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Emerson: Religion After Transcendentalism by David M. Robinson

Those Unitarian Universalists who have a strong historical consciousness (admittedly a small group, but one which of course includes all those here present), may have mixed or conflicting emotions about the Emerson Bicentennial. On the one hand, it is clear that Emerson is not, and has not been for a very long time, "ours". An American author and cultural founder, Emerson moved beyond the confines of the Unitarian, or any denomination, early in his literary career. His legacy has long been claimed for American culture as a whole. This of course does not diminish the significance of his rootedness in New England Unitarianism, and the importance of that tradition to a full understanding of his achievement. But, clearly, he played on a larger stage and commanded a larger audience, than one that could be called Unitarian.

But what pride of ownership Unitarian Universalists might be able to muster with regard to Emerson is further complicated by the troubled history of his relationship to that movement. If he was ours, he was our rebel, our dissenter, our critic. From the vantage point of Unitarian history, two events stand out in Emerson's career: his 1832 resignation from his pulpit at Boston's Second Church, and his 1838 Divinity School Address at Harvard. In neither case, especially the latter, does Unitarianism tend to come off well to a modern reader. These were controversial events, indeed moments of rupture, in which a prophet condemned the institutions that helped to make him. As Emerson wryly explained, "The past has baked your loaf, and in the strength of its bread you would break up the oven" (W 1:305). Not exactly fair, one might think, looking at it from an institutional (in this case, ecclesiastical) point of view, but Emerson's intellectual authority, and his continuing cultural influence, arises from his embrace of re-invention, his refusal to take anything, without very careful scrutiny, at second hand.

Emerson's refashioning of his original call to the ministry into that of spokesman and roving ambassador of the difficult-to-classify movement that came to be known as Transcendentalism has had one important historical consequence for his reputation. He has been classified for many years as a "literary" figure. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries he had secure fame as one of the founders of an independent "American" literature, included with the "fireside" or "schoolroom" poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier and William Cullen Bryant. By the middle 20th Century, he became largely the property of university English Departments, part of a canon of established American writers that included Whitman, Melville, Thoreau and Hawthorne. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the literary canon underwent extensive assault and intensive revision, there was an Emerson revival that not only preserved Emerson's place in the canon, but seems to have made him an even more central figure in American culture. His fate has not seemed to be that of Longfellow or Whittier. Emerson's centrality has been secured in part, of course, through critique—that he was so closely linked to the rise of American literature and the formation of American cultural values makes him for many scholars a troubling and problematical figure. But such critique and the corresponding answer to it have made Emerson studies one of the liveliest discourses in current American literary studies. Even his detractors and critics seem to have enhanced his stature.

Yet if we think of Emerson as the man who resigned his ministry to pursue a literary career, we miss an essential truth. His first book Nature is a landmark in American literature, to be sure, but it is a text, like most of Emerson's, that proposes a new religious vision, a new theology. Emerson was a literary experimenter not only because he was a poet who loved language, but because he understood that only a new language would enable him to communicate his conception of the spiritual life. He experimented with language out of necessity. The old religious terminology—the language of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, heaven, hell, salvation, miracles—was dead to him and to many of his contemporaries. But the hunger for ecstatic experience, for reverence, for worship, for moral insight, for spiritual growth, was not. It was to communicate with those who needed a new way to understand and express their religious hunger that Emerson created the great body of work that we now have. This new religious language that Emerson was developing came to be known as Transcendentalism, a term that he did not choose, but reluctantly accepted. He argued that Transcendentalism was not in fact anything new, but rather "the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mold of these new times" (W 1: 329).

Although Transcendentalism has been notoriously hard to define over the years, we can discern the major emphases of Emerson's thinking that help to explain his impact on his own contemporaries, and his continuing influence. Transcendentalism was grounded in religious experience; it understood the cosmos as a holistic unity; it taught a reverence for the natural world; and it affirmed the human capacity for right action. To begin with, Emerson advocated a religion based on experience. Experience of what, exactly, is of course the harder question here, but it is at least clear that Emerson's thinking was based on a core of undeniable direct experience. The mystical moment, the experience of the holy, the condition of self-transcendence—we can multiply the ways of labeling this, but they all point to the phenomenon of the individual being brought outside of herself, of being confronted with something, awe-inspiring in its nature, that both transcends and includes the self. The transparent eyeball experience in Nature is the best known of these moments (W 1:9-10), but they are scattered through the journals and published works in various forms, most of them quieter and less spectacular than the transparent eyeball moment, but no less significant or compelling. It is not the emotional or psychic charge of these experiences that is most significant—not their sensation or their drama—but their authenticity. As Emerson wrote, "our faith comes in moments," but those moments have a special authority, "a depth ...which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than all other experiences" (W 2:267). Most importantly, these are moments of direct, unmediated experience, in which no agent or institution can stand in our place. As he quaintly put it, "Souls are not saved in bundles. The Spirit saith to the man, 'How is it with thee? thee personally'?" (W 6: 214).

