When it comes to spiritual guides, I have admitted to you before, I have a weakness for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yes, his webs of prose can be enigmatic, even infuriating. “What on earth are you getting at here?” I want to shout at times. But at other times I am grateful for the graceful beauty, fresh insight, and brilliant extravagance of his writing.
Perhaps nothing that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote has been more frequently quoted than the passage that Bob read from Emerson’s first book, Nature. The image of the “transparent eyeball” taking in “the currents of Universal Being” is striking and unusual. And, apparently some in Emerson’s own circle at the time thought so, too. There is a famous caricature of Emerson drawn by Christopher Cranch, an artist who was part of the Transcendentalist circle, that shows an enormous eye with a kind of pork pie hat on, perched on a small torso, complete with morning coat, striding on long legs over the countryside.
After all, from what we know of Emerson, a sweet, avuncular sort of fellow, it wasn’t the kind of expression that one would expect. In all of Emerson’s writing, outside of his journals, it is really his most personal testimony of his own spirituality.
But, of course, when we consider the project that he had in mind in writing Nature, we can understand why it is there. Nature was in many ways Emerson’s declaration of his own rebirth. With the death of his first wife, Ellen, he had given up his pastorate at Boston’s Second Church (Unitarian) and traveled to Europe to clear his mind and find a way forward in his life.
He was deeply impressed by the art and architecture of ancient cities, and he was intrigued by poets and philosophers who were challenging old ideas about biblical narratives and finding the roots of religion in personal experience. But when he got back home, rather than enlist himself with any particular thinker or school, Emerson took off on his own.
But what did that mean? The pulpit had little appeal, even if he did do supply preaching now and again for most of the rest of his life. Instead, he fashioned a notion of himself as a kind of free-lance scholar – one who would read and think and write – whose work, he later declared would be “to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.”
In this time of talking heads, we think that we have a pretty good idea of what that meant. We can imagine him appearing on Oprah, writing a blog on the Huffington Post. But, no, there was something more. Even though he had given up the preacher’s robe he still had something of a longing for the preacher’s vocation.
He was interested not merely in “facts” but in, as he later defined the preacher’s work to new graduates at Harvard’s Divinity School, “converting life into truth.” That is, he hoped to persuade his readers that merely by attending deeply to the elements of their experience they might discover insight that would thrill their souls. And that that experience would awaken something great and holy within them, that it would, as the poet Mary Oliver said of Emerson’s hope, “turn all the heavy sails of one’s life to a moral purpose.”
So, it is no surprise that the image that came to Emerson in Nature was that of an eyeball, for the thrust of his urging is always, “Look, Look!” For, in looking we might for a moment erase that boundary between us and the blithe world. We might taste for a moment the erasure, not of the self but of egotism, that preoccupation with self, and become, in his words, “the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”
It’s because of passages like this that some see Emerson here proposing a new form of American mysticism, and that’s not far from the truth. When Emerson gathered a cadre of Unitarian ministers and like-minded folks that became known as the Transcendentalist Club, his goal was to clear the decks of what seemed to him the stodgy theological debates that prevailed at the time over such things as the nature of Christ’s divinity, Original Sin, the meaning of biblical miracles and all that.
In many ways he was speaking to himself as much as graduating students at Harvard’s Divinity School when he urged them to cast aside what he called the “secondary knowledge” they had taken in during their years in seminary.
“Let me admonish you to go alone,” Emerson said, “to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost – cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity.”
What exactly he means by “deity” here is unclear. It is given no specific image or essence. It is more like the welcoming sense of warmth and exhilaration that he describes back in his book Nature. “In the presence of nature,” he wrote, “a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says – he is my creature, and (in spite of) all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.”
If this is mysticism, though, it is mysticism with a twist. Unlike, say, with the Christian or Sufi mystics, who find communion in giving themselves over to the divine, Emerson views the “wild delight” we find as something more like a reunion. In Nature he writes, “the greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and vegetable. I am alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm is new to me, and old.
“It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly and doing right. Yet it is certain that the power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.”
Emerson sees nothing especially privileged about this experience. It requires no special study or preparation, no incantations or physical exercises. As Emerson’s biographer Robert Richardson puts it, “Experiences of the kind Emerson here describes have happened to nearly everyone who has ever sat beneath a tree on a fine clear day and looked at the world with a sense of momentary peace and a feeling, however transient, of being at one with it.”
And yet, the question remains, once you have had such an experience, what do you make of it, what do you do with it? For Emerson it is more than a pleasant moment on a sunny day. It is the doorway into a deeper way of living.
In many ways, Emerson opened the modern conversation around something that we have come to call spirituality. Like many people today, Emerson looked at the landscape of leaders and institutions making claims about how the world works and our place in it and what he saw seemed merely rehashed and derivative.
“Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” He was not disputing the testimony of Jesus, or Moses, of Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tse, Mohammed.
Worthy guides, all. But, in his turn of phrase, why should not our experience also count? Indeed, if our spirituality is to be authentic, how could it not? Critics who see in Emerson’s argument for what he called “self-reliance” a kind of go-it-alone bullishness miss the point. Emerson himself makes the point in his essay by that name, “Self Reliance,” and please excuse the language of his time that uses male gender to make a point that universal to all:
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”
The point is not that we have nothing to learn from others or that we can only find wisdom by wandering off on our own. It is that in the end we simply must make sense of it ourselves, and for that work we can trust our own faculties, our own minds and hearts. In this he was less a scholar than a provocateur: take ownership of the vision that living in the world gives you; look and see and act on what you learn.
The religions of the world, today as in Emerson’s day, are full of those who warn us of our fallibility, of our error and our sin, and so would have us distrust what our minds and senses teach, who urge us to give ourselves over to settled doctrine, to a way long trodden by others.
From the title of his first book, we imagine Emerson raising up the natural world as the great source of all inspiration. While I’m sure it’s true that he enjoyed his constitutionals in the brisk air of Concord, what we know about Emerson the man is that, unlike his friend Thoreau, his true home was not so much the woods, as his study. What he received on walking out of doors was literally a breath of fresh air, the vision of a world broader than his mind could ever encompass that put to shame the limited orthodoxies and philosophies that peopled his books.
“Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe. The sun shines today also.”
The words are old and a little high flown, but I find they resonate with me still. I’m a bit more of a nature boy than Emerson was and so the natural imagery definitely connects, but I also recognize the larger point here. It is not that by wandering in the woods you will find your spirituality. It is that we should be wary of facile of theories of the world that are cooked up in closed rooms.
The world in its astonishing beauty and complexity can be trusted and the world will ever surprise us, and we will each engage it with our own genius and on our own terms. It is this perspective that makes Emerson one of the founders of a modern liberal religious sensibility, what has been dubbed the “Spiritual Left,” and to my mind makes him relevant to us today.
Those of you who are new to us know that in some settings communities like ours are lampooned as places where, as they say, “you can believe anything you want.” In fact, the bar is much higher. Joining this community, you are invited to believe what you must, what your heart and mind and soul declare must be true and to engage with this community in sorting out the implications of those convictions.
It’s a process that I’ve abbreviated in this month’s worship theme as “choosing to choose”: taking ownership of what calls to you, whether it be in the woods or the town, and following where it leads you.
We offer this place as a crucible for all of us to work this out, to learn and grow and raise our children in an atmosphere of acceptance and trust where the blithe winds of the world and the brainstorms and controversies of centuries can blow through, where we hope to awaken something great and holy within you that will enable you to turn all the heavy sails of your life to a moral purpose.