With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Emerson's Romantic Christology

No, my friends: the Well has not dried up (though there is far less water being drawn from it as there once was). Here is a reflection I wrote after reading some of Emerson's religious works...

I. Introduction

On July 15th, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson was asked to give an address to his religious kin, men after his own heart: the young “Unitarian Champions” at the Harvard Divinity School. For Emerson, this was the long-awaited opportunity to sermonize on a religious vision he had developed as early as 1826. Yet it was not immediately apparent to him how far from kinsmen his hosts at Harvard were; far less apparent was it to the Unitarians how radically Emerson’s heart had changed since his early days as a preacher. For in his now infamous address, Emerson preached a divisive message about the distinction between spiritual and traditional Christianity, noting the absolute value of the former and the merely accidental worth of the latter. This was a vision that paid homage to the primal religious impulse in man and sought to expose historical Christianity as a “monster” and a “myth”[i]: an edifice worthy of the iconoclast’s hammer. Suffice it to say, this message provoked a zealous outcry, including charges of “heresy,” “pantheism,” “atheism,” and ultimately culminated in the end of Emerson’s preaching career and the subsequent retreat “into his cloud.”[ii] Yet as stark a contrast as Emerson painted, and as much dogma as he cast away; he nonetheless refused to entirely exorcise Christ from the theological landscape, fixing a place for him within the ranks of spiritual religion. Thus, we find in Emerson an appropriation and re-contextualizing of Jesus and His message within a non-traditional conceptual framework. And by analyzing his philosophical and theological presuppositions, one is able to make the unique Christology in Emerson’s work intelligible.

II. Transcendentalism as Hermeneutic: Between “Reason” and Revelation

In order to grasp the development of Emerson’s religious thought, one must first understand his engagement with the Unitarian tradition. When he began his career as a preacher, the Unitarians represented the “extreme liberal wing” of Christianity in New England. Through his ministry in the church, Emerson thereby entered into a tradition in the midst of a sectarian debate: the Unitarians, who were heavily influenced by the rationalism of the 18th century, drew from that conception of reason to justify their rejection of the doctrines of fundamentalist Calvinism. Particularly unacceptable was the Calvinist doctrine of the total depravity of nature, and it seems likely that Emerson’s own reverence for nature may have grown out of the initial reaction to this discountenance. While subjecting the claims of revelation to the crucible of modern reason, the Unitarians maintained a devotion to the unique historical deposit of Christian faith. However, the philosophy from which the Unitarians drew support in interpreting their revelation had also cleared a path for the rejection of the Christian tradition in favor of a “rational religion” that built up certain tenets (moral law, immortality of the soul, the existence of God) based on the singular authority of reason. Even more radically, that philosophy spawned figures like Hume who employed its principles against traditional Christianity as well as any religion built upon reason. Emerson thus, as Stephen Whicher notes, found himself attempting to navigate through a “spiritual emergency.”[iii] Both the groundless fundamentalism of the Calvinists and the Enlightenment’s “rational religion,” relying as it did on a truncated view of reason, were equally unsavory paths.

Emerson’s response to this crisis was definitive for the shape of his entire religious vision. Both the authority of historically defined revelation and the authority of empirical, rationalist reason had been shaken.[iv] Emerson was then able to draw from modern philosophy itself in order to justify an alternative source of faith as well as his rejection of a dangerous historical tradition (as seen in Calvinism) and a rationality prone to atheism. Through the mediation (and alteration) of Coleridge, Emerson discovered a distinction in the epistemology of Immanuel Kant between “Understanding” (Verstand) and “Reason” (Vernuft) which proved to be foundational.[v] For Emerson, Verstand is the logical and practical intelligence, concerned with facts and overall empirical data. Its world is one of “a mechanical system of necessity” and “collections of atoms,” in which man is a product of forces and not their source. Vernuft, however, is immediate intuition, dealing with absolute truths transcending sense perception. Its world is that of a new dimension beyond the mechanical, ripe with the promise of freedom and spirit. Though Kant had not intended Reason to serve as a source of certain truths beyond the limits of sense experience, Coleridge (following some of Kant’s German successors) gave a definitively Platonic rendering of the distinction before it reached American shores. This resulted in a “two truth theory,” making Reason a new source of truth in intuition, distinct from the overly empirical eyes of the Understanding. In Reason, man was able to impose a spirit of freedom upon the landscape of the Newtonian universe, as well as a distinctive identity and purpose.

