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Non-Conformists: The True Movers of History

Steve Jones

Atlanta, Georgia


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 contribution.

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 of conviction.

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 Christian soundness.

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 new ideas.

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