Most of us want to believe we would be the kid in the crowd who shouts that the Emperor has no clothes! We all want to be the good guy, but if we want to be that person we have to prepare and strengthen ourselves, so that our minds can open, our hearts can warm, and our arms can embrace the truth. We will be secure enough in our identity that when we are faced with truths that are inconvenient, we will be more likely to say yes.
This service was offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse in March 2019.
Wisdom Story The Emperor Has No Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson.
Reading: T’hillah by Rev. Mark L. Belletini
Barukh atah, Emeth!
Blest are you, o Truth.
Like the fabled Moses,
I too can never claim to have seen you
“face to face.”
Too often, I’ve hung my own face on you
and pretended that I know something I do not.
Indeed, my most honest heart confesses
that at most,
I have only caught the briefest glimpse of you
at the very edge of my eye,
and only when I get out of my own way,
my own rush, my own fury.
I sense your cool shadow on me
when I grow hot from the tears
I’ve been holding back,
or when I notice the sadness or whimsy
hiding in the silent eyes of those around me.
I sense your closeness when I gaze
at a star suddenly unveiled by a toreador cloud,
or catch at an early yellowness
in the leaves of the oak.
It’s then I feel a brush of wings nearby,
and realize that I am only a small part of it all.
Then I know that I am not the
great high power of the world,
but only a puff of breath hidden amid the
mighty blasts of the great whirlwind
called the universe.
Like a lacewing barely floating
on the tip of a small blade of green grass is my life
from beginning to end, a short footnote to
a vast essay of stars and space unbounded,
an essay neither signed nor finally symbolic.
And yet this truth, your truth,
is no sadness, but a joy,
no lack but a blessing,
like the sight of a child at play,
totally absorbed in the moment, and glad.
Blest are you, O Truth, who plays in this silence
like a child in the waves of an infinite sea.
Barukh atah, Emeth.
In 1660, the Arians, who built the first organized Unitarian movement in Europe, invited the Roman Catholic leadership of Poland to a conference to prove that their differences were small enough to be of no consequence. Now, in case you think I’m talking about white supremacists, I’m not. Arians, spelled A-R-I-A-N not A-R-Y-A-N, named themselves after Arius, the 4th century Libyan scholar who argued for a non-Trinitarian Christianity at the Council of Nicea. He lost the battle, but his teachings lived underground for centuries.
Arianism came to Poland in the 1550s, especially in Krakow, among the Catholic Humanists. It was in this group that anti-Trinitarianism, the belief that the doctrine of Father Son and Holy Ghost was wrong, found a home. They were not alone in asking new questions and finding the room to ask them. The right combination of open-minded Kings and nobles meant that Poland had become more tolerant. In 1573, the Polish National Assembly passed the Warsaw Confederation, the first European act granting religious freedom. Arians came out of the woodwork, from all over Europe, and even founded their own town, Rakow, which became a center of Arian schools, libraries, churches and publishing houses.
In 1576, Faustus Socinus arrived from Italy. He was a fantastic theologian, writer, and debater. His Arian theology provided a grounding for the new Arian movement. In fact, many Arians soon called themselves Socinians. His theology denied the doctrine of original sin, which said that humans are born in a state of sin, and the doctrine of atonement, which said that Jesus died for that state of sin. Socinianism was pacifist; you could not take any human life. You were also not to pursue wealth, rather accumulating only what you needed. Jesus was a man without a divine nature. The Holy Spirit was not God, but a divine spirit working on people’s hearts. God was simply God, and you achieved eternal life through knowing God in acts of kindness, humility, generosity and prayer.
Socinianism grew until Socinus died in 1604, but even before he died the winds of intolerance starting blowing again. They’d actually never left. There was a deep uneasiness with a whole town being Anti-Trinitarian, even among other Radical Protestant groups who found refuge because of the Warsaw Confederation. Catholics and Protestants argued its protections were never meant for Arians. In 1611 Iwan Tyszkiewicz was executed because he would not swear an oath to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Arian homes and churches were often ransacked. Arian graves were disturbed. In 1638, the Polish Senate ordered the destruction of Rakow, and especially its schools and printing presses. Rakow’s people fled to Kisielin, Ukraine, another Arian center, but the Catholic Church was not far behind. They did the same thing in Kisielin– closed the schools, burned the churches, and destroyed the presses.
