Become Who You Truly Are

Ralph Waldo Emerson on the god within each of us

“A man now comes into the world a slave, saddled with twenty or forty centuries.”

In March 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson received an invitation to address the graduating seniors at the Harvard Divinity School. Emerson himself attended the same school in 1824, wishing to one day serve as a minister of the church.

Here, Emerson quickly established himself as a promising young man and the church looked to him, despite his young age, to take on greater responsibilities. He was made the chaplain of the Massachusetts legislature and became a member of the Boston school committee both within a couple of years.

However, Emerson’s wife died in 1832 and the sorrow and pain Emerson suffered brought his doubts about the church to the brink of his mind. He had always held differences with the church, but with the absence of his love, the warm blanket of marriage, he could no longer hold his protests to himself. His soul yearned for truth and he was unwilling to justify living with bitterness.And so, he resigned from the church, writing in his journal in June 1832:

“I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers”.

But, now he stood without a role to fulfil or an identity to portray — Emerson’s world, in a few sudden moments, had expanded beyond the safe and secure, and he now found himself alone in the wilderness.

The next year, Emerson left for a tour of Europe with the hope that he might discover his peace. The new-found land he had, perhaps unexpectedly, wandered into was as vast as the Atlantic. And so, he set sail, holding dear to the faith that he might discover his very own kingdom and heal the hollowness in his chest left behind by his wife.

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This adventure was the beginning of Emerson’s literary career. Over the following years, Emerson would gain recognition for his eloquent essays and speeches, particularly ‘Nature’ and ‘The American Scholar’.

And it was Emerson’s growing popularity and reputation that encouraged Harvard Divinity School to invite their former student to speak on the future of the American clergy.

But, Emerson was no longer a friend of church. Nor would he have considered himself an enemy; he was, perhaps, but a mere acquaintance. And, as Harvard was about to find out, it is unwise to trust your home with someone who was once, a long time ago, an old friend.

For Emerson had found his heart outside of the frontiers of historical Christianity, and so his speech, spoken to those who would become America’s clergymen, was a rude intrusion. But Emerson, unashamed, had come to tell his truth.

It was during the height of summer when Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his address to the Divinity School. He began the speech with the following words:

“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay.”

(For the full speech, click here)

How delightful! A wonderful water coloured spectacle of nature and a beautiful display of the Massachusetts landscape. Of course, Emerson’s heart belonged to nature; he saw his own reflection in the soil below and the clouds above, every blade of grass and every mountain that strained for the skies.

He was a man of virtue, a man open and vulnerable to the beauty that surrounded him. The season of flower, vulnerability, expression and passion where life unfolds and hunts for the sunshine, stretching its arms, opening its chest, revealing its heart even to those who wish to break it — truly, heaven must be just like this. And Emerson never risked starving his spoken words of this divinity.

For the summer is the season when mother nature gifts the fruits of her spring labour, when the trees and the flowers blossom and open their arms, when every bright and spirited colour on the wheel escapes from the grey toil of winter, when there is an abundance of wildlife; birds of all songs and butterflies of all patterns. Indeed, that is the one true description of summer — abundance.

Emerson continued throughout his speech to discuss nature and the summer landscape. But, he was not merely setting the scene for his speech with observations. Instead, he was expressing, rather poetically, his main theological point — divinity graces the living each day.

God exists, Emerson believed, in every creation that has found its belonging in this world and this includes, indeed, humans. Humans, although we may feel ourselves to be detached from the world, are not separate from nature, nor is nature separate from us; we are joined by an infinite number of relationships.

And the divine, the all-knowing spirit passes through all that which decorates the universe. Emerson was present with nature and, here, he saw that god was present within all persons

But, this is a truth that formal Christianity had forgotten, and Emerson believed this to be a fatal and murderous mistake. He confronted, during the first half of his speech, his audience with the teachings of Jesus Christ, a man who saw the divine within himself and spent his life trying to reflect his light upon others. He asked why the church continued to portray Jesus as a god, as a mythical being who held powers that no peasant could ever wield.

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This idealism and fantasy, an exaggerated illusion, surrounding just one man deeply saddened Emerson. The church stripped the divinity from our hearts when it fell to its knees and looked up to the Cross on the ceiling,praying for the divine to come down from above.

Our salvation, then, has belonged, for many centuries now, to a power outside of ourselves, and we have still yet, Emerson argued, to realise the god that is present in everyone:

“It seemed to me an impiety to be listening to one and another, when the pure heaven was pouring itself into each of us, on the simple condition of obedience. To listen to any second-hand gospel is perdition of the first gospel. Jesus was Jesus because he refused to listen to another, and listened at home.”

Emerson thought the purpose of religion should be to awaken the audience to the immense power within themselves. The people are a “God in ruins” and if there are no mirrors to reveal their true reflection, then they will remain uninterested and continue carrying their ruins to yet more ruins, seeking knowledge from those who have long past away.

For Emerson, the true religious sentiment belongs within nature and ourselves. To give God a personality, Emerson believed, distracts attention away from the power of our soul and towards the almighty skies, weakening the great strength that nature has gifted us. And is this not a terrible betrayal of everything we are?

Indeed, Emerson’s speech was viewed as an attack on Christianity, but the speech was much greater than that, for Emerson offered a new direction, a new path that would help both the people and the church. He advocated a personal religious consciousness whereby each person would ignore the preacher and instead allow themselves to mature into a prophet.

And to become a prophet, one must declare the wonder of the world as revealed to them, rather than accepting the world as revealed to another person. Because if art is the path of the creator to his work, then religion is the path of the believer to his God.

Emerson finished his talk with a few words of advice to his audience. “Let me admonish you,” he said, “to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred to the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator of veil.”

Emerson was encouraging his young and idealistic audience to insist upon themselves for answers. For there exists an instinct, an intuition within each of us that serves as an ever-dependable guide. Emerson wanted people to cherish this intuition and to trust its lights and sounds.

But few people listen carefully enough; they never hear the commands of their own heart. They doubt themselves, they grow uncertain and distrustful, and, still, they continue to ignore the signal until it becomes little more than a faint whisper in the wind.

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But, self-doubt is a disease of the mind, a cancer of dead information and rotting opinions. And to unlearn the conditioning of self-doubt, Emerson heartened his readers to bring their natural energy into their body and learn to craft their lives based on the celebrations of their intuition. The courage to feel fear, but to move through it regardless whilst trusting your own truth — this is the journey of becoming the new Teacher.

“I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.”

The prophet is one who has experienced the will of God. It is he who has chosen to dance with his own soul, who trusts in his divinity, his true power, and refuses to sit quietly before a preacher. To rage against God is to rage against himself, and so he believes in and celebrates his own religion, unmoved by those who have spoken for a thousand years.

“We must go alone. I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

harry stead