Monday, May 21, 2012

Sermon - "The Oversoul Today"

“The Oversoul Today”
         “The Oversoul” is one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous essays. He covers a tremendous amount of theology in it. Maybe even more amazing than the ideas he presents poetic way that he manages to present them. It is beautiful and inspiring language that any religious leader would aspire to. But admittedly that language is a little dated, and a little dense for today’s reader. So as we focus on Transcendence as our theme of worship this month, I thought it would be fun to dive into this great essay, and explore it for our lives today.
         One of the reasons this essay is so prominent is that it encapsulates the beliefs of the religious movement called Transcendentalism.  But I’m especially interested in it because what he says seems to still stand as the core Unitarian Universalist belief today. Emerson used more traditional Christian language, but as you will hear, even within that language, his ideas about God and religion pushed the envelope, even for today’s American religious life.
         In very broad terms, the essay is about the human soul, and a unifying divine force that Emerson called, the oversoul. There are four very clear topics that he covers. I want to talk about each one of those today, about how Emerson understood them, and how we might understand them. The areas he covers are, take a deep breath with me, 1) the existence and nature of the human soul, 2) the relationship between the soul and the personal ego, 3) the relationship of one human soul to another, and 4) the relationship of the human soul to God. I told you he covered a lot. I want to talk about these ideas one at a time and hopefully give you a taste of what Emerson was thinking.

The existence and nature of the human soul:
         For Emerson the existence of the soul was self-evident. You can see its reality across cultures and throughout time, because the soul is that part of human beings that longs for a deeper connection. It is the universal religious impulse, the piece of us that responds with awe and wonder, the thing that draws us out of our individual self and self-interest into a broader relationship with the world as a whole.
         As I said before, Emerson used much more traditional language than we do as Unitarian Universalists today. I know many of you are squirming at the use of the word soul. Personally I find the concept of a soul, at least in the traditional Christian sense to be really unhelpful. But that’s what is so magical about this essay. Emerson, writing in 1841 was talking about something much more compelling than the popular use of the word in America today.
         Our thoughts have been so pervaded by Christian religion and culture that we think of soul as a sort of ghostly eternal existence of the individual person.  Emerson’s concept of the soul is, believe it or not, much more influenced by Eastern religion than our own. Along with other progressive religious leaders, Emerson was an avid reader of the sacred texts of Hinduism. And the influence of the East is nowhere more apparent than in his description of the human soul. For Emerson, the soul wasn’t the ghostly unique personality of an individual; it was a piece of the divine that is in each person. The soul then, was something that was the same in each person, it was part and parcel of the same energy that animates the universe. It’s not a separate personal identity, the soul is the bedrock for our connection with the rest of creation.
         Emerson’s understanding of the soul is the seat of our first Principle as Unitarian Universalists. It is about the inherent worth and dignity of every person. There is something within each person, a piece of the sacred that is not earned, it is not spoken, and is the same in each one of us. Emerson pretty boldly used the word soul, and I appreciate that. But to understand his concept today you can just as easily talk about each person’s humanity, their potential, whatever it is that is innate in each person that gives them worth and dignity.
         Though we should be clear that this seed or soul, or whatever you choose to call it, is not dependent on the individual will. It is not part of an action or even intellectual activity. It is innate to each of us.
         It reminds me of one of my favorite hymns that we sing.

Voice still and small, deep inside all,
I hear you call, singing.
In storm and rain, sorrow and pain,
still we’ll remain singing.
Calming my fears, quenching my tears,
through all the years, singing.

The relationship between the soul and the personal ego:
         It was very clear to Emerson that we each have a soul, a still small voice in each one of us. So what does that mean for us as individuals? How does the presence of that soul affect our lives?
         Well, just like we heart in the children’s story earlier [“All I See Is Part of Me”], and as Emerson most likely got from the classical Greek philosophy, the soul that is in each of us holds tremendous possibility to illuminate our lives. We have in each of us, a piece of eternity, a piece of the sacred. The task then, is to get into better contact with that piece of ourselves.
         I said earlier that Emerson’s idea of the soul was very influenced by Hinduism. The way we respond to that soul is very much in line with Buddhism. The great task in our lives is to move beyond focusing on our personal ego to see the truer self that lies beneath. Personal ego, all of the stuff that we typically think of as our identity, our bodies, our achievements, our intellects, even our your actions toward others. All of the trappings of your personal identity actually impair you from seeing and experiencing the most important part of yourself, your soul.
         I think the hymn that we know well, that best speaks to this piece of Emerson’s thought is “This Little Light of Mine.” Our task is to let that light that resides in each of us shine forth, a light of truth and compassion. The great task of religious life is to keep our personal egos and pride out of the way long enough for that light of truth and compassion to become the driving force of our lives. It’s no easy task, but it is what we are called to.
         Emerson argued that this was actually the point of all meaningful personal reform movements. I don’t know if you are aware of this, but Unitarians have ALWAYS been in the business of bettering themselves, doing what they can to improve society and generally living a life of integrity. This sort of self-development focus is in our religious DNA. According to Emerson, the real goal or those improvement efforts, is to allow for our souls to become more manifest in our daily lives. And when we can manage to do that, our lives are transformed.
         Not only are our lives improved in a sort of personal growth way, they are actually transformed. The sort of change that occurs when we really listen to our soul, is of a different magnitude. It’s not a sense of growth in just one aspect of our life that is achieved, but rather a transformation of our whole person. It is like the metamorphosis of a butterfly. We are not just growing, but fundamentally changing our whole being. When we truly tap into deeper truths through our soul, it’s not an expansion of intellect or ethics, or just an expansion of our compassion or any other singular type of growth. When we come to listen to our soul, when we are able to let that little light shine, our whole person is transformed, mind, body, heart and all.

