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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Theology

The Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson determined his own theology, and it was a lifelong investigation. He followed no creed. Although he was raised in a Calvinist society, he was never a Calvinist. Although his father was a Unitarian minister and Emerson became one as well for a brief time, he concluded, “I am so much a Unitarian as this: that I believe the human mind can admit but one God,” adding, “I cannot but think that Jesus Christ will be better loved by being less adored; he has had an unnatural place for ages in human opinions, a place too high for love.”

For Emerson, God was central to his life. God was everywhere for him: he “reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb,” he wrote. God was always present, in every soul, in every deed, and our relationship to God was direct. “It is by yourself without ambassador that God speaks to you,” Emerson wrote. Emerson relied on himself to feel the grace of God, and believed “that is the height and perfection of man: reliance on God is true self-reliance. You look within not to find yourself but to find God. The first rule is to obey your genius. All men and women have their inheritance, their share of the divine.” Our destiny is fulfilled, Emerson believed, and being true to the divinity within us is the path to happiness. This should not be done in a prideful way, but as an honest search for God within us. “Look within, with pure eyes and simple trust,” he counseled, “and you shall find the Deity mirrored in your own soul.”

Emerson believed in a moral law that was central to the governance of things and that went beyond physical, human laws. There are checks and balances all about us—a system of compensations. Every defect in one way is made up in another: “every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, he wrote in his essay Compensation. Moral laws are more difficult to understand, but they are there, working “silently and certainly.” If we ignore them, he believed, we do so at our peril: “the dice of God are always loaded.” Emerson also believed that judgment is in this world, not in the next—that every day is the day of judgment. We have choices to make here that willdetermine  our happiness and we will be compensated for them. Upright character, honesty, gratitude, and kindness produce inevitable results, he was convinced, just as the combination of oxygen and hydrogen in certain proportions produces water. Sin weakens, and finally destroys, one’s character. Every act has unending consequences, because all acts are related and they are part of a whole.

For Emerson, “the whole” could be seen in nature which was, to him, an endless source of delight, the place of “universal relations,” or “essences unchanged by man.” Nature was wild and pure. It was exhilarating. Emerson saw God expressed in nature, and human beings the part of nature that most expresses God. He took countless walks in the Concord woods which were, to him, “a cathedral.” “As atmosphere surrounds us, so are we surrounded by the power of God,” he observed. Emerson embraced one of nature’s most valuable lessons: listening. Nature, he said, “does not argue; she hints or she states. You can follow the hint where it leads you, or accept the statement, if you can; but you do not incur the risk of misleading heat of argument.” Emerson’s first book, Nature, was a groundbreaking investigation of these concepts.

Emerson also believed in the law of love, that there is some good in everything. “In the darkest, meanest things, There alway, alway something sings,” he wrote. Perhaps his own greatest act of love toward humanity was to share his ideas in his writings and lectures. Few people have had as much impact on the religious development of America as Ralph Waldo Emerson. “I believe in this life,” he wrote. “I believe it continues. As long as I am here I plainly read my duties as writ with the pencil of fire; they speak not of death. They are woven of immortal thred.”

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Categories: Biographies, Cambridge & Harvard, Theology & Philosophy, Unitarian Universalist History