The Divinity School Address

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

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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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