Transcendence in Unitarian Universalism

What is "transcendence" in Unitarian Universalism? Through what developments does it come to us, and how is it still alive for us?

In Christian theology, God is both immanent (manifested and present in the material world) and transcendent (outside of and independent of the material world). These theologians, in their way, were wrestling with something real in human experience. Every situation we encounter is immanent (the objective and matter-of-fact descriptions of just what is there, filtering out our tendency to judge and evaluate) and transcendent (full of hidden possibilities for what it may become; manifesting and exemplifying the one-ness or integral whole of all; a window into wonder and mystery).

In Unitarian history, the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century was a reaction against the dry intellectual abstractions of early Unitarian preaching. (This intellectualism was itself a reaction against the hyperemotionalism of the “First Great Awakening” [1730-1743] and, especially, the “Second Great Awakening,” [late 1700s to mid-1800s] – periods when large and highly emotive religious revival gatherings swept the colonies/young nation.) The transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, himself a Unitarian minister until leaving the ministry in 1832, sought a more heartfelt and less intellectualized religious expression. Emerson’s 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address shocked his audience with radical claims that: moral intuition was more reliable than religious doctrine; all humans have a divine nature; belief in the historical miracles of Jesus is unnecessary; and scripture must not be used to deny us our firsthand revelations of every day miracles. “Historical Christianity,” Emerson said, “dwells with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe.”

In his Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, Emerson would refer to the “icehouse of Unitarianism” (1842), and “corpse-cold Unitarianism” (1846). He sought a more poetic, less reason-bound, truth, and invited us to imagine/perceive an underlying unity which transcended duality or plurality. He called this an “over-soul” and described it as “that great nature in which we rest . . . within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.”

Transcendentalism emphasizes lived experience, the here and now, the natural world – that is, the immanent – but it emphasizes the transcendent qualities of this immanent reality. For Transcendentalism, the immanent is the transcendent.

Unitarian Universalism continues to this day to develop in the interplay between what might be called the truths of reason and the truths of poetry. We explore truths of reason in the insights of the natural and social sciences (both empirical findings and large-scale theories). We explore truths of poetry when we speak of oneness, all-embracing unity, and when we share words to evoke the mystery, awe, and wonder that is ultimately ineffable.

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