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ON TRANSCENDENTALISM

A sermon preached by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, May 20, 2018

John Locke, the philosopher who would have such an influence on Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, and therefore the whole of American political thought, claimed that what we know and how we know is based upon experience. For Locke, we come into this without an intellect. In a word, this school of thought is called Empiricism. In other words, humankind has no intimate knowledge of anything at all. We are born blank slates.

But Immanuel Kant, in his masterpiece the Critique of Pure Reason, claimed the opposite: “I call knowledge transcendental which is occupied no so much with objects, as with our a priori concept of objects.” Kant observed that there are some aspects to knowledge that come before sense experience, that there are some things we can know from intuition alone. In a word, this school of thought is called idealism. And it is from Kant’s idea of intuitive knowledge that so inspired the Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists.

Emerson’s thought wasn’t limited to philosophy though. His writings influenced generations of artists and thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the Alcott family. But he would also inspire ministers, farmers, blacksmiths, and anyone else who marveled at the miracle of life.

The transcendentalist looked to the world and observed that no one had to give you a formal lesson on the uses and purposes of a chair. You just knew that your bottom likes to sit on things from time-to-time. No one gave you a formal lesson on the various features of a human hand, you just knew that it had the ability to feed you, scratch an itch, or feel around in the dark. And no one told you to stare up in awe at the night sky. You weren’t instructed to feel strange and small and scared and enlivened standing at the rim of a Grand Canyon or at the base of a giant Redwood tree. No, it’s as if you’ve known those things all along.

For Emerson, you feel that way because you are being addressed by the world itself. You are communing with the sacred and great chain of being, of which we are all part.

To be alone in the woods and suddenly realize the silence itself is addressing you is evidence of a holy and animating spirit of life that lives in nature and within each of us as well. To fall in love with conversation and friendship and laughter is to feel the spirit within you grow outward into a mystical world shared by other human souls.

To mourn the death of someone you love is to know that you have lost something, too; and that the world has forever changed. For as much as love expands, losing someone you love diminishes you.

These are distinctly American ideas. In the middle of the 19th Century much of the thought and art in our young nation was modeled on European artists and thinkers.

And within our religious institutions, people were taught to conform to what they were being taught: that the world is a corrupt, vile, and sinful place; and that humankind’s purpose is to subdue the earth into submission.

But in the quiet, shady Massachusetts town of Concord, a new American consciousness was being born. And buried atop the hill in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery are the women and men who gave us the mode of thought officially known as Transcendentalism.

But for the transcendentalists, they were simply trying to name and give adequate thanks for the gift of life.

So, they slept outside, under stars to feel heaven’s downward gaze. They refused to pay their taxes because they opposed land grabs disguised as political conflict. They ate only vegetables they grew themselves and lived on communes, sharing meals and labor. They built schools that made children the center of attention because they believed that education is best achieved when one learns how to love the world.

They were poet-nurses who volunteered their efforts to care for the sick and injured during the Civil War. They were hermit poets who never left their parents’ home, but still managed to mine the far reaches of the human soul, composing perfect lyrics that in just four clever lines of verse are able to call into question the limits of faith, writing: “‘Faith’ is a fine invention / For Gentlemen who see! / But Microscopes are prudent / In an Emergency!”

They were able to write novels that changed the way we regard romantic relationships but spent most of their time studying chimneys in the rain, mountains enveloped in fog, and yellow fields of rye.

They left lucrative careers and refused college degrees and family inheritances to live like mountain aesthetics in places like Salem, Massachusetts, upstate New York, and Walden Pond.

They also served on city councils, volunteered at local schools, and taught themselves how to hunt and farm and repair equipment by apprenticing with local craftsmen and women.

They would popularize the study and practice of Buddhism and Hinduism in America, translate Greek, Roman, and German poets into English, and completely remake the American pulpit.

Long before they achieved immortality with their ideas they were town oddballs who chose to go their own ways.

The story of Transcendentalism is a distinctly American story. It is a story that began with an idea. An idea that there are some things to life that are true without need of evidence: that humankind must be free, and that we have a duty to this world: to give nothing less than your whole self.

Only July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the senior class at the Harvard Divinity College. Commencement addresses back then weren’t the circus-like event of today. Commencement speakers didn’t tell graduates to be all they can be, that the purpose of life is to put your own self-interests before all others. Rather, they were somber occasions aimed at conveying to graduates a greater sense of purpose and duty to rest of the world.

Emerson tells the class of ’38 that “A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue.” And when that happens, “When in innocency, or when by intellectual perception, he attains to say,—‘I love the Right; Truth is beautiful within and without, forevermore. Virtue, I am thine: save me: use me: there will I serve, day and night, in great, in small, that I may be not virtuous, but virtue;’—then is the end of creation answered, and God is well pleased.”

And what is this virtue? It is reverence and delight in human life, delight in love, fear, and justice. It is reverence for the relationship between God and humankind.

In Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” he expands the walls of temples and churches into the world itself. He expanded humankind’s place in the world, inviting us to see ourselves not simply as part of the world, but as a part of the universe.

Emerson writes, “The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe,” and that we are to “have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.”

