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The James Luther Adams Papers
The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993
Part 9: In the Fullness of Time
The story is told of a New England town which had grown to such an extent that the old parish church, formerly on the Common, now found itself at the intersection of the main streets of a a thriving little city. Since the members of the parish for the most part lived in suburbs inconveniently distant from the church, they decided to sell the old property and rebuild the church in a suburb. The church was controlled by the old arrangement of parish and church groups, hence the decision of the church members had to be approved at a town meeting. In the course of the discussion at the town meeting, an elderly man who was never known to have stepped inside a church arose and made an earnest plea, without giving reasons, a plea that the old church be left standing where it had always been. The church members and the townspeople were equally surprised at his interest in the church and at his desire to oppose the members in their plan to dispose of the old building. Finally, one of the members arose and said that everyone now realized he wished the church to remain where it was but that no one could understand what his reason was. “Why do you who have never shown any interest in the church wish it to stay where it is?”
The venerable citizen replied, “Well, all I can say is that there is a lot of sentiment tied up in that old church on the Common.”
When I first heard of this incident, I was unable to discern more than sentimentality in the objection, and perhaps it was only that, yet there may have been something more. The elder was probably saying that something of himself, something of his own life, would be taken away with that old landmark. It was one of the ways in which he established his own identity, a way of life in which he was able to assure himself of the continuity of his own life. At all events, he was suggesting the way in which every human being achieves self-identity, that is, finding oneself.
If we attempt to trace our own individual history and development, we are forced to do so in terms of certain outstanding relationships in time and space. We think of the date and place of our birth. We recall the day when we started to school wearing the little velvet suit with the brass buttons, or the day when we first had a bicycle of our own. We remember the teacher who first communicated enthusiasm to us. We think of the church in which we worshiped as a child, or of the college to which we still feel our old loyalty. All of these times and places are a part of us; without them we should not be what we are. They are, as Emily Dickinson said, “a single hound” pursuing us, the single hound of our own identity.
In his book on Wordsworth, Willard L. Sperry comes to the striking conclusion that the poet’s primary interest was not really nature. Wordsworth was in search of himself; he wished to establish his own identity. His experiences as a farmed-out child at school, the harrowing memories of the French Revolution and of his conflicts with the Godwin circle had left him disintegrated, a discordant personality. He wished to find something stable by means of which to get his bearing. He could not find himself in the dark cave of subjectivity. He had to search for the guarantee of the integrity of his life by reference to some shrine of constancy in the world outside. The unstable causes with which he had been identified provided no constant fact by which he might reaffirm the unimpaired integrity of his own life. Just as the old New Englander turned to the church on the Common, so Wordsworth turned “to the permanent forms of nature.” This is the deeper motivation of his love for nature. The dance of the daffodils, the rainbow in the sky, the primrose by the river’s brim, were all more than objects of nature for him.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
The poem is not about a rainbow. It shows rather the way in which one man found something stable with reference to which he could determine his location. The poem is a study of the soul’s identity. It might bear as its title Emily Dickinson’s phrase, “The Single Hound.” Natural piety for Wordsworth is not simply the love of nature; it is rather the reassurance that life has continuity, coherence, unity. The rainbow came to his rescue when he doubted whether he was William Wordsworth. Indeed, our self-realization is accomplished only as we enter into significant and stabilizing relationships. We come to be, and we come to know ourselves, only as we are consciously related to nature, to human institutions, and to other human beings.
All of this, you will rightly say, is quite obvious. What is not so obvious, however, is that this achievement of self-identity does not take place without effort. In a very real sense, our personal identity is something which we must create; it is not something that is self-existent. Natural piety is achieved by selecting from one’s own past those features which give it meaning or integration.
