Two Americans and Pluralism in Unitarianism


Emerson's and Parker's writings and preaching mark the first move in Unitarianism from a biblical based faith - where authority is found in Scripture - to a faith where authority is found in the individual. So there are some parallels with the later Martineau in Britain. Some of the issues raised by Emerson and Parker are still with us today.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

By the time he began living at Concord from 1835, Emerson was established as a thinker and a writer. At Harvard he had been hopeless at mathematics but won prizes for essays and speaking, and thus his approach to faith was in the style of literature.
He was from a Puritan background and talented literary household, and became a minister like his father. Early on he showed idealised spiritual tendencies when he wanted to abolish communion or at least dispose of the material elements, but his Boston church did not agree and so he moved for a short period at East Lexington. Then he went on the first of a number of tours of Europe. In Britain he found the rural hillside home of Carlysle, who became a life long friend, and he met Wordsworth, who Emerson regarded as egotistic. When back in America his theology had become such that he denied requests to take up a ministry. He later edited The Dial from 1842 whose contributors included Parker and Thoreau.
His transcendentalism accepted that different people would use different religious forms. God was in first hand experience and whilst inherited statements may express previous experiences they could not be suitable for everyone. He was in this sense an early pluralist, and perhaps more so than anyone else before him in the Puritan stream.
The article Nature is a long, wafty piece which sets out Emerson's general philosophy. The natural world, which Emerson regarded as largely untouched by humanity, is the cradle of all our potential purity. But humanity's false development had separated us from this source where the real human spirit is the same as the spirit of nature. What counts is the ideal, the purity of God, behind the real, behind surface appearance, and if you appropriate yourself to the ideal with poetic language then you gain unity. This new philosophy of transcendentalism reached an intelligentsia for whom the inherited theology had become somewhat crusty.
He would not enter into arguments because it was intuitively based. And it was the same with the Harvard Divinity School Address. When asked by his predecessor and once superior in Boston, Henry Ware, for the arguments relating to his Address he said he had not got any. Here in 1838 was when Emerson made his attack on the American religious community of his day. Jesus Christ belonged to the "true race of prophets" but Christianity became a mythus. Secondary interpetations like St. Paul, Swedenborg and Fox should not be the focus of interpretation. A religion of miracles and of the person of Christ was inadequate: "The soul knows no persons", and focusing on the revelation of the past led to a decayed church where its preachers looked as if they had not really lived because they did not preach the soul.
His accusatory speech led to much reaction. He was frozen out of Harvard and even accused of being an atheist. Although he praised Christianity because it had the Sabbath and the institution of preaching where the soul could be addressed, and thus he would not invent new forms, he clearly had broken with the rather dry and formal New England religion.
He had made explicit what Channing had only hinted at, a development that some would follow and others would resist. Here began a major debate - still going on - about Unitarianism and its identity: is it a form of Christianity that denies the Trinity or does this liberalism in relation to orthodoxy become a greater liberty? Of course in those days Transcendentalism was defended as core Christianity, but it was significantly different in that it was not clearly natural, and was not anthropomorphic but preferred the soul to the body. These days, for example, even Christian process theology would focus on evolutionary matter and energy rather than the soul.

