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 Next service: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, September 23 @ 10:30 am

A Confederacy of Heretics

by Richard Olson

September 24, 2017

Welcome Words: In the year 1600, an Italian Dominican Friar met the fate of many heretics of the time. Expanding on previous discoveries that the Sun does not orbit the earth, he went beyond our galaxy, claiming that the universe is infinite and it is fixed with stars and multiple worlds. To add to the severity of his heresy, he encouraged the peaceful coexistence of all religions. His name was Giordano Bruno, and he wasn’t the first, or the last, heretic to meet such a fate for subverting religious authority.

Chalice Lighting: We light this chalice to honor those past heretics who challenged religious authority with their revelations of the cosmos. We light this chalice to inspire the heretics of our day, who defy the words and deeds of those who, when it suits them, base morality and justice on literal interpretations of ancient scriptures. We light this chalice for future heretics, who have yet to face both the perils and fruits of their convictions.

Joys and sorrows: Golda Meir once said that those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart, don’t know how to laugh either. We come together this morning, many hearts, some weeping in sorrow, offers laughing with joy. But whether in sorrow or joy, listen to your heart closely, for in its whisper you will hear its most powerful voice.

For all the joys and sorrows, spoken or otherwise, may we consider this charge from Ralph Waldo Emerson: Go forth into the busy world and love it. Interest yourself in its life, mingle kindly with its joys and sorrows.

Offertory: As we mingle kindly with the joys and sorrows of life, let us be thankful to have a place such as this, a place where, through mutual generosity, our joys are celebrated and our sorrows eased. We will now receive the morning offering.

The book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 20: verses 10-16 of New Revised Standard Version

This is the voice of Yahweh giving instructions on warfare to his followers:

When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you as forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus, you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive.


A few were hanged or drawn and quartered, but most were burned at the stake. Some rotted in prison, others, victims of ingenious forms of torture. Some converted, some were excommunicated, some fled. Some, like Galileo Galilei, were held under house arrest. Some gained fame during their lifetime, others died only to become martyrs centuries later. Whatever the circumstance, the outcomes of being a heretic can range from death to persecution to vindication, with vindication generally happening long after the fact.

When it comes to famous, or infamous, heretics, one hardly knows where to begin, or how, or who, or how many. We could arrange them by profession, such as poets, theologians, or scientists. We could arrange them chronologically, starting from the ancient smiting of entire nations of heretics, move through the centuries, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and then into modern times. We could approach it by location, the Promised Land, the catacombs of Rome, and Renaissance Europe, the New World. Other approaches could be by nationality, by notoriety, alphabetically, or by religious affiliation, or lack thereof. But allow me to be random this morning, and bounce all around.

We can trace the word heretic or heresy back to the Greeks, when it meant “able to choose”. The word was historically, and most commonly, used in a religious context-much the same way infidel was, and still is, used today. Both words evoke events such as the Inquisitions and the Crusades, but they are not limited to such a distant past. In fact, when we consider the early history of the United States, we are reminded that our country was founded and settled over many years by Europeans who sought a haven for religious heretics: The Pilgrims, the Quakers, the Catholics, the Mormons; some of the founding fathers were Unitarians or Deists; and today, Christian Science and Scientology are considered heresies by some.

And even in our modern, post Enlightenment age, we still have mass executions, beheadings and burnings of alleged heretics and infidels. And sometimes they are televised for the world to see.

As language often does, words sometimes fade from lack of use or morph, by design or otherwise, into other meanings.
Definitions for heretic today include words such as dissenter, reformer, skeptic, nonconformer, and someone having a belief that is opposite to official or popular opinion. This does not mean that being condemned as a heretic or infidel is no longer dangerous; as we sit here today, Muslims are being cleansed from the majority Buddhist nation of Myanmar.

We tend to call this ‘ethnic cleansing’, but ethnicity and religion often go hand in hand.

I was raised Lutheran, but here I am now, the member of a denomination that is listed under ‘other” in the churches section of the Yellow Pages. Technically this makes me an apostate, one who changes religious association.

Which by default makes me a heretic too. In fact, at the risk of offending some and flattering others, I will say I am a proud member of this church, this, our confederacy of heretics.

A confederacy of heretics. The word confederacy has a couple of meanings. It can mean a group that forms for illegal activities, or to conspire-as in the succession of the southern states in the late 19th Century. But it can also describe a league, a compact for mutual support, an alliance.

I suppose I could use the word “confederation”, which is more neutral term, but a good heretic avoids neutrality.

Struggling with words, such as ‘confederacy or confederation” is something we UUs do often and well, well maybe not well, but certainly often. Are we a denomination, an affiliation, an association, an alliance, a society? We stumble and stammer even more when we attempt to explain to others, and even to ourselves, who we are and what we believe; are we atheists, agnostics, Humanists, Christians, Buddhatarians?

So rather than struggling with all that, I have decided that, henceforth, I will simply tell people we are a confederacy of heretics.  Of course, it might be best for me to consider the variety of responses I could receive.

