Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1838 Divinity Address

I'm taking a seminar at my church on the three 'prophets' of religious liberalism as chosen by the Unitarian Universalist faith. William Ellery Channing was pretty awesome as the first one, and he argued that the Bible, which was still the primary source of God's revelation, had to be read via Reason, a god-given faculty. The Bible read through the lens of reason, he thought, showed that God is good, that Jesus was a man and not God and just a really awesome prophet, that Jesus's words and not just his miracles were important, and that there are certain virtues, which include loving God (with quiet, real zeal), loving Christ, and being benevolent and charitable to all humanity. I took some decent notes on that sermon for my own edification and am now using this blog to process my notes and highlights from the Emerson sermon. Emerson was a student of Channing's and takes things a step more to the religiously liberal. Fragments and my opinions and insights follow:

  • "corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures" - I just love the way he says this the first time, that all men are given the truth within them
  • the truth of the human is that "his being is without bound; that, to the good, to the perfect, he is born, low as he now lies in evil and weakness"
  • Bad isn't just bad because someone says it's bad but because it makes you bad; "he who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.... If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being." I call this idea instant karma, and I don't see it playing out for a lot of people. Emerson seems very libertarian his ideas of cause and effect and not just personal responsibility but personal agency and capacity.
  • "Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat." Heat, or good, is the being, the essence, the given, and cold and evil are what happens when you take it away.
  • These sentiments are "deifying." Emerson goes so far as some of my favorite mystics have to say that we are godlike when we are in deepest touch with our truest, goodest selves. How far is that from modesty or the idea of original sin? What use is original sin to us except as a tool to keep us down... or is it needed in moderation to keep us somewhat humble, to beware our own boundaries. We are amazing, capable beings, says my understanding of humanism; but we are not superior to all others. Rather, just because we will something selfishly does not mean we are correct. How do we separate these ideas?
  • Jesus wasn't the sole truthgiver, just the one who resonated with us in the West. "Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets." but "Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man."
  • Intuition is from our divinity. "The absence of this primary faith is the presence of degredation." This is a toughie for me. It pushes too much into the "if you don't believe you're good, it's sort of your own fault" idea. 
  • What's wrong with churches?: "churches are not built on his principles but on his tropes" (5 on my copy; will not correspond with y'all's)
  • "Having seen that the law in us is commanding, he would not suffer it to be commanded." i.e. Jesus doesn't need to make laws enforced by fear or governance; they come from within.
  • Christianity is now a monarchy based on fear ""
  • This subordinance we have means that we are not responsible for the world.
  • "To aim to convert a man by miracles, is a profanation of the soul." Instead, it's made by 'beautiful sentiments,' or, less sloppily, by resonating with the soul (6).
  • Again with the American and libertarian ideas: "It is a low benefit to give me something; it is a high benefit to enable me to do somewhat of myself."
  • Do not degrade the life and dialogues of Christ out of the circle by this charm, by insulation and peculiarity. Let them lie as they befel, alive and warm..." Jesus was a worthy messenger of the truth without miracles.
  • Emerson says that Christianity focuses too much on the person of Jesus instead of the message and that the revelation of God is ancient and no longer alive, "as if God were dead."
  • Emerson liked preachers; he was talking to them, after all. But he sort of claimed that the spirit works through you. If you are making art or sermons or books or anything without the spirit of God/truth/self behind it - if you're not being honest, then art is artifice indeed.
  • "Preaching is the expression of the moral sentiment in application to the duties of life" (7) But this moral sentiment has to be real, sincere passion. Emerson demands it.
  • Bad sermons make us feel alone (8). "The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral," he felt when he heard a cold, insincere sermon.
  • The role of the preacher is "to convert life into truth" (8).
  • A bad preacher tells not of himself but shares only empty platitudes, which do not inspire ore RESONATE but only comfort folks. 
  • Sometimes, bad sermons have the power to do good, as everybody can be resonated by something a little difference. Emerson seems to say that it's not the congregation's fault if they're bored or unmoved, though ;-)
  • What's wrong with the church? "The preaching of this country... comes out of the memory, and not out of the soul; that it aims at what is usual, and not at what is necessary and eternal;... historical Christianity destroys the power of preaching, by withdrawing it from the exploration of the moral nature of man, where the sublime is, where are the resources of astonishment and power.... The soul of the community is sick and faithless. It wants nothing so much as a stern, high, stoical, Christian discipline... Man is ashamed of himself. Scarcely does any man dare to be wise and good," because he believes he is not (9).
  • Emerson found that some in his day thought it wicked to go to church, presumably because that's where all the other, nonpious, bad people go (10). 
  • When worship goes down, genius flees for *gasp* "the senate, or the market." This just made me laugh and laugh.
  • "We have contrasted the Church with the Soul," the manmade with the eternal yet present with/in us divine. "The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. IT IS THE OFFICE OF A TRUE TEACHER TO SHOW US THAT GOD IS, NOT WAS."
  • More libertarianism: "They think society wiser than their soul, and know not that one soul, and their soul, is wiser than the whole world."
  • Taking other men's ideas and revelations as your own is simply derivative.
  • Emerson was like another Protestant revolutionary: "refuse the good models" and "dare to love God without mediator or veil"
  • "Thank God for these good men, but say, "I also am a man'" (11).
  • "Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost"
  • "By trusting your own heart, you shall gain more confidence in other men."
  • "All men have sublime thoughts," and it's the preacher's job, if any, to help them find themselves.These are the souls that made our souls wiser.
  • Near the end of this sermon, Emerson said, less earthshatteringly but still interestingly on him as a person, that society's praise can be cheaply secured and he warns preachers, I think, not to seek praise or worldly fame. Real people don't have to be so flashy. After all, "you would not praise an angel" for being itself. I see no problem personally in sharing real gratitude and delight when I see other people living out their light.
  • Emerson says, finally, don't bother building a new church. Just do better with the churches you have. "The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul" (12). Cue Billy Joel ;-)
  • So what good is Christianity to the world in 1838? Emerson says Christianity is good for giving us the Sabbath and thus (not sure how it works yet) the dignity of spiritual being. I guess as a time to delight in it? And Christianity is good for the institution of preaching (funny a preacher would say that), "the speech of man to man" (12). I choose to believe he meant our ability to communicate in general.
  • Emerson looked forward to the day when the words and revelations of the past would not be necessary and when the spirit would move through each of us in the eternal now (my words, not his).

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