A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 25, 2015
THE GREAT WAY OF LIBERAL RELIGION
A Meditation on Francis David, George Biandrata, & King John Sigismund
In this world there have always been many opinions about faith and salvation. You need not think alike to love alike. There must be knowledge in faith also. Sanctified reason is the lantern of faith. Religious reform can never be all at once, but gradually step by step. If they offer something better, I will gladly learn. The most important spiritual function is conscience, the source of all spiritual joy and happiness. Conscience will not be quieted by anything less than truth and justice. We must accept God's truth in this lifetime. Salvation must be accomplished here on earth. God is indivisible. Egy Az Isten. God is one.
— Francis David (arranged by Richard Fewkes)
As you may have noticed, I'm something of a fan of Facebook. Proof, no doubt, it has moved well beyond something for the young, hip, or cool. That acknowledged I get a lot out of it. For one thing I find I'm deeply suspicious of anyone who doesn't like cute animal pictures. Clearly people to keep an eye on. And we learn a lot about more about our friends than their taste in cuteoverload.com. Personally, me, I'm often shocked at how many of my friends have such stupid ideas about politics or economics. But, don't worry; I try to always be there to correct their misunderstandings, stubborn and persistent about these things as they may be.
And also, every once in a while something actually edifying pops up in the news feed. For instance the other day I read something posted by my colleague Fred Wooden who currently serves the largest liberal church in North America. It's called Fountain Street Church, several thousand spiritually liberal souls, gathered in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While historically Baptist and these days denominationally unaffiliated, its last, oh I don't know, four, five senior ministers have all been Unitarian Universalists, and I've noticed they use our religious education materials in their Sunday school.
Anyway, this reflection isn't about them, as interesting as they are, but that something which Fred wrote. He opined on his Facebook page that liberal religion has three forms here in North America. They are "the open heart, the open hand, and the open mind." He used his own congregation as an example of the open heart. They weren't looking for doctrinal explorations, they were just good Baptists who followed their hearts right into liberal religion.
Our historic Unitarian tradition is no doubt the grand example of the "open mind" path. Now that doesn't mean consider every option no matter how unlikely it is. Rather "open mind" means a deep rational, "I'm from Missouri" approach to all matters religious. It means you don't believe it just because someone said it. I hope obviously our traditional Universalism is a lovely example, along with Fountain Street's one-off congregation, of that "open heart" style of religion. And, we today, in a theologically unsophisticated era, while definitely heirs to the open mind and the open heart, we are up to our ears in social concern and action, today more than anything grand examples of that "open hand" style of liberal religion.
Then I started thinking about the boundary Fred put on his meditation of "North America." Now there was obviously a purpose for him in that. His reflection was quite brief, and he wanted to think about these currents here, and how they don't even necessarily coalesce as Unitarian Universalism. Me, it sparked a whole different line of thought. Being of a historical as well as a theological turn of heart, it made me think about our spiritual cousins, those Hungarian-speaking Unitarians we're celebrating today.
We have few historical ties. They are a Reformation church with all their influences rooted in Continental Protestantism. We, on the other hand, are a pure Enlightenment expression, rooted institutionally in Anglicanism and even more within those various attempts to separate from Anglicanism.
But we are both currents of liberal religion. As communities, while we both have very strong "open mind" foundations, we also have evolved in very different ways. Today we're much more into that "open hand" and they more than anything else, I would say, live into that "open heart." I believe there are some strong reasons for this that go right back to our separate foundations. Today we're celebrating our congregation's connections to the Transylvanian Unitarian church, and specifically to the congregation in Szentegyhaza, which has been a rich and powerful experience for many of us.
Here I'd like to briefly consider the foundations of Hungarian speaking Unitarianism. I've discussed this before, but a good story is very much worth revisiting. And it takes us into some important things about us, and in particular how those three things, open mind, open heart and open hand express as complementary aspects of our spiritual liberal way.
Let's start with Francis David, one of the most compelling spiritual figures, frankly, of world religion. His story deserves to be told over and over again. Here we are presented with a fierce intellect and questing spirit, a religious leader and social rebel, with in my opinion more substance, certainly more intellectual and spiritual rigor than either Calvin or Luther, or, any of the rest of that Reformation gang. As I see it Francis David at least started as a follower of that open mind. And, of course, he doesn't stand alone, along with Francis David we get a whole cast of characters, I'll be focusing on three counting David, and out of their encounters and actions we have a story that more truly than most, as we listen closely, I believe we will find, is our story.
Francis David was born at the beginning of the sixteenth century in Kolozavar, today Cluj, in the kingdom or principality of Transylvania. Kingdom, that is, from the perspective of the Transylvanians themselves, but principality in fact as they were within the thrall of the Ottoman Empire.
His father was a shoemaker, but his mother came from Hungarian nobility, so he had social access. His intellectual capacities were recognized early on and patrons supported his education, even sending him to Wittenberg for four years for advanced studies, after which he was ordained a Catholic priest. Spiritually restless, and intellectually rigorous, he chaffed at the strictures of the Catholic faith, eventually converting to Lutheranism. He quickly was elected the Lutheran bishop for Transylvania.
Under the influence of our second towering figure in this story George Biandrata, physician to the king and a significant spiritual intellect in his own right, David continued to wrestle with his faith and eventually declared for the more rationalist Calvinism, then quickly becoming the Calvinist bishop of Transylvania.
The evolution of his faith continued. He and Dr Biandrata found themselves deeply influenced by the Spanish anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus and the great Dutch humanist philosopher Erasmus. Among the problems for David was the lack of any scriptural clarity around the nature of the Holy Spirit, and with that the whole idea of God being described as a trinity.