In 1658, Poland decreed that all Arians had to renounce their faith. Those who refused had 3 years to leave Poland, or they would be executed.
You would think that this would be the time for the Arians to start considering their options, like where they were going to go, but when you look back at this 100-year movement, they consistently had one answer. Whenever they faced intolerance, they proposed a conference. They would go to those who judged them – Calvinist, Anabaptists, other Protestants, Catholics – and say, “Hey, there’s been a misunderstanding. Let’s get together and talk. You get to tell us the Scriptural basis of your doctrines and we’ll tell you ours. Maybe we can find some common truth!” They would do this after an execution, after a school burning, after mobs tore up their town, when their graves were desecrated, or when they got beat up on the street. “Let’s get together and talk,” someone would say. There was this deep trust and hope that when people heard the truth of what they said minds would open and hearts would change.
That is how the Socinians found themselves at the table with Catholic leaders in 1660. The decree to renounce their faith had been issued, and this was their last stand. According to Unitarian Universalist historian, Charles Howe, it was a momentous event. The grandson of Socinus defended Socinianism with everything he had, and there are reports that he did soften the hearts of many who heard him. But do you think anyone changed their minds? Not one. The decree stood.
Hundreds of Socinians renounced their faith. Those who refused scattered across Europe, seeking tolerance – Transylvania, East Prussia, Germany, Holland. Arianism in Poland was dead.
Now, why am I telling you this depressing story in a message about truth? The Socinians consistently held onto their belief that the truth would literally set them free. The truth is that the deck was stacked against them. They had no political power and less economic power, but they would go into these conversations convinced that if they just made their case well enough, if they chose the right scriptures and the best turns of phrase, the people who persecuted them would say, “Oh my goodness! We were so wrong! OK, we’ll stop burning you at the stake and smashing your presses! You were right all along!”
How often does that happen? How often have you had the experience of meeting with someone, or with a group that was fundamentally opposed to something you believe in, and when you presented your case everyone just changed their mind?
Today, I want to focus on how hard it is to change our assumptions, to change our minds, and think in new ways. Last week, I talked about how truth is the most powerful thing in our theology besides love, and how we as Unitarian Universalists, the descendants of the Polish Socinians and Arians, still proclaim that the truth sets us free. When we meet the truth and are able to open our hearts and minds we will be transformed by this truth, our actions will change, and we can bring healing to our hurting world.
This is what the Polish Socinians were trying to do with that conference. Now that time it didn’t work, so my question is, what were they not able to see? Not that I would ever blame them for what happened to them, but I’m wondering why they had this tunnel vision in terms of what options they had. If you consider the intersections of identity, politics, class, education, ethnicity, and the shifts that were going on in wealth generation in the mid-1600s, there was a lot at play that went far beyond the simple assertion that Jesus was not God that kept the decision makers around that conference table from considering anything that was said.
Let’s think about our children’s story, a story that many of us grew up with, The Emperor’s New Clothes. What kept all those people from believing what they saw or saying the truth that was right in front of them?! The clothes rack was empty! The Emperor was almost naked, and not he or any of his attendants said a thing. They kept on playing along, even doubting their own eyes!
What was at stake? Reputations. Relationships. Identities. Histories. Power. Influence. Maybe even the giving and receiving of love itself. Everyone who extolled the beauty of the invisible clothing was protecting something they considered precious.
Every one of us, in every minute of our lives, is making choices about what we believe to be true. We could be sitting around a work table trying to make a decision, explaining a boundary we’ve set for our kids, struggling to get through a disagreement with a loved one, reading the morning paper, or weighing choices at the grocery store. It would be nice to think that we always make decisions from a place of strength and intellectual certainty, but we know that’s not true. However, sometimes we choose what’s easiest, what brings the most immediate satisfaction, what seems to be the least harmful option, what will protect our job, what will protect a relationship, or what will get our kids to bed on time so we have a bit of peace and quiet. We just make our choices and hope that the roof doesn’t fall in!
