What Ellen Tucker Emerson said

Concord, Mass.

My sister and I stopped by the Barrow Book Store today; they have a great stock of books related to Transcendentalism, and the owner of the store, Pam Fenn, knows books by and about Transcendentalists. Pam told me this story, which she heard from a descendant of Hawthorne (I have shortened and altered the story as Pam told it to me):

In her girlhood, Ellen Tucker Emerson went through a time when she swore a lot. (Swearing in those days did not mean using the f-word, it meant taking the name of God in vain.) This embarrassed her family. Once, Ellen was invited to a birthday party, and her parents weren’t going to let her attend because of her swearing; but she finally convinced them to let her. She left, but came back ten minutes later. Her parents knew what had happened and began to discipline her, but she yelled that they should stop. “I came back because the g———d party is next week,” she cried.

Probably not a true story. But who knows.

Why Thoreau did not succeed in his own lifetime

Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote: “Perhaps if Thoreau could have been a religious fanatic, he would have prospered better.”

This is from The Memoirs of Julian Hawthorne, ed. Edith Garrigues Hawthorne (New York: Macmillan, 1938). Julian Hawthorne knew Thoreau, and like Thoreau was raised in part in Concord’s Unitarian church. This is one of the most perceptive commentaries on Thoreau I have read.

Had he lived a few decades later, Julian would have been a revered bestselling author; as it was, he had to live up to his father’s reputation, and so tried to write in a high literary style which was not his native tongue. After writing a concise and trenchant one-sentence critique of Thoreau, Julian follows it with a paragraph filled with less insightful and less well-written judgments. Here’s the whole paragraph:

Perhaps if Thoreau could have been a religious fanatic, he would have prospered better. He had no small mixture in him of the fanatic. But his faith in God was not that towering flame which the great religious reformers have manifested; the acid rationality was too strong in him. He was no barren atheist, but he had not fathomed the great secret, and could not preach without it. He had almost a rage for sincerity — to be as sincere as a bird, a tree, or a wolf; and the compromises and skilful locution of the church revolted him. If we cannot explain the Trinity, let us not affirm belief in it. He accepted the designation of Transcendentalist as committing him to nothing, but he did not regard himself as a disciple of Emerson or [Bronson] Alcott. His virtue was that he was a misfit anywhere in human congregations; he must be himself, and nobody, not even he, knew exactly what that was.

The middle of the paragraph is not really worth reading, but that last sentence is almost as good as the first. Put those two sentences together, and you have an image of someone who could have started a millennial cult. Actually, thinking back to the time when I was a tourist guide in Concord, some of today’s followers of Thoreau have all the characteristics of cultists, so maybe Thoreau did by accident found a cult; just not a very successful one.

Occupying the kingdom of God

We’re in Boston right now visiting family, and to day I read this on the front page of today’s Boston Globe:

When Occupy Boston protesters complain about greedy bankers, corporate jets, and the wealthiest Americans, Henry Hegelson feels as if he is one of the prime targets.

Hegelson, 37, said he is not only in the top 1 percent of American earners, but also founded a financial company and an airplane charter business. He said the protesters don’t seem to care that he built his wealth from scratch….

In that last sentence we see the chasm that lies between the understanding of the occupiers and the wealthy: Hegelson believes that he created all his wealth completely “from scratch,” while the occupiers believe that the financial system is basically rigged in such a way that the vast majority of people simply cannot build their wealth “from scratch.”

I come at it from a third perspective. Theologian Bernard Loomer pointed out the intellectual accomplishments of Jesus of Nazareth, and in particular Loomer’s intellectual conception of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” which Loomer himself prefers to call the “web of life.”

Based on this intellectual conception of the way the world works — that we are all inter-related in a web of life — Jesus pointed out the damaging effects of wealth. Too much wealth cuts you off from other persons, and indeed from all living and non-living things, in destructive ways. If you want to be fully supported by and participating in the Kingdom of Heaven, you must get rid of wealth. Too much wealth leads you to exploit other human beings, other living things, and non-living things — to live counter to the Web of Life.

Thus, when the rich young man comes to Jesus and says that he follows all the rules of religion, wand wants to know what else he must do to have access to the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus tells him (as translated in the King James Version): “Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thous shat have treasure in heaven.” The rich young man is “sad at that saying,” and wanders off and out of the story.

We never learn if the rich young man in the story actually sold everything he had and gave the proceeds to the poor. But we can be pretty sure that Henry Hegelson has no intention of doing anything of the kind; and so Hegelson has shut himself out of the Kingdom of Heaven. Unlike the rich young man, Hegelson isn’t even “sad at that saying”; he’s just baffled why anyone doesn’t think he is a hero.

Field guide to the airport

When you’re sitting in the airport waiting for a flight, it’s fun to look around you for typical airport fauna. I’m sitting here in San Francisco airport, looking around (keeping quiet so as not to scare the fauna away), and here’s what I see:

— Largemouth Cellphoner: The loud braying call first drew my attention to this male of the species. This typical individual has all the diagnostic field marks: potbelly, self-important air, aggressive strutting walk, expensive but schlubby clothes. However, this individual is exhibiting atypical behavior: he is off in a quiet corner instead of giving his loud call in a densely packed public space.

— Hunchback Gamer: This species is most often found close to a power outlet, and this individual is no exception. She exhibits the typical behavior of the species, hunched over a laptop playing a video game, earphones in place, completely oblivious to the world. Given how shut off from the world the species always appears, one does wonder how they find mates.

