Posts Tagged autokoenony

The Chalice and the Circle (and the Cross) [redux]

I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in August 2012, and the statistics gathered by WordPress tell me that it’s been viewed more than anything else I’ve posted, often as a result of somebody searching the Web for a phrase like “cross in a circle”.  In that time, however, most of the links I had used for examples of flaming chalice symbols have stopped working, and this month the Fellowship is running a competition to create our own symbol, so I’m bringing back this post to show those examples.  (I believe that they’ve been shared on-line for general use, but if that’s not the case, or if I have mis-attributed any of them, please let me know.)

In today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations it’s not hard to find chalices.  They’re lit at the beginning of our Sunday services, just as we did this morning, but we also light chalices to open Religious Education classes, our Fellowship Circle sessions and even our committee meetings, where a chalice-lighting helps to remind us that we are not a social group or a debating club or a political party but a religious community.  You’ll find flaming chalice symbols in print, on websites and made into jewelry.  As shown in the gallery below, you’ll also find them in many different designs: enclosed in a circle or a sunburst; with a stylized flame or a realistic flame or a rainbow-colored flame; made up of letters that spell out a word or including a peace sign, a recycling logo or a question mark; recognizing the importance of reaching out to Unitarian Universalists who serve in our nation’s armed forces.  Not only is the flaming chalice ubiquitous, a widely loved symbol of Unitarian Universalism, but lighting it is the single-most recognized ritual our faith embraces.

Now while the flaming chalice symbol goes back over seventy years, it’s only become a widely accepted part of our congregational life in the last twenty or thirty years.  There were no chalice lightings in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the 1964 hymn book.  The flaming chalice appeared for the first time on an official Unitarian Universalist Association document only in 1976.  And our current hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition published in 1993, has only nine chalice lightings, but there are many more than that in use today.  So, you can see that in the last couple of decades the flaming chalice has caught on in a really big way!

What’s more, as these various examples show, the chalice symbol is, more often than not, enclosed in some sort of circle, or sometimes two overlapping circles, which are usually taken to represent the coming together of Unitarianism and Universalism.  This morning I’m going to reflect on the origins of these symbols — the chalice from Unitarianism and the circle from Universalism — as well as a third symbol that dropped out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard the story of the flaming chalice, but it’s a good story that bears repeating from time to time.  This is how Unitarian Universalist minister Dan Hotchkiss tells that story:

The chalice and the flame were brought together to make a symbol for Unitarian use by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch.  Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew political cartoons that were critical of Adolf Hitler, so when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Deutsch abandoned all he had and fled.  That was probably the right move!  He went first to the south of France, and then he went to Spain.  Finally, with an altered passport, Deutsch made it into Portugal, where Lisbon was the only open port remaining in Europe.

In Portugal, Deutsch met the Reverend Charles Joy, commissioner for Europe of the newly founded Unitarian Service Committee.  The Service Committee — a forerunner of today’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, including Unitarians and Jews, as well as artists, intellectuals and dissidents, to escape Nazi persecution.  From his headquarters in Lisbon, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents, helping to provide identification papers and travel documents that would allow refugees to escape to freedom.

Now Deutsch was most impressed with the work of the Unitarian Service Committee and was soon working for Joy.  Deutsch had never seen a Unitarian — or, for that matter, a Universalist — church, but what he had seen was faith in action, with Joy and the other members of the Service Committee willing to risk everything for others in a time of urgent need.  Deutsch wanted to help.

In 1940, the Unitarian Service Committee was an unknown organization.  That put them at a disadvantage in the war-time environment, when establishing trust across barriers of language, nationality and faith would mean life instead of death. So Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for the papers issued by the Service Committee, to make them look official, dignifying them while also symbolizing the spirit of the work.  Joy wrote, “When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the Unitarian Service Committee and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism.  With pencil and ink, he drew a chalice with a flame rising from it.  The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom.  Unitarian Service Committee logoReporting to Boston, Charles Joy wrote:

“It represents, as you see, […] the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars.  The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.  In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts.  This was in the mind of the artist.  The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit.  We do not limit our work to Christians.  Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

Let’s move from the Unitarian side of the story to the Universalist side.

