The Divinity School Address

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Christian Themes

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Emerson’s Transcendental message can be said to be more spiritual than doctrinally Christian. Nevertheless, it grew out of his Protestant New England roots. As Emerson saw it, the world is infused with currents of spirit, emanating from Supreme Being, to which all people have direct access if they will turn themselves to the ways the world answers to the cravings of the human soul. To sense the presence of this divine law in the natural order is to awaken the genuine religious sentiment and to participate in such a perfect world of spirit is to grasp new “miracles,” new sources of revelation. Jesus Christ was the only one who fully practiced the religious sentiment and grasped the divine law, who followed out the ultimate reaches of the soul, and who thus participated in the Supreme Mind—but all others have such possibilities open to them in a world permeated with influences of divinity. All people have within them the same capacity of soul, but that spiritual potential is dimmed in an age that fails to comprehend the great unrealized dominion of humankind.

Emerson took issue with historical Christianity in its tendency to assume or teach or practice the idea that such possibilities, centrally evident in Jesus Christ, ended in nature and history with him. Instead, Emerson called for a new kind of preaching that recognizes this “doctrine of soul” and that urges a corresponding conduct of worship in a world understood in its complete spiritual dimensions.

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