Mr. Emerson, I presume?

Mr. Emerson, I presume?

Delivered by Rev. Patti Pomerantz, Eastrose Fellowship UU,  Feb. 4, 2018

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a cacophony of contradictions. He was an aspiring artist who became a minister, only to leave church to pursue a career of writing and lecturing. His father’s death when he was only 8 years old was also the loss of family income, and so even with several different jobs pursued by his mother, they were poor enough to not always have enough food, or clothing. Yet the Emerson children were all well-educated. Emerson himself entered Harvard at the age of 14, graduating four years later in 1821. After college he opened a finishing school for girls, which he closed 4 years later, probably due mostly to the influence of his aunt – who admonished that there had been a Reverend in the family for generations – to pursue ministry.

emerson artIn 1829 he married Ellen Luisa Tucker who died from TB only 18 months later. And while he became the parish minister of Second Church in Boston the next year, he resigned after only 2 years and never again served a congregation. Five years after Ellen’s death, he married again. He and Lydia Jackson had four children but lost their first born when he was only five years old.

All of these premature deaths – of his father, his wife, and his son – must have had a great impact on Emerson’s understanding of the laws of nature and the image of God. I’ve wondered to what degree his radical understanding of science and theology was influenced by these losses. The three essays I’ll reflect on today, his Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, and The Over-soul, all radically depart from the common understanding of church and ministry, our understanding of God and our relationship to the Sacred. And though they were written in the first half of the nineteenth century, they continue to both guide and challenge my understanding of those institutions.

The Divinity School Address –

… so named because it was delivered to seminary graduates from Harvard Divinity School in 1838 urges these new graduates to eschew the assumptions and strictures of the church, relying instead on their own interpretation of Scripture and their personal relationship to God. In it he says,

“The test of true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm and command the soul, as the laws of nature control the activity of the hands, – so commanding that we find pleasure and honor in obeying. The faith should blend with the light of rising and of setting suns, with the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers.” (Emerson, 74)

But he doesn’t stop with this instruction that faith must be connected to the natural world. He also criticizes the institution they are presumably planning to join.

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 presenting him as a man; – indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology… [Emerson, 79]

Emerson is admonishing these young men – for they were all young men in those days – to grow their spiritual connection to the universe, to nature; and then to preach from that connection – not from someone else’s, or even the denomination’s interpretation of that relationship, the Bible, or the proper fulfillment of the job of minister.

While I fully agree with Emerson’s image of the importance of a strong relationship with nature as an important base of theological understanding, our modern access to the solitude in nature which runs through Emerson’s writing is terribly circumscribed today; and cultural trends are also pulling us away from connections in general. Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of the New Republic magazine and now a contributing editor at New York magazine, started a blog in 2000 called The Dish, which he wrote daily for 15 years. In that time he wrote he wrote 115,000 posts; he stopped because he was losing his life. You may have seen an article about him by Tom Hallman, Jr in the Oregonian last month. These remarks come both from that article and Sullivan’s original piece about his experience published in New York magazine called, “I Used to Be a Human Being.”

One of the great mistakes people make is thinking, as I did for a while, that being online and on your phone constantly is a wonderful enhancement, an addition to what you are doing,” he said. “But over time, you realize you are present, or you are not.” (Oregonian)

Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down. . . .

The promise of the phone is that you are never alone. There is always the constant distraction. We can no longer tolerate more than 30 seconds of silence and solitude, which essentially separates ourselves from the core aspect of what it means to be human.” (Sullivan)

Sullivan contends that the phone, always accessible, makes us believe we are connected.

But it has tapped into a part of our brain that wants validation and abets a creeping sense of loneliness that we have,” he said. “That makes us use the devices even more. It renders impossible the possibility of reflection and perspective.” (Hallman)

About 3 months after he quits his blog, Sullivan arrives at a meditation center, where he has to surrender his cell phone. This description from his second day struck me:

Things that usually escaped me began to intrigue me. On a meditative walk through the forest on my second day, I began to notice not just the quality of the autumnal light through the leaves but the splotchy multicolors of the newly fallen, the texture of the lichen on the bark, the way in which tree roots had come to entangle and overcome old stone walls. The immediate impulse — to grab my phone and photograph it — was foiled by an empty pocket. So I simply looked. At one point, I got lost and had to rely on my sense of direction to find my way back. I heard birdsong for the first time in years. Well, of course, I had always heard it, but it had been so long since I listened.


