Tag Archives: lowly listening

“Jesus is just like you and me”: the radical message of R. W. Emerson.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine graduating from one of the top religious schools in the country, entering the ministry, and after a few years deciding the job isn’t right for you. You find yourself troubled by public prayer, the act of communion, and most of all by the formality and stiffness of the church service itself.

Well, if you’re 29-year old Ralph Waldo Emerson, you quit your job as a minister at a Unitarian church and chart a new course. You start writing essays and lecturing, you publish your first book, and little by little, you begin attracting attention—and for good reason. It’s the 183os and your message is unlike anything most Americans have ever heard.

You see, Emerson believes that God does not dwell up in the heavens, but is within each of us:

“The highest revelation is that God is in every man.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

On top of that that Emerson also believes that “while Jesus was a great man, he was not God”. In fact, Jesus is just like you and me. He says that:

  • We possess the same divine spark as Jesus.
  • We share the same connection to God as Jesus.
  • We can communicate with God just like Jesus did.

And for good measure, Emerson discounts any biblical miracles involving Jesus as pure fiction.

So given his thinking, which was contrary to the beliefs of every other religious or spiritual leader of his time, it’s surprising that six years after leaving the church, Emerson is invited to deliver a commencement speech to his alma mater. It’s known as the “Harvard Divinity School Address” and in it he talks about faith—and how the church extinguishes it.

The test of the true faith should be its power to charm and command the soul…faith should blend with the light of rising and setting suns, the singing bird and the breath of flowers. But now the priest’s Sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is unlovely, we are glad when it is done…we shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us.

Emerson’s solution is not to improve the church service, but to rely on our inner selves and the grandeur of nature as conduits to the divine. He instructs his audience of graduating religious students to establish their own relationship with God.

Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone…dare to love God without mediator or veil…trust thyself…that which shows God in me, fortifies me. O my friends, there are resources in us on which we have not drawn.

As you might expect, the speech was not well received, at least not by those in power. Emerson was denounced as an “atheist” and “a poisoner of young men’s minds”. But what he had done bears some resemblance to Jesus’s act of turning over the moneychangers tables in the temple—Emerson saw what he believed was a spiritually bankrupt status quo, and fearlessly tried to disrupt it.

Closing Note: How Emerson communicated with God.

Emerson believed in something he referred to as “lowly listening”, a way to access God within us and get the guidance and comfort we need, through solitude, stillness and reflection. Emerson’s favorite place to do this was out in nature, but it can really be done anywhere you can reach a quiet and peaceful state. In Emerson’s words:

Belief and love—a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe.

The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

For some past stories I wrote on the life and philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, see here or here.