This is the blog of the minister of Tapestry Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Mission Viejo CA. Please note that sermons seen here were created primarily for preaching, not reading and they remain unedited. For more information about the church, please visit www.tapestryuu.org. Most importantly, this Blog exists to create conversation. Please comment on what you see here, or what you think is missing.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Sermon - "The Oversoul Today"
“The Oversoul Today”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
reminds me of one of my favorite hymns that we sing.
Voice still and small, deep inside
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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
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."
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
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.