“From the east comes the sun, bringing a new and unspoiled day.” So begins our responsive reading from a moment ago, by Universalist minister Clinton Lee Scott. The sun, which “has already circled the earth and looked upon distant lands and far-away peoples. It has passed over mountain ranges; it has shone upon laborers; it has beheld proud cities; it has been witness to both good and evil; it has seen.”
And what has it seen, recently?
It has seen a world in transformation because of technological innovations of the past 20 years, like the Internet, digital media, and wireless networks. Hyperconnectivity is now a way of life: the constant chatter of the Net, planetary monkey mind, videos going viral. Bad and good mixed together: smallest personal actions tracked by giant marketing and homeland security databases; but then you have Twitter posts crying foul during the recent Iranian elections, escaping all censoring by an oppressive government, gathering and galvanizing protesters for action.
The sun has seen. This too: following on the heels of rampant greed and speculation, a worldwide recession, the worst in recent memory, a domino effect of one country after another finding itself struggling with factory closures, job losses, credit crunches, Wall Street impacting and being impacted by markets thousands of miles away. Here in Atlanta, even as the larger economy improves, budgets are still tight at home, almost 10% unemployment on our streets.
The sun has seen. This as well: an arguably illegal war in Iraq, more than six years old, run poorly, with unacceptable human and financial costs, sparking more thirst for terror rather than dampening it. Though now, with the end of this war in sight, the focus shifts to the even older war in Afghanistan and its uncertain prospects. Our President juggling way too many balls right now, and this is a big one.
The sun has seen. So much to be seen. The justice principle of affordable health care for all, alive in most economically advanced countries in the world, struggling to live here in America, facing the meat-grinder of politics. Scare tactics and misinformation all over the place. Charges of “death panels.” Charges of socialism coming out of the mouths of town hall protesters, or worse. “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” yells the person who doesn’t seem to realize that Medicare is a government program—a government-run, taxpayer-funded, single-payer health insurance program. Anger and despair all over. Can’t help but wonder: is politics broken? Affordable health care for all was first proposed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912—and it’s still not a done deal.
All this, the sun has seen. All of it and more. Yet, says Clinton Lee Scott, it is not overwhelmed. “Now, unsullied from its tireless journey, it comes to us, messenger of the morning, harbinger of a new day.” And really, the profound and essential question facing us is: can we join the sun in its new morning? Can we rise with it, receive its message of a new dawn? Do we believe that there can be a new morning for us in this world, despite all? Do we believe there can be a new morning in America?
“Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” This is a line from Henry David Thoreau. Unless the sleeper wakes up, there can be no morning, just perpetual midnight. Unless the sleeper awakens to the abundant truths and powers of the soul. Truths and powers each and every one of us is born with, establishing our freedom to respond to the trials of life with courage and creativity and generosity. Enabling us to be free in our minds and hearts even if we find ourselves surrounded with unfreedom on all sides. Empowering us to be heroes in an unheroic age. There is a dawning day that we can experience here and now—we can join the sun in its new morning—but only if we awaken to it. Only if the sleeper wakes up.
This is Transcendentalism. This is the vision that inspired our 19th century spiritual ancestors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, Bronson Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, and more. The sun that rises every morning symbolizing the sun within. If we can wake up to that, our lives will be transformed. And so will the world. Personal growth and social justice just two sides of the same coin of spirituality. This is Transcendentalism.
It’s a message that is as vital now as it ever was. Transcendentalism is uniquely Unitarian Universalist—it came from our people and our tradition—and we need to be giving this treasure to ourselves and to the larger world. We need to be good stewards of this. Lots of ways of breaking through with generosity, and this is a crucial one. That’s why we’re going to be focusing on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden during this year’s First Sunday services. Live with this classic of Transcendentalist spirituality all year long. Let it enter into us and change us. See where it takes us. Allow ourselves to be surprised.
So we begin. A good start is to consider what the sun in the days of the original Transcendentalists saw, as it shone specifically upon the place and time in which they lived: New England in the 1830s and 1840s—Boston and the surrounding area, especially Concord. What did the sun see?
For one thing, radical change. Before 1830, everything had been primarily local, from one’s sense of identity to working conditions and the manufacture of goods. It took time for messages to go from point A to point B. It took time to get anywhere. But this all came to an end. The invention of the telegraph allowed for news to cross far distances instantly. Then there was the railroad, newly built tracks crisscrossing the land, bringing with it a new sense of national identity. Also new economic opportunity, allowing sons and daughters to leave home to find wage-earning jobs in the cities or in the also new textile mills of New England. Leading to the transient population in cities rising at an alarming rate. Unregulated working conditions becoming worse and worse, even as more and more money was being made. Old ways lost, one by one. Old traditions and comforts and securities. Sons and daughters no longer automatically doing what their parents had done before them, and their parents before them. Radical change in every sphere of life. Bad and good consequences all mixed together.
This is what the sun saw in its journey in the 1830s and 1840s. Also this: economic meltdown. Robert Sullivan, author of the recent book The Thoreau You Don’t Know, says that “To imagine Thoreau and his writing without considering the economy is a little like thinking about The Grapes of Wrath without considering the Great Depression.” Prior to 1837, the stock market had been roaring with speculation; government had expanded the money supply, had expanded credit and loans. But the bubble popped. Said a Unitarian minister at the time, “We were in the midst of peace, apparent prosperity, and progress when, after extensive individual failures, the astounding truth burst upon us like a thunderbolt … that we were a nation of bankrupts, and a bankrupt nation.” Economics, as you can imagine, was on everyone’s mind. Just remember this when you start reading Walden for November’s sermon: the first chapter—the longest of them all—is entitled, “Economy.”
