Mystics and Transcendentalists

Below is the uncorrected text of the talk with which I began a class on the mystical tradition within Unitarian Universalism, focusing (of course) on the Transcendentalists. A fascinating discussion followed, in which participants offered corrections where I was vague or in error, amplified things that needed to be amplified, and added lots of good thinking. So if you read this, remember that you’re missing the most interesting part of the class. Also, I diverged from the text at several places, so the talk you heard may not be the talk you read here.

Yes, liberal religion has a mystical tradition!

It seems odd that I have to assert this so vigorously. But our Unitarian and Universalist traditions, and Unitarian Universalism today, have not been particularly hospitable towards mystics. Throughout our history, and into the present day, the rationalists dominate our theological conversations — and I include both the theistic rationalists and the atheist rationalists. Our faith tradition clings to its belief in a rationalism inherited from the Enlightenment; we believe in carefully reasoned arguments; we have a tendency to focus on the brain and mind and ignore the heart and the rest of the body; we are most likely to use logical thought, and we are inclined to ignore other ways of knowing and interpreting the world.

However, by the same token, the mystics among us been not been kind towards their non-mystical co-religionists.

Emerson against religious formalism

Back in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave what is now known as the Divinity School Address; he spoke to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School, supplier of most Unitarian ministers of the day, and told them how to be good ministers. Do not be coldly rational formalists, he warned. And then, speaking of the minister of his Unitarian church in Concord, Massachusetts, a man by the name of Barzillai Frost, Emerson said:

photo of Ralph Waldo Emerson“Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not. I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined.”

Emerson was prone to really bad puns, and here he indulges himself in a hidden pun: It is Barzillai FROST who is speaking in a SNOW STORM; bad as this pun may be, it points up a difference between two kinds of coldness: there is the coldness of the snow, which is real and can be experienced; and there is the coldness of religious formalism.

Actually, by other accounts, Barzillai Frost was a perfectly adequate minister. But Emerson was making a different point here. For him, religion is that which calls our attention to that which is most real; Emerson is calling for a religion that brings us face to face with that which is most real. He does not want to do away with religion; rather, he wants us to remember that religion goes beyond mere formalism to engage us directly with an awe-inspiring reality. Annie Dillard makes much the same point in her 1982 book Teaching a Stone To Talk when she says:

“The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

This is the kind of worship that Emerson longs for; and I think he would love the idea of wearing a crash helmet to church on Sunday morning. Elsewhere in the Divinity School address, he talks about how the churches of his day were decaying, and infected with a “wasting unbelief.” He said:

“And what greater calamity can fall upon a nation, than the loss of worship [that is, true worship, not the formalism of Barzillai Frost]? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple, to haunt the senate, or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. The eye of youth is not lighted by the hope of other worlds, and age is without honor. Society lives to trifles, and when men die, we do not mention them.”

I think Unitarian Universalists today remain, for the large part, unconscious of the potential power of our religion. If Emerson were alive today, and came into our church here in Palo Alto, I’m quite sure he would say the same thing about our worship services as he said about the worship services in the Concord, Massachusetts, church of 1838.

Mind you, our worship services here are perfectly adequate for most of us. Most of us aren’t mystics like Emerson. We come here to see our friends, to be inspired by Amy’s amazing sermons, to hear the beautiful music we get each week, to be able to share with each other the major joys and sorrows of our lives — and this is more than adequate, this is nurturing and fulfilling, for most of us. But not for Emerson.

Mysticism defined (partly)

So why wasn’t Emerson satisfied with Barzillai Frost, when so many other people in Concord were? Why wasn’t he satisfied with his Unitarian church, when his wife was, and his daughters were? Well, I think it was in large part because he was a mystic.

And what do I mean when I say Emerson was a mystic? What is it about being a mystic that made him so dissatisfied with the Unitarianism of his day?

Emerson, like many of his mystical Unitarian contemporaries, was strongly critical of the Enlightenment’s insistence that reason is the highest and best way to know the world. For Emerson, the highest and best way to know the world was through what he and other Transcendentalists called intuition — which we might define as the direct apprehension of reality. In his seminal essay “Nature,” Emerson describes in general terms mystical experience:

“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.”

