Sunday, September 6, 2009

What is God? Emerson and the Elusion of the Improbable Chimæra

What is God? Emerson and the Elusion of the Improbable Chimæra

At the age of twenty-two, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in a January 1, 1826 journal entry, “It is not certain that God exists, but that he does not is a most bewildering and improbable chimæra” (Emerson, Journals 30). For Emerson, the problem identified in these words would become a primary theme of his intellectual life for years to come. In this short statement, there is an embryonic embodiment of a problem Emerson would struggle with for decades. An important aspect of this statement is the fairly straightforward admission of religious doubt or at the very least the possibility of such doubt. Here, Emerson is clearly expressing that he does not accept the existence of God as an entirely undeniable inherent truth. Emerson hints that the only substantiation for the existence of God seems to be that the concept of God fills an otherwise conspicuous void in the human conception of the universe. In other words, an acceptance of the existence of God is perhaps more convenient and certainly more comfortable than the alternative. That is not to say that this is a copout on Emerson’s part. Rather, Emerson indeed seems to sense that there is a “divine” deity, however, due to his inherently “scientific” nature he cannot assert with empirical certitude that the deity he senses is in fact there. In other words, Emerson is hinting that he cannot operate on faith alone, that he seeks empiricism. This very notion flies directly in the face of common Christian dogma, which eschews the so-called “doubting Thomas” and submerges water-walking Peters of shaky faith. By questioning the tenet of absolute faith, Emerson, in these few simple lines, takes the first steps toward the construction of his singular theological vision. One can see how such questioning would eventually lead to his rejection of the institution of the Christian Eucharist and his deeper contemplations regarding a refusal to accept tradition for tradition’s sake. It is this inability to follow dogma without question that would form the basis of his “Man Thinking” concept, which is arguable the cardinal stable concept of his sometimes slippery philosophy. This disclosure of religious dissatisfaction, this admission of his slight-but-present uncertainty of God’s existence places Emerson at least cautiously on the borders of agnosticism, which by its very definition opens the gates to the possibility of full-blown atheism. By certain Christian conceptualizations, to doubt God is to disavow him, and to even hint at such doubt displays a disseverment of the Christian ideological-grip. Atheism, as opposed to agnosticism, is as unquestioning as a staunch belief in the Christian conception of God, and Emerson seems to eschew such firmness of thought intrinsically. At the point of his writing this entry, the nonexistence of God does not really compute in the mind of Emerson, just as later in his life a strict Christian viewpoint failed to make sense to him. It seems that once this viewpoint shift finally occurred, Emerson spent the rest of his life fabricating a religious viewpoint that coalesced with his observations of the universe. But in doing so, he had to first redefine the very idea of religion.

In his article “‘After a High Negative Way’: Emerson's ‘Self-Reliance’ and the Rhetoric of Conversion,” Alan D. Hodder writes: “Self-reliance was not a rejection of reliance upon God, but rather a reliance upon God rendered interior, personal, and immediate. This was a movement, after all, not of atheism but of enthusiasm” (Hodder 429). It is this enthusiasm, which seems to have served Emerson as a means of eluding the grips of nihilism/atheism, which Emerson’s philosophy would probably group together for a number of reasons I will address. Emerson needs a conception of the Deity to legitimize his philosophy, even if said Deity exists in an entirely abstract and repackaged form. As Russell B. Goodman writes of Emerson’s consideration to the principles of Hinduism in his article “East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century America: Emerson and Hinduism,” “Emerson’s relationship with Hinduism, as with many other systems of thought, was transformative and respectful at once-reconstructive rather than deconstructive” (Goodman 626). This statement epitomizes Emerson’s conceptualization of the thought process perfectly, and is the very basis of his concept of “Man Thinking.” In Emerson’s worldview, the Deity represents a fundamental and prime purpose, without which existence would be meaningless. This may be the root of the “optimism” which is often cited as being at the heart of Emerson’s philosophy. Optimism may be the wrong term, however. It is more a necessity, for if there is no Deity, and therefore no purpose, what then of “Man Thinking?” At the very foundation of Emerson’s worldview lies the dynamic notion that to think/create is to commune with Creation/Nature in an immediate and personal way. This creative communion needs a core revelation, the attainment of Natural Truth. Truth as Emerson conceived, it seems, can only be legitimized by the presence of a Deity, or higher law. Without this core of Truth, then the process becomes meaningless. Therefore, Emerson must work within the framework of a believer. Nihilism would offer Emerson no place to go conceptually and/or philosophically.

