What are ten things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? Ten things that are distinctive and unique? Each month we’re counting down, from Number 10 all the way down to Number 1, as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in May 2011.

This month, we’re looking at item number 4. Now, in all honesty, item number 4 is too often a victim of what I want to call a “perception gap.” People don’t see it, so they think it’s not there—but it really IS there! We’re just not seeing it. Perhaps it’s because we have a stereotype in our minds, or an expectation, which limits our perception of things. Or maybe the reason is something else. Whatever it is, I am not the only person to notice it. Said Unitarian Universalist scholar David Robinson, back in 1989, “Like a pauper who searches for the next meal, never knowing of the relatives whose will would make him rich, [Unitarian Universalists] lament their vague religious identity, standing upon the richest theological legacy of any American denomination. Possessed of a deep and sustaining history of spiritual achievement and philosophical speculation, religious liberals have been, ironically, dispossessed of that heritage.” Isn’t that strange?

Item number 4 is Transcendentalism. Sometimes, we Unitarian Universalists can find ourselves lamenting the “fact” that our religious tradition is too vague or shallow or just not spiritual enough—as an old joke puts it, Unitarian Universalists borrow other people’s religions because they don’t have any of their own. But, as David Robinson suggests, that’s just not so. Transcendentalism represents a kind of spirituality that is powerful and deep and, above all, uniquely and authentically OURS.

“The Transcendentalists,” says UU minister Barry Andrews in his wonderful article The Roots of Unitarian Universalist Spirituality in New England Transcendentalism, “were a group of men and women, most of whom lived in New England during the first half of the 19th century and pursued vocations as writers, ministers, educators, and reformers. The nucleus of the group were members of an informal ‘club’ that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Peabody, James Freeman Clarke, Frederick Henry Hedge, George Ripley, William Henry Channing, and a number of others. In spite of the diversity of interests represented in the group, almost all of them were Unitarians and most were ministers or former ministers.”

Transcendentalists saw spirituality and social justice as two sides of the same coin, and for them, both began with what they called “self culture.” Essentially, self culture is about becoming free in your heart and spirit so you can help spread freedom in the larger world. Thoreau himself would put it like this: “Our limbs indeed have room enough but it is our souls that rust in a corner. Let us migrate interiorly without intermission, and pitch our tent each day nearer the western horizon.”

But how exactly do we do that—“migrate interiorly”? One main answer is to submerge ourselves in nature. Stop dissecting it and start listening. Allow it to reveal to us the depths of our own souls. The Transcendentalists believed that the interdependent web of all existence is not merely a fine-tuned fitting-together of external processes and parts; nature literally has soul, and this soul speaks to the soul of humanity. This is exactly why Thoreau could say, “I feel that I draw nearest to understanding the great secret of my life in my closest intercourse with nature.”

Other self-culture practices included small group conversations, in which people could share and integrate their discoveries in nature—put the pieces together, see what was implied about their sense of self and identity, their relationships, and larger social conditions. Disciplined conversation, journal writing, walking, leisure that allows the soul to speak, and lots and lots of reading. You’ll never meet a bunch of mystics who read so much. Then there were the social experiments in enlightened living. Brook Farm comes to mind: a cooperative community consisting of teachers, students, and workers engaged in the labor of farming together with the labor of self-culture. So does Thoreau’s own social experiment of one: his time at Walden, lasting two years and two months.

“We must live in the present,” said Thoreau, “launch ourselves on every wave, find our eternity in each moment.” “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake.” As I write this, I can feel shivers run up and down my spine. Transcendentalism is part of our DNA. Let’s not allow perception gaps to get in the way of our knowing this uniquely and authentically UU spiritual tradition!

That’s number 4 in our Unitarian Universalist Top Ten countdown!



Rev. Anthony David