On May 25th of this year we could celebrate the 200th birthday of a quintessential American: Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson exemplified American individualism as the holy duty of being human. He was the ultimate Protestant, preaching we should be ourselves as daringly, caringly and authentically as we can – that is God’s infinite creativity made manifest and satisfied.
“Man is timid and apologetic; he dares not say, “I think,” “I am,” but quotes some saint or sage,” said Emerson. I don’t mind the irony. I am not timid or apologetic, but I am reminded to be me when I read him, and so I want to bring his words to us – reminders to us that life is for fullness of character and immediacy of our divinity.
“Envy is ignorance;” he said, “imitation is suicide.” His words have wended their way into our culture. They’ve become aphorisms: “Society is everywhere in conspiracy against the manhood [personhood] of every one of its members,” and “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” “Every great man is unique,” he believed, and, “always the seer is a sayer,” he said. His faith and advice was simple: “If we live truly, we shall see truly.”
Yet, “in every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty,” he preached, telling us the genius we see in others is because of the genius we already knew in ourselves. If we would but trust ourselves, we would be the saints and sages.
“A trust in yourself is the height, not of pride, but of piety.” Think of how radical this approach is. In a culture steeped in shame, taught to be divided from ourselves, told we’re flawed and fallen, here comes this unlikely character to propel us, not away from pride into a forlorned and feigned humility, but through pride into piety. God wants us to be ourselves and when we’re not, we fail God, our community who needs us, and ourselves.
However, “we but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.” He couldn’t stand the life compromised, constrained, contained. “Tame men are inexpressibly tedious,” he said. “’As others do, so will I’ – then died the man in you,” he admonished.
So it is easy to see how it was that he didn’t last long in the ministry. His father was a liberal minister in a line of ministers. Young Ralph Waldo was only 22 when William Ellery Channing pulled together the new Unitarian movement in Boston. Liberal Congregational churches were switching to the scriptural rationalism of the new Unitarians. It was daring to preach the bible should be read as “a revelation from God to be read with a thoughtful mind,” instead of “the revelation from God to be simply believed. The Unitarians stood on new and shaky ground, for they were assailed as the newest heretics.
What is daring for some is dull for others. Emerson lasted only three years in the Unitarian ministry. He left the church for the miracle of life as it is rather than pretend to perform the miracle of transubstantiation in the giving of Holy Communion. He is revered by many in our movement now, but was reviled by most in it then. Why?
He didn’t much like the posing and formalism that even liberal Unitarians tended to fall prey to. “Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist,” he lamented, “then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink before the prayers begin…we are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not.” He complained of a preacher so boring the snow falling out the window was more miraculous. “The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned…- life passed through the fire of thought.”
Instead, there is something in churchdom that eschews authentic thought and saps up the posing of piety. Emerson couldn’t stand it. “I hate goodies,” he said, “I hate goodness that preaches…Goodies make us very bad…We will almost sin to spite them.” When he writes such scandal in his journal, and publically says, “tame men are inexpressibly tedious,” it is no wonder why inviting him to address the graduating class of the Harvard divinity students may have led to a bit of a problem. What shocked the world then and led to his being barred from most Unitarian pulpits then should speak to us now.
“The doors of the temple stand open… and the oracles of this truth cease never,” the young 35 year old Emerson told the younger ministers to be. But, he went on, “it is guarded by one stern condition: it is an intuition. It cannot be received second hand.” The loss of this primary faith is the presence of degradation, he told them.
The holy spirit suffers this “perversion” (he called it) “that the divine nature is attributed to one or two persons, and denied to all the rest, and denied with a fury.” Worse (or better, depending on your point of view in such matters religious) he went on to say “miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches … is a Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain,” and that the church, “has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus”
This didn’t sit well with the Christian church of his day. But there he was, hired to speak, and they couldn’t interrupt him. He went on: “The spirit only can teach …only he can give, who has.” “But,” he ground it in, “the man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.”
Babbles? Let him hush? As books enable? This is not what they wanted the graduates to hear. But he was on a roll, a roll bringing to fruition the ultimate implications of the Protestant revolution. “Alas for the unhappy man that is called to stand in the pulpit, and not give the bread of life,” said the man who earlier left the ministry over not giving out a different form of the bread of life. He called in an authority adequate to judge the whiny minister: “the village blasphemer sees fear in the face, form, and gait of the minister.”
The inner outrage of the faculty must have been enormous, even as they innerly knew the validity of his words, yet winced that he would say them. “Let me admonish you,” Emerson went on, “to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imaginations of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil… thank God for good men, but say, ‘I also am a man.’ Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.” “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost,” he concluded, “cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Diety… live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind… let [your congregant’s] timid aspirations find in you a friend; let their trampled instincts be genially tempted out in your atmosphere.”
It was a scandal. He wasn’t invited back the next year. The young Unitarian denomination renounced him, barring him from most pulpits. His pulpit was the Wednesday night lecture and the essay. His community became the Transcendentalists. But young Theodore Parker was in that graduating class and he went on to be a dynamic preacher urging on the cause of abolition even while helping shunt slaves into the underground railroad.
Emerson, rejected by the Unitarians of his day, is rejected still by Unitarians today. Well, perhaps not rejected, but claimed with proviso. Many claim Emerson was too individualistic. Our own Reverend Forrest Church, son of Senator Frank Church, called him the “guintessential adolescent sage.” The minister Emerson lamented, Frost, is lauded as a caring pastor. We all remember and quote the many words of Frost, don’t we? Emerson was an introvert. He didn’t really like fame or company. He liked the immediacy of mysticism, not woo-woo mysticism, a natural mysticism in love with nature and human nature. He didn’t like the institutional church, and for this he was and is resented. Hard to build an institution in the shadow of an anti-institutionalist.
I laugh at the irony of a tradition that was stuffy and pretentious then avoiding his advice of then to in some ways perpetuate the trend now. We don’t realize how narrow our wideness can be. We don’t build enough on his gifts to humanity.
Was he an individualist? Yes, radically so. So? Would we be ashamed of our own unique selves? Would we set up a false dichotomy of saying either you’re for community and the institution or you’re against it? Couldn’t we take a cue from our own new name, Unitarian Universalist, and use those two “Uni’s” to affirm both meanings of the words, “We are one”? We are one in the bold and appropriate sense that Emerson would have us be, our self, as authentically as we can be. And we are one in the sense of being one with each other, all others, and with nature. We are in this together, yes, but we shouldn’t be birds of a single color of feather. We should be both sorts of one at once: individual and interdependent.
“Insist on yourself,” he said, “never imitate.” Our religious movement has more to do with that than with old theologies about the trinity. We affirm, celebrate, and protect people being themselves. We trust that our churches and communities will be better off as we do the daring work of being us as we are inclined to be. When we free our essential nature, divinity is alive in the only time it ever can be alive: now.
Reverend Brad Carrier
UU’s of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
C March 2, 2003