Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Integrity of the Mind

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 8 January 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)

As many of you know, I was raised unchurched. When my wife Bella and I started to attend the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, a little over 10 years ago, it was all a new experience for me.

A few years after we joined, I was at a committee meeting of some kind — of course! — and the leader of the meeting asked us all to consider why it was that we attended services on Sunday. I think that was the first time I had thought to consider exactly what the spiritual point was of coming to church on Sunday.

At the very beginning of my internship here at Throop, I preached a sermon that addressed this very question: Why are we here, in this room, each Sunday? The answer I proposed in that sermon had to do with the idea of community. It’s true that we can gain some spiritual growth and satisfaction on our own — by meditating, for example, or by spending time in nature — but there is something special about being present in a church community that both supports us and challenges us. One of our Unitarian Universalist principles is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and our community helps us stick to the “responsible” part of that.

But there’s another answer to the question of why we come here each week, and in fact it’s the first answer I thought of, way back when at that committee meeting.

At church, the services help me reflect on my own ethical values. By going to services on Sunday, and listening to the music, and singing the hymns, and (of course!) paying very close attention to the sermon1, and talking with people during coffee hour, I can think more deeply about what I believe, and about how I want to live my live. And then I can figure out whether I actually am living out those values. If I’m not living out the values that I profess, my church can help provide me with the resources and support that I will need in order to live my life in line with the values I believe in.

In other words: My church helps me live my life with integrity.

The worship theme for the month of January is “Integrity.” Each week we will explore a different aspect of the idea of integrity. Today it is “Integrity of the Mind”; over the course of the month we will also discuss integrity of the spirit, of the heart, and of the body.

“Integrity of the Mind” can mean a number of things. Perhaps the most straightforward meaning is that we should be honest.

Now, there are different types of honesty. There is honesty in your interactions with others, and there is honesty with yourself.

It can be hard to lie to other people. Just recently I ran across a quote by my favorite author — the 19th-century British novelist Anthony Trollope — that gives one reason why. Trollope writes:

A liar has many points in his favour, — but he has this against him, that unless he devote more time to the management of his lies than life will generally allow, he cannot make them tally.

Consistently lying to others is hard to maintain, it is immoral, it is corrosive to your relationships, and it makes it difficult for you to trust anyone.

Lying to yourself is easier, but just as dangerous. On one level, you know you are lying to yourself, so you don’t have to maintain quite the same façade as you do when you lie to others. However, even though it is easier to lie to yourself than it is to lie to others, the effect is just as corrosive: You end up not being able to trust yourself.

There are deeper meanings, too, about integrity of the mind. In Unitarian Universalism, many of these deeper meanings were well expressed by the Transcendentalists.

Transcendentalism was a movement among liberal religious people, especially Unitarians and those with connections to Unitarianism, in the mid-19th century, most prominently in the Northeast of the United States. Inspired by the Reverend William Ellery Channing’s idea that our conception of God comes from our examination of our own souls, the Transcendentalists were fierce individualists, who thought that our highest calling is to be true to our own souls.

One of the best-known writings about Transcendentalist individualism is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance. He did not mean “self-reliance” in the sense of being able to live on your own in the wild, or to cook your own food, or mend your own clothing; no, he was more interested in a person’s ability to rely on their own judgement, even when it conflicted with popular opinion.

Emerson writes that “Nothing is as sacred as the integrity of your own mind.” Really, his whole essay on self-reliance consists of expanding on this basic principle.

And yet I have intense reservations about Emerson. He seems so confident in the infallibility of his own intuitions, so dismissive of the idea that other people might have access to the truth as well.

Emerson’s famous aphorism, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” comes from this essay on self-reliance. And yet, what does he mean by this? If yesterday, all of your Transcendentalist insistence on the primacy of your own intuition demanded that you say one thing, and if today the same intuition demands just the opposite, Emerson says that you should proclaim just as loudly today that you are correct as you did yesterday. It seems to me, though, that you might want to be a little less certain that your opinions are always correct if you change them day by day.

Perhaps some of my reluctance to adopt Emerson’s philosophy comes from the suspicion of a comfortably-situated white man justifying his own beliefs by saying, “Trust your intuition! Speak your truth! Dare to express your individuality! That’s what I do, it’s worked out great for me…”

Emerson encourages all of his (white, male) readers to say to their loved ones,

I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife, — but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. […] I must be myself. […] If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly.

