The Unitarian side of my church’s heritage partly developed in response to what it saw as an excessive focus on “feeling after God” in the Great Awakening of the early eighteenth century. During the Great Awakening, revival preachers were traveling across the countryside stirring people into a frenzy of religious devotion. Salvation was marked by conversion experiences of great emotional intensity. The underside of this fervor was a pessimistic theology that claimed that all human beings were inherently evil and destined to eternal damnation. Salvation was seen as a literal rescue from this horrific fate. An emotional conversion experience marked you as one of the saved.
By contrast, the preachers who were my forebears mistrusted this approach of salvation by catharsis. They advocated a religion based on reason and character, and believed we might participate in the process of spiritual growth. God, they said, would not despise our use of the intellect which he had given us. Reason and character have remained hallmarks of our faith.
Unitarianism became known as a religion comfortable with words, mistrustful of emotion. Yet from the beginning there were Unitarians who worried about the coldness of such a reasonable approach. Ralph Waldo Emerson, called “the father of American spirituality,” complained about it:
“Where now sounds the persuasion, that by its very melody imparadises my heart, and so affirms its own origins in heaven?… The test of a true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm and command the soul…”
Is it possible to find a faith which charms both the mind and the soul? Can intellect and ecstasy co-exist?
Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the soul as our capacity to directly experience the divine. He criticized the religions of his time for merely setting up rules and dogmas that followed the traditions of the past but offered no opportunities for today. He said,
…within this erring passionate mortal self, sits a supreme calm immortal mind, whose powers I do not know, but it is stronger than I am, it is wiser than I am…I seek counsel of it in my doubts, I repair to it in my dangers, I pray to it in my undertakings. It is the door of my access to the Father… It is the perception of this depth in human nature—this infinitude belonging to every man that has been born—which has given new value to the habits of reflexion and solitude.
The soul for Emerson was linked to his understanding of the divine, not as a being external to us, but present within us, available to us. The soul was like a well whose depth kept getting deeper—there was no limit to this interior life, it was a doorway into the infinite.
The fifteenth century Indian poet Kabir also speaks about the soul as our capacity to experience the divine. He said:
Jump into experience while you are alive!
…What you call “salvation” belongs to the time before death.
If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten—
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now, in the next life
you will have the face of satisfied desire.
Kabir suggests that we can’t wait for some sort of salvation after we die. He reminds us that we must cultivate this seed—it won’t grow automatically. We must do the work of our souls now, right here, we must connect with the Mystery while we are alive.
When I was a devoted Catholic child, I learned about the saints who had visions of angels or the Blessed Mother Mary or even Jesus himself. There were the children in Fatima, and Bernadette of Lourdes, and Margaret Mary Alacoque, and Joan of Arc. I wanted to have a vision, too. I prayed for Jesus or Mary to come and show themselves to me and speak to me directly. I imagined spirituality should include a holy person coming down from the sky and standing in front of me. It never quite happened that way. Why not, I wondered? Why tell us these stories if we could not have those experiences?
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most famous of the 19th century intellectuals who became known as the transcendentalists, wrote something similar in 1849:
The foregoing generation beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”
A spiritual journey is our search for our own “original relation to the universe.” A spiritual journey is our search for our own face to face, personal experience of “God and nature,” whatever those might turn out to be. A spiritual journey brings us to our own experience of the larger reality of which we are a part, our awareness of connection to the earth, to each other, and to the Mystery within and between all life.
When I was growing up, it seemed that only a few special people might have such a personal experience of that Mystery. But now I believe that I was confused about what I was looking for. Let me use an analogy here. I was looking for something like a trip to a great auditorium to see “The Mystery” in concert; but the Mystery really emerges more like the sound of a tune in one’s own imagination.