Birds and flowers

Yesterday evening, Bob and I went for a walk. There were red-winged blackbirds, cranes, loads of flowers (a pink & white vetch that smells nice; a white mallow; a white campion; water lilies coming out on the millpond; a big pink convolvulus). We saw ducklings with a mother duck. And away from the river, we saw a pair of cardinals feeding on a bird feeder. And a beautiful sunset.

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Connecting with place

One of the key elements of Pagan thought is connecting with the Earth, Nature, and/or the land. As a general thing, Wiccans seem to focus more on Nature, Druids seem to focus more on the Earth, and Heathens seem to focus more on the land. however, there are always individual exceptions to these generalities. I have always felt very attached to the land around me, especially hills and ranges of hills.

The Pagan revival began, in part, because people felt alienated from Nature by the Industrial Revolution and living in cities.

Looking at other indigenous spiritualities and religions around the world, we can see that connection to the land and Nature is extremely important to them. This connection includes awareness of ecosystems, bio-regions, animals, plants, seasonal changes, rivers, rocks, and trees.

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Grace is the Time, is the Place, is the Motion

On Sunday night I went for a walk with my beloved in the beautiful evening light. The rain had cleared, and the low summer sun was illuminating everything in a lovely dreamy gold. The sort of light that makes everything look as if it is lit from within. And because everything was freshly washed, it all looked brighter. The scent of roses and mock-orange filled the air, and the birds were singing. The trees hung over the path and formed a tunnel of green leaves.

At moments like that, when divinity shines within all things, I feel reconnected, refreshed, renewed. You might call it a moment of grace.

Grass Illuminated by the Setting Sun. Photo by MemoryCatcher. CC0 Public Domain.

Grass illuminated by the setting Sun. Photo by MemoryCatcher on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain.

Reclaiming Grace

Can we reclaim the word “grace” from its Christian connotations? Certainly. Grace means something to be thankful for, something that is praiseworthy, desirable, elegant, right, and fitting.

grace (n.) late 12c., “God’s unmerited favor, love, or help,” from Old French grace “pardon, divine grace, mercy; favor, thanks; elegance, virtue” (12c., Modern French grâce), from Latin gratia “favor, esteem, regard; pleasing quality, good will, gratitude” (source of Italian grazia, Spanish gracia; in Church use translating Greek kharisma), from gratus “pleasing, agreeable,” from PIE *gwreto-, suffixed form of root *gwere (3) “to favor” (source also of Sanskrit grnati “sings, praises, announces,” Lithuanian giriu “to praise, celebrate,” Avestan gar “to praise”).

Sense of “virtue” is early 14c., that of “beauty of form or movement, pleasing quality” is mid-14c. In classical sense, “one of the three sister goddesses (Latin Gratiæ, Greek Kharites), bestowers of beauty and charm,” it is first recorded in English 1579 in Spenser. In music, “an embellishment not essential to the melody or harmony,” 1650s. As the name of the short prayer that is said before or after a meal (early 13c.; until 16c. usually graces) it has a sense of “gratitude.” As a title of honor, c. 1500.

The etymology of the word grace includes Greek charisma:

charisma (n.) “gift of leadership, power of authority,” c. 1930, from German, used in this sense by Max Weber (1864-1920) in “Wirtschaft u. Gesellschaft” (1922), from Greek kharisma “favor, divine gift,” from kharizesthai “to show favor to,” from kharis “grace, beauty, kindness” (Charis was the name of one of the three attendants of Aphrodite) related to khairein “to rejoice at,” from PIE root *gher- (5) “to desire, like” (see hortatory). More mundane sense of “personal charm” recorded by 1959.

Earlier, the word had been used in English with a sense of “grace, talent from God” (1875), directly from Latinized Greek; and in the form charism (plural charismata) it is attested with this sense in English from 1640s. Middle English, meanwhile, had karisme “spiritual gift, divine grace” (c. 1500).

