Sermon: Heretic Pride: Servetus, Calvin, and the Fire of Faith by, Ethan Loewi

2020 February 17
by DoMC

Heretic Pride: Servetus, Calvin, and the Fire of Faith
First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn
Ethan Loewi
February 16, 2020

Like a lot of Unitarian Universalists, I take my heresy quite seriously. It’s not just a hobby, it’s a passion. For one thing, heretics are in excellent company: Joan of Arc, Socrates, and Galileo were all condemned for their non-conforming faith, as was a certain Jewish carpenter. If Dante is right about the afterlife, and there’s a circle of hell where all the heretics go, that circle will have great parties. There will be punk rock and an open bar. That’s my theology, and I’m sticking to it.

I’m glad that our tradition is so heretic-friendly, and I love that we have some illustrious heretics enshrined in the windows of this very sanctuary. Jan Hus, the great Czech reformer, who stood against the ethical abuses of the church. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called for a new dawn of faith–declaring “When we have broken our God of tradition, then may God fire the heart with his presence.” And there, fourth from the back in a stylish blue robe, we have a Spanish doctor, theologian, and freethinker by the name of Michael Servetus. He was an uber-mega-turbo heretic: Catholics hated him, Protestants hated him—and he was, mind you, a devout Christian. But his beliefs sounded suspiciously like a deviant religion known today as Unitarianism. And in the 16th century, being Christian in the wrong way was not looked on kindly. It was not a good time to have ideas—especially ideas about God. At least, not if you wanted to keep your head and neck contiguous.

If you look closely, you’ll see two painted symbols above him. First a winged staff, for his ground-breaking medical work: Servetus gave us the first written account of pulmonary circulation, the flow of blood between the heart and lungs. The second symbol is a flame, representing exactly what you’d think, in the story of someone who made a lot of religious authorities very angry. In a major theological debate, Servetus exchanged dozens of letters with John Calvin, then one of the most powerful Protestant in the world. It was not a cordial relationship—by which I mean, each accused the other of being the antichrist. In 1553, by the influence of Calvin, Servetus was captured and convicted of heresy. His offending book, ironically titled The Restoration of Christianity was chained to his leg, and together they were burned at the stake. 

In the suffering and sacrifice of those labeled as heretics, we see the desperate, ongoing quest of humankind to change religion. As religious progressives, we strive to make faith new: to discover timely expressions of timeless principles. The bridge to that future is often condemned as heretical, but there is much pride to be taken in that mantle. I love the etymology of the word: “heretic” comes to us from the Greek hairetikos, meaning “able to choose.” A heretic isn’t a wicked person–they’re someone who disagrees with the religious views of the person calling them a heretic. The terms heresy and orthodoxy, like winner and loser, are relational. Everyone is someone’s heretic. And very often, the real issue at stake in religious conflict is not spiritual virtue, but control. Consider the case of the Fraticelli—a sect of Franciscan monks brutally persecuted as heretics because their vows of poverty embarrassed the very wealthy Roman church. Just as history is usually written by the victors, orthodoxy is usually written by the powerful. So heretics are those who resist the powers that be—and they are the natural enemy of demagogues, who demand obedience above all else. The story of Servetus, and the imperatives of our present, challenge us to think heretically. Because there are many harmful orthodoxies yet to be unmade.

            If you came here today expecting some kind of a Valentine’s day sermon, this isn’t that. Love is…fine—it’s fine. But we talk about love like every week. Enough is enough.

I want to share the story of Servetus, but also that of his arch-rival—the great champion of orthodoxy, John Calvin. Because in their story, there is something eternal about the whole story of religion—that I think can illuminate our future. And I want to go deeper than just, “Servetus good, Calvin bad,” or “heresy good, orthodoxy bad.” If we want history to teach us how to break cycles, we can’t just sort people into a crude binary of wicked and virtuous. Rather, what this story can teach us is the astonishing power of faith.

Both Calvin and Servetus had a fire in them–like the one we kindle here, in our sanctuary. Drive by their blazing and powerful faith, they pursued God’s work with incredible conviction. There is something to admire in that, and also something to fear. The fire of faith can ignite our spirits, bringing us unparalleled vitality and hope. It can also burn down our whole building. As Unitarian Universalists, let us strive to cultivate a faith as passionate as any—yet keep that flame safely housed, in a chalice of humility and love. If we work for our values with the passionate conviction of Servetus—and yes, also of Calvin—there are few limits to what we might accomplish.

So how did Servetus come to be the most despised heretic in all the world? He lived during the Protestant Reformation, a good time to be a religious radical–but other reformers rejected him, saying that his ideas smacked of Arianism–a proto-Unitarian theology, holding Jesus to be a created and therefore non-eternal being. The big shots of the reformation, like Luther and Calvin, wanted to condemn the Catholic church, but were terrified of going too far in their heterodoxy. Simply put, Servetus was PR kryptonite. To quote scholar Ephraim Emerton, “It is rather as if some noxious reptile had suddenly appeared in their midst and threatened to poison the very springs from which they drew their own resistance to the Catholic church.” But Servetus—a very smart, and it must be said incredibly prideful man–would dampen the embers of his faith for no one. In his words, “God gave us the mind so that we can know him.”

