Sunday, January 1, 2012

RW Emerson: Heart vs. Mind in Religious Exploration

RW Emerson is justifiably famous for his pithy one liners, although they appear strewn like nuggets of gold in a field of dense pyrite, at least to modern readers.  Here are a few you may recognize but not have realized he was the author:

Hitch your wagon to a star.  To be great is to be misunderstood.   Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. All mankind love a lover.

And this last one, which I love from an author: Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it.

He was a lecturer and writer of history, biography, and science, as well as a poet, but I want to focus on his religious and philosophical views today because the conflict he felt in religion is one that you may feel, too, pulled between heart and mind, intellect and emotion. By looking at some of his decisions, and considering the context of those actions, we can reflect on our individual and congregational values about the heart and mind of our faith. 

Unitarians sometimes forget that, although he was a Unitarian minister, in what amounted to a nine generation family business, Emerson quit the job after only 3 years.  Ostensibly it was over his discomfort in celebrating the Eucharist, but really, according to his journals and other writings, it reflected broader reasons that many of us have experienced, too, as we have church shopped through our lives, trying out different denominations, and various congregations within them.  After he left, he neither referred to himself as Reverend nor expected others to do so.   I think he’d be rather embarrassed to have a Unitarian church named after him, because he purposefully left the denomination, explaining that one’s relationship with the divine was better found outside any church than within.

As the passages by Channing indicate, 18th and 19th c Unitarianism was very much a post-enlightenment philosophy, relying on common sense and research to filter the writings of the past, including the Bible.  But Emerson chafed under what he considered intellectualism gone amuck - what he derided as a “corpse cold” approach to religion.  To him, literary analysis and archeological discoveries might reveal a great deal about people long ago and far away, (and he wrote lots of biographical and historical essays himself), but they rarely resulted in a personal communion with God, and that’s what he thought religion was supposed to be about. So while he was interested in history and literature as worthy subjects, he didn’t think those things should be confused with spiritual inquiry.  Rather, Emerson was a mystic.  Like early Gnostic Christians, he believed that each of us has a spark of divinity within, which we can access through experience and personal reflection, whether or not we know anything about Jesus or the Bible or history or literature. As he wrote, “God is, not was.”   This philosophy required a leap of faith and personal effort, both of which he valued.  Just as Protestants replaced the orthodoxy and the hierarchy of Catholicism with direct readership of the Bible, so Emerson rejected the emphasis on studying the Bible and replaced it with a personal experience of God.

If you have tried to read and like Emerson in the past, and found that you couldn’t figure out his appeal, you might pick up one of his essays, such as Nature, or the OverSoul, and read it as a mystical writing, along the line of Hildegard and Joanna or Thomas Merton’s writings.  Although their passages tend to be more emotional, and sometimes even sexual, the Sage of Concord displays his Yankee’s emotional diffidence.  As his friend Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. described him, he was an “intellectual mystic” not an emotional one.  Another way to understand his writings and transcendentalism in general is to consider other art forms of the period. 

The transcendentalists, and a general movement in the arts of the time, called Romanticism,expresses an over-arching optimism about life, appreciation of nature, and a comfort with emotionalism.  These were not valued much before – at least not in religion and the arts.  Nature is good – not something evil to be beaten back and destroyed.  God, too, is beneficent, not some fearsome punisher.  What a contrast to the fire and brimstone negativism of many of the churches attended by Emerson’s lecture fans! 

On a personal level, this cheery orientation in Emerson is rather interesting, because the number of family tragedies he endured would certainly burden many another person with a darker view of the world. His father died when he was 8, leaving his mother in straightened circumstances, his brother went mad, his first wife died at the age of 21, and his first son died at the age of 5.  He himself suffered from poor health.  Still, Emerson clearly believed in the essential goodness of creation, nature, and God, and this message struck a chord with a hungry America.  For just as Emerson left the Unitarian church to pursue a more emotionally rich spiritual life, so were many Americans searching in the decades before the Civil War.  The numerous religious revivals and the rise of evangelical Protestantism reflect a general spiritual hunger of the age, reacting against the history bound orthodox churches and other institution, and desirous of unique, personal spirituality.

Those of you who experienced adulthood in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, and witnessed the tension between appropriate “group” identity and individualism can extrapolate to the movement in which Emerson was a leading exponent. Those people affiliated with the transcendentalist movement but not explicitly religious, wanted to develop a uniquely American literature. Think of names like Alcott, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Fuller.  Painters and musicians in Europe and America were similarly enthused about developmental changes in this period, referred to as Romantic.  A perfect example is the gorgeous Hudson River School paintings that date from this period.  In music, Romanticism evokes strains of highly emotive music.  This was the “age of the virtuoso” in which solo artists broke away from classical group performances.  Think of names like Liszt, Chopin, Schumann. It was also one in which folk music motifs, representative of the “local”, distinctive traits started to appear in symphonies and operas, like Wagner’s.  In music, painting and literature, this period abounded with an emotional depiction of gorgeous nature and a high value for individualism.  Transcendentalism was one aspect of this, and Emerson one exponent. 

