The Colours of the Spirit

It seems overly cliché to bemoan our increasing, blinding reliance upon technology, our advancing inevitable shift into virtual space. On one hand it is tempting to dream of a world in which we can return to the land, that Jeffersonian vision of the simple rural life, in which we are not tainted and corrupted by urban vices. Lives in which we can be intimately connected to nature, not enslaved to corporations, but rather dictate our own destinies. Many Transcendentalists of the 19th century were quite taken with this notion, and it still endures today as a thread of the environmental movement.

What will cities in the future look like?

What will cities in the future look like?

The problem is that such a romantic notion is hopelessly flawed; who would sacrifice the perpetual engagement the modern world has to offer, to return to some idyllic country life [1] – however edifying spiritually that supposedly is? Furthermore, there’s the environmental cost. It might seem counter-intuitive to you, but the average carbon footprint cost for a city dweller is considerably lower than for someone who lives in the countryside.

It has only been in the last couple of decades that the global population of people living in cities has surpassed that of those living in the country. That ecological time bomb we all hear about, if we overcome it, it will be because people are in cities not despite it. And of course, the city-dwelling population is only going up. I think these facts pose an interesting challenge to our Unitarian Transcendentalist heritage, especially given that communing with the divine through nature has endured as a consistent theme within our movement.

When ‘Nature’ was written by Emerson in the 19th Century and Henry David Thoreau went and lived in his cabin for those two years to get closer to nature and to live ‘deliberately’, the urban population in New England had just tipped over the 50% mark. Now it is north of 80% in the USA as a whole.

Emerson’s book begins by setting out that one simple question: if the great prophets and sages of old beheld God and nature face to face, through their eyes, why should we not also enjoy an original relationship with the universe?

And my rather pessimistic answer is, because we are irrevocably alienated from nature, we could never return to the land in any meaningful way. In fact, to do so would be detrimental to humanity. People can never be any more than nature’s tourists. How then can we know God?

19th Century New England painting by  Mary Blood Mellen

19th Century New England painting by Mary Blood Mellen

Because New England urbanisation was so low, Emerson could assume his audience had experienced nature first hand, even if only in a meaningfully intimate way in their youth. We cannot assume that today. If people today are biblically illiterate, then perhaps they are illiterate to the beauty of nature also. Perhaps we assume an innate reverence for nature which the urban dwellers cannot even begin to recognise. Or at least, they may lack the language to recognise it. We may be a community so in touch with the supreme significance of nature’s beauty that it proves an insurmountable hurdle to those that cannot see it.

Take a community that values the biblical narrative; they would not abandon it when faced with the biblically illiterate. But rather they would strive to invite people into that shared conversation, to educate, inculturate, not assume anything. So we might do the same when it comes to the spiritual language of nature’s beauty. And part of that bridge-building process is also to learn cultural languages which are alien to us – as I have suggested before, film, art, and technology, are such languages that perhaps the urban dwellers of today have a more innate grasp upon.

How can we impart the wisdom of nature to a people unfamiliar with nature? Part of that must lie in bringing nature’s beauty into urban spaces. This is most obviously done by encouraging people into their city’s green spaces, but also in smaller ways, such as bringing flowers into the Meeting House. In this way, we might practice the appreciation of Nature.

Part of Nature’s beauty, as Emerson explains, lies in its unattainable nature. You may own this land, but you cannot own the horizon, you cannot own the stars above. This invokes a youth of the heart, and in turn, it offers us a blank slate. The same feeling is invoked in Mary Oliver’s poem: the dance goes on, with no discernable beginning or end, there is only being present. Practicing the presence of Nature then offers us a fresh beginning, recharges us, and offers us the capacity to move forward and accept what has past, shedding the day-to-day stress of life. It further brings our focus off judging ourselves, others, and situations. The more you appreciate, the less you judge.

Ipswich Meeting House pulpit.

Ipswich Meeting House pulpit.

Some of us have the privilege to find solitude in uninhabited nature, to be there so wholly and intentionally that we surpass mere admiration, and feel it envelop our senses. Perhaps such people have a calling to be nature’s ambassadors, to communicate their appreciation and the wisdom it offers to a people who can never know it to that degree.

The notion often surfaces that the beauty nature has to offer cannot ever be surpassed by the creations of humanity. And I wonder if that is, in fact, true. Perhaps the highest forms of art and beauty are in cities, not outside them. Perhaps Transcendentalist thought has historically missed the true significance of humanity’s creative power. In elevating nature to such a height, and regarding nature as the principal way of communing with the divine, we may blindside ourselves to beauty in its multiplicity of forms – maybe in the cinema, or in art galleries, or restaurants, experiencing the transcendent is just as conceivable, just as valid.

If trends continue as they are, then in my lifetime the population of the entire world will be in cities. No doubt the rate of migration into our cities will level out before then, but none the less our future is squarely in the urban space. What does our movement have to say to a world like that? Do we wish to stand prophetically resistant to such a world? Or do we wish to find our voice in a brave new one?


[1] I think this point does deserve a footnote. You might be protesting, “I would sacrifice modern convenience for the idyllic country life”. And that may well be true. My point is that you are therefore part of a dwindling minority.