boston, for example, christens infants when parents request it, and despite being Unitarian in theology they have always used the Trinitarian formula, as it is the one found in the Gospel of Matthew, and about which most of Christendom agrees. It's possible that some UU congregation has used a variety of the Modalist formula, though that really doesn't matter, since we have no commitment to any definition of God's nature. We don't even agree among ourselves that any gods exist. 

If this decision within the Roman Catholic Church stands, I'll be interested to see how it's applied in ecumenical relations and how it plays out in rebaptisms and invalidated sacraments.