See where I’m going here? The Transcendentalists lived in a time that echoes our time with almost eerie precision. A world in transformation, economic meltdown, and also this: an illegal war. Influential writers and politicians in the 1840s believed in what they called America’s “manifest destiny,” which was (quote) “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” They were hungry for more land—land that could expand slavery in the South, mind you—and it just so happened that Mexico was struggling to maintain control of one of its territories, called Texas. Exactly the kind of situation people believing in manifest destiny wanted to take advantage of. And they did. On May 11, 1846, President James K. Polk claimed that Mexican forces had attacked American troops in United States territory, and this meant war. However, it was not true; a certain young and lanky politician from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln objected by saying, “Show me the spot!” Another politician from Georgia, Robert Toombs, cried out, “This war is nondescript…. We charge the President with usurping the war-making power… with seizing a country [namely, Texas]… which had been for centuries, and was then in the possession of the Mexicans…. Let us put a check upon this lust of dominion.” That’s what Robert Toombs said. The war was illegal, a shameless land grab.
And underlying it all was the travesty of slavery. The strangest bedfellow to the moral vision of nothing less than the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yet what the sun saw in the time of the Transcendentalists was the very country we declared independence from—England—abolishing slavery in all her colonies in 1834. England, living out our expressed moral vision, while America was fighting an illegal war in order to expand slavery. America, hypocritical, not at the forefront of social change, but internally conflicted, confused, falling behind.
The times were troubling and overwhelming. Radical change, economic meltdown, illegal war, inability to live out the American moral vision of justice for all. And here is what the Transcendentalists thought: all were symptoms of spiritual and moral sleepwalking or, at the very least, not effectively solved when people are in the sleepwalking state. Albert Einstein spoke like a true Transcendentalist when he said, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” Absolutely. “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”
Listen to a passage from the founding document of Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, published in 1836: “[A man—and by this he means everyone] works in the world with his understanding alone. He lives in it, and masters it by penny wisdom; and he that works most in it, is but a half-man, and whilst his arms are strong and his digestion good, his mind is imbruted, and he is a selfish savage. His relation to nature, his power over it, is through the understanding; as by manure; the economic use of fire, wind, water, and the mariner’s needle; steam, coal, chemical agriculture; the repairs of the human body by the dentist and the surgeon. This is such a resumption of power, as if a banished king should buy his territories inch by inch, instead of vaulting at once into his throne.” In other words, people can’t become fully human if they don’t expand their minds. If the only thing that’s real for you is surfaces; if the only way you know how to relate to the world is as something to be materially manipulated and used, sold, bought, and traded, then there will never be an end to economic meltdowns, illegal wars, and hypocritical travesties of justice—and forget about weathering the storms of radical change. You—a birthright king—will remain banished. The kingdom is rightfully yours, yet, absurdly, you think you must buy it back inch by inch. Stay locked within what Emerson calls “penny wisdom,” and that will be your fate.
And it is tragic, because so much more is possible. Besides “penny wisdom,” there is another capacity of mind: an intuitive, holistic capacity—very different. Turn it on, and at once, we vault to the throne that is our birthright. The world in our eyes becomes transformed into a place of beauty and possibility; subtle patterns of meaning step forward and we are amazed; we discover an inner freedom and peace that no external adversity can shake; we realize the difference between the ways and laws of our society and the higher law of conscience. “Crossing a bare common,” says Emerson, “in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perennial youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel nothing can befall me in life,– no disgrace, no calamity … which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,– all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” That is what Emerson says. Emerson has vaulted straight to his throne, and we can as well. But only if we open up to the world in a way that’s very different from “penny wisdom.” Only if we expand our minds.
In other words: “self-culture.” That’s the phase that Transcendentalists used to describe the work of waking up, and becoming fully human. Thoreau himself started on this work soon after he checked Nature out of the library at Harvard College in April of 1837, the year he graduated. Emerson’s message was received. Thoreau himself would put things 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”? Given what we have already heard from Emerson—given what we already know about Thoreau—it should come as no surprise that 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.” Nature is externalized mind; and mind internalized nature. Here is the truest Bible; written ones can only take a person so far. The fullest revelation of human nature is to be found in … 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. Then there was 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.” The call is to enlightened individualism. But we do the Transcendentalists a severe injustice if we mistake all this as selfishness—as an every-man-for-himself mentality—as either withdrawal from community to live in isolation, or puffing oneself up and feeling entitled to impose one’s ideas (or should I say eccentricities) upon others. Our congregations have directly suffered from such misunderstandings, as when people think that they can be perfectly fine Unitarian Universalists all by themselves, or when they are so impressed by their own brilliance that they forget to listen when others have something to say—or they simply forget to be decent. But Transcendentalist self-culture, at its best, is about self-rule and transformative human relationships; it’s about becoming free in your heart and spirit so you can help spread freedom in the larger world. Walden Pond was just on the edge of Concord, after all; just a stone’s throw away. And Thoreau went there not to repudiate society once and for all but to learn how to be in society in healthier ways.
The times were challenging, then as now. From time immemorial, the sun has circled the earth, looked upon distant lands, passed over mountain ranges, shone over laborers, beheld proud cities, witnessed both good and evil. Now, unsullied from its tireless journey, it comes to us, messenger of the morning. Let’s join it in its rise, help create a new morning in this world. Continue as never before the work of self-culture in our little corner of the universe. Learn how to transcend “penny wisdom” so we can be healed and made whole. Transcendentalism is our home-grown Unitarian Universalist spirituality that shows us how.