as preached on November 9, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Thoreau campus, Richmond, TX
The dedication of a new building for a Unitarian Universalist congregation is a momentous occasion. Every community is made better by having a place for Unitarian Universalism within it. Unitarian Universalists have long dedicated themselves to serving the wider community. Large and small our congregations have improved every city and town, village and suburb, in which they have been located.
In many cases our congregations have been the only places where people could freely gather to share their authentic selves and pursue their authentic truths. We have frequently offered the only religious oasis for the GLBTQ community. We have long been a place for political dissidents and critical thinkers who otherwise could not find a comfortable home. We are a non-creedal religious tradition. We welcome into our ranks atheists, humanists, and pagans alongside liberal, non-Trinitarian, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Historically, we have played a vital role in the struggle for justice.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries our forbearers opened their congregations to abolitionists and suffragists. During the Civil War, the first all black regiment from the North was funded by a Unitarian congregation in Massachussets. Some of the earliest women’s rights conventions were led by our co-religionists. In more recent decades, Unitarian Universalist congregations have played crucial roles in launching the public radio movement, sustaining the anti-war movement, confronting the AIDS crisis, fighting for civil rights, queer liberation, and women’s rights, and working for the environmental justice movement. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were started in our churches.
Our orientation to community improvement and building the just society comes from our theology. We are a this-worldly religion. We find this sentiment expressed by this campus’s namesake, Henry David Thoreau. The story is told that when he was on his deathbed a friend leaned near and speculated, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” “One world at a time,” was Thoreau’s reply.
One world at a time; we Unitarian Universalists do not orient ourselves to some distant heaven. Instead, under the starry firmament of this cosmos and with our bodies placed upon the good soil of this planet we commit to journey through life together. Together we seek the truth, love each other and the human family as best can, and work for the just society.
This campus is named for Henry David Thoreau, a man who attempted to embody these principles. Thoreau was raised a Unitarian in Concord, Massachussets. Much debate has taken place over his connection to Unitarianism as an adult. The pertinent facts are these: he spent his entire adult life in the company of Unitarian ministers such as Theodore Parker, former ministers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarian feminists, including Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody; his funeral service took place in the Unitarian First Parish Church in Concord, and was presided over by a Unitarian minister; and he resigned his membership from First Parish Concord as a protest against a minister’s unwillingness to speak out against slavery. He was, in other words, an archetypal Unitarian–an individual guided by his conscience and living in tension with a society that failed to meet his ethical standards.
Looking to Thoreau’s life we find four lodestones that we would be well advised to take as our own. These are naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion. Naturalism: Thoreau understood that we humans are part and parcel of the natural world. He counseled that the moral law was to be found by looking to the woods and the rivers. This is wise guidance for our contemporary age when we find ourselves ever more tied to the world of technology. His sense that human wisdom was found in the rushing waters and in the knotty forests led him to observe, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” The further we get from our connection to the natural world the further we drift from our own humanness. And so, it is good that this new campus we dedicate today is upon five acres of grass and brush–a space to play, a space to see the lights of the heavens, and a space to consider our connection to the great all of being.
Transcendentalism: Thoreau was part of the generation of Unitarian thinkers who came to be known as the Transcendentalists. They believed that religious truth is discovered through intuition. It was not inscribed forever in scripture. It was found by looking within and probing the mind’s infinite fathoms. They understood that the divine resides within each of us. “The highest revelation is that God is in every man,” Thoreau’s great friend Ralph Waldo Emerson taught in the gendered language of his day.
It is difficult to appreciate how radical Transcendentalism was in the nineteenth century United States. It was a religious philosophy that recognized that religious truth was not only found in the Christian New Testament or the Hebrew Bible. It did not point to Jesus as Lord and Savior. It was first major religious philosophy to arise in Europe or the United States that taught that the world’s religions all contained wisdom. It opened the way for people of European descent to turn to yoga, meditation, or the poetry of the Sufi teacher Rumi. It is why we Unitarian Universalists use the verses from many traditions in our worship services, such as these from the fifteenth-century Hindu mystic Mirabai: “What is this world? A patch of gooseberry bushes. It catches on the way to the one we love.”
There are echoes of Thoreau’s naturalism and transcendentalism in Mirabai’s words. This is not a coincidence. The Transcendentalists were the first major philosophers of European descent to look to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. They found beauty within these traditions and, through them, were inspired to connect more deeply with the divine. When we think of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists we should remember that the moral law lies within but can be found in the wilds of the world, the wisdom of the great religious teachers, and among all those who attempt to live lives of conscience.
