Out of the Flames

April 28, 2013

Guest Minister the Reverend Shelley Page

BUC

April 28, 2013

 

The first time I met Jean Valjean, it was in high school French class as I read anabridged version of Victor Hugo’s monumental novel, Les Miserables.  I always remembered the dramatic story of a man’s redemption and courage, resurrected by love and integrity instead ofmotivated by revenge as he makes a new life for himself after two decades of brutal imprisonment for the simple crime of stealing bread to feed starvingrelatives.  Of course, I met Valjean and his nemesis Javert, the officious law man who relentlessly hunts him down for breaking parole, again and again through the popular musical and now the larger than life movie version. How many of you have seen the film?  Or are familiar with the musical on stage?

 

I loved the movie version that so vividly brought to life the epic story of aman’s courage to live out his life in love in spite of the incredible odds against him. There are many complex ethical issues raised by this story andmuch rich symbolism portrayed beautifully in the film.  As I watched the film, I was struck by the courage of Jean Valjean. He experiences a spiritual conversion when he is spared arrest by the priest . He had just been released from prison and wandered through France hopelessly because former convicts were nottrusted.  A priest offers him hospitality and respite but Valjean is so desperate that he steals silver tosell.  The compassionate priestoffers him silver candlesticks and a blessing when the police catch Valjean and come to the rectory with the apprehended thief. Valjean is saved by forgiveness, loving compassion and an admonition to live a good life.  He courageously reinvents himself by tearing up his parole papers and creating a new identity.

 

Years later as mayor of a town and prosperous factory owner, he courageously  steps forward to try to save Fantine, aformer worker at his factory, and then when she is dying, he promises to raise her little daughter Cozette.  Again and again, his true identity as a convict puts him at risk as Javert obsessively hunts him down.  Again and again, he chooses love and compassion as he runs and lives a hidden life with Cozette.  Again and again, he risks his own life to save others in the service of love.  Valjean lives up to the courage of his conviction that a selfless commitment to love is what he was saved to do, a commitment he keeps until his last breath.

 

I was also struck by the resonance of his story to another courageous fugitive onthe run in France—our notable Unitarian ancestor, Michael Servetus.  For here was a man whose crime was thinking and being brash enough to tell the world his thoughts.  For here was a man who cleverlyreinvented himself several times over as he was hunted as a heretic.  For here was a man who courageously kept the courage of his convictions literally until his last breath while being burned at the stake.

 

Curious about him?  Let me tell you about him for his legacy is part of the reason we all can sit here today with the freedom to question, the freedom to form our own thoughts about the nature of God and humans, and the freedom to openly share those thoughts with others.Michael Servetus was renowned heretic in the best sense of the word.   A heretic is one who chooses.  And he chose a life of integrity even at great personal cost.

 

Michael Servetus, born Miguel Serveto, lived in sixteenth century Europe, a continent rocked by the Reformation in allits forms.  He was born in the northern part of Spain in 1511, growing up in a Catholic noble family and receiving an excellent education. Think of a teenager who was fluent in Spanish, French,Greek, Latin and Arabic—clearly a brilliant up-and-comer!  Think of a teenager with an enquiring mind who reads the Old and New Testaments in its original Greek and Hebrew and discovers that there is no mention of the Trinity anywhere.  Excited by this revelation and convinced that it was an important piece of news to share with other Reformationists, he announces his discovery over the dinner table to folks he thought were interested in undermining the corruption of the Catholic church.  But he miscalculated.  Some Reformationists themselves were quite reactionary and denounced him. Now, at that time, he was studying in Basel and people were being executed there on a regular basis for heresies much less controversial than questioning the Trinity.

 

And, so he fled Basel and moved to Strasbourg to where he had access to a printer.  He decided to go viral with his radical revelation.  He wrote “On the Errors of the Trinity”with hundreds of Biblical citations to prove his arguments along with  some ridicule and sarcasm.  After all, he was only 19. His entire first printing of 1000 books sold out immediately, generating a firestorm of discussion.  That was the sixteenth century equivalent of putting something up on YouTube and having it go globally viral within hours.  Serveto, who had Latinized his name to Michael Servetus, was brash, overconfident and quite frankly kind of obnoxious.  This was a super bold move on his teenage part.

 

Let’s step back for a moment to look quickly at what the big deal was. And, ofcourse, I’m telling it to you as a 21st century UnitarianUniversalist so my telling reflects our perspective.  The Trinity was a theological construct cobbled together as Constantine consolidated his power as Holy Roman Emperor after his politically motivated conversion to Christianity. There were many forms of belief in the empire at that time and he knew it would be important to get everyone on the same page, again, a political motivation.