This sense of being one with the universe, of seeing all yet being nothing oneself, is characteristic of human mystical experiences across religions. And such an experience is not easily explained in rational terms; to explain it in rational terms would be like Barzillai Frost preaching his nice logical sermon in the middle of a snow-storm.

What is particularly interesting about Emerson and other Unitarian and Transcendentalist mystics is that they did not see the necessity of explaining their mystical experiences in terms of a specific interpretation of the Western Christian God. The Transcendentalists were all reading the earliest English translations of the great texts of other religious traditions, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Confucian Analects, and so on, and finding that these other religious traditions seemed to have mystical experiences that were quite similar to their own.

Thus in the book Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s semi-fictionalized account of his stay at Walden Pond, he quotes both from the Bible and from these other religious texts, using whatever passages he finds that seem to match his own direct experiences of the awe and majesty of the universe. But Thoreau saw no need for affirming a belief in the Western Protestant images of God, nor in the miracles told about in the Bible; indeed, Thoreau is best described as a religious naturalist, someone for whom religion was grounded entirely in the natural world, with no component of the supernatural at all.

Others of the Transcendentalists had more conventional beliefs in a Western Protestant God — conventional insofar as a Unitarian, who doesn’t believe in the Trinity, can be said to be conventional. Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian preacher who was probably the first person to gather a congregation of more than two thousand attendance — and by today’s definition, any congregation with more than two thousand people is a mega-church — Parker prayed regularly to a God who was, for the most part, quite recognizable to other Protestant Christians. Of course, Parker prayed to a God that could be either male or female; —

BlogApr2914b“O thou Infinite Perfection, who art everywhere present, by day and night, we would flee unto thee, and for a moment take thee to our consciousness, in whom we live and move and have our being, as thou also livest and movest and hast thy being in us. Conscious of our dependence upon thee, we would remember our joys and our sorrows, praying thee that from our moment of communion and of worship we may get new strength to serve thee all the days of our lives. O Thou Infinite Mother, who art the parent of our bodies and our souls, we know that thou hast us always in thy charge and care, that thou cradlest the world beneath thine eye, which never slumbers nor sleeps, and for a moment we would be conscious of thy presence with us, that thereby we may enlighten what is dark, and raise what is low, and purify what is troubled, and confirm every virtue that is weak within us, till, blameless and beautiful, complete and perfect, we can present ourselves before thee.” [prayer given June 6, 1858]

— and Parker also prayed to a God which was a unity not a trinity. But these doctrinal differences cannot obscure the fact that his was a Christian God, albeit a heretical Christian God.

Disruptive mystics

One of the things I promised to talk about was the disruptive side of mystics. I think mystics are inherently disruptive. All mystics claim some kind of direct apprehension of ultimate reality, as Emerson did when he talked about being a transparent eye-ball. Once you have this kind of direct apprehension of reality, you tend to become skeptical when other people claim to speak of ultimate realities. Emerson was skeptical of poor Barzillai Frost’s sermon, skeptical to the point of boredom and sarcasm. Mystics also tend to become skeptical of carefully reasoned arguments. The mystic’s vantage point, that transparent eye-ball that sees all and yet is nothing, is not kind to carefully reasoned arguments. The mystic knows in an instant what it takes the careful reasoner years to think through; indeed, the mystic may see in an instant where the careful reasoner has made a mistake in one step of their reasoning, a mistake that breaks the chain of reasoning and voids their final conclusion.

Perhaps the best example of this in action was the way the Transcendentalists approached abolition of slavery. Other Unitarians — and just about all Unitarians before the Civil War were white — reasoned carefully about slavery. Some of them reasoned that slavery was good for the economy, especially the Southern economy. Some of them reasoned that slavery was morally wrong, but that ending slavery needed to be a gradual process so that it wouldn’t be too disruptive. Actually, both these lines of reasoning were at least somewhat correct: slavery did support the Southern economy (at least in the short term), and the end of slavery did prove to be incredibly disruptive. But the mystical Transcendentalists bypassed these carefully reasoned arguments, and went straight to the heart of what their intuition told them: that slavery was such a great evil that it needed to be ended now.

