HUs and UUs - Alike or Different? Posts proceed by date, from bottom to top.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Why Torda?

Torda is another symbol of Hungarian Unitarianism.

Torda is the Transylvanian city in which the Diet (parliament), meeting January 6—13, 1568, issued their famous Edict of Tolerance. While not a law of total religious freedom, it guaranteed equal standing for the four "received" religions: Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Unitarian. Within those parameters it left the choice of clergy and theology to the local congregations, and the question of faith to the individual. At a time when the churches were burning dissidents at the stake and gearing up for the horrible Thirty Years War in the West (1618-1648), this was the most enlightened legislation in Europe.

It remains a proud moment in the Hungarian Unitarian heritage.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

The MBK Experiment

To my knowledge only one Hungarian Unitarian minister led a congregation in the US after World War II: Alexander Szent-Ivanyi, or Szentiványi Sándor, who for a time was deputy bishop of the Unitarian Church of Hungary, in Budapest. (To have equal political prestige with the dominant Catholic Church, protestant groups maintained a so-called episcopal structure, though unlike their Catholic peers, protestant bishops are elected for specified terms of office.)

Szent-Ivanyi earned himself much goodwill in the United States with his work saving Jews from deportation during Hungary's tragic days. But he joined the UU and his congregation was strictly anglo, in Lancaster, Massachusetts.

In the 1960's a couple of American Hungarian students, one of them the present writer (the other is Dr. Andrew Ludanyi, of Ohio Northern University) organized a Hungarian correspondence club from Louisiana State University, which eventually grew into what is now the Magyar Baráti Közösség (MBK, or Hungarian Communion of Friends), a charitable-educational-religious society based on Unitarian principles. Szent-Ivanyi "Sándor bácsi" (Uncle Alex) joined the society, became kind of an advisor-mentor for the group, and remained a faithful member until his death. From him we learned about Hungarian as well as American Unitarianism, and he was instrumental in introducing us to the UU in one of their official publications. That, in turn won us IRS approval.

We'll make no secret of it: the chief raison d'être of the society in the beginning was preserving our Hungarian identity and our ties to Old Hungary - that is, including the Hungarian communities that, through fortunes of war, had become collective subjects of Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union. We chose an essentially religious approach, since, while focusing primarily on culture, we were convinced that cultural values were of religious significance. (Those who insist on a "literal" interpretation of the Bible will disagree, but in doing so they are being less than honest with themselves.)

Why Unitarianism appealed to us is easily explained. Its Hungarian origins played a role: the Unitarian Church is the only church born on Hungarian soil, and the only one whose theologians have been free to do some independent thinking, instead of borrowing every idea from western Europe, primarily from the Swiss and the Germans, as other "mainline" Hungarian protestant groups had done. Unitarians alone preached freedom, reason and tolerance - rare virtues in Hungarian society, but all congruent with American values. And their basic theology was very simple: Egy az Isten (God is One) is an easily grasped symbol. This symbol is anti-trinitarian, but while that was a very important issue in the era of the Reformation, it is not the most important consideration today.

One could say that Hungarian Unitarianism has set aside the dogmatic elements of Christianity and reduced their complexity to a theology and an ethical code that can serve as a common denominator for adherents of various churches, and even for the "unchurched", to use the received jargon. In other words, it could appeal to a religiously multicultural grouping.

The MBK did not itself become a church, which has never been its intention. We did hope to establish local groups, but in general the attempt was a failure. The MBK of the Hungarian diaspora has been meeting yearly for nearly 40 years, for a week-long summer camp - but as the years rolled on, there was less and less talk of religion and ethics, the three weekly services were reduced to two, and are about to be eliminated. The membership's main interest is political, as it was in the bad old days of Communism; as for the rest, it's all fellowship and fun. That is itself a good thing, language practice, if nothing else.

I am disappointed, but not bitter; in retrospect it is clear that we set ourselves an impossible task. In the end I stand alone with my convictions: by choice a true unitárius ['oonee‚tahrioosh], free, and, I should hope, reasonable and tolerant.

For all that, I intend to pursue the original aims of the MBK, by other means.

Éltető Lajos
(Lou Elteto)
Portland, OR

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Church and Religion

Most laymen equate religion with the teachings, received views - in short, dogmas and liturgies - of the church in which they grew up. Even if someone drops out of that church, or of religious life entirely, the (often unformulated) "definition" he or she holds of religion in general is based on whatever the individual is accustomed to.

Even theologians often maintain that church and religion go together, that you cannot have one without the other. Your private beliefs do not a religion make - they maintain -, religion is a belief system of a community.

That system may be complex, as in the case of Catholicism, or relatively simple, as in evangelical Protestantism. Catholics are supposed to accept all commandments, traditions, teachings and practices of their Church, which they maintain is the one and only true one; most Protestants tend to be more liberal, in that they recognize any church as Christian as long as it preaches "the living Christ", and any individual who "accepts" (whatever that may mean in actual fact) Jesus Christ as Personal Savior. Beyond that, most Protestants neither know, nor care about the detailed questions of their faith, and what differrentiates the teachings of one church from those of another.

Yet the teachings are there. Do we have free will or not? Are we all born sinners? Can all humans be saved, or only the "elect"? These were burning questions once (in the sense that you could be burned at the stake if your answer displeased God, that is, the religious authorities). Today, people seldom pay them any heed, and often think some of them ridiculous, or only of historic interest.