The purpose of life isn’t to give or contribute something. The goal of life is to give your whole self, to deal out your own life – a life passed through the fire of thought.

Emerson was the son and grandson of ministers. He was an unremarkable student. Even during his Harvard days there’s hardly a mention of him at all. He was a sight to see: he grew to a towering height and was rail-thin, with a giant head and nose. In childhood he was often sick, surviving tuberculosis. In early adulthood he would suffer the death of his first wife and son.

After graduating Harvard, he would be ordained and given a prestigious post at a prominent Unitarian church in Boston, only to resign three years later, telling his congregation that he would no longer offer them weekly communion.

The controversy this stirred is almost impossible to replicate in our era. In essence, Emerson told his congregation that he didn’t think celebrating communion every Sunday was biblical.

To the office of minister, Emerson told his parishioners he felt feebly qualified. The ins-and-outs of parish ministry didn’t suit Mr. Emerson. He resented the constant, daily interruptions, the hospital and home visits, and the bookkeeping and administrative duties that come with being a congregational minister.

He likely could have taken up a post as a professor or teacher or tutor in one of Boston’s many houses of learning. He could have fled to Germany or elsewhere in Europe as many young academics of his era chose to do. But instead he moved to tiny Concord, Massachusetts, where he would eventually meet another Harvard alum who spent most of his time alone in the woods, reading Cicero and the Bhagavad Gita, and meditating on the underside of mushrooms and stars and clams.

Henry David Thoreau and Emerson would be friends until Thoreau’s death, in 1862, at 44 years old. Emerson would preside over his friend’s funeral.

In Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau he read from Thoreau’s private journals. And inside they revealed a soulful man who found his true home in the natural world. In Thoreau’s journals we find such tender and boyish lines like, “How did these beautiful rainbow tints get into the shell of the fresh-water clam, buried in the mud at the bottom of our dark river?” And “The tanager flies through the green foliage, as if it would ignite the leaves.” In the final sentences of his eulogy Emerson would say of his friend, “His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world, wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

In Thoreau’s short life he would author a compelling moral argument against paying taxes, which should probably be read each April 15, by every tax-paying American. But most importantly, he articulated the greatest defense for preserving the splendor of the natural world. He was hyper-local before it was a thing; and I would argue he invented the tiny house movement – it’s just that it took almost 200 years to catch on.

Thoreau looked to the natural world and therein found God. Sitting on the banks of the Concord River, on walks to his cabin to and from his mother’s house for supper and slices of apple pie he saw God; he saw God in the rippling water, in the mouths of clams, and in the wings of tanagers. He heard God in the crackle of fires and in the laughter of his friends.

Far from being a wandering, isolated loners, these Transcendentalists believed they were made whole by sharing their life with others. In “The Uses of Great Men” Emerson writes, “Nature never sends a great [person] into the planet, without confiding the secret to another soul.” We are made to love, to be in love, and to forever fall deeper in love with loving.

They believed that the highest human calling is to liberate, which is to live in constant opposition to envy. Our purpose is to add to the depth of human knowledge an immovable equality, and to be glad in the gladness of others.

And even after achieving international acclaim, traveling the world and giving more than 1500 lectures and publishing widely, Emerson would always return to sleepy old Concord. He believed in commitment, in giving oneself to the betterment of a particular society. He would defend Women’s Suffrage to his local townspeople, give speeches at his local courthouse about the immediate emancipation of slaves, and he would defend President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He was a defender of freedom for all people.

His friends were scholars and philosophers, poets, publishers, and painters. But he counted among his closest friends farmers and accountants, blacksmiths and coach drivers.

Emerson’s transcendentalism inspired him to see divinity in every soul, to see the handiwork of God in the shearing of sheep and the construction of a home.

For Emerson, the truest purpose of life is to ceaselessly renew your hope in humankind. To find revelation in factories and barns and everywhere else truth is spoken.

If we live like Transcendentalists then we must give ourselves over to faith, breathing in each day the breath of new life. And whenever we stumble upon stagnate modes living that limit the boundlessness required for the fullness of human life we are to remedy that deformity with “first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.”

We are to rise each day in a world filled with tragedy and possibility and say, until our dying breath, yes to life, yes to love, and yes to freedom.

Nobody ever needed to learn about freedom in a textbook before they could feel freedom’s bounty. Nobody ever needed to be taught the necessity of charity or grace or friendship. Nobody ever needed to read a book to fall in love.

Standing atop mountains and along river banks, racing with crowds through busy city streets, rocking sleeping children, we find through the richness of life a world that addresses us, a world that welcomes us, a world that is our home. And here under its bannered heavens the world in its silence says to all of us that you may have it all, but in exchange you must give yourself. So, give yourself the transcendentalist says. Amen.

[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1871 ed., p. 10).

[2] Emily Dickinson, “Faith” is a fine invention (202), https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48184/faith-is-fine-invention-202.

[3] Van Wyck Brooks, “Hawthorne in Salem,” in The Flowing of New England 1815-1865 (New York: The Modern Library, 1936), 217.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” in The Major Prose, ed. Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2015), 111.

[5] Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” 115.

[6] Emerson, “Thoreau,” 466-467.

[7] Emerson, “Uses of Great Men,” 326.