         You have heard me often use one of my favorite quotes from Emerson. “It behooves us to be careful what we are worshiping. For what we are worshiping we are becoming.” I feel now like I have a much better sense of the importance Emerson placed on the focus of our worship. He saw tremendous potential in each person, the seed of truth, the soul that could come to its full glory when given the right circumstances and nurtured in the right ways.
The relationship of one human soul to another:
         So each of us has a soul and that soul is instrumental in the way we develop as people. It is also critical in the way we build relationships with one another. Emerson talks a bit about the relationship of one human soul to another. Fist is the most obvious, the point that we make clearly every Sunday here. It is about the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Everyone has a soul, a piece of the divine, a spark of potential, the possibility for human compassion within them. But, the sad truth is that it’s not always easy to see that soul. It’s either because that person has so much in the way, blocking their inner light. Or, just as likely, because we have so much in the way blocking our own ability to see it.
         You see Emerson argues, and I have to again agree, it is the soul in us that is able and willing to recognize the soul in others. There is a sort of mutually reinforcing power when people join together in community, at least when they are brave enough to be real with one another. Our souls gravitate toward one another and bring one another out of hiding, if we allow it, if we encourage it. In this way it matters deeply who we spend our time with and how we spend it. Being in real community allows us to better bring our true selves into fruition, and it allows us to practice seeing the souls of other people around us.
          Our souls are enriched by the communion with other souls. That’s not to say that every encounter with every person feeds us. Quite often what we see, what we are allowed to see in another isn’t a soul but a show. Fortunately we have an internal B.S. detector. That’s my description, not Emerson’s. The core of our being is attuned to be attracted to other people’s soul. And we innately know the real thing when we see it. The real soul I mean. A person’s soul is not proven by material things, physical characteristics, boasting, great intellect, or even remarkable ethical life. It is a channeling of truth so apparent that we can’t help but recognize it. And coming in contact with a real soul reveals all of those other means of self-aggrandizement as the façade that they are.

         Relation of the soul to God:
         So the soul is instrumental in the way that we relate to one another, and it is instrumental in the way that we relate to God. That’s because, the soul is part of God in each person. Rather than that ghostly personality that we so often think of when we describe “soul,” Emerson thought of it as something more universal, a piece of the divine, a spark that rests in each person.
         Again, Emerson is using the Christian language of his time and place. You can just as easily use truth, beauty or humanity to embrace this concept. I told you earlier that Emerson was deeply influence by Hinduism. Nowhere is that more true than in his understanding of the soul’s relationship to God, or the fact that in each of us lives a little spark of the divine. One of the most famous passages of the Bhagadvad-Gita, the sacred Hindu text, illustrates the idea perfectly.

         A father tells his son, “Place this salt in water and come to me tomorrow morning."
Svetaketu did as he was commanded, and in the morning his father said to him: "Bring me the salt you put into the water last night."

         Svetaketu looked into the water, but could not find it, for it had dissolved. His father then said: "Taste the water from this side. How is it?"
"It is salt' "
"Taste it from the middle. How is it?" "It is salt."
"Taste it from that side. How is it?" "It is salt."

         "Look for the salt again, and come again to me."
The son did so, saying: "I cannot see the salt. I only see water."
His father then said: "In the same way, O my son, you cannot see the spirit. But in truth it is there. An invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is Reality. That is Truth. THOU ARE THAT!"

         In Hinduism and in Emerson’s faith, each one of us is filled with the spirit of God. The truth that resounds in the entire Universe is also in us, it is what makes up our being. I find that idea enthralling. You however may find it kookie. So, let me put it in terms of today’s Unitarian Universalism.
         We talk a lot about the interdependent web of all existence. It’s an undeniable reality of life. Strangely, for Unitarian Universalists that interdependent web means several different things – love and compassion, ecological connection, draw to social justice. Whatever the interdependent web means to you, you plug into that web in a particular way. If it is ecological then it is about your body. If it is about compassion then it is your emotional self, if it is about service then it is your actions. Whatever that point is that connects you to the rest of the web, wherever, however you feel most connected, that point is worth some serious focus and study. Because that is the point within yourself that probably has the most to teach you.
         For Emerson, the soul was the seat of the divine in each person, it was the universal spark that we all shared and that was be plugged into the web. For you the soul may or may not be the spot of connection. But if you get nothing else from today’s worship service, I want it to be this. That piece of you that makes you feel most connected to the rest of the Universe is special. It is the seat of your religious life. Find that spot where you plug in and cherish, because it has endless lessons to teach you.

         We have covered so many ideas today. And there is much, much more in this one short essay that I would love to share with you. If you can’t tell I sort of fell in love with Emerson this week. But before I wrap up, I want to boil this who thing down to a few key ideas.
         First and foremost, there is a light and source of goodness that rests within each of us. And, the greatest task, perhaps of your life, is to let that true light shine. Remember, everyone else shares that same light, whether or not they know it, and whether or not you can see it. Everyone else has that same spark within them. When you are able to connect soul to soul, light to light with another person something magical happens and the world is enriched. So be brave when you can, and share your light to give other people the courage to do the same. 
         And remember that that piece of you that feels connected to the world, Emerson called it the soul, you may call it something else. But that piece of you that feels connected to the world is the foundation for religious life. Spend some time there and explore that connection. It holds a tremendous lessons that can transform your life.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this. As you know I was deeply affected by the writings of the Transcendental Movement while a student of UC Santa Cruz. I find it sometimes hard and challenging to embrace this value structure/philosophy in 21st century culture without feeling like an outcast. It is precisely this which I wish to express in my art. Thanks for this sermon and affirmation of values I feel very strongly about. Peace...