It is not accurate to call these experiences of God, unless one gives the term "God" an extremely broad definition. It seems clear to me that Emerson not only was not inclined to describe his personal experiences in those terms, but was actually quite often in a deliberate process of looking for new ways to discuss religious experience without recourse to "God". In 19th Century New England, the word was burdened with its long theological history; it carried too much baggage. "Soul" and "Over-Soul" were important synonyms or substitutes for God, but we find him using "Being," the "One," the "religious sentiment," the "moral sense," the "moral sentiment," and other terms or phrases. Was this a merely linguistic change? One can do a fair amount of analogizing between Emerson's concepts and traditional Christian theological categories; for instance, Over-Soul replaces God; the "Genuine" or "Universal" man replaces Jesus; "Compensation" replaces heaven and hell. Clearly he was revising the script that he had been handed, a script that he felt had gone dead. The changed language seems also to reflect a change of sensibility, a different way of experiencing life in a modern world. But Emerson's new language was also an attempt to distance religious experience from the existing church and its theological and ecclesiastical traditions. By changing the codes of expression, Emerson was forcing his readers, and himself, to experience the "religious sentiment" directly, not mediated through a church, a preacher, or a book of theology. The religious sentiment "cannot be received at second hand," he reminded us in the Divinity School Address. What truths any other soul "announces, I must find true in me, or reject" (W 1:127).

What such experiences revealed, and what study and reason also confirmed, was that the universe was an unbroken, interconnected whole, in which each part was linked to every other part, and indeed actually contained or embodied every other part. This was a vital truth to Emerson, for it explained how in the moment of extreme vision the disappearing or dissolving "self" did not disappear, but realized its shared nature. This belief in unity also helped Emerson to understand the revelatory nature of literary symbols, or of parts of nature, which always pointed beyond themselves. As he wrote in "Compensation," an inspired but now little read essay, "the universe is represented in every one of its particles. Every thing in nature contains all the powers of nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff" (W 2:101). He understood this monistic idealism as an ancient truth, part of a much larger tradition of Platonism and neo-Platonism, and he also found important confirmation of it in his study of Hindu and Buddhist writing.

It was through the experience of the natural world, both sensuous experience and the study of natural forms and processes, that Emerson found the deepest confirmation for this vast interconnected unity. Nature therefore became for him the site of spiritual experience, and his work reflects both exhilaration and profound reverence in nature, attitudes carries even further by his disciple Thoreau. Although we now know this aspect of his work best through his first book, Nature, it is important to recognize that from the late 1840s through the lectures that he gave at Harvard in the early 1870s, Emerson pursued a project that he called the "Natural History of Intellect," a distant ancestor of psychology in which he attempted to deal with the mind and mental processes with the methods and attitude of the naturalist studying a plant or animal species. He remained convinced that the same laws that dictated the growth and fruition of plants also explained the human mind. Describing the human as a "higher plant," he commented, with a touch of whimsy, that "the planter among his vines is in the presence of his ancestors; or, shall I say, that the orchardist is a pear raised to the highest power?" (LL 1:156).

This experience of divinity within the natural world, backed up by a growing vision of the interconnected unity of the cosmos, constituted the "religion" that Emerson continued to preach after his career as a Unitarian minister. While many Unitarians of the day would disavow the vision, and while Emerson would feel disappointed with the church's glacial movement into the new, it seems clear to me that Emerson's "Transcendentalism" was rooted in his Unitarianism, that William Ellery Channing was a direct and positive influence on Emerson's development and articulation of these ideas, and that Emerson's vision became increasingly appealing to Unitarian congregants in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The complicating twist in this narrative is that Emerson himself seems to have come dangerously near losing his own new faith very shortly after he had given that faith its fullest articulation in his 1841 collection of Essays. We know at least one of the circumstances behind this change—the unexpected death of his five-year old son Waldo in 1842. But there are also other indications that Emerson had begun to lose his grip on the experiential basis of his vision that was so important to its early articulation. "After thirty a man wakes up sad every morning," he wrote in his early thirties (JMN 5:77). Elsewhere we find him lamenting the shortcomings of his "flash-of-lightning faith" and wishing instead for "continuous daylight" (W 1:352-53).