And Charis was one of the three attendants of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. These attendants were known as the Three Graces:

In Greek mythology, a Charis (/ˈkrɪs/; Greek: Χάρις, pronounced [kʰáris]) or Grace is one of three or more minor goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility, together known as the Charites /ˈkærtz/ (Χάριτες [kʰáritɛːs]) or Graces. The usual list, from youngest to oldest is Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”). In Roman mythology they were known as the Gratiae, the “Graces”. In some variants, Charis was one of the Graces and was not the singular form of their name.

Grace is also related to renewal and a sense of being right with the world and the divine. It isn’t on a list of ancient Roman virtues – the nearest concept is Laetitia, meaning “Joy, Gladness, The celebration of thanksgiving, often of the resolution of crisis.” I could certainly settle for Laetitia as a name for the feeling I was having.

But I am reassured by the idea that the Three Graces or Charites were definitely pagan. Among the Lacedaemonians, there were two Graces, Cleta (“Sound” or “Renowned”) and Phaenna (“Light” or “Bright”). The fact that a feeling of grace can be created by harmonious sounds and soothing light makes these names seem particularly apt. Splendor, Good Cheer, and Mirth also seem apt descriptors. And the more modern meaning of elegance and harmony also fits in with these ancient concepts of grace. I can think of several people whom I think of as being graceful in the way they interact with others.

So I think we can reclaim the word grace to mean the beauty and harmony and radiance of Nature and the feelings of awe and gratitude, wonder and joy and healing evoked by that beauty.

And we need these moments of blessing and grace to rest and renew when the magic runs out, when we are heartbroken by senseless slaughter, when sections of the Pagan community are being disappointing about gender.

 

On Poetry: A Conversation

by Sarah Sadie and Yvonne Aburrow

Sarah and Yvonne decided to write a different kind of blogpost – a conversation. Since we are both poets, we had a conversation about poetry.

Seagrass

Seagrass by ADD on Pixabay. CC0 Public Domain

Yvonne: For me, a poem starts to build up like a pressure inside me, and then it bursts like a bubble and I get the first few lines and start writing, and then it all comes out in a big rush. Later, I start to refine it, rearranging the lines here and there – but most of my editing is pretty light after the first rush.
What’s your experience?

Sarah: This is what I love about conversations–my process is almost completely different from yours! For me, I will sense a moment–almost like a scent or texture to the day, the hour, that brushes my skin like a spider web…and I have to try to catch at whatever that moment is, put it down on the page in language. It really does feel like having a seventh or eighth sense, in a way. A poem can be just one of those–or sometimes it is a series or combination, that I build over time ,editing lines, switching stanzas around. I work it along for a number of days or weeks…and when I can’t take it any further (Plath: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to”) I set the draft aside for a couple of months. By the time I pull it out I’ve mostly forgotten it and the fresh reading shows me where the trouble spots, the faultlines are.

Do you try to write poetry regularly, to keep yourself searching for that sense of “pressure” or do you wait for it to come to you?

Yvonne: That’s a fascinating process. I often write small pieces of prose in response to the beauty I see all around me, and I suppose those could get turned into poems, and I think that’s my “poetic eye” responding to the world. I used to write poetry more frequently – but lately I’ve been more focused on writing prose. I once wrote a poem about my process where I likened it to the bends – bubbles rising from the depths. Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is.

I do write poetry for ritual and that tends to be more “written to order” (and create spoken poetry extempore in ritual) but even that has waned of late. Maybe I should stop waiting for it to come to me, and seek out the Muse a bit more actively. I have a fairly strong image of my muse – a dark man who lives in a cave (probably also my animus).

Do you feel that you have a Muse?

Sarah: Before I answer that question… 😉

I really like the word you use above : response. Because poetry (by extension, any art) is a response, it is part of a conversation between the writer and the larger world–and just writing that I realize how much our writing is a form of listening. And we have a response-ability that can grow, shift, change as we do over the years. When you say “Perhaps my process has changed and I need to discover what the new process is” I shout YES–with two new books out this year, I feel I’ve tapped out a bit. Need to open to the next thing.

A book of poems feels like an album to me–Prince’s death (and Bowie’s, before that) have me thinking about similarities between how I feel about creating a book and how they created albums. There are the individual songs, and then there is the overall vision–the sum is greater than the individual parts. Beyonce’s Lemonade is an immediate contemporary example as well. (btw, isn’t it fascinating how people are picking up on the polytheist content of Lemonade).

