Concord Hymn

Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, April 19, 1836

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
   Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
   And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
   Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
   Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
   We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
   When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
   To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
   The shaft we raise to them and thee.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the better poems Emerson wrote: simple and direct, and more complex than it seems at first; not unlike the five-minute battle which both the poem and the Battle Monument commemorate. The “votive stone” still stands in the same place that it stood when Emerson’s poem was sung to it back in 1836, 182 years ago today.

Above: The monument as it appeared at the 2009 re-enactment of the Battle of the North Bridge

“Humble bee”

Abs and I went for a walk in Great Meadows in Concord, Mass. We spent some time looking at native pollinators, of which my favorite was a bumble bee (Bombus sp.) working the blossoms on Purple Loosestrife and goldenrod:


It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem about bumble bees, called “The Humble Bee.” When I got home I looked up the poem; it wasn’t as good as I had remembered, but I did like the fourth stanza, which captures something of the flavor of a warm July day in New England:

Hot midsummer’s petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tune,
Telling of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers,
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found,
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer and bird-like pleasure….

The radiant life

Last week, Dad spent quite a bit of time talking with my sisters and me about World War II. I think it is very difficult for us now to understand how traumatic those war years were, and to understand how the war and trauma affected those who lived through it; they were dark years indeed.

When Dad was at college right after World War II, he took a philosophy course with Rufus Jones, the great Quaker philosopher and theologian. He still has several books by Jone on his bookshelf, and while I was looking for something to read this morning, I pulled out Jones’s The Radiant Life, published in 1944, in the middle of the war. The book represents Jones’s search for “gleams of radiance” which might be found “in spite of the darkness of the time.”

Like his contemporaries, the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams and Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom were also profoundly affected by the war and by the evils perpetrated by Nazi Germany, Jones felt he could no longer cling to the sunny optimism of the Progressives, nor to the even sunnier optimism of Emerson. Where, then, should we turn to find gleams of light? James Luther Adams turned towards the social structure of voluntary associations: finding light in building robust communities that could move us towards the good. Reinhold Niebuhr turned towards pragmatism and Christian realism: accepting that in a corrupt world we may not find all the light we need (this, I believe, is the origin of Neibuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer).

Jones, Quaker that he was, found a different answer to the traumas of the mid-twentieth century Western world: he encouraged us to accept the reality around us but also to look for the light that was always there. He wrote:

“The Kennebago Mountains are visible in the far horizon of my home in Maine, but they come into sight only when the wind is north-west and has blown the sky clear of fog and mist and cloud. Then there they are, in all their distant purple glory. But we know that they are there all the time, when the wind is east or south, though we cannot see them, and we say to our visitors, wait until the wind comes round and blows from Saskatchewan, and then you will see our mountains which are over there in our far sky-line! Some persons’ lights up like that only when the wind is in the right quarter. I am pleading for a type of life that is sunlit and radiant, not only in fair weather and when the going is smooth, but from a deep inward principle and discovery which makes it lovely and beautiful in all weathers.”

I think I like Jones’s approach better than either Adams or Neibuhr — not that I think that any one of them has the final and complete truth of the matter, nor the final answer to the traumas of life; no single human being can ever know the complete truth of anything. But to know that the mountains are always there, even when you can’t see them because they are obscured — that is worth remembering. I can see why my father liked Jones so much, and continues to like him. Adams focuses on human relations, which I admire, but I sometimes wish Adams let in a little more of Emerson’s sunshine. However, Emerson is too sunny, except in his poetry, and sometimes I can’t quite believe him. Niebuhr is too dark, and I don’t want to believe him.

How do we get through the traumas of contemporary life? How do we get through the horrors of war and terror? How can we face the damage humans are doing to the rest of creation? How can we make it through the struggles of human life, of grief and death and all the rest? I like Rufus Jones’s answer: remember that the mountains are always there even when you can’t see them. Or, to put it another way, look for the gleams of light which always may be found even in the darkest of times.

How to have transcendental experiences

Someone asked how to have transcendental experiences, so I’ll summarize what I know about the subject from my own personal experience.

Background: Thoreau’s approach
A basic method for having mystical experiences
A few warnings


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.

Continue reading “How to have transcendental experiences”

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. Continue reading “Mystics and Transcendentalists”

More on Thoreau

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”

A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1

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.

So who was Thoreau? Continue reading “A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1”

Not Emerson?

Recently, I have been trying to track down the origins of the following quotation attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

A person will worship something — have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts — but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.

This quotation appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, but there is no source listed for it in Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition. (This quotation does not appear in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the predecessor to Singing the Living Tradition.)

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson are available online at I searched the complete works for “tribute,” using both the online concordance, and a brute force search using Google, and did not find this quotation.

Emerson’s complete sermons are also available online at — these are the genetic texts (including manuscript variations) used in the definitive four-volume The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Albert J. von Frank et al. (University of Missouri Press, 1989-1991). Using a brute force Google search, I did not find this quote in the sermons. I was also able to search eight of the ten volumes of Emerson’s letters online using Google Books (vols. 1-5, and 8-10). This quotation was in none of those volumes. All my searches used the relatively uncommon word “tribute” as the key search word.

