America's Founding Seeker

On his 200th birthday, Ralph Waldo Emerson seems as modern as any bestselling New Age guru

BY: Interview by Paul O'Donnell

 
Born in 1803, Ralph Waldo Emerson is enjoying one of his periodic revivals. His patrician Yankee features and sideburns, his essays with titles like "Self-Reliance" and "Compensation" can make Emerson seem forbidding. But those essays--many of them comfortably short, though often as dense as poetry--reveal that Emerson was warmly human, and his struggles with faith completely recognizable to us moderns. His skepticism, his spirituality anchored in experience and his insistence on exploring every religious tradition are the hallmarks of the modern seeker. Above all, as Oregon State University professor David M. Robinson points out in this interview, Emerson never considered that he, or anyone, had arrived at a final answer.

Dr. Robinson edited the new volume of Emerson's essays, "The Spiritual Emerson," published in honor of the 200th anniversary of Emerson's birth on May 25th. He talked with Beliefnet's Paul O'Donnell recently about the origins and context of Emerson's thought.


For a guy who is 200 years old this week, Emerson seems very modern.

I agree. This is also the case with Thoreau--next year will be the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Walden." In both cases, you had a kind of prophetic voice trying to call a materialistic culture to a life of higher principle. It engaged men and women in their basic views of life, their views of nature and the environment. It affected views about women's rights and place in society. All these things have continued to be part of a changing American social scene.



He was skeptical about institutional religion.

In his journals he simply writes, "I am of the oldest religion." He is after this concept of absolute religion--a term Theodore Parker, another of the Trascendentalists, used to distinguish this permanent essence of spirituality from the various historical and institutional forms it takes in the history of culture.

Yet he was an ordained minister, and his father was a minister.

He was a Unitarian [minister]. The Congregational and the Unitarian churches had begun the process of division in the 1820s that went on until the mid-19th century. His father's generation was part of a liberal movement led by William Ellery Channing, who is generally thought of as the founder of Unitarianism. Channing was one of Emerson's most important mentors.

So Emerson with some hesitation enters the ministry [in 1829], and he resigns his pulpit at the Second Church in Boston in 1832, in a dramatic break that signals partly a theological difference, but mainly a vocational crisis he is trying to resolve for himself. What is his proper role? How does he best find the audience for the message that he has? Is the church a viable vehicle for the kind of thinking, writing and lecturing that he wants to do?

Continued on page 2: »

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