In the years that I was Poet Laureate of Madison, Wisconsin, I also wrote poems to order and I found it–at that time in my writing life–a welcome challenge. The City gave awesome and random writing prompts (the rededication of a replica Statue of Liberty; a poem to introduce a political scientist who specializes in polling procedures; a poem for Obihiro, Japan among others)–and deadlines to boot!

Poems and spellwork are very closely related. Very, very closely, imo. So are poems and theology, for that matter.

As for my muse–yes, I have one. Also male (I would love to see an anthology of women (and men) writing about and to their male muses. It’s about time to balance the record on this). He is a reclusive character–I only catch glimpses once in a while. Just as often, I am writing to particular friends or family members–a poem sometimes (often) feels like an old-fashioned letter, to me.

I’m extremely restless with myself as a writer these days…to be a text artist in a visual age is not easy. I’m trying to understand where I go next–it feels very much like walking blind through thorns, at the moment.

What about you? Do you have a next writing project you’re launching into?

Yvonne: Yes, I’m currently working on a book about the inner work of witchcraft (that’s the working subtitle). There will be a fair amount about embodied spirituality and responding to Nature, as well as energy work, how the circle is a microcosm, visualisation, meditation, and so on.

I was interested by what you said about being a text writer in a visual age. I suppose we can take some comfort from the way that poetry is the most visual form of writing. I also know one poet who illustrates his work with photo-collages. And then there was Kahlil Gibran, who accompanied his poems with his own drawings. I was never quite sure how the drawing related to the poem, but it was interesting.

I completely agree that poetry is related to theology and magic; they use the same twilight mode of consciousness. Spells and ritual words often take the form of poetry – Doreen Valiente was very good at that. I wish people would study a little and find out about different meters and poetic devices such as assonance and the caesura though. And theology is sometimes poetic (and ought to be more often). Alison Leigh Lilly springs to mind as someone who writes poetic theology. I think also that poets, like comedians, see connections that others have missed. Both comedy and poetry are sacred arts, showing the world hidden connections and undercurrents.

Is that what you had in mind?

Sarah: Wasn’t it Victor Anderson who said that “White magic is poetry. Black magic is anything that works.” ? I agree completely that people who write spells and rituals as poetry would do well to study the craft–it is an aspect of craft like any other and the more adept you are, the stronger your ritual will be.

I also really like what Seamus Heaney wrote (I’m paraphrasing here and not doing it full justice, but the idea comes across): that a poem is like the paper bird we tape in the picture window–it’s not a real bird, but it causes the birds outside to veer their course. A poem isn’t “real life”–but it can cause us to swerve a bit. It has an effect. An impact.

It may be that poetry is as close to my religion as any recognized Pagan tradition. And I’m okay with that.

Great conversation–thank you!

Yvonne: Poetry as religion – I’ll drink to that! For me it is a sacred vocation, and one that no-one can take away from me. One is a witch in community, one has a job title conferred by an employer: but one can be a poet without approval or sanction from anyone else. Even a child writing their first poems may call themselves a poet. I love that.

And poetry as magic: definitely! A poem can transform your perspective and perceptions, it can be an incantation (did you ever hear Yeats reading The Lake Isle of Innisfree? It’s like he’s reading a spell), it can be an invocation to change the world.

How to Become a Naturalist

Pagans often say that we want to get in touch with Nature. But there are many among us who don’t know one tree species from another, or one flower from another. It’s all “oograh“.

I was lucky to be brought up by my mother, who pointed out lots of different flower species and taught me to identify flowers by their genus. So I have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of wild flowers. If you didn’t have the luck to be brought up by a keen botanist, here’s how you can become one. My mother is also keen on birds. I like birds and am okay at identifying them – but they won’t stay still, which hampers the efforts of the amateur ornithologist.

Flowers and trees are easier to get started on than mushrooms, grasses, birds, or moths, because flowers and trees are easier to tell apart. Once you have got your eye in and learnt to identify flowers, you can move on to more advanced things like mushrooms, grasses, and birds.

