To many, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings are cherished. Among those who admire and take pleasure in Emerson’s writings are committed and faithful Christians. To those who enjoy his writings, Emerson serves as an inspiration and a release to the confinement of rationalism, empiricism, and the social conformities of our day. Given the steadfast attraction to Emerson’s writings in the Christian community, how should Christians approach Emerson?
Christians must approach Emerson with extreme caution. Many elements of Emerson’s writings are not only contrary to traditional Christian theology, they are anti-Christian and polluted with heresy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson began his roots as a heretic in the Unitarian Church. Soon after his pastoral beginnings, Emerson turned on organized religion. However, his new transcendental philosophy was a radical divergence from any Christian teachings.
Before I actually address some of Emerson’s more popular teachings, I want to first say a couple things about Unitarianism.
Unitarianism denies that the God of Christianity can be identified as the three-person Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). Unitarians believe Christ to be of immense significance, but not divine as traditional Christians hold. Rather, Unitarians believe that Christ had a “divine mission” to make people more aware of God’s righteousness and of our responsibility to care for each other. Thus, they are not Trinitarian, but Unitarian (God is one being/person).
As it can be seen, Emerson had already been subject and exposed to unbiblical and heretical teachings. Thus, with the Unitarian setting, it can be seen why Emerson could diverge from Christianity so easily and so intensely. Emerson’s Unitarian history sets the preface for what I want to pos about—specifically, Emerson’s anti-Christian transcendental philosophy.
The Transcendental Deity
In his essay The Over-Soul, Emerson described the transcendental deity: “We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the Soul.” Instead of a Christian deity, Emerson believed in the Over-Soul, a pervasive, pantheistic energy source rousing all things. For Emerson, the Over-Soul is the definitive reality of our world.
In comparison with Christianity, there are several irreconcilable discrepancies with Emerson’s Over-soul. First, God possesses the characteristics of being a personal spirit being. The personal attributes of God are infiltrated throughout scripture. For example: He lives (John 5:26), He loves (John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-11), He speaks (Matt. 3:17), He works (John 5:17, 20), He knows (Matt. 6:8, 32), He wills (Matt. 7:21), and He sees (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18). Thus, the Christian God is a personal being rather than an impersonal energy force.
The Nature of Man
Emerson’s view of man is also contrary to the tradition teachings of scripture. In fact, Emerson articulated an essential oneness of man with the divine in his essay The Over-Soul:
We know that all spiritual being is in man. . . [A]s there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so there is no bar or wall in the soul, where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins. The walls are taken away. We lie open on one side to the deeps of spiritual nature, to the attributes of God.The elevation of man in this passage is precarious. How Emerson makes this connection is unknown. However, it seems that he claims to be a part of God; making himself divine.
Additionally, in his essay Nature, Emerson again clearly attributes divinity to man:
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.There are many things that can be said about this statement, but the last sentence is daunting. It’s as though Emerson is not only claiming to become united with nature, but become a part (in nature) of God. Nevertheless, Christian theology does speak differently on the nature of man. In fact, the only sense of divineness in man is in the image man was created—Gods image (Gen. 1:26; 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9; 1 Cor. 11:7).
Dismissing All Authority
Emerson also had issues with authority. He relied more upon the self for knowledge and wisdom. Emerson rejected the authority of scripture and Jesus all together in the Over-Soul when he stated:
Faith that stands on authority is not faith. The reliance on authority measures the decline of religion, the withdrawal of the soul. The position men have given to Jesus, now for many centuries of history, is a position of authority.According to Emerson, Jesus must not be an authority, because if we trust Jesus as an authority, we begin to withdraw from the soul. In effect—Emerson’s scripture IS his soul. Moreover, with the soul being a pervasive, pantheistic energy source rousing all things; that too becomes his scripture and authority.
In the Christian world view, Scripture is not taken unconscientiously as just another book. The sixty six books collected and preserved as the bible is considered The Word of God to Christians. However, it is not the word of God merely because Christians call it that. The authority of scripture is derived from its unique and intrinsic nature of God communicating to man. In addition, the writers of the NT make clear that scripture is intended to be identified as inspired:
From childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work Timothy (3:15-17)In addition to the Bible claiming authority, Christianity is often referred to as the religion of the book. Without giving a complete treatise on the authority and inspiration on the bible, let it be stated that Christianity bases all doctrines, believes and values based on what the scriptures say. The word of God gives Christians the revelation needed to fulfill Gods will; thus, all other sources of revelation (i.e. nature) are incomplete.
Emerson also deviated from Christianity by theorizing that one learns about truth and morality not from outer sources, but from the Soul inside oneself. In Emerson’s system, a man could instinctively perceive nearly everything he needed to know by trusting the divinity within. Thus, Emerson makes morality and truth completely subjective and arbitrary; morality springs from the Over-Soul. In his essay Nature, Emerson says, “All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature.” This over emphasis on the souls connect with nature, is what determines morality. Yet as all people know—nature can also be cruel. In Christianity, morality is absolute; not because God says what is good; but goodness emanates from Gods character. Emerson’s system of morality leaves no room for Gods goodness or man’s sin nature. With his keenness on purity, Emerson saw only the high, noble nature of man.
If one is to accept Emerson’s Over-Soul as ultimate reality, one discards absolute truth, thus, falls into the trap of moral relativism. With no absolute standard outside of Emerson (or oneself), people are free to contrive whatever the “intuition” may inform; questions of morality become issues of personal preference, just like choosing ice cream. Providentially, many Christians recognize that right and wrong are rooted in the unchanging character and nature of God. God is eternally unchanged and so are the absolutes of right and wrong. However, God has given general revelation in nature (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:19-20), as well as special revelation in Scripture (Rom. 2:18; 3:2; 2 Tim. 3:16-17), but since he is the author of both, there is complete harmony between the two.
In a sense, however, Emerson’s appeal to intuition cannot be totally discounted by the Christian, For "when Gentiles, who do not have the law [of Moses], do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show the requirements of the law written in their hearts..." (Rom. 2:14-15). Thus, Christians ought to apply accuracy in their analysis of Emerson’s moral philosophy.
It is clear that Emerson’s writings are heresy. Emerson’s philosophical divergences from Christian Theology has been exemplified in the nature of God, man, scripture and morality; the very essence of Christianity.
As the question was presented earlier, how should Christians approach Emerson? As Christians, God commands us in Scripture to “test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). There are many well intended Christians with a desire to be spiritual; and Emerson’s writings have a strong spiritual flavor. Unfortunately, many of these Christians, like the ones I have been speaking with find Emerson and trust him. Whatever he says becomes not just inquiry, but dependent upon for spiritual truth.
Before one gets discouraged, Christians are permitted to read and enjoy the writings of Emerson and any other writer—lest we deprive our minds in an impenetrable bubble of isolation. Yet, we must be as those in Berea, who searched the Scriptures daily, to see if what they were hearing was true to God's Word (Acts 17:11).
As for Emerson, we were warned by both John and Peter of false teachers; even Jesus said they [false teachers] may come to us in sheep's clothing (Matt. 7:15; 1 Jn. 4:1; 2 Pet. 2:1). For the Christian, there is one body of truthful instruction that governs all that is believed, taught and practiced. That is, the Word of God. To live according to Gods word, nothing should be accepted as true; nothing should be practiced or recommended – unless it is tested in the light of scripture. Each individual Christian must take this obligation seriously when indulging in the philosophies of man.
Emerson is, and will always be, a celebrated heretic. His transcendental philosophy and Christianity are mutually exclusive and should be read with caution, lest one falls pray to his heresies.