Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Why Mr. Emerson Is Your Friend– Sermon for UU Church


Preached in Sunnyvale, CA, October 26, 2003

UUs of Petaluma, CA, September 26, 2004

UU Church of Berkeley, CA, July 17, 2005

Unitarian Church, New Bedford, MA, November 12, 2006

UU Congregation of Salem, OR, March 18, 2007

UU Society of Sacramento, CA, August 17, 2008

Eskaton Retirement Village, Carmichael, CA, August 21, 2011

Call to Worship                                                        Words of Gordon McKeeman

We are called to worship not by words spoken, but my miracles recalled:  a baby’s first cry, the petals of a rose, the templed hills, the restless tides of the seas, human love, human hope.

We respond with gratitude, with joy, with wonder at life’s boundless possibilities.

Readings        Poems of J. Rumi, read in Farsi and in English; “The Stream of Life,” by Rabindranath Tagore, from Singing the Living Tradition 


            Live in the moment, and appreciate every day.  Notice the beauty of the world around you, and learn from it.  Know that you are connected to all that is.  Trust yourself, be honest, dare to be authentic.

These are teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  As a mystic, he believed that all of life was united in oneness.  Emerson embraced life with astonishment.  As a writer and speaker, teacher and friend, Emerson encouraged people to enjoy life, to think for themselves, and to dare to be who they really are.

Emerson was born over 200 years ago, in May of 1803, in the city of Boston.  He died in 1882, when he was 79.  His first wife, Ellen, died when she was 20 and he was 21.  His second wife, Lydian, outlived him by 10 years.

Emerson was the son of a Unitarian minister in Boston.  He attended Harvard, and became a minister himself.  But his great contributions to our culture did not come from the pulpit.  His gifts to us came from his essays, lectures, poetry, and hundreds of personal journals—263 volumes of journals.  Emerson’s ministry was to challenge stagnant institutions and stale thinking.  His ministry was to encourage intellectuals to be bold and original.  His ministry was to encourage people he would never meet to trust their inner voice, and to see life as a never-ending process of growth and self discovery.

Even though he left both the ministry and the church, Emerson built on the spiritual foundation he had inherited from the Unitarian movement.  Back when Emerson was a teenager the first Unitarians in America had proclaimed that people are inherently good.  They said everyone is capable of growing toward the perfect goodness of God.  This potential for growth was shown by the life and teachings of Jesus.  They said that everyone has the right to read the Bible and that we should use reason in applying the Bible to our lives.  This Unitarian Christianity was Emerson’s religious inheritance.  He took this inheritance and ran with it.  Intellectually speaking, Emerson was the rebel child of Unitarianism.

Emerson’s career as junior minister to the First Church of Boston lasted three long years—or they probably seemed long to him.  By Emerson’s adulthood, much Unitarian preaching had become passionless, impersonal and abstract.  Writing sermons cramped his style.  As a pastor, “he sometimes set off to make calls [on parishioners] without detailed directions and therefore spent time visiting complete strangers who had the same name or lived in the same street as a parishioner.”  (RDR 91).  Moreover, he did not like serving Communion.  It seemed to him to be an empty ritual.  For him, to commune with the Spirit of Life was a much broader affair than eating and drinking.  The church’s ritual trivialized true communion.

Emerson and friends who were not satisfied with “the present state of philosophy, religion, literature and education in America” formed an intellectual discussion group known as the Transcendental Club.  (RDR 249)  Over several years its members included Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody, and some divinity school students, among other people.  At the beginning, this group had as many members as Harvard had professors:  eleven! (RDR 245).

Some people are thrown a bit by the word Transcendentalism as a label for this philosophical movement.  Emerson himself regretted the Transcendentalism label.  He preferred the term idealism.  (RDR 249)  By whatever term it might be called, this movement was the American version of nineteenth century European literary romanticism.  The features of such writing include an emphasis on the natural world, a view of human nature as full of the potential for good, and a preference for imagination and intuition over traditions and rules.  Emerson’s friends and favorite writers in Europe included Thomas Carlyle and Johann Goethe.  He got Carlyle’s works published in America.  He read Goethe’s works every day.  It took him 10 years to get through all 55 volumes.

Emerson read many things.  His advice to others was to skim and browse while reading.  Look for what you like.  “Skip the paragraphs that do not talk to you,” he said  (RDR 173).  The purpose of education and “the purpose of life is the development of the self,” according to Emerson.  In the schools of our own day, much education has been standardized.  Students learn to ask, “Will this be on the test?”  Teachers are pushed to teach how to pass tests more than how to express themselves.  Schools in our age may be no more standardized than they were in Emerson’s day.  But in any age, his message is radical:  read what you like; think for yourself, be original, see life as never-ending growth and possibility.