The key to being a naturalist is observation of detail. How big is it? How many leaves does it have? What shape are they? How are they arranged on the stem? How many petals does it have? What are the stamens like? Does it have fruits or seed-pods? Florets or umbels?

Step 1 – learn a few common flower species, or make a list of the ones you know already. Find out whether any of them are part of the same family.

Step 2 – buy a really good flower field guide, with a botanical key. The key will help you to find the plant in the book by checking the number of petals, leaves, etc. It’s also a good idea to learn the names of parts of plants (stamen, pistil, umbel, floret, etc).

Step 3 – Riffle through the book and familiarise yourself with the different plant families, and where they are likely to be found. If you know that the Brassicaceae have four petals arranged in a cross shape around the centre of the flower, or that the Umbelliferae have big umbels (like an inside-out umbrella) it’s easier to get to the individual species by going to the section of the book that deals with that family.

A similar process to the above applies to learning bird species, moth and butterfly species, and tree species.

Why classify?

If you don’t learn the names and characteristics of plants, it is a lot harder to tell them apart. Associating the specific characteristics of a plant to its name (whether it’s the folk-name or the Latin name) anchors in your mind that it’s a distinct species. It’s the way the brain works.

Go for a walk

Walking is good for both body and soul, and a great way to be in Nature (and has zero environmental impact, unless you use a car to get there). I am very fortunate in being quite near the River Thames, which is awesome for nature walks. On Sunday, we found snake’s-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Snake’s head fritillaries. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Whenever you go for a walk, take your flower book and/or tree book with you. (There are probably apps for identifying things, but it’s nice to have an actual book.) Note down the species you see, and keep a nature journal. I have done this intermittently over the years, and it’s nice to read back over old entries. If you are not keen on writing, take photos, make drawings, or take a very small sample for pressing (but never pick the whole plant, and only take part of a plant if you can see at least 20 other good plants of the same kind).

One of the things I do is write “small beauties” posts and post them to Facebook and my other blog. These are descriptions of what I have seen whilst out and about – trees, birds, flowers, interesting clouds, people, boats, buildings. Writing these sharpens your powers of observation, and reading them later is a pleasant reminder of what you have seen.

I love going for a walk and really looking at the trees, flowers, birds, and landscape that I meet on the way. It’s how I relax. And it is really rewarding to be able identify flowers and birds and trees: it gives you a sense of achievement, sharpens your powers of observation, and means that you really engage with nature instead of just seeing it as a vague amorphous mass.

Snake's head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

White snake’s head fritillary. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Folklore of plants

It’s also interesting and useful to find out about the folklore and herbal uses of plants. In the past, the witch was the village healer (according to legend, anyway), so it’s good to learn the folklore, symbolism, mythology, and medicinal uses of plants. I am not the world’s greatest herbalist, but I know a few things; and I am a pretty good botanist.

Recommended books

Most of these are about British natural history (because I live in Britain). If you have recommendations for North America, Europe, or Australia, please post them in the comments.

  • Collins British Wild Flower Guide – a really comprehensive guide to plant families and individual species. Really clear layout, very comprehensive, beautiful illustrations, and contains a botanical key.
  • Roger Phillips, Mushrooms – this is the definitive guide. Not a field guide, but well worth getting a copy anyway.

Folklore and natural history

Useful websites

Related posts

Pagan and Pantheist Tendencies in Unitarianism

Slide 1: Introduction

Many people think that the Pagan or Earth Spirit element in Unitarianism started around 1980 with the first Unitarian Universalist Pagan ritual, or with the foundation of CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) in America in 1986, or the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network in the UK, founded in 1990. In fact, it has its roots in some much earlier developments.

Slide 2: Unitarians and ancient pagan ideas

A notable pagan thinker of late antiquity was Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who pleaded for religious tolerance for pagans in the face of Christian intolerance:

We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road.

— Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402)

Paganism is generally tolerant of different viewpoints because most Pagans believe that everyone has their own unique path to walk, and that there is a vast array of deities. Unitarians are tolerant because they tend to believe that everyone’s experience is unique and different religions are different perspectives on the same underlying reality.

