March 20, 2013

This high chant from the poet's lips

This is a busy season for yours truly, so rather than scrounge daily for random topics I've been pondering the life and work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Right now, the focus is on his controversial 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address, which so antagonized his pious Unitarian listeners (strange as it may seem, there were pious Unitarians in those days) that he wasn't invited back for 30 years.

What got him into hot water were comments like these:
Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.'

(Actually, I think he was about as far from what the historical Jesus actually thought or said as his orthodox opponents. Jesus was no doubt many things in his earthy life, but poetic dreamyTranscendentalist probably wasn't one of them.)

Emerson then went on to argue that historical Christianity was based on a huge distortion:
But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding. The understanding caught this high chant from the poet's lips, and said, in the next age, `This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.' 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, as the poetic teaching 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 character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.
That pretty much did it, even for Unitarians.

LOOKING BACK. Here's another take on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war.




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