Read up on the Transcendentalists of the 19thcentury–they were an amazing group. Many of them started out in the Unitarian Church, a powerful force within the Christian community at the time, but they rejected the churchy-ness of the Unitarians in favor of what Emerson called “self-reliance.” This did not mean what you might think: self-sufficiency, individualism. No, what he meant was getting in touch with God by looking into your own heart and trusting your instincts, your daemon as Socrates would have said. He believed that intuition would teach us the way, that each of us has God within us, and by relying on that God, that Guide, that Moral Compass we will get in touch with the “Oversoul,” the Universal Spirit. This Spirit is God, and by getting in touch with it, each individual will connect with all other individuals who have gotten in touch with it, and will become part of a new world, a world of peace, a world where we all share in a morality free from the hidebound strictures of organized religion, and instead are part of a brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, devoted to the Spirit.
That is exactly what the Universal Sacraments are about, and Emerson’s impatience with traditional Christianity is mirrored today with the rise of the Nones, those spiritual seekers who can’t seem to find God in a pulpit or pew and are looking elsewhere–or have given up.
Don’t give up! The Transcendentalists have some good suggestions for Seekers, but let’s talk about the hard parts. There are two. One is to convince people, especially those who have grown up with a faith in their traditional religion that it’s possible to walk away from the customs and rules and– let’s say it–superstitions they grew up with in favor of Emerson’s self-reliance. If you’ve been told since birth that God is out there, a father figure with a pat on the back or a good sound whipping at the ready depending on how you’ve marched to his commandments, well, then it may not be so easy to open your mind to another view.
The second thing is even trickier: how do you look within and know that what you’ve found is the real deal, and not some misguided, youthful misreading of the moral compass? Are you finding true north or are you off the path, the result of some magnetic interference from an attractive slag heap of nonsense? Sexual intimacy is one such instinctive attraction–but that could lead to promiscuity. Is that OK? We are instinctively drawn to groups, and that’s a good thing, but are all groups equally good? A group like the white supremacists would likely say their intuition tells them they are on the right track. How do we know they’re not right?
The transcendentalists believed that the whole point of using intuition was to “transcend” our animalistic tendencies and find our higher selves. But Nature was one of the transcendentalists’ great teachers and if we look there for guidance, we find the most horrible examples of predators and prey. Should that be our guide or would it instead be that awful feeling many of us get when we think about slaughtering an animal for meat? Should we all be vegans?
To take this question to its most extreme, how do you distinguish a good instinct from insanity? There are men out there who claim that God told them to murder someone. Members of ISIS committed what most of us would call atrocities, but they could find justification for it. Some Christian in this country believe it is right to kill a doctor performing abortions. We could go on and on. The point is, intuitions, which produce beliefs, aren’t all alike. Is there any way to generalize and find points in common with every human being? This is where the idea of the Seven Universal Sacraments can be helpful. More on that next time.