At this point, I have not searched vols. 6-7 of the Letters; The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H. Orth et al.; and The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H. Orth. Nevertheless, I’m assuming that Emerson probably did not write this passage, and the attribution should read “attributed to Emerson.” Can anyone prove me wrong by providing a definitive source for this quote?

“Domesticated eristic debate”

There’s an interesting post with a long comment thread at the blog Warp, Weft, and Way that touches on the differences between Chinese and Western philosophical traditions. The opening paragraphs captured my attention, but then I found myself questioning whether Western philosophy is defined too narrowly:

A core feature of philosophical culture in the Western tradition is the supposition that debating about abstract matters is productive of insight, and that it encourages (or at least comports with) the attainment of appealing moral and religious goals. The canonical thinkers of classical Greece and China all deplore eristic debate, where the point of articulating and defending theses is simply to gain victory over the opponent. Plato and Aristotle, however, domesticate the procedures of eristic debate, yoking precise definition and dogged discussion of entailments and justification to ideals of friendship and inquiry.

I think this kind of domestication never took place in classical China: the moralists with lasting influence (Confucians and Daoists) were not inclined to think friendship and inquiry well-served by prolonged argumentative discussion….

From my perspective as a former student of philosophy who now does theology, the cases of Plato and Aristotle are interesting and foundational to Western thought — but these two philosophers do not adequately represent the full spectrum of Western thought.

Western theology, which has been understood as both a subset and a superset of Western philosophy, includes several mystical traditions that tend more towards enigmatical pronouncements than towards reasoned debate (or domesticated eristic debate). For example, in the American intellectual tradition, Emerson tends towards mysticism; and it can be very hard to try to engage in reasoned debate with Emerson, since he tends to transrational and aphoristic pronouncements that depend more on intuition than reason. Another example from ancient times might be Jesus of Nazareth’s parables, as reported by later followers.

The Western theological tradition draws not just on Greek philosophy, but also on the deep reservoir of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish intellectual tradition. This expands the Western theological repertoire well beyond reasoned debate. Neither Ecclesiastes nor the parables of Jesus can be characterized as reasoned debate, yet both have serious intellectual content. None of this is to deny that there is a distinct difference between Chinese and Western intellectual traditions, but whether theology is a subset or superset of Western philosophy, I’m not convinced Western philosophy can be reduced to domesticated eristic debate.

Emerson and race

A couple of weeks ago on the Christian Century Web site, Edwin Blum reviewed a new book, The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter (Norton, March, 2010). In the review, Blum says:

In the United States, slavery helped define whiteness. In this case, the white race was linked to freedom, whereas blackness was tied to enslavement. Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson gravitated to the idea that Anglo-Saxons were at the top of the human pyramid. Jefferson admired the myth of Saxon love for liberty and of Americans as the true heirs of the Saxons’ political virtue. He admired it so much, in fact, that his University of Virginia had classes in the Anglo-Saxon language. Emerson, according to Painter, became the “philosopher king of American white race theory” because of his undying love for Anglo-Saxonism. Emerson saluted the Saxons for em bodying manliness, beauty, liberty and individualism.

Now Unitarian Universalists claim both Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson as our co-religionists, and we tend to claim them as thinkers who continue to inspire us, and who are central to our Unitarian intellectual heritage. Some of us have been critical of Jefferson’s actions as a slaveholder, but in general we have been content to adopt both Jefferson’s and Emerson’s theories of individual liberty and freedom without much in the way of critical reflection about what, exactly, they meant by liberty and freedom for individuals.

This is analogous to what happened in the House of Representatives recently. House Republicans, under the influence of a theory that we should follow the U.S. Constitution exactly as it was originally written, decided that they would read the U.S. Constitution in its entirety at the opening of the current session. Except that they left out all the bits about slavery and slaves being equivalent to three fifths of a human being. This is disingenuous of them, because when you read the original U.S. Constitution, you become quite clear that uncritical acceptance is not an option.

I’m not particularly well-read in Emerson, and can’t comment intelligently on his racial attitudes. But I am pretty well-read in his disciple Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau is quite sure that white people like him are superior to, e.g., Irish, French Canadians, and working class people of the same narrow ethnic background as himself. If you indulge in an uncritical acceptance of Thoreau’s individualistic mystic theology and his philosophy of government, which is also highly individualistic, you’re going to indulge in a tendency to cover over how both his theology and philosophy are grounded in a hierarchical theory of race. And I’m pretty sure that I’d find similar problems in Emerson’s philosophy and theology.

I don’t mean to imply that we should discard Emerson and Jefferson; they are too central to our intellectual heritage to discard. But I do want to suggest that it’s past time for a serious revision of our understanding of Emersonian and Jeffersonian individualism within a Unitarian Universalist context.