America's Founding Spiritual Seeker
Ralph Waldo Emerson's journey From Christianity to Transcendentalism
It may be difficult for modern readers to discern what was shocking about Emerson's appealing hymn to a sentiment of religion alive in every man and woman. But decades of theological controversy had produced raw nerve endings in New England. The Divinity School Address marked a break in the course of religious thinking in America, pointing to a universal, anti-supernatural, and largely secular religion.
Emerson portrayed Jesus as a teacher whose significance and authority arose from his grasp of transcendent moral and spiritual laws rather than from a supernatural nature. "Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man," Emerson declared. But the attribution of miracles or other supernatural powers to Jesus falsified and obscured his real claims. "He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man's life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines as the character ascends."
Emerson avoided the controversy, believing he could best advance his views through a more complete exposition of his ideas. In 1841 he published "Essays," a collection of 12 loosely interrelated pieces that made up the heart of his new perspective on religion, ethics, and aesthetics and established him as an important literary stylist and innovator.
Emerson is perhaps most widely known for one of the essays in that volume, "Self-Reliance," an emotionally charged, aphoristically dense hymn to individualism with a defiant, almost insolent, edge. Insisting that "nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind," Emerson urges us to beware of the two chief obstacles to living a self-reliant life, conformity and consistency. We achieve fulfillment not through pleasing others or adopting their opinions or standards of behavior, Emerson maintains, but instead through recognizing and developing those things that are uniquely ours.
Resisting the pressures of others is, however, far less difficult than resisting the patterns established by our own past actions, and by the identities we have formed as a result of them. The hardest task is to "live ever in a new day," always finding the capacity for spontaneity and originality. That this spontaneity might lead others who thought they could anticipate our actions to misunderstand us should not impede us:
Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.