Nature, Spirituality and Paradox in New England Transcendentalism
The Contemplative Column by Theodore Richards
Nature and Culture
New England has always been a special place for me. Having grown up on the east coast, it was a place for my family to go for a touch of the wild. And, at the same time, it was—for America at least—so old and so cultured. Summer trips to Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire were my earliest experience of semi-wild spaces. Later, as a young adult, I lived from August to December in the Berkshires, staying in an isolated commune on the side of a mountain. In many ways, I can trace my rediscovery of the wild to those four, pivotal months. But, again, we were never far from culture—Williams college was minutes away; we saw Noam Chomsky speak at another nearby university. It is this juxtaposition, perhaps, of wilderness and culture that gives New England a unique place in American spirituality. Indeed, the dynamic tension between these two elements of human experience is fundamental to human spirituality, to the way we put together our world and our selves.
Out of this milieu, unique traditions in American spirituality have arisen, in particular the Transcendentalists. More broadly, the Transcendentalists can be placed in the context of the movement known as Romanticism, a philosophical and artistic movement that pushed back against the dualism of the Enlightenment. Nature and self are seen as unified—the self as a microcosm of the whole of Nature; Nature as an expression of the divine.
Foremost among the Transcendentalists was Emerson. Deeply influenced both by the woods of his New England boyhood and by the Eastern texts he’d been exposed to, particularly the Upanisads, Emerson writes in his seminal work, Nature:
Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.
It is this direct experience of the divine through nature and the expansive notion of self—beyond the shrunken down consumer of the modern capitalist self—that typifies the movement known as New England Transcendentalism.
Emerson articulates a true American mysticism, one that combines rigorous intellectualism with direct experience, thorough theology with ecological embeddedness. In his famous Harvard Divinity School address, he tells the graduates to “go alone” and to “refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” Essentially describing formal religious services as a waste of time, he declares, “Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate.” And the notion that only Jesus Christ was by nature divine he called a “perversion.” This would be radical stuff today; in 1838, it was unheard of. The divine, for Emerson, was found in self and cosmos, in the beauty that one could experience all around.
It was Henry David Thoreau, another New Englander and Emerson’s contemporary, who turned these ideas into living art, connecting religious philosophy to a pursuit of justice in the world and, in his simple life at Walden, a new way of living and being in the world. He writes:
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