And then, the most perfect quote: “Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me, and do the same thing.”

Emerson is saying, “Eventually, when you peer into the regions of absolute truth, you will find that my way of doing things was right all along.”

I agree that one should be true to oneself, but I have to admit that I find Emerson to be insufferable. I can’t think of a more arrogant attitude than what he expresses. And so I was very pleased when I learned of some writings by his wife, Lydia.

Lydia Emerson, in a moment of inspiration, wrote down something that she mockingly called the “Transcendental Bible.” It is a satirical take on the arrogance and self-righteousness that seemed to come along with some of the Transcendentalist beliefs of her husband. Here is one — long — sentence from it.2

If you scorn happiness (though you value a pleasant talk or walk, a tasteful garment, a comfortable dinner), if you wish not for immortal consciousness (though you bear with impatience the loss of an hour of thought or study), if you care not for the loss of your soul (though you deprecate the loss of your house), if you care not how much you sin (though in pain at the commission of a slight indiscretion), if you ask not a wise Providence over the earth in which you live (although wishing a wise manager of the house in which you live), if you care not that a benign Divinity shapes your ends (though you seek a good tailor to shape your coat), if you scorn to believe your affliction cometh not from the dust (though bowed to the dust by it), then, if there is such a thing as duty, you have done your whole duty to your noble self-sustained, impeccable, infallible Self.

“Your noble self-sustained, impeccable, infallible Self.” That one phrase confirms what I imagine it must have been like to live in the same household as Ralph Waldo Emerson.

So that’s another meaning of “integrity of the mind”: being true to your own beliefs, even when they contradict what is believed by your friends or by society at large. But we see that one of the difficulties is that you need to be true to yourself without being arrogant; you still need to listen to others and acknowledge that sometimes they will be right.

At one point, Emerson writes:

[…] man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he […] lives with nature in the present, above time.

And that brings us to another form of integrity of the mind: Keeping your mind focused on what is happening now, right around you, and not having your mind wander to the past or the future.

Meditation practices from around the world encourage us to develop the habit of focusing on the present. And, interestingly enough, a pair of researchers at Harvard came up with a way to test the idea that people are happier if they live in the present.

The researchers created an iPhone app for volunteers to use. You can read about it at trackyourhappiness.org, where you’ll find a link to the Apple App Store. If you download the app, it will interrupt you at random moments throughout your day and ask you a series of questions. The questions include:

  • “How are you feeling right now?”
  • “What are you doing right now?” and
  • “Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?”

The individual users of the app then get to find out what activities actually help them stay happy. But the researchers get back the data from all of the users, and they have been using that data to test various hypotheses about happiness. And they’ve found some interesting things.

First of all, the researchers found that people’s minds wander a lot. About half the time the app interrupts someone to ask what they are doing, the person says that their mind was wandering.

They also found that no matter what activity a person was doing, they were less happy if they were not focusing their attention on it. It was worst, of course, if their mind was wandering to unpleasant things, but even if their mind was wandering to something nice, they were less happy on average than if they had been thinking about what they were doing.

Now, this shows that unhappiness is correlated with mind-wandering, but you might wonder whether that actually shows that one of these things causes the other. To answer this question, the researchers checked to see whether people’s mood at one point in the day was correlated with their mind wandering later that day, and vice versa. What they found was consistent with the hypothesis that one of these things does cause the other: not focusing on what you are doing will reduce your happiness.

So there’s a benefit to mental integrity in the form of focusing on the present: it will make you happier. And perhaps this happiness can carry you through the times when you do have to take your mind off the present in order to plan for the future.

The mind, the spirit, the heart, the body — in each of us, these are all connected to make a unified whole. This month, may we all find new ways to better understand each of these parts of ourselves, so that we may better live a life of integrity.

Image credit: Water lily with latticework reflections, copyright 2006 by the author. Shot in the Conservatory at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena.

  1. Wink ;) 
  2. The whole thing is worth reading, and it’s just a couple of pages; you can find it here

Why Are We Here?

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 23 August 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)

Last spring, when Rev. Tera invited me to come preach at Throop some Sunday in August, neither she nor I had any inkling that I would wind up being your new intern minister, starting in September. I am really very happy to start this relationship with all of you here at Throop.

