Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Reading Megan Marshall's new biography of Margaret Fuller, the New England transcendentalist of the early 19th century, friend and confident of Emerson and his coterie of radical freethinkers, and I'm thinking: "Nothing's changed. Here it is almost two centuries later and we are having the same discussions."

Of course, some things have changed, not least because of the efforts of Fuller, Emerson, and the rest. Their contemporary, the feisty Universalist preacher Abner Kneeland, spent sixty days in jail for suggesting in his own newspaper that God was "nature itself" and any other deity was "nothing more than a chimera." He was locked up for his political views –- women should be allowed their own bank accounts, for example –- as well as his pantheism. Margaret Fuller, who wouldn’t have minded being a preacher herself, was barred from the pulpit by her sex. From Harvard too.

So all that has changed. Today one can safely be an outspoken feminist atheist Harvard-grad, at least in New England. Just don't plan on running for office in a red state.

But the content of the discussions has not changed much. In 1838, Emerson exhorted the Harvard Divinity School graduating class to trust "intuition" over archaic representations of God, and urged that religion be "one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy." He was not invited back for thirty years.

So if the discussion isn't going anywhere, why continue? Why? Because the world can still use an occasional dollop of science, beauty and joy. And some of us believe that dollop by dollop the world of human relations is getting incrementally better.

More inclusive, more liberal, more progressive. Dollop by dollop by dollop.