On the Road to Geneva

by BC

Our story begins with a realization that we don’t know when the hero was born. It’s a peculiar start. But that is the start of our story. Miguel Serveto was born sometime during, before, or after the year 1511.

His life was one that necessitated him to lie about his place of origin and date of birth so he could survive another day. What we do know is that he was born in Spain, in the Kingdom of Aragon, under the reign of King Ferdinand II the Catholic – and he would become a great theologian and physician.

He was also a Unitarian. And we’ve come to know him not as Miguel Servto, but as Michael Servetus – one of our best known Unitarian martyrs. If the name is unfamiliar to you, you are not alone. He is often lumped into the expansive history of our faith tradition as a sidenote.

When the history of your heresy, ours in particular, goes back thousands of years, it really depends on who is telling the story and what parts they feel need to be emphasized. I commend to you the thousands of years of history our tradition holds within it. Michael Servetus is but one piece.

But for me, as your minister, I feel he was an important example to us, here in 2017, of the Unitarian spirit. The eldest of three sons in the village of Villanueva, he surely showed considerable talent in his youth – for instead of inheriting the family business as was his birthright as the oldest boy in the family, he was sent to law school in Toulouse, France.

Upon finishing law school, he began his service with an Augustinian monk – which allowed Servetus to also spend time in the court of Holy Roman Emperor King Charles V – since this particular monk was his court preacher and chaplain.

When this monk, Quintana, was charged by the Emperor to prosecute mystics, assess converted Muslims, and judge the writings of other theologians – Servetus started to feel a sense of rebellion in his heart boil over. He would go on to endeavor that Christianity was more accessible and friendly to Muslims, critique the Bible, and put his thoughts to paper and write volume after volume.

But he started, in secret, writing one volume in particular. Upon venturing to Bologna with Quintana for the coronation of Charles V, Servetus was confronted with the lavishness of the church. The riches, the corruption, the worldliness of the priests and bishops, and the odd almost worship-like attitude toward the Pope.

We don’t know exactly how he did it, I like to imagine him slinking away in the dark of night, but upon being confronted with the reality of the church in Bologna, he abandoned his post as an employee of the Emperor’s confessor and joined the Protestants in Switzerland. But his rebel heart was unleashed.

Upon arguing with far too many Protestant leaders in Basel, he relocated – almost forcibly – to the city of Strasburg. There, several years after he began writing it in secret, he published his book: On the Errors of the Trinity. He was hopeful that this new book of his would forever change the Protestant movement and help them shrug off the doctrine of the Trinity. He was mistaken.

While the Protestants were sweeping Europe like wildfire, the inquisition was still a mighty force, and a very tentative truce was effectively called between the Catholics and the Protestants. Could you imagine if they had decided to reject the Trinity? One Lutheran reformer remarked, “As for the Trinity, you know I have always feared this would break out some day. Good God! What tragedies this question will excite among those who come after us!”

Let’s remember that during this time, especially the Reformation, your beliefs could be a life or death matter. Servetus, now established as a good Unitarian theologian, wrote a follow-up to assuage the concerns of his Protestant siblings: The Dialogues on the Trinity.

In this book where he sought to assuage concerns, he neither attempted to reconcile, build bridges, or soften his critiques of Rome and the Trinity. To his surprise, he was being banned from entering several Protestant communities and the Spanish Inquisition issued a summons to him so they could question him – but everyone knew what questioning meant to the Inquisition.

Servetus wrote, “I was hunted far and wide that I might be seized and put to death.” He fled from his recent home of Paris, changed his name, and kept on running. He eventually returned to Paris under his new name and studied mathematics and medicine.

It was there, at the University in Paris, that Servetus met another fiery Protestant student named John Calvin. Servetus would secretly challenge Calvin on his theology and Calvin, a boisterous man, would deliver fierce responses to anyone who challenged him. It led to Calvin fleeing Paris himself, fearing for his life. Servetus would keep quiet for many years.

Working as an editor, writing a commentary on the Bible that was mildly heretical but orthodox enough to keep Rome quiet, and in the midst of it all – in between his writing, staying under the radar of the Spanish Inquisition, and fending off Calvin challenging him to debates – Servetus discovered the function of pulmonary circulation.

For the physicians in the room, I beg your pardon, but my understanding of pulmonary circulation is that it describes how oxygen is absorbed into the blood by way of right ventricle and the lungs. I know I left out a lot of details, but yes, Servetus helped document and explain this process for the first time.

I don’t know what your hobbies are, but I doubt mine is going to ever be discovering and documenting a medical process. Fast forward a few years, Servetus angered the inquisition, again, left Paris and eventually landed in Vienna. It’s at this point in our story you start to look at our dear gifted, extraordinary Michael Servetus and realize he just couldn’t help himself.