Slide 3: Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus (often regarded as the first Unitarian martyr) decided on the unity of God in part because he had been reading Hermetic texts, according to Earl Morse Wilbur, author of a history of Unitarianism in two volumes. The Hermetic texts were a loose compendium of Platonist and Neo-Platonist texts from late antiquity (the last days of the ancient pagan world). Some pagan thinkers of antiquity held that there was a divine unity.

Slide 4: Deism and Natural Religion (18th century)

Two key strands in Unitarian thought were Deism and Natural Religion.

Deism in the philosophy of religion is the standpoint that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that a supreme being created the universe. Further the term often implies that this supreme being does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that God (or “The Supreme Architect”) has a plan for the universe that is not to be altered by intervention in the affairs of human life. Deists believe in the existence of God without any reliance on revealed religion, religious authority or holy books. … Deism became more prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment — especially in Britain, France, United States and Ireland — mostly among those raised as Christians who found they could not believe in supernatural miracles or the inerrancy of scriptures, but who did believe in one God. The Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophies, and it is generally believed that many of them were deists.

Most deists saw the religions of their day as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They felt that this original pure religion had become corrupted by “priests” who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general.

According to this world view, over time “priests” had succeeded in encrusting the original simple, rational religion with all kinds of superstitions and “mysteries” – irrational theological doctrines. Laymen were told by the priests that only the priests really knew what was necessary for salvation and that laymen must accept the “mysteries” on faith and on the priests’ authority. This kept the laity baffled by the nonsensical “mysteries”, confused, and dependent on the priests for information about the requirements for salvation. The priests consequently enjoyed a position of considerable power over the laity, which they strove to maintain and increase. Deists referred to this kind of manipulation of religious doctrine as “priestcraft”, a highly derogatory term.

Deists saw their mission as the stripping away of “priestcraft” and “mysteries” from religion, thereby restoring religion to its original, true condition – simple and rational. In many cases, they considered true, original Christianity to be the same as this original natural religion.

(Wikipedia)

The original, simple and rational religion was known as the Urreligion or natural religion.

Many early Unitarians were Deists (particularly the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence) and were accused by their contemporaries of atheism. Deists believed that religion was natural to humanity, and that God was accessible to reason. They looked for an original form of religion from which all current forms had decayed or evolved. Hence many of them were interested in ancient Greek religion, and also in Druidry, believing it to be a form of the ancient Hebrew religion which had been brought to Britain by the Phoenicians.

Slide 5: Iolo Morgannwg

Hence, when Unitarianism in Britain officially began, it was not long before it attracted the attention of one Iolo Morganwg, who had earlier written a huge collection of material for the nascent Druid movement, and went on to become a Unitarian minister and to write many of the hymns used in the Welsh Unitarian hymnbook. At that time ancient druidry was thought to have been a debased form of the Hebrew religion, brought to Britain by the Phoenicians, so it is hardly surprising that Morganwg became interested in Unitarianism. Nevertheless, the Druid movement of which he was one of the founders has evolved into the modern Pagan Druid movement.

Ronald Hutton’s comprehensive work on the druids shows that there was hardly any evidence of what the druids were like; the only evidence available was from Roman sources, but there was hardly enough there to reconstruct a religion that looked anything like druidry.

Druids did not generally identify themselves as Pagans until the early 20th century. Before that, druid orders had names like the Universal Bond, and their views were universalist rather than pagan, in other words, they believed that there was an essential element in every religion that was the same – a mystical core of religion.

Contemporary Druidry is part of the Pagan revival. Druid and Pagan beliefs range from non-theism to animism to (neo-)shamanism to duotheism (a god and a goddess) to monism to polytheism. Most Pagans feel a sense of connection to the land, the Earth, and/or Nature. A number of Druid orders are drawn to ancient sites because they feel connected to their builders and former users. Some Druids consider themselves to be the successors of the ancient druids described by Julius Caesar and others, often using arguments of dubious intellectual provenance, as we know almost nothing about what ancient druids did or believed.

A key theme in Druidry (particularly at the festival of Samhain) is the connection with ancestors, usually defined as including one’s personal kin, the people who once dwelled in the place one lives in (house, village, town, region), and spiritual kindred, that is, inspirers.