Some may be caught off guard by such a curt response, they may be sorry they asked, quickly change the subject, or excuse themselves to greet a long-lost friend across the room. They wouldn’t make good heretics anyway, so let them go I say, hoping I will, as a heretic, at least be worthy of some stares and whispers.

Some may take pity on me, and remind me that heretics are rarely invited to be born again. We can, however, find company in the sixth circle of Dante’s Inferno, where heretics are either confined to burning tombs or nailed to an inverted burning cross. I suppose this would make for double jeopardy for those already burned at the stake, but if justice doesn’t reign on Earth then why would it reign in Hell.

But some, those who would be saints if they only had a heretic to save, will delight in my response, as it offers them such an opportunity. And true to their noble crusade, they will not keep their mission a secret from me. They may even go so far as to declare their gratitude. I will say your welcome; for what is a heretic if not a pious man’s project?

But some may just throw this self-proclaimed heretic and apostate for a loop.

They may show curiosity, they may become interested, they may be potential heretics for our confederacy. Soon they will appear in our pews, unwittingly sitting in a spot tacitly reserved for a long-time member. Soon they will be volunteering to chair a committee, just so no one worse than they are will do it. Soon they will understand why it takes an entire confederacy of heretics to change a light bulb-one to hold the ladder, one to hold the bulb, and the rest to turn the church around.

One of the problems we heretics, we apostates, we non-conformists face, is where do we draw the line in our heresy. Do we embrace the extreme of those whom Emerson calls “the proud dissenters, the solitary nullifier”, and only speak for the “kingdom of me”? Or do we, once again evoking Emerson, join the ranks of “those communal members who lower themselves to the certainties of the association”, as in, “tone it down,” “don’t rock the boat,” “what will our neighbors think?”

But somewhere between those two options, the solitary heretic, and the play-it-safe communal member, is where we find the line between heresy and orthodoxy-and that sometimes is a good place to be.

Yet, this is also where that line between heresy and orthodoxy blurs, where the mere claim of being certain is safer and more affirming than the risk of finding out otherwise. This is where we find that dismissive yawn, that rolling of the eyes that comes with the “not again, not another attempt to be a heretic without a cause. This limbo, this purgatory, this twilight zone, is where heresy, reform, and dissention suffer from complacency and eventually die in darkness. This is where orthodoxy lurks in that darkness, sheltered by time and convention from the winds of change. This is the space between Chesterton’s two clauses, when he claimed, “heresy is a cradle, orthodoxy a coffin”.

Yet, Helen Keller, yes, that Helen Keller, takes a different perspective, saying that “the heresy of one age, is the orthodoxy of the next”.

Orthodoxy, when not capitalized, means conforming to established doctrine. Some orthodoxies are rigid, others not so much. Usually, when the word is capitalized, it is meant to distinguish one sect from another within a broader category, such as Orthodox Jews compared to Reformed Jews.

So, with our definition of heresy and orthodoxy clarified, let’s learn more about Keller and Chesterton.

G.K. Chesterton, was a well-known British poet, author, journalist, orator, and lay theologian around the turn of the 20th Century. He was a cigar chomping man of considerable heft whose pen and tongue were constant instruments of his wit. He was known to be anti-Semitic, yet he opposed the eugenics movement of his time.

A heretic from the very heart and soul of the Church of England, he openly declaring himself an “Orthodox Christian”. And if that wasn’t enough, we also ruffled the feathers of the Roman Catholic Church when he embraced Universalism, the belief that salvation is universal. He was a paradox of common sense and sophisticated thought and was a heretic in both regards. He strongly opposed the popular notion that poverty was the result of bad breeding, again clashing with the lingering norms of Victorian England. He believed that the test of any good religion is if you can joke about it. Some of you may know him by his Father Brown series of short stories which, under the same title, have been dramatized and can be seen on public television, Netflix, and possibly elsewhere.

Helen Keller is probably best known from those childhood stories about a young girl who lost her vision and hearing as the result of an illness. We learned of a girl, a woman, who, instead of becoming of victim of self-pity, with courage, determination and a faithful companion, went on to take her place in history.

But we didn’t hear much about the political side of Helen Keller, the social and religious heretic side, the woman who was even called the Joan of Arc of her times.

Keller was a staunch socialist, which led J. Edgar Hoover to add her name to his list of communist subversives. She was a vocal supporter of worker safety and workers’ rights. She believed that, rather than mask the symptoms of poverty, we should address the root causes.  She was a white, southern-born woman who supported the NAACP, she helped found the ACLU and to bring it closer to home, and she was good friend and strong supporter of Wisconsin progressive representative and senator Robert “Fighting Bob’ Lafollette.

As for her religious belief, Keller considered herself a Christian, but more so in a spiritual sense. Like Chesterton, she believed in universal salvation. She admired the theology of 18th Century Swedish philosopher, theologian and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

In Keller’s own words, but referring to Swedenborg, she wrote: By ‘church’ he did not mean an ecclesiastical organization, but a spiritual fellowship of thoughtful men and women who spend their lives for a service to mankind that outlasts them.