In the novels of Marcel Proust, we find a vivid awareness of this necessity to create our sense of identity from the remembrance of things past. Over and over again in the writings of Proust, we find the author singling out some apparently trivial, though really significant, incident of his past which relates to an experience of the moment, an incident which, in the alembic of his creative imagination, serves to establish his identity in his own mind. It is by this method of envisaging his identity by relating it to characteristic events in his past that he comes to know himself. Even his taste of a madeleine cake dipped in herb tea brings back the memory of his mother and, as he says, the memory “of all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and good folk in the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shape and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”
The whole series of sixteen novels which Proust entitled Remembrance of Things Past represents the author’s attempt to establish his own identity by a creative artistic endeavor. We do not find ourselves by simply having been in relations; we must ourselves create our past in the sense that we must by an act of mind lift our experience into a pattern of meaning. By the way, Dr. Richard Cabot used to define an idiot as a person without a sense of the past.
We may find in Wordsworth a deeper wisdom than is customarily attributed to him as the poet of nature. Wordsworth, wandering lonely as a cloud, saw the daffodils beside the lake. At the time this experience seemed to be its own end, self-explanatory, self-sufficient. He says he gazed and gazed but little thought what wealth the show had brought to him; but later reflection on the pensive couch revealed the true significance of the experience. The remembered emotion was more significant than the emotion first felt. Indeed, Wordsworth is well known as the poet who defined poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility. The daffodils demanded something more than perception; they demanded assimilation.
George Tyrrell, the Jesuit priest and philosopher who was excommunicated for his role in the Modernist movement seeking to relate Catholicism to scientific thought, says on the very first page of his autobiography that “our experience is given to us to be the food of our character and spiritual life; but, in point of fact, we spend our lives in storing up food, and never have leisure to lie down quietly with the cows in the field and ruminate bit by bit what we have swallowed so hastily.”
There would seem to be a sort of acquisitive instinct with regard to human experience. We incline always to be in search of new experience to devour when in reality we should be digesting our past experience. The memory has work to do; it is not a mere pocket for repellent, undifferentiated particles out of the past. When it is properly creative tending towards the true fulness of time, it is a living instructor with a prophetic sense of the values which it guards. Carlyle seems to have had some such idea in mind when he said of Tennyson: “Alfred is always carrying a bit of chaos around in his pocket turning it into cosmos.”
Here then is what we might characterize as the religious use of memory. It is the means by which we approach the fulness of time. Perhaps the reason for much of our irreligion is simply idiocy, as Dr. Cabot defined it, the tendency of people to live in the experience of the moment, the tendency to forget their own best moments and those of the race, the significant relationships established in the past. Our days are not bound each to each by the natural piety which is the child of remembrance.
At all events, I am persuaded that there is more than metaphysical or logical truth here. We are very near the heart of religion. What I have been saying has very much to do with the experience of conversion. Not, of course, the religious experience which Jonathan Edwards described as the “thunder claps and visible upsets of grace,” but rather the Christian nurture, the gradual and progressive turning towards the light in the fulness of time.
St. Paul used the phrase “the fulness of time” to describe the point in history when Jesus Christ came. Jesus was a member of a race possessing a creative memory, a race which had not failed to roast that which it had taken in hunting. Israel was the only nation in that part of the world at that time which could boast a continuous religious tradition of more than a thousand years.
Here we have exemplified what may be called a natural law in the spiritual world, a law which applies to individuals as well as to entire cultures: the conversion of a people or of an individual can occur only in the fulness of time. Hence we need not only to discover our identity by reference to constant features in the objective world and by the creative work of memory giving patterns of meaning to our relationships. We need also to strike root into a definite plot of soil. We need somehow to find our place in a continuing and promising tradition with its sacred books, its communion of saints and its discipline. This is just what academic life for most students seems to prevent. We get ourselves into a spectator attitude. We get into the habit of classifying religious movements and ideas according to historical, philosophical, theological, or psychological terminology. We can perhaps name the many seeds, the potential rootings that are blown our way by the winds of doctrine, but we do not actually strike root into the soil ourselves. This is the reason the university is not wholly adequate for our nourishment. We need the church’s community of memory and hope through the sharing of which we may in the fulness of time first sense our need for conversion and then grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ.
In the church we may find satisfied the three needs we have mentioned: (1) significant relationships, (2) a pattern of prophetic meaning for our past, (3) the soil of a continuing community. In the church, we accept the truth: By their fruits shall ye know them; but we also accept the truth: By their roots shall ye know them. Where there are no roots, there will be no fruit.