Heresy has cost many lives over the years. One of the more infamous instances took place in Europe hundreds of years ago.
It was 1553, and Michael Servetus was on the run from France, headed to Italy. For some reason he decided to stop in Geneva on his way, a decision that ultimately cost him his life. He had been imprisoned for his belief that infant baptism is a fraud, and that there is one god who reveals himself in three different modes. This latter might sound to the non-theologically-minded to be the traditional trinitarian belief, it most certainly isn’t.
Orthodox trinitarianism affirms that there is a god with one being in three distinct persons. In any event, both of Servetus’ key dissensions from the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church were considered heretical. Not only did Catholic leaders denounce him, but so did the Reformers, including John Calvin.
In Geneva, Servetus attended a sermon given by John Calvin, and after the service ended he was arrested. Left to rot in jail, he begged for the trial to go forward, as he was covered in lice, ill-clothed and dirty. He was tried, condemned, and burned alive at the stake on a pyre of his book. His last words: ‘Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me.’
This shameful chapter of church history led to other non-trinitarians keeping quiet, while Servetus’ writings inspired Unitarian movements in Poland and Transylvania. Many religious groups try now to claim him as their own, not least Unitarian Universalists.
Unitarian and Universalist congregations in the United States have long been a home for heretics.
Born out of New England Congregationalism, the American Unitarian Association came into being as congregations differed over the nature of God. Over the years, Unitarian churches became progressively more liberal and inclusive, and by the early 20th century many Unitarian ministers were Humanists. In fact, a number of Unitarian ministers participated in the creation and signing of the first Humanist Manifesto.
The Universalist Church of America began in the United States as a trinitarian denomination that affirmed the ultimate salvation of all people. This group underwent a process of liberalization, though they never got into Humanism the way the Unitarians did.
The present Unitarian Universalist Association, formed in the early 1960s when the two aforementioned denominations merged, is non-creedal and welcomes all people of good will who are looking for a community. It counts as members and clergy those who embrace atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, deism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, neopaganism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Humanism and virtually any other belief. The idea is to build communities of shared progressive values, not to dogmatize. This acceptance is enshrined in the Fourth Principle of this body: ‘A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.’
In our times, many Humanists are complaining that their local UU congregation has too much ‘Woo’ and uses a lot of theistic (mostly Christian) language. I hear those objections and sympathize, particularly in cases where people have been members of a congregation for years, only to have it take a hard turn into theism. At the same time, most UU congregations attempt to take a middle road. One of the primary hymnbooks of UUism has familiar hymns reworded in most cases to make them more universally accepted, and it also has readings from various traditions, including Humanism.
What makes Unitarian Universalism great is that — when at its best — there is room for individuals to grow and change. I’m a Humanist, having been raised Roman Catholic before converting at 17 to conservative evangelicalism. I don’t have to consider my decades of theism, familiarity with the Bible, and ministry training as a total loss. Further, if for some bizarre reason my outlook should change in the future, I’d still be able to continue as a progressive in this fellowship.
In contemporary America no one will be prosecuted and executed for heresy, though of course this still happens in some other countries. Here, censure is more social. Families reject those who deconvert, friendships are lost, and if you are an atheist you’ll be considered by many as morally bankrupt as a rapist. If any of this describes your experience, you don’t have to go it alone. Seek out your local UU congregation. Be patient and give it a few visits. Talk to the minister and stick around for coffee hour to get to know some members. You will encounter views you don’t agree with, and may not like some elements of the service, but that’s not the point. You will be welcomed and included.