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Sermons at First Parish Church

Glad to the Brink of Fear

Sunday, April 26, 2009
Rev. Sue Phillips
First Parish Church of Groton

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear… Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. [1]

In all of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, all of his beautiful, literally flowery, sometimes florid words, there is no better description of Transcendentalism than this. Emerson is walking through Harvard Common just after sunset in late winter. All of a sudden, in a shift of consciousness which he neither expected nor invited, Emerson is overcome by an experience which both transcends the moment and is deeply rooted in its particulars. He is struck by a joy that runs so deep he is almost frightened. And then, he disappears as a distinct entity, and yet is also completely present. He becomes a gateway around and through which God passes. Emerson becomes, in that shining mystical moment, so connected to everything around him that he glimpses his oneness with all that is Holy.

Perhaps you too have such an experience, perhaps even recently, in the early spring sun. Perhaps your experience, like Emerson’s was more than the sum of your sight and the sound of all that was around you. Emerson called “man the wonder-maker.” [2] Our ability to take what we see and hear and feel and then make of it something so much deeper and wider, something through which we connect to everything around us — and to God — this is the very heart of Emerson’s theology.

People often ask what those transcendentalists were transcending, and this is it: they were transcending reliance on the hard facts of our senses, and even the rational mind. They believed God planted within each of us the capacity to understand and to make meaning. And while our powers of factual observation are partners in this meaning-making, these are not the only source of Truth. Emerson believed we must transcend these “facts,” this rational data, and let our intuition and our instinct take the lead.

Those of us with even a little memory of our American history classes can see at once how radical this idea was in the 1830s and 40s when Emerson was writing there at the end of a wave of orthodox religious revivalism called the Second Great Awakening. For Emerson to say that human instinct and intuition were sources of Godly authority rather than Satanic depravity was quite simply heretical. Maybe that’s why we love him still.

But the Transcendentalists weren’t even responding to the orthodox Calvinists. They were too busy duking it out with the Unitarians.

The Unitarians had their own beef with the Calvinists, with whom they were fighting as much for the silver in all those lovely parish churches as for God. When the Unitarians weren’t busy suing over the silver, they were bashing the Calvinists with the lessons of the Enlightenment.

The Unitarians fought the unseemly religious enthusiasms of the Great Awakening with Reason. They believed that human beings are born a tabula rasa, a blank slate, and that everything we come to know we learn through our senses.

Immanuel Kant, who incidentally coined the term “transcendental,” believed that this blank slate isn’t blank at all. There is the slate itself, the mind, which contributes instinct and intuition to help understand what gets written on it. In other words, the mind is not blank at all, but comes with built-in interpretive tools that contribute something vital to how we understand measurable facts. The Transcendentalists agreed with Kant. They believed that God invested humans with instinct that built upon sensory data to make meaning of the world.

The Unitarians of Emerson’s time relied on rationalism in their brave step away from the unpredictable and downright scary orthodox Calvinism of the age. Just twenty years before Emerson began writing his famous essays, William Ellery Channing had staked out this radical, rational ground for the Unitarians. Channing made the bold claim that humanity’s powers of reason were a God-given tool, and these powers should be brought to bear in the religious quest. To rely on faith alone, to suspend our analytical abilities, was to deny these powers and, in a way, to deny the full bounty of God’s gifts. When Channing and the Unitarians stepped across the wide chasm of orthodox faith, they found the hard ground of Reason on the other side. So it is no wonder they clung so tightly to that Reason. But just as soon as these liberal Unitarians began to shape their growing and lively movement, even more liberal liberals started nipping at their well-heeled heels.

And nip they did. The Unitarians believed in Jesus’ miracles… Emerson called them “Monster.” [3] The Unitarians thought believing in these miracles was a requirement of Christian faith… the Transcendentalists thought the miracles were myths. The Unitarians believed the Bible contained Divinely revealed truths… while the Transcendentalists called the Bible a fallible set of stories written by primitives. Indeed, the Transcendentalists vexed their Unitarian brothers to no end by denying the need for any kind of “revealed” truth at all, from Scripture or any other source. “Within man,” Emerson wrote, “is the soul of the whole.” [4] Each person is capable of knowing everything necessary about God — which is not to say that everyone does, by any stretch — but that everyone is innately capable of such awareness, without need for external instruction. We all have within our own power — we could say, within our God-given power — the ability to understand our world in all its dimensions. The implications of this belief for the institutional church were frightening, to say the least, especially to the newly (and still barely) respectable Unitarians.

Emerson wrote that we must “dare to love God without mediator or veil.” [5] Part of this radical message has stopped being so radical to us: we Unitarian Universalists have done a really good job of dispensing with the mediators. As a religious movement, we have long since been convinced that Reason is a vital tool for religious understanding. We have agreed for more than a hundred years that we are better off without the mediation of a hierarchical institutional church or authoritative ministry, without doctrine or creed. We have long since been convinced of the autonomy and primacy of individual conscience. But Emerson’s hand still reaches across history to tap us on the shoulder, and remind us that his call went deeper than a rejection of mediators. “Dare to love God without mediator or veil.” His words remind us that we still have a lot to learn about loving God, and about loving God without a veil.

