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
No. Of course you have to ask what you mean by Christian. That was one of the key issues behind his moving out of the church, and in the Transcendentalist movement: How do you interpret the nature of Jesus? Is he special or is he one of a whole tradition of great prophets and teachers?
You might regard yourself a Christian if you come from that tradition, if you revere the teachings of Jesus, if you try to live by them. But if you take a stricter view, that Jesus is the Son of God, that he had a supernatural mission and that he rose from the dead after three days--it was on the those issues that Emerson and others were moving away.
He was among the first Americans to read the Eastern sacred texts.
These texts had only become available during the years of his intellectual development. He was very interested in them. In the early 1840s, he helped edit a journal called The Dial. In The Dial was a series-Thoreau had a hand in this too-of what they called "ethnical [sic] scriptures." They were early translations of these [sacred Eastern texts] in English.
What was his spiritual practice? Did he meditate?
Nothing that he wrote about in those terms, but it's very clear that his journal was an extremely vital part of his spiritual life. Part of it was saving up ideas for lectures, but it was also a place he kept always before him to express himself and measure himself. He was very fond of walks, and I think there was a meditative kind of spiritual discipline there, thought I don't think he put it in those terms.
How did a person like Emerson suddenly appear at this time?
There was a really vibrant dialogue going on in religion and about the basis of religion at this time. You had the German scholars, with their [textual] criticism of the Bible-the interpretation of the Bible as a historical document, rather than a unified inspired word. This was known to the intelligentsia of the time. Meanwhile in the populace, all kinds of new religions were being invented. This was the birthplace of the panoply of denominations in America, which is such an odd situation religiously--this huge smorgasbord of Christian denominations. And there's a long tradition of dissent going back to the Deists in the late 18th century that's still very much alive. So it's not a monolithic period in religious thought, but a very lively one.
As for Emerson, the whole tradition of New England liberalism embraced openness, and continual intellectual endeavor and questing for new insight. This is an intellectual orientation Emerson had as a birthright. His essay "Circles" is about the continuing necessity to push toward new truth: never rest in what you think to be a final truth, but always push beyond whatever circle you've drawn to draw a larger circle beyond it. That's the essence of that idea of spiritual exploration.