Transcendentalism is one of the most difficult to define of all theological terms. No wonder your humble preacher has had an ever-evolving relationship with the idea. He’ll share his latest thoughts on the concept.
Call to Worship Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Toni Morrison once said in an interview, “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.” In many communities where theological conservatism is the overwhelming norm, Unitarian Universalists are labeled heathens. Morally bankrupt. Even a cult.
But we are none of those things. We define ourselves based on our actions now and on our historical roots.
We come from the Unitarians who believed in One God, to vast and too great to ever diminish by the limitations of our own minds. We come from the Universalists, who believed that God is too great to ever damn anyone to hell for all of eternity.
We believe in constantly expanding our understanding, operating with compassion, supporting each other, and forgiving ourselves and others when we fall short of our dreams.
Reading From The Cruelest Month, by Louse Penny Audrey Waldman
This reading is from the global scripture, from a novel called The Cruelest Month, by Canadian author Louise Penny
In The Dictionary of Magical Places, Inspector Gamache saw … Elegant, plump bison, horses, not one at a time but a lively herd, flowing across the rock face. Archeologists had been astonished by the images when they were first discovered, less than twenty years ago, by hikers in the woods of France. So detailed, so alive were the drawings archeologists first thought they must be the very pinnacle of the cave man’s art. The last stage before man evolved further. And then came the astonishing discovery. The drawings were actually twenty thousand years older than anything they’d found before. It wasn’t the last, it was the first. Who were these people who managed what their descendants couldn’t? To shade, to make three-dimensional images, to so gracefully depict power and movement? And then the final, staggering discovery. Deep inside one of the caves they found a hand, outlined in red. Never before in all the other cave drawings was there an image of the artist, or the people. But the person who created these had a sense of self. Of the individual.
Reading (Rev Denis)
Our second reading is by Monty Don, the man known as the UK’s favorite gardener. It’s from The Complete Gardener, which was first published in 2003, and has come to be seen as a quintessential Gardening Bible.
Healthy soil is a complex living entity made up of countless living organisms. All this subterranean activity is as sophisticated and interdependent as life above ground. It is also — and this is the heart of the whole organic way of thinking — inextricably linked to all living processes.
This enormous variety of life below the ground works primarily to break down complex organic matter so that it is easily accessible to plants. This starts with the small, visible creatures like slugs, worms, beetles, and wood lice digesting large pieces of waste material. The result is that the organic material is reduced to much smaller particles with a corresponding larger surface area. This is also mixed in with the bacteria, fungi, and minerals that are already in the soil and taken down below the surface. Once it is there it gets digested again, at a microbiological level, mainly by bacteria in the soil.
Every aspect of the garden is interdependent. By destroying one so-called “pest”. — even if it is a microscopically small bacterium — we diminish the entire balance of the living world.
As farmers are finding across the western world, replacing organic matter with artificial fertilizers means that the complex natural balance is thrown and the soil can become lifeless, acting as little more than an inert growing medium.
Most of the vast diversity of micro-organisms are killed, which means that the soil loses its ability to recycle organic matter and real ease nutrients from it.
As a Result, crops get smaller and less able to resist disease and more and more chemicals have to be used, making a bad situation worse. So we must value and cherish our soil with all the attention and care that we have at our disposal.
Sermon (Rev. Denis)
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with transcendentalism.
First I hated it because I didn’t have a clue what that word even meant. The dictionary defines transcendentalism as “any philosophy based upon the doctrine that the principles of reality are to be discovered by the study of the processes of thought, or a philosophy emphasizing the intuitive and spiritual above the empirical.”
Let’s unpack these two different philosophies.
The first is that reality is to be discovered by studying the process of thought. What that says to me — then and now — is that by thinking, and understanding thinking through the study of other thinkers, one can transcend reality. That feels as slippery and potentially evasive to me as saying “that depends what the definition of ‘is’ is.”
The second definition of transcendentalism is easy enough to understand without a whole lot of unpacking: A philosophy emphasizing the intuitive and the spiritual above the empirical. But isn’t that what all dogma is suppose to do? To get us to put believe in something that cannot be proven? This definition makes transcendentalism fall squarely on the religion side of the science vs religion duality, a reality which I do not believe in.
As I’ve said before, I think science and religion can co-exist. They just answer different questions.
So transcendentalism has just been confusing to me, especially since the way theologians write about transcendentalism makes it sound way more complicated.
I love Henry David Thoreau, who was one of the great mystics of transcendentalism. Okay, I don’t love Thoreau himself, since he died 104 years before I was born, but I love the idea of him. He embodied a word that I find profoundly spiritual: “Enough.”
When I say the word enough is spiritual, I mean that it makes me feel humble — powerful, self-aware and connected to something greater than myself. He famously went to Walden Pond to live with just enough, the least he needed in terms of creature comforts. He built himself a tiny shack where he lived for two years, with the intention of sucking all of the marrow he could out of life.
