A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 4, 2015
WHEN IN DOUBT, TELL THE TRUTH
A Meditation on Mark Twain and Living an Authentic Life in Times that Call us to Be Anything But
Let us now consider the real God, the genuine God, the great God, the sublime and supreme God, the authentic Creator of the real universe, whose remotenesses are visited by comets only comets unto which incredible distant Neptune is merely an out post, a Sandy Hook to homeward-bound specters of the deeps of space that have not glimpsed it before for generations - a universe not made with hands and suited to an astronomical nursery, but spread abroad through the illimitable reaches of space by the fiat of the real God just mentioned, by comparison with whom the gods whose myriads infest the feeble imaginations of men are as a swarm of gnats scattered and lost in the infinitudes of the empty sky.
— Mark Twain, writing in 1906 (cited in Mark Twain: A Biography, Albert Bigelow Paine)
No doubt Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Mark Twain, is an American treasure. One of the greatest writers we've ever produced. So, when I saw a Sunday was rolling around that was also his birthday, I thought, well, why not? I'll preach a sermon about him.
It didn't take long for me to wonder what the heck I'd gotten myself into. I mean Mark Twain and sermon? While I'm sure there've been any number of sermons about Mr Clemens and his writings, I suspect they were accompanied for the most part by prodigious references to hellfire and brimstone.
The truth be told Mr Clemens didn't have a lot of positive things to say about religion. A preliminary look suggested maybe he had nothing good to say about religion. So, in some ways I was relived that circumstances forced me to abandon that sermon on its original date. However from that day to this people have been making sure I didn't forget I'd promised a sermon on Mark Twain. And, well, okay, here we are. Time to pay the piper.
I do love Twain. And actually Jan and I have made Mark Twain pilgrimages twice. The first close to twenty years ago when we lived in Wisconsin, where during a summer hiatus, we took US 90 to La Crosse, and then turned south onto the Great River Road, which traces along the length of the Mississippi. We followed it as far as we had time, which turned out to be to Cairo, Illinois. However, our main reason for the trip was to stop about two thirds of the way down at Hannibal, Samuel Clemens' boyhood home.
What I recall most there is the statue of Huck and Tom that stands at the foot of Cardiff Hill. It shows the two boys walking along. Some see in it Huck trying to slow Tom's progression forward toward adulthood, a strange perspective, considering, well, everything, and just off enough that it sticks in my craw. If true, it missed some real points in Twain's writings. In fact I have to admit the whole experience struck me as being slightly off. As Clemens didn't really have a lot of good things to say about the town, it occurred to me that maybe it's only reasonable the good citizens of Hannibal came to be mostly about smiling at the tourists and taking their money.
The more interesting pilgrimage location for me was the Mark Twain house and museum in Hartford, which Jan, auntie, and I finally got to do this past summer. Clemens lived there between 1874 and 1891, and wrote many of his most famous books there, including both the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And it was there, walking through the house, and standing in his study, looking down at the same grounds, more or less that he would have viewed over and over again, and then looking at his writing desk where his imagination roiled into some of the great tales to be spun from our American culture that I felt some electric charge, which seemed to me a connection between the man who was the great writer, his insights into the human condition, all of them, and, well, anyone willing to be open to the experience. And I was.
But, as to religion itself, and Clemens' feelings about it, and for a Sunday sermon; that has been a more difficult project. For instance here is a little bouquet of Mark Twain observations about religion and its practitioners, starting with perhaps his most widely quoted, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Or, how about his observation about the Bible? He tells us it "has noble poetry in itÉ and some good morals and a wealth of obscenity, and upwards a thousand lies." Finally, as to practitioners of my trade he rather dryly noted, "I've never heard a sermon in which I could not find some good, though there have been some near misses."
In some ways this followed his general view of humanity. Here are two examples. "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." And, "A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory." It is this jaundiced view about our human condition that I think most important to notice.
In that regard I was very much taken with an analysis of Clemens' spirituality by Jeffrey Holland that I found while rummaging around the web. Holland is an educator with a doctorate in American Studies from Yale who became one of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon church. Think cardinal to get a rough sense of his place within his religious tradition.
"Twain" Holland tells us, "frequently called his religious life "Presbyterianism," the faith of his mother's family, but that label became for him a kind of shoebox repository into which he shoved everything from the faith John Knox espoused to the most nebulous sort of Christian belief. Unlike his friend William Dean Howells, who worried a great deal about the difference between a Unitarian and a Universalist, (I did like that line particularly) Twain did not have a mind turned to fine theological distinctions.
