One of the distinguishing features of the Unitarian Universalist philosophy is those of us who identify with UU, are intrigued by it, or for whichever of the many reasons many of us have arrived in this community of like-minded folks – we have distinguished ourselves by coming together as a community of individuals who don’t shy away from engaging with really tough questions like, what does love demand of us?
As someone who was raised in the Episcopal church, complete with a holy bible, Book of Common Prayer; sacraments like baptism and holy communion; and indoctrinations like confirmation class and the laying-on-of-hands by the Bishop after kissing his bejeweled ring – I can attest to the very real difference between learning a set of answers – mastering a doctrine — and having the self-confidence to figure out the answers on my own.
In my childhood tradition, the ultimate answer to the question, what does love demand of us, was drilled into me every Sunday – love God above all else. And so I did. I loved God, put all my trust in an Almighty Father in Heaven who had incarnated himself into mortal form, Jesus Christ, so he could suffer and die for the redemption of my sins. This is a very powerful idea to instill in a young human brain because, from my experience and with all due respect, it is insidious. When something, like an authoritative belief or idea is insidious, it means the belief or idea itself has a subtle and cumulative effect; developing gradually so as to be well established before becoming apparent.
Since God is not a material being, an actual physical substance – then God is not readily apparent, therefore the idea-of or belief-in God does develop gradually and, for many of us, becomes well established before the hard questions come into play. Through the generations, and in particular, what scholars are calling this post-modern era, Unitarian Universalists have come to believe it is possible to put belief-in-a-deity off to the side, so to speak; which in essence means today’s Unitarian Universalist religion is not organized around a traditional our-father-in heaven-God.
This theological paradigm is challenging for many folks who, for ages, have equated religion with believing-in-God. But Unitarian Universalists have decided if you believe in God and it helps you to be the best person you can be, then good for you. But if you don’t believe in God, and this belief helps you be the best person you can be, then good for you. So if a collection of folks who do and don’t believe, or sort-of believe, or sort-of-don’t believe in a God, or just plain haven’t decided if they believe in God – if this diverse collection of folks comes together and builds a religion complete with church buildings, hymnals, principles & purposes, traditions, and pledge drives… and if this religion isn’t organized around God – if no one is required to love God above all else in order to belong – then what or who exactly are we supposed to love?
Did you know Unitarian Universalists not only ask hard questions like this all the while taking seriously the search for meaningful answers, but we can also make fun of ourselves while searching for answers?
Have you heard the one about UUs are people who pray to whom it may concern?
Or have you heard about the one about the Unitarian Universalist who was out in his boat fishing when suddenly the Loch Ness Monster rose up out of the lake and attacked his boat. The Loch Ness Monster grabbed the bow of the boat in its huge mouth, flipped the UU way up into the air, and opened its mouth wide, prepared to catch the guy in its mouth and eat him.
As the Unitarian Universalist fell towards that huge mouth filled with sharp teeth, without thinking he said, “Oh my God, help me!” Suddenly time froze. As the guy hung there in mid-air, a huge voice boomed out, “I thought you didn’t believe in a personal God on whom you could call in times of crisis!” “Hey, give me a break, God,” shouted the UU. “A minute ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster, either!”
And so one of the most meaningful questions of all – what does love demand of us, can have meaningful answers, even when they are generated from within a religious tradition that is built around the belief human beings are capable of seeking and finding authoritative answers on their own – humor or no humor, God or no-God,
One of the definitions of liberal religion which resonates for me is that it is the study of human nature; and in light of this month’s theme, what does love demand of us, there are many correlations between love and human nature. For me, the list begins with one of the west’s most influential stories about human nature: the story of Adam and Eve.
In this particular story, the basic relationship between God and humans, upon which thousands of years of church doctrine has been constructed, is that human nature is flawed; therefore humans will always choose self-interest, i.e. sin, over obedience to God; hence, Eve committing the original sin of disobeying God because she wanted to satisfy her own curiosity.