There are two main strands of Druidry, the countercultural (associated with road protests and similar events, and sometimes clouded by a reputation for public drunkeness) and the more retiringly ‘spiritual’ (who tend to be more middle class). There is much overlap between the two strands.

Druidry and the Pagan revival are very diverse and cannot be easily pigeonholed. Contemporary Pagans are drawn from a range of backgrounds and include some professionals and scientists.

Slide 6: Rammohun Roy

Another non-Christian who became interested in Unitarianism – and became in the process a major influence upon it – was Raja Rammohun Roy. He had had encounters with various Christian missionaries in India, but found their arguments unconvincing. Tired of Hindu stories of half-human half-deities, he was not minded to accept the divinity of Jesus, and argued that Jesus was human and not divine. He founded the Unitarian Society of Calcutta and the Brahmo Samaj (One God Society). He also translated the Upanishads and Vedas (Hindu scriptures) into English, and it was probably he who coined the word “Hindu”. He corresponded with Unitarians in Britain and eventually travelled here to ensure that the government did not repeal the law banning widow-burning, which he and others had campaigned so hard to abolish. Sadly he died here and is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetry in Bristol. His writings influenced many Unitarians.

Whilst he was in England, Roy toured the country and met many people of all walks of life, including George IV (whose coronation he attended) and Jeremy Bentham, who had Unitarian sympathies and many Unitarian friends. Roy presented three papers on the Revenue System of India, the Judicial System of India and the Material Condition of India to a committee of the House of Commons.

Religious and political thinkers sought him out to engage in spirited discussions, and Dissenting and Anglican clergymen vied with each other for the honor of his presence at their services. Prominent middle-class reformers were constantly at his side, their daughters or unmarried sisters often especially attentive to him. And, while in Manchester, a crowd of factory workers followed Rammohun about on his tour, the men and women insisting on shaking his hand or embracing him. (Zastoupil, 2002: 215)

He addressed the Unitarian annual meeting in London, and was invited to Bristol by the Reverend Lant Carpenter, where he stayed at Mary Carpenter’s home until his untimely death from meningitis on 27 September 1833. He was buried in Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol, and an annual service is held at his tomb, conducted by the Unitarian minister of Bristol. The Brahmo Samaj are regular attenders at this event.A statue of Rammohun Roy (paid for by the Indian government) was erected in central Bristol in 1997.

Roy’s visit also had political implications, in that there was some talk of him standing for Parliament, and his association with radical dissenters like the Unitarians was of considerable assistance in their agenda of reform and the disentanglement of church and state (Zastoupil, 2002: 220).

Roy’s deist views, his struggles with Hindu orthodoxy and debates with Baptist missionaries over the doctrine of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, and the fact that his family was said to have disowned him for his views, all resonated strongly with the Unitarians of the 1820s and 1830s, who faced persecution by the authorities (the 1689 Toleration Act was not extended to them), legal disputes over chapels and endowments, frequent blasphemy charges, and public objections to their involvement in politics and campaigning (Zastoupil, 2002: 230).

Slide 7: Unitarians and Nature

Unitarians have often found Nature inspiring and viewed the Divine as immanent in Nature, perhaps drawing on Spinoza’s ideas of God as Nature (Deus sive Natura).

Slide 8: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge, the Romantic poet, was a Unitarian originally and preached in several Unitarian chapels. He also employed a lot of Nature imagery in his poems, and many of them were pantheist in tone.

He wrote about Liberty as a principle that ran through all Nature:

And there I felt thee!—on that sea-cliff’s verge,

Whose pines, scarce travelled by the breeze above,

Had made one murmur with the distant surge!

Yes, while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,

And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,

Possessing all things with intensest love,

O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.

He writes about God incarnate in humanity, and in Nature, in his poem, Religious Musings: a Desultory Poem. The influence of his Unitarian mentor Joseph Priestley is apparent in these lines:

‘Tis the sublime of man

Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves

Parts and proportions of one wondrous Whole!

This fraternises man, this constitutes

Our charities and bearings. But ’tis God

Diffused through all, that doth make all one whole . . .