Back in the United States in the 1940s, the Universalist Church of America was struggling with its religious identity.  At stake was whether Universalism was genuinely a Christian denomination or whether it was (or should be) something more, something larger, something truly universal.  In truth, the Universalist Church had struggled with its sense of identity for most of its existence, and had just been denied membership — twice — in the Federal Council of Churches: the council decided that the Universalists were, first, not sufficiently Christian and, second, too much like the Unitarians!

But into the mixture of voices calling, on the one hand, for a stronger Christian witness and, on the other, for a transformation of Universalism to a more truly universal religion, there came a new voice.  It came from a small group of recent graduates of the Crane Theological School at Tufts University, and it proved to be a major force pushing the Universalist Church beyond Christianity.

The graduates took their name from a medieval religious order, the Humiliati.  The name means “the humble ones”, though few people thought the members of this new order were particularly humble!  The group was originally formed so that its members could continue to enjoy the friendship, intellectual stimulation and spiritual growth they had enjoyed as seminarians; they held annual retreats during the 1940s and 50s at which they discussed theology, worship and liturgy.

Committing themselves to the renewal of their denomination as a universalized Universalism, the Humiliati adopted the symbol of a small, off-center cross enclosed by a larger circle.Humiliati symbol  The circle was intended to represent the all-embracing nature of Universalism; the off-center cross, of course, recognized Universalism’s Christian roots while at the same time implying that Christianity was no longer necessarily central to the faith.  When the symbol first appeared at the ordination of one of the Humiliati, it created something of a stir; then another member of the group caused a bigger dispute when he insisted on being ordained to the Universalist ministry rather than to the Christian ministry.  Although the Humiliati’s theological and liturgical innovations were by no means widely embraced, the idea of a universalized Universalism took hold and the symbol of the circle enclosing an off-center cross came to be widely used in Universalist churches.

It was at about the same time in the 1940s and 50s that the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association were once again talking about the possibility of combining their organizations and resources, a conversation that had been going, off and on, for almost a century.  The Unitarians had worked through the humanist–theist controversy of the 1920s and 30s and now, thanks in no small part to the Humiliati, the Universalists were moving beyond an exclusively Christian orientation.  The talks finally culminated, of course, in the legal consolidation that in 1961 formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.  And, a couple of years after that, the Unitarian Service Committee and the Universalist Service Committee merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which continued to use the flaming chalice in its documents.

Like our faith itself, the flaming chalice symbol has evolved over time.  Some years ago the UUA changed its logo to convey the idea of illumination emanating from the flame; more recently the UUSC changed its logo to hold the chalice in a pair of hands.Unitarian Universalist Service Committee logo  More often, the placing of the Unitarian chalice within the Universalist circle is a starting point for all sorts of  variations in design.  As Charles Joy noted almost seventy years ago, the shape of the chalice can be suggestive of a cross, but in some designs the cross is more explicit.  One painting, commissioned by First Unitarian in Albuquerque from New Mexico artist Robert P. Hooton, features a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right.  Here together are the three symbols we’ve been considering: the chalice, the circle and the cross.

sketch for painting by Robert P. Hooton, featuring a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right

sketch for painting by Robert P. Hooton

The flaming chalice combines two archetypes — a drinking cup and a flame — that have been used in religious symbolism for as long as there’s been such a thing as religion.  From the wine cup of the Passover seder to the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the chalice represents community, sustenance, fertility.  The flame is an even older symbol, of course, and soon we’ll be in that season featuring a number of holidays involving candles, in Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras, where the flames represent hope, courage, witness.  With this wealth of meanings, it’s perhaps not surprising that the flaming chalice caught on within Unitarian Universalism and that it’s become so near and dear to our hearts.

Now there’s a joke that tells of a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a Unitarian Universalist church next to one another; one stormy night there’s a lightning strike and soon all three churches are on fire.  Some of the more dedicated church members risk their lives to save the church’s most prized possessions: the Catholics run in to save the communion host; the Baptists run in to save the Bible; and the UUs run in to save the coffee pot!  But the very next thing most UUs would try to save would be the chalice.

(Our own chalice has its own story, of course, which also involves a church fire, but that’s a story for another time.)

For me, the flaming chalice represents the relationship between the individual and the community.  The community holds the individual just as the chalice holds the flame, providing it with a home, a place to be, sheltering it from the winds that would extinguish it.  The individual, on the other hand, illuminates the community, just as the flame illuminates the chalice, shining its light, sharing its wisdom and warming with its love.  Last Sunday I introduced the word “autokoenony” from the Greek meaning “the self engaged in a group whose members have something in common”, and that describes what the flaming chalice represents to me.  In this interpretation, in fact, it teach us two simple lessons: without the community, there would be no place for the individual to stand; and without the individual, the community would go without illumination.