Traditionally, an intern minister’s first sermon at their teaching congregation is a personal introduction of sorts, telling the congregation something about who the intern is — their history, their path to ministry, their theology… but technically, my first sermon as your intern will be next month, so today I will not tell you too much about my own background. But I will tell you a little bit; I will start with a little bit about my beliefs, and a story.

For my beliefs, the short version is this: I am a humanist; I do not feel that there is any innate meaning to the universe, but I do believe that people can give life meaning. Also, I am an atheist; by which I mean that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” If you keep all of this in mind, the story I will tell you becomes more interesting.

For three years, starting in 2012, I was a volunteer on the “lay ministry” team at my home congregation in San Diego. One duty of the lay ministers is to be available after each service to listen to people; if someone has a joy or a concern that they would like to share with someone, they look for the lay minister on duty at the back of the sanctuary, and go over to talk for a while. Sometimes people are excited and want to share good news; sometimes people are going through a tough time, and they need to tell someone about it, to get some emotional support and to know that they are not alone; sometimes people just want a hug.

The first time I was going to be on duty as a lay minister I was nervous. I was prepared — the lay ministry team is trained by our ministers in techniques of pastoral care — but training is different from real life. What would it be like if someone with a serious problem came to me for sympathy and help? Would I be able to be present with them, and to listen? Would I be able to avoid the temptation to try to fix things? — because some things can’t be fixed, and often what people need is not advice, but rather someone to be with them on the journey.

That first morning, as I was walking the few blocks from my parked car to the church, I was nervous about these questions. I centered myself by thinking about another aspect of lay ministry: part of the job is to be a living manifestation of the concern the whole church community has for the welfare of its members. The lay minister is not just one concerned person; they represent something larger: the spirit of love of our community. “May this spirit of love work through me,” I thought to myself, “and be visible to those who come for help.”

“May this spirit of love work through me, and be visible to those who come for help.”

“Huh,” I thought, as I walked into the sanctuary. “I think that was a prayer. Funny thing for an atheist to be doing.”

The title of this sermon is “Why are we here,” and maybe it’s not so clear what that story has to do with this question. But I have to admit that the title may be a little deceptive. I did not mean “why are we here?” in the grand philosophical sense; if you came here hoping that I will reveal the secret of life and of our role in the universe, I won’t be doing that… today. What I meant by that title is: Why are we — you and me, the people in this room — here — here together this Sunday morning? Why are we at church today?

Of course, we each have our own answers to this question; we each probably have several answers. And personally, I’ve come up with a number of different answers for myself over the years. What prompted me to talk about this today, though, were some ideas that were coming up for me this past semester in seminary while studying Unitarian and Universalist history. I’d like to talk about an argument for why we might not want to be here, an argument with deep roots in our Unitarian history.

[Right about now Rev. Tera may be feeling a little nervous… “Is the intern really going to be telling people why they shouldn’t be at church? Is it too late to reconsider this whole internship plan?”]

At the beginning of the 19th century, William Ellery Channing was one of America’s most prominent liberal theologians. For 39 years he was the minister at what is now called the Arlington Street Church in Boston, and in 1825 he helped found the American Unitarian Association. One of the things that made a theologian “liberal” at that time was the belief that the Bible should be viewed as a book written in language suitable for a particular time and for particular people, and that any truths it contains are subject to interpretation. The liberal theologians thought that God communicates to people not just through the word of the Bible, but in other ways as well; for instance, through the workings of the natural world, through the details of creation. But in 1828, in a sermon he gave at an ordination, Channing spoke of yet another way we can learn more about the Divine. He said,

That man has a kindred nature with God, and may bear most important and ennobling relations to him, seems to me to be established by a striking proof. This proof you will understand, by considering, for a moment, how we obtain our ideas of God. Whence come the conceptions which we include under that august name? Whence do we derive our knowledge of the attributes and perfections which constitute the Supreme Being? I answer, we derive them from our own souls. The divine attributes are first developed in ourselves, and thence transferred to our Creator. The idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity. In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity. God, then, does not sustain a figurative resemblance to man. It is the resemblance of a parent to a child, the likeness of a kindred nature.

To modern ears, it almost sounds like Channing is saying that people created God, not the other way around. Channing wasn’t saying that, because for him God was a given. But he was saying that God is like us — or, at least, like the best parts of us — and that we can learn about divinity by studying our own natures. Pretty wild stuff for the time, especially if you were a Calvinist.