James Martineau spoke for many other Unitarians when he included the works of Coleridge in a short listing of his personal ‘sacred guides’. And perhaps his famous view of the Incarnation could have been influenced by these Religious Musings.

“The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.”

Slide 9: Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Transcendentalists

The most obvious way in which Unitarianism has influenced contemporary Paganism is through the Transcendentalists (a group of Unitarians from New England). Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began the Transcendentalist movement, had read the writings of Rammohun Roy, and was deeply influenced by them.

The Transcendentalists argued that true religion and spirituality transcend the dogmatic cultural forms of religion; they took their name from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The key players in the Transcendentalist movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden, an account of his attempt to return to Nature by living in a small hut by Walden Pond), and Bronson Alcott, educator and father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.

Many of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ideas fed into modern Paganism; for example the idea of polarity (on which Emerson wrote an essay) is very important in Wicca; and the idea of retreating to a simple hut, as Thoreau did, influenced Ross Nicholls, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, to advocate retreating to a simple hut (perhaps he got the idea from the poem by WB Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, but that was inspired by Thoreau).

Emerson’s own writings were widely read, and he became friends with Walt Whitman, the gay poet of Nature, who corresponded with Edward Carpenter, a gay Pagan socialist vegetarian whose writings were influential in the Pagan movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably because of the Transcendentalists that Paganism has so often been referred to as a “Nature religion” according to Chas Clifton, an American scholar of Pagan Studies. Most Pagans and many Unitarians believe that the Divine (or deities) is/are immanent in the world; an important prerequisite for treating the planet with respect.

Slide 10: Unitarians and the Goddess

Another very important idea in the contemporary Pagan revival, and for many Unitarians, is the worship of the Goddess or of Goddesses.

Unitarian feminists were vital in the process of exposing the patriarchal nature of religion. Names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of Theodore Parker’s congregation, who wrote The Woman’s Bible, and Frances Power Cobbe, who edited a 14 volume edition of his writings, are very important in feminist history.

  • The Goddess is immanent in the world, not transcendent.
  • She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be properly Unitarian about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
  • She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
  • She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
  • But she is also the wise crone and the wild maiden.
  • She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
  • She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
  • She is much more than a Virgin Mother – this is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
  • Her worship includes sacred sexuality.

Before there was the Earth Spirit Network, there were the feminist theology activists in Unitarianism who campaigned for more inclusive language; they included Ann Peart.

Slide 11: Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker was a Transcendentalist minister who was shunned by the more conservative Unitarians in the Boston area, but eventually gathered a congregation of about 300 in an old theatre; they included Barbara Bodichon, feminist and later a Pre-Raphaelite artist; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a famous American Unitarian feminist. Parker was a noted campaigner against slavery; but he also often referred to God as a Mother, and believed that God is immanent.

Slide 12: Norbert Čapek 

Norbert Čapek also viewed the Divine as immanent in humanity, and wrote the famous and much-loved hymn, Mother Spirit, Father Spirit. He also designed the Flower Communion, which was a radical expression of what it meant to be Unitarian in a country occupied by the Nazis, and a celebration of individuality, as well as a form of communion that his congregation, many of whom had rejected conventional Christianity, could celebrate.

Slide 13: The flaming chalice

During the Second World War, the Unitarian Service Committee was rescuing Jews from the Nazis, and needed an official symbol to put in their passports to show that they were under the protection of the Unitarian Service Committee. Rev Charles Joy, the leader of the USC, commissioned Hans Deutsch to produce a symbol, and wrote to the General Assembly back in America, that it was like a Greek or Roman chalice.

Slide 14: Conclusion

So, pagan and pantheist ideas have been in circulation in Unitarianism since it began; they are not a recent introduction, but an integral part of Unitarian engagement with the world, because both Paganism and Unitarianism are world-affirming.

~ Yvonne Aburrow

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From Natural Religion to Nature Religion: Pagan and Pantheist tendencies in Unitarianism by Yvonne Aburrow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 


Note on names: In the UK, the movement is called Unitarian and Free Christian (Unitarianism for short); in the USA, it is Unitarian Universalism, as a result of the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961; in Canada, it is Unitarianism.