Direct Experience Sermon by Rev. Roberta Finkelstein (pdf document)
Excerpt from Finding Your Religion by Rev. Scotty McLennan; Chapter 3, “Experiencing”, pp 54-59 (as word document)
To find one’s religion, it’s not enough just to open one’s mind and think deeply. Each of us must also open all of our senses and experience the world. Religion grows from the heart as much as from the head, and it cries out to fuse the body and mind. Faith, as a divinity school professor of mine used to insist, is an orientation of the whole personality, a total response. It’s not just belief – the holding of certain ideas – which is a function of the mind alone. Beliefs can be expressed in propositional form to the which the adjectives “true” or “false” may be attached. Faith, by contrast, is the opposite of nihilism and despair. It may or may not include beliefs, but it is much larger; it is the ability to experience the universe as meaningful. Having faith means that our lives hold together and make sense at a deep level, rather than seeming ultimately awry, askew, or absurd. Therefore, your religion is something you not only think about but also dance, sing, eat, paint, and sculpt. To find your religion you must engage all of your senses. You should feel as well as explain it, hear it as well as see it, taste it as well as smell it.
The American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) had a profound understanding of the role the senses play in finding one’s religion. Because of his love of nature, many now look to him and his younger colleague, Henry David Thoreau, as founders of the environmental movement. Emerson was once an ordained minister, but his address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838 was found so objectionable by many of the local clergy that the school made a public disclaimer of responsibility for it. Emerson was banned from Boston church pulpits and not invited to speak again at Harvard for almost thirty years. His spiritual openness and insistence on experiencing nature as part of religion were clearly not as appreciated then as they are now.
Emerson begins his Divinity School address directly with an appeal to the senses: “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of pine, the balm of Gilead, and the new hay.” He goes on to explain, “One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man.”
Emerson explains that the “religious sentiment” is engendered by openness to nature and the language of the senses, and in turn reflects nature back: “Wonderful in its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air…It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it is the universe made safe and habitable, not by science or power.”
Then Emerson starts to get himself into trouble as he criticizes clergy who are tied to dogma, prayer books, rituals, and sermons that explicate scripture without a hint of the preacher’s own personal biography and passion for the beauty of the earth. He explains that “the faith should blend with the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers. But now the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature, it is unlovely; we are glad when it is done.”
The step to Emerson’s being banned is his challenge to any authority but the self, since he sees the righteous sentiment as an intuition that cannot be received secondhand. The Spirit is indwelling in every person. For Emerson, Jesus can help, because he “belonged to the true race of prophets.” He saw the Spirit within more clearly than most of us: “ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there.” However, any of can learn to see the Spirit within us, just as Jesus did. Emerson’s Jesus says, “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.”
Perhaps Emerson’s crowning blow was his claim that the “divine impulses” of Americans and Europeans are derived historically not only from Israel and Jesus but also from Egypt, Persia, India, and China. That means people can be helped to connect with the indwelling Spirit not only through the resources of Judaism and Christianity but also through those of ancient Egyptian religion, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
For a couple of years, starting in 1841, Emerson and his wife, Lydian, gave the bedroom at the top of their front stairs to a young unemployed Harvard graduate named Henry Thoreau. After college, he had taught school for four years in Concord, Massachusetts, where the Emersons lived. Now he wanted to become a writer. Fourteen years younger than his host, he had been deeply influenced in college by Emerson’s book Nature. As a child he had loved the outdoors and spent as much time as he could iin the woods and fields and hills. He knew plants and animals much better from experience than from anything he had learned in the classroom.
Emerson gave Thoreau another perspective, though: the inner meaning of nature. He wrote of people finding solitude and peace in nature, and ultimately of finding God there. Thoreau had started keeping a journal after graduation and had published some poetry and a few articles, such as “A Winter Walk” and “Natural History of Massachusetts,” in The Dial, the mouthpiece of Emerson’s transcendentalist movement.
In 1845 Thoreau moved to the fifteen acres of woods bordering a Concord Pond that Emerson owned about a mile from his house. He wrote about his two years there in Walden, explaining.” Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere as a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.”
One of Thoreau’s lasting legacies was his counsel to live fully in the present moment: “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.” He asked, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of time? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.” For himself, he explained that “time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slices away, but eternity remains.” Put most simply, this was his understanding: “We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us…and did not spend our time in atoning for the neglect of past opportunities.