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Non-Conformists: The True Movers of History
One of the smallest volumes in the
library of fictitious books would be "The Mighty Acts of
Conformists." A small volume to match a relatively small
The greatest of accomplishments
and discoveries have come from those who refused to allow the past to
define the future. This is true whether the subject is science,
religion, philosophy or the arts. It has been the nonconformist — even
the heretic — who has so often made the difference in human affairs.
And yet, the masses resist the
nonconformist's vision. In general, people prefer to rest snugly in an
"apostolic succession" of ideas. In this comfort zone, which
people reach via the well-worn "road most traveled," there is
a foundational maxim: "Nothing new is true." There the
consensus of history, the nods of past generations, are the main drivers
Admittedly, majority opinion is a
safe haven. It requires more courage, a thicker skin, to step into those
outer regions where affirmations are so scarce. But this is where the
payoffs are greatest.
Look at the contributions of the
most reviled ground-breakers. Take music, for example. How flat and one
dimensional, how lacking in texture would that art form be were it not
for the temerity of a Beethoven. He broke music free from the strictures
of the past to give it new power and beauty. In science, Copernicus and
Galileo departed from the orthodoxy of Ptolemy and Aristotle to push the
race's understanding ahead by light years.
Nowhere is the
dissenter's contribution so pronounced as in religion, especially the
Christian religion. Note the freshness of Jesus' teaching. He spoke with an
authority that escaped the Scribes and Pharisees, the ancient custodians
of precedent. "You have heard … but I say to you." Jesus
poured new wine into new wineskins and they would have none of it.
"It is contrary to
tradition," and, "This is the way it's always been done."
These match the indignant cries of our Lord's opponents. And their
spiritual descendants carry on that same work today by opposing
everything that lies outside the pale of orthodoxy.
This is not to say that Jesus
broke with tradition simply to be a maverick. The great nonconformists
of history have only defied established thought when there were sound
reasons for doing so. They did not court outcast status for its own
sake, nor did they seek to be novel. They were only following truth
wherever it led.
Saul of Tarsus was a man steeped
in the tradition of his forefathers. He was brilliant but unlikely to
leave any mark on history. A follower of the past, he was destined for
obscurity. But his conversion to Christianity changed everything. Paul
imbibed the fresh spirit of this new faith, taking it in a bold new
direction when he became an apostle to the gentiles. He challenged every
old idea that proved an impediment to true religious progress.
And yet, some of Paul's most
zealous advocates today embrace his pharisaical traditionalism — his
pre-conversion temperament — more than the open-mindedness of his
Christian self. Ironically, they think this makes them closer to
Today's Protestant Christian
traditionalist wants to trace the pedigree of his beliefs back to the
creeds and confessions, back to the Reformers and to St. Augustine and
the host of Church Fathers. And yet, many past worthies whose agreement
today's orthodox covet were themselves hated innovators. Martin Luther,
for example, stood against centuries of tradition and would not yield to
those who condemned his departure from the theological majority.
It is amazing how the dissenter's
children become the most obdurate champions of tradition. At times,
their frowns have even turned to violence, so lethal have they esteemed
It remains true that our greatest
religious legacy has come from nonconformists. They form a great chain
from Origen, to St. Francis of Assisi, to the Anabaptist martyrs, to
John Bunyan, to the Wesleys, to the Quakers, to the Unitarians, to
Albert Schweitzer, to Martin Luther King Jr.
We remember them. Who remembers
the names of their thoroughly orthodox detractors?
So let the dissenters,
the nonconformists, the heretics speak. Make room for their ideas. Give
them a hearing. For of such is the kingdom of heaven.
© 2004 American Unitarian Conference™