 

A council of bishops was called to meet at Nicea in 325. Factions debated the nature of God and the divinity of Jesus for weeks.  Two major factions emerged—those with Athanasius who constructed the trinity with God the father, God the son and the holy spirit, elevating Jesus to divinity as of the “same substance” as God.  The other faction was led by Arius whose belief was that Jesus was a human chosen and created by God.  Arian thinking was a direct threat tothe power of the church and the empire. After all, if a mere man was made divine by God, then might not the same be true for other mere mortals?  In the end, only 2 bishops supported Arius, and the Trinity became doctrine, enshrined in the Nicene Creed.  Poor Arius—his works were burned and he was exiled.

 

Believe it or not, the Trinity was a hard sell to the average Catholic at the time.  St. Jerome actually inserted a Trinitarian passage into his Vulgate Bible to legitimize the concept. And then, St. Augustine created a successful series of analogies to help explainthe Trinity to the common folk. And anyone who dared to question it was brutally suppressed.

 

So, Servetus knew was playing with fire. He was questioning one of the key theological tenets of the Catholic church and potentially undermining their power.  You can just imagine his excitement!  He was so brash that he sent review copies to Erasmus, Martin Luther and a host of Catholic bishops.  Gotta admire his spunk.  So, of course, his book was instantly banned and Servetus was sentenced to death in absentia in Spain, rather like Salmon Rushdie in our time. But, absentia was not enough.  He was considered dangerous enough that the church sent out spies to interrogate his family and friends and his mail was intercepted.

 

The Reformation folks denounced him as well, so entrenched was this Trinity concept. In the meanwhile, he’s a runaway best seller, gaining influence in other intellectual centers in Europe like Venice. The Spanish Inquisition even sent his brother, a Catholic priest, to entice him back to Spain but Servetus was long gone when his brother arrived.

 

Servetus surfaced in Paris as 22 year old Michel de Villeneuve, a student at the Sorbonne studying mathematics where he meets his ultimate Javert, a fellow student named Jean Chauvin, Latinized to Johannes Calvinius, later known as John Calvin.  Both of them, young, brilliant and ambitious, although Servetus was always more interested in being right and stating his case, whereas Calvin was motivated by a lust forpower.   Calvin tries to publish a book about Seneca’s philosophies to make a name for himself and is unsuccessful.  Then, Servetusadmits who is he—the brilliant Anti-trinitarian author with a price on his head and Calvin instantly hates him.

 

France at that time was a very dangerous place to be if you were a free thinker about religion.  Books were banned, heretics tortured and killed.  And yet the young Calvin helps write a reformationist speech and suddenly needs to flee. While a fugitive, he begins to develop his own brand of reformation, coming up with his predestination concept and the other tenets of what would become Calvinism.  He eventually returns to Paris and even invites Servetus to a secret theological debate to prove his righteousness but Servetus declines to even show up, a slight that sticks in Calvin’s craw for a good long time.  In the meanwhile, the Inquisition in France rears its ugly head yet again and any and all reformers are in peril, with many fleeing to Switzerland and Germany. Calvin fled to Basel but Servetus could not because he would have been recognized there and extradited to Spain to face their Inquisition.

 

So, our man Michael surfaces a new in Lyon, France, a boomtown, where he gets a job as an editor at a printer. Now Michal Villanovas, he edits an updated version of Ptolemy’s Geography, an important book in the age of exploration.  He also edits a pharmaceutical guide, loving the empirical scientific approach to thinking.  He even boldly sits across the table from a heretic hunter who has no idea that the biggest heretic of all was sitting right there in the room with him.  Things cooled down in Paris and Servetus once again made his way to the Sorbonne—this time to study medicine, intrigued by the medical knowledge starting to open up after over 1000 years of the church allowing only second century Galen medical thought to be used.

 

He became an ardent anatomy student and discovered the pulmonary system of blood circulation, a major scientific breakthrough that he would not publish for another 15 years.  Villanovas practiced medicine and continued his editing career.  His interest in theology gets rekindled when is asked to edit the Pagino Bible.

 

And then he did what he was itching to do , he starts work on Christianismi Restutio or The Restoration of Christianity where he not only recounts his objections to the Trinity but goes well beyond to reject infant baptism and talks of God’s presence in all creation, not only in Christ. And because he was who he was, that kinda in your face guy, he initiates a correspondence with John Calvin who in the meanwhile had become a powerful force, virtually ruling Geneva, Switzerland.  Calvin had quite a negative response to these writings and suspects the author is indeed his old nemesis Servetus.