Another archetypal symbol is the circle.  With no beginning and no end, a circle goes on forever.  What most of us think of as the traditional wedding ceremony includes the custom of exchanging rings as a sign of our hope — even in this day and age — for everlasting love.  And yet a ring wouldn’t be a ring were it not for the empty space in the middle through which one’s finger passes, and a circle wouldn’t be a circle without the empty space in the center.  If the circle, in the symbology we inherit from the Universalists, represents the universe of existence, then perhaps the empty space in the center represents the mystery at the heart of existence.  We place our flaming chalice within the circle, but it doesn’t fill the circle: there’s still plenty of room for mystery.

symbols of the religions of the world design based on the Rehnberg Memorial Window at the UU Church of Rockford

design based on the Rehnberg Memorial Window at the UU Church of Rockford

And then we come to the cross.  Many Unitarian Universalists have some difficulty accepting the cross as one of our religious symbols, I’ve noticed.  Including it as just another symbol along with the Jewish Star of David, the Hindu Om, the Taoist Yin–Yang, and so on is okay, but most Unitarian Universalists would rather not focus on the cross, if we can help it.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross was, after all, an instrument of torture and death used by the Roman Empire against those it particularly despised.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross became a symbol justifying colonialism and oppression by Europeans against Africans and Native Americans.  We might object to it on the grounds that the whole emphasis on the crucifixion came, in any case, from the Apostle Paul and doesn’t really have anything to do with the ethical teachings of the human Jesus.

Well, those are valid objections.  However, there are two reasons why we ought to be okay with the cross as a symbol representing Christianity at its best.  First, both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved out of “traditional” Christianity.  As the Unitarian Universalist Association’s own Commission on Appraisal made clear:

“Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages.  Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions and experiences.  The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one.  The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God.  Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds.”

Second, given that heritage, we have a right to own the meanings of that heritage, to speak in favor of religion based on love rather than fear, to use the cross as a symbol for our purposes rather than let it be used against us.  We may not subscribe to the theology it is usually taken to represent and we may object to its history as a tool of conquest and subjugation, but strip away the distinctly un-Christian abuses of the cross and trim back the elaborate mystification surrounding it, and what we find is a simple call to love and to be loved.

The chalice, the circle and the cross, in fact, are reminders to us of those who went before us in our faith.  Let us remember those who were willing to risk everything, even their lives, to help others escape persecution.  Let us remember those who advocated for a larger faith, embracing freedom of belief and service to the whole.  And let us affirm our heritage in oneness and wholeness, carrying forward the symbols of our faith as we fill our lives with hope and courage, kindness and love.

So may it be.

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The Chalice and the Circle (and the Cross)

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 26th 2012.)

In today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations it’s not hard to find chalices.  They’re lit at the beginning of our Sunday services, just as we did this morning, but we also light chalices to open Religious Education classes, our Fellowship Circle sessions and even our committee meetings, where a chalice-lighting helps to remind us that we are not a social group or a debating club or a political party but a religious community.  You’ll find flaming chalice symbols in print, on websites and made into jewelry.  You’ll also find them in many different designs, enclosed in a circle or a sunburst, with a stylized flame or a realistic flame or a rainbow-colored flame, perhaps made up of letters that spell out a word or maybe including a peace sign, a recycling logo or a question markHere’s one that recognizes the importance of reaching out to Unitarian Universalists who serve in our nation’s armed forces.  Not only is the flaming chalice ubiquitous, a widely loved symbol of Unitarian Universalism, but lighting it is the single-most recognized ritual our faith embraces.

Now while the flaming chalice symbol goes back over seventy years, it’s only become a widely accepted part of our congregational life in the last twenty or thirty years.  There were no chalice lightings in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the 1964 hymn book.  The flaming chalice appeared for the first time on an official Unitarian Universalist Association document only in 1976.  And our current hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition published in 1993, has only nine chalice lightings, but there are many more than that in use today.  So, you can see that in the last couple of decades the flaming chalice has caught on in a really big way!

