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Inaugural Lecture, Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Chair at Harvard Divinity School, 7 May 2009
I have inherited a paradox. As the inaugural holder of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association chair, I am accountable in some sense to a man who once told the graduates of this school to "cast behind [them] all conformity" to what they had learned at school, relying on themselves rather than on the institutions of "historical Christianity." But I am also accountable to one of those institutions--indeed, to the very denominational tradition that Emerson was leaving behind when he urged our students to "acquaint men at first hand with deity." (1) This level of institutional accountability in a Harvard chair has few precedents. Among my colleagues, only Francis Schussler Fiorenza has the name of a denomination in his title, and while the Charles Chauncy Stillman chair of Roman Catholic studies may contain its own paradoxes, I am guessing that the pope was not as intimately involved in its creation as Unitarian Universalist president Bill Sinkford was in the funding of the Emerson chair.
Fortunately, I come prepared to deal with institutional paradox. Like Emerson, I have an anti-institutional streak. Shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan (when I was just thirteen), I decided that governments would work better if, instead of making laws, they simply offered suggestions. They could use research to figure out what sort of individual actions would contribute most to the common good and then leave it to each person to act accordingly. Ten years later, I learned that this view has a name--anarchism--and that it has been espoused by a wide range of pacifists and terrorists, saints and demagogues. Despite repeated backsliding I remain more comfortable with the pacifist strand of anarchism than with any other political philosophy.
All the same, I have spent the last ten years teaching at two Benedictine colleges, local embodiments of the most enduring religious order in the largest religious institution the world has ever known. And now I am at Harvard, a school that has lost more institutional wealth in the past year than any other university in history. Somehow I haven't been able to shake free of institutions.
In coming to Harvard, I have inherited a rich tradition of reflection on the balance between spiritual freedom and institutional responsibility. For many years, Conrad Wright taught Unitarian and Universalist history here, and one of the great themes of his scholarship has been the role of institutions within religious liberalism. (2) Wright worried--perhaps still worries--that while Unitarian Universalists know the rebellious stories of Emerson and Thoreau, they do not know the stories of the men and women who built congregational and denominational structures to carry those rebellious stories forward. The canon of liberal saints, Wright insisted, must include such men as Henry Bellows, Samuel Atkins Eliot, and Frederick May Eliot--denominational presidents who were patient and creative enough to keep both the Emersonian radicals and their antagonists within the Unitarian fold. (3) Wright's colleague James Luther Adams likewise insisted that the "voluntary association" was an essential building block of American freedom, warning generations of students that if an idea "does not incarnate, it will dissipate." (4)
My goal here is to build on this heritage by reflecting on the institutional ideas of a few religious liberals who are sometimes lumped with the anti-institutional Emersonians. Elizabeth Peabody and Adin Ballou were part of the rebellious second generation of Unitarians and Universalists, and they devoted their best energies not to congregations or denominations but to schools, peace and abolitionist societies, and experimental communities. John Haynes Holmes and Mary White Ovington were heirs of this tradition who lived two generations later, in the first decades of the twentieth century. They were tireless in building up the new institutional structures of the settlement house and "community church," as well as such enduring organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Along with dozens of other Unitarian and Universalist activists in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these four could have offered a hearty "Amen" to every criticism Emerson lodged against conventional churches, but their real interest was in the shape of the new institutions that might displace the old. In theological terms, all were invested in what might be called ecclesiology--the doctrine of the church--though the "church" they envisioned was never easy for denominational leaders to recognize as such. They were practical as well as theoretical ecclesiologists, taking concrete steps to bring new institutions into reality. Had they succeeded perfectly or failed utterly, there would not be much reason to give this talk. But their mix of success and failure makes them worthy conversation partners. Personally, I value them as conversation partners because I share both their Unitarian and Universalist identities and their basic perspective on institutions, and I will be using the conversation to articulate my own ecclesiology as well as theirs. I hope this presentation will be challenging to other religious liberals, and at least interesting to those of other faith traditions.
Before I flesh out the liberal ecclesiology of Peabody, Ballou, Holmes and Ovington, I should say a few more words about Emerson. His consistent antipathy to institutions is revealed in the fact that he was almost as wary of his friends' new projects as he was of the traditional institutions of church and state, but the logic of his critique was not consistent. In his essay on "Self-Reliance," he cast institutions both as dangerous menaces--"Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members"--and as ephemeral phantoms--"An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man." (5) As is often the case, his criticism was more compelling when it included an element of self-criticism. Reflecting on his friends' plan to build a new society at Brook Farm, he confided to his journal that he "wished to be convinced, to be thawed, to be made nobly mad by the kindlings before my eye of a new dawn of human piety." His coldness lay in his continuing struggle to put his own vision into action: "I have not yet conquered my own house. It irks and repents me. Shall I raise the siege of this hencoop, and march baffled away to a pretended siege of Babylon?" Emerson concluded that to join Brook Farm "would be to traverse all my long trumpeted theory ... that one man is a counterpoise to a city." These words make clear that the "one man" he had in mind was not an arrogant entrepreneur but a repentant Saint Anthony. (6)
Peabody, Ballou, Holmes, and Ovington would all eventually become as repentant of their institutions as Emerson was of his individuality. Just as Emerson began with an idealistic vision of the individual, these others were motivated first by an institutional idealism. Despite the failings of existing churches and governments, they believed that institutions could provide the soil in which free individuals would grow. Jesus himself, said Peabody, had pointed the way to a mode of "organization which shall give freedom to [the] loving creative spirit" that is the divine life in every person. The U.S. Constitution likewise "was the greatest discovery in political science [that] the world had ever made" because it tried to give institutional shape to the core Christian principle "that there is an infinite worth and depth in the individual soul." (7)
My four ecclesiologists were optimistic about institutions because they saw themselves as heirs to three previous institutional revolutions. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century had broken the overwhelming undemocratic power of the medieval union of church and state, opening at least the possibility of free religion. The American Revolution of 1776 had affirmed both individual rights and democratic governance in the political sphere and set the churches free to operate in their own, specifically religious, sphere. And the Unitarian and Universalist movements, born as denominations in the first decades of the new century, had inaugurated a tradition of liberal religion that was slowly breaking free from the constraints of dogma and tradition.
By 1840, when Peabody and Ballou began publishing their views on community, even the most recent of these revolutions was one generation in the past, …