 

Servetus however decides to publish his magnum opus in secret—without author or printer being identified, with the original manuscript burned after the books were printed.  Over 1000 copies were distributed throughout Europe, including in Geneva right under the nose of Calvin who knew right away it was the work of Servetus.

 

Servetus thought he was safe continuing his medical practice in rural France but he hadn’t counted on Calvin providing evidence against him to the Inquisition, thinking he could take care of this obnoxious rival once and for all.  It didn’t take long for Servetus to be arrested and tried.  But yet again our friend Michael escapes from jail by asking the jailer to let him out in the garden to relieve himself and then over the wall he goes —  a veritable JamesBond. The trial continued without him and he was found guilty and burned in effigy with copies of his books. Only three copies of the 1000 remain today.

 

Servetuswas making his way to Italy to practice medicine and start anew yet again but he decides for some reason pass through Switzerland to get there and ends up stopping in Geneva.  Bad idea. He was recognized and captured and now in the clutches of Calvin who was receiving pressure from many quarters to harshly deal with this heretic.  Over the next ten weeks, his trial would be interrupted by sectarian Protestant in-fighting and a cat and mouse game between Calvin and Servetus where charges upon charges in court were disputed in person and in letters between the two. Servetus tried to appeal to Calvin’s compassion and begged to be simply exiled.  But, because he would not recant his anti-Trinitarian views along with his other heretical thinking, he was ultimately condemned to death.  Servetus was stunned at the verdict and begged to be put to death quickly by sword but his request was denied.  He was burned at the stake with a fire of smoldering green wood to prolong his agony.  But even in the midst of this horrific death, he did not recant.

 

Initially Calvin was lauded for his bold action but then criticism started popping up. One of his strongest critics was Sebastian Castellio who famously said, “The Scriptures are full of enigmas and inscrutable questions which have been in dispute for over a thousand years without agreement, nor can they be resolved without love, which appeases all controversies. Yet on account of these enigmas the earth is filled with innocent blood… On controversial points, we would do better to defer judgment, even as God, who knows us to be guilty, yet postpones judgment and waits for us to amend our lives. To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine. It is simply to kill a man.” And so, the Servetus legacy was to open the door toward greater religious tolerance.  His executionwas held up over and over again as a travesty of justice and example of intolerance run amok.

 

The energy generated in the wake of his death propelled other radical proto-Unitarian reformers in Italy, Transylvania, Poland and Holland to continue questioning, continue exploring, continue choosing their own heretical religious paths. Out of the flames came our faith. If you would like to learn more about the drama with Servetus and Calvin, (which would make a good movie of its own 0, I recommend three books: Hunted Heretic by Roland Bainton, For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe by Charles Howe and Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. I guarantee you’ll be fascinated and amazed at the early history of our movement.

 

And lest any of you leave here feeling riled up about John Calvin and this murderous act, let me share that it is wonderful that today we can have warm interfaith relationships with the churches that descended from his leadership such as the Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed churches here in Michigan. I note that I will be on my way to Calvin College this very afternoon to pay a brief visit to my nephew who is a student there. And let me share that in the 1970s,the students at Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California, annually invited their Presbyterian seminary friends to a Michael Servetus barbecue. Truth is stranger than fiction. And over the long arc of history, healing can happen. We are livingproof of it.

 

And so what of our movement today—have we lived well into the promise of our faith as we honor the legacy of our courageous ancestors?  There’s a part of me that says yes!  Michael Servetus would be astounded towalk in here this morning and discover the theological diversity in our midst with theists and atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus, pagans,agnostics, humanists, pantheists and panentheists all sitting peaceablytogether under one roof. He would be jazzed to discover that we don’t all agree on the nature of god and humans but that we do agree that openly sharing with each other and asking lots of probing questions is a strong value of our faith.  My bet is that he would be delighted.

 

How can we best honor the legacy of Michael Servetus as UUs today? We do it by being the best heretics we can possibly be—intentionally choosing our personal beliefs and then being willing, not only to share them with others in a respectful way, but to fully live into them, walking the talk of our convictions.  We do it by courageously aligning our actions with our values.  We do it by following the examples of both Servetus and Jean Valjean—live with integrity and let love and compassion and reason guide your ways and your days.  Hold on to those cherished timeless values—they are worth living for and worth dying for.  May it be so.

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