What’s more, as these various examples show, the chalice symbol is, more often than not, enclosed in some sort of circle, or sometimes two overlapping circles, which are usually taken to represent the coming together of Unitarianism and Universalism.  This morning I’m going to reflect on the origins of these symbols — the chalice from Unitarianism and the circle from Universalism — as well as a third symbol that dropped out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard the story of the flaming chalice, but it’s a good story that bears repeating from time to time.  This is how Unitarian Universalist minister Dan Hotchkiss tells that story:

The chalice and the flame were brought together to make a symbol for Unitarian use by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch.  Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew political cartoons that were critical of Adolf Hitler, so when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Deutsch abandoned all he had and fled.  That was probably the right move!  He went first to the south of France, and then he went to Spain.  Finally, with an altered passport, Deutsch made it into Portugal, where Lisbon was the only open port remaining in Europe.

In Portugal, Deutsch met the Reverend Charles Joy, commissioner for Europe of the newly founded Unitarian Service Committee.  The Service Committee — a forerunner of today’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, including Unitarians and Jews, as well as artists, intellectuals and dissidents, to escape Nazi persecution.  From his headquarters in Lisbon, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents, helping to provide identification papers and travel documents that would allow refugees to escape to freedom.

Now Deutsch was most impressed with the work of the Unitarian Service Committee and was soon working for Joy.  Deutsch had never seen a Unitarian — or, for that matter, a Universalist — church, but what he had seen was faith in action, with Joy and the other members of the Service Committee willing to risk everything for others in a time of urgent need.  Deutsch wanted to help.

In 1940, the Unitarian Service Committee was an unknown organization.  That put them at a disadvantage in the war-time environment, when establishing trust across barriers of language, nationality and faith would mean life instead of death. So Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for the papers issued by the Service Committee, to make them look official, dignifying them while also symbolizing the spirit of the work.  Joy wrote, “When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the Unitarian Service Committee and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism.  With pencil and ink, he drew a chalice with a flame rising from it.  The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom.  Unitarian Service CommitteeReporting to Boston, Charles Joy wrote:

“It represents, as you see, […] the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars.  The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.  In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts.  This was in the mind of the artist.  The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit.  We do not limit our work to Christians.  Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

Let’s move from the Unitarian side of the story to the Universalist side.

Back in the United States in the 1940s, the Universalist Church of America was struggling with its religious identity.  At stake was whether Universalism was genuinely a Christian denomination or whether it was (or should be) something more, something larger, something truly universal.  In truth, the Universalist Church had struggled with its sense of identity for most of its existence, and had just been denied membership — twice — in the Federal Council of Churches: the council decided that the Universalists were, first, not sufficiently Christian and, second, too much like the Unitarians!

But into the mixture of voices calling, on the one hand, for a stronger Christian witness and, on the other, for a transformation of Universalism to a more truly universal religion, there came a new voice.  It came from a small group of recent graduates of the Crane Theological School at Tufts University, and it proved to be a major force pushing the Universalist Church beyond Christianity.

The graduates took their name from a medieval religious order, the Humiliati.  The name means “the humble ones”, though few people thought the members of this new order were particularly humble!  The group was originally formed so that its members could continue to enjoy the friendship, intellectual stimulation and spiritual growth they had enjoyed as seminarians; they held annual retreats during the 1940s and 50s at which they discussed theology, worship and liturgy.

Committing themselves to the renewal of their denomination as a universalized Universalism, the Humiliati adopted the symbol of a small, off-center cross enclosed by a larger circle.Humiliati  The circle was intended to represent the all-embracing nature of Universalism; the off-center cross, of course, recognized Universalism’s Christian roots while at the same time implying that Christianity was no longer necessarily central to the faith.  When the symbol first appeared at the ordination of one of the Humiliati, it created something of a stir; then another member of the group caused a bigger dispute when he insisted on being ordained to the Universalist ministry rather than to the Christian ministry.  Although the Humiliati’s theological and liturgical innovations were by no means widely embraced, the idea of a universalized Universalism took hold and the symbol of the circle enclosing an off-center cross came to be widely used in Universalist churches.

It was at about the same time in the 1940s and 50s that the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association were once again talking about the possibility of combining their organizations and resources, a conversation that had been going, off and on, for almost a century.  The Unitarians had worked through the humanist–theist controversy of the 1920s and 30s and now, thanks in no small part to the Humiliati, the Universalists were moving beyond an exclusively Christian orientation.  The talks finally culminated, of course, in the legal consolidation that in 1961 formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.  And, a couple of years after that, the Unitarian Service Committee and the Universalist Service Committee merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which continued to use the flaming chalice in its documents.

