I used to have a bumper sticker that said, “Question Authority” then I saw the one that said, “Who are you to tell me to question authority?” Point well taken.
Lauren Hulse, our membership coordinator, has been collecting questions for the minister from visitors to the church. So for the next few blogposts I will be responding to some common questions including this one, “Why do UUs talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson so much?”
Emerson lived from 1803-1882. Most of us encountered Emerson for the first time in a high school literature class where we read the essay Self-Reliance or excerpts from his book Nature. What you may not know is that before he was a famous essayist he was a Unitarian minister.
The ministry was not a great fit for Emerson. He once went to visit a parishioner who was ill and was sent back to the church by the man’s wife who said, “He did not know his business.” I’ve read some of his sermons, many of which are arid and pedantic. Indeed, leaving the ministry was a good career decision. It was outside the church that Emerson found his true voice.
Because I have a predisposition to appreciate paradox I am tempted to answer the newcomers question by saying, “We talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson so much because he is our authority for anti-authoritarianism.”
Emerson’s entire theology can be summed up in the words of the Quaker leader George Fox who interrupted a church service and said to the preacher, “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
Of course, in his Harvard Divinity School Address Emerson took eighteen pages to say what George Fox said in two sentences. Emerson was not spare in his prose. However, he coined many a good phrase to describe that our authority comes not from the church or from the state but from an inward source. “From within…a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” He also felt our authority was not rooted in past tradition but in the present moment, “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past?…the sun shines today also.”
When Emerson was a Unitarian minister, our faith was a liberal Christian denomination. Emerson and other Transcendentalists began reading newly translated copies of The Upanishads, the Vedas and The Bhagavad Gita. They studied Buddhism, a non-theistic tradition, and discovered that they could find wisdom from many different sources. In this way, he helped pave the way for our broader and deeper understanding of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. His opposition to slavery and the removal of the Cherokee Indians in the Trail of Tears presage our contemporary commitments to the Black Lives Matter and the Standing Rock movements.
So in answer to the question, “Why do UUs talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson so much?” I reply with a sense of paradox, “Because he is our authority for anti-authoritarianism. He is an important part of our tradition of anti-traditionalism.” However, setting the paradox aside, Emerson has left us a legacy of writing that can inspire us to claim our authority, find inspiration in the present moment, seek wisdom beyond our borders, feel illuminated by an inward light and question authority. I don’t know if Emerson was ever asked, “Who are you to tell us to question authority?” but I am sure his answer would’ve been a simple one, “I’m Ralph Waldo Emerson.”