Ralph Waldo Emerson against Christianity

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Ralph Waldo Emerson had balls. Born in Boston, 1803, son of a Unitarian minister, Emerson himself joined the ministry at 21. By 1832, however, Emerson had become so skeptical of the validity of the Lord’s Supper that he could no longer administer it. A few months later he resigned.

On a Sunday evening, the 15th July, 1838, Emerson delivered a speech to the senior class of the Divinity College of Cambridge – a speech that was so virulently attacked for its heresies that Emerson was barred from speaking at Harvard for three decades.

What did he say? That Jesus was a wise man, but no son of God; that miracles were unnatural and thus monstrous; that truth can only be found inside, but never taught; and that Christianity had developed into a very false, very corrupt system, too akin to the myths of Greece and Egypt – a ‘petrified’ religion. To Emerson, the divine was to be found in the relationship between the soul and nature; religious ecstasy could be found in nature.

The following are some quotes from Emerson’s writings showing his attitude towards religion and Christianity.

Christianity is “a distortion” of Jesus’ teachings.

“The idioms of his language; and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus (a cult deliberately fostered), as the poetic teachings of Greece and of Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the man is diviner. But the very word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blower clover and the falling rain.” (Divinity School Address)

Christianity is man-cult or exaggeration of the personal, historical figure of Jesus:

“In thus contemplating Jesus, we become very sensible of the first defect of historical Christianity. Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but and exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the PERSON of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.” (Divinity School Address)

Christianity is too rigid, appropriated and formal:

“The manner in which his name is surrounded with expressions, which were once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking. All who hear me, feel, that the language that describes Christ to Europe and America, is not the style of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but is appropriated and formal, – paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo.” (Divinity School Address)

Humans should stand on their own, without cowering before religious or societal expectations:

“Ah, that he could pass again into his neutral, godlike independence! Who can thus lose all pledge, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable, must always engage the poet’s and the man’s regards. Of such an immortal youth the force would be felt. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.” (Self Reliance)

Conformity of beliefs is false and conflicts with reality:

“This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four: so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.” (Divinity School Address)

Be unafraid to make mistakes and speak your mind:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Out upon your guarded lips! Sew them up with packthread, do. Else, if you would be a man, speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.” (Self Reliance)

We should live each moment for itself, without thinking about past or future:

“Man is timid and apologetic. He is no longer upright. He dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose. These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist perfect in every moment of its existence.” (Self Reliance)

“Without any shadow of doubt amidst this vertigo of shows and politics, I settle myself ever the firmer in the creed, that we should not postpone and refer and wish, but do broad justice where we are, by whomsoever we deal with, accepting our actual companions and circumstances, however humble or odious, as the mystic officials to whom the universe has delegated its whole pleasure for us.” (Experience)

“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” (Self Reliance)