And the teachings do evolve. The Catholic Church is perhaps the most honest about this, in that it looks not only to the Bible as authoritative, but also to tradition, i.e., the decisions of church councils and Papal edicts through the centuries. Protestant groups berate the Catholics for this, but in practice they, too, rely on interpretations, and interpretations of interpretations, by synods, councils, individual theologians. Luther and Calvin founded schools of theology - but in more modern times so have Schleiermacher, Bultman and Barth, to mention but a few. Sometimes such teachings become fashionable, sometimes forgotten in time.

How about Unitarians, UU or HU, who claim to have no dogmas? They, too, rely on various declarations, agreements, assembly minutes, the opinion of their theology teachers and other respected thinkers. In Hungarian Unitarianism, such thinkers have tended, not surprisingly, to be Transylvanians.

It is not without reason that the great composer, Béla Bartók, himself a Unitarian, has stated that the Unitarian was the only church founded on Hungarian soil. Through centuries of persecution, it has survived to this day, loyal to its own strong principles and traditions, on which it can continue to build the future.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Hungarian Unitarianism and American UU - What's the Difference?

A simplistic answer to this question is either that the UU has its roots in Transylvanian (i.e., Hungarian) Unitarianism, or that the latter and the former are only névrokonok, or relatives in name.

Neither of these answers is quite true, but in a way they are both true. To summarize a complex history, we could say that both unitarianisms represent a breaking away from Calvinism, in 16th century Transylvania by the Hungarians, and in the 19th by Calvinist preachers in Boston. Both movements rejected the dogmas surrounding the Trinity (that God wears three masks: that of a heavenly father; of a man, Jesus; and of a spirit, called the Holy Ghost). They also rejected the dogma of double predestination, according to which some humans are preordained to be saved, while others are destined for perdition and punishment for no other reason than that it pleases God to ordain it so.

Anti-Trinitaianisnm is of course as old as Christianity itself. Neither the Hungarians nor the Americans were its inventors. What these groups did, however, was to establish organized movements, or churches, which have survived to the present.

A major difference between the two movements is that the Hungarian U, relatively isolated for centuries, have remained essentially Biblical, following the ethical teachings of Jesus, while the American UU have been open to the world, merging with the Universalist church (so called because it taught that all humans could be saved), and adopting all kinds of extra-Biblical ideas from non-Christian sources - e.g. from Buddhism and Hinduism, philosophy and the arts. In recent decades many UU congregations have abandoned the Bible altogether (the Association itself has only one dogma, that it has no dogma) and have substituted for it a set of ethical principles, the promulgation of which seems to define the purposes of the church. This has led, in turn, to political activism, often condemned by other churches. Believers in a right-wing world view have trouble with UU stands on abortion and women's rights, with an open tolerance of homosexuals, incl. gay marriage, and anti-war activities. But they should remember that it was also American Unitarians who were in the forefront of abolotionism, the movement that led to the end of slavery.

Are the U and the UU Christian? From a fundamentalist viewpoint, the UU is clearly not any longer. The Hungarian U is not so easily labeled, since it has remained faithful to the Bible, though not to fundamentalist - or Roman Catholic - interpretations of it. Other Hungarian churches, while they may have persecuted Unitarians in the past, nowdays accord the Unitarians - sometimes grudging - tolerance and respect.

Many UU congregations participate in the Partner Church Council, giving material and spiritual support to adopted U congregations. The movement was already very active during the Ceauşescu dictatorship, which Hungarian churches helped bring down. In turn many UUs have also adopted Transylvania as their spiritual ancestral homeland.

Louis Elteto

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Hungarian Unitarians in the US

Hungarian immigrants to the US (and Canada) at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century built many churches, especially in the East and Mid-West. These immigrants were Roman Catholic or Reformed (now mostly United Church of Christ). Some Reformed congregations joined the Presbyterians, some remained independent. The latter refused to join the UCC, and organized themselves as the Independent Magyar Reformed Church. The congregations that joined the UCC are mostly members of the Calvin Synod.

There were a handful of Lutheran congregations (some still survive), and even fewer Byzantine-rite churches.

Curiously, we know of no Hungarian Unitarian churches in North America. This is odd because most of the Reformed came from Transylvania, where Unitarianism was still in bloom. There must have been Unitarians among the immigrants - but probably not in large enough concentrations to form congregations. Unitarians were probably absorbed by Reformed churches, which had a very similar liturgy - though not theology. Moving to anglo churches was not yet an option (except for the Catholics, used to the Latin mass), because of the language barrier.

That is not true of better-educated American Hungarians, who immigrated in later years with a knowledge of English, or who learned English here. Unitarians in these groups often did join American Unitarian or Unitarian-Universalist churches.

Hungarian Unitarianism

The purpose of this blog is to provide basic information about Hungarian Unitarianism in English. There are two church organizations practicing this faith, each with its own group of congregations: the Unitarian Church in Hungary, and the larger Unitarian Church of Transylvania, which is a kind of "mother church."

Though there is no lack of internet documents about Hungarian Unitarianism - both churches and a number of congregations have web sites - most of them are not in English. We shall of course provide links to those sites and their English documents as necessary.

This is our first posting, and it is as yet experimental. We'll see how it develops. Wish us luck.

A final note: anything published here is independent of the above churches and of any other organization, and reflects only the private views of the editor.

Louis Elteto, Ph.D.
(Éltető Lajos)