Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rebecca's Monotheism

Alexander Pope's "The Universal Prayer," Rebecca Gratz's favorite poem, provided her with some views, which if not heterodox, were not exactly traditional in western religion.

The most important of these is enunciated in the very first stanza of Pope's poem:

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

There is in Pope's universe not one God and many false gods; for him, every "god" represents the human attempt to understand the One.

Here is Rebecca, writing in 1834:

"The sublime, beneficent holy Spirit, to which all forms are but the outward costumes in which different nations chuse [sic] to dress it -- is still the same and all who lift their souls on high in Adoration -- may walk the earth in charity with one another...."

This sounds like Pope and makes clear how Rebecca's religious toleration, one of her most attractive qualities, is tied in her belief in the One behind the many.

In 1837 Rebecca found another writer who used a clothing metaphor to explain the variety of gods worshipped on earth (and much else). Here is an excerpt from Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored):

"Church-clothes are...the Vestures, under which men have embodied and represented for themselves the Religious Principle....They are first spun and woven, I may say so, by that wonder of wonders, Society...."

Rebecca read Sartor Resartus and sent it on to her "book buddy," Maria Gratz, her sister-in-law in Kentucky. In following letters she asked Maria what she thought of it, but sadly, if they had a discussion through the mail, the letters have not survived. I remember reading Sartor Resartus in college and being amazed that what in many ways could be termed an early Existentialist work had been written in the 1830's. Just as surprising was that although his satirical jibes had not aged well, Carlyle's prose style was still exhilarating. I would love to know what Rebecca and Maria, two spiritual pilgrims (and by no means Existentialists), made of this extraordinary work.

The second of Pope's non-traditional opinions was that God could not be Lord of Earth alone in a universe so large:

Yet not to earth's contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

This idea got Giordano Bruno burned at the stake in 1600, but by the eighteenth century it was less a scandal and more of an interesting speculation which even the Roman Catholic Alexander Pope could take up in print. There is no evidence in her writings that Rebecca believed in multiple worlds, but based on what I know about her it is possible she would have found it an intellectually stimulating topic, but of not much use in determining the best way to live her life, the focus of religion for her.

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