Less Emerson, More Bellows (March 4, 2012 )

posted Sep 3, 2009, 12:28 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 5, 2012, 7:47 PM ]

           How many of you have heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson?  (Take a show of hands)  I'm not surprised.  Of all the luminaries in our Unitarian Universalist history -- and there are quite a few -- he shines the brightest.  Most of us heard of or read Emerson before becoming a Unitarian Universalist.  I remember reading his essays, like Nature and Self-Reliance, and his famous commencement address to the Harvard Divinity School in high school and college English classes.  Emerson was a prophet of individualism, a be-yourself-don't-worry-about-what-anyone-else-says kind of guy.  That message resonates strongly with adolescents and young adults who are precisely at the point in life when they are struggling to establish their own identity. 

          Emerson came from an impeccable Unitarian pedigree.  His father had been the minister of Boston's First Church and had persuaded the congregation to make the transition from being Trinitarian to Unitarian.  The young Emerson attended the citadels of Unitarian education, Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, and he served as an assistant minister to Dr. Henry Ware, Jr., at the Second Church of Boston and then succeeded him when Ware left to become a professor at Harvard.  Emerson found parish ministry irksome, and he particularly objected to the Lord's Supper as an obsolete formality.  "Most men find the bread and wine no aid to devotion," he observed, "and to some it is a painful impediment."  Emerson resigned his pastoral position and embarked on a career as a public lecturer and essayist, which is how most of us have come to know him.  In the words of biographer Frank Schulman, Emerson "exchanged his pulpit for the rostrum … and accepted a call to a much larger audience, the country." 

          He devoted the rest of us life to writing and speaking on behalf of his philosophy of Transcendentalism.  We sampled a taste of Emerson's philosophy in our responsive reading a little earlier.  In his first book, Nature, he asserted that the division between the human and the divine is artificial.  "Standing on the bare ground -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space -- all mean egotism vanishes," he writes in Nature.  "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."  In Self-Reliance, he pushed individualism further:  "Trust thyself: every heart beats to that iron string.  Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.  What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think." 

          In 1838, Emerson made his break with the Unitarian establishment when he delivered the commencement address at Harvard Divinity School.  It was my pleasure to visit that very chapel when I was in Boston a few months ago for my examination interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) in my quest to join the Unitarian establishment.  Emerson told the faculty and the new clerical graduates that Unitarianism had become the "corpse-cold" custodian of a second-hand religion because it was relying on scripture and superstitious belief in miracles to have access to God.  This was unnecessary, he told his stunned audience, because individuals may experience God directly, particularly as we commune with nature.  This future Unitarian icon was not invited back to Harvard for another 30 years.

          One of those divinity school students who heard Emerson's famous address was Henry Whitney Bellows.  How many of you have heard of him?  (Take a show of hands)  I'm not surprised.  I was hoping we could have a reading of Bellows words, but our hymnal doesn't have any, despite the fact that it can be argued that Bellows, more than Emerson or perhaps anyone else, may be most responsible for there being a Unitarian denomination.  If Emerson was a visionary prophet, Bellows was an organizational man, or as Connie Myers might observe, Emerson was a Lenin and Bellows was a Trotsky. 

          The minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York, Bellows came to fame nationally as the president of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the forerunner to the American Red Cross.  The Sanitary Commission organized the collection of donated medicines, bandages, food, blankets, and other much needed supplies for the ill-supported soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War and is credited as a major factor in the success of the Union cause.  While crisscrossing the country on behalf of the Commission, Bellows stopped often at Unitarian churches, and he saw that the emergence of Transcendentalism and scientific rationalism had sparked controversy and division among Unitarians and that they desperately needed a national organization to unify them.  In his 1859 address to the Harvard Divinity School, he observed that there was "an undeniable apathy in the denominational life of the body."  I think that's a 19th century way of saying that it's hard to herd cats. 

          So Bellows invited 600 Unitarian ministers and lay leaders from around the country to All Souls to form the National Conference of Unitarian Churches.  There was already in existence the American Unitarian Association, but its membership was composed of individuals.  The National Conference was composed of congregations and is therefore the forerunner of our present UUA.  As you know, now that I have passed my MFC interview and have been granted preliminary fellowship as a UU minister, I am an expert on UU history, and in my study of UU history, I have learned that the Universalists began their decline as a denomination right at the time that Bellows formed the National Conference of Unitarian Churches -- a decline that continued until the Universalists nearly disappeared before they were absorbed in the merger with the Unitarians in 1961.  The Unitarians, on the other hand, survived and thrived during this period because, among other reasons, they had an organizational structure … thanks to Henry Whitney Bellows. 

