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Celebrating the Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Part II; unfortunately, video of Part I is no longer available.

General Assembly 2003 Event 4032

Speakers: Scott Russell Sanders, Sarah Ann Wider, Lawrence Buell

The Rev. William Sinkford, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, welcomed the participants to this program, a celebration not only of the living legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but of the accomplishments of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) Emerson Bicentennial Committee created by the UUA Board three years ago. The Rev. Barry Andrews extended a welcome from the Bicentennial Committee, noting that Boston was a particularly important place to honor Emerson’s bicentennial, as it was his place of birth and the city of his only pastorate. He quoted Emerson, who once said, “I thank God I am alive and live so near Boston.” Andrews noted that the purpose of this celebration was not to put Emerson on a pedestal—Emerson once said he had “no wish (in me) to bring people to me, but to themselves.”

The first address, “The Myth of Self-Reliance,” was delivered by Scott Russell Sanders, Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University. Sanders began by telling of his own journey to Emerson—first finding his essays “ethereal,” then discovering Thoreau and through him the Emerson who inspired Thoreau, finding in Emerson’s Journals in particular a different, less arrogant Emerson. Sanders explored the less-well-known Emerson as he comes through in these writings: an explorer of that which lurks at the edges of perception, “the maker of a sentence,” and told how he came to realize that “the seeming confidence of the essays had been hard-won.” The struggles and doubts were filtered out of his lectures, then further filtered out as lectures evolved into published essays.

And yet, he said, that undercurrent can be seen by reading the essays carefully. “Self-Reliance” says “Trust thyself.” But Sanders hears a “murmur of questioning and recrimination,” and Emerson’s confession of his own difficulty in passages such as this:

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.

We need, Sanders concluded, to strip Emerson of his halo. “Emerson’s essays are to make sense of things.”

After Sanders spoke, the group sang Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” to the tune “Old Hundredth”—a contrast of Emerson’s thought with the much-older Protestant and Calvinist favorite tune.

Then Sarah Ann Wider spoke on “Only the Hearer Quotes Well: Emerson and His Audiences.” A Professor of English at Colgate University, Wider first imagined a conversation just after September 11, 2001, between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the current U.S. President—joined by Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Violence violates the fabric of relation,” she quoted King. And quoting Emerson, “The power of love as the basis of a state has never been tried.” “A man has a right to be employed, to be trusted, to be loved, to be revered…”—it could have been King, but it was Emerson.

Wider invited us to hear the Emerson that motivated social activism, an Emerson heard by people like Eleanor Gordon, a Unitarian minister who in 1889 read Emerson, changing all the masculine pronouns to feminine to make his thoughts more powerful for her.

Emerson, Wider said, promoted social and personal transformation. He wanted a person “to work for the good he does, not the goods he accumulates.” Action in the world requires, for Emerson, “ruthless self-examination.” The goal for Emerson, she concluded, is to be in “true and original relationship.” The chorus then presented William Bolcom’s anthem, “May-Day,” using Emerson’s poem of that name as the text.

The third speaker was Lawrence Buell, the Powell A. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University. He spoke on “The Significance of Emerson’s Thought for Religion in a Twenty-first Century World.” Emerson, he said, was less a comfort to our forebears than a thorn in their sides. That time, like ours, was an age of “dizzying techno-social change.” It was the time of the Second Awakening, a spiritual revival, as well as a transition from Calvinist theology. According to Buell, Emerson thought that the Unitarians of his own day had opted for the worst of two worlds.

For Emerson, Buell said, religion was a “process and practice” rather than dogma. Religion was about moral action, and he came to see the church or religious party appearing more and more in social movements. “Emerson himself never went that far in his personal practice,” but he did believe that the world needed a new church “based on moral science,” though Emerson did not give clear definition to what that would be. Emerson’s later pronouncements became more of a social critique, and the judge of what was right and wrong was, for Emerson, the “conscience of a morally awakened individual.”

Emerson was also suspicious of the “merely individual” or “trivially personal.” His ideas about the personal and universal were paradoxical—for Emerson, the path to divinity is through the individual. The aim of true teaching for Emerson, Buell said, was to “teach the doctrine of perpetual revelation.” The truth is not simply personal, but “transpersonal.”

Emerson’s ideas are useful today, but Buell warned that it wouldn’t work to “provide Emerson therapy for every person.” Quoting from a scripture text which graced a Unitarian publication in Emerson’s childhood, Buell called it an Emersonian test, still a challenge today: “Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?”

For a final hymn, Andrews introduced “Ode,” set to the tune called “Materna,” also used for “America the Beautiful.” He said he hoped that someday people would use the “Emerson version” of this song, and introduced a bit of the context reflected in the verses—a patriotic mood, the contrast of the evils of slavery to American principles, the transatlantic cable under the sea contrasted with the chains of slavery, and a hope for a different future.

Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis; edited by Lisa Presley.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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