"But he did have a soul gripped by the Puritan fathers, a grip which relentlessly affected his moods and his metaphors. He named his house cats, rather apocalyptically, Famine, Pestilence, Satan, and Sin; he thought the height of confidence was a Christian with four aces; smugness was a friend waiting for a vacancy in the trinity; and so on ad infinitum-or, for him, ad nauseum. Fear, punishment, conscience, duty, the hand of God, death-these were the staples in his moral pantry.
"A compulsive guilt seeker," Holland concludes, Twain "blamed himself for at least the deaths of a brother, a son, and a daughter, and he finally despised the human race because it included men like himself. As his closest minister-friend, Joseph Twitchell, once said, Sam Clemens was (vastly) too orthodox on the doctrine of total human depravity."
Or, to frame it myself, one could say that while Clemens left Calvinism early in his life, Calvinism never really left him. He tried the world, and maybe most of all, tried himself and found the whole thing wanting. But, we also might reasonably ask, he judged it against what? Here I find myself thinking of that 1906 confession of faith that we began with as our "text." Some take it as a deist view; maybe there's a god, but that god did his work, made and wound the watch, but long ago walked away from it leaving us to tick, tick, tick our way all by ourselves.
I think they're wrong.
I found it fascinating, at least in the sense of the old joke that if you want to lose your faith make friends with a priest, that throughout his life, Sam Clemens had quite a surprising number of clergy friends. Apparently mostly liberal Congregtionalists, like Joseph Twitchell whom Elder Holland referred to, a dear friend for more than forty years.
Another very interesting minister friend was Moncure Conway. Originally a Methodist, he became a Unitarian minister, as well as a leading abolitionist in his day, before leaving for England where he moved ever more independent until becoming minister for a non aligned non traditionally theist ethical-humanist congregation. It was actually in those years that Twain met this remarkable clergyman. They became friends and life long correspondents. In fact Clemens trusted him so much that Conway would become Clemens' literary agent in Great Britain.
Independent scholar Dwayne Eutsey delivered a wonderful sermon on Twain and Hinduism, at the UU Fellowship in Easton, Maryland, where he tells us how through Conway, Twain was introduced to Eastern and particularly Hindu thought. In fact two of Conway's books both with sections on Hinduism were in Twain's personal library. Between this and Twain's own experience meeting yogis on his travels around the world, inspires Eutsey to suggest a deeper spirituality influencing Twain than has previously been noticed.
Perhaps Eutsey is right suggesting that Twain's spirituality was influenced by Hinduism in his later years. He certainly makes a good argument. But, more importantly, in his sermon Eutsey also points to Clemens having a deep personal insight that may well have been informed by reading and conversations, but, more importantly which erupted out of Clemens' heart as something more than an idea, however, good; but rather as an actual, physical knowing. Think of a conversion, metanoia, kensho, think of an enlightenment experience.
In his 1897 book "Following the Equator," Clemens writes, "In Sydney I had a large dream, and in the course of talk I told it to a missionary from India who was on his way to visit some relatives in New Zealand. I dreamed that the visible universe is the physical person of God; that the vast worlds that we see twinkling millions of miles apart in the fields of space are the blood corpuscles in His veins; and that we and the other creatures are the microbes that charge with multitudinous life the corpuscles." In short Twain is saying he dreamt, he felt from somewhere deep within that the universe is God and we are the life force of God.
The missionary then goes on to a discussion of comparative miracles, and, frankly, I lost interest in pursuing wherever the missionary hoped to go, or Twain hoped to show us he went. The important point is the dream, the large dream as Twain calls it. I've had a version of it, myself. I bet you have, as well. Or, at the very least have had an intimation of it here and there. I'm sure because it is the song the universe is constantly singing to us into our individual hearts. If we take this large dream together with Twain's various allusions to a "real" God behind it all we find something. Think of the original spiritual but not religious. Think of Spinoza and Blake and all those who saw the divine in the ordinary suchness of life.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
All of a sudden instead of a neo-Calvinist certain of his sin but not sure about what he's sinning against, we have someone who sees us all as connected within the body of God, the primary experience of which all mystics have testified is love, and with that, of course, of course, comes a deep sense of responsibility to each other.
I find this in Twain when he is railing against our foolishness and self destructiveness.
I find in much of Twain's caustic humor this sense of interdependence. It seems to me some feeling of love for all the parts was true in him, and seems to seep into everything he wrote, ironically, maybe, particularly within the harder words that came later.
What Sam Clemens, what Mark Twain calls us to is a relentless facing into the world, to a deep authenticity. Did he come to have a neo-Hindu sensibility? Perhaps. I like to think maybe so. What he did come to that we can be sure of, however, is that we are all of us connected. And, with that for him, most important, that our actions count.
What I do believe is from that insight, from that large dream, of that real God and of ourselves as part of it all, Sam Clemens called us all to an authentic life.
How's that for a religion?