From Passage to India by Walt Whitman
O Thou transcendent!
Nameless—the fibre and the breath!
Light of the light—shedding forth universes—the center of
Though mightier center of the true, the good, the loving!
Thou moral, spiritual fountain! affection’s source! thou
Thou pulse! Thou motive of the stars, suns, systems,
That, circling, move in order, safe, harmonious,
Athwart the shapeless vastness of space!
How should I think—how breathe a single breath—how speak—
if, out of myself,
I could not launch, to those, superior universes?
Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not groveled here long enough, eating and drinking
like mere brutes?
Have we not darkened and dazed ourselves with books long
Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail.
Last week my sermon was on the subject of music and, more specifically, about why we sing, why we sing together. Last week I gave you a bit of a teaser for the sermon this week when I talked about going to see the indie alternative rock band Bon Iver in concert. I’m a huge fan of indie rock music. When I went to see them in concert, the lead singer introduced the last song of the show as a sing-along. He asked the audience to repeat the same line over and over again as the music got louder in a glorious crescendo that reached its peak with everyone screaming a primal scream together. It was a religious experience. No, I’m not kidding.
The line we were asked to sing over and over again was, “What might have been lost?” We repeated this line 16 times. These lyrics probably have a specific meaning to the song’s author, but the lyrics are also vague enough to allow each person to listen and sing his or her own meaning in them. Its meaning – what I take it to mean at least – had to do letting go of regrets, with letting go of wishing that the past might have been different. It had to do with accepting the grace of this moment. Stuff like that. Singing this line all together in the presence of 1,000 other people felt religious.
And, here’s the thing: it seems like every time I go to see a band in concert, the concert ends the same way, with the band leading a sing-along and having the audience sing the same line over and over again, a line that allows each member of the audience to listen their own meaning and significance into it.
Death Cab for Cutie, a great band with an awful name, ends their concerts with the beautiful song Transatlanticism which ends with the line, “I need you so much closer,” repeated twelve times.
I regret that I didn’t go to see The Postal Service in concert this past summer when they came through town, but I do know they end their shows with Ben Gibbard singing the line, “Everything will change,” eight times in a row.
And even The National, who can come across as a bit darker, a bit more coolly cynical, ended their October show at Starlight with an intimate sing-along. “All the very best of us string ourselves up for love.” We repeated and repeated those lines as well, eight times in fact.
These experiences were all similar. Similar musically. Similar lyrically. Repetitively similar. And, similar emotionally. Frankly, it is a bit embarrassing for me to stand up here and profess my love for alternative rock music. OK, your minister is kind of a big music dork. At the same time, as I was preparing for last week’s sermon about music, about why we sing, I remembered these experiences of concert sing-alongs as saying something important about why we sing. We sing because we seek transcendence.
The latest issue of UU World magazine contained an article that made me feel a lot less self-conscious about my adoration of indie rock. The magazine sent one of its reporters to attend a gathering of the Sunday Assembly in Boston. Sunday Assembly was founded in London by two British comedians in their attempt to establish an atheist church. (Don’t they know an atheist church will never work?) This past fall they launched a world tour, hoping to plant Sunday Assembly franchises throughout the UK, Ireland, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Here’s UU World correspondent Doug Muder talking about the music at Sunday Assembly Boston,
Aided by a three-piece band and screen-projected lyrics, we sang pop songs that you might dance to at a wedding reception or sing at a karaoke bar: “Build Me Up Buttercup,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and other examples of the genre [Sunday Assembly co-founder] Sanderson [Jones] calls “power cheese.” The point seems to be to let go and join in… My church’s music director would throw a fit if we shifted to a program of pop-song karaoke.
I’m going to stop talking about music now. No more indie alternative rock. No more “power cheese.” What I’m going to talk about, instead, is a certain kind of experience, perhaps the experience of letting go and joining in. Or, we might call it the experience of transcendence.
According to the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association, “the Living Tradition we share draws from many sources.” The first source that is listed is, “Direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit.”
UU minister Galen Guengrich, senior minister of the historic All Souls UU Church in New York City, recently wrote a book entitled, God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age. In an interview about the book he says something interesting about transcendence.
I think we're hardwired for transcendence. I think if you look at how we as individuals are related to everything else, you eventually get to a point where you need some way of talking about those relationships, and in my view the best term we have is "God." I think the instinct of wanting to understand how we are related to everything comes from the same sense of wanting to know who we are and where we fit in. It's a part of human nature.
