Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hedge and The Broad Church

     Back when I was trying to make sense of DMin Project, I spent a great deal of time with the work of Frederic Henry Hedge.  Hedge held a variety of posts over the years and was a major component in the early development of what became Transcendentalism.  Many current scholars assert that he ultimately turned away from this movement in reaction to its drift away from traditional Christianity.  I am not so sure about that.  It seems to me that those scholars are--for the most part--studying something more akin to "Emersonism" rather than an intellectual movement with various "schools" and wings. 

     Hedge (along with fellow travellers like James Freeman Clarke) did disagree with his friends on many points.  However, many of these differences came from his commitment to the church.  Hedge and Clarke were, essentially, churchmen.  Their job was to translate these new ideas into something that was actually useful for  regular people.  Thoreau could go to the woods.  Emerson could go on his lecture tours.  Alcott could...um...do whatever he was into at that moment.  Everyone else had to live in the mundane everyday world.  Many of them wanted to go to church to learn how to live into their beliefs.  Many of them saw themselves as Christians (and still do).  They saw (and see) no reason why the new ideas required an abandonment of this faith identity.

     One of Hedge's most famous sermons--"the Broad Church"-- was re-published in 1981 by the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship and can still be found in many UU church libraries.  In it he attempts to situate the church according to the four directions of the compass.  This is well before modern versions of paganism entered our consciousness--it was first published in 1891--so the compass allusion came from scripture "and they shall come from the east and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God."  (Luke 13:29)
     That he chose a geographic metaphor is, I think, telling. Each of the four points helps to situate the church in the religious landscape. for a liberal Christian they are not, in themselves, surprising. The east, for example, represents the permanent core of the Christian faith, “Fundamental and indispensable to every church is the idea of Christ,--not the moral teacher and philosopher, but Christ, the Son of man and the Son of God”.  For many of us who are part of liberal Christian churches in the UUA there remains this sense of Jesus Christ as being something more than just a good guy, or an effective teacher.  Of course, not everyone would articulate what Jesus is in the same way as Hedge.  There are plenty of divergent opinions!  However, as I mentioned in a previous post, at my church not everyone is Christian, but we all have had to come to terms with what Jesus means to us.  He is mentioned or quoted nearly every week.

      The western compass point stands for the rapidly growing and developing interpretation of our faith. “Christianity, though bound to a given idea and to certain immutable truths, is not, for the rest, a fixture, but a movement and a growth; not a divinely established system of views and institutions…but a flowing demonstration of the spirit in such forms and aspects and embodiments as each successive age required.”   The Bible--and the larger tradition, itself--is a text to be in conversation with and that must itself speak to the world in which it exists.  This, of course, is at the center of many liberal or progressive faith traditions.
     For Hedge--perhaps not surprisingly--the northern point stands for mysticism. To him and to his spiritual inheritors, the experience of God comes from a variety of sources, including nature and life, itself. "Mysticism is a very important element in religion 'if haply we may find him.'  It is that by which religion lays hold of the invisible and enters into fuller, that is, more conscious and intimate, communion with the spiritual and heavenly world."  Unlike many of his friends, however, his understanding of this mystical dimension was firmly grounded in the institution of the church. This openness to a variety of religious perspectives is the hallmark of liberal worship, Christian or otherwise.  I see this dynamic in both the UUA and the UCC.  However, openness still requires an understanding of one's own lens.  In this case, the Christian one that naturally alters our perspective of the faith of others.
     The life of the church rounds out Hedge’s compass points. The southern (and sometimes neglected) point is reserved for ritual. Again, perhaps unlike the more famous Transcendentalists, Hedge’s theology had a stronger corporate dimension. The religious life is something that is done in community and that includes communal worship.

“A church without a ritual, without symbols and sacraments and a corporate organism…is an impossibility, a contradiction in terms. The religious sentiment, it is true, is spontaneous and eternal; in one form or another it will always exist where man exists; but this spontaneous religion, unfixed and uncertain, may so degenerate as to become only evil rather than good.”

     This model from Hedge is more than just an academic exercise or historical curiosity. The theological tradition of the church is what has attracted and sustained its membership though the years. As with Hedge’s thought, theology is lived out with openness to other traditions and perspectives. However, also like Hedge, many liberals have made an intentional decision to articulate our faith journey through the language, tradition, and stories of the Jewish and Christian faiths.  Hedge, I think, is worth a read ans surprisingly easy to come by.  I would suggest "Frederic Henry Hedge: Unitarian Theologian of the Broad Church" (UU Christian v.36 n. 1-2) as a good place to start.  If you want to be particularly Hedgian, there is "Reason in Religion" as well as numerous sermon collections, theses and dissertations.

     Ultimately Hedge dropped out of my doctorate with the exception of some of his work in Reason.  I think I will catch up with him during sabbatical, both for what he says about liberalism and for what he says about the church, itself.

Here is a link to the UUCF Bookstore where I don't see any Hedge stuff for sale at the moment.  However, if you are interested, there is some good stuff and there may be a way to get back copies of specific articles...

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