In my last blog entry I wrote about our denomination’s difficulty in addressing the needs of those who are “spiritual but not religious”. In fact, this group is not particularly new. While this group is a substantial percentage of the populations now, it traces it heritage back to the New England Transcendentalists. One of these, Ralph Waldo Emerson was a famous UU…at least in our time. While we enthusiastically claim him as one of our patron saints today, Emerson had a rough go of it in his own day. His ideas were not particularly embraced with open arms and he was a lightening rod for controversy throughout his adult life.
His Harvard Divinity School Address of 1838 was a manifesto for what was to become the Transcendentalist movement. It was an immediate sensation and it almost instantaneously polarized ministers and laity in the Unitarian Church. Between that address and 1885, a debate raged in the Unitarian church between liberal Christian traditionalists who espoused the Enlightenment understanding of the Christian gospel expressed in social action (represented by Theodore Parker), and the Transcendentalists who sought to ground theology and political action in personal experience and a sense of union with the cosmos.
In 1885, three years after Emerson’s death, the debate ended with a near total victory going to the Christian side of the debate. As is often the case, the "winners" co-opted a good deal of the intellectual capital of the vanquished faction – such as a notion of universal religion. However, the Unitarians steadfastly refused to accommodate any form of inner mysticism in favor of a strict rationality and outward focus.
Those in the United States who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” are the direct cultural and intellectual heirs of Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement. Could it be that had the tent of Unitarian Universalism been large enough to embrace the notion that spirituality is not merely a matter of mind, and even action, but also of something deeper and more primal – something mysterious – we might be living in a very different church today? It just might be that those in our culture whose hunger for a spiritual reality is not satisfied by consuming the cheapjack wares in the markets of New Age cranks and charlatans would have found a home with us and the peace they seek. Perhaps it is not too late.
© 2007. Matthew W. Wesley. All rights reserved.