Three recent books provide new insights into the nineteenth century Transcendentalist movement.
The Transcendentalists and Their World by Robert A. Gross (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021).
Robert Gross is perhaps best known for his brilliant use of social history techniques in his 1976 book, The Minutemen and Their World. Social history was a mid-twentieth century intellectual movement that, rather than focusing on elite powerful figures, focused on the mass of people in a given historical era. In The Minutemen and Their World Gross and his research assistants pored through historical documents like voting records, deeds, tax rolls, and the like. Using both quantitative techniques, like statistical analysis, and qualitative techniques, he was able to tell a much richer story about the Minutemen of Concord, Massachusetts, and why they decided to take up arms against His Majesty’s troops.
After completing that book, Gross extended his research into nineteenth century Concord. He wanted to figure out why such a small town became the home of both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two major Transcendentalist figures. He also wanted to find out more about the social and cultural milieu of Emerson and Thoreau, as a way to better understand their intellectual accomplishments.
I’ll be leading a workshop on ecological spirituality at Ferry Beach Conference Center in Main this summer. One of the ecological spiritual practices I’m going to explore with participants is keeping some kind of nature journal. Although most nature journals focus on musings and emotions, it’s also possible to keep a nature journal rooted in the practices of field biologists. An example of the first type of journal might be Henry Thoreau’s early journals, where he relates his philosophical musings to his observations of the natural world. An example of the second type of journal might be Henry Thoreau’s later journals (1853 and later), where his close observations of the natural world lead to deeper insights into non-human organisms.
I’ve found lots of books and online resources that tell how to keep the first type of journal, but it’s more difficult to find accessible books and resources that teach people how to keep the second type of journal. So I wrote an eight-page introduction to the topic to share with the participants in the upcoming workshop. Click on the image below to read a PDF of “A Field Journal for Naturalists.”
So we’re still stuck in lockdown, and maybe you’re getting bored with your daily walks. The British Pilgrimage Trust has a suggestion: turn your walks into mini-pilgrimages. Their Web site has a list of “holy places” in the U.K. that you can walk to. Next you set a spiritual “intention,” then treat your walk as a kind of “focused meditation.” In an interview with Religion News Service, Guy Hayward, director of the Pilgrimage Trust, says more about those “intentions”:
“Pilgrimage is about traveling, about being a stranger in a strange land, according to [Hayward]. The pandemic flips that on its head. ” ‘Staying still is actually even more of a strange experience,’ he said. ‘It’s like, how do you make yourself be a stranger in a place you know really, really well? How do you make yourself see it fresh and see it in a new way?’ “
This, by the way, sounds a lot like Henry Thoreau’s essay on “Walking.”
For us Unitarian Universalists, what might constitute a “holy place” to which we might make a micro-pilgrimage? Back when we lived in downtown San Mateo, I would walk to different houses of worship. As is true of many small American cities these days, San Mateo has quite a diversity of faith communities, so from our old apartment I could walk to a Hindu temple, an Islamic masjid, a couple of historically Black churches, a Pure Land Buddhist Temple, a UCC church, a Catholic church, a Pentecostal storefront church, and several other places of worship. I’d think about — maybe I should say, do “focused meditation” on — the religious diversity of the world, and my place in that diversity. It proved to be both uplifting (“A masjid? how cool is that!”) and humbling (“Gee, Unitarian Universalism is not as important in the world as I’d like to believe”).
Now I live next to a cemetery. Walking in cemeteries was something of a tradition in New England, in part because they plow the roads in cemeteries in winter so it’s one of the few places you can walk safely without skis or snowshoes. But it was also a meditative practice: you’d read the inscriptions and wonder about the person who had died. This is another exercise in humility, and a lesson in perspective. How well am I living my life now, knowing that I’m as mortal as that person lying under the gravestone? But perhaps you have to be from New England, with that grim New England worldview, to appreciate this kind of micro-pilgrimage.
You can also follow Thoreau’s lead, and look at the world of nature around you. Even when you live in the city, or in the inner suburbs, places where humans utterly dominate the landscape, there are still plenty of non-human organisms worthy of human attention. Recently, I find myself looking for flowering weeds, like this chickweed:
Or this flower, which is not a dandelion, but a related flower from the Cichorieae tribe (probably a Sow Thistle):
Why do I look for weeds? Maybe because of the same sentiment that Malvina Reynolds expressed in her song, “God Bless the Grass”:
God bless the grass that grows through the crack, They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back…. God bless the truth that fights toward the sun, They roll the lies over it, and think that it is done….
The real point in all this is that any walk, even a walk around your neighborhood, can become more than just a walk. It can become a spiritual journey, where even though you stay in your neighborhood, you travel very far in spirit.
