2017-07-12
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?

Did he consider himself a Christian?
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.

Who was his audience?
This is something people would like to know better. He did seem to have a wide audience. By the late 1840s and the 1850s, he was a very prominent public figure who travelled about as far as he could on the frontier, delivering lectures. You wonder, did his audience get it, but he did seem to be able to find an audience wherever he went. He somehow had the capacity to embody this idea of the thinker at work that appealed to a culture that really was starved culturally and intellectually.

Was his audience prepared for what he was saying?
It was a period in which people had begun to feel that the usual terminology for talking about spiritual life wasn't working: salvation, heaven, hell, God, and so forth. Emerson recognized that. He attempted to reinvent religious language for a generation for whom those words were either empty or full of difficulty because of what they represented in the past.

It sounds like the 1960s as much as the 1860s.
Yes, and there was a revival of Emerson and Thoreau and that whole movement in that period.

And like some figures of the 1960s, Emerson decried materialism.
I'm glad he was spared the modern shopping mall-he would have thought it was all in vain!

I think he did address what we now call consumerist culture. He understood that people tried to express themselves in external ways--by what they owned, what they consumed, what they wore. Emerson's clear message was that you can't find satisfying and fulfilling identity by external standards. This applies in religion too: he says you can't just take the religion that your family gives you, or that your culture gives you . You have to work this out on your own.

Did he believe in life after death?
He has a great remark, "Here are people who cannot spend a day well. An hour hangs heavy on their hands. And will you give them rolling ages without end?" He makes a distinction between the immortal and the eternal. He says no truly spiritual person ever worried about personal immortality. In other words, to ask the question betrays a self-interest that is itself counter to the truly spiritual perspective.

He doesn't believe in the soul, but the Oversoul. What's the difference?
By putting "over" on it, he says it is not a personal thing. Rather we participate in a soul that is larger than we are. What he's trying to get away from is this idea that there is a core inside of me that is my soul, that I own. He's trying to say that insofar as you're connecting with the soul, you're connecting with something that is much bigger than you are. The Oversoul is a way to talk about God without getting into this anthropmorphic father figure.

What is his legacy?
I wouldn't limit it to one principle or one concept. He gave the culture a vision of religion as the solution or the working toward a solution of how we live our lives more meaningfully. You see that not only in the propositions he makes, but in his own personal difficulties and struggles. It's a mistake to see Emerson as the man who figured out all these answers and was very sure of everything. But here was a man whose vision enspirited his continuing studies, but who was never at rest in his attempt to live to the standard that he held up.



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