Honouring Servetus in Geneva, 2003, the 450th Anniversary of his Martyrdom Dr. Richard Boeke, Secretary, World Congress of Faiths (WCF)
“A War of Civilisations!” That is now many see the beginning of the 21st Century since the birth of Jesus, “The Prince of Peace.” As we enter the struggle of faiths that is the 21st Century, it is fitting to remember another who gave his life for what he saw to be the truth of his science and his religion: Michael Servetus, burned at the stake as a heretic 450 years ago.
“Jesus, thou son of the eternal God, have pity upon me.”
These were the last words of Michael Servetus as he was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland on the 27 October 1553. John Calvin approved the execution with the recommendation that Servetus be beheaded, not burned alive. But like Joan of Arc and Jan Hus, it was the flames for Heretics. As Servetus said, “Jesus, thou son of the eternal God …” It is recorded that Farel, one of Calvin’s fellow ministers, said in effect, “If he would only say eternal Son of God, we could cut him free.” If he would only affirm that God was three separate persons, he would no longer be a Christian Heretic.
Michael Servetus was born in Spain in 1511. He studied law and religion at Toulouse, and medicine in Paris. In his study of the human body, he discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood: that the blood goes through the lungs, is renewed by air, and returns to the heart to be pumped out through the arteries. He discovered the link between air and life.
In most religions, “breath” is a metaphor for God. “Breath on me breath of God, fill me with life anew.” In Hinduism, Prajapati, the primal spirit, is asked how many gods there are. He tells of over 19,000 names recorded. Then he says, “In truth, there is only one God, BREATH.” Without breath, no other Gods exist.
The American Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a student at Boston University. The Dean of the University Chapel was Howard Thurman, the grandson of slaves. Years later, when King had been knifed in New York City, he asked to see Thurman. When Thurman arrived at the hospital, King was reading Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Dispossessed.
As Thurman began as Dean of the Chapel at Boston University, since he was a Black Man, he was often mistaken for the janitor. A rabbi tells the story of driving early each day to the university and standing in the hall of the chapel to say his Hebrew Prayers before classes. A man he took to be the janitor invited him into the chapel. The Rabbi pointed to the cross and explained he could not pray there. The next morning when the Rabbi arrived, the cross was gone, but the rabbi still would not enter. The “janitor” invited him in once more. As the rabbi refused again, the “janitor” replied, “Don’t you believe in the RUACH HAGOFEN, the Breath of the Holy?” The rabbi discovered that the “janitor” was Howard Thurman, the Dean of the Chapel. Each day after that, the Rabbi prayed in the chapel.
Thurman was the living link between Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. In the mid 1930s, Thurman and his wife toured India on behalf of the YMCA. Gandhi invited Thurman to come for a day. They talked for hours, Gandhi trying to understand how Thurman could accept Christianity, given the way white Christians often treated African Americans. Near the end of the visit, Gandhi asked the Thurmans to sing a favorite hymn,
“Where you there when they crucified my Lord? Where you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble, Where you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Gandhi and Thurman shared the “RUACH HAGOFEN,” the breath of the Holy, the universal which inspires all particular religions. The Holy is recorded in many forms and many scriptures.
Near our Unitarian Chapel in Horsham is the Shelley Fountain. Like Servetus, Shelley rejected the church of his time and looked for universals in nature. The Shelley Fountain reflects the spirit of Shelley’s poem, THE CLOUD:
“I am the daughter of earth and water, and the nursling of the sky. I pass though the pores of the ocean and shores, I change, but I cannot die.”
Shelley’s poem helps me to imagine the different appearances of the divine. Water can be a river, or it can be snow or ice. If can be invisible in the air. Or it can be a dark cloud as we sing, “Raindrops keep falling on my head.” The Greek God, Zeus, dwelt in the clouds of Mt. Olympus. The Hebrew image of God was inspired by clouds: “His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form, and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.” Or the more gentle words: “God is a spirit, and they that worship, worship in spirit and in Truth.” As the Bible begins, we are told, “God breathed into the human form, and the human form became a living soul.”
For Servetus, though the lungs, the breath of God is breathed into us. Our blood carries the divine spirit to every part of our body. So Hebrew scripture forbids the eating of blood. For blood contains the soul of the animal. The early church transformed the seder shared by Jesus and his disciples. It became the Catholic mass by which we share the soul of Jesus by eating his flesh and drinking his blood:
“Let this mind be in you take was also in Christ Jesus.”
Servetus affirmed the sacrament of communion, but with the spiritual not the physical presence of Christ. There was no physical change in the elements brought about by transubstantiation. The other sacrament that Servetus affirmed was baptism, but only for adults as a sign of spiritual regeneration. His rejection of infant baptism makes him a spiritual ancestor of Baptists and Unitarians. It was the second heresy for which he was burned at the stake.