Like our faith itself, the flaming chalice symbol has evolved over time.  Some years ago the UUA changed its logo to convey the idea of illumination emanating from the flame; more recently the UUSC changed its logo to hold the chalice in a pair of hands.  More often, the placing of the Unitarian chalice within the Universalist circle is a starting point for all sorts of  variations in design.  As Charles Joy noted almost seventy years ago, the shape of the chalice can be suggestive of a cross, but in some designs the cross is more explicit.  One painting, commissioned by First Unitarian in Albuquerque from New Mexico artist Robert P. Hooton, features a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right.  Here together are the three symbols we’ve been considering: the chalice, the circle and the cross.

The flaming chalice combines two archetypes — a drinking cup and a flame — that have been used in religious symbolism for as long as there’s been such a thing as religion.  From the wine cup of the Passover seder to the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the chalice represents community, sustenance, fertility.  The flame is an even older symbol, of course, and soon we’ll be in that season featuring a number of holidays involving candles, in Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras, where the flames represent hope, courage, witness.  With this wealth of meanings, it’s perhaps not surprising that the flaming chalice caught on within Unitarian Universalism and that it’s become so near and dear to our hearts.

Now there’s a joke that tells of a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a Unitarian Universalist church next to one another; one stormy night there’s a lightning strike and soon all three churches are on fire.  Some of the more dedicated church members risk their lives to save the church’s most prized possessions: the Catholics run in to save the communion host; the Baptists run in to save the Bible; and the UUs run in to save the coffee pot!  But the very next thing most UUs would try to save would be the chalice.

(Our own chalice has its own story, of course, which also involves a church fire, but that’s a story for another time.)

For me, the flaming chalice represents the relationship between the individual and the community.  The community holds the individual just as the chalice holds the flame, providing it with a home, a place to be, sheltering it from the winds that would extinguish it.  The individual, on the other hand, illuminates the community, just as the flame illuminates the chalice, shining its light, sharing its wisdom and warming with its love.  Last Sunday I introduced the word “autokoenony” from the Greek meaning “the self engaged in a group whose members have something in common”, and that describes what the flaming chalice represents to me.  In this interpretation, in fact, it teach us two simple lessons: without the community, there would be no place for the individual to stand; and without the individual, the community would go without illumination.

Another archetypal symbol is the circle.  With no beginning and no end, a circle goes on forever.  What most of us think of as the traditional wedding ceremony includes the custom of exchanging rings as a sign of our hope — even in this day and age — for everlasting love.  And yet a ring wouldn’t be a ring were it not for the empty space in the middle through which one’s finger passes, and a circle wouldn’t be a circle without the empty space in the center.  If the circle, in the symbology we inherit from the Universalists, represents the universe of existence, then perhaps the empty space in the center represents the mystery at the heart of existence.  We place our flaming chalice within the circle, but it doesn’t fill the circle: there’s still plenty of room for mystery.

And then we come to the cross.  Many Unitarian Universalists have some difficulty accepting the cross as one of our religious symbols, I’ve noticed.  Including it as just another symbol along with the Jewish Star of David, the Hindu Om, the Taoist Yin–Yang, and so on is okay, but most Unitarian Universalists would rather not focus on the cross, if we can help it.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross was, after all, an instrument of torture and death used by the Roman Empire against those it particularly despised.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross became a symbol justifying colonialism and oppression by Europeans against Africans and Native Americans.  We might object to it on the grounds that the whole emphasis on the crucifixion came, in any case, from the Apostle Paul and doesn’t really have anything to do with the ethical teachings of the human Jesus.

Well, those are valid objections.  However, there are two reasons why we ought to be okay with the cross as a symbol representing Christianity at its best.  First, both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved out of “traditional” Christianity.  As the Unitarian Universalist Association’s own Commission on Appraisal made clear:

“Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages.  Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions and experiences.  The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one.  The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God.  Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds.”

Second, given that heritage, we have a right to own the meanings of that heritage, to speak in favor of religion based on love rather than fear, to use the cross as a symbol for our purposes rather than let it be used against us.  We may not subscribe to the theology it is usually taken to represent and we may object to its history as a tool of conquest and subjugation, but strip away the distinctly un-Christian abuses of the cross and trim back the elaborate mystification surrounding it, and what we find is a simple call to love and to be loved.

