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Sheridan Unitarian Universalist Talk

    Transcendentalism: the Origin of the Spirituality Movement in America

Victor Ashear (10/21/07)

When we consider the origin of the spirituality movement in the U.S. what may first occur to us is the era of the late1960ís. That was a time when Baby-Boomers such as myself not only challenged the war in Vietnam but also societal institutions such as the traditional religions and the "military-industrial complex." Exploitation of the environment for the enhancement of corporate wealth and power aided by government was anathema to our generation and needed to be confronted. As you know, the movement expanded to include fighting for the civil rights of minorities and women. We Boomers didnít trust institutions of any kind including the religious. So the late 1960ís were also a time when people began to explore spirituality separately from organized religion and turned to eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism for guidance. Of course it was also a time when many "dropped acid" in search of God. Concurrently, there was a growing appreciation of wilderness as an alternative source of spiritual inspiration. What was unknown to many of us then, and perhaps to some of you now, is that most of these trends towards alternative spirituality, and advocacy for human rights are linked directly to the Transcendentalist movement of the middle nineteenth century. The most notable members of that movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

I want to use this time together this morning to highlight the ideas, work and influence of the Transcendentalists and to illustrate that the principles of what we might call "healthy spirituality" were at the very center of their work. Last time Ron defined spirituality as "awareness of a meaningful connection to the sacred whole." He listed four dimensions to spirituality; namely, moral maturity, truth and meaning, peak experience and mystery. He also spoke of a "two stoke" process whereby encounter with the sacred leads to positive social action. These aspects are found in our UU principles and sources, and the Transcendentalist movement as well. I hope to illustrate that Transcendentalism grew out of Unitarianism of the early and middle ninetieth century and became the first non-religion based spirituality movement in America. Transcendentalism helped make possible the expressions of spirituality we find in the middle 19th century to the present. I want to acknowledge my source for much of this presentation, a "Great Courses" lecture series taught by Professor Ashton Nichols entitled "Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalist Movement."

The Transcendentalist movement of the ninetieth century should not be confused with "Transcendental Meditation" a Hindu based practice popular in the 1960ís and 1970ís which so far as I am aware, bears no connection to the nineteenth century movement we will be discussing.

So what in fact is Transcendentalism? The eighteenth century philosopher Emanuel Kant introduced the term. Kant believed there is a spiritual realm that underpins the physical world we are accustomed to, a transcendent realm. In addition Kant believed human beings are born with an innate moral capacity that allows us know right from wrong intuitively. Transcendentalism of the nineteenth century as it evolved from Kant, emphasized the divine in nature, the value of people, the right and the ability of ordinary people to apprehend the sacred directly without the intercession of any organized religion, and the importance of intuition as the means to spiritual experience. Transcendentalism was offered to provide a better guide to living than pure empiricism or logical reasoning. It was also an alternative to Calvinism as I hope to show and as Ronn mentioned.

To quote from a pamphlet entitled "An Essay on Transcendentalism" published ca. 1850

(I hope we can excuse the sexist language.):

TranscendentalismÖmaintains that man has ideas, that come not through the five

senses, or the powers of reasoning, but are either the result of direct revelation from

God, his immediate inspiration, or his immanent presence in the spiritual world, and

it asserts that man has something besides a body of flesh, a spiritual body, with senses

to perceive what is true, and right and beautiful, and a natural love for these, as the body

for its food.

The "spiritual" referred to in the pamphlet was also called the "Over-Soul," the "conscience" or the "Inner Light." All of these terms were synonyms for "God" among Transcendentalists.

In addition to the philosophy of Kant, the work of early Unitarian ministers laid the groundwork for what would become Transcendentalism. One of the fathers of the Unitarian movement in America, William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), beginning in the 1820ís preached against to the prevalent Calvinism of his time. Channing opposed the Calvinist beliefs that people are born of original sin, predestined either to salvation or damnation, and the belief that people could do nothing to change their lives. Channing also denied the doctrine of the Trinity preferring to appreciate Jesus as a human role model rather then a deity. Channingís detractors disparagingly cast the term "Unitarian" upon him and he reluctantly accepted it. Channing preached against slavery and poverty. He emphasized social responsibility, charity and moral action. He taught that each of us, like Jesus, could be a role model for others. Channing advocated personal spiritual development over blind allegiance to church authority. In this regard he was a forerunner to Emersonís essay on "Self-Reliance."

