DREAMS OF WALDEN POND
The Way of Liberal Religion
James Ishmael Ford
While the majority of my time these days is focused on the Zen project, Unitarian Universalism is a big part of who I am. One of the ways I keep in touch is through social media. In particular I belong to a large Facebook group for clergy. The other day one of the members of that august body asked the not quite rhetorical question, “Why should we study UU history?”
It generated a fair number of comments. One or two suggesting it wasn’t actually important at all. You, know, the Henry Ford line, “history is bunk.” With differing and some legitimate nuancing. You know, the victors writing it and all that. Most, however, fell into the, “Those who don’t know history, are doomed to repeat it,” camp. A few took the “Those who don’t know history, are doomed to repeat it, while those who do are doomed to stand by helplessly as it repeats” stance. Which, frankly, while there’s some truth to it, I found wandering into the weeds looking for a clever quip.
A couple of us took a rather different position. From that angle on the matter of history, and what history can mean for practitioners of liberal religion, and specifically Unitarian Universalists. I felt, “As a non-creedal community, our spirituality, our theologies, are found in looking at our history. This look includes what we’ve enshrined in our normative stories, and also those stories we’ve culled, but which seem to insist on being heard. The arc of our narrative and how we engage it is what we offer, and who we are.”
As for history itself, here we are today, the 9th of August. A date marked by many significant events. Among the biggest within that collection of events, this is the 75th anniversary following the destruction of Hiroshima a few days prior, of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. And with that the human species moving into the nuclear age. And with that a signal marker of our entering what many are calling the Anthropocene. It may have begun with agriculture, but, I suggest, that was a foreshadowing. In my book the Anthropocene definitely began with those two explosions in 1945. The second on this day.
But there are other things that legitimately claim our attention and imaginations. And should not to be lost. In antiquity this is the day that Julius Caesar defeated his last real rival, Pompey. In 1936 on this day Jesse Owens picked up his fourth gold medal at the Berlin Olympics, sticking his thumb into Hitler’s eye. In 1942 Mohandas Gandhi was, again, arrested. This time for his part in the passage of an All India Congress declaration of independence from Great Britain. And, it was on this day in 1974 that Richard Nixon signed his letter of resignation as president of the United States. The list goes on.
All these things are worthy for people to pause and reflect on. Most especially that terrible bombing of Nagasaki. But, for us today, I think it really important for us to notice how today is the 166th anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s masterwork, Walden:, or, Life in the Woods. The book recounted his experiment in radical simplicity. Probably today more often celebrated than read, it is significantly more than his account of his spiritual quest. It is fair to say Walden is the singular document of our Unitarian Universalist spiritual path.
I offer how Walden is one of the most important documents in the evolution of what scholars call “religious liberalism,” and mostly within Unitarian, Universalist, and now Unitarian Universalist circles, we call “liberal religion.” So, a dash of that history thing.
Religious liberalism can fairly be said to start with the European Enlightenment and is marked by personal liberty and a privileging of reason. Liberal religious currents influence most of mainstream Protestant and Anglican Christianity, much of American and European Judaism, some aspects of Islam, some important Hindu reform movements, and, really important for me, what is sometimes called Modernist Buddhism.
And in North America at the beginning of the Nineteenth century it would birth as Unitarianism and Universalism. Which, within one generation of that founding it would also birth Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalist movement was for most of America the beginning of a unique American literary and artistic flowering. it certainly was that. But in fact, those things flowed out of a heated spiritual controversy within Unitarianism and to a lesser degree Universalism.
For Unitarians, Universalists, and what would become Unitarian Universalism against that background of an emergent faith in freedom and reason, but now in practice for a generation, seeing its weaknesses, the Transcendentalists began to explore our human faculty of intuition and, most of all, turned our attention toward the natural world, toward nature. Some of it, like all human projects, would lead to dead ends. And. Some would lead to ancient wells flowing with life giving waters.
We tend sometimes to rely exclusively on freedom. And it’s important. But our history tells us we’re also about reason. And, there’s intuition. Critical, critical. And, we are repeatedly called back tto the natural world, and, our bodies. These bodies. And the body of the world.
From those explorations, who we are today followed, a mighty stream of human possibility. And, of the many figures involved in that project worthy of our attention, I personally find Henry Thoreau the most important. Okay, maybe pared with Theodore Parker. But that’s for another day.
Sometime in March of 1845, his friend the poet Ellery Channing famously advised him, “Go out… build yourself a hut, & there begin the grand process of devouring yourself alive. I see no other alternative, no other hope for you.” Few have given anyone better advice. In the rarest of confluences, Thoreau saw the wisdom in his friend’s suggestion, and acted on it, building himself that hut.
There are some who make light of the fact during his sojourn he was never actually far from home, camped out on property owned by his sometimes mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in fact frequently had dinner at his mother’s house. We can’t ignore how he was by no means a perfectly realized being. Shortcomings are revealed in many of those pages. His recounting of an incident with an Irish immigrant, and his prejudice, should leave a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who reads it, today.
