The Divinity School Address

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The subject, purpose, and general ideas of Emerson's "Divinity School Address."


The subject of Emerson's "Divinity School Address" is the role of religion and the divine in human life. The purpose is to challenge traditional Christian doctrines and advocate for a more personal and intuitive connection to the divine. Emerson's general ideas include the importance of individual spirituality, the limitations of institutionalized religion, and the value of moral intuition over dogma.

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What is Emerson's "Divinity School Address" about?

Ralph Waldo Emerson caused considerable controversy within the Unitarian community when he published Nature in 1836. In that famous work, he argued that modern Unitarians should attempt to connect with God on their own terms, rather than through the "dry bones" of Scripture and of their forefathers' writings. In his address to the Harvard Divinity School, delivered to that institution's graduating seniors, he did not backtrack, but rather intensified his critique. 

Emerson argued in his speech that the roots of human morality, as well as the proper object of human worship, can be found in nature itself, or rather in the "unifying laws of the world." Proper understanding of these laws would, he argued, lead a person to want to live his life in accordance with them.

The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance...If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice...A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself.

Soul, he claims, is at the heart of man and the universe around us, and to recognize this reality is to move toward a spiritual perfection only attained by Jesus Christ. God's revelation to the world did not end with Jesus, Emerson says, but is a constant and organic process, one that humans miss because they are too caught up in doctrinal matters. 

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What is the subject and purpose of Emerson's "Divinity School Address"?

To understand the topic and purpose of this address, it is important first to understand that Emerson was addressing students at a divinity school, a school at which students were being prepared to become ministers, and a school at which they were being prepared for their futures in ways consistent with Christian tradition.  Emerson's speech was intended to effectuate a change in the ministry, based upon two criticisms he had of Christianity in its then form, so, in many ways, his purpose was subversive. 

He begins with a celebration of the beauty of the world, and implies that the beauty and mechanics of nature are not inconsistent with God or with goodness:

The child amidst his baubles, is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force; and in the game of human life, love, fear, justice, appetite, man and God, interact (para. 4).

He develops this idea more fully and then, before circling back to this at the very end, he offers his criticisms. 

His first criticism is with the celebration of the person of Jesus and all of the rituals associated with him, as he says, "It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus" (para. 15). This worship of one person, he says, interferes with the holiness in all of us, and Christianity has frozen into a hierarchy more concerned with ritual than with the goodness of man.

His second criticism is a consequence of the first.  Because Christianity has become "frozen," we act as though it were all in the past and not a living religion that has contemporary meaning to all. He says, "Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead" (para. 19.) 

Flowing from these criticisms is Emerson's exhortation to the students to go forth and "dare to love God without mediator or veil" (para. 30), in other words to not let the hierarchy and tradition get in the way of goodness, God, and the soul of the individual. 

He returns at the very end to the theme with which he opens, looking for

...the new Teacher, that...shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of hear; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy (para. 35).

It is important to understand that Emerson was part of the Transcendentalist movement, which focused on individualism, a love of nature, and a dislike of ritual that interfered with either.  This is a classic Transcendentalist address, to persuade the next generation of ministers to not allow their ministry to be diluted by a church that interfered with the soul and goodness of the individual or with a celebration of knowledge, beauty, nature, and joy, through its "frozen" worship of what should be a living God.  It should be noted that this is a very brief summary of the speech and its development of its ideas, and it is well worth reading every single word of it! 

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What is the subject and the general ideas of "The Divinity School Address"?

Emerson is speaking to future ministers. In this speech, he tries to implore them to be less focused on Church doctrine and more focused on genuine spiritual connection to God and nature. 

Emerson begins the address with meditations on the abstract conditions of things like Beauty, Truth, and Justice and how they are intertwined with Nature. This is an elucidation of his Transcendentalism, a combination of self-reliance and the connection between the self (and humanity as a whole) and nature. Good is a positive force in nature; evil is a lack of this force. Thus, to be a good, willing individual, one must be in tune to such a force in nature. "Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature." This is all a spiritual connection. 

Emerson goes on to suggest that this spiritual connection is compromised when it is governed by an institution; namely, organized religion (in this case, it is a particular attack against the Unitarian Church of which Emerson used to be Minister). 

Emerson encouraged self-reliance in everyone. He believed that each individual could (transcendentally) connect with nature, the force of goodness, God, and so on - directly. Therefore, an intermediary will only interfere with these spiritual connections. Following the supreme example of Jesus (as God innate and/or intuitive in man), Emerson contends that all individuals can/should aspire to this intuitive connection with God and nature. Therefore, this connection is not something taught by an institution or doctrine. It is something arrived at individually. 

Here is where Emerson stirred up controversy. He lists the errors of historical Christianity. The first is that Christian doctrine has led o the worship of Jesus the person rather than Jesus the soul. Focusing on persons leads to imitation (hardly self-reliant); whereas focusing on Jesus as a soul, the individual is open to intuiting Jesus' pure teachings/soul. The second error stems from the Church's focus on Jesus as a (historical) person again. This implies that Jesus' revelations to the world happened long ago and are done; leaving us only to imitate it or follow Church doctrine regarding his revelations/teachings. Instead, Emerson argues that such a revelation should be an ongoing experience to all generations. Thus, it is more to experience revelation than it is to merely imitate the Church's representation of it. 

Emerson continues his criticism of Christian doctrine, saying that it has been usurped by "formalists" - those preoccupied with the formal aspects of worship and ritual. What is needed, he argues, are ministers who preach soulful connection to God and Nature. Emerson's general argument is to focus more on the soul than the institution of the Church. 

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