2023-01-07

UU Minute #103

Transcendentalism and Unitarianism



Ralph Waldo Emerson left behind Unitarianism – but Unitarianism went running after him, nevertheless.

Emerson, at age 29, resigned from Unitarian ministry to become a lecturer and essayist: the pre-eminent voice in the Transcendentalist movement. Key features of Transcendentalism include:
  • People and nature are inherently good. In fact, divinity pervades all nature and humanity.
  • Thus, Divinity may be experienced in the everyday – rather than only in a distant heaven.
  • Individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention or deference to past masters.
  • Accordingly, people are at their best when truly self-reliant and independent, resisting the corruptions of society and institutions.
  • Subjective intuition warrants emphasis over objective empiricism.
  • Physical and spiritual phenomena are not discrete entities, but part of dynamic processes.
Transcendentalism brought together influences from English and German Romanticism, David Hume’s skepticism, Immanuel Kant’s idealism, and the Hindu Upanishads.

Before Emerson, Transcendentalist tendencies were already taking shape within Unitarianism. So Emerson wasn’t rejecting Unitarianism, but only taking it the next step, building on the Unitarian emphasis on free conscience – that each of us must take up the project of articulating for ourselves the religious, spiritual, and ethical conclusions to which our reason and intuition guide us.

Yet transcendentalism did change Unitarianism, moving it away from mild, calm, sober rationalism toward greater intensity of spiritual experience. Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838 laid out a Transcendentalist position. Moral intuition is present in everyone, he said, and is a better guide than religious doctrine, including the doctrine that Jesus performed miracles.

While the Divinity School Address shocked and appalled many old-line Unitarians, it was attractive to many younger Unitarians as a logical extension of basic Unitarian commitments.


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