Recently I read a blog post by Amod Lee on mindfulness meditation and whether it might be problematic for Christians. Lee notes that some Christian groups have mounted legal challenges to teaching mindfulness meditation in public schools, on the basis that mindfulness meditation is a religious practice, not a secular technique. Lee goes on to say that he is “not particularly interested in the particular American legal issues involved,” but rather wants to consider this issue “as a philosopher, a Buddhist, and a practitioner of mindfulness meditation.” Coming from that perspective, Lee argues that mindfulness meditation could be problematic for Christians:
“A key element to mindfulness practice is disidentification: one notices one’s thoughts and emotions as they surface, and observes them from a distance. In so doing, one comes to observe one’s mind, one’s self, as a divided entity, reducible into parts. One takes an approach which Augustine would have associated with his Manichean foes: where the soul is not one thing but the battleground for a struggle between good and evil intentions.
“That doesn’t mean one can’t practise mindfulness meditation as a Christian — or even that mindfulness meditation must mean one ceases to believe in an immortal soul. But the mindfulness approach, which explicitly comes out of Buddhist non-self, is explicitly in tension with the unified immortal essence postulated by most Christians. I think Christians would do well to at least be cautious around it.”
I found this argument helpful for me personally: I meditated for years, and finally stopped because I hated it. In the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I never like meditation because I felt all the meditation techniques I was taught pushed me towards a negation of the self. By contrast, when I learned meditative techniques of self-inquiry while studying transcendental phenomenology in Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, I found those techniques deepened my self-understanding without negating the self. Husserl’s technique led me to an understanding of intersubjectivity — that is, awareness of the self as a node in an intersubjective web of many selves — and eventually this led me to a sense that awareness of intersubjectivity is a highly desirable spiritual outcome. Similarly, meditative practices of observing non-human organisms, inspired in part by Henry Thoreau’s journals, also led me an awareness of my (non-negated) self as part of a web of intersubjective selves, many of which are non-human selves. Rather than negating the self, my own spiritual exploration led me to understand my connection with other selves, an outcome I find personally more rewarding.
My personal spiritual exploration leads me to expand on Lee’s conclusion: mindfulness meditation carries distinctly Buddhist content that people other than traditional Christians might also be cautious of, and even actively dislike. It is, in short, not a neutral practice.
(One last note: I’ve been to Unitarian Universalist worship services and workshops where the minister or workshop leader leads some kind of mindfulness meditation exercise with the unspoken assumption that everyone present will want to do mindfulness meditation. It would be wise for Unitarian Universalists to realize that mindfulness meditation is a practice borrowed from another tradition, to be careful that we do not misappropriate it, and if we do use it to remember that some Unitarian Universalists will find it distasteful or unpleasant.)
First, definitions: I would define a transcendental experience as a variety of mystical experience that does not require belief in anything supernatural; the “transcendental” refers back to the Transcendentalists, like Thoreau and Emerson. A transcendental experience is intense and possibly life-changing, and the person having the experience gains a direct knowledge of the ultimate unity of everything and the insignificance of the individual.
Second, a caveat: it seems that only some people can have transcendental experiences — William James estimated that three in four people cannot have them. Perhaps this is because some people simply aren’t able to have such experiences. But I’m inclined to believe that many people either don’t want to go through the trouble of preparing themselves to have transcendental experiences, or if they do have them manage to convince themselves that they didn’t.
Third, mystical experiences seem to have been part of every human culture, and there’s no great secret about how to have one. The classic method to prepare yourself to have mystical experiences is to practice some kind of mental/spiritual discipline. In the Western tradition, this involved some combination of prayer, study of sacred texts and lectio divina (disciplined spiritual reading), and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In the Eastern tradition, this involved some combination of meditation, study of sacred texts, submission to and study under a guru or spiritual master, and/or retreat from the ordinary workaday world. In both the East and the West, the usual interpretation of mystical experiences involved some element of the supernatural: these were experiences of God, or would lead to release from the endless cycle of rebirth, etc.
But I’d like to outline an approach to having mystical experiences that requires no belief in the supernatural (although it can also accommodate a belief in the supernatural quite comfortably). This flexible approach was developed and used by the nineteenth century Transcendentalists, many of whom were Unitarians.
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:
“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. Continue reading “Mystics and Transcendentalists”
The following is the text of a talk I gave at a meeting of Humanist Roots Group of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on Saturday 2 February 2013.
Religious naturalism defined
Let me begin with a capsule definition of religious naturalism. This comes from Jerome Stone’s book Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative. The very first paragraph reads:
“Religious naturalism, a once-forgotten option in religious thinking, is making a revival. It seeks to explore and encourage religious ways of responding to the world on a completely naturalistic basis without a supreme being or ground of being.”
Jerome Stone then goes on to list some thinkers who might be considered religious naturalists. If you’re a philosophy or theology geek, some of these names will be of interest to you: George Santayana, John Dewey, Henry Nelson Weiman, Bernard Loomer, Randolph Crump Miller (someone who influenced me through his work in religious education theory), perhaps Gordon Kaufman, and biologist Ursula Goodenough.
