By Philip Goldberg
July 15, was the anniversary of an important event in America’s religious history.
On July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School, his alma mater. His audience that day was small — the school’s only six graduates, their families and the faculty — but the reverberations were so great that the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (father of the Supreme Court Justice), called the speech “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.”
Emerson was 35 at the time, and had already given up his ministry — “self-defrocked” as he put it — in large part because his study of Eastern religions “dispelled once and for all the dream about Christianity being the sole revelation.” He had also published the seminal essay “Nature,” which had launched his career as a lecturer and put the Transcendentalist movement on the map. In it was this memorable description of union with the divine:
“Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
If that sounds Eastern it’s because Emerson was strongly influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist texts that found their way to New England in his boyhood.
In the Divinity School Address, the Sage of Concord did the religious equivalent of speaking truth to power. “Let me admonish you first of all to go alone,” he told the ministers-to-be, “to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.” He called for less blind obedience to doctrine; he excoriated ordinary preaching as coming “out of the memory, and not out of the soul”; and he spoke of the typical Sunday service with such disdain that it’s a wonder anyone present ever attended church again. “Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist,” he said, “then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate.”
What mattered, he declared, was to encounter the Infinite directly. He accused “historical Christianity” of engaging in “noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus,” calling it a “perversion” to say that one person alone was by nature divine and the rest of us are not. Christianity, he said, had become “a Mythus,” like the religions of Greece and Egypt, and had turned Christ into “a demigod,” like Apollo or Osiris.
This was radical stuff in pre-Civil War America. Emerson was essentially turning religion 180 degrees on its axis. Instead of a deity presiding over creation from somewhere up there, divinity was here, there and everywhere. What we call God is the essence of all that is, the “cause behind every stump and clod,” and it is within us, as our own essential nature. “That which shows God in me, fortifies me,” he said at Harvard. “That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen” (wen = cyst). In the Emersonian vision, as in that of the Eastern sages, we are neither fallen nor depraved, and divinity incarnates at every instant, not just not just once in the distant past. “God is, not was,” he said, and each of us is “an infinite Soul” who is “drinking forever the soul of God.”
His lesson for the future ministers was plain: “Cast behind you all conformity and acquaint men firsthand with Deity.”
The speech was well received by the students, who had invited Emerson in the first place, but the rest of the crowd was not pleased. When the text was published, clerics and theologians were outraged. Emerson said, proudly, that he had been “raised into the importance of a heretic.” Harvard declared him persona non grata, but 28 years later, after he’d become a superstar, the school gave him an honorary doctorate.
The Emersonian vision is alive today in all the independent seekers who pursue firsthand the “indwelling Supreme Spirit.” July 15 marks the 174th anniversary of the Divinity School Address. The date should be commemorated by everyone who insists on critical thinking in religious matters and by everyone who knows that “the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never.”