I want to talk about the transcendentalists — the folks in and around the Boston area who got together to talk about their ideas about religion and spirituality in the 1830’s through the 1860’s.
Most of them were Unitarians, several were Unitarian ministers. All of them were abolitionists — they influenced the movement to end slavery and work against racism. So it’s appropriate on this morning to connect the dots from then to now, from the Transcendentalists to last Tuesday’s historic election of Barack Obama as our 44th President.
There are moments in life that stand out; we can look back at our personal history and see them sticking their heads up and waving at us from the past; moments that form us and shape us and sustain us; moments that don’t seem to be part of our past because they are so alive in our present.
Where were you when the results of the election were announced? What was your response? Why did tears come to so many of us?
We all have moments that stand out, so that when we look back over the years we see them sticking their heads up, waving their hands — those moments that changed us.
I’ll always remember my first Sunday service in a Unitarian church and the wave of appreciation I felt. I was 21 years old and I carried a heavy sense of loss into the church that day — I felt I had lost the religion of my childhood, a religion I loved but where I was not free to express my doubts or to formulate a set of beliefs that were authentic. It was a painful time.
The church was in Winchester, MA and the statement of faith on the wall behind the pulpit included an affirmation of ‘the leadership of Jesus,’ followed by the line, ‘salvation by character.’ I read it two or three times, the way one reads a love note! I didn’t get it right off, but in a minute or so I ‘got it.’ I understood it to mean that your religion is the way you live your life, pure and simple.
(The statement was from Unitarian minister James Freeman Clark which said: We believe in the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, the Leadership of Jesus, Salvation by Character and the Progress of Mankind Onward and Upward Forever.)
‘Salvation by character’ was one of the main tenets of the transcendentalists – you are saved, in a sense, by the way you live your life; it’s about the here and now.
Abraham Lincoln’s credo was similar: “When I do good I feel good; when I do bad I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
I was relieved and grateful to find a religious home, but it took several years for me to join a Unitarian congregation, prompted by the births of my two children in 1963 and 1967. I got involved in the Wellesley Hills church where I was living and teaching in the high school. At my first Sunday service in the Wellesley Hills church there was a notice in the order of service about the need for a junior high youth advisor.
I spoke with the Minister of Religious Education, Phil Silk and began work with the youth group and soon found myself teaching a class on ‘love and death’ with high school seniors, in addition to my work with the youth group.
That’s when I discovered Ralph Waldo Emerson; that’s when I learned that he had been a Unitarian minister. I was familiar with Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance but not his religious ideas, summarized in his essay The Over-Soul.
Reading Emerson led me to the Transcendentalists. I learned that they had a huge influence on the development of religion in America, especially felt in the religion I came to know as Unitarian Universalism. The impact and influence of Emerson, Thoreau, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May, Walt Whitman and others, is as strong today as it was during their time in the 19th century.
The word transcendentalist is difficult to define, as it should be, since, in my understanding, it takes on new and ever-evolving meanings for each person, like the word ‘God.’
My personal understanding of the term is that it has to do with a personal sense of spirituality without traditional religious doctrine or creed; spirituality without theology where revelation is a continuous process that takes place in each person’s heart.
“God enters by a private door into every individual,” is the way Emerson put it.
I would say that the spiritual aspect of life comes to every individual by a private door – but it is possible to bring that aspect of life into a shared space…this space…where our individuality is respected, while at the same time we acknowledge our need for community – community with a shared purpose – a religious purpose, if you will.
We don’t need a set of creeds; we don’t need dogma. We don’t need to take a religious test to see if we pass. We need a set of principles; we need a sense of humility; we need a sense of appreciation; we need to believe in our capacity to have and to nurture our deep, spiritual life.
The most important aspect of transcendentalism, the most important word to describe it, is the word intuition. Intuition is a way of knowing or understanding that it outside the bounds of the usual ways of thinking; it’s a sensing or feeling of connectedness to that which is beyond our capacity to define or even to understand, but something each of us experiences in those brief moments of awe – when we stop to marvel at a sunset or a baby’s features or the red, yellow and bright orange leaves, or when we feel in touch with a loved one who is no longer alive but felt as a very real presence inside.
Another of the transcendentalists was Walt Whitman:
“There is that in me—I do not know what it is—but I know it is in me…
I do not know it—it is without name—it is a word unsaid;
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.
Do you see, O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is HAPPINESS”
The ideas expressed in sermons, essays and poetry of the transcendentalists helped me develop a new, deeper understanding of God, or the idea of God — what folks in AA call ‘a higher power.’
It doesn’t need to be an anthropomorphic god, like the one Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel, amazing and wonderful as that art is. The God of the transcendentalists is not a physical person or being separate from creation but infused in the entire creation; it’s the life-energy within each of us and part of every living thing. It’s as much verb as noun.