But. And. Two magical words in our human condition. We, as another complicated person Walt Whitman said, contain multitudes. We find our wisdom in addition, not subtraction. And among those things our moment in history give, are shining lights on the failures. Sorting through what our ancestors said and did, warned by the worst aspects, and measuring ourselves against the best of what they offered, we are on our way to genuine wisdom. Here we find our spirituality, here we can find the north star for lives rooted in what, if we’re humble in our partial understanding, what we can call “the real.”
Certainly, those two years, two months and two days Thoreau spent on the edge of Walden pond generated a host of possibilities for us. He was enormously productive. During that time, he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merimack Rivers (considered to be unreadable by many…). More importantly, he penned the pamphlet we now know as On Civil Disobedience. Which I consider another major, major document for us as Unitarian Universalists. And he kept dairies that would be published on this day, the 9th of August, in 1854, as Walden; Or, a Life in the Woods.
Me, I consider Civil Disobedience, Walden, and an essay he wrote seven years after the publication of Walden, titled, Walking, three of the most important documents that flow out of our liberal religion. But for today, Walden.
The message of Walden is hard to boil down to a single word or phrase. Me, I believe with Walden we are given a handbook. And by we, I mean specifically those who gang up together under the umbrella of that most weird phrase, Unitarian Universalism.
However, Thoreau himself summarized the spirit of that book when he wrote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
And, to some amazing extent, he did. There was meanness. But. That but again. That, and, again. He also found the sublime.
While I believe he described his principal spiritual practice in the essay, Walking, in Walden he describes what I believe to be a wonderful and straightforward accounting of the practice of presence, which I consider critical to any authentic spiritual path.
I “sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in reverie amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solidtude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine.”
In Zen this would be called samadhi. My friend the brain researcher, Zen practitioner, and not incidentally, Unitarian Universalist, James Austin writes, “A slippery topic, Samadhi. A word so many-sided that it poses major semantic problems. It suffers in translation, as will anyone who tries to tag it with but one meaning. Some render it as “concentration,” others as “absorption,” still others as “trance,” “stillness,” “collectiveness,” etc.”
For me the point is that this mysterious state, rich in human possibility, rich for framing our lives within the mysteries of the natural world, the, if you will, real, is common to the human condition. It is perhaps better unpacked in the literature of Zen. But Henry Thoreau captured it in his experience, and tells us what it looks like experienced within our liberal religious tradition.
And, most importantly, invites us to find it for ourselves.
Just as true, within our liberal religion, these experiences of interiority, of the sublime silence, and the peace beyond all understanding that it can bring, we also, out of that place, that experience, find ourselves called into the world.
So, it’s important to note how the writer of that naturalist mystical treatise, Walden, the author of a handbook of an authentic spiritual discipline for religious liberals, Walking, was also the author of a treatise that would shape figures as significant in our world’s history as Mohandas Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr: On Civil Disobedience.
As we come to know our history, the bigger history, the one that includes the stories of the victors, and digs among the shadows for the stories of those lost and left behind, things emerge. Direction is found.
And so, here we are, on the anniversary of the publication of one of our Unitarian Universalist spiritual classics, Walden.
Which is also the anniversary of one of the most powerful and terrible and turning events of our human history, the atomic bombing of two cities in Japan. We were in a terrible war. And, me, as I listen to the stories of the victims of the bombings, and the victims of the war, as I count the great losses and the “what if’s” of it all, I find a certain hesitation.
Not knowing, said a wise person, is most intimate.
Part of facing into the real, is knowing we only ever see in part. We always see through that famous glass darkly.
And, that does not excuse us from the moment. Babies are to be fed. Beds are to be made. Work is to be done. Life is to be lived.
And as we must live, as we must choose, what I find is that by looking to the guidance of our ancestors, especially as religious liberals, looking to Henry Thoreau, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, wise Elizabeth, and Theodore Parker, blessed Theodore, I get pointers for how I can walk, how I can engage.
And so can you.
No one knows how the Anthropocene will play out. It doesn’t look particularly promising. But. But. But we are given tools to engage, both our own hearts, and this world.
And because of that, me, I feel both anxious, and hopeful.
Anyone offering you pat answers, is lying. But anxious and hopeful. Well…
Anxious, well you can see why. The real world is not all peaches and cream. Hopeful, because there are peaches and cream. And, also, we have been given important pointers for lives that are worthy.
Freedom. Reason. Intuition. Embodiment. And all of it as natural as natural can be. The call of liberal religion, the substance of Unitarian Universalism.
Within that hopeful, first, a call to see ourselves fully within this natural world. We are intertwined with everyone and everything. We don’t belong somewhere else. And, second, we have tools to dig into that truth, to know it for ourselves, which becomes a compass pointing us to our true north.
To the wise heart.
And the way of the wise heart.
(The image is a bust of HD Thoreau by Walton Ricketson. You can get your own copy and support the Walden Woods Project into the bargain!)