Reason, then, served as an alternative font for religion distinct from both historical revelation and empiricism masquerading as “reason.”[vi] That which is immediately present to Reason became the sole standard of truth for Emerson, and thus lead unsurprisingly to a drastic interiorization. This took the form of an idealism, which he identified with true Transcendentalism. Accordingly, every reality exists with meaning in the gaze of the intuition, and thus one can only “behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded center in himself….”[vii] Transcendentalism (its name taken from Kantian vocabulary) names this shift to the “other world” of absolute truths: it is the “tendency to respect the intuitions and to give them, at least in our creed, all authority over our experience…”[viii] From this point of view, Reason simply is revelation. The true site of religious truth is not a historical event or a canon of books, but rather the inner depths of one’s spirit. “Faith” then is simply this internal “light” of revelation and the allegiance to the truths it illuminates: “…Transcendentalism is the…excess of Faith; the presentiment of a faith proper to man in his integrity…”[ix] The unveiling of God occurs not out-there, but always in the dynamic flow of the inner soul. Therefore, God need not make use of prophets and covenants and Scriptures to mediate His encounter with man; in the Transcendentalist scheme, the intuition simply is the place of theophany, the holy ground: “bid the invaders take the shoes off their feet, for God is here within.”[x] God is not the absolutely transcendent Being who comes to us through an economy of supernatural grace; Emerson’s God is radically immanent.[xi] The free mind is hallowed as the true temple and Holy of Holies. Indeed, Emerson was so bold as to identify the Reason with God Himself (one thinks of Eckhart)![xii] The Transcendentalist God is the “God Within.” Divinity, then, becomes a slippery predicate, potentially attributable to all who exercise the Reason and draw from more than discursive reason (for in that beyond, God is present). One cannot pray to this God as an external “other” who is able to grant “particular commodities” upon request: in this context, prayer is not a “means to effect a private end” (which is “meaningless and theft”), but rather “the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul.”[xiii] One is able to pray insofar as this God is present in every action flowing from the Transcendentalist attitude. This is without doubt the God of 1 Cor15:28, who is “all in all.” And the idealist “other world” this God inhabits becomes the sole foundation for Emerson’s religion.

As revelation is centered within the dynamic nature of the intuitive Reason, and as this Reason is the soul arbiter of absolute truth, Emerson gives primacy to the temporal present. That which has value has it only in the idealist gaze at the moment of intuition: “truth existed, lived only in a present act of vision and ceased to live as that ended…what mattered, then, was not so much truth as truth-making, not thoughts but thinking.”[xiv] Only that which has the power to affect the soul, to enliven the spirit, in intuitive presence is worthy of the name revelation. The faith of the soul is then a dynamic and continuous revelation that is new at every moment. All concepts of revelation as an event in history, as having occurred once and for all that we must approach through memory, are jettisoned. As Emerson notes: “Life only prevails, not the having lived.”[xv]

What then is the content of this internal revelation? How does one concretely encounter the “God Within?” For Emerson, the primary objects of insight are the spiritual laws of nature, laws he identifies with the divine laws. To be in touch with God inside is to be in contact with the Moral Nature, which “introduce greatness-yea, God Himself-into the open soul…”[xvi]scientia, but rather a sentiment: an engagement of the entire person and not a single faculty. This “sentiment of virtue” or “moral sentiment” is a revelation of cosmic harmony, and actually brings the believer into harmony with Nature: creating justice immediately in the soul which Emerson conceives of as cooperation with the one spirit of Nature.[xvii] This and this alone makes for true holiness and deification; and its absence makes for wickedness. Further, this moral sentiment is intuitive, and thus cannot be mediated by another, cannot be received secondhand.[xviii] Emerson also notes: “the perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness.”[xix] Thus, it is the experience of the moral sentiment that lies at the heart of all religious expression: it is “the essence of all religion.” [xx] All dogmatic, creedal forms of worship and ritual have this as their foundation, and are only limited expressions of this primal experience of the divine that all potentially share. Thus, in a move reminiscent of Kant’s religion of morality, for Emerson all religion is properly founded on the “moral science.” These are not laws of the Understanding that govern the flow of atoms and solid masses; they are laws of spirit. And this contact is not one of theoretical

