Memory Maps

Memory Maps

Presented November 18th, 2018

“Memory is the most elemental thread of which the tapestry of experience we call reality is woven.” (Maria Popova)

Memory is an elemental thread in the tapestry of reality.
We are what we remember.

We are shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves, our family, our cultures, our country.
And those stories are based on our experiences, our history, by what we remember.
Our understanding shapes our memories which shape our understandings.

We live in a time when memory is shifting because society is shifting. We don’t need to remember as much because we have google.

There is this entire network of information and history and stories that we can turn to any time. It’s overwhelming to consider how much human knowledge there is out there. The internet helps us see how what we see as history is often just one perspective among many.
History is written by the victors. But Wikipedia can be written by anyone.

Just as the printing press put reading into the hands of the people, the internet puts information into the hands of the people, shifting political and social power. Our understanding of past events and present ones can now be informed by not just those with political power but those without.

When we hear from the perspectives of women, from people of colour, from indigenous people, from trans people and people with mental health struggles the tapestry of reality becomes richer, thicker and brighter.

As our understanding deepens our memories shift.
It’s difficult to remember the residential schools for indigenous people as beneficial, as one Canadian senator has tried to say, when you have heard the testimony given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It’s a good thing that our collective cultural memory is opening up to more perspectives.
It’s a sign of a healthy society when more voices are heard, when our cultural memories make room for others.

It can also be a loss. We can only hold so much history, so many stories, so many memories.
Memories, whole histories, disappear if there is no one to tell and remember them.

This is a challenge for Unitarian Universalism, more so than other traditions.
Without a sacred text or texts, this tradition evolves without much reverence for the past.

We are a place based religion – focused on the here and now, on how we live our lives and express our principles – and it’s easy to forget we have a history.

“To bring the past along with us through time in the hold-alls of myth and history is a heavy undertaking; but as Lao Tzu says, wise people march along with the baggage wagons.” (Ursula K Le Guin)

Wise people march with the baggage wagons. It’s important to remember what happened before.
Strangely for the consumer society we live in, we see baggage as a burden.
“Deal with your emotional baggage” we say, which generally means please leave it behind and start fresh.

But who goes on a journey without baggage? Only those in desperate flight.
To be prepared for a journey means to bring along the needful items.
And to go forward as a culture means to bring along the needful stories.

To tell them over and over again so that we may learn from them, and learn who we are.
Author Carlos Ruiz Zafon says “we are what we remember, what we know. The less we remember, the less we know about ourselves, the less we are.”

Unitarian Universalism has its own history, one that we tend to forget or dismiss. I think it’s because we don’t have many heroes, let alone saints.

We are religion emerging from community and conversation, and a young one at that.
We don’t have stories of miracles or God talking to us or people so perfect they are enlightened.
We have memories of ordinary, sometimes stubborn, sometimes difficult people who are figuring it all out as they go along.

We have stories that include a lot of false starts and failures, because that is how life is.
Our history is of very human people and it’s almost a little disappointing.

“We are what we remember, what we know. The less we remember, the less we know about ourselves, the less we are.”
This morning Pamela shared the story of Francis (Ferenc) David.

The 1560s were a time of chaos in Europe.  Political boundaries were shifting and Christianity was breaking apart.  Lutheranism and Calvinism were emerging from the Protestant Reformation and hints of Unitarianism – the indivisible nature of God – were springing up all over Europe.

Francis David took his theology seriously, he became a Lutheran minister, then a Calvinist and finally embraced a Unitarian perspective.
In Transylvania, King John’s doctor, also a Unitarian, brought David to court. David’s passionate arguments for the unity of God converted the young King.

King John was the first and only Unitarian King. In 1568, he called a Diet or gathering of religious leaders from Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Unitarianism.

Francis spoke for Unitarianism. At the end of 10 days debate, which seems astonishing to me – 10 days to discuss theology – and it’s a popular public event – King John issued his Edict.

