Many of you will no doubt be stalking the aisles of local stores in the coming weeks, willing Christmas shoppers or not, and you should pay attention to what the soundscape around you is trying to do to you. Music matters because it is fundamental to our brains, and marketing experts know that; they try to tap our ‘purchasing instincts’ with music as we shop.
And you may be frazzled after an hour – or 5 minutes – in the mall, and then get into the car, turn on the engine, and crank up the radio…a little bit of Mozart or Metallica – to each her own! – may soothe your nerves and help refresh you in mind and body.
Music matters; Ralph Waldo Emerson knew that; he said,
“Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle out wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto.” (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/136523-music-takes-us-out-of-the-actual-and-whispers-to)
Many ancient philosophers and theologians also knew that music matters:
“Qui bene cantat bis orat” (They who sing pray twice.)—St. Augustine
“Without music life would be a mistake.—Friedrich Nietzsche
“I write the songs that make the whole world sing” - Barry Manilow (Yeah, he’s pretty ancient!)
But music matters because it can evoke strong emotions, and we can remember lyrics and chords from music, and indeed musical experiences, that affected us a long time ago. I remember the first time as a teenager I heard “Hey, Jude”; it was bedtime and I had the radio on and the DJ announced the first play of the brand new Beatles song.
I remember kneeling down next to the table and holding my speakers to the sides of my head so I could hear every little note and every last sound of it. I’m sure that you have those kinds of memories too.
Music matters because we can express ourselves through singing, in the shower sometimes, or with instruments, and when we do it together it can be wonderful. I took part in a pulpit exchange last Sunday with the Rev Kevin Tarsa, and after the service in the Beaufort church one of its members came up to me and said, we’re a church that sings; and I almost replied, well the Augusta church is a church that sings, as if there can only be one UU congregation to make that claim!
But there is no doubt that this is a congregation that sings, and a big part of that is because of who is leading the music and shaping our love of music. Joe has such a wonderful gift of artistry, and if left to itself, that talent could produce a musician who is very precious about that gift.
This week’s On Being with Krista Tippett had a feature on the Indigo Girls, called “Music and Finding God in Church and Smoky Bars” – what a perfect way to define Joe Patchen’s life! The musicians are quoted as seeing “music as a continuum of human existence, intertwined with spiritual life in a way that can’t be pinned down”. We are indeed fortunate to have someone who personifies this description, and who wants to share his love of music with others; Joe is generous with people who want to dip their toes in the music scene of UUCA.
When I began coming to this church 10 years ago, I think I could only stand it for 3 Sundays before I approached him to ask if I could join the choir… and he was very gracious and accepting, even though he didn’t know me or even if I could carry a tune. He has composed music and recorded cds, which are for sale online, and Jerry and Paula Goldman helped a few years ago to get some of his work published; he teaches piano, and he plays with other local musicians all over the CSRA… you could say that music is Joe’s life.
So when he was commissioned to compose a piece of music to commemorate the 25th anniversary of being our music director, he came up with such an interesting idea: he put together the 19th century words of American Unitarian and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson with his own creation, a tune that evokes American gospel music. This Thanksgiving holiday we have been acutely aware of the legacy of this nation, which is built on the search for freedom and the reality of diversity, and to me this new composition exemplifies this.
Since I’ve already told you about the legend that is Joe Patchen, let me tell you a little bit about the legend that is Emerson who, biographer Lawrence Buell writes, was always ready "to stray from paths of common wisdom into trains of thought that seem offbeat, bizarre, and sometimes downright scandalous." (Emerson By Lawrence Buell, p.5)
As a young man entering the ministry, Emerson did so partly due to that career being one open to intellectuals of his time.
But in 1832, at the age of twenty-nine and grieving the death of his young wife Ellen, he gave a sermon announcing that he could no longer in conscience administer Holy Communion, because he did not believe Jesus meant for this to be an ongoing practice. This effectively ended his career in the church, but allowed him to take on another role to which intellectuals gravitated, and that was public speaking.
A good thing too, because in 1837 he gave another shocking performance, this time a Phi Beta Kappa address at his alma mater, Harvard.
It’s known as "The American Scholar" speech, and he used it to trash intellectuals for their “reliance on tradition, Europe, books, formalities, and secondhand ideas instead of on creative intelligence operating upon the actual world of nature and society. Man’s thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar's idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings." (Harold Fromm, http://www.rwe.org/articles/373-overcoming-the-oversoul-emersons-evolutionary-existentialism.html)
And that was Emerson just getting warmed up; even greater upheaval followed in 1838 when he gave an address to the Harvard Divinity School. This time he criticized ministers for their use of scripture, church traditions, their adherence to dead customs, and he accused them of making “historical Christianity into a rigid myth of preposterous supernaturalisms.”
He said, "Men have come to speak of… revelation as [something] long ago given and done, as if God were dead." But revelation, he believed, was not a one-off but a “permanent aspect of human consciousness.”
Now some of us may recall the ‘God is dead’ controversy of the late 1960s, and we may think of Episcopalian Bishop John Spong as more recently championing revisionist theology… Spong with writings such as his essay "Christ and the Body of Christ: Is There a Future for the Christian Church?” He lists a few points that define that future, such as
“1. Theism, as a way of defining God is dead. God can no longer be understood with credibility as Being supernatural in power, dwelling above the sky and prepared to invade human history periodically to enforce the divine will. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless unless we find a new way to speak of God.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3. The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.”