Though he lectured to thousands of people, and his essays were published widely, when Emerson wrote and spoke, he imagined he was giving advice to “an unknown friend,” or “an unseen friend.”  Happy is the writer who writes to this unknown friend, he said, rather than with an eye to what will sell, or what will please the public.  (RDR 200)  Emerson himself did not always please the public, to be sure.

For example, in the summer of 1838, by invitation of the graduating seniors of Harvard Divinity School, he gave the commencement address.  He told the gathering of new liberal Christian ministers about the failures of historical Christianity.  First, he said, it had made Jesus the teacher into a myth.  Second, it worshipped the Bible instead of the divine.  The church made it seem if the Bible was not just God’s word, but God’s only word.  Whereas others would say “God has spoken,” Emerson said, “God speaks!”  God’s word is too big to be held in an old book.  Look around you, he said:  God continues to speak.  God is revealed in the wonder of the world.  Look inside yourself:  God continues to speak; God is revealed through the voice in our hearts.  (RDR 290).  He encouraged those graduating ministers to be open to their own spiritual insights, rather than preaching about the spiritual views of people who were long-dead.  He said that everybody could be a prophet and a poet of the Holy Spirit.

For Emerson, no single book deserved to be sacred scripture.  We should write our own Bible.  We shouldn’t depend on the ancient stories of ancient believers—we should have our own experience of the Divine, our own relationship with the Spirit of Life.

The Divinity School Address received more attention and more criticism than anything he had written or spoken so far.  Emerson’s words offended the traditional Unitarians, especially those on the faculty.  A professor wrote a tract against it, calling it the “Latest form of Infidelity.”  It was the “foulest atheism”; it was nonsense. (RDR 299)

This hurt and unsettled Emerson.  He worried that the reaction against this address have reduced his audience for future lectures.  Because of this worry, “he gave away more than his usual number of free tickets,” writes his biographer Robert Richardson (RDR 307).

Even more, the pain of this experience fueled much of what Emerson would write years later in his essay “Self-Reliance,” according to Richardson.  The biographer explains:  “Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s essay “on the un-alienated human being.”  At first thought, it might seem that going along with the crowd is the way to avoid alienation—in a crowd you’re not alone, are you?  Yet if you are not known as who you are, there’s nothing lonelier than being in a crowd.  Emerson said this:  the person who would be an adult must be a non-conformist.

In today’s consumer society, we receive constant urgings to buy, to collect, to upgrade, to be in style, to be up to date.  Such urgings exploit our fears of failing to be part of the crowd.  Yet, for me, conforming to such urgings does not lead to connection with others.  It leads to alienation.  Emerson wrote:  “Insist on yourself.  Never imitate.”  (RDR 180)  That’s a slogan that grabs you, so much so that it could be an advertising slogan. “Insist on yourself.  Never imitate.”

Indeed, several marketing campaigns have used similar slogans:  “Express yourself.”  “Think different.”  “Be an individual.”  “Be your own person.”  “Be all you can be.”  “Have it your way.”  Yet such campaigns want us not to have it our way, but to have it the way they are selling it.  They want everybody to express themselves in the latest version or style or upgrade.  To use the language of self-expression to sell mass culture is to pervert language.  Perhaps this is what makes me feel alienated by it.

Sometimes Emerson has taken blame for promoting individualism to Americans, for promoting selfishness and the lonely worship of the private space.  Indeed, one could take his advice to mean just that:  Trust yourself, reject all conformity, express yourself.

Some of his own friends likely took it as advice to be self-indulgent.  Indeed, his wife Lydian thought they did, and she wrote a satire of his crowd.  She called it the Transcendental Bible.  To Transcendentalists, happiness does not come from doing good, or doing the right thing.  With sarcasm, she writes:  “Never speak of happiness as the consequence of holiness.”  Here’s another transcendental commandment:  “Loathe and shun the sick.  They are in bad taste and may un-tune us for writing the poem floating through our mind” (RDR 312)

I think that’s funny, but I don’t agree with critics who say Emerson gives us license to do whatever we want, to look only at our individual growth and our private needs.  His own life is an argument against selfishness.  It is a model for community involvement and activism.

He and Lydian lived the rest of their lives in Concord, Massachusetts.  Their house was big and busy.  They had relatives living with them, in addition to their own children.  They hosted friends for long stays.  Emerson served on the local school board, the cemetery board, the library board, and the committee that put on the Lyceum, a series of public lectures and other adult education programs.