Eve’s choice to eat an apple from the tree of knowledge, of course, led to getting the two first ‘parents’ expelled from the Garden of Eden – and humans in the western world have been living out the cursed-end of this story ever since. The traditional moral to the story is since human nature is to love ourselves first instead of God; therefore by putting ourselves first, humans bring suffering upon ourselves. The bible is a huge collection of stories which drive home this point, whenever humans turn away from the god of the bible, then bad things happen to them – and they deserve it because they chose not to love God first and trust him enough. This fundamental relationship between humans and God has shaped the how members of the western world understand themselves for over 2000 years now.
By the year 1832, one of Unitarian Universalism’s finest minds, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had become adept at addressing the ‘tough’ questions, for example, what is the true nature of God? What is the true nature of human nature? Is it possible to understand human nature differently? Are humans inherently sinful or can our capacity for rational thought and transcendence redefine the nature of human nature?
After his first wife’s death, Emerson began to disagree with 19th century church methods and vocational proscriptions. In June 1832, Emerson wrote in his journal, “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers.” His disagreements with church officials over the administration of the communion service and misgivings about public prayer eventually led to his resignation. As one Emerson scholar has pointed out, “Doffing the decent black of the pastor, he was free to choose the gown of the lecturer and teacher, of the thinker not confined within the limits of an institution or tradition.”
After leaving his pulpit, Emerson began to travel, sailing first to Malta. During his travels in Europe, he spent several months in Italy, visiting Rome, Florence and Venice among other cities. When in Rome, he met with John Stuart Mill, who gave him a letter of recommendation to meet Thomas Carlyle. He went to Switzerland, and had to be dragged by fellow passengers to visit Voltaire’s home in Ferny, “protesting all the way upon the unworthiness of his memory.” He then went on to Paris which he described as, a “loud modern New York of a place,” it is also where he visited the Jardin des Plantes.
For those of us who haven’t visited Paris, the Jardin de Plantes was founded in 1635 by King Louis XIII and was named The Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants. Over the ensuing generations, this royal garden grew to include not just the study of plants, but just about everything found in nature; from botany, chemistry, geology & minerals, to medicine.
An interesting aside in this institution’s history tells how explorers and botanists were sent to different corners of the world to collect specimens for garden and museum; and they returned with shiploads of specimens which were carefully studied and classified. But this research caused a conflict between the scientists of the Royal Gardens and the theologians of the Sorbonne over the question of evolution. The scientists claimed natural species gradually evolved, while the theologians insisted that nature was exactly as it was at the time of the creation. Since the scientists had the backing of the Royal Court, they were able to continue their studies and publish their work.
Emerson spent time in the gardens and he was greatly moved by the organization of plants according to French naturalist, botanist, and physician Antoine Jussieu’s system of classification, which highlighted the way all such objects were related and connected. Scholar Robert D. Richardson wrote, “Emerson’s moment of insight into the interconnectedness of things in the Jardin des Plantes was a moment of almost visionary intensity that pointed him away from theology and toward science.”
While in England, Emerson met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle, in particular, was a strong influence on him; Emerson would later serve as an unofficial literary agent in the United States for Carlyle and the two maintained a correspondence until Carlyle’s death in 1881.
Emerson returned to the United State in October of 1833 and he soon realized he could have a career as a lecturer; and on November 5, 1833 in Boston, he made the first of what would eventually be some 1500 lectures. “The Uses of Natural History” was an expanded account of his experience in Paris and it set out some important beliefs and the ideas he would later develop in his first published essay, “Nature,” he wrote,
Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.”
Emerson’s religious views were often considered radical at the time. He believed all things are connected to God, and therefore, all things are divine. Critics believed Emerson was removing the central God figure; as Henry Ware Jr. said, Emerson was in danger of taking away ‘the Father of the Universe’ and leaving “but a company of children in an orphan asylum.” Emerson was partly influenced by German philosophy, Far Eastern mystics, and Biblical criticism. His views, the basis of Transcendentalism, suggested that God does not have to reveal truth, but the truth could be intuitively experienced directly from nature. (Sources, The American Transcendentalists Essential Writings, Lawrence Buell Ed.; Wikipedia, fact checks).