Although these artists felt they had to break with traditions in order to combine the intellectual with the emotional, and Emerson felt he needed to leave the Unitarian denomination in order to pursue his spiritual calling, I believe he would find contemporary Unitarian Universalism much more inclusive than he left it 170 years ago. 

Part of the reason is the merger of the intellectual Unitarians with the optimistic Universalists.  Today, our denomination embraces both members whom he would describe as “corpse cold” rationalist students of science and history, and those whose spiritual quest involves personal, mystical leaps of faith.  Some of us straddle both, using rationality to try to describe leaps of faith, such as reincarnation, heaven, ghosts, intuition. 

So I have watched with great interest, how various congregations wrangle with the conflicts and accommodations of their members on this continuum from rational to intuitive faith issues, and considered whether UUs representing one end or the other can feel spiritually fed at the same church.  I’ve even wondered how much a congregation can do for those with an intensely personal need for spirituality, or whether they are likely to leave any group anyway. Churches handle this in different ways.  One approach is to subdivide.  Bay Area UUC, in Clear Lake has quite a number of small, faith based covenant groups within which like-minded Uus can comfortably explore the vocabulary of their faith story.  There is one for earth centered faith (pagans), several variations of Buddhists, and Christians.  On the other hand, the already small Kerrville, TX Unitarian Church split in two some years back – there is now one congregation that doesn’t use the G word, God, at all and another that  explicitly explores concepts of divinity with guest speakers who are retired ministers and religion professors from nearby Shriener College. Other churches, like this one, don’t subdivide but try to be very inclusive.  The hard working program committee of this very Fellowship tries to represent in its services and discussion groups opportunities to explore the heart and the mind, the general and the particular of spiritual inquiry.

More important than a we/them dichotomy, though, is this:  I submit that the rationalist and the mystic exist side by side in each of us.  There are indeed times, when our experience of the world is validated by external analysis or that we need the support of science or history, sociology or psychology to make sense of something difficult and confusing.  Other times, our strong convictions defy explanation.  We awaken to a knowledge, clear and firm and strong enough to generate a change of behavior or perspective.  Whether that realization derives from God, or consciousness or the soul as described by the one who experienced it, is not for me to say.  That is, in fact the point – such numinous moments of lucidity often defy description.

So the job of a UU church, I think, is to help us exercise both aspects of ourselves, in the way that Emerson didn’t find.  This is incredibly difficult.  If we deny the authority of a hierarchy or the Bible and admit that personal moments of spiritual awakening often defy description, despite Emerson’s voluminous attempts to do so, what can one possibly do on a Sunday morning?  The Quakers, whom Emerson highly admired by the way, hold silent services, which, if you haven’t experienced, I would encourage.  Many meditation groups, at churches, temples and secular organizations provide an outlet for personal reflection.  Certainly in a verbal service, musical moments and prayerful silence provide short opportunities to go within oneself.  Services that rely on a rational exploration of spiritual and religious topics interest those who apply the information to their own theological exploration, but they are likely to fall outside the values of some members of the congregation, for whom God and religion are beside the point.  Many UU’s value “deeds not creeds” and truly believe that faith enacted in good works is the only faith worthwhile.  For them a Sunday service should strengthen them to undertake small and often disappointing steps toward large social goals.  All of these values fill our pews.

Emerson abdicated his role as religious leader to such a diverse population in order to undertake his own spiritual journey. He disavowed and distrusted really, the authority of authorities, both secular and religious, even people perceiving him as such.  Certainly many of us have felt that way, and have left, for example, companies to become entrepreneurs, or left churches to explore spirituality alone. Those of us who remain within a UU congregation and denomination have committed to an opportunity beyond the care and feeding of our personal spirituality – to the congregation as a community, made up of people, whose values and beliefs may support or conflict with our own.  What do your members and visitors seek?  Will those who yearn for mystical enlightenment leave this or any organization anyway, like Emerson, because no amount of tweaking can articulate intensely personal experiences for group consumption? 

I think the answer is that a church should not be judged by any “church shopper” only by what happens in this room from 11 – 12 one day a week, anymore than we should judge a family by Wednesday dinner, or a company by the interview process.  A family, a congregation, or a company creates a culture.  We can judge whether that culture nurtures or drains us, and we can make decisions whether to stay or to go or supplement with external resources, like spiritual vitamins.  Certainly the person who participates actively in the life of the family, the company, or the congregation will get more out of it than a casual consumer of the meals, the sermons, the paychecks.  

The autumn is a natural time to plan for the future and reflect on the past.  The church canvass is one example.  I encourage you to think about how you fit in this beloved community – what you give and what you gain.  Think about your internal balance of rational and mystical inquiry.  What do you expect from this church and how can you support others in this complicated group endeavor?

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