Rev. Douglas Taylor
There is a story of an adventurer who went out to explore uncharted regions. He discovered majestic mountain ranges, rolling hillsides, waterfalls and river systems of unsurpassed beauty. He returned to his home town and told the people of his adventures, he tried to convey the wonder and beauty with his words but eventually felt at a loss to express adequately what he had experienced. And so he implored the people to seek out these sights for themselves. They asked him to draw a map that they might see what he saw. The adventurer complied with their request, hoping to inspire them. They received his map with reverence, framed it and displayed it prominently. Generations of scholars studied the map and the people prided themselves on possessing the key to such beauty and wonder – but never once did anyone else from that town ever set foot on the lands represented in the marvelous chart.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “When we can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” (American Scholar) Emerson entreated us to each have an original experience of the universe, not necessarily a novel experience, simply your own. “Feel the rain on your skin,” Natasha Bedingfield sings, “no one else can feel it for you.” Beliefs, doctrines, and great books like the Bible are but maps, leave them behind, go forth and meet life, find yourself in the universe. No one else can do it for you. Welcome to Unitarian Universalism. Here we strive to help each other uncover experiences such as these. We offer a great many maps but we affix a warning label to each one declaring that none are authoritative, yet all are reliable!
One of the activities that we do during the formal New UU class, held two or three times each year now, is called the Four Corners Game. It starts with religious labels: do you consider yourself a Theist, a Humanist, or a Pagan? Each of these three theological perspectives is designated to a different corner. The fourth corner is for everything else: mystics, agnostics, eclectics and those who are simply confused or uncertain. Then, everyone in the room stands up, locates themselves and moves off to one corner or another. Typically there are a few who try stand between two or more corners. You know the joke: get two Unitarian Universalists in a room together and you’ll uncover three or more theological perspectives! Next we run through a couple of questions about human nature, and folks line up on a continuum from one side of the room to the other: do you believe in free will or fate? Are you determined by nature and genetics or by nurture and environment? Remember you don’t have to pick one or the other. This is a continuum: fit yourself along the line. Are you on one side of the room or the other or somewhere in between? Then we wrap up with a question that gets us back into the corners again. The question is: by what authority to you claim to know that the religious perspectives you’ve been expressing are true? How do you bolster your claim that what you’ve said is true?
The traditional sources of authority for religious truths are usually three (at least in western philosophy of religion): scripture, tradition, and reason. I know it is true because I read it in the Bible; I know it is true because these are the answers that have been handed down over the year; I know it is true because it makes sense; it fits logically based on our parameters. Perhaps you’re noticing that this offers only three corners to answer in the Four Corner game. Perhaps you’re wondering if I will let the forth corner will be “a little of everything or a little bit confused” as I had done with the one about religious labels. Sorry, no such luck. But don’t blame me; blame the Methodists and their founder John Wesley who came up with what is known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral outlines four sources of religious authority: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
So, you believe in God; you believe in free will; you believe we are a product of our genetic coding; you believe in angels, fairies, saints, pure energy, or human potential: by what authority do you claim to know that this is true? How did you reach this conclusion? Let’s set aside for the moment our liberal predilection for the ambiguous and the mysterious. I’m not asking you if you are certain of your conclusion or convinced of the truth beyond a shadow of a doubt. I’m only asking to the extent you are able to pin yourself down on a point or two: how did you do it? There is a strong leaning among Unitarian Universalists toward the authority of reason and personal experience. Scripture and Tradition: not so much! Reason and Experience: “I believe it to be true because I’ve experienced it and it makes sense.” In his great essay Self-Reliance, Emerson admonishes, “Trust yourself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” And in the Divinity School Address he said, “Refuse all good models and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” The Transcendentalists such as Emerson captured the fullness of the sentiment that Experience can hold the authoritative claim above all other claims because by our intuition we run straight to the heart of God.
And this, because the heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one. Let man, then, learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely: that the Highest dwells with him. (Oversoul)
The implication of such a connection is not only do we find no wall between us and the Divine, but in this same way we can know what is true and right and just. Emerson writes:
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. (Self-Reliance)
Thus, according to Emerson, there is a Divine moral law inscribe in the heart and conscience of every person. You recognize truth when you see it because you ‘lie in the lap’ of the source of truth – if you will but quiet the outer noise and open your eyes.