Theodore Parker

Parker took Emerson's stance further in the break with Christianity whilst also calling it the true essence of Christianity. He read Nature on the bank of the Connecticut River and much approved. His line was that as our bodies of matter are surrounded by matter, so our spirit is surrounded by the world of spirit. Religion is experiencing this God, the background and cause, the Idea behind ideas, through reason, conscience and sentiment, which churches should try to advance. Christianity is the plain words of the excellent human Jesus who shows the love of God, and this cannot perish. Religious freedom leads to heroism and love. Daily work should be a daily sacrament.
As Emerson had criticised the clergy who had never spiritually lived, and called miracle a monster, and was isolated for it, so Parker had his views which stirred reaction: the Gospels have myths, like the resurrection, and that Christianity might survive better without the New Testament than with it; and Christianity would be true anyway because its contents were derived from their own character and not the authority of Christ. Thus Christ, the Bible and the church body were made ephemeral.
The orthodox attacked an increasingly divided Unitarianism, in many ways scared of its theological future. So after 1842, with intensive accusation and debate taking place, Parker was isolated, struck out of the Year Book, lost friends, and many supporters stayed silent. Some though helped him start a congregation in Boston once he had left West Roxbury. Thus it was that Parker attacked his timid and spiteful denomination.
He said that it was too rational to have the supernatural theory - yet uses it; it humanises the Bible but refers to its miracles; believes in spiritual freedom but demands a redeemer; censures sects but looks back at their past lives; believes in the humanity of Jesus but pronounces his miraculous birth and powers; it over-reads Old Testament texts but asks one to listen to the spirit; and it reverences Jesus but denounces absolute religion and morality. Thus Unitarianism was in a contradiction and needed renewal.

Reflections on the Present Day

The issues which Emerson and Parker raised are still with us. First of all, liberal Christianity, as was its forerunner Calvinism, needed no creeds. This was no declaration of liberality but on the belief that Christianity was self-evident and true. But that clearly was not the case with Calvinism and further liberalisation with Emerson and Parker meant it was not true with liberal Christianity either. They opened the door to individualist subjective religion or a multiplicity of beliefs and forms within one organisation. The reaction against them opened the question about liberality, and whether this is simply in reference to other Christian churches, or whether it allows full pluralism within. We should not be suprised that Emerson and Parker were both isolated and frozen out by a supposedly liberal organisation. Today even with the concept of freedom of belief and worship better established, the conflict is still there between a standard inherited faith package versus pluralism, where majorities on committees enforcing one package against the threat of the other can be most illiberal.
Parker saw the contradictions of the liberalised inherited Christianity, never mind the problem of Christianity versus pluralism. It is all rather similar today to the situation where Unitarianism follows the "Leadership of Jesus" who yet is only a human being; where the Bible must be read whereas in fact it has no special supernatural status; and where prayers must go to a God which is not perceived as able to intervene in our world. These are forms without a proper metaphysical support which cannot be revived but only changed by other and more logical forms in order to focus on all humans and the ecology, not just one prophet; based on all kinds of readings and sources rather than just the Bible, and using human stories and ethics as much or even instead of a God. Yet, still today, we seem locked into a dispute between habit and opening out. Of course it is those Christian contradictions which do lead some people on to their own individualistic pluralism.
But with pluralism Unitarianism becomes two or more distinct approaches to religion all within the shell of non-conformist Protestantism. The question is how compatible they are. Clearly Christian Unitarianism is compatible with the shell, but others like natural religion only use the shell on the sabbath to express its message. This might be seen as parasitical, or it calls for radical development of new symbols and forms.
Indeed forms are important, unlike the stress of Emerson and Parker. In the nineteenth century everyone had to be a Christian, as to be a heathen or a Pagan was deviant and immoral. So Emerson and Parker both used and also dismissed Christian language on the road to the soul's regeneration. But today we would not today need to pay lip service to Christianity as we are used to being surrounded by different religions. We can be called humanists, Pagans, or whatever, and in any case we now do have a more sophisticated understanding of the forms of religion. Reductionism of forms has proved to be like an onion in which, if you keep peeling, you do not find truth at the core. In fact it is the whole onion, the religious language, that counts. And as Christianity might now be described as a textual fantasy used for its human effects, so can the forms and explanations of nature religion. Today, in my opinion, the language of nature and the Goddess is useful not because there is such a Goddess at the core of self-creativity, or that there the soul is to be raised by nature, but because the Goddess and nature are forms of language which are non-oppressive and can inspire. They inspire us just because linguistically and culturally we seek values that are alternatives to urbanism and patriarchy, and so we enter into a symbolic game of play and fantasy. Perhaps that was what Emerson and Parker were really doing in their day, and in so doing incurred the wrath of inherited Puritanism.

Adrian Worsfold