He did that by hunting and fishing and keeping meticulous records of the the natural phenomena around him, from water levels in the pond to the proliferation of flora and the migration of fauna. He immersed himself in projects that have inspired naturalists ever since, while he built relationships with people in his community … socializing at the expense of others, and having the wife of his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson do his laundry.
Especially after visiting Walden the first time, I wanted to emulate Thoreau’s life, sort of, by living in a tiny house on wheels and traveling the world, meeting people along the way.
But I would do my own laundry.
My understanding of Thoreau and Walden, I am the first to admit, was pretty standard. By that, I mean superficial.
Then I went to seminary, where I got to read the works of others like Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Samuel Longfellow. I learned that transcendentalism was a reactionary philosophy, based as much on what other philosophies were not as what its proponents believed. I learned that transcendentalism was influenced greatly by Hinduism, which tickled me enormously, considering my affection for the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.
With that information and closer study of Walden and even more of Thoreau‘s work, I realized just how superficial my understanding was, and saw there that even though he went to the woods to kind of escape the banality of a life that he saw as becoming more business-focused and success-driven, and even though he spent a lot of time observing the cycles of nature, he ultimately spent just as much time engaged with people. In fact, he spent even more time with people than he had before his experiment began. He had more time with them because he had less stuff to tend to.
Basically, he came to better understand himself and the world around him. Not just the pond and the birds, but the people. He started to see himself in everyone and everything. That’s where he transcended reality, where he moved beyond the purely physical and empirical, and saw his responsibility for the whole world, so that he ended up in jail for failure to pay taxes in protest of slavery.
The only thing is that there’s one little thing about transcendentalism that sticks in my craw: This idea that society — a collective of people living in communities with one another — corrupts the purity of the individual. People like Emerson had this idea that all people are pure of thought, and that our thoughts are what make us who we are and connect us to the immeasurable force of life that some call god.
He called this pure being the “oversoul,” and in some ways, it’s not too different from what Hindus call the Atman. Or god. The only problem with that understanding, in the context of the American Experiment, is that it feels like extreme individualism to me, justification for putting one’s own beliefs, needs and even desires over the needs of others. After all, if god lives for me only in my mind and is expressed only through my thoughts, then why should I care what anybody else thinks? Or needs? Or wants?
I came to mistrust transcendentalism so much that I wrote a paper, a long, well-researched paper — a diatribe, really, masquerading as a term paper. It began with Frank Lloyd Wright growing up on the knees of the transcendentalists, literally, because his uncle Jenkin Lloyd Jones, with whom he and his mother lived in Wisconsin, WAS a Unitarian and a transcendentalist, and was friends with all the movers and shakers in the nascent movement. Wright, notoriously self-aggrandizing, often declared that the only church he needed was nature. He LOVED cars, and way before it was a solid idea, came up with the idea of suburbia in the form of a horizontal city broken up into zones of use that required automobiles for movement. He called it “Broadacre City,” where every man had his own piece of nature itself, a kind of self-contained church.
That idea has evolved into the thing we all claim to hate now: sprawl. It’s literally a blueprint for car dependency and suburban gridlock.
You see what I did there? I made transcendentalism indirectly responsible for the thing that has pretty much caused climate change, not by espousing the idea, but by giving moral justification for it. It’s a stretch, I know. But probably not that much of a stretch.
The thing is, I kept coming back to this sinking feeling that transcendentalism is just a fancy word for feeling like I am the center of the universe, like it’s okay to think that the whole world revolves around ME. At least, this super complex philosophy is easily over-simplified through the lens of American Individualism, and romanticized by the experiences of Walden Pond’s most famous resident. It feels like Transcendental philosophy can be justification for any one of us to halt our whole process of individuation.
Psychologists define individuation as the process we go through to achieve a sense of individuality separate from the identities of others and begin to consciously exist in the world. It’s figuring out that we can form our own thoughts and identities separate from those of our families, and usually starts with separating from our parents in big and ugly ways.
Thinking they and their backwards ways of doing things are stupid. In the process of individuation, we usually think we know it all, blithely oblivious to the impact we have on others, and how our lives are only made possible by those who came before us.
I’ve felt like a simplistic idea of transcendentalism can easily be used as an excuse to stop growing. Transcendentalism seems to say, “when you think you know it all, you’re done.” So, I’ve just kind of avoided it for the most part.
But three things lately have gotten me thinking about it again.
A few months ago, a bunch of people asked if I’d read any Inspector Gamache novels by Louise Penny. I’d heard of her for years, but since I’ve never been a big fan of murder mysteries, I didn’t pick them up until the universe kept telling me to, in the form of those half dozen congregants. That passage Audrey read about the cave paintings fascinated me. The Dictionary of Magical Places isn’t a real book, but the caves at Chauvet-Pont D’Arc are very real.
