Does Ralph Waldo Emerson reference anything relating to religion or God in his essay "Self-Reliance"?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance," I am uncertain if you are referring to organized religion or a belief in God.

Emerson mentions God in this outstanding essay. Emerson's mantra in this piece is "Trust thyself." He stresses the importance of moving forward with a genuine belief in what one is able to accomplish in this world. Emerson presents the belief that we are individually and distinctively made by the hand of God, with God's purpose inherent in our beings. Emerson believes that when we honor our purpose, we honor God.

Emerson advises the reader that in being different, the world will punish you; conformity makes other people comfortable.

He insists that we do not remain consistent because the world expects it. If one changes his mind, he should not worry what others will say. Speak this new truth without apology.

Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther...To be great is to be misunderstood.

Emerson speaks directly of God, and the soul and spirit of man. He states that there is no one needed between God and his connection with men because the "relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure..."

Nothing and no one else is necessary with God; he seems to defy organized religion to pursue a pure and natural connection between man and God, without religious "labels" or doctrines. intermediaries—priest, doctrine, church, scripture, etc.—are needed or helpful.

Emerson contends that the connection between God and man is not based on things of the past. "Old things pass away," he states, as well as those who educate us, religious buildings, and even miracles of the past.

...teachers, texts, temples fall; it lives now, and absorbs past and future into the present hour....All things are dissolved to their centre by their cause, and, in the universal miracle, petty and particular miracles disappear...

Emerson purports that those who have a true and pure connection with God will see this. Beware of those who might mislead. Emerson declares that the small beginnings of the past are unimportant when compared to the achievements by forward movement over time.

If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to...some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and completion?

Emerson's perception of God and the soul are based on the here and now, and what is to come. Believers must move with one's eye on the final prize, not looking backward. His closing statement to this section of the essay is that the soul must look to God today, avoiding elements of what is in the past.

...the soul is light; where it is, is day; where it was, is night

(Emerson began his career with organized religion; tragedy made him doubt his faith. American transcendentalism, which he "helped fashion," stood against, among other things, materialism and institutionalized religion, but not loss of faith in God.)

[He believed in] the idea that truth resides throughout creation and is grasped intuitively...

It would appear that though he did not support organized religion, he did believe man was tied to God through the elements of creation.

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