The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater
Although in a free faith we use whatever source for truth that is available to us, there were three coherent belief systems which created and developed the liberal religion of the present day. Last week I talked about the Christianity which was the product of the Enlightenment out of the Radical Reformation. After a hiatus of next Sunday, I’ll talk about the one that many of us still adhere to: Humanism. However, today it is the faith of Emerson and his followers.
If you will cast your minds back a couple of years or so to your high school junior English class, you will probably recall a discussion of a literary movement called transcendentalism. You might also have heard of it in your American History class, when you studied the utopian experiments of the first half of the 19th century. Transcendentalism arose in the years before the Civil War, and its most important proponents were Bronson Alcott (Louisa May Alcott’s father), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman. What you may not have known, since, at least in my experience it was never even mentioned, much less emphasized, was that it did not spring up in a vacuum, and that it was far more than a literary or even a philosophical movement. It was, to a large degree, religious, and the religion within which it was born and against which it was reacting was Unitarian Christianity.
There seems to be a regular swing of the pendulum between the classical and the romantic sensibilities. These are literary terms, but they are social and philosophical attitudes that are reflected in and fed by literary activities. The European enlightenment -— which produced Voltaire and the Scottish philosophers Locke and Hume, along with the development of the scientific method in Newton, provided the framework for the Revolution’s Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, and ultimately gave birth to rational religion — was a time of classicism. Its adherents believed in the value of civilization in the effort to perfect human nature and in the use of reason. Transcendentalism was the American manifestation of the resurgence of romanticism. It was also the occasion of the Second Unitarian Controversy. The first gave birth to Unitarianism as a coherent religious movement within Christianity (however heretical) with William Ellery Channing setting the stage in his
Jean Jacques Rousseau was the philosophical fount of 19th century romanticism. He argued that human beings are naturally good, and that it is civilization that distorts our natural goodness. The human being who lives a life in total harmony with nature will be good. He coined the idea of the noble savage. Civilization is salvageable, but only through an education which elicits the natural virtue which already exists in each person, and which enables it to keep as close as possible to the rhythms and requirements of the natural world. The knowledge of goodness is inherent, and intuition, not reason, is the key to wisdom. Natural feelings are good and to be encouraged. It is the heart that matters more than the mind. This romanticism also encouraged a return to the values of earlier times and more “natural” peoples, and there was a fascination with medievalism and with cultures that seemed to naïve Europeans to maintain an ancient wisdom, such as the ones in India and China, which until the rise of world trade and colonialism in the 18th century had been primarily rumor to the Western world.
William Blake was an early romantic, but Southey, Wordsworth and Coleridge were the voices of the early romantic period. We know of Coleridge primarily through his three great poems, two of which remained unfinished, but he was also a philosophical thinker whose prose writings are still studied by those who are interested in his influence on later philosophers, most notably Emerson. Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge were involved in an abortive plan for a utopian experiment in some unsettled portion of the
But let us get back to Emerson, who was the pivotal figure in this debate. You probably know how he became a Unitarian minister but found it not to be his calling, resigning his pulpit and devoting his time to writing. He became somewhat influenced by the religions of
One might wonder why others’ revelations are not as true as the ones we have ourselves, but Emerson was reacting, in part, to what he called “corpse-cold Unitarianism” with its maddening emphasis on somehow, through reason, being able to find an acceptable version of ancient tradition. (Some UU Christians are still using this technique, by the way. One of the most wearing experiences I ever had at General Assembly was listening to feminist members of the UU Christian Fellowship attempting to find some way to interpret one of the most patriarchal books ever written, the Christian Bible, in such a way as to support their feminism. If I remember correctly, they finally concluded that you had to remember the times in which it was written, but I could have told them that at the beginning of their exegesis.)
Emerson’s Divinity School Address in 1838 started the storm of controversy that lasted for 30 years, with the conservatives making one effort after another to define Unitarianism officially as rational Christianity, pure and simple, while the broad church people tried to block any statement of faith that would exclude the transcendentalists, the adherents of the idea of universal religion (these categories are not mutually exclusive), and those who wanted a religion which would take into consideration the findings of science, and finally ended in the withdrawal of many of the liberals to form the Free Religious Association in 1867. This was in response to the National Conference of Unitarian Churches which had adopted a constitution and bylaws thae defined it as a Christian religion. Emerson, of course, had left long before, but he was the featured speaker at the first meeting of the FRA. Unitarian Christianity had taught the value of the free mind and of rational religion, and this was the result. They had sown the wind and now were reaping the whirlwind.
Not all of the theological liberals left, however. Theodore Parker, who had been thrilled by Emerson’s lecture at Harvard, spent most of his time as a vastly successful Unitarian minister either acting as a way-station on the Underground Railroad, fulminating against the horror of slavery, or trying to deal with the fact that he was shunned by his Unitarian colleagues because of his liberal theology. This sadness is said to have brought about the breakdown of his health and his untimely death. He carried the banner of liberalism almost alone in the East where his liberal colleagues had left to form the Free Religious Association, but the Western Conference of Unitarian Churches was far more liberal, and being further away were not as affected by the hatred the traditionalists heaped upon them. By the time the FRA became essentially moribund at the end of the century, all of Unitarianism had, under the influence of the Western Conference, opened itself up to the point that Christians, transcendentalists (who now tended to call themselves liberal theists or believers in a universal religion), and scientifically oriented religious humanists could all more or less live with one another, however annoying they found it to have to do so.
It helped the transition that both sides did strongly agree on one thing, and that was that religious sensibility must be translated into action. Both traditional Unitarians and Universalists and transcendentalists were active in the causes of abolition and women’s rights, and that kind of mutual action is a powerful source of community.
Well, it’s only been 110 years or so since the Second Unitarian Controversy was over, and since then we’ve added the Universalists who came in mostly on the side of liberal Christianity and universal religion with an admixture of heart over head preference. The issues that we argued about then, we are still arguing about now, sometimes with modern twists, sometimes in almost the same words as back 100 years ago. Only 20 years ago one of our ministers published a paper suggesting that each of our churches decide whether it was Christian, Theist or Humanist and label itself appropriately, thus avoiding the possibility of false advertising. She is a beleaguered Christian who has to deal with new members who tell her she isn’t a real Unitarian. Her suggestion was not well received by those colleagues who said they weren't sure where they ought to fall in those categories, and had churches that were even more eclectic than they were. Every single minister I know has preached a sermon lauding either the power of the emotions or the power of reason to guide us toward truth, and some of us — like me — have done both. We waver back and forth between the importance of a community of faith and the necessity for individual integrity, à la Emerson. Our most prestigious historian, Conrad Wright, gets great pleasure out of shocking people by his strong (and, I would say, justified) criticism of Emerson as someone who would cop out rather than try to save and change for the better the institution that nurtured him. Nevertheless, even he would agree that although Emerson left Unitarianism his influence has been a major force in shaping what we are today.
Part of that influence is simply that we are more accepting of different paths to individual truth. Sometimes, perhaps, we are too accepting when we say that individual theologies are beyond any critical test. As when we say that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want to. After all, Emerson and transcendentalism didn’t supplant our rational past but merely added to it the dimensions of intuition, universal religious truths, and the ability to see the holy in the world around us as well as in ancient tradition. Despite his glorification of the heart over the head, Emerson, too, was a rigorous thinker, and the poets, essayists, novelists and preachers who followed in his footsteps were essentially in the intellectual tradition. They glorified intuition and emotion, but they never joined the anti-intellectual vandals.