Community: Thoreau is often portrayed as the great American individualist. He went to Walden woods to experiment with self-reliance and find freedom. He built a cabin and tried to live by his own efforts. He believed in the sovereignty of the individual conscience. He felt that the slave holding war making society that he lived in was corrupting and wanted to see if he could live apart from it.
And yet, Thoreau’s individualism is only half of his story. He was always seeking truth through community. He and his friends constantly debated and sought to discover their higher callings together. Even in his retreat in Walden, in the cabin he built himself, he ensured that there was room for others. In his famous text he wrote, “We belong to the community.” Throughout his time at Walden he frequently visited his friend Emerson’s house for discussion and dinner.
Thinking about Thoreau we should remember that the success of the individual is rarely possible without the community. Yes, there is a tension between the community and the individual. But it was Thoreau’s relationship with his Unitarian community, that ultimately allowed him to blossom as an individual. Without the support of Emerson or others in his circle it is likely that he never would have succeeded as a writer or philosopher.
Prophetic Religion: Naming a campus after Henry David Thoreau must be read as an act of bravery. Thoreau is one of the most politically radical figures in European American history. It is possible to claim that he is the most important political philosopher that the country has yet produced. His essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” more commonly called, “Civil Disobedience,” is one of the foundational texts of the theory of non-violent resistance to government. Thoreau’s belief that the moral law lies within led him to believe that when there was a conflict between moral law and human law the only faithful, ethical, course of action was to choose the moral law. He wrote his famous essay after spending the night in jail for refusing to pay war taxes in support of the Mexican-American War, a war that, incidentally, ultimately brought the state of Texas into the Union and was fought primarily to expand slavery.
The influence of Thoreau’s essay can be traced through the great Christian anarchist Leo Tolstoy to Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to the mass movements of civil disobedience against injustice, tyranny, and ecocide today. Echoes of Thoreau’s call to the moral of conscience are found in Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, school striking for climate action, and on the streets in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere as people demand a better world.
Thoreau’s prophetic impulses made many of contemporaries uncomfortable. This is all the more true because in the years following his composition of “Civil Disobedience” he came to believe that slavery in South, including here in the state of Texas, could only be overcome with armed resistance. He was a vocal defender of John Brown. He called the man who led the armed raid on Harpers Ferry, the catalyst to the Civil War, “an angel of light” and compared the executed abolitionist to Jesus, saying, “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung.”
Thoreau’s endorsement of Brown most likely makes many of us uncomfortable. I have certainly found it challenging to wrestle with. Just as I have found Thoreau’s statement, “The only government that I recognize,–and it matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small the army,–is that power that establishes justice in the land,” an inspiration in my own attempts to live by my conscience.
What Thoreau’s prophetic postions remind us is that the quest to live accordance with one’s conscience is never an easy one. The path less trod contains many a rock upon which we might stumble. It will often place us as an outlier to the wider society. And we may never know the impact our work for justice will have. Thoreau could not possibly have imagined the influence his essay on “Civil Disobedience” would enjoy across the globe.
Naturalism, transcendentalism, community, and prophetic religion, this campus has been named for Henry David Thoreau. The pillars of his life imply a charge for the gathered congregation as we dedicate this building. We are in era of profound crises: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. Let the namesake of this campus remind its members, all members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and people of good heart everywhere:
that we are part and parcel of the natural world;
that what happens to the green grasses, the rushing rivers, and the singing woods, will, ultimately, happen to our human species;
that there is a moral law within that we must follow in times of crisis if we are to lead lives of authenticity and spiritual honesty;
that there is but one human family and that there is wisdom spread across the planet;
that when we are confronted with injustice we are called to act;
that none of us, ever, is truly alone
and that every individual is stronger for being part of a community.
Oh spirit of love and justice,
that some of us call God,
and others know by many names,
we pray to you that
the Thoreau campus of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston
will make the community of Fort Bend County
better by its presence,
it will provide a space for children to learn to make justice
and love the truth,
for adults to share and find their authentic selves,
and for all who cross its threshold
or hear its name
to know that here in Richmond, Texas,
there is a religious community
that embodies love beyond belief,
nurtures the good heart,
binds up the broken,
and engages in the difficult,
work of building a better world.
Let the congregation say Amen.