The Holiness of All Things
April 18, 2021 | Sarah Stewart
Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of our Unitarian heroes. And he said so many wonderful things and began so many ideas that we still treasure and carry with us today, it's right that he is one of our heroes and one of our treasured forebears. Even if we might not today agree with everything he said, so many of the values that he explored in his writings are still values that we champion today, the spiritual connection to nature, which we just heard in those passages, the wisdom he drew from the world religions. Emerson read the Bhagavad Gita and was one of the first American intellectuals to study the Quran, and to recognize that the world's religions held as much truth as Christianity. And he took liberal values out of the church and into the public square. He began his career as a Unitarian minister, but after the death of his first wife, when he was still a young man, he left the ministry and became a lecturer, and Emerson's lectures were overwhelmingly popular, many more people heard him speak and heard the values that he espoused as a lecturer then I think would have heard him as a minister for what that's worth. But he didn't support a lot of established institutions, he wasn't sure about the benefit of an institutional church like this one. And he didn't think about the benefits those institutions provide to support people and to create community to help us do good in the world. Emerson's religion was very individual, very personal, very much about the triumph of the individual in the world and tapping into those individual powers in order to make the most of one's lifetime, to make the most of every day and every possibility. You can actually see this in one of his famous speeches in the Divinity School Address, just two years after he wrote Nature. He had already left the ministry, but he was called on by his alma mater, Harvard Divinity School in 1838, to speak to the graduating class of ministers, most of whom, if not all of whom were going into the Unitarian ministry. And in this speech, he tells these young men, and they were all men at that time, he tells these young men to get directly at the heart of life and at the heart of divinity. yourself newborn bards of the Holy Ghost appointment, at first hand with deity. In other words, don't get hung up on the forms of church, don't be too rigid and too formal. Get the chaff out of the way. and give people directly the bread of life, which is the direct connection to God, and we still have that as one of our sources for our Unitarian Universalist faith today.
What Juliet and Abby have been sharing with the children this year, that direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, Emerson wanted everybody to have that experience. So, in the Divinity School Address he tells a story about how he was at church one Sunday, and he says “I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say that I would go to church, no more, a snowstorm was falling around us, the snowstorm was real. The preacher merely spectral and I felt the sad contrast and looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow, in other words, the preacher was boring. And the snowstorm, was the real evidence of God at work in the world”. We preachers do take that as a caution, even today, we ought to be more interesting than the snowstorm. But that preacher who Emerson was making fun of, he might not have been a good preacher, but he was a good minister. He was well known as a wonderful pastor who took care of his parish, who was a comfort at the bedside, who welcomed babies and did funerals and tended to the needs of his people. And that was exactly the part of ministry that Emerson did not himself like, he didn't like that he needed to visit his parish, he didn't like the parts of the ministry that weren't sitting in his study, and going for walks, and writing about it. It's probably just as well that he left to become a lecturer. So, Emerson struck out on his own, because he wanted to acquaint people at firsthand with Deity and because he had this belief in the power of the individual to do just that. He wanted people to recognize in themselves the capacity to know God in the snowstorm, and the forest, and the ocean, and the desert plain. And perhaps this is one of Emerson's greatest gifts to us, even today, because we need to connect our souls to the soul of nature, to recognize that we are one with the natural world and that the spirit of divinity moves through all living things. But if we want to connect our soul with the soul of nature, we must also be humble. We are not Lords of creation, but we are part of the natural world. It is through humility that we will live in harmony with one another and with the earth. And COVID has certainly taught us this lesson. This year has been a lesson in humility, when we have taken refuge in our haughtiness, and thought that we were apart from nature during this pandemic. It's driven people to some of the worst moments in the pandemic. when we are haughty in our humanity. When people deride other cultures for their practices, people act as though they individually cannot get sick, they downplay illness. They think of themselves as a person alone, separate from others, and they value individual freedom more than the safety of everybody. And those actions have led people to become ill, and have led to the spread of this illness, and have led to more than 500,000 deaths in this country. The hard lesson we have learned is the lesson of humility in the face of nature. We are part of nature and not above it. We are of a nature to become sick as Buddhism affirms, we coexist with animals, with viruses, with viruses which we catch from animals and share with each other, because we too are animals in our humility, we recognize that COVID is a dangerous and deadly disease. And that every person who has become ill and who has died, has been our family member, our friend, or coworker, our neighbor, part of our living community, no better or worse than ourselves. One of our natural gifts as humans is understanding nature and our place in it, it's that ability to observe the world while being in and part of the world. So, it's our humility that has led us to understand COVID, and how to stay safe, and also has led scientists to understand the biology of the virus and create effective vaccines. That kind of work can't be done in opposition to nature. It's done through respect and understanding of nature. We are part and parcel of the natural world, working with and as part of the natural systems of all life, these have been hard won lessons in COVID. The lesson that really was necessary for us to quarantine and isolate ourselves from one another, to avoid doing the things we loved in order to stay safe. But we have learned some of those lessons and the vaccines are an amazing outcome. If we had the humility of recognizing our connection to nature, that could help us face other problems in our society as well, as we emerge from the COVID crisis.