Channing was an early participant in the Transcendentalist Club meetings that began in 1836. In the 25 or so years of itís existence, the Transcendentalist Club included as members in addition to Emerson and Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, Elisabeth Peabody, Nathaniel Hawthorne and many other notables. The Club met at different memberís homes, most often Emersonís, and focused their discussions on a single topic each time. For example one evening the topic was "Education and Humanity," another "What is the Essence of Religion as Distinct from Morality?" and another, "Pantheism." The Club published a magazine called The Dial, which included essays and poems on Transcendentalist themes. The Transcendentalists even spanned a utopian community called Brook Farm, somewhat reminiscent of the communes of the 1970ís.

Another Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker (1810-1860), who succeeded Channing, was heavily involved in the Transcendentalist Club as well. Parker was quite active in the abolition movement and hid slaves himself. He championed universal public education, and womenís rights. He helped move Unitarianism further away from Calvinism than Channing. He taught that the Bible was best understood as an ethical guide. He advocated that the Bible be read with reason, awareness of history, and an appreciation of the fact that it has multiple authors. In other words, Parker challenged the idea that the Bible was the infallible word of God. He also taught that the miracles in the Bible were best understood as metaphors. Parker was so liberal for his time that he was rejected even by many Unitarian ministers of his day. In spite of his rejection by the majority of the church community of Boston, Parker was a very popular speaker, attracting thousands to his sermons.

Channing and Parker laid the foundation for the freedom of individuals to develop their own spirituality (however still within the church) by sweeping away Calvinist dogma. They encouraged people to use their powers of reason and intuition to determine truth for themselves, and to act with morality to improve the world.

We turn now to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) who was the father of Transcendentalism and the spirituality movement in America. Many of you will remember I gave a talk four years ago on the life and work of Emerson, and Ronn talked about him last time, so I donít want to duplicate too much here. You may also recall, Emerson left the Unitarian church because he still found it confining in spite of it liberalization. He endeavored to initiate a spiritual movement free of any trappings of organized religion and accessible to all people. This was a particularly American idea suited to a new nation founded on democracy and freedom of religion and exploration of the still "New World." The Transcendentalism that Emerson helped to create was not a coherent system of philosophy but rather a series of philosophical and spiritual ideas. He said, "the highest revelation is that God is in every man," and "I am part and particle of God." This is what Ronn was referring to when he spoke about the objective and subjective merging in moments of spiritual awareness. Emerson understood God, self and nature as parts of a whole. These ideas were opposed by the Calvinist tradition that saw God as separate from human beings and residing in a world above. Emerson taught that divinity, "the Over-Soul," was not to be found in a church but in the natural world. Like the German philosophers of the late 1700ís including Kant whom I mentioned earlier, and like the Hindu and Buddhist traditions which he studied (just as we Boomers were doing in the 1960ís), Emerson taught there is a spiritual dimension beyond the physical. Emerson again unlike Calvinism or Catholicism of his time, didnít believe in a God that intervened in human affairs. He taught that all people have direct access to "God" without the necessity of intercession through the Bible, or sacraments or priests, or any dogma. He taught that morality was derived from our appreciation of the divine nature of all people and the world. In other words, morality stems from our direct encounter with the spiritual realm. His strong belief in the divinity of all people led him to speak out against slavery, the denial of equal rights to women and a class system based upon material wealth. Emerson was a rugged individualist who was loath to join any movement. His essay on Self-Reliance advocated for personal spiritual development without regard to organized institutions or past practices or commonly held viewpoints that he considered impediments to spiritual growth. He pointed the way for each of us to develop spiritually by satisfying our own need for truth and morality. He urged us to be guided by our own inner voice. As Professor Nichols stated this was "a radical idea then and now." I might also add it is very difficult to do.

To quote from Emersonís journal (Hopefully we can again overlook the sexist language.):

A man contains in himself all that is needed to his government within himselfÖ

All real good or evil that can befall him must be from himselfÖThere is a

correspondence between the human soul and everything that exists in the world;

more properly, everything that is known to man. Instead of studying things without, the

principles of them may be penetrated into from within himÖThe purpose of life seems to

be to acquaint man with himselfÖThe highest revelation is that God is in every man.

Although Emerson was extremely popular and influential, he was a very abstract thinker and hard for many to understand. If you have read any of Emersonís essays you will appreciate what I am saying here. People generally understood Emersonís appeal to freedom and democracy, which were part of the zeitgeist of the young American nation, but many could not understand his deeper thoughts about spirituality. It required his followers in the Transcendentalist movement to accomplish a translation; people like Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and many others who were influenced by him.

