The Movement Attacks the Establishment

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“If a man doesn’t delight in himself and the force in him and feel that he and it are wonders, how is all life to become important to him?” – Sherwood Anderson  (women, too.)

A good quote for an Easter humanist.  This morning I go into Groveland UU (Unitarian-Universalist) where the conversation will focus either on transcendentalism or on my presentation, Thinking Like a Transcendentalist.  I say either because I’m going to give them a choice, listen to my prepared presentation or have a free form conversation about transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism’s connection to UU history tore at the fabric of the Unitarian break with Christianity when it emerged.  Unitarian and Universalist problems with Christianity came from the Enlightenment push of reason against the Trinity on the one hand and Calvinist notions of original sin on the other.  This conflict resulted first in the fracture of New England Congregational churches into two camps, one orthodox Christian, the other newly Unitarian.  Around the same time Universalist churches popped up here and there with a message of universal salvation to counter the notion of total depravity offered by staunch Reformed church dogma.

The transcendentalists were of the opinion that neither the U’s nor the U’s had gone far enough in their challenge to the prevailing religious and commercial establishment.   Terming this solid front of New England rectitude, the Establishment, was an Emersonian pun, in itself an affront to the (false) notion of permanence they claimed.  Against the establishment, Emerson and his merry band of pranksters, whom he called the Transcendentalist Movement, threw charge after charge.  

Theodore Parker, abolitionist and minister of the 23rd Street Unitarian meeting, championed the new higher criticism of the bible just beginning to cross the Atlantic from its birthplace in Germany.  This criticism placed holy scripture under the light of reasoned analysis checking translation against ancient texts, investigating interpolations of meaning from biased authors, making clear the various contradictions and conundrums the texts created rather than “harmonizing” them as was the practice of the time.

Got back from this around 1:30 PM.  They chose the conversation about Transcendentalism.  I gave an extemporaneous capsule of the intellectual history behind transcendentalism, its history and affect on the Unitarian church and its longer lasting affect on American philosophy (pragmatism) and American literature during which we discussed the impact of Emerson, Thoreau, Thedore Parker, Margaret Fuller and Orestes Brownson.

Whitman and Emily Dickinson were our first poets, though far from the last, to observe Emerson’s idea that a poems content should determine its meter and that matter observed in daily life was appropriate for that content.  You can even see the transcendentalist affect in some one as far away from metaphysics as Hemingway, whose stark, realistic prose works hard to recreate the lived experience. 

A primary aim of the Transcendentalists was to create and stimulate an American as opposed to a European literature and scholarship.  They succeeded with stunning results.

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