Monday, January 21, 2013

great discussion, lousy denomination

[Benjamin] Pierce carried this air of superiority into the public realm.  For several years in the 1860s...he delivered public lectures at Harvard for advanced students and local residents.  A woman was asked after one of his lectures what she had got out of it.  "I could not understand much that he said," she explained; "but it was splendid.  The only thing I now remember in the whole lecture is this--'Incline the mind to an angle of 45 degrees, and periodicity becomes non-periodicity and the ideal becomes real.'"  Pierce once represented Harvard at a town meeting at which some college policy was being debated.  One of the townspeople, in response to something Pierce had said, called him a nabob.  After the meeting, Pierce was asked why he had not responded.  He said he hadn't taken it as an insult:  "I so enjoyed sitting up there and seeing all that crowd look up to me as a nabob that I could not say one word against the fellow."  He cast himself, in short, as the enemy of sentimental egalitarianism.

--from The Metaphysical Club by Lewis Menand

I've been reading this huge book (450 pages before we reach the notes) as background over the January break in preparation for the return of my class in Unitarian Universalist history and polity class.  I'd gotten about halfway through when I discovered just last week that it will be on the required reading list for the second half of the class.  So I will be one book ahead when we start up again in 2 weeks.

What struck me about this passage, found about 150 pages in, and describing the father of Charles Pierce, who was a future member of the short-lived club, and a Unitarian (as was his father), is how aptly it points out what I think is the braggadocio of many contemporary Unitarian Universalists and parenthetically why I think we're dying.

It's a well-worn argument that in Unitarianism especially the head won out over the heart.  One of the most appealing arguments against the way most UU services are held is that it's hard to tell whether it's worship or lecture (usually with a heavy bias toward lecture).  I use the word "appealing" purposefully--it's an appealing argument against attending services.  It isn't that critics want UUs to dumb down sermons or to not focus on abstract concepts, but that UUs too often are in the position of Daddy Pierce, enjoying their role as whatever their detractors call them--bloodless, intellectual, nonreligious, high-handed--that they not only continue their metaphorically looking down on congregants who would have them be otherwise, they see the criticism as a badge of honor.  

While it's true no one would confuse the average UU for a religiously conservative congregant of any faith, it's also true that no one is likely to confuse him or her for an ecstatic of any faith.  And while there are exceptions, the bulk of UUs I'm familiar with would probably sit through a Pierce lecture without much complaint.  Pierce's "obscurity was legend," Menand writes.  "Even his most loyal students admitted that impenetrability was a large part of the appeal...Pierce enjoyed the reputation, and even played up to it, because he was a confirmed intellectual elitist, a pure meritocrat with no democracy about him.  'Do you follow me?' he is supposed to have asked one of his advanced classes during a lecture.  No one did.  'I'm not surprised,' he said. 'I know of only three persons who could.'"

Four persons make for a great discussion.  But not much of a faith.

1 comment:

  1. The book was a great read and I had most of it down during the Spring Semester before I went back to work for the Department of Human Services after being at 3M.

    Peirce was an amazing person and a great man. His approach to metaphysics was also uncanny.