Friday, November 26, 2010

Transcendentalism: America's Adolescense

It started off as a white Black Friday (however slushy) here in Maine, and while I may have neglected to link to my Thanksgiving recs, it's not too late to remind you to make the leftover Turkey pot pie.

We stopped by Jonathan Edwards' home church of Northampton on the way up, ground zero of the First Great Awakening.  While in the Urban Outfitters right next to it, I fell over my own cleverness to tweet, "Hipsters in the hands of an angry God." For contrast to Edwards, I thought I'd listen to the Teaching Co's course on Transcendentalism en route, but hearing the contextual details of Emerson's career only reinforced my suspicions.  When you've read the Cappadocians, which I doubt these Bostonians had, mere essayists like Emerson stick about as well as today's New England sleet.  The wife and I gave up several lectures in, and instead listened to Henry Adams' take on mid-nineteenth century Boston religion, which is difficult to improve upon.
Nothing quieted doubt so completely as the mental calm of the Unitarian clergy. In uniform excellence of life and character, moral and intellectual, the score of Unitarian clergymen about Boston, who controlled society and Harvard College, were never excelled. They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine, but taught, or tried to teach, the means of leading a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation. For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were waste of thought; nothing exacted solution. Boston had solved the universe; or had offered and realised the best solution yet tried. The problem was worked out.

Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most. The boy went to church twice every Sunday; he was taught to read his Bible, and he learned religious poetry by heart; he believed in a mild deism; he prayed; he went through all the forms; but neither to him nor to his brothers or sisters was religion real. Even the mild discipline of the Unitarian Church was so irksome that they all threw it off at the first possible moment, and never afterwards entered a church. The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived, although one made in later life many efforts to recover it. That the most powerful emotion of man, next to the sexual, should disappear, might be a personal defect of his own; but that the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew, should have solved all the problems of the universe so thoroughly as to have quite ceased making itself anxious about past or future, and should have persuaded itself that all the problems which had convulsed human thought from earliest recorded time, were not worth discussing, seemed to him the most curious social phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.
Such religion, to be sure, is worth protesting, which was certainly part of the reason Emerson defected from Unitarianism.  Still, after labeling R.W. Emerson's protest as "naïf," Adams continues: 
The children reached manhood without knowing religion, and with the certainty that dogma, metaphysics, and abstract philosophy were not worth knowing. So one-sided an education could have been possible in no other country or time, but it became, almost of necessity, the more literary and political. As the children grew up, they exaggerated the literary and the political interests. 
Too bad, as mere literature and politics are not suited to bear the eternal.  It's a shame the early education of Henry Adams did not include the Trinity, and it's no wonder Adams had to rebel against it to write Mont St. Michel and Chartres.  In so doing, he kicked off America's continuing fascination with the neglected Middle Ages, which plumb far deeper than Walden Pond.