The chalice, the circle and the cross, in fact, are reminders to us of those who went before us in our faith.  Let us remember those who were willing to risk everything, even their lives, to help others escape persecution.  Let us remember those who advocated for a larger faith, embracing freedom of belief and service to the whole.  And let us affirm our heritage in oneness and wholeness, carrying forward the symbols of our faith as we fill our lives with hope and courage, kindness and love.

So may it be.

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The Dance of Freedom and Responsibility

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 19th 2012.)

If you’ve ever been a subscriber to an e-mail discussion group (or, going back a few years, a listserv or — even further back! — an on-line bulletin board), chances are you’ve either witnessed or even been a participant in a disagreement that became an argument that escalated into what’s known as a “flame war”.  We wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that this phenomenon characterized by ad hominem attacks and all-out sarcasm is a unique result of the development of electronic forms of communication such as e-mail and the Web, particularly since they allow for the rapid exchange of increasingly heated sentiments fueled — in large part — by the cloak of anonymity.  We’d be wrong, though.

For example, the available technology of sixteenth century Europe, including Gutenberg’s movable type for the printing press, was apparently sufficient to allow individuals with not-so-humble opinions to hurl strong words and insults at one another, albeit with a turnaround time of weeks rather than minutes.  And in Reformation Europe, two such individuals were Michael Servetus and John Calvin.

Calvin was running the city of Geneva on the basis of his ideas for reforming church and state.  Servetus was practicing medicine in public and writing books in secret, specifically books decrying how Christianity was corrupt.  Now Calvin, like Martin Luther before him, also believed that Christianity had been corrupted, the blame for which lay squarely with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  Servetus agreed, but went further by insisting that the real source of the corruption was the doctrine of the Trinity.

Gutenberg’s movable type, you see, had put the Bible into the hands of anyone who wanted to read it for themselves, and Servetus, like countless others since that time, had done so and had found that the Trinity — the fourth-century doctrine that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit exist as three persons but only one being — well, that claim is not actually in the Bible.  And denying the Trinity made Servetus a heretic.

As his books made the rounds, in part because he couldn’t help but send them to religious and civic leaders across Europe, Servetus was condemned not only by the Catholics but also by the newly minted Protestants, too.  Taking a pseudonym to avoid persecution, he continued to write books as well as letters to those who he thought might have some sympathy for him.  Servetus believed he knew the truth and he felt it his duty to share it with others, convinced that if they were but willing to listen to him then they would be free of the falsehoods to which they had chained themselves.  When others, from his perspective, would not listen to him, he fell back on verbal abuse, whether in his letters to Calvin or during his trial in Geneva.  Yes, he was caught and tried for heresy, something that was probably only a matter of time.

Servetus was first arrested, in fact, by the Roman Catholic authorities but he managed to escape.  In his absence the Inquisition convicted him of heresy and sentenced him to be burned with his books.  Fleeing across Europe he inexplicably stopped in Geneva, where was recognized and arrested following a Sunday service where none other than Calvin himself was the preacher!  Just as the Catholics had the first time, the Calvinists convicted Servetus, but this time they made sure he couldn’t escape again.  And so he was burned at the stake, in person rather than in effigy.  His books were burned with him, his most recent work chained to his thigh.

That was the end, and a thoroughly grisly end at that, for Michael Servetus.  It was not, in spite of the intentions of the Catholics and the Calvinists, the end of his ideas or even of his books, a very few copies of which survive even today.  Scholars view our modern ideas of the rights of freedom of religion and conscience, in fact, as his legacies.  We Unitarian Universalists celebrate him as a martyr, recognizing his influence on the Unitarian movements in Poland and Transylvania, and putting him on T-shirts such as this one that was sold at General Assembly in a few years ago.  “Michael Servetus, 1511–1553: Unitarian Universalists Celebrating 450 Years of Heresy”!

“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is arguably the most Unitarian of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, and it finds its place thanks, in part, to Servetus.  We call ourselves a liberal religion because we stand for that which liberates the heart, the mind and the soul.  Unitarian Universalist minister Tom Owen-Towle prefers the term ‘freethinking’ as “a fresher and less corrupted reference than ‘liberal’”, but it comes to much the same thing.  We may even refer to ourselves as heretics, recognizing that the word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘choice’ and noting that we choose to employ tolerance, reason and freedom as tools to transform ourselves and our world.  As freethinkers, the liberally religious, we belong, Owen-Towle notes, “to the heritage of incorrigible choice-makers, an admirable lineage of heretics from Michael Servetus to Susan B. Anthony”.

