catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 19 :: 2010.10.22 — 2010.11.04


Our shrinking souls

Worshipping a person, not a principle

Notorious for his analogies, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his “Divinity School Address,” uses Christ as a symbol for a soul in direct accordance with God’s command, something original that each soul must strive for itself without mediation.

As was Jesus, we too are human. Unfortunately, people tend to forget this reality as they wash themselves in false baths of worship. Rather than worship fundamental truths of the divinity of the soul, clergy and laity alike worship verbatim the speech and actions of Jesus. Emerson states, “[I]t is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual.” There are those who have become enshrouded in worshipping, not knowing why they worship. I’ll admit, I don’t know what it is exactly I worship — I cannot define it, and when I try, the divinity is lost.  The original truth I joyfully wander in cannot be accurately communicated lest the spiritual “connexion” weaken — but I do know why I worship. (I’ll leave that for another occasion). The importance of Emerson’s remark carries into his announcement that, “The soul knows no persons.” The soul is constrained when manipulated to worship a person; due to the worship of a person, ritual or tradition, beliefs become stale and spiritual growth stagnant.

“Historical Christianity,” as Emerson notes, practically imparts that a follower “must subordinate [her] nature to Christ’s nature” and  “[she] must accept our interpretations; and take his portrait as the vulgar draw it.” There is no will to follow supreme Beauty or the “infinite Law” that is within us, leading us to divine revelations; revelations which insipid men talk of as ‘come and gone’ with Christ, or as Emerson words it, “Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.” One cannot truly be converted to a religion unless made to by “the reception of beautiful sentiments” which Emerson regards as tools to “enable me to do somewhat of myself.”

Even though Emerson describes priests and sermons as, for the most part, dull and uninspiring, he admits there is truth to what is being preached; there’s reason behind repetition. Emerson defines preaching as “the expression of the moral sentiment in application to the duties of life.”  Basically, as they apply to your life, sermons convey opinions about right and wrong, good and bad in relation to experiences. The hapless aspect, according to Emerson, is “that tradition characterizes the preaching of this country; that it comes out of memory, and not out of the soul.” Owing to this, divine revelations are falsely deemed impossible and spiritual growth hindered. Unoriginal truths are passed on and followers shrink to believe that that’s it, there’s no more. As a result, the number of persons in worship is declining more and more over time resulting in fewer persons recognizing their spirits, or the soul. Emerson reminds the reader that Jesus lived in his soul and “had his being there” captivated by its “severe harmony, ravished with its beauty.” Ideally to look, stretch, stride away from the conventional tradition of “Historical Christianity” is to grow in firsthand knowledge obtained using one’s inner divinity to communicate with God.

Emerson advocates that intuition cannot be received secondhand. A soul searching for spiritual “connexion” with God is obstructed in doing so by following someone else (even if it is one of the “great men” Emerson alludes to). The “capital mistake of the infant man” is seeking “to be great by following the great.” Emerson acknowledges that other souls are resources for our own spiritual advancement, writing, “[I]t is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” In “Nature,” he asks, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”  It is the nature of man, Emerson asserts, to discover “the fountain of all good to be in himself, and that he, equally with every man, is a door into the deeps of Reason.” We all have divinity within us, Emerson attests; it is covered in a murk-gray cloud of haze that we must whisk away by means of deep contemplation and reflection.

Emerson credits Jesus as the only soul to fully appreciate the worth of man, writing, “Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man.”  Furthermore, Jesus is “the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of a man.”  Jesus acknowledged the divine within himself, understanding that this divinity is in each of us — every spirit has the capability to directly connect with God, to invite the Soul to speak and act through us. Clergy primarily transmit truths that have been handed to them, gained not by their own experience, but through the written word, which is static and unchangeable. Rather than follow untimely truths, one should open oneself to the timeless miracles of the Divine.

In “Divinity School Address,” Emerson articulately exudes his belief that the soul only wanders when in the hands of another, unless that other is God. Asserted throughout the address is the idea that the spirit cannot grow when trying to follow an old, idled truth. Because, as Emerson states, divinity is within every person, the soul must lead itself, using others as mere inspiration for individual advancement. The divinity of the soul must navigate its way through dense, dark falsehood into the mysterious light of truths.

Works Referenced

  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Divinity School Address.” Transcendentalism: A Reader. Ed. Joel Myerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.  230-45.
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” Transcendentalism: A Reader. Ed. Joel Myerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 125.

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