At the General Assembly of UU congregations in Charlotte last summer, the current minister of All Souls in New York, Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich (absolutely no relation to that other Gingrich), observed that Unitarian Universalism has not grown since the '61 merger between Unitarians and Universalists.  We had just over 200,000 UUs then, and we have just over 200,000 now.  During the last 50 years, we UUs have prided ourselves that we have held our own in membership numbers, while mainline Protestants have declined.  But the downside is while our numbers have remained steady, the U.S. population has increased 50% over the last 50 years, which means that our proportion of the population has actually decreased.  In addition, over the last couple of years, our absolute numbers have decreased, as well.

Guengerich also cited what should be encouraging numbers for UUs.  The fastest growing religious group in America right now are those claiming "no religion" -- 15% of Americans, which outranks every major religious group except Catholics and Baptists.  This should bode well for UUs because unlike nearly every other religion, we welcome humanists, atheists, agnostics, and skeptics in addition to theists.  Also, half of all Americans migrate from the faith of their childhood to some other faith, and 90% of UUs are comprised of religious "immigrants."  Yet we are not growing.  Why?  

Guengerich says we have chosen to be heirs of Ralph Waldo Emerson instead of Henry Whitney Bellows.  In other words, we have continued to emphasize individual spirituality over organized religion.  If spirituality is an individual's understanding and expression of truth and meaning, religion is our common understanding and expression of truth and meaning.  Organized religion provides the forms and structures for spirituality to develop, spread, and be passed on to future generations.  Emerson rebelled against and left organized religion because he experienced the institution as stifling his personal spirituality.  Bellows supported and built up organized religion because he recognized that personal spirituality could not survive without institutions.  I think Guengerich is right.  We UUs are children of Emerson, not Bellows.  

Guengerich noted that conservative political and religious organizations get it.  They are immensely successful at propagating their faith because they are not bashful at all about pouring money, time, and resources into TV and radio programs, the internet, think tanks, schools, and other institutions to reshape society in their image.  UUs, on the other hand, have authority issues.  We viscerally distrust personal and institutional authority and try to rely solely on individual and congregational initiatives.  I think there are some psychological reasons behind our "cat mentality."  Most of us -- remember, 90% of us -- are refugees from other faith traditions, and most of us have been wounded by these faith traditions, so we don't readily trust religious institutions.  Plus, a liberal by definition is someone who doesn't trust authority.  We prefer to trust our own perspectives and judgments over that of others.  So when religious liberals come together to try to form community, it really is like trying to herd cats.  We can be a finicky bunch.  We prefer to have our own individual litter boxes and to use them when we want to, where we want to, and how we want to, and you can't make us do otherwise. 

By the way, this is not only a denominational issue; it's a congregational issue.  For all practical purposes, ours is the only truly liberal congregation in this town.  We should be much, much larger than we are.  Why aren't we?  We have the principles of reason, openness, and acceptance that so many in our community already subscribe to in their personal lives.  We have a warm and inviting congregation that eagerly welcomes newcomers.  I suspect that what we have lacked is organization.  I do take encouragement, however, from the fact that in the last few years, we as a congregation have been paying much more attention to our infrastructure, to our policies and procedures, rules and regulations, our committees, Board of Trustees, and staff, our religious education program and social action initiatives, our newsletter, website, and Facebook page, and our facilities -- all those organizational structures that are not sexy or exotic and quite often are tedious and boring but are absolutely necessary to sustain the presence of Unitarian Universalism in our community and in the lives of future UUs.  In other words, I believe that our congregation is following Bellows more than Emerson.

But all this begs this question:  Why should you want to give your time and resources to support and build this community.  Hardly any of us are truly altruistic.  Almost everyone is willing to give if he or she knows that they will get something in return.  There are lots of returns from belonging to a religious community, but let me briefly mention only three.