What does this mean, to love God without a veil? Emerson teaches us to experience God first hand. Only then can we know the essential Unity of God, and our place in this unity. “There is no screen or ceiling,” Emerson writes,

…between our heads and the infinite heavens, so is there no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins. The walls are taken away… Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. [6]

One of the screens between “our heads and the infinite heavens,” one of the veils between us and God, is language itself. As prolific a communicator as Emerson was, as many words as this man wrote and spoke, nowhere does he suggest that language is necessary to experience God. He believed that words originated as names for natural objects, which also have “intrinsic spiritual and symbolic significance.” Every word is thus a “metaphor, since it combines a sensory meaning with a more intangible one.” [7] Take the natural fact of a living plant with a huge ribbed trunk and gorgeous canopy of bright green leaves. We call it Tree. But those natural facts are not all there is about Tree. When we look at this object, when we use its name, we also have an intuitive experience of the Tree’s tree-ness; the tree elicits feelings in us, and we are in relationship to it. But Emerson knew that the language to describe Tree can be flat. It can come to stand in for our experience in the presence of a great Tree. Words themselves thus “buffer us from immediate perception” of the living thing. [8]

In the exact same way, language for God can be a veil that obscures our ability to experience the Holy. The words themselves can get in the way of a direct relationship with what Emerson called “the wise silence; the universal beauty… the eternal One.” But even more problemmatically than that, we modern-day Unitarian Universalists have somehow come to see God language as the ultimate mediator. In our zeal to protect ourselves from such authority, we have largely thrown out God language. Perhaps we have confused God with the accretions of distress that some of us have come to associate with the words for God. I hope we are mature enough as a spiritual community to hold this transcendentalist contradiction: language is only symbolic, and we need not let its limitations hinder us from experiencing the holy — we must seek out direct experiences of God that transcend language. We must not throw out all language about God, lest we also throw out God.

No one puts this veil over our eyes. We put it on ourselves, and yet attribute it to others. And that’s what makes it especially dangerous.

The poet Mary Oliver seems to agree. In our reading this morning, she writes

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon…

(how it streams)
upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance —
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love —
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed —
or have you too
turned from this world… [9]

In a moment of transcendence, we experience the enveloping radiant beauty of the sun. There is no language that makes a word wide enough to name the wild joy we feel for the sun, or the pleasure that fills us in its presence, especially this time of year when we have so longed for that light. There is no word that describes both the hard fact of the sun’s warmth and the feelings that arise as we bask in it.

We are empty-handed — we don’t need to contribute anything to the equation save a willingness to notice, a willingness to face the world. Oliver’s challenge here is the challenge of Transcendentalism: we use words to describe our experience (and none better than Emerson and Mary Oliver, in my judgment), but words fail us, too. They can’t possibly describe that direct experience of wonder and awe that we feel in the presence of the Sacred. But we cannot, even in the face of this failure, turn away from the experiences themselves. As meaning-makers, and wonder-makers, we can and must seek them out if we are to live faithful lives.

When we 21st century Unitarian Universalists enthusiastically claim Emerson as one of our own, we are often able to muster enough understanding of his work to know that he found God in nature, and that he believed humans could experience religious truths on our own, without the need for intermediaries. Emerson’s work has been eroded and oversimplified, I think, to justify a kind of radical theological autonomy, where the sole source of religious authority is individual experience. We often fail to remember the height of Emerson’s mystical experience — the part where “all mean egotism vanishes” — when he is united with God. We are quick to emphasize transcendentalism’s self-reliance, but tend to forget that the goal of that self-reliance was communion not with Self, but with the Universal Being of which each of us is only a part. While Self and God were intimately connected for Emerson and the other Transcendentalists, they were indeed distinct.

Let us, like Emerson, be “glad to the brink of fear.” When we step up to the great beauty of God — when we stand before the Sun and Trees and all that is Holy — when we see our undeniable place there, we are called to something so deep and wide that it can be frightening. Are we up to the Transcendentalist challenge to answer with our lives the question that all of this beauty and belonging asks of us? Or have we turned, as Mary Oliver fears, from this aspect of the world? Do we dare to love the Holy not only without mediators, but without the veils we have put over our own eyes? Are we ready to encounter that Universal Being, and to make of ourselves a conduit for it?

These are the questions Emerson asks. And what Mary Oliver calls us to consider as she observes the Sun “streaming upward on its heavenly oils… at its perfect imperial distance.” She is posing Emerson’s own question, too, when she asks us “have you ever felt for anything/such wild love — … for the pleasure that fills you, as the sun reaches out, as it warms you, as you stand there, empty-handed — or have you too/turned from this world?”

[1]   Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, 1849. Available here.
[2]   Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Divinity School Address, 1838.
[3]   Ibid.
[4]   Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Over-Soul, 1841. Available here.
[5]   Emerson, Divinity School Address, ibid.
[6]   Emerson, The Over-Soul, ibid.
[7]   Martin Bickman, An Overview of American Transcendentalism.
[8]   Ibid.
[9]   May Oliver, "The Sun," in New and Selected Poems, 1992 (Boston: Beacon Press).

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Most recently updated 2009-06-06