Thursday, June 28, 2018

My Lecture on the Transcendental Movement

                             [picture source]

My UU church is very interactive. They have us do readings or talks on the topic we are doing that Sunday. I have enjoyed my time there very much, even on an intellectual level it is quite wonderful. I was assigned doing a talk on the "Transcendental Movement". What's odd about this is I loved a lot about transcendentalism as a young UU, though Christians led me to temporarily reject it's precepts. I would feel some awe in nature and think "Oh no!" but there's aspects of it, I believe never left me. This was the short talk I wrote and gave. These are the notes. We are assigned 3-5 minutes for the timing and asked to make our examination of the topic "personal".

When I was young and in high school, I read Henry David Thoreau's book "Walden". This was probably my early introduction to transcendentalism. This book made quite an impression on me. His individualism while a negative to many people was not to me. I realized in some ways I resonated with his ideas and of wanting to go his own way. He was not the type to let the crowd dictate what he should do with his life. He taught following idealism and one's intuition. These were all things that appealed to me.

Here is a quote from that book.

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”

Transcendentalism. Most people don't even know what the word means. I actually learned what it was, when I went to **********in ***********[my state] around the age of 18 and learned about the transcendental movement influencing the Unitarian Universalist church. Many of its values resonated with me, not depending on established authority, relying on experience, and seeking out meaning in things including nature.

It described in some ways who I was. Later my spiritual journey would take me another direction but I would definitely return to these earlier foundations. I was an art ed major in college, but also had an extreme fascination with spirituality. Some may have called me a "seeker". Maybe some would have called me pretentious, but during this time in life, I studied religion too on the top floor of the ********* [my college] library during rare free moments and read the Bhagavad Gita as well as other religious writings.

Today we live in a society that is very math and science oriented and I believe both have their place but I am no good at math. I went into art. Art was a huge part of my spiritual seeking, and of my life. While I rejected those who claimed to have all the concrete answers in religion leaving my family's Catholic church, the same can apply to life. We live in a society that is growing more and more "technocratic" and "materialistic". People just want to deal with the numbers. They think in a linear fashion instead of a big picture. The forest is not seen for the trees. Life is cut down into pieces of data and being a human and meaning is lost. The transcendentalists, provided an alternative kind of life. In losing what they were trying to tell us there has been a corruption of the human condition. There are things to live that go beyond what numbers and lab graphs can tell us. The transcendentalists were showing us a way that has been too departed from today.

Transcendentalists believe in individualism. They believed in thinking for yourself despite the rules of a society. Thoreau wrote on "Civil Disobedience". In going beyond human traditions and authority from on high, the transcendentalists opened the door for individuals to stand up for what they believed in. Even today our protests against racism and various oppression in society are centered in ideas of civil disobedience. Most of human society had always emphasized conformity but Transcendentalists paved the way for individualism. While some think they over stressed the idea of self-reliance, the power of the individual guided America at least in our earlier history to be a place where the rights of the individual became important. I was the type of person who always asked "Why". I didn't want to conform just for the sake of conformity.
Art was a way, I practiced a lot of transcendentalism. My foray into evangelicalism for a time did not help my art. I felt like doing art was rebellion always when it came to those who taught simplistic answers to life.  Romanticism in art was a movement that would become very connected to the transcendental movement and is where emotion, imagination, and freedom from social conventions would become important. In many ways this movement would pave the way for modern art as we know it today.  Transcendentalists sought to seek out the soul in art.

Another way was nature. Transcendentalists believed in living close to nature. Thoreau definitely advanced this in his book Walden. That was another way that book spoke to me. I came out of a family that rejected me for all these ideas, they were people only interested in business and the here and now.

Spirituality and nature were intertwined for the transcendentalist. Emerson wrote about finding the sublime in nature. All my life, I had this attraction to nature and the outdoors. I worked at a camp and liked being outside as much as my health allowed. The nature center is a place of peace for me, and I like to collect rocks, especially geodes

Transcendentalists believed in seeking out life as it really was outside human social constructs, in nature and finding meaning there. During my time in evangelicalism, I noticed how nature was just an instrument for man to control and dominate, it lost beauty in that realm. I felt divided even in my early years in evangelicalism as I used to do some environmentally based volunteer work. I had a lot of cognitive dissonance in this area. Fundamentalist preachers would always go on about nature-worshipers and how "bad" they were. What did they mean? Why were they bad? Even while in I had thoughts like, "Aren't we part of nature?"
I was made to feel guilty for my propensity for it, now I am not of course. There was a narcissism to those who felt it was man's job to destroy the earth and that God would just give us a new one. I couldn't tolerate that anymore. When I filled some holes in my science education and read a book called "The Ends of the World" by Peter Brannen, and learned of the 6 epochs scientists had studied, I realized how limited the evangelical world view was on multiple levels. Mankind was simply one form of life that had arose, the earth itself had been filled with what many would have seen as "alien" life right here if they went back enough millions of years ago. 
Star Trek's theories of life in the universe seemed closer to reality then a 6,000 year old earth or one that had been created for only man's benefit and usage. To be frank, study of science can bring more awe, in many facets. Learning the sheer number of galaxies out there showed me how limited evangelical answers were for the world. The Hubble Space Telescope showed scientists there were at least 100 billion galaxies out there in space. They knew this number would advance with technology, we were only seeing a certain percentage of the galaxy. One astrophysicist named Christopher Conselice,  University of Nottingham, in 2017 estimated the number of galaxies to be around the 2 trillion mark.

Keep in mind transcendentalism arose, as natural sciences came to the forefront and discoveries were being made. There's a reason this philosophy arose as human knowledge increased past what scripture and written ancient revelation had described the world.  In  a way the transcendentalists were attempting to express the human poetry and art of science discoveries. One can ponder the fact and number of 2 trillion galaxies, but think about what that means in a transcendental sense, the sheer vastness. Emerson said, "But if man would be alone look at the stars."


  1. Very interesting. I can see you must have been a good teacher.

    1. Thanks I appreciate it. :) I used to have to explain complex art topics at times, so maybe that experience helped with this later.