Two Sundays Exploring Emerson's Divinity School Address: Part II

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
June 18, 2017


By David Herndon

Fathers’ Day

18 June 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh, PA

Last Sunday, we explored Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address.  We heard the same reading as you just heard a few moments ago.  From this reading we were able to identify a worthwhile message for all of us, namely, the importance of honoring your own direct experience of the world and your own direct experience of yourself.  Emerson cautioned against those who “speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands.”  Emerson cautioned against second-hand experience. Emerson cautioned against preaching that “comes out of the memory, and not out of the soul.”  The Divinity School Address was delivered before the Senior Class at Harvard Divinity School on July 15, 1838, and Emerson urged the new ministers in the audience to “show us that God is, not was; that [God] speaketh, not spake.”  He also urged the new ministers to in the audience “to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of [humanity], and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”

Last Sunday, we focused our attention on those last few words – “without mediator or veil” – and I invited everyone present to use crayons and paper to produce a personal visual or artistic response to the meaning of these words.

Moreover, I suggested that Emerson’s emphasis on direct experience reappears as the first of our six Unitarian Universalist theological sources, namely, “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”

At the end of my sermon last Sunday, I connected Emerson’s Divinity School Address with Pride Sunday by suggesting that Emerson’s message to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people would be to trust your own direct experience of who you are.  Here is the message that I thought Emerson might offer:  “Look into yourself, forge and honor your own direct experience of God, your own direct experience of the Universe, and most important, your own direct experience of yourself, and affirm who you are and how you love without reference to social conventions, or tradition, or custom, or what your parents think, or what your friends think, or the opinions of critics, or what you see on television.  And whatever you discover about yourself, simply call it beautiful.”  I closed my sermon with a reference to Cyndi Lauper’s song “True Colors,” which we heard just a few moments ago.

Today I would like to explore a different angle on Emerson’s Divinity School Address.  At one point, Emerson spoke of his own experience of attending church.  He said:“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more.[People] go, thought I, where they are [accustomed] to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon.  A snow storm was falling around us.  The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow.  He had lived in vain.  He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined.  If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.  The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned.  Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine.  This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all.  Not a line did he draw out of real history.  The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.  But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography.  It seemed strange that the people should come to church.  It seemed as if their houses were very unentertaining, that they should prefer this thoughtless clamor.”

Yes, I really did go there!  I really did share that quotation with you this morning!

I came to theological school from a background in physics and mathematics, and my first instinct was to approach theology as a series of problems to be solved or propositions to be proved or disproved.  It was not natural to me to tell stories.  At one point, one of the other students turned to me and said, with a mixture of exasperation and pity, “David, you are just not a narrative person!”

Because of that, I wince with some sympathy for poor Barzillai Frost, the minister at Emerson’s home church in Concord, Massachusetts, and the object of Emerson’s withering criticism in the Divinity School Address.

Yes, it was widely acknowledged that Rev. Barzillai Frost, minister at the First Parish of Concord, was not the most gifted speaker.  Historian Conrad Wright stated, “He wholly lacked the gift of eloquence, the power to change [people’s] lives in an instant by the spoken word, that Emerson looked for in the true preacher.  As I understand it, however, Rev. Barzillai was deeply beloved by his congregation, for he was a compassionate and diligent pastor.  Never mind his preaching; he loved his people and that was enough for them.

Meanwhile, Emerson had been wrestling with doubts about his own vocation.  He had followed his father into the Unitarian ministry and had been called to serve as minister with the Second Church of Boston in 1829.But Emerson submitted his resignation three years later in 1832.It turns out that one of the tasks of ministry that he found least appealing was offering pastoral care to his congregation.  Thus, Emerson and Frost were polar opposites:  what Emerson most admired, Frost did not do well; but what Emerson most disliked, Frost did exceedingly well.  After his resignation from the Second Church in Boston, Emerson served as a part-time preacher in East Lexington, not far from his home in Concord.  Significantly, Emerson had stepped down from this post in March 1838, just four months before he delivered the Divinity School Address, and you might say that the Divinity School Address was Emerson’s opportunity to work out his vocational frustrations, and he did so by blaming the shortcomings of organized religion for his departure from ministry rather than his own temperament.

With this historical background, we can discern that Emerson’s confident and scornful critique of his ministerial colleague in truth revealed his own doubts and difficulties.

Nevertheless, Emerson offered a worthwhile reminder not only to preachers, but to all of us, a reminder to claim our own life perspective and speak from it.  “The true preacher can be known by this,” declared Emerson, “that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.”  But all of us have our own life experience, and all of us are the experts on our own life experience, and all of us have a voice, or deserve to have a voice.  When it is assumed that there is only one true way to interpret Scripture, or when it is assumed that all reasonable people will examine Scripture and come to the same conclusion, or when it is assumed that one size fits all with regard to the truths of religion, then it is also assumed that it does not matter who does the interpreting and the speaking.  Why not have representatives of only one gender in the pulpit if the moral imperatives of Scripture are the same for everyone?  Why not have representatives of only one race in the pulpit if everyone would come to the same conclusion about social arrangements  But when Emerson holds up “life passed through the fire of thought” as the gold standard for preaching, then intentionally or not he opens the door to multiculturalism where we come to appreciate many different ways of being human.I cannot speak for everyone, and neither can you.  Is there anyone who can truly claim to speak for everyone?  The truths of physics and mathematics may be true for everyone, but we all have different narratives, different stories.  When we pass our lives through the fire of thought, we do so with different life experiences, and what emerges from this process will be different for different people – not better, not worse, just different.  But when we allow only one type of experience to be passed through the fire of thought, when we assume that what is true for one type of person will be true for everyone, when we set aside other kinds of life experiences that do not match what we consider “normal,” then at least some of the time we will be setting aside life experiences that would speak of injustice and oppression if only they could speak, or if only they could be heard.  To paraphrase Bruce Cockburn, “The problem with ‘normal’ is that it masks injustice.”

Last Sunday I concluded my sermon with a reference to Cyndi Lauper’s heartfelt song, “True Colors,” and I would like to do so again this morning.  From the perspective I have just articulated, the sentiment of “True Colors” is not just about appreciating your particular color, beautiful as it may be.  Affirming the sentiment in “True Colors” also means affirming the beauty in all those other colors – the purples, the greens, the oranges.  Nobody has more of a right to be part of the rainbow of humanity than anyone else.  Marcia McFee speaks of “a hospitable attitude that embraces a God who comes to, speaks to, and transforms people in diverse ways.”  May we embrace the day when all life experiences are passed through fire of thought into compelling narratives where the true and beautiful colors of every person and every community shine through.

© 2017 by David Herndon


Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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