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Ralph Waldo Emerson Advises the President: The Divinity School Address

Recently, I came across the transcript of an interview between then-candidate for U.S. Senate Barack Obama and Cathleen Falsani, then a religion reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. As I read over the interview, this exchange jumped out at me.

Falsani: Do you believe in heaven?

 Do I believe in the harps and clouds and wings?

Falsani: A place spiritually you go to after you die?

 What I believe in is that if I live my life as well as I can, that I will be rewarded. I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. But I feel very strongly that whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing.

When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I’ve been a good father to them, and I see in them that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they’re kind people and that they’re honest people, and they’re curious people, that’s a little piece of heaven.

Do you believe in sin?


Falsani: What is sin?

 Being out of alignment with my values.

Before I say one more thing, let me be clear that I believe Mr. Obama has every right to whatever religious beliefs he chooses to hold. At inauguration, he swore to uphold the Constitution, not the Nicene Creed, so please do not take what I have to say as a political attack. Instead, it is a sort of uneasy nod in the direction of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

On July 15, 1838, Emerson stood in the chapel at the Harvard Divinity School and delivered an address to the senior class, an address that would set off a firestorm of controversy far beyond Boston and draw theological lines all over the United States. In what we have come to know as the
“Divinity School Address,”
Emerson took the Unitarian faith of his youth to what he saw as its logical extremes. Having jettisoned the authority of Scripture and reinterpreted Jesus as simply an enlightened man and great teacher–both moves that would have flabbergasted the Puritan founders of Harvard–the Unitarians crafted a religion that placed man at the center of everything. Emerson looked at the resulting creed and asked some sensible questions, such as “why should we practice communion when it symbolizes something in which we do not believe?” Instead, Emerson taught an anthropocentric faith, which took “self-evident” moral laws” and stripped them of all supernatural source other than a fuzzy sense of the Oversoul.

This sentiment [of perceiving virtue] is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself. It corrects the capital mistake of the infant man, who seeks to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages from another, — by showing the fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is an inlet into the deeps of Reason.

Emerson was hardly the first to place man at the center of the universe. His offense against the conservative Unitarians–that’s a phrase I never thought I would write–was twofold. First, he had the temerity to walk into their inner sanctum at Harvard and speak these words. Second, he said them well enough, as he said many things throughout his life, that people took him seriously.

Indeed, people still take those words seriously, even if they have never read Emerson’s actual address. His ideas, making man the standard for all morality, are reflected in the most liberal churches in our world and in the answers Barack Obama gave to Cathleen Falsani.

What’s wrong with Emerson’s address? To dismiss Emerson’s essays (or their lecture counterparts) as fragmentary or disorganized is to ignore the very real fact that Emerson held a huge number of people on both sides of the Atlantic in his sway during the middle decades of the 19th century. Clearly some very astute people thought Emerson’s work to be worthy of serious consideration.

The problem I see with the “Divinity School Address” lies in the final word of the passage quoted above: “Reason.” Having abandoned revealed religion (or religion based on the Bible), for one supposedly based on Reason (or on intuition, depending on which part of the address one reads), Emerson is free to reach many non-biblical conclusions. One wonders, though, why, having denied any authority for Scripture, Emerson believes so firmly in the ethics of Jesus, the only significant evidence for whom comes from those just-abandoned Scriptures.

Indeed, Emerson’s reply would be that it is the power of the unfettered, the liberated mind, intuiting truth and understanding the transcendent qualities of human morality. The obvious problem with Emerson’s reliance on intuition is that he relies solely on his own intuition. If that is Reason, then it is a very subjective Reason. What if my intuition rejects the teachings of Jesus or accepts the ones that Emerson would prefer to ignore: “No one comes to the Father except through me,” comes to mind.

Why is Emerson’s intuition better than that of Christopher Hitchens or Jonathan Edwards, of John Henry Newman or Rabbi Akiba? To my mind, the only answer that can be offered is that he just said these things so well and people believed him. In short, he created his own truth through the power of rhetoric, since objective proof remains so elusive in an intuition-based mental economy. In doing this, Emerson demonstrated that postmodernism truly appeared on the scene long before Jacques Derrida was a deconstructive gleam in his father’s eye.

I cannot blame Emerson for Mr. Obama’s theology. Humans, after wriggling free of Scripture’s confines will naturally head down a path that places them at the center of things and cast their own personal morality as the correct one. I cannot blame Emerson, but I can point out his departures from logic, perhaps creating my own truth in the bargain.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism, Transcendentalism.

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