There’s a lot at stake in how we sift through the raw material of our lives and land on what we settle as the truth.
In 2011, Psychological Science published a study about how people responded to evidence that was different from what they wanted to be true. They brought together a group of people who were preparing to start families, and all of them believed that it was better to keep your kids home until kindergarten than send them to daycare. Half of the group knew that they would need to send their kids to daycare because they would have to go back to work. The other half would be able to take care of their kids at home. Each group was then presented with evidence that it is better to send your kid to daycare than to keep them at home. What do you think happened? Those who knew they were going to have to go back to work welcomed the new evidence and most changed their minds. Those who were planning to keep their kids home challenged the evidence and remained as certain as ever.
What motivated the different responses? Each group wanted to believe that they were making the best choice for their children. They wanted to see themselves as morally and ethically solid, and they accepted or discounted the evidence to stay in that place. (1)
You could make a similar case to what is happening with vaccinations. We have a growing measles epidemic and there’s a push for parents to vaccinate their kids; that it is the moral thing to do. This push is supported by overwhelming evidence that vaccinations are safe and effective, yet the anti-vaxxers are not budging. It doesn’t matter how many studies are released. To be anti-vcxx is an identity. It’s a many layered worldview. I have no doubt that, to someone who is deeply within that worldview, to question their stance on vaccinations could feel like being compromised beyond redemption. So the scientific evidence is rejected over and over, but there are consequences. Parents with immune-compromised children or infants younger than 6 months are keeping their kids home if they can out of fear that they’ll come in contact with unvaccinated kids who are sick.
I have no doubt that most of us want to believe that we would be the kid in the crowd who shouts that the Emperor has no clothes! Right? We all want to be the good guy. However, if we want to be that person we have prepare ourselves, strengthen ourselves, so that our minds can open, our hearts can warm, our arms can embrace, and we will be secure enough in our identity that when we are faced with truths that are inconvenient, we will be more likely to say yes.
If you go back 350 years ago, to our Polish Arian and Socinian ancestors, and the theological positions developed by Faustus Socinus, there’s actually some nuggets of wisdom that can help us do this.
In his ethical theology, to be a good person was to be kind, humble, generous, and prayerful.
To be kind is to stay in a place of love. When you are faced with inconvenient truths remember, you are not alone. Everyone around you at some time has the same experience. If you can stay in a place of love for yourself and for whoever may be bearing this inconvenient truth, then you are less likely to feel shame that what you thought was true might not be. You are more likely to forgive yourself for the anxiety that is inevitable when in front of a truth you don’t want to believe.
To be humble is to decenter yourself. You are not the center of the universe. You are not the final arbiter of what is true. Your perceptions are tinted, just like everyone else, so we need each other to find truth. We can’t do it alone.
To be generous is to have enough room in your heart that giving up something becomes an opportunity. At first it may feel like a loss. You may need to grieve for a while, but think of the freedom when you let that thing go and allow something truer to take its place. To be generous is to trust in the abundance of life, and that to lose a truth is not to lose life.
Lastly, to be prayerful. I know some of us are uncomfortable with the word, but prayer is but one form of spiritual centering where we try to align ourselves with the cycles of life and the mysteries of our universe. If we can be assured that we are held and loved in that interdependent mystery of life, then inconvenient truths are no longer dangerous. We will be alright.
Truth when met with kindness, humility, generosity, and spiritual centering, is a powerful thing. The truth does set us free, and when we meet the truth and are able to open our hearts and minds to it, we will be stronger, wiser, more resilient and move loving. We can be transformed along with all that we love.
Charles Howe. “For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe.” Unitarian Universalist Association: 1997.
Art Markman. “You end up believing what you want to believe.” Psychology Today: June 1, 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ulterior-motives/201107/you-end-believing-what-you-want-believe
This sermon is the intellectual property of Rev. Krista Taves. You may use this material provided credit is given.
Many thanks to Betsy Westlund in La Crosse who edited this message for publishing.