Overall, then, Emerson’s Transcendentalism emerges from a spiritual crisis which gives his religion the following contours: 1) it is founded on a Platonic reading of Kant’s Vernunft which opened up a world of spiritual freedom and absolute truths beyond sense perception; 2) as Reason is elevated to prominence, it is marked by a radical interiorization and idealism; 3) in this milieu, the source of revelation is interiorized; “reason” is thus rethought as a reservoir of faith flowing from within oneself. 4) God’s contact with the believer is immediate and immanent; so immanent one can identify this “God Within” with the intuitive Reason in oneself; 4) as immediate intuition is the absolute source of truth, there results a privileging of the temporally present and a devaluing of any revelation that is mediated from the past; 5) and finally, one’s encounter with the “God Within” is an experience of the moral sentiment, which is identified with a religious sentiment that underlies all systems and traditions of religious expression. All of these factors color Emerson’s engagement with historical Christianity and form the hermeneutic upon which his appropriation of Christ is based.

III. Christ, the Church, and the “God Within”

The first point to consider in approaching Emerson’s Christology is: what resources his Transcendentalism gives him to critique the authority of historical Christianity. For in undermining the authority of the traditional revelation, he is thereby able to deconstruct the historical figuration of Jesus and clear the way for his positive reclamation.

Having established the moral sentiment as the foundation of all religion, and that all creedal forms of worship give expression to this, it follows that the standard for judging the merit of any positive religion is its adherence to the Transcendentist God and the laws of Nature. All expressions are sacred and lasting only in proportion to this purity, insofar as in varied ways they proclaim the “God Within”; and any divergence from the core of spiritual religion constitutes a break with orthodoxy. Therefore, as one expression among others, the exceptionality of historical Christianity is radically called into question, and even rendered accidental. Only a Christianity that persists in the “faith” that is the moral sentiment endures. Thus, the historical event of revelation in the Christian narrative cannot offer any exclusive truth above and beyond the interior revelation. Emerson notes that “as men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the inellect.” Creeds are particular classifications of the primal spirit made by a powerful mind “acting on the elemental thought of duty and man’s relation to the highest.”[xxi] But as intuition is only real in the present, so too are such systems and expressions only valued insofar as the mind that expresses them lives and breathes. They naturally tend to corruption, back into the undetermined mass of sentiment, to be expressed again in different ways. Yet failing to grasp this notion of intuition as the source of truth, historical systems idolize their expressions and institute them as timeless, giving them a life well beyond their justification. Here language, titles, concepts, and practices are carried across time and are thereby disconnected from their original context: “wholly insulated from anything now extant in the life and business of the people.”[xxii]This is, for Emerson, one of the great defects of historical Christianity.[xxiii]

Thus, it follows also from the nature of intuition and its privileging of revelation in the “now” that Christianity as tradition is automatically evacuated of its value. One cannot look to the past for a legitimate unveiling of the divine, because the place of revelation is within. As one must experience the truths in intuition himself, any religious knowledge must be immediate and cannot be received on the authority of another. Thus the traditional conception of revelatory authority existing in the Church as apostolic community no longer carries weight. One must find true in oneself what one hears from another: “and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.”[xxiv] And further: “Whenever a mind is simple and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away-means, teachers, texts, temples fall…”[xxv] It follows also that the Church, traditionally understood as mediator of revelation between God and man, is rendered obsolete: because the locus of revelation is within, no external mediator is possible.[xxvi] The irrelevance of any truth passed on over time, accepted on the authority of others, and as the prime site of revelation, renders historical Christianity exceedingly impotent. And as the tropes, concepts, and language of the tradition fall, so falls the interpretation of Christ that they constitute.