And so on, until the twelfth and final point about bigotry and prejudice concluding that “All human beings …must be respected for what each person is."
Hearing this list, many of us will say “there is not much new here that we hadn’t heard from Emerson one hundred fifty years before.” (Fromm, http://www.rwe.org/articles/373-overcoming-the-oversoul-emersons-evolutionary-existentialism.html)
After burning his bridges with academe and church by telling them what they should not think or believe, in 1841 Emerson wrote his essay on the Oversoul, which gives a real insight into what he does believe. Along with a rejection of dead traditions, as he saw them, he was drawn to ideas from European and Asian thinkers that get away from traditional theism.
Emerson describes "a power / That works its will on age and hour": this power he calls the "Over-Soul," a “force that he feels is in every animate and inanimate object in the universe — namely, the presence of God.” (http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/e/emersons-essays/summary-and-analysis-of-the-oversoul/about-the-oversoul)
Is he espousing some sort of pantheism? It’s worth exploring what this could possibly mean, and here is how Emerson describes it:
“We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. . . .
All goes to show that the soul in man is . . . the background of our being… an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all. A man is the facade of a temple wherein all wisdom and all good abide. . . . When it breathes through his intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love. . . .”
What this means then is that the Oversoul “is the source of life itself. [Craig Pearson says that] This inner field of life has been given many names throughout the centuries.
For Laozi it is the Tao. For Plato it is the Good and the Beautiful. Aristotle calls it Being, Plotinus the Infinite, Jesus the kingdom of Heaven within. In Judaism it is known as Ein Sof, “the endless one”. (Craig Pearson, Ph.D., http://www.tm.org/blog/enlightenment/ralph-waldo-emerson/)
But while it differs in name “it is the same universal, unbounded field of consciousness that rests within each of us… and [that] which gives rise to nature itself.” (Pearson) Just as Emerson says, there is “no ceiling between our heads and the heavens above us”…
In other words, Emerson saw human beings as completely woven into the material web of the universe. He was already excited by the “open-endedness of scientific discovery” that “coordinated well with his sense of evolving life, that reality was ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. His visit in 1833 to the Museum of Natural History in Paris was a powerful moment molding his theology and spirituality, and he recorded his thoughts in his notebook.
There he saw specimens of insects, birds, and animals artfully arranged to reveal their evolutionary history, which was in his words "an occult relation between the very scorpions and man." It seems that he sensed "the organizing idea which had created them." (Fromm, http://www.rwe.org/articles/373-overcoming-the-oversoul-emersons-evolutionary-existentialism.html)
And so in a lecture from 1858 we hear him expressing his appreciation of evolution and his rejection of separating the spirit from the flesh:
“If there be but one substance or reality, and that is body, and it has the quality of creating the sublime astronomy, of converting itself into brain, and geometry, and reason; if it can reason in Newton, and sing in Homer and Shakespeare, and love and serve as saints and angels, then I have no objection to transfer to body all my wonder and allegiance.”
Today Emerson might use the term Oversoul to mean everything human that comes from the biochemical stuff of which we’ve been made throughout our evolutionary history. In the words of Harold Fromm, “Nothing comes simply from "outside" because consciousness mediates all experience - and consciousness has evolved along with everything else. Nurture is not outside. Everything experienced by a subject is ultimately immanent.”
And so Joe has taken the magic of Emerson’s idea of the Oversoul – “the soul of the whole” where there is no separation between us and God – and he’s made it completely new through a context of Gospel music. Gospel means ‘good news’, and that genre of music, while having a direct and vital link to Africa, is distinctly American music.
Much of popular music today can be traced easily to gospel music, thanks to Thomas A. Dorsey, a former blues musician from Georgia.
After World War II, Dorsey, the son of a preacher, turned his talents to writing religious music, but his aim was to disassociate his modern style of black religious music from the days of slavery. He wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “Peace in the Valley”.
(Michael Tanner, http://www.kusp.org/playlists/crosscurrents/history.html)
Of course the Transcendentalists of Emerson’s time would be, at the very least, startled by this mode of expression for his Oversoul message, but as Joe told me,
“The musical form allows us to take the inspirational - but perhaps abstract and worn - words of Emerson, and place them in a context where they are heard for what they are - very good news indeed for Transcendentalists, if not all UUs. Old-fashioned gospel is very much, in attitude and delivery, good news, and the placement of Emerson's concepts in that musical form is meant to inspire and uplift, without denying the dignity of Emerson or of traditional gospel music.”
Ironically perhaps, for someone who popularized the idea of transcendence, Emerson came to believe that everything experienced by a person is ultimately immanent: and he eloquently describes the lack of any barrier between our consciousness and that of the source of life itself: “when it breaks through our intellect it is genius, when it breathes through our will it is virtue, when it breaks through our affections it is love.”
Music matters right here this morning, bringing us - through the skill of our music director - the beauty of these words of Emerson. They tell us that because all human experience is mediated through “the universal, unbounded field of consciousness”, “an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed”, “the background of our being” from which we can directly access the transcendent nature of reality.
There is no bar, no wall, no ceiling to keep us from experiencing what we feel and name as Divine, the Holy, the Endless One. This is good news, set to music that shares Emerson’s heartfelt message that “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.”