Historically, Jerome Stone says the roots of religious naturalism go back to Spinoza, and he also includes Henry David Thoreau as a religious naturalist. He also points out that some (not all) religious naturalists may be willing to use the term “God,” suitably defined. He writes:
“On the topic of God, I find that religious naturalists tend to fall into three groups: (1) those who conceive God as the creative process in the universe; (2) those who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously; and (3) those who do not speak of God yet still can be called religious.”
The first group, which includes people like Henry Nelson Weiman, would say that while the creative process (whatever that is, in terms of their definitions) is not ontologically distinct from the rest of the universe, they still think it is useful to name that creative process “God.” I am not particularly interested in this group of religious naturalists, and cannot speak intelligently about them; if this is a topic that interests you, Jerome Stone’s book would be a good place to start to learn more.
The second group, the people who think of God as the totality of the universe considered religiously, I find far more interesting. If you have some familiarity in Western philosophy, you will want to know that Stone places Spinoza in this group. And this group intersects with those pantheists who understand God as being the totality of the universe, where the universe is understood in completely naturalistic terms. Those who are advocates of the “Gaia hypothesis” — that’s the hypothesis that the entire biosphere of the planet Earth can be understood as one vast, perhaps sentient, organism — might be close to religious naturalism, although true pantheists who include the rest of the universe beyond the Earth, too. Continue reading “One Transcendentalist’s religious naturalism”
I started reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir I Love a Broad Margin to My Life. I almost stopped reading before I finished the tenth page.
At the bottom of the ninth page, Maxine Hong Kingston begins talking with Mary Gordon:
[Mary Gordon says:] “It’s capitalistic
of us to expect any good to come from peace demonstrations,
as if ritual has to have use, gain, profit.”
I agreed, “Yes, it’s Buddhist to go parading
for the sake of parading.” “Can you think of a writer
(besides Chekov) who is holy and and artist?”
“Grace Paley.” She smiled. “Well, yes.”
Obviously. “Thoreau.” “Oh, no. Thoreau’s
too Protestant, tidy, nonsexual. He goes
home to Mom for hot chocolate. No
sex, no tragedy, no humor.”
Come to think of it, Thoreau doesn’t make
This is where I almost stopped reading. Doesn’t she get it? Walden is a hilarious parody of all those early nineteenth century adventure books where the protagonist travels to some exotic place and has adventures; the fact that Thoreau goes home to have hot chocolate is part of what makes it funny. Thoreau is constantly poking fun at himself. Admittedly, his puns are often terrible (the title Walden is itself a pun on Waldo, the name Ralph Waldo Emerson was known by, and on the poverty-seeking Waldensians). And Thoreau’s humor can be broad and even a little crude, like twelve-year-old boy humor. But when you read Thoreau out loud to a group of people, you get belly laughs. Maybe this is what comes when we no longer read literature out loud: the words just form in our heads, and we lose touch (literally) with the physical reactions words can provoke.
I decided to forgive Maxine Hong Kingston’s inability to get Thoreau’s humor. She can’t help it if she doesn’t have an inner twelve-year-old boy who likes bad puns and broad humor. And the rest of her memoir is pretty good, although it’s not very funny.
Lecturette from the second and final session of a adult RE class on Thoreau — typos and all.
At the end of last week’s session, you asked me to address a number of points about Henry David Thoreau. In no particular order, you asked me to talk about the following:
(1) Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience
(2) How Thoreau was affected by Eastern religions
(3) The circle of writers and thinkers who came and went in the town of Concord during Thoreau’s life
(4) Why Thoreau left his Unitarian church, and place his departure in the context of wider trends in Unitarianism
(5) Thoreau’s later influence on Unitarianism, and then on Unitarian Universalism Continue reading “More on Thoreau”
Opening talk from a class on Henry David Thoreau, given at the UU Church of Palo Alto on 18 April 2012.
Henry Thoreau is one of those literary figures that everyone likes to think they know. But having read him (and even studied him in a desultory way), and having read a good deal about him, and having lived the first forty years of my life in the very landscape of Concord, Massachusetts, in which he lived, and having been licensed as a tour guide in Concord, and having preached about him, and having in short devoted rather too much attention to Thoreau — the more I know about him, the more I feel that we tend to impose our sense of what we want Thoreau to be onto who he actually was.
What I would like us to do is to try to understand Thoreau as he really was, not as we would like him to be. That means that we cannot understand him as an environmentalist, because that is not a term he would have known, nor am I convinced that he would have been comfortable with that term. That means that we cannot claim Thoreau as a Buddhist, or a Unitarian, or an atheist or humanist, as various people have done over the years, for as an adult he would not have accepted any of those labels. That means that we should not think of him as one of the key figures in nineteenth century American literature, for in his own lifetime and throughout the nineteenth century he was spectacularly unsuccessful as a writer, especially as compared with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson; and while Thoreau may today be considered a key figure in American literature, arguably he remains misunderstood primarily because his gifts in broad humor and the telling of tall tales are rarely acknowledged.