As we regard Emerson as the visionary of the Transcendentalist movement we consider Thoreau (1817-1862) itís foremost foot soldier. Thoreau and Emerson became very close friends from the time they met at Harvard. Walden Pond where Thoreau stayed for two years to write his famous book, was in fact Emersonís property. Thoreau was able to embody Emersonís ideas and make them understandable to a broader segment of society. Thoreau may have been even more influential than his teacher was. He had keen powers of observation. He studied the cycle of life and death in nature. He may have been the first naturalist. To quote professor Nichols, Thoreau created "a vision of nature at the center of the American mind," which I might add, still exists today. Like Emerson and Parker, Thoreau was also a popular speaker. Thoreauís book Walden, is still considered a foundational reading about nature watching. Thoreau brought home Emersonís message that spiritual experience is to be found in nature. He also taught that living simply as he did at Walden, heightens our spiritual awareness. Walden the book was not really so much about a specific place in Concord Massachusetts, but rather "a place in the mind." So the book was clearly a spiritual guidebook. In addition it was a critique of modern life and a guide to self-sufficiency, and good literature as well. Thoreau taught that just as prayer might ease human suffering so might immersion in nature. Like his teacher and friend Emerson, Thoreau believed in what he called a "surging energy" underlying the physical realm. Thoreauís other famous book on civil disobedience, taught that the right of conscience is above the law. He was active in the abolition movement, he spoke out for the rights of women including "suffrage," and he refused to pay the "pole tax" because he believed it to be unjust. He was a friend to Native Americans and he participated actively in their culture. Among his other accomplishments Thoreau taught non-violent opposition to government injustice. As you may know Thoreau had a profound influence upon Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. So we see in Thoreau, as we did in Emerson, an awareness of the spirituality of all nature, to include human beings, leading to a moral call to social action. Here again is the "two stroke" engine about which Ronn spoke.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), like Henry David Thoreau, followed Emersonís legacy and embodied Emersonís Transcendentalist vision. Whitman tried to gain entrance into the Transcendentalist Club but he was excluded because of the explicit sensuality of his poetry, perhaps as well because of his unkempt appearance. For Whitman, the central point of his poetry of democracy was his faith in the spiritual nature of human beings. He saw people as the source of all potential goodness, beauty, and truth, and able to partake of the same nature as God. He insisted that to develop our creative inclinations people need freedom open to all, built on equality, tolerance, and self-respect. Whitmanís life and poetry are a most powerful and practical demonstration of much that the Transcendentalists advocated. Whitman read and was inspired by Emersonís essays, most notably "Self Reliance." In turn Emerson wrote a very favorable review of the first edition of Whitmanís famous book of poetry, Leaves of Grass. In it Whitman praised the work of the common people and glorified the American democracy. Whitman believed that all people are divine and it followed for him that all are equal. Much as Emerson, Channing and Parker broke with religious tradition, Whitman broke with poetic tradition. His verses did not rime, nor did they conform to the rules of poetic meter. What they did do is rejoice in the revelation of the spirituality of life. Whitmanís most famous poem "Song to Myself," expresses a vision reminiscent of Emersonís "Self Reliance."

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the

dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

You shall not look thorough my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them for your self.

These next lines from the poem illustrate the Emersonian and Transcendentalist belief that divinity resides within each of us:

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,

And I have said the body is not more than the soul,

And nothing, not God, is greater than oneís self

I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand

God not in the least,

Nor do I understand who can be more wonderful than myself.

The "myselfí which Whitman speaks of in "Song to Myself" is not the ego, but what the Hindu spiritual tradition calls "Brahman." or the "higher self." Since Whitman "saw no distinction between inner and outer," all that exists is "God." The God of whom Whitman wrote was obviously not Calvinist based; it was the spirituality that Ronn and Emerson spoke of.

I want to end with the following verses from "Song to Myself," which express clearly the basic Transcendentalist tenant that the divine is found in everything.

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and

Each moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my

own face in the glass;

I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one

is signed by Godís name.

And I leave them where they are, for I know that others

will punctually come forever and ever.

As a young adult suffering from depression and low self-esteem, and seeking an alternative to fundamentalist Judaism, Whitmanís words were extremely welcome and therapeutic to me.

I have tried to show that the pathway to a personally developed spirituality and theology was paved not in the late twentieth century but over a century earlier. All of the individuals that I spoke of today really did intentionally and effectively create a separation between the dogma of Calvinism which they found stifling, and "healthy," personal spiritual development. I find it interesting that the Transcendentalists drew inspiration from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and the natural world, and worked for human rights. The parallels to the revolution of the 1960íare striking. To accomplish their mission the Transcendentalists required the courage to challenge prevailing religious institutions. We are forever indebted to the Transcendentalists for creating the opportunity and the mold for todayís spirituality seekers. May we continue to be inspired by the noble examples the Transcendentalistís created so that we may also accomplish good in this world, in our time.

May it be so.


copyright by Victor Ashear


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