Ralph Waldo Emerson, Spiritual but not Religious
It is not uncommon today to find certain segments of society in America and even more so in Europe who would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. After The Enlightenment in Europe, science and reason began to increasingly dominant the modern mind leaving religion and spirituality on the defensive throughout the Western World. Some defenders of faith argued that this trend would lead to a decent into evil, others developed powerful metaphysical arguments to prove the existence of that which could not be seen, still others tried to find “alternative” ways of thinking that could create a marriage of science and spirit.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James are two of the leading figures who attempted to carve out a place for spirituality in America in between scientific materialism and religious orthodoxy. The ideas of these two thinkers led to the creation of what can be see as an alternative spiritual tradition in America. They inspired New Thought Churches throughout America and the spiritual movements of the 1950’s and 60’s, not to mention the “East meets West” spiritual paths that have become so popular in America. More recently the Integral Spiritual approach and Evolutionary Spirituality have immerged continuing some of the core ideas and attitudes put in place by Emerson and James.
Perhaps this particular stream of alternative spiritual thought can most directly be traced back to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous “Divinity School Address.” In the summer of 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson was invited to speak to the senior class at the Harvard Divinity School where he himself had been trained as a minister years before. On that day he gave a blistering speech creating an uproar among the spiritual and religious elite of New England that didn’t completely die down even a after a year. In fact it, was a blowup that had been building because of tensions between the established orthodoxy of the Calvinist church, the more liberal Unitarians, and brazen young Transcendentalists like Emerson. Emerson’s unabashed attack of the church, in one of their own strongholds, to a group of newly trained ministers, was more than enough to catalyze a spiritual explosion.
Emerson addressed a small audience of students, friends and Harvard officials, delivering a searing indictment of a Christianity that he accused of robbing human beings of their natural divinity. Emerson saw Jesus not as especially blessed but as the greatest example (so far) of what all human’s could and should aspire to. In his own worlds:
“Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world.”
Emerson accused the church of two errors, the first was that the church had elevated the figure of Jesus Christ to a station above the rest of humanity creating a cult of personality around him.
“Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.”
In doing this the church had relegated the holy to something that had happened in the past and did not recognize that true spiritual emancipation was available for all of us here and now.
“Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith throttles the preacher; and the goodliest of institutions becomes an uncertain and inarticulate voice.”
The second error of the church leads directly from the first – its preachers are largely uninspired by authentic spiritual experience and teach the gospel largely from an intellectual understanding and not living revelation. Because of this they are unable to provoke a genuine experience of the divine in others.
“The spirit only can teach. Not any profane man, not any sensual, not any liar, not any slave can teach, but only he can give, who has; he only can create, who is. The man on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks, alone can teach. Courage, piety, love, wisdom, can teach; and every man can open his door to these angels, and they shall bring him the gift of tongues. But the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.”
Emerson felt it was his duty to encourage this new generation to strike out on their own, to find their own path to the immediacy of Truth and look towards nature to find spirit as it exists today and not into scripture to see how it was understood by others in the past.
“Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, — are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, — but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind.”
It seems in reading Emerson’s Divinity School Address that he probably should have anticipated how enormously inflammatory it would be. Yet Emerson never quite seemed to understand how he could have caused such a tremendous public backlash. The Divinity School Address was given two years after the publication of “Nature” and the stir surrounding it propelled him on a trajectory that would make him an international superstar of the spirit. He had effectively carved out a niche, and a pretty good sized one at that, for a true and serious path to spirituality outside of any religious tradition.