Emerson expresses it in his essay The Over-Soul:
“There is a difference between one and another hour of life, in their authority and subsequent effect. Our faith comes in moments… yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”
I think I’m safe in assuming that you have moments when you feel taken by surprise – when you notice a sunset or the color on the leaves, or a baby’s little fingernails and features…or the memory of a loved one that seems to come without effort…not so much a memory as a ‘presence.’
Have you had those moments? They can have a powerful influence on our lives, on this thing we call the spirit, or spirituality. “There is a difference between one hour and another hour of life…”
He goes on to say that “…within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.”
“When it breaks through the intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through the will, it is virtue; when it flows through the affections, it is love.”
He says, “The soul is the perceiver and revealer of truth. We know truth when we see it, let skeptic and scoffer say what they choose. Foolish people ask you, when you have spoken what they do not wish to hear, ‘How do you know it is truth, and not an error of your own?’ We know truth when we see it…as we know when we are awake that we are awake.”
Emerson says that the attributes of the soul are, “…truth, justice, love; a different kind of trinity at the foundation of what he calls the soul.
Emerson says that we can, and must, get in touch with these attributes, and live them. “It comes to the lowly and simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is foreign and proud; it comes as insight; it comes as serenity and grandeur…it inspires awe and astonishment.” (Humility)
“Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind…”
The transcendentalists grappled with the old ways of thinking about or of defining religion – they transcended the old ways.
Another of the transcendentalists was Theodore Parker, who said, “As a master the Bible is a tyrant; as a servant I do not have time in one life to find its many uses.”
He said that people too often allowed theology and creeds to come between themselves and God. His most important sermon was titled The Transient and Permanent in Christianity. The permanent, he said, is the growth and fulfillment of one’s moral awareness, one’s conscience, one’s ethical life.
The transient in Christianity, and in all the religions, is the forms and rituals, the creeds and belief systems that come and go and change through the ages.
The transient is ‘the window dressing,’ of religion (Christianity); the permanent is the truth which must be discovered by the use of reason and rationality as well as intuition and personal insight.
Parker and the transcendentalists regarded Jesus as a great teacher, a messenger of deep truths and a model of what you and I might be.
We can easily connect the dots from them to us, from then to now. A few lines from a discourse he titled The American Idea (May 29, 1850). Parker said, “A democracy—that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government of the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake I will call it the idea of Freedom.”
He repeated the phrase in speeches in 1854 and 1858. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, got copies of Parker’s sermons and shared them with Lincoln. Herndon notes that Lincoln underlined the phrase and, of course, he used it in the address at Gettysburg: ‘of the people, by the people and for the people.’
Last Tuesday, November 4, 2008, a major step was taken in the long struggle toward the fruition of the dream, a step that transcended racism. The election of Barack Obama will not remove the stain of racism from the fabric of American life – it will not end racism, especially in its most insidious forms of institutionalized racism — but his election is part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said, ‘we shall overcome.’
The influence of our 19th century forebears was felt on Tuesday night: Emerson, Thoreau, Parker, Channing and Margaret Fuller were looking down, smiling and weeping, as many of us were.
“I may not get there with you,” King said, “but I have been to the mountain top, I have seen the promised land…”
We are part of a great ongoing struggle; we are ‘testing whether this nation, or any nation conceived in liberty, can long endure,’ as Lincoln put it. The ‘proposition that all are created equal: black and white, Asian and Latino, gay and straight, male and female, young and old, abled and disabled, wealthy and poor.
The battle fought in the fields of Gettysburg in the 1860’s and then the ghetto streets of the 1960’s, was moved from the fields and streets to the ballot boxes in every corner of the nation.
On Tuesday we witnessed, and in some measure helped assist in the re-birth of hope.
A new day dawned on Wednesday, November 5. It’s a day we’ve waited for, longed for, afraid would not come. We had been holding our collective breath, afraid that hope would be dashed again. We arrived here this morning as citizens in a transformed nation – a different country than the one we lived in a week ago. Now we’re filled with hope – cautious hope, to be sure, but once again we share a dream that will not die.
Now we begin a new period of reconstruction begins and we all know that we will need the best minds to solve the deep problems we face.
Walt Whitman, another transcendentalist, influenced by Emerson, Thoreau, Parker and Channing, said it this way:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
The respect for our nation that has been lost in recent years will be regained, the swaggering replaced by a noble spirit.
A new patriotism was born on November 4, after some long and hard labor pains; a patriotism that moves beyond lapel pin flags or pious pleas asking God to be on our side, America’s side.
The new patriotism demands something from us; some sacrifice and some patience – it’s going to take years to heal the broken financial foundations, it’s going to take years to fix the health care system, it’s going to take years to heal the wounds we’ve suffered – it’s going to require us to get back in touch with the ‘nobility of the human spirit.’
On Tuesday night, a few seconds after eleven p.m., I felt the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. rise up and I heard those famous well-worn words from his 1963 speech, so often recited with a sense of hope:
“Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!” And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”