— Redfaced Bigmouthed Boobies: A mated couple of this species, a close relative of the Largemouth Cellphoner, are currently shouting across the terminal to each other: “What did you do to this phone?” “Nothing!” “Every time you touch this, it breaks!” Diagnostic field marks include faces red from anger, and aggressive behavior towards others of the same species.

— Common Geek: This individual is a fairly common color morph of khakis and blue button-down shirt. The individual is exhibiting the common behavior of typing madly at a laptop while ignoring his mate. Oh wait: I’m actually staring into a mirror here.

Interfaith clergy action with Occupy SF

Just heard through the Unitarian Universalist ministers grapevine (thanks, Craig!) that an interfaith clergy group will be supporting Occupy SF. Presumably other clergy groups will be providing similar support to other Occupy groups in other cities. Here are the details for the San Francisco event:

Clergy & Religious Leaders of all Faiths:

Monday, October 24, from 10:30-1:30
Meet at Justin Herman Plaza (near to Embarcadero BART stop), Stuart & Market St., in San Francisco.

Be part of an important interfaith clergy gathering and action to offer solidarity and faith-based support to the Occupy Wall Street movement and to show our commitment to working for long-term economic justice for all people.

Clergy & Religious leaders are asked to wear identifying clerical clothing (i.e. the religious garb, vestments, etc. of your faith and role). We will begin with prayer and ritual to rededicate ourselves to justice and prepare ourselves spiritually. Then we walk to the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank (101 Market St.) to join in solidarity with “Occupy Wall Street — San Francisco” where we will offer our blessings and commitments of support as part of that witness for justice. We will then have an opportunity to go in smaller groups to key sites throughout the financial district for prayer.

Please share with your colleagues!

Info contact: interfaithclergy@gmail.com
Twitter: IntrfaithClergy
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=167677486653763

Moving away from the humanist-theist debate

Tonight Amy Zucker Morgenstern, the senior minister at the Palo Alto church, and I led a class on humanism, theism, and naturalism, part of a series of classes we’re doing on current issues in liberal religion. We each began with a presentation on the topic; the text of my presentation is below. Our presentations were followed by a lively and enjoyable conversation with the 14 people who came, a conversation that ranged from metaphysics to demographics.

When Amy and I started talking about this class, I knew right away what I wanted to talk about: I wanted to talk about religious naturalism. I wanted to talk about religious naturalism because at the moment it is the only theological “ism” that I have any interest in associating with.

The reason I wanted to talk about religious naturalism is because in my experience it is the only theological position within Unitarian Universalism that doesn’t by definition shut out one or more other theological positions. Humanists and theists each want to shut the other group out, even force the other group out. Humanists and christian theists want to keep those doggone pagans out, and pagans, given half a chance, would shut out the humanists and christian theists. The Buddhists sit there smiling smugly at everyone else as if they have the real answers, and they’re willing to tolerate us until such a time that the rest of us get with their program. And so on.

This is all very fine and good. I like a good knock-down, drag-out argument as much as anyone. (Though I will admit I prefer theological bar fights to what academic theologians do — that is, I prefer an out-and-out fight with shouting, throwing of bar stools, and fisticuffs, to the refined intellectual backstabbing that is too often characteristic of the academy.) In fact, I think arguments are a lot of fun, as long as those who are involved are all basically healthy, and all basically want to get involved in the fight. Continue reading “Moving away from the humanist-theist debate”

Regionalization news

The staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) are slowly developing what has come to be known as “regionalization.” Although as I understand it regionalization originally came out of initiatives by districts to share and pool scarce resources, now the UUA is being driven towards regionalization by economic necessity. In a recent presentation to district staff, made available on YouTube, Teresa Cooley, Director of Congregational Life, says this:

“We have reduced resources, we have an obligation to steward our resources better, and one of the recognitions we have is: to have administrative structures for nineteen different districts is not necessarily the most cost effective way of doing things.”

I’ll embed the video below. Continue reading “Regionalization news”

Occupy SF

We stopped by City Lights Bookstore, the leftist poetry bookstore, this evening so I could buy a copy of Margaret Atwood’s new book of poems. On the way back, we stopped by Occupy SF to see how they’re doing.

I estimated that there were only three or four dozen people there at 10:30, certainly fewer people than were there a week ago. But the mood seemed good and upbeat.

Carol took some photographs (I put four of them on Flickr), and while she was doing so I talked to these two occupiers. I asked the man on the left if they lost people after the police raid earlier this week, when the police came in and confiscated all the occupiers’ belongings (sleeping bags, food, etc.) in the middle of the night. He said that he thought that was so, but that actually he had arrived after the police raid. The man on the right said that he had driven six hours to get there, coming down from far northern California. Both men were in good spirits, and seemed committed to a long stay.

I was pleased that it wasn’t the usual hippie scene. yes, the occupiers looked a little bedraggled, but that is to be expected if you’ve been spending a few nights on the street. Yes, there was drumming, but it was actually really good drumming, quite a bit more skilled than I’d expected. And the occupiers were friendly, willing to talk, and they made eye contact regularly with passers-by.

It’s Fleet Week in San Francisco, and we saw a lot of sailors and marines out in dress uniforms. While we were there, four sailors walked through the occupiers. They sped up a little and their body language said that they were a little wary, but the occupiers were relaxed: they lived up to their stated commitment that most people, including servicemen and servicewomen, are part of the 99% that they aim to represent.

I don’t feel any calling or leading to join the occupiers myself. While direct action might be important, there is still room for poets and writers and preachers and teachers to effect change through touching hearts and minds. The goal is the same: to challenge the consumer culture that threatens to send more people into poverty, and lower the standard of living for most of us, while increasing the wealth of a tiny minority.