His first heresy was the denial of the Trinity. At the age of 20, Servetus had published his book, ON THE ERRORS OF THE TRINITY. It was printed in Alsace, near what later would be the boyhood home of another heretic named Albert Schweitzer. Like Schweitzer, Servetus wished to get to the historical Jesus, not the abstract Trinity of the Church. The Holy Spirit is not a separate being, but an action of God animating all life. As Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit, he became the Son of God. While God is eternal, Jesus is not eternal, but became the Son of God in his lifetime.
The new invention of the printing press was providing texts, which opened minds. Servetus had studied a newly printed edition of the New Testament in Greek. And reading the original Greek, Servetus realized that the doctrine of God as three separate people is not in the Bible. The early Greek Church Fathers wrote of God as having three “Masks” like an actor in a Greek Drama. In Greek, the masks of the actors are called “Persona.”
Translated into Latin this became three “individuals.” For Servetus, the power of the One God animates all things. Even the devil is of God. In today’s terms Servetus could be seen as a kindred spirit to Matthew Fox and “CREATION THEOLOGY.” Not that Nature is God. Rather God is in nature, animating all things.
God has many names … Which would you lose: heart, lung or brain ? Remember in “The wizard of OZ,” the scarecrow, the cowardly lion, the tin man, each missing a vital part. God is the Divine energy of the whole.
Servetus like da Vinci, was a Renaissance Man. 450 years ago the high specialization in science and the scientific method did not exist. It was common that the theologian, the scientist, the alchemist and the philosopher were the same person. He lived in the time of Galileo and Copernicus. Like them, he was attacked by church authorities for scientific studies that conflicted with the teaching of the church.
Like Newton, 100 years later, Servetus saw himself as interpreter of Divine History, linking the insights of scripture to the revelations of God in nature.
In his book, Hunted Heretic, Professor Roland Bainton of Yale reminds us that the scientific findings of Servetus are announced in a work of theology. For Servetus, theology, science and art were not compartmentalized. This classic and Renaissance approach to reality as a whole is the first key to Understanding Servetus. In examining nature, we are exploring the riddle of the universe. In examining scripture, we seek the original meaning of what was written.
The second key to understanding Servetus is his rejection of the mechanical impersonal universe of the Stoics. His belief was close to the “élan vital,” the vital force of French Philosopher Henri Bergson. Like Bergson’s “Creative Evolution,” Servetus saw the universe as filled with dynamic and creative energy. The Universe filled with the Holy Spirit, the very essence of God. Servetus looked for clues to the heavens like Kepler and Gallieo, and to the human body like Vesalius and Harvey. When Emerson says, “The task of the preacher is not to say that God spoke, but rather that God speaketh,” Servetus could say, AMEN.
The third key to understanding Servetus is his passion to be part of the Kingdom of God. Here is “the impossible dream” that carries Jesus to the cross and Schweitzer to Africa. For those possessed by “the impossible dream,” it is not enough to comprehend God by reason, or to accept the grace of God by faith.
For Servetus, as for George Fox and the Quakers, we are possessed of an “inner light.” Servetus declared, “Our soul is a certain light of God, a spark of the spirit of God, an innate light of divinity.”
The soul is breathed into the human form by God. As the air purifies the blood, so God inspires the soul. As Servetus discovered the role of the lungs in renewing the blood, he grasped the teaching of the Torah that the soul is in the blood. It is not static in the heart or brain. It moves through the whole person. Servetus writes, “By the breath of God … within the heart and soul of Adam and his children, the Spirit, the spark of the Holy, was joined with the blood and the soul was made.”
Here is faith in the unity of all Reality. Everything is connected. With the poet Tennyson, Servetus could have said,
“Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of crannies. … … if I could understand what you are, root and all, … I should know what God and man is.”
What of these three keys to understanding Servetus?
The unity of knowledge, God as dynamic energy The Restoration of Christianity, not Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. These three keys can still inspire those of us who wish to take up the quest and live “the impossible dream.” To live now as though we are already living in the Commonwealth of God. Our time is much like that of Servetus, as oil hungry capitalists use Christian Zionists and Radical Moslems to create a climate of fear and terror.
They encourage the “pseudo science” of creationism and books like The Bible Code which claim to discover a code in the Torah predicting the events of the 21st Century. Servetus would say, “baloney.”
Another resident of Geneva, the Philosopher Voltaire, reminds us, “Those who believe absurdities can commit atrocities.” We can condemn Calvin for burning Servetus. Yet, today, for the sake of Western Civilisation, we slaughter tens of thousands, and starve millions.
“Eternal God, have mercy upon us. Amen.”