Shedding the Husks of Dogma: A Comparison of Transcendentalism with Watershed Spirituality

by Arthur Paul Patterson
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Our study of Emerson's transcendentalism has led me to wonder about how the son of a theologically liberal but socially conservative Unitarian minister, and nephew of a fanatic Calvinist (Aunt Mary Moody Emerson), could have developed a spirituality that foreshadows most of what I have read in Carl Jung and many sophisticated religious writings of today. While sauntering through the library, I discovered an article which helped to answer my questions. (Perry Miller's "From Edwards to Emerson", p.63-81, found in Barbour, Brian M. American Transcendentalism: An Anthology of Criticism. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press,1973.) 

Reading this article I experienced some of the humiliation that Emerson says is associated with recognizing your own thoughts in the words of another. I am not too sure of the exact nature of my uneasiness but I think it has to do with my impression that I should have considered my own thoughts on the question before I read Miller's book. What Miller argues is so evident in both the biography of Emerson and familiar to me, in my own history, that I feel I should have been a little less dependent and more self-reliant. I ought to have spent more effort on the question before deferring to an authority. What a very 'unemersonian' thing to do! To make amends, I have decided not to merely share the results of Miller's scholarship but to apply the historic lessons to our particular situation at Watershed.

We are not alone in the way we have contoured our beliefs. Others have ploughed the path before us. In contemplating the history of American Transcendentalism, we are looking for a traditional soulmate.

Why bother comparing the historical material of Transcendentalism with our own history? Seeing the sources of Emerson's vibrant spirituality is important in order to remind us that our group, any group for that matter, are the byproducts of many traditions. These traditions are used by us in response to the pressures of our situation. In acknowledging this we are not forsaking Emerson's call to let the dead bury the dead and experience our life first hand. The traditions and sources we choose for our spirituality are our own responsibility and yet it is good to acknowledge our roots.

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We are not alone in the way we have contoured our beliefs. Others have ploughed the path before us. In contemplating the history of American Transcendentalism, we are looking for a traditional soulmate. We don't want to do this in any cheap or flippant way. In looking at the sources of transcendental hope, we will discover the points of commonality and the points of dissimilarity. Our study must be grounded in reality, not the fantasy method of importing our experience backward to claim some distant authority. Emerson himself warns against second hand faith and it would be deeply contradictory to use him as a way not to develop our own lives.

I have also been led to wonder about how I, the son of a middle class family with a Baptist fundamentalist grandmother and evangelical Christian ideas and training, could have developed a spirituality that has much in common with the Transcendentalists. The same sort of questions could be asked of our Watershed group. What accounts for the continuity between the sort of people in Watershed and those in the early transcendentalist movement? Where lies the differences between these groups that are separated by tradition, ethnicity and location?

Where Transcendentalism originated is a topic of erudite discussion. One thing is certain, that in George Ripley's Boston drawing room a group of similar minds met in the 1830's. There was no formal organization. They had a self-published magazine called The Dial. Most of the participants had a religious background, many formally trained in theology at Harvard. While no leader was in charge, it was indisputable that the intellectual force behind the movement was an ex-unitarian minister Waldo Emerson. They were young, radical, and "emotionally starved and spiritually undernourished" as Miller puts it. While neither creed nor dogma distinguished the group it held views that could be legitimately described as mystical, pantheistic, and influenced by neo-platonism and eastern religions.

Watershed was born in a lilac-coloured room of Paul and Bev Patterson's in 1992. Our group shares the common experience of once belonging to the Mennonite Brethren Church Conference of Manitoba. The organization of our group is loose, to say the least. We had a magazine, the Watershed Journal, which evolved into Watershed Online. We realized that we were not a church, or even a religious community, but rather a group of seekers looking for meaningful relationships to our world and our spirituality.

Having no creed, we have come to find resources in the writings of the past, particularly the study of the literary and spiritual classics of Western culture, and in our life together as seekers. We are youngish but moving toward mid-life. We are not so radical as many transcendentalists, toned down through family life; loosely united around a common vision of personal formation (as expressed by Arthur Paul Patterson) but like the Transcendentalists we do not have a standard set of beliefs or practices.

The Transcendentalists didn't appear to be historically connected. Their detractors accused them of having their heads in the clouds, an accusation from which they derived the name "transcendentalists", yet they lived their actual lives beneath the clouds in the rainy city of Boston or Concord. They were the children of New England, the spiritual grandchildren of Puritans, and the immediate sons and daughters of Unitarians.

American New England Puritanism is distinguished for its roots in social-religious dissent and the quest to usher in the Kingdom of God in America. A society which was ordered under the sovereignty of God and administered by his Law as revealed in Holy Scripture. There are two tendencies within Puritanism which cause dissonance in an individual.


American New England Puritanism is distinguished for its roots in social-religious dissent and the quest to usher in the Kingdom of God in America.