The principles speak of a direct experience of it. Galen Guengrich says we’re wired for it. So, what is it? What is transcendence, exactly? In academic theology the concept of transcendence is often contrasted with the idea of immanence. (Christmas, by the way, at least from a Christian theological perspective, is a celebration of immanence. So, I’m kind of giving this sermon in the wrong season.) Christmas is about immanence. O come, O come, Emmanuel. The word Emmanuel means, God is with us. If immanence is the idea of God’s presence and closeness, then transcendence is the opposite, God’s beyondness. It’s the idea of that which is surpassing, that which is eclipsing. As Whitman puts it, it’s “where the mariner has not yet dared to sail… O farther, farther sail!... O farther, farther, farther sail.”
If you have a hard time making sense out of the concept of transcendence, you’re certainly not alone. I once took a course in graduate school on the theology and philosophy of transcendence and my memory of the class was that much of the material was intellectually impenetrable. As hard as it may be to wrap our brains around, few seem to doubt that the experience of transcendence is real. There’s the direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder of which our sources speak. Galen Guengrich says that we’re hardwired for transcendence. We sing about it in church, sometimes. As one of our hymns (#300) puts it, “With heart and mind and voice and hand, may we this time and place transcend.” At Sunday Assembly they sing “Build me up buttercup” in order to help people to let go and join in. And then there are the rock concerts.
My former colleague across town at All Souls UU Church, Kansas City, Jim Eller, once preached a sermon on “Types of UU Transcendence” in which he described seven types of transcendence that we can relate to even if we don’t believe in a deity. The seven types are:
1) Personal transformation that happens through exposure to extremes. Something major happens in our lives and we are changed.
2) Experiencing the intersection between the ideal and the real. By this I think he means the experience we have of, say, hearing one of Martin Luther King’s speeches or winning a victory for human rights.
3) The ability to be awake, aware, and present. This is the ability to behold the world from a fresh perspective.
4) Finding connection to that which is greater than ourselves.
5) The experience of play.
6) Growth, discovery, or becoming our best selves. This is individual transformation and change as a form of transcendence.
7) The experience of becoming whole again when once you were broken. This is the experience of salvation as transcendence.
I don’t think his list is exhaustive, but I do think his list is actually really helpful in helping us to imagine a concept that we may have a hard time imagining. However, I might shorten and simplify this list and say that transcendence is simply being able to let go and join in, as the Sunday Assembly people put it. It is the ability to let go of ourselves, to let go of what we are holding onto so tightly. The experience of transcendence is the liberation that we experience, that we feel, when we are able to let go.
“Build me up buttercup.” Let go of your self-consciousness and your fear of looking foolish.
“All the very best of us string ourselves up for love.” Let go of the idea that you can love and not experience heartbreak.
“Everything will change.” Let go of the idea that you can stop the future from happening.
“I need you so much closer.” Let go of the distances we place between us.
“What might have been lost.” Let go of regrets, of wishing the past had been different.
What do you think you need to let go of? What do you struggle to let go of? What do you wish you could let go of? What is it hard for you to imagine letting go of?
When I speak about transcendence in a Unitarian Universalist church, it is only natural that I should say something about the 19th century movement with a name that includes the word transcendence. Transcendentalism was a spiritual, intellectual, literary, cultural, and social reform movement. The Transcendentalists, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and their many friends, are many of our favorite Unitarian ancestors. What were the Transcendentalists transcending, exactly? Depending on who you ask, you may get different answers. My reading of the Transcendentalists is that one of the things they saw themselves as transcending was the Enlightenment. They were transcending the idea that the world is material, mechanistic, and orderly. Not rejecting. Just moving beyond. Jim Eller quotes Emerson as saying,
We are a part of the Oversoul… Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One… When it breaks through our intelligence, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affection, it is love.
Maybe this idea of transcendence resonates with you. Maybe you seek out opportunities to let go and farther, farther, farther sail. Or maybe you’ve never had an experience of transcendence and this whole concept befuddles and frustrates you. Or maybe it scares you.
Regardless, I invite you to pay attention. To pay attention to those moments that invite personal transformation, those moments of glimpsing the intersection of the ideal with the real. Look for opportunities to play and pay attention to those moments when you feel awake, aware, and present, those moments when you feel connected to something greater than yourself, or challenged to grow.