Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. XI. Miscellanies
XXVIII. Speech at Second Annual Meeting of Free Religious Association
At Tremont Temple Friday, May 28, 1869
THOU metest him by centuries,
And lo! he passes like the breeze;
Thou seekst in globe and galaxy,
He hides in pure transparency;
Thou askst in fountains and in fires,
He is the essence that inquires.
FRIENDS: I wish I could deserve anything of the kind expression of my friend, the President, and the kind good will which the audience signifies, but it is not in my power to-day to meet the natural demands of the occasion, and, quite against my design and my will, I shall have to request the attention of the audience to a few written remarks, instead of the more extensive statement which I had hoped to offer them.
I think we have disputed long enough. I think we might now relinquish our theological controversies to communities more idle and ignorant than we. I am glad that a more realistic church is coming to be the tendency of society, and that we are likely one day to forget our obstinate polemics in the ambition to excel each other in good works. I have no wish to proselyte any reluctant mind, nor, I think, have I any curiosity or impulse to intrude on those whose ways of thinking differ from mine. But as my friend, your presiding officer, has asked me to take at least some small part in this days conversation, I am ready to give, as often before, the first simple foundation of my belief, that the Author of Nature has not left himself without a witness in any sane mind: that the moral sentiment speaks to every man the law after which the Universe was made; that we find parity, identity of design, through Nature, and benefit to be the uniform aim: that there is a force always at work to make the best better and the worst good.1 We have had not long since presented us by Max Müller a valuable paragraph from St. Augustine, not at all extraordinary in itself, but only as coming from that eminent Father in the Church, and at that age, in which St. Augustine writes: That which is now called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist from the planting of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion which already existed began to be called Christianity. I believe that not only Christianity is as old as the Creation,not only every sentiment and precept of Christianity can be paralleled in other religious writings,but more, that a man of religious susceptibility, and one at the same time conversant with many men,say a much-travelled man,can find the same idea in numberless conversations. The religious find religion wherever they associate. When I find in people narrow religion, I find also in them narrow reading. Nothing really is so self-publishing, so divulgatory, as thought. It cannot be confined or hid. It is easily carried; it takes no room; the knowledge of Europe looks out into Persia and India, and to the very Kaffirs. Every proverb, every fine text, every pregnant jest, travels across the line; and you will find it at Cape Town, or among the Tartars. We are all believers in natural religion; we all agree that the health and integrity of man is self-respect, self-subsistency, a regard to natural conscience. All education is to accustom him to trust himself, discriminate between his higher and lower thoughts, exert the timid faculties until they are robust, and thus train him to self-help, until he ceases to be an underling, a tool, and becomes a benefactor. I think wise men wish their religion to be all of this kind, teaching the agent to go alone, not to hang on the world as a pensioner, a permitted person, but an adult, self-searching soul, brave to assist or resist a world: only humble and docile before the source of the wisdom he has discovered within him.
As it is, every believer holds a different creed; that is, all the churches are churches of one member. All our sects have refined the point of difference between them. The point of difference that still remains between churches, or between classes, is in the addition to the moral code, that is, to natural religion, of somewhat positive and historical. I think that to be, as Mr. Abbot has stated it in his form, the one difference remaining. I object, of course, to the claim of miraculous dispensation,certainly not to the doctrine of Christianity.2 This claim impairs, to my mind, the soundness of him who makes it, and indisposes us to his communion. This comes the wrong way; it comes from without, not within. This positive, historical, authoritative scheme is not consistent with our experience or our expectations. It is something not in Nature: it is contrary to that law of Nature which all wise men recognize; namely, never to require a larger cause than is necessary to the effect. George Fox, the Quaker, said that, though he read of Christ and God, he knew them only from the like spirit in his own soul. We want all the aids to our moral training. We cannot spare the vision nor the virtue of the saints; but let it be by pure sympathy, not with any personal or official claim. If you are childish, and exhibit your saint as a worker of wonders, a thaumaturgist, I am repelled. That claim takes his teachings out of logic and out of nature, and permits official and arbitrary senses to be grafted on the teachings. It is the praise of our New Testament that its teachings go to the honor and benefit of humanity,that no better lesson has been taught or incarnated. Let it stand, beautiful and wholesome, with whatever is most like it in the teaching and practice of men; but do not attempt to elevate it out of humanity, by saying, This was not a man, for then you confound it with the fables of every popular religion, and my distrust of the story makes me distrust the doctrine as soon as it differs from my own belief.
Whoever thinks a story gains by the prodigious, by adding something out of nature, robs it more than he adds. It is no longer an example, a model; no longer a heart-stirring hero, but an exhibition, a wonder, an anomaly, removed out of the range of influence with thoughtful men. I submit that in sound frame of mind, we read or remember the religious sayings and oracles of other men, whether Jew or Indian, or Greek or Persian, only for friendship, only for joy in the social identity which they open to us, and that these words would have no weight with us if we had not the same conviction already. I find something stingy in the unwilling and disparaging admission of these foreign opinionsopinions from all parts of the worldby our churchmen, as if only to enhance by their dimness the superior light of Christianity. Meantime, observe, you cannot bring me too good a word, too dazzling a hope, too penetrating an insight from the Jews. I hail every one with delight, as showing the riches of my brother, my fellow soul, who could thus think and thus greatly feel. Zealots eagerly fasten their eyes on the differences between their creed and yours, but the charm of the study is in finding the agreements, the identities, in all the religions of men.3
I am glad to hear each sect complain that they do not now hold the opinions they are charged with. The earth moves, and the mind opens. I am glad to believe society contains a class of humble souls who enjoy the luxury of a religion that does not degrade; who think it the highest worship to expect of Heaven the most and the best; who do not wonder that there was a Christ, but that there were not a thousand; who have conceived an infinite hope for mankind; who believe that the history of Jesus is the history of every man, written large.4
Note 1. Mrs. Julia Ward Howe writes of Mr. Emerson, He knew from the first the victory of good over evil; and when he told me, to my childish amazement, that the angel must always be stronger than the demon, he gave utterance to a thought most familiar to him, though at the time new to me. [Emersons Relation to Society, in The Genius and Character of Emerson, Lectures at the Concord School of Philosophy, edited by F. B. Sanborn. Boston: J. R. Osgood & Co., 1885.] [back]
Note 2. In the essay on Character (Lectures and Biographical Sketches), he says, The establishment of Christianity in the world does not rest on any miracle but the miracle of being the broadest and most humane doctrine. 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.Address in Divinity College, Nature, Addresses and Lectures. [back]
Note 3. Mr. Emersons doctrine was not to attack beliefs, but give better: True genius will not impoverish, but will liberate. In a letter to one of his best friends who had joined the Church of Rome he said, perhaps in 1858: To old eyes how supremely unimportant the form under which we celebrate the justice, love and truth, the attributes of the deity and the soul! [back]
Note 4. Dr. Holmes, in his tribute to his friend, after his death, read before the Massachusetts Historical Society, said: What could we do with this unexpected, unprovided for, unclassified, half unwelcome newcomer, who had been for a while potted, as it were, in our Unitarian cold greenhouse, but had taken to growing so fast that he was lifting off its glass roof and letting in the hail-storms? Here was a protest that outflanked the extreme left of liberalism, yet so calm and serene that its radicalism had the accents of the gospel of peace. Here was an iconoclast without a hammer, who took down our idols from their pedestals so tenderly that it seemed like an act of worship. [back]