Miller summarizes:


There was in Puritanism a piety, a religious passion, the sense of an inward communication and of the divine symbolism of nature. One side of the Puritan nature hungered for these excitements... the Puritans found delight and ecstasy in the doctrines of regeneration and providence. But in Puritanism there was also another side, an ideal of social conformity of law and code to which good people voluntarily conformed and to which bad people should be made to conform. It was aimed at propriety, decency, the virtues of middle class respectability, self-control, thrift, and dignity, at the expense of the emotions.As the Puritan experiment became assimilated in American nationalism and capitalism something happened that divided these two tendencies of Puritanism. In the New England context, the spiritual mystical aspects of Puritan thought were counteracted by the development of a rationalist liberal Unitarian belief in the logic and common sense (materialism & rationalism). The stress was on obedience and social conformity. The Scriptures were used societally to inculcate conservative social practice.The main proponents of this emphasis were the merchants of Boston who valued societal order for economic stability. Theological liberalism has and had a tendency to embrace whatever social structures were in existence and to support the status quo.


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So, the Unitarians embraced that ordering tendency of Puritanism but in doing so lost the vibrant spirituality which was the other great legacy of their forefathers and mothers. That spirituality was related in part to the belief in the spirit, the imminence of God in Creation. What Unitarianism did was to disconnect people from the orthodox beliefs of the Puritans while maintaining a conservative lifestyle.

Those who wanted to live in the spirit could no longer hold to the Biblical orthodoxy of the Puritans but yearned for the spirituality of faith that was once a part of their New England heritage. Unlinked from the orthodoxy of the past the Transcendentalist could affirm God as Nature, Self Reliance, and ultimately the divinity of humanity, something a Puritan would never do. In affirming these tenets the Transcendental movement stood in opposition to the materialism of the Bostonian entrepreneurs who for the most part were Unitarians. Spirit according to Emerson preceded matter in importance and in fact.

The Transcendentalist affirmed the spirituality of the Puritans while denying the orthodoxy of the past. In doing so, they confused and alienated their elders. Their goal was to  reinterpret the old dogmas. Someone once asked Emerson about his relations to Calvinism. He responded typically in a frustrated fashion, "I see you are speaking of something which had meaning once, but now has grown obsolete. Those words formerly stood for something, and the world got good from them, but not now." In short, the creed didn't serve. It could not sustain the lived experience of those who sought to follow it.

Miller's creative comment is that, "Calvinism had become transcendentlized" in Emerson. He summarizes the total effect of the movements:

These New Englanders - a few here a few there - turned aside from the doctrines of sin and predestination, and thereupon sought with renewed fervour for accents of the Holy Spirit in their own hearts and in the woods and in the mountains. But now that the restraining hand of theology was withdrawn, there was nothing to prevent them, as there had been everything to prevent Edwards, from identifying their intuitions with the voice of God, or from fusing God and nature into one substance of transcendental imagination. There were mystics no longer inhibited by dogma.

Miller has presented the story of old and new wineskins. The mystical piety that was discarded by Puritans in favour of social order was replaced with social conservatism by the Unitarians who, in turn, used it for economic reasons. The Unitarians unhinged the orderliness from the undergirding theological orthodoxy and set the stage for the Transcendentalists to affirm the Puritan spirit without the Puritan dogma.


The sources that inform us include: eastern ideas, theosophical views, poetic and psychological perspectives and esoteric disciplines.


Can anything as succinct be said of our little Watershed movement? After all, we come from a generally spiritless religious movement (Evangelical Mennonite Brethrenism)
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which once had a deeper spirituality (Anabaptism). When our group started we were young, counter-cultural, and yearning for spirit. We published a magazine not unlike the Dial (The Cornerstonian/The Watershed Journal). Our emphasis is on direct experience as the source of revelation. Our movement is fed by the vision of a charismatic leader (Arthur Paul Patterson) whose ideas are akin to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The sources that inform us include eastern ideas, theosophical views, poetic and psychological perspectives and esoteric disciplines.

The question I have is whether we are striving for a spirituality to replace our inherited tradition. A spirituality that is rooted in the mystical and pietistic sources of our Christian heritage and yet is distinct from our immediate Evangelical Christian past. I wonder how to honour the spirituality of Christianity but unlink ourselves from the dogma and the literalism of what it became.

While I think that there is much in common between Watershed and the Transcendentalists I feel that our spirituality is not as aesthetically based but still appeals to a lived relationship with a personal God found in Nature, through Nature, and perhaps, even beyond Nature. Secondly, I sense that we are more communitarian than at least Emerson was. Some of us are not as socially conservative as he was either.

The influence of others, including other sources of revelation, is given more importance in our community than what the Transcendentalists advocated. This could mean either we have integrated the need to be self- reliant with a social perspective or it might mean we are simply more fused or collectivist. A blend of self-reliance and God/Other reliance is I think our ideal. Regardless of the slight differences of tone and emphasis I think that we have found in that New England group a number of individuals with whom we can share many of our aspirations for a life in the spirit, consciously lived out of gratitude and in hope.

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