Compared to the forces that despised him and his beliefs, Servetus had all the power of a slug beneath a steam roller. Many reasonable people, in his shoes, might have said–yeah, I’m just gonna lay low. Maybe get out of the way of this steam roller. Not Servetus. Upon being sentenced to die, he said to Calvin and his judges “I will burn, but this is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity.” And as he was tied to the stake, he cried out “Jesus, son of the eternal God, have mercy on me.” William Farel, John Calvin’s close adviser, observed that if only Servetus had cried out “Jesus, eternal son of God,” his life could have been spared. Humans! Love us or hate us, you can’t deny that we are the weirdest species on the planet. No other animal would commit murder over the placement of an adjective. We make giant squid look downright banal.

So who was John Calvin–the seeming villain of this tale? What kindled his fire? Well, like Servetus, he was a man on a mission from God: Calvin was epically ambitious, and determined to bring the world to his vision of faith. He mindset was something like “Ok, I’m the smartest Christian—now I just have to get everyone else to fall in line.” And he came remarkably close to that goal. Calvin shaped the lives of millions. Historian Bruce Gordon describes him as “a towering presence, whose theological, pastoral and legal brilliance distinguished him from all around him.” Some see him as a visionary reformer; some see him as a theocratic tyrant. As one historian puts it, the Calvinist stronghold of Geneva allowed “no freedom with respect to doctrine, daily life, or individual convictions.” That’s about the least Unitarian Universalist thing I’ve ever heard. Calvin worked himself to death fighting for theological uniformity— basically to stop a denomination like ours from ever existing. Our presence here confirms his failure. He killed Servetus, but that bloody act of suppression would set off shockwaves of resistance. Sebastian Castellio, a famed preacher and humanist, condemned Calvin of doing the devil’s work–writing “What more could Satan do than burn those who call upon the name of Christ?” Calvin, of course, would not yield an inch—saying in his defense that sometimes “God demands of us such extreme severity that humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories.”

            The killings of Servetus, and of countless other heretics, show us the disasters religion can lead to: the embers of faith, sparking wildfires of hypocrisy. How many people have been tortured and burned in the name of the Prince of Peace? Sometimes I wonder if religion is actually some kind of elaborate quantum physics experiment, where we try to find the theoretical limits of irony.

Now, it must be said that Calvin was not some cartoon villain. He also wrote on God’s grace, and the beauty of creation. As he put it, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” And Calvin’s Geneva was not some dystopia: as author Marilynne Robinson observes, “it had public education for all children, boys and girls, with the schooling of poor children paid for by the city. It had institutions for the relief of the poor and refugees.” In the one person of John Calvin, we see the incredible extremes that faith can bring us: the dizzying highs and tragic lows.

What’s most interesting about Calvin and Servetus, for me, isn’t their differences, but how alike they were. How similar their fire really was. They’re almost inverted versions of each other—brilliant, faith-driven people with egos the size of Brooklyn. And Calvin only lived twelve years longer than Servetus: he died at 54, basically from having worked himself to death. His last years were marked by excruciating pain due to kidney stones and lung problems, but he kept working because he thought his teachings would lead people to God. The fire of faith burned bright in both of them.

            The story of Calvin and Servetus told, and their lives extinguished, the question remains—what can we take from all of this? I know I’ve thrown a lot at you, and the story of Calvin and Servetus is a sad one: it shows us that the world is sometimes just a place of big-fish-eat-little-fish. There’s a lot to be angry and despairing about, but let’s not focus only on the tragic. To paraphrase Servetus, “I am too busy loving God to hate the devil.”

This sad story also shows us that the fiery conviction of one person can tilt the world on its axis. Servetus ripped open the door for the religious freedom of millions. According to historians Claire Allen and Marian Hillar, his trial “was the turning point in the ideology and mentality dominating since the fourth century.” Seeing the intolerance of Calvin and the profound faith of Servetus, public opinion shifted massively against the killing of heretics. As Sebastian Castellio put it, “The dwelling of Christ must be built by love.” So a thousand-year pattern of violence and suppression was altered by the actions of one faithful soul. Calvin too changed the world, for better and worse. The fire of faith was an inferno in their spirits. But that fire was disastrously untended by humility and love. Calvin and Servetus hated each other. And both believed themselves to be so damn smart that only they knew the real truth about God. With the great benefit of hindsight, we see that humility and love must be at the heart of our faith. From the wisest Christian to the wisest atheist, no one has a monopoly on truth.

            In my first half-year at First U, one thing I’ve learned is your passion for good works: I’ve seen how much this community wants to build a kinder, more socially just world. I’ve also learned how anxious some of us feel about our ability to make that happen. Global warming, systemic racism, exploitation of workers and the poor: these forces can feel so titanic that nothing we do will really matter. I feel that way myself on a regular basis—so small, so irrelevant. Powerless beneath the burdens of our century as an ant beneath a millstone. But in the bloody, intolerant hell-storm of the 16th century, people probably felt the same way—if not much worse. And in the midst of that nightmare, Servetus and Calvin–two bookworms with a yen for the divine–both changed the course of history.

I’m not saying we should go out there and die for what we believe in—in fact, I almost feel compelled to give an anti-martyrdom PSA, in the style of Reefer Madness. (You think martyrdom is COOL?!) But if we as Unitarian Universalists can believe in our faith with their intensity and zeal, while adding to it humility and love—who knows what ancient patterns of cruelty we might change.

At the end of a long and complicated sermon, my message is a simple one: do not despair. Fuel the fire of your faith with passion, humility, and love. Because I say to you that the world has been transformed by faith, and will by faith transform again. With our deeds and voices, we can move from fighting over God, in an endless bloody struggle between heresy and orthodoxy, to truly living in God’s kingdom. Isaiah 32:17: “the work of righteousness shall be peace.”

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