So hooray for freedom!  Where, though, does responsibility come in?

First, remember that, as I mentioned last month, the word “freedom” comes from an ancient root word that actually means “love”.  That means that freedom isn’t so much about our status relative to the ideal of an autonomous individual, but rather about what we do and the choices we make in relationship to one another.  Freedom is not, in fact, a static, isolated state of being, but a dynamic, connected process of becoming.

Second, remember that the foundation of our Unitarian Universalist faith is not creed, that is, what we believe, but covenant, that is, how we promise to behave.  As you’ve heard me say before, a creed can exist in the head of just one person, even if that person were all alone in the entire cosmos, but a covenant by definition exists around and within the relationships between two or more people.

So if freedom is about becoming and if our faith is about relationship, then our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  I’ll say that again: our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  In other words, we are challenged to make sense of freedom when we do not, in fact, actually have the autonomy to do whatever we want without regard to the consequences for others or ourselves; we should instead expect to be answerable for our — otherwise free — decisions and actions.  Let me try to make this a little more concrete…

You may have heard of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, a modern parable by ecologist Garret Hardin.  Consider, Hardin wrote about forty years ago, a medieval village in which each family has the use of some common land for letting their cows graze.  For each individual family, adding another cow to their own herd on the village commons gives that family all the benefit of the additional cow, while spreading any possible drawbacks amongst all of the families in the village.  If each family in the village is free to add more cow to their herds, then it’s quite rational for them to do that, and to keep doing it, until there are so many cows that the commons becomes so damaged that it’s of no use to anybody.  The Tragedy of the Commons takes place because the villagers fail to recognize their interdependence and refuse to accept responsibility for the collective consequences of their individual actions.

Some economists, of course, have argued that the Tragedy of the Commons simply isn’t realistic, that “market forces” — Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and so forth — would always come into play to magically prevent such runaway self-centeredness, but this is no idle thought experiment: it literally happened with overgrazing on Boston Common in the 1630s, and it’s not hard to see global climate change as an on-going tragedy with the Earth’s atmosphere as the commons and all of us as the villagers.

Unfortunately responsibility is a much less exciting idea than freedom.  Even the word, ‘freedom’, tends to conjure exciting images in our minds: the open plains, with pioneers and settlers traveling westward to make new lives for themselves; or the open road, driving a fast car toward the horizon, no cares in the world as the wind blows through your hair.  Romanticized and more inspired by Hollywood movies and television advertising than based in real-world experience, yes, but evocative and inspiring nonetheless.  Responsibility, on the other hand, is about duty, obligation, something that binds us to behaving in certain ways when, all things considered, we’d rather cut out when nobody’s looking and go for a drive on the open road in that zippy convertible.  We adults like to tell our children that responsibility is a necessary part of growing up, but sometimes I wonder who it is we’re really trying to convince…

Of course, the process of individuation is a necessary part of growing up.  Healthy human beings must learn to think of themselves as individuals, separate from their parents and other people and with a sense of their own identity and will.  There’s a lot of power in recognizing oneself as an individual with free will, able to make the decisions that determine one’s own destiny.  Individuality is a necessary and healthy part of being human, but what about individualism, the place where, more than any other, our ideas about freedom are enshrined?

Individualism, it could be argued, encapsulated the founding ideals of the United States.  The “fundamental American ideology of individualism”, as defined by linguist Ronald Scollon, is that “the individual is the basis of all reality and all society” and that individual freedom must, above all else, be protected from external interference.  Well, it’s easy to get into a sort of chicken-and-egg situation when arguing about the relationship between individuals and society — and theologians and philosophers and, more recently, politicians have spent a lot of time arguing about it — but it doesn’t take much thought to realize that even if we were to aspire to be completely free individuals, we were (and, in fact, continue to be) formed — as individuals — in the overlapping contexts of family, community, culture and the very society that supposedly depends on us rather than the other way around.