And many of the Transcendentalists were willing to break the law to end slavery. Henry Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and we have independent documentation that he harbored at least one fugitive slave there. The Alcott family — Louisa May Alcott, her mother Abby May and her father Bronson, and her sisters — also served as stationmasters on the Underground Railroad. So did Theodore Parker. He told his fellow Unitarian ministers how he had to keep a loaded pistol on his desk while he was writing his sermons, because he was worried that the U.S. Marshals might burst into his house to try to capture the fugitive slave he harbored in a back room.

These are perfect examples of how these mystical Transcendentalists were disruptive. They KNEW slavery was wrong, because they had direct intuition of, direct insight into, ultimate reality. They also knew that they, as individuals, were not all that important; when you, as a transparent eye-ball, have looked face-to-face with ultimate reality, you gain a firm idea of just how insignificant you are. Thoreau expresses this when he writes in the chapter “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” in his book Walden:

“If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.”

This is saying much the same thing that Emerson is saying in the bit about the transparent eye-ball. And this explains why Thoreau was perfectly willing to go to jail, rather than pay taxes that would support the Mexican American War, a war he knew owed its existence to the effort to add another slave-holding state to the Union.

Not every mystic was disruptive in this way. Emerson, for example, waffled on the issue of abolition. I suspect, though, that this was because he simply wasn’t that interested in the issue of slavery, because he was quite willing to be very disruptive in other realms. For example, he managed to disrupt the Unitarianism of his day. After he gave the Divinity School Address, he was essentially disinvited from speaking at Harvard again; he was too disruptive to the students. He disrupted himself out of his last job as a Unitarian minister when he refused to preside at communion any longer (in those days, most Unitarian churches did have communion,– not in the Catholic sense of communion, but as a sort of memorial ceremony). From our perspective, it is easy to pass judgment on Emerson, and say that he should have been far more active in the abolition movement. But this is another disruptive characteristic of mystics: they are pretty sure they know what they need to focus on, and they are not particularly interested in their own generation’s judgments, let alone in the judgments of succeeding generations.

Transcendentalists and community

And this raises a difficult point: What’s to keep a mystic from becoming an unstoppable axe-murderer, if that’s what their mystical experience tells them to do? The Transcendentalists had a pretty good answer to that question: they strongly affirmed the necessity of deep and abiding friendships, whether those friendships were between equals, as between Emerson and his wife Lydian Jackson Emerson; or as between mentors and proteges, as between Emerson and one of his mentors, Mary Rotch of New Bedford, or between Emerson and one of his proteges, the poet Jones Very.

Jones Very provides a case in point. Very did in fact suffer from mental illness, and was confined to an insane asylum for a period of two or three years. He wrote much of his poetry while influenced by his mystical experiences, by his direct apprehension of ultimate reality. There’s a story — and I’m not sure whether it’s apocryphal or not — that Very showed some of his poems to Emerson. Emerson started to critique one of the poems, but Very brushed him off by saying that God himself had dictated the poem to Very. Emerson said in reply that he thought God would not make basic mistakes in grammar and spelling.

Perhaps a better example of a mentor-protege relationship is the relationship between Mary Rotch and Emerson. Mary Rotch had been an elder in the New Bedford Quaker meeting, but she was read out of meeting by the more conservative contingent because of her religiously liberal ideals. (She was, by the way, incredibly disruptive to that Quaker meeting; yet another example of a mystic being disruptive.) So she joined the Unitarian church in town. That’s where Emerson met her, and was impressed by her. She was quite a bit older than he, and had thought more deeply about religion than he had; then, too, her experience in being read out of the Quaker meeting was the kind of experience that Emerson had not yet had, but was realizing might be a possibility for him.