With regard to social justice, Emerson protested the government’s eviction of the Cherokee Indians from their lands and relocation to concentration camps in 1838.  This is now known as the “Trail of Tears.”  Emerson was heartsick to see the government’s betrayal of a people.  He called it a “crime the really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country.”  (RDR 278)

He spoke out on many social issues:  “[He] wrote letters, collared friends, addressed meetings, and signed petitions.”  Emerson was a peace advocate and an opponent of slavery.  He demanded that President Lincoln issue an Emancipation Proclamation.  Indeed, Emerson opposed the Civil War so long as the purpose of it was only to keep the Union together.  He wanted war’s goal to be an end to slavery.

Emerson saw the inter-dependence of nature.  He used the example of nature to argue that we humans are dependent on one another.  He wrote:  “Every being in nature has its existence so connected with other beings that if set apart from them it would instantly perish”  (RDR 258).

In a poem to a flower, he wrote, “I never thought to ask . . . but . . .  suppose the self-same power that brought me here brought you” (RDR 178).

Emerson encouraged intellectual originality as much as religious originality.  He noted that young students “grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, …Locke, …[and] Bacon have given.  [But students forget] that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books.”  (RDR 265).

“[Books] have no permanent value,” Emerson wrote.  “….When we are aroused to a life in ourselves [books] grow very pale and cold.”  (RDR 333).  I am sure he would say the same about his own books.  I think he would say we should not read his books for ageless truths, but should read our lives for new truths, and read the natural world for new revelations.

At least this is what I choose to think he’d say, for some of Emerson’s essays and lectures are hard to read through.  His language is flowery. His essays do not build arguments toward a conclusion.  Rather, he wrote in aphorisms, short declarative sentences.  For example:  “We are always getting ready to live, but never living” (RDR 180)

His essays are filled with such quotable quotes; they are, in Richardson’s words, “great collections of sentences on a single topic.”  (RDR 202).

Emerson didn’t think he needed to prove such statements.  They came directly from his intuition.  He trusted his unseen friends to get what he said, and to either accept it or reject it.

In an Adult Religious Education class at the Sunnyvale church (which I served from 1997-2007), a young woman wrote about meaning in her life.  I got her permission to quote her words:

What makes life meaningful to me relates to my capacity to think and live originally.  Do not expect to find a pierced belly button or blue hair on me. That is someone else’s idea of originality.  Mine is not daring to be different, but daring to understand and conduct myself on my own terms, fully aware of the definitive scripts society has for me as a straight woman, a wife, a mother and not much else.  Life is meaningful when I look at the unbearable flaws in my character and find myself still lovable, when I am peaceful enough to take care of myself, thus enabled to take care of others, when I have the capacity to take joy in others’ happiness and to feel others’ pain, when I am sensitive enough to experience an act of vision by which I see meanings in everything and anything, and when I am motivated to think harder and longer until I can put in words ever-present buds of flickering thought or emotions which make my head and heart swell.

I told her that this was very Emersonian—“daring to understand and conduct [herself] on her own terms, [while being] fully aware of the definitive scripts society has for her.”  I asked, “Have you read Emerson?”  No, she said.  My response was, “Well, now you don’t have to!”

We don’t have to read him, but we might be surprised what we find in all that flowery language.

Emerson called for the independence of spirit, but not for spiritual isolation.  Instead, he stressed our oneness and our mutual responsibility.  He warned us not to “obey the private impulse to the exclusion” of our common humanity. (RDR 295)

He believed that what is common to all people is greater than those traits that set us apart.  To Emerson, self-reliance was not personal whim or selfishness, “as if [a person] were . . . severed from all other beings.”  He wrote: “It is one soul which animates all [people].”  (RDR 249, emphasis mine).

Emerson spoke about the need for self-respect in a world that wanted people to conform to its demands.  (RDR 233)  The world still wants you to conform.  Emerson spoke about the need for self-expression in a world that would rather keep you in a category.  The world still wants to keep us in categories.

To express yourself you need courage.  To respect yourself  you need courage.  Emerson’s life was a ministry of encouragement to his unseen friends.  Emerson’s words were a ministry of encouragement.

Live in the moment, and appreciate every day.  Notice the beauty of the world around you, and learn from it.  Know that you are connected to all that is.  Trust yourself, be honest, dare to be authentic.  So may it be.

Please do not duplicate or send as email without permission.  Not to be copied for posting on any Web site.

Source Consulted:  Robert D. Richardson, Jr.  Emerson:  The Mind on Fire.  Berkeley, 1995:  University of California Press.  All my page citations refer to this book.


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