Our energizing paradox: a still unfolding Radical Reformation—Some thoughts on the 500th anniversary of the mainstream Magisterial Reformation

Faustus Socinus (1539-1604)—Magnus Hæreticus
Reading: Matthew 13:24-30 from William Tyndale’s trans of 1526

Another similitude put he [Jesus] forth, unto them saying: The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man which sowed good seed in his field. But while men slept, there came his foe, and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. When the blade was sprung up, and had brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. The servants came to the householder, and said unto him. Sir sowest not thou good seed in thy close, from whence then hath it tares? He said to them, the envious man hath done this. Then the servants said unto him: wilt thou then that we go and gather it? and he said, nay, lest while ye go about to weed out the tares, ye pluck up also with them the wheat by the roots: let both grow together till harvest come, and in time of harvest, I will say yea unto my reapers, gather ye first the tares, and bind them in sheaves to be brent [burnt]: but gather the wheat into my barn.


Our energizing paradox: a still unfolding Radical Reformation—Some thoughts on the 500th anniversary of the mainstream Magisterial Reformation

Tuesday 31st October sees the five-hundredth anniversary of the start of Reformation for on that day in 1517 legend says Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenburg and set European Christendom ablaze — both literally and metaphorically. Our own church tradition was one of the many communities born out of that ferment. However, although clearly we owe much to the bravery of the leaders of what is called the mainstream, Magisterial Reformation for starting the process of reform — Luther, Calvin and Zwingli — we find our real roots in the much more radical and, ultimately, more democratic and egalitarian ideas which developed in what has become known as the Radical Reformation which followed very quickly on its heels. Today, as the certain other Protestant churches are celebrating their distinctive beginnings in the mainstream, Magisterial Reformation, I’d like to remind us about something of our own very distinctive beginnings in the Radical Reformation.     

To do this I want to begin with some words said in our own age by the twentieth-century French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) concerning institutions in general that seems to me helpful in understanding what kind of church, institutionally speaking, we are.

In the summer of 1996 Derrida was taking part in a roundtable discussion at Villanova University in Pennsylvania to inaugurate their new doctoral program in philosophy. He said:

“The paradox in the instituting moment of an institution is that, at the same time as it starts something new, it also continues something, is true to the memory of the past, to a heritage, to something we receive from the past, from our predecessors, from the culture. If an institution is to be an institution, it must to some extent break with the past, keep the memory of the past, while inaugurating something absolutely neJohn w” (John D. Caputo, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: Conversation with Jacques Derrida, Fordham University Press, 1996, p. 6).

Taking Derrida’s words as a starting point what was our own community’s paradoxical, inaugurating moment?

Clearly the first has in some fashion to be, as the American theologian John Caputo memorably put it, the “event that transpired in Jesus and which knocked Paul off his horse and delivered a shock to the world” (cf. John D. Caputo in "After the Death of God" p. 82). This event founded the whole complex tradition of institutions that collectively became known as Christianity. It’s paradox was centred on keeping alive a memory of the past — a clearly Jewish memory — even as is it inaugurated something absolutely new. Although in its first blooming Christianity was a radically plural phenomenon, once a form of Christianity was adopted by Constantine the realities of empire slowly transformed it into an increasingly monolithic, power-mongering religion centred upon Rome and the Pope.

As we know by the sixteenth-century its power had become repellent in all kinds of ways and it was in reaction to this, starting with Luther’s ninety-five theses, that there began to unfold the event known as the Reformation. Clearly we could take October 31, 1517 as being for us another moment of inauguration because it was certainly necessary in creating the conditions for what we can more meaningfully call the actual inaugural event of our own institution. It’s paradox was also centred on keeping alive a memory of the past — now a memory of pre-Constantinian form of Christianity — even as is it too sought to inaugurate something absolutely new, a reformed Church. But for those people who became involved in what became known as the Radical Reformation Luther, Calvin and Zwingli had not inaugurated something absolutely new but only had succeeded only in lightly reforming a form of religion that was in their eyes still hopelessly corrupted by many unnecessary doctrines, religious practices and by a continuing unhealthy obsession with power and elites both within and without the church.

This dissatisfaction was finally expressed in what is most fully our own distinctive church tradition’s inaugural moment which occurred on June 10, 1565 in the Polish town of Brzeziny with the calling of the first synod of the “Minor Reformed Church of Poland”, better known today by the name of the “Polish Brethren”. This synod was convened after Peter Gonesius (Piotr of Goniądz) had spoken out against the doctrine of the Trinity during the general synod of the Reformed (Calvinist) churches of Poland held in Secemin in January (22) of the same year.

Returning to Derrida's words we can see that in their synod the Polish Brethren certainly inaugurated something absolutely new and unexpected — a Christian church that proclaimed the unity of God and which finally restored to the world a human Jesus. But in challenging the doctrine of the Trinity — something which none of the mainstream reformers did — our radical reformers also inaugurated something of much more general importance than the mere challenging of a single doctrine, namely, they inaugurated the right freely to question and critique previously unquestioned dogmatic religious/theological answers and to suggest alternative ways of interpreting scripture, thinking and behaving. Exercising this right made them not just heretics but really major heretics. Indeed, in the picture at the top of this post you will see that their first great theologian, the Italian Humanist Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) was derided by them not as just hæreticus but “magnus hæreticus”! People like Socinus were the kind of people sixteenth and seventeen century iterations of Roman Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation decided must be ruthlessly persecuted and, at times, even burned. Because of this we also inaugurated something else that was new, the concept of toleration and liberty of conscience and in the Polish Brethren’s Racovian Catechism of 1605 we find the still glorious words that, “Whilst we declare our own opinions, we oppress no one. Let every person enjoy the freedom of their own judgement in religion.”