He started writing again. And he decided to send his writings to John Calvin. Calvin responded by sending his own book. Calvin, as many of you know, believed that humanity was depraved, sinful, beyond redemption, and mostly destined for damnation.

Upon reading the work, Servetus further responded by returning Calvin’s book with what were deemed “abusive annotations.” You’ve gotta love this. It is no wonder that Calvin declared from his home in Geneva – a city that he was governing – “if my authority is of any avail, I will not suffer him (meaning Servetus) to get out alive.”

Servetus continued to send manuscripts and copies of his books to Geneva for Calvin to read. Frustrated by Servetus, Calvin – a Protestant – contacted the Spanish Inquisition and told them where Servetus was living and what his new name was. The Inquisition arrested Servetus and interrogated him.

But our story doesn’t end there. Servetus escaped from prison – and for some reason, crossed over a border and journeyed into Geneva – Calvin’s city. Servetus was arrested again, this time by the Calvinists. The story gets confusing here. Some say the Inquisition showed up and offered to take care of Servetus for the Protestants.

Some say the secular magistrates wanted to let him go, some say that Calvin himself served as Lawyer, Judge, and Jury. What we do know is that the Council of Geneva sentenced Servetus to death by burning at the stake. Copies of his books were strapped to his body and piled around him, the flames were lit – and defiant to his last breath, Servetus cried out, “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!”

It was heresy, you see, to say Jesus was only the son of God. No one knows why Servetus decided to travel through Geneva. Some speculate that it was his hubris that motivated him to think that he could reason with Calvin one-on-one. But whatever his true reason for journeying on the road to Geneva, his death caused quite a stir.

First, most Protestants hailed it as a good thing. Catholics certainly did. But a vocal minority lifted up Servetus’ unfailing search for truth and meaning – and that his death exposed the corruption of Geneva as much as it did Rome.

The Calvinists and Inquisition working together, who would’ve thought. But here is where our modern Unitarian Universalist faith comes into the story. We remember Servetus. We remember the ultimate sacrifice of his life so that the ideals of Unitarianism would survive – that of searching for our own truth and meaning.

Today, we focus less on the Trinity he opposed so strongly, but instead cherish that quest to find the good and the right in service to humanity. That is our charge from the life of Michael Servetus. But his life also asks of us several questions. Are there things we believe so strongly that we would journey willingly into an almost certain demise?

Or are there things we believe that we would be like John Calvin and – hopefully not burn anyone at the stake – but diminish the humanity of our neighbors? The way many Unitarian Universalists speak about Christianity comes to mind – we forget that there are human beings behind those beliefs with worth, dignity, and a freedom to search for their own truth.

But so, too, with the life of one of our martyrs, we remember that even today, valuing reason, compassion, that unending search for truth – these are dangerous things to believe. And they are dangerous to believe not because our lives are always in danger for having espoused such things – though they can be – but chiefly because our world challenges our very resolve to be a compassionate, hospitable, and loving people.

I have little love in my heart for the man who committed the atrocity in Las Vegas. My faith, my principles, my identity as a Unitarian is challenged to its very core in the face of such evil – and man, we have had a lot of those moments this year alone. Sometimes it would be easier to be a Calvinist, to see humanity as filthy, damned, and beyond hope.

It would be easier. But no, no, I will take the path to Geneva – a path that is uncertain and dangerous, a path that could very well mean the loss of my own freedom to search for the truth. Because that is what Servetus’ life has taught me. We believe in our principles – sometimes against all reason – so that, in part, they can endure.

We believe in these aspirational, lofty, seemingly impossible statements because Unitarianism – in the entirety of its history, old and new – does not see despair as our final destination. It never has.

We will stop there on doorstep of despair several times in our lives and in many yet to come, but the end goal, that final destination, is a world where the seven principles are no longer needed because they’ve been realized. Servetus would’ve called this the Kingdom of Heaven – we, as Unitarian Universalists, call it the Beloved Community.

The death of Servetus was a tragedy that sparked a greater conversation in Europe around religious tolerance. It took many years for it to be realized, but it was. In many cases, Unitarians and Universalists were right there leading the charge. As a historical side note, I do take great joy in the legacy of Servetus.

For you see, American Unitarians were originally Puritans – and Puritans were better known as Calvinists. The freedom to search for the truth endured – and the children of the man who burned Servetus at the stake became us. I love that irony of history more than any other.

But what it also tells me is that closing off ones heart is not a permanent thing – the good will endure. And so, ask of yourselves this week, how will you help create a more loving and compassionate world? That is the question we, perhaps, need more than anything now. How will we contribute? How will we not despair? How will we endure in our own journey to find that which is true?