The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




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 Baltimore sermon.  The second tore it apart again with Emerson’s Divinity School Address serving as the opening shot in a battle that lasted for almost 60 years and whose con­sequences are still being felt.  In fact, it is not even completely over today, and there are those who have sug­gested that the controver­sies that the Unitarian Universalist Association is dealing with now are simply that same 150-year-old argument re-visited.

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 United States, an attempt later made by Bronson Alcott, Emerson’s close friend.  It was their belief that a community founded on principles in tune with nature, where only the inherent good in the individuals belonging to it would be elicited, would be a pattern for the world to follow.  Alcott’s failure has become almost legendary, but the failure was not blamed on any flaw in the philosophy, but somehow in the execution of it.  And per­haps they were right.  After all, one of the ques­tions we are still arguing today is whether peo­ple are innately good, bad, or indifferent.  It’s an important question, too, because it deter­mines how you will shape society.

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 India as well as the philosophy of Coleridge, and de­veloped his philosophy of transcendental­ism and what he called “the over-soul."  Even in those days the word transcendentalism was not perfectly understood, partly because it contains within itself a certain paradox.  The teaching of this philosophy was that the over-soul, which was transcendent, was actually radically the opposite.  It was within nature and within human beings.  We contained within us this transcendent idea, and it was in each as­pect of the world around us.  The world was a thing of beauty and wonder and of great goodness, and so, therefore, are we.  Transcendentalism was far more about the immanence of the holy than its transcendence. It follows logi­cally from this that Emerson would then preach that we ourselves contain the truth, that it is available to us through intuition, and that we are therefore not to rely slavishly on the teachings of others.

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.

Perhaps in another hundred years or so Unitarian Universalism will have managed to as­similate its strains of Christianity and tran­scendentalism in such a way that we will all be able both to honor our tradition and seek for new truths without feeling either disloyal or stul­tified; that we will all be able both to have an intuitive sense of the holy around us and tran­scending the mundane, and also be ready to subject even our favorite intuitive discoveries to rigorous criticism.  But may we never lose, whatever we may gain, that as­pect of our faith which both sides held in common: the faith that no religion can be true which does not hold a vision of the world in which holy truth in­cludes the values of justice, mercy, love and peace, and our religious work is not done until the whole world reflects those values.