Yet, for all this breaking in of the new, our forebears were also absolutely clear about their desire to be true to a tradition and to a memory of the past that they found expressed most succinctly in the Biblical texts which spoke of “event that transpired in Jesus and which knocked Paul off his horse and delivered a shock to the world”. They may have been forward-thinking and looking radicals but, make no mistake about it, they also understood themselves to be continuing something important and timeless.

Consequently, we can see that our own foundation as an institution is exactly the kind paradox of which Derrida spoke. On the one hand out of a memory of the past — especially by attempting always better to follow through and interpret the radical implications found in the teaching of the first-century Jewish Rabbi called Jesus — we form an actual living religious community with deep roots in past stories and practices which seeks to pass something on. On the other hand, because we also continue consciously to open ourselves up to new light and truth from whatever source it comes — whether from other religious traditions and secular philosophies or from the natural sciences — we remain an institution that knows it must always to some extent be breaking with the past.

It seems to me that it is only when this paradox — between a real (if always heretical) Christian rootedness on the one hand and a genuinely radical reforming openness to difference and change on the other — is consciously kept alive at the very heart of our community that today we have any hope of continuing to access and release our tradition’s radical and liberal energy.

The problem is that at this time in our history there are many people (both within and outside our particular institution and tradition) who would like to collapse this always challenging paradox to a singularity, to one side or the other. On the one hand there are those who would like us to land definitively (and forever) on the side of our inherited Christian tradition and to claim that only on its shore will it be possible to build an effective liberal religious institution which can move us into our true future. On the other hand there are those who would like us to land definitely (and forever) on the side of absolute open-ended change and to insist that we must completely let go of our distinctive traditions and roots and move into a wholly undiffentiated, pluralistic landscape. For such people only this approach will move us into our true future.

But it seems to me that either of these moves, if and when acted on as, alas, they often are, cuts dangerously against our community’s own unique way of being and effectively destroys the paradox which is nothing less than the very source or engine of our liberalism and openness.

Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30) is a good illustration of this tension and paradox at work. On the one hand it is suggesting we have a duty and a calling, a history as farmers of a particular crop and not another, to sow what is for us our “good wheat” and not “bad tares” — in other words to sow our own distinctive tradition. This “wheat” is what we feel best sustains us and our wider communities of belonging and so, of course, we sow “wheat” — we’d be foolhardy not to. Yet, even as we sow our “wheat” we are reminded that there are other forces in the world attempting to sow their own seed which seemingly threatens our own and this can, at times, make them seem as if they must be our enemies (or, as Tyndale has it, "envious men"). From time immemorial the temptation on all sides — our own included — has been forcibly to tear out the other’s crop and the aim of those who desire power has everywhere and always been to develop a monoculture free from what they believe are nothing more or less than weeds. But the radical inaugural event that transpired in Jesus and also in our the actual founding of our Unitarian tradition says a resolute “No!” to this approach. We have come to feel that our inaugural events say to everyone — ourselves included — by all means sow what you believe is your good wheat but for your own crop’s good you must let what you believe to be tares to grow too. Our foundational events also say to us that we must leave to the future everything that genuinely belongs to the future, especially the answer to the question of what in our present will eventually be gathered up and kept and what will be let go and burnt as chaff? We cannot answer this — no one can — and  our inaugural events tell us over and over that we must let wheat and tares grow together and learn daily to say with our Polish Brethren forebears that: “Whilst we declare our own opinions, we oppress no one. Let every person enjoy the freedom of their own judgement in religion.”

But such a highly unusual, unique even, free-thinking religious tradition is a hard way to follow and it remains one which, to this day, is not accepted by churches from the Magisterial Reformation as being a legitimate interpretation and unfolding of Jesus’ teachings.

Therefore, on this five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, I think it behoves us gently to remind ourselves that the energizing paradox which continues to make us the unique kind of liberal religious community we are was not born out of the Reformation initiated by Luther, Calvin and Zwingli but those extraordinary free-thinkers who, like Faustus Socinus, inaugurated what is for us a still unfolding Radical Reformation.


During the service I also read the following meditation called "The Christians who move on" by Cliff Reed, written for an International Council of Unitarian Universalists Executive Committee meeting, Weston, MA, April 2002:

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving behind what cannot be retained:
the creeds written to cement a long dead empire;
the justification for slavery, genocide and witch-burning; the refusal to hear other people’s truth;
an idolised book, a man diminished to a god.

We leave these behind and move on,
not in arrogance, not unaware of tradition’s worth, not creating new bigotries as bad as the old ones,
or so we hope!

We move on,
carrying with us the free and timeless heart of Jesus,
faithful to what was said and done in love for liberty by him, by those who follow him, by those who give his spirit voice and flesh in every time and place.

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving even the name behind, maybe,
a name that Jesus never knew.

We are the Christians who move on,
Seeking and sharing the divine heart in everyone,
as Jesus did.