          First of all, I believe that all of us, all human beings, suffer from some degree of shame.  Shame is different from guilt.  Guilt is that feeling of self-reproach when you do something wrong; shame is that feeling that something is wrong with you.  We feel guilty for something, but we feel ashamed of ourselves.  All of us feel ashamed about something because none of us escaped childhood without our souls being wounded in some way.  Our souls were wounded because our parents were not able to accept us fully as we were.  There was some part of us that they found unacceptable.  Perhaps they wanted you to be prettier or smarter than you were, or perhaps they wanted you to be more compliant or more charming.  Whatever they may have found unacceptable about us, they were doing the best they could because they, too, had been shamed when they were children, so they were incapable of giving us unconditional love.  So we grew up feeling flawed or defective in some basic way.  Many women feel shame about their bodies or appearance.  Many men feel shame about being weak or needy. 

          As I suggested earlier, many UUs feel a kind of religious shame.  We left those religious communities of our childhood because we no longer believed what they taught and what we used to believe.  Many of us were led to feel that our inability to believe what we were taught was due to a flaw in our nature, that something was wrong with us.  “Why can’t you just believe like everyone else?”  That lingering feeling that something is wrong with you is shame.

          Shame is a failure of self-acceptance.  We cannot accept some aspect of ourselves we judge to be inferior or inadequate or defective.  We cannot accept our whole selves because early in life when we were dependent on others for our self-worth, they could not accept our whole selves.  Since relationships originally set up our shame, it take relationships to heal our shame.  Not just any kind of relationship because some relationships continue to shame us, but relationships with people who can accept us as we are, with all our warts, freckles, and blemishes, and affirm our basic goodness.  You and I need each other to be healed from our shame because if you can accept me as I am, then maybe I will be able to accept myself.

          Secondly, I believe that all of us, all human beings, are born with the capacity for empathy.  It’s not just a belief; there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that we instinctively feel what another human being is feeling.  Babies as young as 12-months-old demonstrate evidence of feeling empathy.  It makes evolutionary sense that we would be hard-wired for empathy because feeling empathy for others would lead to helping others, which would promote the survival of the species. 

          But as with every other innate capacity, it can only develop if the proper conditions are present for its development.  That’s why you and I need each other.  We need community to give and receive understanding, support, and compassion because without the developed capacity for empathy, we cease to be human.  Some may hold that our reason or our science or our technology is what makes us distinctly human.  But I think our capacity for empathy is what makes us most human because it allows us to recognize the humanity of others and to connect with the humanity of others.  Without this capacity, we are subhuman.  Without this capacity, we see people as if they were means to our ends, and we treat them as if they were mere objects. 

          Thirdly, I believe that all of us, all human beings, are meaning-makers.  We have to make sense of our world, give explanations of why things happen, have goals to strive toward, have values to live by, have a reason to be.  When we hear a bump in the night, we cannot go back to sleep until we can explain to ourselves what it was.  We cannot accept randomness.  When the unpredictable happens, when things don’t fit our familiar frameworks, we feel tense, annoyed, maybe even depressed.  But life is good, life is fulfilling, life is … well, meaningful when we find meaning outside ourselves.  It was Benjamin Franklin who observed that “people who are wrapped up in themselves make small packages.”  During the last couple of years, as the excesses of Wall Street have been exposed to public light, we have beheld men who have accumulated lots of stuff but whose lives are small packages because the meaning of their lives has not grown beyond their own egos. 

          I think it is telling that when a lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus told him the story of the Good Samaritan, a story about someone who went the extra mile to help someone else.  Evangelicals define eternal life as what happens when life ends.  But according to the Biblical use of that phrase, eternal life has more to do with what happens when life begins.  To have eternal life means to be fully engaged in life, to be fully alive.  I don’t know about you, but I have felt most fully alive when I have gotten beyond myself and invested myself in the lives of others.  You and I need each other in order to have a meaningful life.

        These are some personal returns from belonging to and supporting a religious community.  Now let me give you a transpersonal reason.  Unless you are extraordinarily talented, unless you can make a name for yourself that will outlive you, unless you are an Emerson, your name will die when everyone who knows you dies.  You and I are destined to be forgotten names on tombstones in a forgotten cemetery.  But the values we cherish and the principles we live by will be immortal if they are kept alive by an institution that outlives us.  I belong to and support this congregation because I receive from it so much more than I give to it that makes my life more livable.  But I also belong to it and support it because I want the Unitarian Universalist values that have guided and enriched my life to guide and enrich the lives of our children and future generations who will follow us.  I may not live forever, but this congregation can and will if we sustain it in our lifetime … if we follow Bellows instead of Emerson. 

                                                                                                                                                                                Rev. Dr. Neal Jones