Rotch did or said a number of things that impressed themselves deeply on Emerson. Just before communion in her Unitarian church, she stood up and walked quietly out of the church building. She remained enough of a Quaker — and very much of a mystic — that she felt no need of such outward forms of religion. She felt need of a religious community — which is precisely what we’re talking about, how mystics need to check in with other people to make sure their intuitions of ultimate reality aren’t insanity — she needed a religious community, but she did not need rituals that she felt were empty. Emerson watched her leave before he presided at the communion table; he wondered; he talked with her; and later he determined that he, too, thought that communion was empty, and lost his job because of his principled stand. But notice how he relied on his friendship with Mary Rotch to work through his intuitions about communion.

Mysticism today within Unitarian Universalism

Now that I’ve given you this brief introduction to mystics and Transcendentalists of the past, I’d like to briefly touch on the state of mysticism within Unitarian Universalism today, and then open it up to conversation. As I said at the beginning, today’s Unitarian Universalism continues to be dominated by the careful reasoners. Speaking as a mystic myself, I’d say that today’s Unitarian Universalism is still stuck in the same rationalistic Enlightenment thinking of Emerson’s day. We like to think we’ve progressed — and perhaps we have a little — but we point to our openness to humanism and atheism as progress, but from my point of view these are the same old careful reasoning; these are the same old Enlightenment ideals, which have been taken in new and mildly creative directions, it is true, but considered in terms of how we know the world — considered in epistemological terms, not ontological terms — it’s as if Emerson had no influence.

I think this is normal, this is to be expected, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. Mysticism is not for everyone. I mean that quite literally; it seems certain that not everyone can have mystical experiences. Furthermore, not everyone wants to come to church wearing a metaphorical crash helmet — and that’s what mysticism requires. Mystical experiences are not what I’d call pleasant — awe-inspiring, yes; soul-expanding, yes; life-changing, yes; pleasant, not really. I’d rather have congregations where I can come for community, for those friendships that the Transcendentalists talked about. Like Mary Rotch, I can walk away from those moments that seem like outward forms of religion, which seem to me empty. We mystics have to become adept at finding our own niches in the existing normality.

What does bother me, however, is the way that Unitarian Universalism can be dismissive of mysticism — usually this takes the form of rationalists dismissing mysticism because it isn’t reasonable or careful — and the way that Unitarian Universalism can be patronizing towards mysticism — usually this takes the form of the rationalists putting on a big outward show of being tolerant of alternative forms of religion, while making sure to stay far away from any serious engagement with what mystics might be saying. These things bother me because they show how easy it is for the best-intentioned Unitarian Universalists to avoid deep engagement with their own tradition. especially where such engagement offers any real challenge to atheism or humanism.

But these things bother me for another reason. We are seeing the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, sometimes known as the “nones.” Some Unitarian Universalists think that the “nones” must be prime candidates for Unitarian Universalism, since if you’re a “none,” that must mean that you’re a humanist. But recent studies are showing that the “nones” are primarily theists, many of whom are theologically quite sophisticated, who are engaging in a principled rethinking of traditional notions of God. I think the “nones” would be very comfortable hanging out with Emerson, or Mary Rotch, or Theodore Parker, or Henry David Thoreau. But I don’t think they will be comfortable in the typical Unitarian Universalist congregation. Unfortunately, the typical Unitarian Universalist congregation takes a binary attitude towards the god question: either God exists, or God doesn’t exist. Mary Rotch conceived of God that was above all a moral force; God as conscience. Thoreau conceived of God as a natural phenomenon, realized in biology and natural processes. Parker conceived of God as both male and female.

Yet we mostly can’t talk about these principled rethinkings of God in our Unitarian Universalist congregation. We are either atheists or theists, and this is a binary opposition; there is not middle ground. This is how the Enlightenment taught us how to think: we reason carefully about something, and some of us reason carefully and conclude that God must exist, while others of us reason carefully and conclude that God does not exist. Either way, we are engaging in Enlightenment thinking.

The Transcendentalists and mystics in our tradition challenge us to think outside the Enlightenment box. They tell us: reasoning is not the only way of knowing the world; intuition is another way of knowing the world. And they tell us: if you wish to know, to really, really know the truth, be careful what you wish for; because you may need a crash helmet; — or if one day you really do come face to face with the truth, you may find yourself as a transparent eye-ball seeing everything and knowing that you are nothing; or when you come face to face with the truth you might just “see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career.”

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