In the meantime Dr Biandrata arranged for his friend to be appointed court preacher. His command of the scriptures, his eloquence both in pulpit and in debate, and with his ability to speak with equal eloquence in Hungarian, German and Latin, it appears no one was able to meet him head to head in disputation. And significantly, gradually, actually not that gradually, Francis David's preaching and eloquence became more and more obviously anti-Trinitarian.
These questions and disputes gradually spread beyond the court. It may be hard in our time and place to understand how powerful and compelling these questions were. Or, the physical danger that accompanied questioning such bedrock assumptions - an area that neither Luther nor Calvin ever dared go. Of course David knew this was dangerous territory. As did Biandrata, naturally more cautious than his friend, who exercised his influence to keep David from fully and publicly expressing the flood of doubts touching on all manner of ecclesial matters that his studies had raised in his heart. For a time. For a time.
Not that the central question about the nature of God wasn't being discussed. In fact the disputes among Hungarian speaking theologians eventually became formal debates and even synods, and these would rivet the public's attention, as well as the court, and the king, who shortly will become our third actor in this story. David and Biandrata published a catechism, and David published a book, "On the True and False Knowledge of the One God," which clearly laid out a Unitarian theology. David dedicated the book to the king, writing, "There is no greater piece of folly than to try to exercise power over conscience and soul, both of which are subject only to their creator." I find it interesting we won't hear the likes of this again until Roger Williams. Increasingly these positions became the teachings of many Transylvanian congregations. A church began to gather.
And with that here we come to the third of the great personalities who would birth the first church in the world that named itself Unitarian. John Sigismund ruled the "Eastern Hungarian Kingdom," what we call Transylvania, he was also subject within the swirling political scene to the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Great. I suspect the surprising religious tolerance of the Ottomans may have had some influence on the king, but hard to say with any certainty at this distance. What we do know, is that however many the tributaries that flowed into the king's heart, two things came out of that deep well.
First, in 1568, the king promulgated an edict of tolerance, the first proclamation of religious freedom anywhere in Europe. In his proclamation the king declared, "Preachers shall be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere, each according to his own understanding of it. If the community wish to accept such preaching, well and good; if not, they shall not be compelled, but shall be allowed to keep the preachers they prefer. No one shall be made to suffer on account of his religion, since faith is the gift of God." While not complete freedom, which was limited to Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Unitarians. But it also extended official tolerance to Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
It was a significant, an enormously significant act. In the rest of Europe at this time blood was flowing freely over religious disputes, Catholics killing Protestants, and Protestants killing Catholics as well as other Protestants, and everybody killing Jews. In Transylvania something else was happening.
And, second, and in my heart completely connected to that declaration, King John Sigismund embraced the new Unitarian faith preached by Francis David. With the king's patronage and the institutional insights of Dr Biandrata, Francis David, for the third time in his life was elected a bishop, this time for the new Unitarian church.
For a handful of years something wonderful flourished in Transylvania. But then in 1571, under clouded circumstances the king died. His successor was a Catholic, and almost immediately persecutions began. This led to a bitter division between Dr Biandrata and the bishop. David's thinking continued to advance, following the dictates of his scholarship, his spiritual insight, and his conscience. Dr Biandrata warned his colleague now was not the time to proclaim his ever more radical positions, they needed to protect their new church. But the bishop refused to be silent.
Finally the doctor, fearing for the fragile church, joined those who denounced the bishop, and having lost his principal defender, David was quickly arrested, tried, and convicted of heresy. He was thrown into prison, where not long after, he died. The church barely survived the persecutions, which would in fact prove simply to be the first of many over the ensuing years. But, it survived, and it survives.
I find it important to recall how that church survives as much, possibly more due to the efforts of Dr Biandrata's sense of an open hand than to Bishop David's relentless following of the open mind. Both were critical. As, I want to add, was the King's more pure way of the open heart. There's an irony for you.
But also we have a lesson about the open hand, which I suggest was Dr Biandrata's complement to Bishop David's open mind. The wisdom of the open hand is not just a call to justice making, like it is so clearly for us here, but also a call to live in the world we actually live in, not some other. So, I'm haunted by that hard decision the doctor made, and the fact that Dr Biandrata is not remembered fondly because he denounced David. But without him it is unlikely there would be anything to remember but something that happened briefly a long time ago. So, for me a reminder that the open hand is about the work of justice, and it is also about the arts of practical living. A critical aspect of the open hand is to know when to hold your cards, when to play them, and when to fold 'em.
So, what's the take away? Well, one more observation. As I dig into how we actually engage our spiritual tradition, for a healthy and long lasting community, we need all three aspects, heart, head, and hand. We can easily lead with one or another just as validly. Our Hungarian-speaking cousins show how very different the emphasis can be and still be a shared expression of liberal religion. In our congregation here, for instance, I'd suggest we are most obviously about the way of the open hand. We are a bunch of doers.
But, without the way of the open heart, to what purpose would we put all our energy? We need that insight into the great currents of compassion, of love that informs actions in ways that are healthful and ultimately, useful. And, absolutely, we need that way of the open mind, being critical and reflective and analytical which can save us from so many spiritual dead ends. And, obviously not easy. Hard calls are made all along the way. This is a path for spiritual adults.
And. Such is the great way of liberal religion. As our cousins in Transylvania showed, as our more direct ancestors in England Old and New revealed it. As Fred Wooden analyzed it: Open heart. Open mind. Open hand. Lead with one or another, or even over time watch that emphasis shift, but so long as we have all three currents, we have our way.
The great way of liberal religion.