Channing also championed an idea he called “self-culture” — culture as in cultivation and agriculture, as in helping one’s mind and soul to grow. His idea of self-culture included studying “nature, revelation, the human soul, and human life;” it included (as he put it) “control of the animal appetites;” it involved interacting with superior minds, for instance through reading. It involved what Ralph Waldo Emerson would later call “self-reliance” — figuring out one’s own opinions and holding true to them, even if they are unpopular. In short, self-culture involved knowing oneself better; by this, Channing believed, one could be closer to God.

Both of these ideas of Channing’s took firm root in the Transcendentalist movement, of which Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the principal members. Emerson’s essay on self-reliance celebrates independence of thought and of spirit, and is still often included in high-school and college English curricula. Henry David Thoreau, another member of the Transcendentalist movement, is perhaps most famous for his book Walden, an account of his two years of simple living at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. His cabin was in fact not very far from civilization, and only a mile and a half from Emerson’s house, but his ruminations and meditations on nature and solitude and self-reliance are quintessentially American. Walden is also often taught in high school, and it still resonates in American culture. Some of you may be familiar with Annie Dillard’s collection of essays Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or with Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, which was made into a movie last year. I recommend both books; and they both live in the shadow of Thoreau’s Walden.

Thoreau’s writing encourages isolation and contemplation of nature; Emerson championed the strength of the individual mind andsoul. But what did the Transcendentalists have to say about church? In 1838, Emerson was invited by the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School to give a talk. He himself had already left the Unitarian ministry. In his speech to the graduates, he told an anecdote about being at church and not being inspired by a particular preacher. He said:

A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow.

When faced with a bad sermon, Emerson’s first thought is how he would rather learn from nature. To be fair, Emerson was not against sermons — he just thought they had to be good — or, as he famously put it in that same passage, they should be “life passed through the fire of thought.”

Now, the Transcendentalists were not just some eddy in the backwaters of history. Their ideas greatly influenced American culture — and Unitarianism specifically. Two of the hymns we sang this morning had words by Emerson, and I counted at least 24 hymns and readings in the grey hymnal with words from 8 different Transcendentalists.

So the Transcendentalists are important to our movement. And what do they teach us? God is reflected in our own souls; and we can learn spiritual truths through contemplation, reading, immersion in nature, and intentional solitude. Also, bad sermons aren’t worth sitting through. So again, why are we here? There’s a perfectly solid theological basis — set forth by Unitarians and Transcendentalists — for why we might just as well stay home and read a book, or go hiking up Mount Wilson to look at flowers and trees, and the wonders of creation.

Well, what are some of the problems with this argument?

One of our Unitarian Universalist principles is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The Transcendentalists were really into the free search for truth and meaning, almost intoxicated by it. The idea that you could learn about God just by self-reflection was powerful; and, as a professional mathematician, I have to point out that they found philosophical justification for this idea by appealing to mathematics. Mathematicians come up with universal truths just by thinking, they said; why not theologians?

But they ignored one important aspect of mathematics — after you have convinced yourself of some mathematical statement, and think you have found a proof for it… you need to try to explain your reasoning to someone else, to see whether they find any mistakes. The Transcendentalists conveniently left out this part of the process.

Our UU principle is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I think that the responsible part involves coming into community. Here, we find that the truths that seem so apparent to us may not be so clear to other people; here we find other perspectives, ones that we may not have considered; here, perhaps, we learn some humility… which, incidentally, is a characteristic that I personally do not find in Emerson’s writings.

Channing’s idea is that God is reflected in our own souls, and therefore we can find divine truth by introspection. But if God is in everyone’s souls, then we can equally well find divine truth in community with others.


There are many reasons to come to church. It can be a time apart from the rest of the week, a sabbath. Worship, with music and words and silence, can put us in touch with the things we find divine. It can be a time when we reflect on our values, and ask ourselves whether we are living them as well as we would like to.

But for me, one of the main reasons for being here is to build a beloved community. A community that supports each of us; that challenges us to be our best selves; that helps us think about the mysteries of life, and of death; that gives us companions through good times and bad. In the words of our responsive reading, “All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.” We live out this fact by being together, here.

I said at the beginning that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” But as I’ve started on this path towards ministry, I’ve learned from talking with many people that I do believe in some things that some other people might call “God” — for instance, that thing that we are creating, week by week, by coming here.

May the spirit of love work through all of us, and be visible to all those in need.

Blessed be. Amen.