And don’t we find the most value and worth in ourselves as individuals precisely when we are connected to other individuals in those relational contexts?  How easily we forget or overlook or ignore that, though!  As Unitarian Universalist minister Kenneth Collier puts it, we “sometimes spend so much time and energy worrying about and praising the autonomy of the individual that we forget that individuals standing alone have about as much strength as a bunch of stones lying around on the ground.”  And in his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn offers this much stronger critique of American individualism: “It’s an irony that these rugged individuals so loved individualism that they ganged up together to enslave black people, steal land from Mexico, and carry out an ethnic cleansing of the continent.  At other times they ganged up to abuse and mistreat, among others within their borders, Chinese people and Japanese people and Jews and Catholics, before ganging up to abuse peoples of Central and South America and so on around the world.  A nation of individuals saying, ‘[Hey,] I’m an individual.  Don’t blame me for the collective crimes of [my] country.’”

I think we need to find a new way to talk about our individuality that, on the one hand, avoids the excesses of individualism and, on the other hand, helps us to see responsibility as not only important but even inspiring.  (Getting responsibility to be exciting may be too much to ask, but I live in hope!)  There’s a word that I learned about a decade ago now that describes some of what I’m trying to get at here, and you heard it in my reading this morning: “autokoenony”.  It was coined by Sarah Hoagland, who in her book Lesbian Ethics writes: “I mean to invoke a self who is both separate and related, a self which is neither autonomous nor dissolved: a self in community who is one among many, what I call autokoenony.”

Now think of this in terms of our Fourth Principle, that “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.

Well, there’s the “free” piece of our religious journey.  If we articulate it at all, we tend to place religious authority — the right to determine what we believe and how we should behave — in individual experience.  That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t end there.  What sort of experience do we mean, for instance?  Are all experiences to be equally valued?  Are all “truths” from every source to be respected on the basis that they belong to someone else’s and that we have no right to judge them?  What is it that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism?  Yes, we affirm, in the words of our First Principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of all people”, but look more closely and there’s something implicit there.  Who is it who is recognizing and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of a given individual?  That particular person her- or himself?  No, it’s someone else, which means we’re talking about relationship.  We’re talking about the relational individual, the individual who belongs to something larger, the self in community, or autokoenony.

And this gets us to the “responsible” piece of our quest for truth and meaning.  When it comes to figuring out what to believe and how to behave, another common source of authority is community tradition.  Our individualistic tendencies make us more aware of the problems of placing authority in tradition, of course, to the extent that Unitarian Universalists have a practically instinctive distrust of hierarchy, which is why our Fifth Principle speaks of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.  The individual, after all, needs some distance from the community in order to reflect on it, but the community also serves as the touchstone that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism.  We need both, individual and community, experience and tradition, distance and belonging, freedom and responsibility.

Our own religious authority, then, emerges through autokoenony, the individual being in community, the individual becoming in community.  This is, in fact, our process of becoming human.  We may not always get it right, but we’re not aiming to succeed by being infallible; rather, we’re aiming to succeed by being faithful, and the word we use to describe this process is “covenant”.  We covenant with one another inside our faith community to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and we covenant with those outside our faith community to be “a church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand”.  Unitarian Universalist theology arises from individuals relating to one another within our congregations themselves and the ways in which we as individuals and congregations work for justice in the wider community.  In contrast to Howard Zinn’s rather negative outlook of individualism, then, consider anthropologist Margaret Mead’s words concerning individual effectiveness when combined with the power of community: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Responsibility calls to us, because without responsibility we’re not really free.  Universalist minister and social activist Clarence Skinner made this point when he wrote that “the fight for freedom is never won.  Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition.  Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar.  Therefore those who have been reared in freedom, bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.

In the dance of the good life to which we all aspire, freedom and responsibility are inseparable partners.  Sometimes, it’s true, one leads and the other follows.  Sometimes it’s good to hit the open road in a fast car, but it’s usually even better to do it with a good friend or a loved one in the passenger seat.

So I encourage you, in the days ahead, to look at your own lives and see how freedom and responsibility are dancing through them.  Look for the ways in which you are free to assert your individuality and the ways in which you help others to find their own freedom.  You might be surprised at how often they overlap.  And then look at how your relationships help you find your own value and worth.  Consider how you can answer the call “to win an ever larger and more important liberty” for yourself, for your communities and for our world.  And take a look at what you have to offer our liberal religion, our free faith, that, in turn, supports your own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as well as that of our fellow pilgrims on this journey of becoming human.

So may it be.

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