Don't blame Emerson
Fredric J. Muir gives voice to a popular narrative that blames Unitarian Universalism’s perceived faults on implications of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s teaching (“The End of iChurch,” Winter 2012). He says Emerson is the source of a baleful excess of “individualism” that undermines a sense of covenanted community.
But it isn’t necessary to trash the most luminous spiritual philosopher our movement has given the world—whose thought indeed transformed Unitarianism from a cautious, respectable, “establishment” religion that was afraid to speak to the overweening issue of its time, slavery, into a future-oriented evolutionary force that spoke of profound human possibility.
A better comprehension of Emerson will keep two essential elements in dialogue: autonomy and communion. Sure, autonomy is there in that “iron string” of one’s own nature, that authentic self—but communion is present in Emerson’s writings, too. He speaks of “that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other.”
Such fullness means lives that are expressions of a higher purpose in this world, “that common heart of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character, and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty.” Ah—a community forged around a higher purpose, like the group gathered in Emerson’s parlor in Concord—though maybe not so much like the one down the road at the First Parish of the 1830s. Our spiritual movement has been transformed since those days, in no small measure because of Emerson.
If we want to know why Unitarian Universalism seems stuck at its present size, maybe we need more “exceptionalism.” As Emerson asked, in his great Divinity School Address: “The test of the true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm and command the soul, as the laws of nature control the activity of the hands,—so commanding that we find pleasure and honor in obeying.”
There, I think, lies the answer. The forward momentum of our movement requires a people that committed to a message that compelling.
The Rev. F. Jay Deacon Westhampton, Massachusetts Minister of Channing Memorial Church, Newport, Rhode Island
If nonconformity is individualism, then as an individualist I must take exception to Muir’s essay, in particular his assertion that my kind of individualism conflicts with the “strand of our tradition in our Association’s Principles and Purposes . . . [the language] of covenant: ‘As free congregations we promis[e] to one another our mutual trust and support.’” Muir writes, “We cannot do both covenant and individualism.”
Our “trust and support” go only to those who allow us to be ourselves and allow us to disagree. The individualism of thinking for oneself and of welcoming others to think for themselves is the foundation of true trust and support. It sounds to me as if the “Beloved Community” that Muir is talking about is a community of unthinking conformists.
Linda S. Snodgrass Bethel Park, Pennsylvania UU Church of the South Hills
The cost of defiance
I am concerned that the articles by and about Tim DeChristopher (“Activism Is an Act of Faith,” by Tim DeChristopher and “Tim DeChristopher’s Path,” by Donald E. Skinner, Winter 2012) did not fully consider the less celebratory aspects of his action. There was no mention that DeChristopher’s action cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in administrative, court, and prison costs.
I agree that we have a moral duty toward justice and that there are times when breaking the law is justified, but I see no evidence that illegal action was needed in this case. Defiance should be a last resort, after other avenues have failed—not done on a whim!
I encourage UU World to avoid the temptation to tell a feel-good, superficial story; instead, tell a real story, one we can trust. And please, in the future, balance these stories by writing about activists who are constructive, not oppositional, and who work sustainably in the long term, not impulsively.
Susan Piha Oak Park, Illinois Unity Temple UU Congregation
As a Unitarian Universalist and former owner of a small company engaged in exploration for natural resources, I fail to see the “injustice” against which DeChristopher protested by disrupting a competitive lease sale of federal lands in Utah. These auctions level the playing field by providing companies like mine the opportunity to acquire acreage based on geologic concepts, which often require years of hard work to originate—concepts that might have escaped larger corporations. Upon obtaining a federal lease, we are subject to a variety of environmental restrictions on how we can drill and produce, including stipulations that protect wildlife, archaeological sites, and views, as well as regulations governing carbon emissions, noise, light, and restoration of land to its previous condition when we are done. I applaud DeChristopher’s resolve, but not his judgment, and hope that having “done time” for his felony, he will have gained the wisdom to constructively address future perceived injustices.
James A. Brown
UU Community of Casper
This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World (pages 58–59). UU World welcomes letters to the editor. Send to “Letters,” UU World, 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210, or world [at] uua [dot] org, but do not send attachments. Include your name, address, daytime phone number, and congregation on all correspondence. Published letters with author’s name, city, and state will appear on www.uuworld.org. Letters are edited for length and style; a maximum length of 200 words is suggested. We regret we cannot publish or respond to all letters.