Keller was a heretic that didn’t lower herself to the comfortable certainties of her community. Nor did she dwell in the kingdom of me, of proud dissenters. Her cause was greater than herself and I posthumously welcome her to my Confederacy of Heretics’ Hall of Fame.

I welcome Chesterton too.

When Chesterton claims that “heresy is a cradle, orthodoxy a coffin”, he reminds us that sometimes heresy is the alpha and orthodoxy the omega, just as death is the natural outcome of birth. But he also reminds us that heretics must constantly rock the cradle, not to lull heresy to sleep, but to keep it alive and out of the tomb of orthodoxy.

So, does Keller imply more hope than Chesterton when she says, “the heresy of one age, is the orthodoxy of the next” or was she saying, ‘you call me a heretic now but just you wait and see’? I think it’s both. Her comment is not as strident as Chesterton’s, but instead implies that through a natural order, a cycle, a recycling of heresy and orthodoxy, there is hope, a hope that each time we repeat the process society advances.

My Confederacy of Heretics Hall of Fame has many posthumous inductees, but I will only mention two more today: one, a Renaissance Humanist, the other, a freethinking agnostic.

Robert Ingersoll, known as the Great Agnostic, is easily deserving of a service unto himself. During the late 1880s he was one of the leading voices in America for the separation of church and state, he was a champion of women’s rights, and, when the mood in our country was otherwise, he defended liberal immigration and immigrant rights. His belief that blacks (that was his word) are the social and intellectual equivalent of whites was the epitome of social heresy.

Referring to that same biblical passage (Jeff/I) I read earlier, in which the God of Abraham incites and sanctions violence and genocide, Ingersoll said (quote) “Strange that no one has ever been persecuted by the church for believing God bad, while hundreds of millions have been destroyed for thinking him good. The orthodox church never will forgive the Universalist for say “God is Love”.

Ingersoll believed that most creeds show love of God but hatred of man, he wondered why anyone would take advice on raising children from someone who drowns his own, and he believed reading the Bible literally is the best way to make you question it.

Following the publication of her biography of Ingersoll, titled The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, author Susan Jacoby, in an interview with NPR said: “Men like Ingersoll would have been astonished at the survival of fundamentalism in our era. I don’t think that they would have been at all surprised that people are still religious. I think they would have been very surprised that anybody, by the end of the 20th century, would have been running for office on the platform that the Bible is literally true.” Welcome to the Confederacy of Heretics Hall of Fame Mr. Ingersoll.

I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t include into this Hall of Fame at least one member of our UU Pantheon of the Illustrious, our very own heretic Miguel Servetus, well, maybe not our very own.

Servetus, born in 16th Century Spain, was a leading scientist of his times and was the first to discover the human pulmonary circulatory system-but that didn’t get him in trouble. However, his bend toward Humanism, his support of the Reformation, and his unorthodox views of the Trinity did.  He disputed the dogma of original sin, he opposed the baptism of infants, and he accused orthodox trinitarians of trying to define God to fit their own agendas.

He believed that grace was not limited to adherents of Christian doctrine, but was accessible to all through both human intelligence and free will.

Even though the harsh theologian John Calvin requested a beheading for his heresy, Servetus was instead burned at the sake along with his books. Welcome to the Confederacy of Heretic Hall of Fame Don Miguel.

Like any living, breathing and successful confederacy, a Confederacy of Heretics can’t live in the past; it must replenish itself.

So, there is still plenty of room for both social and religious heretics. There is room for those heretics who believe the essence of Christianity is not the magical birth and death, but the message of love, compassion, justice and inclusion. There is room for those who believe that science and religion are not mutually exclusive, for there is power is both. There is room for those who stand firm in their convictions that no human being is illegal. There is room for those heretics who believe that human authored scriptures are not the word of any God, they are not absolute, and they are not final. And there is room for those who believe that poverty and human suffering are not predestined by God, nor do they imply moral failure or wickedness.

And if that still does include you, welcome anyway. No need to risk being burned at the stake. No need to be censored or censured.  No need to be excommunicated, be an apostate, or even a member of this church. But a certain amount of heresy is expected.

We may never know what the fullness of time will yield.  But we, the heretics, the activists, the dissenters of the day, can alter and enlighten the orthodoxies of tomorrow, whether they are religious or social.  From the solitary nullifiers, to those who find comfort in the certainties, we UUs have always been a confederacy of heretics, and a formidable one at that. May we never cease rocking awake those heresies in Chesterton’s cradle.

Sometime heretics recant at the last minute to save their soul, not to mention their skin. But not Oscar Wilde. His untimely death was likely hastened by imprisonment, but he remained a heretic to the end. On his death bed, instead of confessing his sins, instead of asking for absolution, instead of requesting his last rites, he stuck with his convictions that death was an end with nothing to fear. With little strength, but with the irreverence of a lifetime heretic, his last words were: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” And he did.