In his essay Self Reliance, published in 1841,

… three years after his Divinity School Address, Emerson expands his audience beyond seminarians, to the emerson sketch black and whitegeneral public. Contrary to the title, Emerson is not talking so much about how we live as he is about how we are relationship with the larger universe, particularly with God. While he disparages our human tendency to follow the ideas of others, including the voice of the organized church:

“Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

“Truth is handsomer than the affectation of love. Your goodness must have some edge to it, – else it is none.” [Emerson, 88]

he urges us to pay attention to the life of the spirit and the common truth we all share through that connection:

“We call [this] primary wisdom [as] Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. For the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. We first share the life by which things exist and afterwards see them as appearances in nature and forget that we have shared their cause. Here is the foundation of action and of thought.” (Emerson, 95)

“The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to interpose helps.” (Emerson, 96)

In stark counterpoint to Emerson’s admonitions, an article in the most recent National Geographic called, “They Are Watching You,” by Robert Draper, the individuality within the connection to the larger universe that Emerson relies on is increasingly threatened by the growing use of social media as an important element of modern surveillance. The author quotes Susan Greenfield, a research neuroscientist and member of British Parliament: Everyone seems to think that it’s great to be connected and exposed all the time. But what happens when everything is literal and visual? How do you explain a concept like honor when you can’t find it on Google Images? The universe of the abstract is inexplicable. The nuance in life disappears. (Draper)

In the third essay of this reflection, “The Over-Soul,”

… also published in 1841, Emerson sharpens his focus and continues to construct his understanding about how our individual connections with the sacred bind us to one another. The Over-Soul to which we are each connected, encompasses the entire cosmos and therefore each of us. To be truly present in this primary relationship we must focus not on the past, for instance by seeing Biblical interpretation as static; or on the future, by focusing our concern on what happens when we die. Emerson’s stance on the irrelevance of immortality spoke to a hot button issue at the time. Though Darwin’s Origin of the Species was not published until 1859, he made his discoveries in 1836. And since Darwin and Emerson were distant cousins, I’m sure he was aware of the rising concept of evolution.

By admonishing us to be totally absorbed in the present Emerson took serious issue with the concepts of heaven, of immortality, and of life after death taught by the church. It is only in the present that we can both understand and live through our relationship with the holy – the Over-Soul. Here is Emerson’s explanation:

The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains everyone to pass for what he is, and to speak from his character and not from his tongue, and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand and become wisdom and virtue and power and beauty. (One sentence!) …We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. (Emerson, 134)

The soul’s communication of truth is the highest event in nature, since it then does not give somewhat from itself, but it gives itself, or passes into and becomes that man whom it enlightens; or in proportion to that truth he receives, it takes him to itself. (Emerson, 140)

Emerson may have left professional ministry, but these three essays exemplify his strong religious beliefs. And while Transcendentalism, which he is often credited with founding, became a literary movement, the foundation that Emerson created was deeply spiritual, even dare I say, theological. To Emerson the Over-Soul and what we call God are one and the same. And Jesus, while not God, represented the epitome of human connection to the sacred, and commitment to living absolutely in the present, obedient to that connection without thought to past or future.

These three essays – The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, and The Over-Soul -represent both the promise and the challenge of Unitarian Universalism today. On the one hand, his commitment to the individual search for truth and meaning – our First Principle – runs through his writing. On the other hand, his commitment to the individual search for truth and meaning is often at the expense of his view of the organized church including its teachings. This tension between individuality and community, between personal truth and congregational responsibility, even about the importance of history are still foundational to the challenges which we face right here and right now. Since Emerson’s work is foundational to the maturation of Unitarianism in the nineteenth century, finding ways to reduce this tension are problematic.

But there is a third trend that I see which overlays both of these positions – the importance of our connection to the Over-Soul, that which is the supreme teacher, arbiter, maker – God. It is the growth of his awareness of a sacred energy which encompasses us all and shows us how to live our lives and be in relationship with each other that is most compelling. That connection is the mediator between individual truth and cultural integrity.

I don’t agree with everything Emerson said in these essays. But I also know that his truth was as dynamic as he believed faith and understanding and even truth to be. What a gift it would be to spend more time with all of his writing, including his prolific journals. There are life lessons in everything he wrote –as many lessons as there are readers. I invite you to spend some time with him. And then we can all be in conversation together. Because if, as Emerson believed, though he may not have said in these exact words, revelation is never sealed – there is always something more we can learn about ourselves, about the sacred, and about our lives together in community.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, The Spiritual Emerson, Robinson, D. editor, Beacon Press, April 15, 2004

Hallman, Tom Jr., Searching for silence, meaning in modern life, Oregonian, Sunday January 7, 2018, p. A8

Draper, Robert, They Are Watching You, National Geographic, February 2018, p.30-65

Sullivan, Andrew, I Used to be a Human Being, New York Magazine, Sept. 2016