“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life…”
So began Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous “Divinity School Address,” which he delivered in July of 1838, to the six members of the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School, sparking what came to be known as the “Transcendentalist” controversy within the young Unitarian movement, then a parochial affair pretty much confined to “the neighborhood of Boston.” Along with William Ellery Channing’s 1819 sermon, “Unitarian Christianity” and Theodore Parker’s 1841 discourse on “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” Emerson’s Divinity School Address is considered a ‘classic’ of early American Unitarian history and literature. These texts were all required reading when I attended Harvard Divinity School some 140 years after Emerson’s address. I must admit I had to look up the word, ‘refulgent,’ in the dictionary to learn that it meant, “shining, radiant, gleaming.” Now I try to smuggle it into my sentences whenever I think it’s appropriate, for example: “Dianne, you look positively refulgent today.”
In his address, Emerson charged the young ministers, whom he called “new-born bards of the Holy Ghost,” to ‘acquaint men (sic) at first hand with deity.’ In other words, he wanted to shift the attention toward personal religious experience and away from abstract intellectual arguments about formal doctrines, rationalized faith, and belief in supernatural miracles. “The word miracle,” he wrote, “as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is a monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”
For Emerson and the other Transcendentalists, nature itself was the primary miracle, and it could be directly apprehended through our cultivated moral intuition. To put it in the language of our current statement of UU Sources, Emerson was prophetically pointing to and celebrating what we call “direct experience of that transcendent mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”
Many of the younger ministers found this Transcendentalist perspective exciting, but the more established, ‘orthodox’ Unitarians were scandalized and threatened. Andrews Norton, who was the Dexter Professor of Sacred Literature at the Divinity School and considered the “Pope” of traditional Unitarian Christianity, responded to Emerson with a critical pamphlet entitled “A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity.” The battle lines had been drawn, and it took a generation or two (not to mention a Civil War) to sort out the differences as well as the commonly held core values that made possible the formation of the National Conference of Unitarian and other Christian Churches in 1867. As the young Transcendentalists moved more and more into leadership positions, the theological culture of the denomination underwent a profound shift. What began as a radical challenge itself became a kind of new orthodoxy.
This same process has been repeated numerous times over the course of our denominational history. Language and ideas that are hard-earned, treasured and revered by one generation are challenged by the next. This is how we grow. As the nineteenth century Unitarian poet, James Lowell, put it:“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth; They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth….”
I thought of this history as I participated in the UUA General Assembly in Pittsburgh, PA, this past June. The main item on the business agenda was a proposal to revise and rewrite the section of our UUA bylaws (“Article 2”) that includes the statement of our core covenant and values, often referred to as our “Purposes and Principles” (although “Principles and Sources” would be more accurate). When our current bylaws were originally written, the authors had wisely included a ‘sunset provision’ requiring us to periodically review these core statements to see if they still accurately reflect and represent who we are and who we want to be as a religious community.
An “Article 2 Study Commission” had been formed and was tasked last year to present a proposed draft of new language to the delegates at this year’s General Assembly. Their proposal was discussed and debated in some online and in-person forums even before the General Assembly, and again on-site in Pittsburgh. Numerous amendments were proposed and about a half-dozen were approved at the General Assembly. The Commission will be incorporating those amendments into the proposal and sending out a revised version with the new language to all UU congregations, along with a study guide which will facilitate discussion, debate, and dialogue. A vote will be taken at next year’s General Assembly (which will, by the way, be entirely virtual, with no physical gathering such as we did in Pittsburgh this year).
This all may sound very complicated and confusing, but the bottom line is this: we have a historic opportunity and a responsibility as a local UU congregation to honestly grapple with the language of this proposal and weigh in with our thoughts, experiences, and insights.
This is a significant moment in the history of Unitarian Universalism. As with the Transcendentalist Controversy, there are strong feelings attached to the language of ‘the ways things have been,’ and there are equally strong emotions and voices envisioning a new direction for our religious movement. It helps me, when feelings run high, to step back and get a historical perspective. Knowing that our 19th century ancestors managed to navigate through the question of theological identity in their time gives me confidence that we will emerge from this spirited conversation with an enlarged and deepened sense of our identity and mission in the 21st century.
The Commission has promised to put together a study guide to help congregations conduct conversations about the proposed changes to our bylaws. As soon as those materials are available, I hope to schedule some times when those who are interested can gather in small groups to discuss the proposal.
Because my contract has been reduced to one quarter time, Dianne and I will be making the trip to La Crosse for one long weekend per month, Saturday through Monday, unlike last year when we were in town for two Sundays and the week in between. There will be less time for pastoral visits, but I do want to maintain a caring ministry with people I have come to know and love. If you would like to schedule a time to visit over a cup of coffee, at the Fellowship building, or in your home, please do let me know so that I can get it on my calendar. I also plan to keep a time slot open (probably Monday evening) for a “Soul Matters” type covenant group. Here again, please let me know if you would be interested in committing to such a monthly meeting with other Fellowship friends.
Finally, I want to call your attention to this year’s “Common Read.” Each year the UUA recommends a book to be read by allof our congregations. The idea is that we might approximate being ‘on the same page,’ literally, with respect to some major issue of the day. The recommended Common Read for 2023-24 is “On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World,” by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (Beacon Press: 2022). I’ve started to read it, and find it timely, practical, and provocative. Check it out! inSpirit: UUA Bookstore and Gift Shop: On Repentance and Repair It would be great to have a core group of people interested in exploring this topic together over a course of three or four weeks. If you have questions, please let me know. If there is sufficient interest, there may be a group discount available.
I’m excited about starting this new ‘church year!’ with an Ingathering Ceremony on September 10th. Remember to bring water and a stone. We’ll be celebrating our unique and beautiful place in the Driftless Region, welcoming and inviting people to find their place in our Fellowship. It would be a wonderful day to invite a friend to the service.
In the meantime, I hope that the remainder of your summer is ‘shining, gleaming, and radiant’ in every way!
In good and refulgent faith,
Hmmm, three pages, not so ‘mini’ this time!