Emerson's "The Divinity School Address" Major Themes


Man as Outlet to the Divine

Emerson bases all that he says to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School upon the intimate relationship between man and God earlier put forth in Nature. At the beginning of the address, he introduces the unity of God, man, and nature that he elsewhere terms the Oversoul, and he refers to this unity throughout. He stresses that a true sense of religion, indeed the very soundness of the individual and of society, are impossible to achieve unless a man realizes his direct access to God and recognizes that religion and virtue are within, not imposed or understood from without. Man has no need for "mediator or veil" between himself and God. This immediate connection gives man his innate and unlimited capacity for development toward God's perfection. Man expresses his oneness with God through virtue in character and action. Emerson is very clear about man's inherent potential for good, and about how the state into which the church has fallen has obscured our perception of human perfectibility: "[Man] learns that his being is without bound; that, to the good, to the perfect, he is born, low as he now lies in evil and weakness. That which he venerates is still his own, though he has not realized it yet." "The Divinity School Address" is Emerson's response to what he sees as a widespread crisis of faith caused by man's disconnection from the source of his powers.

Scholars and critics have frequently commented upon the view of evil expressed in the address. Emerson declares that God is perfection, and that, through his connection to God, man is perfectible. Goodness, and the reward of goodness, are within man, who therefore does not require external structures to ensure his virtue. All of the world exudes a kind of sympathetic support of man's goodness, because it is in harmony with the laws of the universe. Likewise, when a man deviates from the virtue to which God and the universal laws predispose him, he is instantly aware of disharmony within himself and with the universe, and evil is consequently its own punishment. Emerson goes on to state that, unlike good, which is a positive, absolute quality, evil does not have independent existence. It is "merely privative, not absolute" — nothing more than the absence of goodness. This sense of the relationship between good and evil departs radically from that offered by traditional religion. It presents a consummately affirmative outlook on human nature and possibility. However, some critics have found it one of the less convincing aspects of Emerson's philosophy.

Emerson emphasizes that a direct connection with God is available to and exemplified in each and every person. This belief guides his discussion of the nature and importance of Jesus, whom he regards as a man, and as the highest demonstration of the expression of the divine spirit through the life and actions of a man. Jesus serves as a model and a source of inspiration for other men, but he did not achieve anything beyond the capabilities of humankind in general. The church has held Jesus up as different from and superior to other men, and has focused excessively on "the person of Jesus" — that is, on the particular qualities that distinguish Jesus from other men — rather than on his inherent similarity to the rest of mankind. Emerson insists upon the complete equality of every man in regard to the knowledge of God: "The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love." Emerson sees the deification of Jesus as a disservice to man in general and to Jesus as well. Men cannot forge an understanding of the God within by emulating others, even such a powerful exemplar as Jesus. And Jesus loses humanity, warmth, and his true excellence when approached as "a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo." Jesus himself — "the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of a man" — understood better than anyone the divine nature of mankind.

Inherited versus Intuited Religion

Throughout "The Divinity School Address," Emerson contrasts inherited religion — the religion handed down to man by the past — with the connection that each man may form with God directly. Inherited or "second hand" religion is presented as lifeless, empty of vitality and meaning, and stifling to the highest capabilities of man. Personal religion — man's intuitive grasp of his relationship with God — is full of warmth, vitality, and significance, and is experienced in the here and now. The individual's religious understanding — his "insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul" — constitutes a grasp of universal absolutes that transcend time, space, and temporal circumstance. Intuitive insight into divine laws is also timeless, possible at any given moment, independent of specific cultural values and conditions.

Emerson associates the church and its inherited traditions with "stationariness," with "the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed." In its institutionalization, the church has developed a fixed body of beliefs, dogmas, scriptures, and rites, which it offers as religion. This "petrification" has made us forget that these traditions originated in the distant past through intuition working on the religious and creative faculties of man. Whatever power and meaning they retain are vestiges of their archaic inspiration through intuitive Reason. At the end of the address, Emerson looks forward to the time when "that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those Eastern men, and chiefly of those Hebrews, and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also." Spirit is eternal, but its revelation to man occurs over and over again, in each new generation and within each man. The religious sentiment about which Emerson writes flows continuously into man from God, is fluid and dynamic, and cannot be contained or transmitted in fixed form any more than the goodness of man can be compressed into particular examples of humanity.

Emerson carefully does not recommend that the individual apply his own intuitive apprehension of God to overthrowing the existing traditions of the church and to replacing them with new ones. He states, "I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms." In religion as in other areas, Emerson is suspicious of external reform. He trusts in the reform of the individual as a means of reforming the institution of the church: "Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul." Rite and ritual are thus incidental and secondary. When the individual allows the spark of intuition to bring his own religious sense to life, the forms through which he expresses it will be enlivened as well. The prevalent failure of faith will be remedied only through each man's understanding of his own personal connection with God.

The Function of the Preacher

Emerson aims in "The Divinity School Address" to inspire his audience of new preachers to meet the currently unsatisfied spiritual needs of their future congregations. The codification of religion into fixed forms and beliefs has made their fulfillment of this responsibility difficult. Emerson declares, ". . . the Moral Nature, that Law of laws whose revelations introduce greatness, — yea, God himself, into the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in society." Men and their religious leaders no longer understand that revelation is always possible and also essential to their spirituality. They regard it as an isolated phenomenon that occurred in the past. It is the preacher's function to restore soul to his parishioners by encouraging intuitive spirituality and promoting an immediate relationship with God. Emerson emphasizes that only the minister who has experienced intuitive perception of God can preach it:

The spirit only can teach. Not any profane man, not any sensual, not any liar, not any slave can teach, but only he can give, who has; he only can create, who is. The man on whom the soul descends, through whom the soul speaks, alone can teach.

Emerson laments the fact that the minister is frequently not such a man. In its failure to address all-encompassing soul as the first, central, necessary element of religion, the church has made worship joyless. If the minister likewise does not address the importance of spirit as the direct link between man and God, he not only neglects his true obligations, but is inwardly aware of his failure, and his congregation is profoundly dissatisfied. "Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist," Emerson proclaims, "then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate." Conversely, when the minister is himself "a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost," he is able to reject conformity and to "acquaint men at first hand with Deity."

If a good preacher possesses divinely inspired spirit and values it above form, he must also have the ability to convey his own humanity to his flock. Emerson provides the specific example of a preacher so uninspired and uninspiring that he almost made his hearers (Emerson among them) wish to avoid church. (Emerson no doubt here indirectly refers to the Reverend Barzillai Frost, assistant minister and later minister of the First Parish in Concord.) In contrast with the raging snowstorm outside the church, this preacher lacked reality. He did not communicate that he, too, like the members of his congregation, was a man, that he had lived and experienced what they had lived and experienced. His sermon gave not a hint that "he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history." Emerson uses this example to underscore the key function of the preacher — bringing his parishioners to the realization of spirit. He asserts, "The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought." In so doing, the preacher offers his parishioners living proof that individual spirituality can coexist with and even thrive amidst the realities of experience. The minister's spirit and humanity together will infuse the dry rites of the church with relevance and meaning.