Or do you perhaps find a wall or veil or some sort of screen that does not allow passage? Do you have a screen between you and the universe, between you and the truth? Screens can come in the form of doctrines and beliefs that you use to filter all information that comes to you. They can come in the form of powerful experiences from the past that limit your vision of what future experiences can be. Screens can come in the form of the charismatic voice of another person compelling you to forsake your own perspective for that of another’s. I wonder if anyone can really get to that point where they experience no screen between themselves and the universe. I strive to recognize my veils: I know I look at the world with the perspective that all people have an inherent worth. It colors my perception of events.
Perhaps the metaphor of a screen can even be applied to the literal screens or the television and computers in our homes. And we suddenly develop a double entendre for the cry to be ‘unmediated.’ Is the media a screen between you and reality? “Dare to love God without mediator or veil.” Do you have a favorite media news source? A friend shared with me an argument she fell into with someone about NPR news being a superior source of information over CNN. It seems to me that if you choose to lock yourself into just one then you will certainly be setting up a screen to filter truth for yourself. It seems to me seeking out a variety of sources of information is your best way to find clarity. Which illustrates an interesting point.
Emerson said go it alone; to refuse all good models. He said when we can read God directly, why waste our time reading transcripts written by other people. He did not, however, mean that we should not read and seek information from other people. He did not mean we should ignore all good models, only that we should not limit ourselves to them. Indeed, were we to live only an inner life, ignoring scripture and tradition and the doctrines of others, we would decline quickly into a fantasy life with no basis in reality. Indeed, were we to refuse absolutely to read the transcripts written by other people in favor of writing our own transcripts only, then by what lights would we measure our progress? Emerson was a very well read scholar. It is the world’s opinions we are to eschew, not the world’s facts. Emerson writes:
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. (Self-Reliance)
But this line of thinking is dangerous stuff. Critics of Emerson to this day level the charge that people cannot be trusted with ideas such as these. Here he is advising people to think for themselves, believe for themselves, discern good and evil or themselves, to declare truth for themselves. Such can be done well, and such can also be done quite poorly. Shortcuts can be rationalized and self-reliant ideals can be turned to self-serving fancy. And perhaps too few pick up on Emerson’s coupling of such radical independence with critical self-evaluation.
About a week ago one of the syndicated opinion columnists in the Press & Sun Bulletin, George Will, wrote a piece about Ronald Reagan’s political theories having root in Emersonian thought. The article was reviewing a new book “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History” by John Diggins. George Will writes,
Diggins says Reagan imbibed his mother’s form of Christianity, a strand of 19th century Unitarianism from which Reagan took a foundational belief that he expressed in a 1951 letter: “God couldn’t create evil so the desires he planted in us are good.” This logic – God is good, therefore so are God-given desires – leads to the Emersonian faith that we please God by pleasing ourselves. Therefore there is no need for the people to discipline their desires. So, no leader needs to suggest that the public has shortcomings and should engage in critical self-examination.
Now, I am not fluent in Reagan’s political theories, and I haven’t read Diggins’ book, and neither am I familiar enough with columnist George Will to tell you which of them has so grossly misunderstood Emersonian thought; so I won’t even try to assign blame. Perhaps it is a like the party game called ‘telephone’ where you whisper a message along the line. Reagan thinks this is what Emerson said, Diggins thinks this is what Reagan said, Will thinks this is what Diggins says and in the end I read this article and see statements attributed to Emerson that sound nothing like the man. Emerson never said we please God by pleasing ourselves. Emerson never implied that there was no need to discipline our desires. Emerson was in favor of critical self-examination. But then, it was Emerson who said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” This certainly applied to Emerson; I’ll admit it probably applied to Reagan as well. But I’ll say no further along that line of thought.
By what authority to I tell you all of this? Certainly my first appeal is to the authority of scripture: what I tell you is true because I read it from scripture. Of course, around here, scripture includes more than the Christian Bible. The words of Emerson are fit alongside those of Micah, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah! I also appeal to tradition: our history shows us the truth of my words. Throughout the ages great people like Emerson have demonstrated the veracity of what I have offered this morning. And still I appeal to reason: does not what I say make sense? Well, and finally, of course, I appeal to my intuition. I appeal to my personal experience: I have lived these ideas and been ennobled by them.
But don’t take my word for it. Life is an adventure filled with majestic sights, fertile lands, treacherous countrysides and beauty – such beauty as will leave you gasping and at a loss for words! And we have many maps detailing excellent locations to explore, charts describing the opportunities that await. Many of the maps are contradictory, but that is only because the landscape is different for each person who walks it. No map is authentic, yet all are reliable. Of course we can all stay right here if you wish and discuss together the sorts of things one might experience, we can study the maps together. But then, life was made not for the discussion of life but for living. What are you waiting for? Go!
In a world without end,
May it be so