A quick Google search turned up hundreds of photographs of the paintings in that cave, and I was blown away by their vastness and their beauty. The economy and simplicity of lines. The depth of shadows. The ability to capture the movement of herds of animals, and express their power, tens of thousands of years before art evolved to make that kind of skill teachable.
As with the fictional Inspector Gamache, the thing that really stood out for me was the picture of the hand, seemingly spray-painted on.
I found myself wondering if the artist put his or her hand on the wall and threw pigmented dust onto it, then carefully rubbed it in to preserve the image on the porous surface of stone. More though, I wondered if the artist created it just for the pleasure of it, its beauty, or the joy that comes from developing a skill. In an era I think of being about nothing but existence, art was happening!
That feels like transcendence. And individuation.
As I was reading Louise Penny, it was raining. A lot. My back yard looked like a lake, water sitting on top of the dense, saturated clay, drowning the row of laurels I planted last summer, killing them at their roots and trunks. It felt like all of the work I had done hadn’t had its desired effect of mitigating and redirecting the water, so I watched a few Netflix episodes of a British TV show with Monty Don, the UK’s favorite gardener.
Up to that point, I knew that soil could be easy to work with, or hard to work with, and that it could be amended to improve it, but I didn’t know how.
I also knew that it was good to have some critters in the soil. I read Life in the Soil, by biologist James Nardi and learned that a single rye plant will send down 15 million roots totaling 380 miles. The roots make contact with about 2500 square feet of surface area. And if you add to that all system of minuscule root hairs… the length of the goal system is closer to 7,000 miles and 7,000 square feet. In a single plant.
I found that astonishing, but not exactly inspiring. It was Monty Don that got me! His kind manner, huge capacity for hard work, and vast knowledge elevated dirt from something under my feet to a universe of life that requires my stewardship. He made me realize that one bad decision — a decision of mine — could destroy life in the soil for years.
When I was a kid, I thought it was possible that our whole universe could be just a cell in the body of a larger being, whose care of that body we depended on. Monty Don’s description reminded me of that, idea more real, possible HERE.
My old idea soil duality of hard or easy now kind of feels like that antiquated idea that all of the genetic material of a new life came from the father, and the mother was little more than an incubator.
Then Toni Morrison died this week.
I first read her work in college, beginning with Shula and Song of Solomon, both stories of black women, which opened up the world to a suburban white kid, making me see the vast array of experiences and the effect the dominant culture can have on others.
That felt like a huge responsibility, which I’ve taken seriously, but what really got me this week has been the interviews she’d given in the past, interviews in which she talked about growing up in Lorain, Ohio during a time in which one journalist said it had more hope for its future than it currently lives into. Lorain was an integrated place where Ms. Morrison was part of the community. There, the confidence instilled by her parents could grow.
The 7000 miles of minuscule tendrils of her roots were tended, and the little critters aiding her growth were tended to, not destroyed as pests. Lorain Ohio had a genius in their midst, a genius who would get the rest of us to rethink the world, and they nurtured her into becoming the kind of person who could tell her story so movingly it made you want to tell your own, while honoring hers.
She was forever being asked if she would ever “universalize” her work by writing more about white people. Her responses were dense with nuance, but ultimately, she told people again and again not to tell the stories of others, but to write their own stories.
In one interview she said “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’”
I’m not sure that Toni Morrison would ever think of herself as being any kind of transcendentalist. I found no evidence of her ever even mentioning the philosophy. But her mere existence was transcendent for me.
Transcendentalism is about finding the voice of your thoughts and your beliefs, knowing who you are, not as a microcosm all unto itself, but as a part of something larger, something so vast at both the macro and micro levels that you can’t even begin to understand.
Yet, knowing your own part is in relationship to that which is closest to you. Knowing you have an effect on the world — the universe — even if you can’t see it or understand it first hand.
Transcendentalism is pushing yourself to that next level of understanding, that place just beyond the horizon. Getting there won’t reveal the whole universe, but it’s just enough to keep you going, always adding to your maturity.
When you consider how many routes there are to take in this journey of exploration, no two are the same. That’s what makes each of us unique. That’s individuation — figuring out our own identity — separate in mind, but deeply entwined with, and responsible for, the realities of other beings, human and otherwise.
So lately, I’m not hating Transcendentalism. I’m finally starting to understand it more completely, even if it does get oversimplified.
I still think we over-romanticize Thoreau.
The thing about this journey though, ironically, is that I couldn’t have come to the conclusions I came to without really immersing myself in transcendentalism, the process of thinking about the thinking of thinkers greater than myself, and trusting my own thinking as it’s changed by their thinking.
And I probably wouldn’t have engaged in this kind of thinking had it not been for my responsibility to regularly share my thoughts with a politely captive audience.
My hope is that you’ll be inspired, the way I was by Louise Penny, Monty Don and Toni Morrison, to make connections you never noticed before, and share what you believe with us some Sunday. Tell us why you believe what you believe, and maybe even a bit about how your thinking has evolved.
It could be a completely transcendent experience, for you and for the rest of us.