But the most compelling evidence of this struggle of faith is his great essay of 1844, "Experience," a vivid and disturbing depiction of a soul that has lost its way. One hears it said that Emerson did not understand the dark side of human experience, but it is hard to entertain that claim seriously in the light of his essay on "Experience."

While it is interesting, and perhaps reassuring in a somewhat small-minded way, to know that our great optimist also himself suffered, it seems more productive to recognize what Emerson made of his own crisis, how he found his way through the labyrinth of doubt and alienation that "Experience" depicts. His responses represent the first steps of what we can now understand as the process by which Emerson rebuilt his faith, found a "continuous daylight" to supplant the transcendental flashes that now seemed to have been extinguished.

The power of "Experience" lies in large part in its dramatic depiction of the inaccessibility of knowledge. The lost and wandering figure with whom Emerson begins the essay is someone who has lost the ability to know the world with surety, a loss that is reiterated in different forms throughout its unfolding. The essay repeatedly brings us to blank walls in which certainty, even limited comprehension, is denied. These build to a surrender near the end of the essay in which Emerson seems to concede that the knowledge for which we thirst will forever be withheld. "I am very content with knowing," he writes, "if only I could know. That is an august entertainment, and would suffice me a great while. To know a little would be worth the expense of this world" (W 2:84).

Curiously, though, this surrender is both liberating and empowering. It is a moment at which Emerson casts away the Absolute, and embraces the Provisional. The Absolute that he surrenders here, I would emphasize, is an epistemological, not an ontological one. He does not say that there is nothing to know, only that we cannot fully know what is. This surrender seems to release him from the paralysis that the condition of "not knowing" has created. It restores his capacity to will and to act, and it allows him to say, memorably, at the essay's close, that "there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power" (W 2:86).

The "victory" of "justice" and the access to "practical power" thus become the watch-words of Emerson's later thought, the religion that he moved toward after his period of high Transcendental faith. Reinforced by the challenge of the slavery crisis and the Civil War, a conflict that Emerson saw unquestionably in moral terms, Emerson's new faith was founded on the assumption that "the progress of religion is steadily to its identity with morals" (JMN 16:209). That knowledge was provisional could not be a barrier or hindrance to the imperative to pursue right action as we understood it. A limited view was nevertheless a real view, Emerson recognized, and its very limitation—a particular revelation to a single individual—was in some sense proof of an access to the laws and principles on which the universe was founded.

Emerson's observation of the course of the antislavery movement and the Civil War further modified his views, bringing him to see the value of collective effort and of the institutions that could make such effort possible. Thus in 1867, returning to deliver a Phi Beta Kappa Address at Harvard thirty years after "The American Scholar," we find Emerson praising the power and necessity of individual judgment and achievement, but also declaring the value of cooperative and organized work. "The sublime point of experience is the value of a sufficient man. Cube this value by the meeting of two such, of two or more such, who understand and support each other, and you have organized victory" (W 8:225-26). The victory of justice has here become an "organized victory," and our great individualist seems to have taken a remarkably institutionalist line.

While Emerson's shift did not effect his enduring faith in what he called the "moral sentiment" (he remained, in that sense, an idealist to the end), it did constitute an important change of emphasis in his work. The inspired mystical poet became something closer to an ethical philosopher and public intellectual. We find a new attitude and tone, one that emphasizes purpose, determination, and disciplined work. These are pragmatic virtues, not the virtues that we would ordinarily associate with the seer or inspired bard.

I, for one, love the poetic prose of that early bard. It remains forceful, compelling, and authentic. But there is a place too, is there not, for this other Emerson, whose faith is tempered and toughened by tragedy and doubt. There is a place, is there not, for the voice that says "Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat; up again, old heart! ...there is victory yet for all justice" (W 2:85-86).


Quotations from Emerson's works are cited parenthetically using the following standard abbreviations:

  • JMN: The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. William H. Gilman, Ralph H. Orth, et al. 16 volumes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-82.
  • LL: The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1843-1871, ed. Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson. 2 volumes. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001
  • W: The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson [Centenary Edition]. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 volumes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.

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Last updated on Tuesday, April 10, 2012.

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