God does not have to reveal truth, but the truth could be intuitively experienced directly from nature. Is this really what happened when Eve talked Adam into eating fruit from the tree of knowledge? They did, after all, live in the middle of a gorgeous, luscious, verdant, fertile garden – the epitome of nature?
For many years now, I have contended it is time to update the old stories. One of the reasons I left my childhood religion is because the story of Eve had evolved in a way that, until my lifetime, western culture effectively gave women three choices on what kind of woman they could be: the innocent virgin; the devoted self-sacrificing wife & mother; or the ‘fallen’ woman ala Mary Magdalene. The liturgical language, from the bible to the Book of Common prayer and even the hymnals, all the language was gendered. God was an omnipotent omniscient male; his son came to earth to forgive my sins; and, I was taught, the woman Jesus loved during his short life on earth — was a harlot – the sinful descendent of Eve.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not hate men. I do not blame men for everything I disagree with or which has caused me harm. What I mean is that it’s time to deconstruct and then reconstruct the old stories so they are more representative of, for example, the true nature of human nature. Why does being curious and wanting to be knowledgeable have to be a bad thing – for women or men or any human being? Why does the source-of-all have to be a Father who lives in heaven, a place detached from the earth? A male deity that maybe or maybe not preordains and micromanages the lives of human beings? Does God even have to be in human form and if not, then is there something divine, vitally alive, inherently creative, and easily accessible through awe-inspiring encounters with nature?
If, as many modern-day liberal Christians – members of our own families, close friends, colleagues, and fellow seekers of truth and meaning – say yes to many of these questions; then being curious and placing faith in science and new scholarship are good things – behaviors which actually honor and put to good use our inherently human gifts. Today’s good news is that God doesn’t have to be an Our Father in Heaven, God can be something as simple and beautiful as love.
If, as Emerson believed, humans can experience God-divinity through personal encounters with nature and beauty and be so moved to as to become a better person…. then isn’t this a letting go of the old and empowering the new?
And so today, an age filled with so many awe-inspiring things no one in 1833 could have imagined even in their wildest fantasies, the questions remains: what does love demand of us?
Emerson left the ministry because, as I like to understand it, at heart he was a poet not a minister, and so his choice to write and share his ideas and beliefs allowed him to, in modern terminology, be his own person. And it was, in large part, his intellectual and spiritual contributions which laid the foundation for the uniquely American philosophy of Transcendentalism.
Thanks to Emerson, and to all the Transcendentalists, I have come to believe the true nature of human nature is its ability to transcend itself. If our nature is not set in stone and we are doomed to be sinners seeking God’s approval our whole life, then how is it we learn and become better having made mistakes? Why are we compelled to engage with the hard questions in search of hard answers? And what of love? How does it help or hinder us as we live out our days here on earth?
Thanks to the science of psychology, I have also come to believe that love demands we love ourselves first – but not an idolatry, narcissistic, conceited type of love, rather we must transcend our ego and live into the selfless/agape, kind of love.
Self-love is the first lesson a wanted child learns from their parents because love freely given is freely received and, ideally, the child grows up with unquestioned self-confidence they are worthy and capable. Of course this type of self-love is not an either/or state of being because life is a both/and endeavor, and so perfection and imperfection, satisfaction and frustration, confidence and doubt – all those absurdities exist at the same time – and that, I believe is the true nature of human nature: because love, in all its beautiful complexities and nuances, it is love that ultimately assures us to transcendence our self is an ability we are born with; and it is love that catches us when we end up in a world that has changed us. All we have to do is to choose love.
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.
The central message Emerson drew from his Asian studies was that “the purpose of life was spiritual transformation and direct experience of divine power, here and now on earth.
Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Plans, credit, and the Muse,-
‘Tis a brave master;
Let it have scope:
Follow it utterly,
Hope beyond hope:
High and more high
It dives into noon,
With wing unspent,
But it is a god,
Knows its own path,
And the outlets of the sky.
It was not for the mean;
It requireth courage stout,
Souls above doubt,
It will reward,-
They shall return
More than they were,
And ever ascending.