The problem with Christianity’s vision of Christ is that, detached from the moral sentiment, the Church has applied its idolized expressions to Jesus, forming “not the doctrine of the soul but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual” and “a noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” Because Christianity focuses on the centrality of the person of Christ, the collection of its titles and concepts for Him “paints a demigod.”[xxvii] Jesus is elevated so high that the divine nature is uniquely predicated of Him, and man subordinates his nature to Christ’s. This subordination is without merit for Emerson, and even stifles the fulfillment of true humanity: if Christians spoke from the moral sentiment and the Transcendentalist frame of mind, they would see that the divine nature is not attributable to Christ alone, but is communicated (potentially) to all. He notes: “if a man is at heart just, then insofar is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice.”[xxviii] In this way, Christ’s divinity is radically refigured by Emerson: because God is within, and can be identified with the Reason, He is just as close to me as he is to Christ. Jesus is only “unique” in the limited sense that He may be actually more in touch with the moral sentiment than others. The divine nature is more His only in an accidental manner.

Thus in this way the entire Incarnation is radically rethought. Jesus is not Jehovah revealed in the flesh; this is the myth of historical faith that clings to Christ’s language and figures and rhetoric more than his truth.[xxix] Rather, God incarnates Himself in every man through the Reason, harmonizing his actions. Christ’s person, as noted, has no value to revelation; only his example is of use. Emerson ranks Him among the “true race of prophets” as an icon of the moral sentiment, who lived the very presence of the “God Within.”[xxx] He also considers Jesus to be “the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of man.”[xxxi] Yet this distinction only derives from His intimacy with the moral sentiment: only a divine accomplishment insofar as it is the vocation of every true man. Everyone of us has the potential to become “Christ”: “a true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made by the reception of beautiful sentiments.”[xxxii]imitatio Christi: Christ, no longer a personality, is a paradigm, an icon of the potentially divine within us. This is a way of naturalizing the Christian concept of

This therefore contributes to a radical rereading of the Christian understanding of salvation. Christ the person’s life, death, and resurrection are not seen as acts that open the divine life to humanity in a new way. Rather, “…by his holy thoughts, Jesus serves us, and thus alone.”[xxxiii] This conception of salvation is quasi-Gnostic in character, insofar as Christ’s actions are not efficacious for our redemption, but rather His ability to enlighten us to the divine nature that we all share alike.[xxxiv] Jesus is only savior in the sense that His example helps us to realize our own potential divinity. This is the role of the “divine bard”: one who inspires my virtue, my intellect, my strength.[xxxv] Yet he is not mediator between God and man as traditionally understood (we are called by Emerson to “dare to love God without mediator or veil”).[xxxvi] Nor is His mediation carried across time through His enduring presence in His Mystical Body. Jesus did not outlive His death in any significant fashion to affect us (sacramentally) in the present. His presence, power, and personality are significantly limited. Christ is simply rethought as the poet and priest of Nature and sentiment, and thus what we find in Emerson’s work is a truly Romantic Christology.

Thus, we have seen how the specific tenets of Emerson’s Transcendentalism, forged out of spiritual dilemma, constitute a hermeneutic lens through which traditional Christianity is critiqued and reinterpreted. The interiorization of revelation, faith, and God Himself leads to a rejection of historical authority, external mediation, and tradition. Similarly, the move to the “God Within” leads to a radical reinterpretation of the role of Christ with regard to divinity, incarnation, mediation, and salvation. What is left for Emerson to positively affirm is a figure who serves as icon; who shakes us into the realization of our own power and the intimacy with God that all share. As a prophet, priest, and poet at one with the moral sentiment, Christ is above all “a dear friend” who helps us to hear “the severe music of the bards that have sung of the true God in all ages.”[xxxvii]

[i] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Divinity School Address” in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Organic Anthology. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957. p.105

[ii] Whicher, Stephen E. Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Organic Anthology. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957. p.97-98

[iii] Ibid., p.xv

[iv] Ibid., p.xvi

[v] Ibid., p.470

[vi] Ibid., p.xvi: “Abandoning with relief all allegiance to historical Christianity, he rested his faith on the ‘other world’ of God and freedom assured him by his own immediate intuiton.”