It’s not long, and says in part:
In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well.  If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.
Therefore, none…. shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, …. and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. 

Now this is 1568.
15 years earlier, in Geneva in 1553, Michael Servetus was burned at the stake for proclaiming the unity of God.
European nations were still struggling with the rise of non Catholic Christianity.

So for a King to say, hey, preachers can preach the Gospel as they understand it and no one can persecute them for it, that is an astonishing statement of religious tolerance and freedom. It allowed Unitarianism to take hold in Transylvania, the earliest organized Unitarian Christianity, which is still practiced there today.
They even have a bishop.

Francis David and King John are our spiritual ancestors.
They are worth remembering.


Earlier I said that our history is filled with false starts and failures, because that’s what its like to be human.
And I think that it is important to remember, UU stories are very human stories, not miracle stories, but stories of people trying to live out their beliefs and principles.

So the Edict of Torda in 1568 was a shining example of religious freedom in a time of religious chaos. It allowed Unitarian preachers to establish themselves in Transylvania.
And then…

King John died 3 years after the Edict, only 30 years old, without an heir.
His successor was a Catholic and while he did not repeal the Edict, he passed a law banning any “religious innovation.”

Francis Dahveed’s Unitarian theology continued to evolve and he preached his new understandings. He was arrested in 1579 for the crime of “religious innovation” and died in prison.

Unitarian Christianity survived in Transylvania but did not flourish and grow. Daveed and King John give us an example of what is possible, even in times of oppression. Of the courage and hope – and limitations – of living our principles.

But there are people missing from the way we remember this history. It sounds like the Edict of Torda was inspired only by the admittedly powerful testimony of Francis David.

King John had a mother, Queen Isabella.  She ruled the small country in John’s name for many years, after his father’s death when he was a newborn. This is an achievement in itself, a woman holding the throne.
Isabella was a learned and liberal woman, and insisted that her son study classical humanism.
She issued more limited edicts on religious freedom while ruling.
Queen Isabella helped create the political space for the Edict of Torda.

This Unitarian story starts with King John’s mother. It was her teachings, her desire to ensure her son was exposed to thinking of other cultures and times, that shaped his liberal outlook.

At that time Transylvania sat between the Ottoman Empire – reaching up from Turkey – and Christian Europe. When John was born, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire sent a personal representative to watch over him in first months.

Queen Isabella and her son had long associations with the Islamic Ottoman Empire.  It’s a complicated history, but they ruled because of their relationship with the Sultan.
And the Islamic empire had a practice of religious acceptance, they allowed non Muslims to practice their religions and gave them legal protection.

So while there is no direct link from Islamic religious tolerance to the Edict of Torda, King John grew up in association with this example of religious freedom. This history has only been uncovered recently, by the Rev. Susan Ritchie, and there is more to learn about the influence of Islam and the Ottoman Empire on European Unitarianism.

Our memory is that we come only from European Protestant Christianity, but Unitarianism was influenced by cultural engagement with Islam.
This matters.  We identify as a tradition that is welcoming of other faiths, and being formed by cultural connections with Islam is an important part of our history.

This matters because we do not live in the simple cause and effect of story, but in the messy interdependent web of life.  Stories simplify, give us male heroes and easy answers.

The Edict of Torda matters, not because Francis David was a saintly prophet of Unitarianism, but because it shows how culture shifts – through people open to new ideas and new ways of being from other societies.

The Edict of Torda arose from a confluence of influences – the charismatic David, the idealistic King, the educated Queen, living beside the Ottoman Empire, living at a time of Christian reformation.

Memory is an elemental thread in the tapestry of reality.
We are what we remember.
We are shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves, our family, our cultures, our country.

The tapestry is richer, thicker, and brighter when we remember many perspectives, hear from the voices of all.
We are more, when our memories are more.

May we keep telling our stories.

So Say We All.

(Research taken from Minns Lectures, 2009, Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, Lecture Two: Children of the Same God:  European Unitarianism in Creative Cultural Exchange with Ottomam Islam)



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