Saturday, May 13, 2006

Emerson among the Pharisees

Today Emerson made me cheer while I read An Address. "An Address" was delivered to the senior class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838. Emerson was invited to speak by the senior class. What he said was so objectionable to the school officials that Emerson was not invited back to Harvard again for almost 30 years. Emerson's address is a harsh critique of Christianity and the church as we know it. What made me cheer was not his critique, though I found myself nodding my head in agreement, but the fact that he had the chutzpah to do it at Harvard Divinity School. Emerson accuses the historical practice of Christianity of falling into two errors. The first is that it "corrupts all attempts to communicate religion." Instead of being about the soul, it dwells "with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus." Emerson believes that "the soul knows no persons." To turn the divinity of the soul into a ritual surrounding one man with the aim to "convert a man by miracles" is a profanation of the soul. Jesus' "holy thoughts" serve us and it is the thoughts and what they teach we should focus on, not the man himself. He believes that God cannot be "received at second hand," but only through intuition. One soul cannot instruct another, only provoke it. Everyone must find what is true within themselves and not take someone else's word for it. This is possible because everyone has a divine nature, not just one or two people. Jesus tried to tell us this, that "God incarnates himself in man." According to Emerson, what Jesus was really saying was:

I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.
But this doctrine and Jesus' memory has been distorted nearly from the beginning. The second error into which the church has fallen is that "the Moral Nature, that Law of laws whose revelations introduce greatness--yea, God himself--into the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in society. Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead." Emerson declares the soul is not preached and that the job of a preacher is to express the moral sentiment in application to life. He complains "the prayers and even dogmas of our church are like the zodiac of Denderah and the astronomical monuments of the Hindoos, wholly insulated from anything now extant in the life and business of the people." Because of these errors, Christianity is waning, faith is in danger. Emerson admonishes the senior class to "go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of me, and dare to love God without mediator or veil." He urges them not to be imitators, because imitators are doomed to "hopeless mediocrity." He exhorts them to cast off conformity, to aim higher than "common degrees of merit," to remember that "all men have sublime thoughts." I find Emerson's beliefs to be hopeful and full of life. He believes in an innate goodness in people that cannot help but expand if it is only fostered and encouraged. While he acknowledges "the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions," he sees that they have no "epical integrity" and are fragmentary. For Emerson, "faith should blend with the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of nature." And looking out at all of the perennials I bought yesterday that are sitting on my deck waiting to be planted when the rain stops, and imaging how beautiful the garden will be, I am inclined to agree. I don't think I have done justice to Emerson's "Address." I have no words that I can use to convey to you just how beautiful his writing is or how brave he was to say the things he did. I realize that even today what Emerson said over 100 years ago would be challenged by any number of church leaders and Christians. But I can't help thinking maybe Emerson was onto something, especially when he writes that in the two errors he had spoken of he finds
the causes of a decaying church and a wasting unbelief. And what greater calamity can fall upon a nation than the loss of worship? Then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple to haunt the senate or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. The eye of youth is not lighted by the hope of other worlds, and age is without honor. Society lives to trifles, and when men die we do not mention them.
Next week's Emerson: "The Transcendentalist"