[vii] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Transcendentalist” in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Organic Anthology. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957. p.195

[viii] Ibid., p.198

[ix] Ibid., p.197

[x] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance” in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Organic Anthology. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957. p.159

[xi] Ibid., p.157: “The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps.”

[xii] Whicher, p.470

[xiii] “Self-Reliance,” p.162

[xiv] Whicher, p.xviii

[xv] “Self-Reliance,” p.158

[xvi] “The Divinity School Address,” p.107

[xvii] Ibid., p.103

[xviii] Ibid., p.104

[xix] Ibid., p.103

[xx] Ibid., p.102

[xxi] “Self-Reliance,” p.163

[xxii] “The Divinity School Address,” p.108

[xxiii] Though Emerson does note that among the various expressions of the moral sentiment, Christianity may be the purest despite its many flaws. See Ibid., p.104

[xxiv] Ibid., p.104

[xxv] “Self-Reliance,” p.157

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 149: “What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?”

[xxvii] “The Divinity School Address,” p.106

[xxviii] Ibid., p.102

[xxix] Ibid., p.105

[xxx] Ibid., p.105

[xxxi] Ibid., p.106

[xxxii] Ibid., p.107

[xxxiii] Ibid., p.107

[xxxiv] I have used the term “quasi-Gnostic” because it is important to note that, unlike the Gnostics who thought such enlightenment was reserved for an elite few, Emerson speaks of the potential for all men to come to such a revelation.

[xxxv] “The Divinity School Address,” p.106

[xxxvi] Ibid., p.112

[xxxvii] Ibid., p.107


  • At 2/08/2008 9:09 AM, Blogger Dad said…

    Very helpful. Thank you.

  • At 2/15/2008 8:41 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    I agree with you on the fundamental flaws of Emmerson; they really are the flaws of 19th century idealism, and he is a good representation of the outcome of those teachings.

    I am curious, however, what you think of his works; and moreover, what you find good in his works which can be used as a place of discussion or dialogue with him.

    PS: keep up the posts on Vox-Nova. I still think you would make a great contribution there; if you ever decide to give it a try, let me know and I will ask everyone else (this is also true for everyone else who writes here).

  • At 2/28/2008 8:03 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    I have to say I haven't read enough of Emerson to give an overall evaluation. I limited myself to his religious writings for this piece. But I can say that he has some rather beautiful prose. Perhaps if I have time later on I will comment on what I feel is retrievable from him.

    Regarding Vox-Nova, I will let you know if I can write something up that is more social-political in nature, and thus a bit more relevant. But for the time being I'm afraid I don't have much worth posting.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 3/03/2008 7:13 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Just remember, Vox Nova is more than just politics (although it is what gets most of the talk). It's also talks about "culture" and one of the reasons why I try to mix things up in it and not just do religio-political writing.

    Also, if you ever have something you write which you would like to share and think it would fit there, I could also put it up as a guest post.


  • At 8/10/2008 1:29 PM, Blogger Andrew Haines said…


    I was very impressed with your analysis of theodicy in "The Brothers Karamazov." I too was struck by Dostoyevsky's quote about the "furnace of doubt" when reading DeLubac's "The Drama of Atheist Humanism." The elucidation you provided was well founded and enjoyable.

    I'm not sure if you would care to do so, but I'm a masters student as well (studying philosophy) and would love to have a fellow student read a few of my papers and give me some honest feedback. It seems that you have the intellect to be a good editor.

    If you would like to read something, or just talk a bit, my email address is: andrew.m.haines@gmail.com. It's good to know that fellow Catholics are getting so involved with the faith and philosophy. I assume you are aiming to teach, as am I, and the Church certainly needs professors who value the depth of riches the faith has to offer.

    In Christ,


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