Our nation is facing the epidemic of violence that has too long plagued America, especially the epidemic of guns. And this spring. After a 25-year hiatus, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control, have once again been given funding to study gun violence, as though it is an epidemic. To look at gun violence as a public health problem and to allow that research to drive policy change. In 1996, this kind of research was being done, and it began to show, that homes that had guns in the house; that suicide and children's deaths were much more likely. And at that moment, the National Rifle Association reared up its head and said, “oh no, if that's what the science is going to tell us, then we can't have any more science about gun violence”, and that research has been stopped for 25 years. But this March, I think $25 million dollars has been allocated, just a drop in the bucket, but a beginning, to study gun violence. And these scientists say that it's not a choice between keeping guns and preventing gun violence, that this research will show us how people can safely own guns, and the levels of violence can go down. Politicians consider a lot of policy changes, and this research can show us what might work. Early results show that expanding background checks really does make a difference. That waiting periods for gun purchases reduce both suicide and violent crime. And that requiring guns to be safely stored at home reduces injuries and deaths among children and young people.
This is understanding our connection to nature, it's saying it's not all about the individual right to do whatever they want to be greater than everybody else, to have something that protects us from everybody else as though other people are a threat. It's not about one person's domination of the world. It's about understanding that we are part of the world and part of nature and that we behave like living beings, and that there are things we can do to preserve life and well-being, even while allowing people to own guns safely. It's the same with the ecological crisis, to face this challenge, we must work with nature and not against it. It's not about saying “well I'm going to get mine, I'm going to use up all the resources I can, because I can, I'm going to burn oil now and never mind the future generations.” Respecting nature recognizes that we are part of the earth and that our current path will make this planet uninhabitable and deeply unpleasant for human beings and society. Respecting nature means renewable energy. It means the next generation of nuclear power. It means recognizing the value that natural resources provide and pricing them into goods and services. It means retraining our economy to value conservation over consumption. Back in 1836, Ralph Waldo Emerson in expounding on the benefits of nature, he did not quite see people as simply part of the natural world. And this is where I have to disagree with him, and I hope that we as a faith tradition can move beyond his teachings. Emerson wrote that the human will learns through its encounters with nature, that the person can have dominion over the world, nature is thoroughly mediate, Emerson wrote, it is made to serve, it receives the dominion of man as meekly as the donkey on which the Savior rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material which he may mold into what is useful. This is where we need to move further than our forbear. The world is not there to submit to our will, to give in to our dominion, to be whatever we want it to be. The world is there as our sibling, as our companion, as our partner in the project of life. We do our best work as human beings when we recognize that, and act through humility and respect of the natural world. When we recognize that each and every one of us is part of the natural world, then we don't fight against it. We're not separate, or above. Everything we do will yield to science. All our behavior is natural and depends upon the earth through nature. We have become ill, and through nature we overcome illness, through nature we know violence, and through nature, as thinking humans, we can reduce violence through nature, we are part of the earth, and through nature, we will live in harmony with the earth. Nowhere is separate. All is one. All is holy.
I love you all. Amen.