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Legacy of Transcendentalism: Religion and Philosophy

Heaven on Earth: the Legacy of 19th Century Transcendentalism as an Ecumenical Philosophy of Nature

Meg Brulatour, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1999

Introduction  19th Century Transcendentalism Native American Tradition Judaism
Overview Christianity Buddhism Bibliography


I have taken one of the several advantages of a Web page format: although all these pages make up a whole, the short essays which outline the environmental point of view of various religions and compare their outlook to that of 19th century Transcendentalism, can be read in any order. It is helpful, but not necessary, to read the section on the evolution of 19th century Transcendentalism prior to looking at the pages for each religion. The Overview of General Perspectives outlines the paper's purpose and direction, explaining the three perspectives shared by each religion.

It will be obvious that I have not attempted to differentiate sects, types, and/or branches within these major religions or practices. For instance, Christianity and Native American Tradition each encompass scores of beliefs that differ yet reside comfortably under the umbrella headings I've listed; the degree of variance is infinite, ranging from slight differences of opinion on minor items to dramatic opposition over major points. I believe these differences are a matter of perception and not perspective; my concept is explained in the Overview below. In outlining the generalities of each religion's attitude toward environmental responsibility--all of them share the general position that the problems are cultural, not political--I fully expect the occasional exception; I am content to presume that such exceptions will prove the rule and so do not deal with that problem in these pages. I have tried to give a brief and (once again) general overview on the ecological theory and sense of environmental responsibility each religion supports; however, I am not a theologian nor an expert on any of these religions. In no way should my remarks or observations be construed as criticism of any practice. Beyond what are clearly my own deductions or opinions, I have relied on the words of respected theologians or religious leaders to explain their religion's environmental stance. My sources say nothing about Transcendentalism specifically, although some do mention the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau; these men, especially Thoreau, may be more readily remembered today as 19th century nature writers than as champions of Transcendentalism. It is my conclusion--although the sentiment is expressed precisely only by Dr. Schorsch in his comments on Judaism--that, excepting the Native American Tradition, the religions discussed here do not wish to be viewed as "natural" religions whose members "commune" with nature. They view such connotation negatively. The conclusions regarding the similarities (or lack thereof) between the 19th century American Transcendentalist philosophies and those of the various religions are my own.

Throughout these pages, I use the word "religion" as a synonym for "way of life" and "philosophy;" I realize that--frequently and to our sorrow--our way of life may not always correspond to our philosophy as closely as we would like. Again, I intend no criticism of the practices or theories of any particular religion. Falling short in our struggle toward perfection is as universal a part of human make-up as our curiosity about how and for what purpose we came to be. I absolutely believe that the human condition ensures that our reach will ever exceed our grasp, "else what's a heaven for?"

When asked the question: "Why did 19th century Transcendentalism die?" my reply is "It didn't." Perhaps technically speaking, in the narrowest sense of Transcendentalism as a 19th century philosophical construct, its formal frame did pass on. But regarding its spirit--and to be understood, Transcendentalism insists that spirit be considered well above letter--it appears to me that Transcendentalism is inextricably woven into the fabric of modern religions. It may not remain within the "traditional" religious tenets that Transcendentalism once argued, i.e., the validity of Jesus' divinity, the problematic idea of God as Trinity, or the recognition of miracles. These topics linger as points of contention but Transcendentalism is no longer acknowledged as an opponent in the debate. What remains instead is an increasingly global sense of environmental responsibility within the religions, resting upon a foundation of thought remarkably similar to that of Emersonian Transcendentalism. I maintain it is the residual spirit of Transcendentalism that draws our sense--our perception--of religion, and our sense of the natural world, ever closer together, as we try to determine what is the best way to live spiritually here on earth.

A painting must have a vanishing point in order to illustrate perspective. Although the picture can be viewed from an infinite number of angles, the vanishing point remains steady on its plane. The viewer’s reaction to the picture can and likely will change according to the angle of their sight—their visual perception. They may even decide the artist chose a poor perspective to begin with and so argue against the entire premise of the picture as skewed with no decent interpretation possible. In that case, debate is impossible. For instance, the argument between two camps, in which one side declares the existence of God while the other denies even the possibility of any "higher power," is an example of such a complete rejection: each side maintains that the other's perspective is so hopelessly flawed that all resulting perception is tainted.

However, for the sake of this discussion, we’re assuming everyone involved concurs that the "vanishing point" is good. The point, which remains ever steady on its plane, is the idea that the natural world was divinely created, with specific intent and for specific purposes. The answers to the questions of who created the world, how it was created, and why it was created, are merely the differing perceptions of those who hold the already expressed perspective. There will be no attempt to supply new answers to those questions in this paper! I am seeking the similarities and differences expressed in the answers already offered and accepted by the four belief systems listed here. It is these already given answers which are to be reviewed in these pages.

Again, while perceptions may differ dramatically, another shared perspective to be examined here is the one that states that, in order for the divine purposes of creation to be fulfilled, the physical circumstances of the natural world--the environment--must improve.

The agreed-upon perspective is that the task is clear: we are required to put forth our best effort in determining, as far as humanly possible, the intent and purpose of  the divine plan, so we may then follow the direction of the original blueprint. That some action is mandatory is part of the general perspective: “What is the best way to go about completing this task?” The differences lie in the varied perceptions of what action(s) form the best response.How do the different religions answer the question--and how much variation is there in their replies?

For the purpose of this paper, it is established that God created the natural world in which we live. Also, the act of creation was completed with intent and purpose. Finally, we come to the third perspective to be examined in these pages. All of the religions discussed here seem to incorporate Emerson's Transcendentalist thought, most clearly delineated in these lines from Nature: "Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. Nature is the symbol of the spirit" (939). A distressed environment is symbolic of a distressed spirit. Furthermore, each religion presented here seems to agree with of Emerson's theory of the connected Oversoul insofar as the points that state that all entities in Nature are connected, and the well-being of humankind is connected to Nature. More specifically, each religion cited here agrees with these major principles of Transcendentalism: each person must act as an individual. While responsible for learning and living by the tenets of one's particular religion, in the end the individual must answer to his or her own conscience and act upon the guidance of his or her own "inner voice," the human intuition which Emerson believed was the individual's divine spark and their connection to the infinite Oversoul. However, it is not possible that the individual's act, whether of comission or omission, remains confined to that self's experience; every action does have a reaction. The inevitable ripple effect makes each individual action universally effective.

Emerson's Oversoul is the connected universe; it has other names: Walt Whitman calls it the float, Sally McFague says it is a quilt. Whatever its name, and in spite of its unfathomable proportions, it trembles at our touch and we all sense the vibration. The reparation of the natural world necessitates handling it with care. Assuming that all agree the task is mandated, how does religion plan to make the physical world fit for divinity? How are the perceptions different or alike? What views or solutions reflect 19th century Transcendentalist philosophy? Has that philosophy evolved in the 20th century?

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