This need for a principal Truth and a comprehensive framework in which to place it, seems to be the underlying motivation for every aspect of Emerson’s various philosophical constructions from his rejection of the Eucharist, to the idea of “Man Thinking,” to his thoughts on the natural world and “Self-Reliance.” All of these notions become unified when one looks to the ultimate goal of Truth, as Emerson envisioned. By looking successively at the progression of thoughts in “The Lord’s Supper” sermon, to “Nature,” to the “The American Scholar,” to “Divinity School Address,” the outline of whole begins to take shape. What began as innocently as what Hodder calls a rejection of Calvinist ideals concerning the absolute sovereignty of God and the depravity of humans, became something much more unfamiliar and new (Hodder 429). Emerson’s own aunt Mary Moody Emerson called “Self-Reliance,” "a strange medley of atheism and false independence" (Hodder 429).

As is evident from his Essays and journal entries, Emerson moved away from the traditional tenets of organized religion and toward a new conceptualization of the idea of God. In a March 5, 1838 journal entry he writes, “I say that I cannot find, when I explore my own consciousness, any truth in saying that God is a person, but the reverse. I feel that there is some profanation in saying, He is personal. To represent him as an individual is to shut him out of my consciousness” (Emerson, Journals 123)[*See Footnote].

This is in accordance with the religious physics Emerson presents in his essay Nature. In the introduction to this work, Emerson maps out the connections between the natural universe and the endeavors of man. He writes:

Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE. In enumerating the values of nature and casting up their sum, I shall use the word in both senses (Emerson, Nature )
Here, Emerson separates the individual from the “NOT ME,” which seems to encompass everything outside of the self. There are further separations and distinctions made. For example, Art, though classified as a part of Nature is created only by the individual, and is expressed as “...the mixture of his will with [Nature]...” (Emerson, Nature).

In this sense we see the individual’s act of creation through art as a communion between the self and greater sphere of Nature. These concepts are further tangled in Emerson’s description of Nature as both Creation and Creator and in his depiction of the Soul as a third division. Art seems to be something not of the natural world, yet something that exists outside of the individual. Emerson’s vision of Art, in this case, seems to be the amalgamation of Man’s vision and the natural world. It is the part of Nature man can affect, shape, express him/herself. As Charles R. Metzger writes in his article, “Emerson's Religious Conception of Beauty,” Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, “Indeed, Emerson took Nature as both the author and the model of Beauty” (Metzger 67). Metzger goes on to describe what he sees as Emerson’s trinity of “The One,” which consists of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, acting in parallel yet dynamic ways. According to Metzger, the concepts of the Deity and Nature are nearly synonymous to Emerson, with Beauty serving as a primary aspect of both (Metzger 67).

*[Footnote: At this point Emerson uses the pronoun “He” in reference to God, however in an undated September 1842 entry Emerson states, “...I cannot give you an accurate answer to the question, What is God?” (Emerson, Journals 183).]

Though at times difficult to decode and sometimes seemingly self-contradictory, the accumulated writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson equate to a complete and singular view of the universe. The writings also illustrate the evolution of the Emerson’s philosophy from a bona fide Christian to something entirely new and distinct. Over the course of his adult life, Emerson seemed driven by a need to unify his various, sometimes divergent conceptualizations beneath a single unified framework. How successfully he achieve this goal is still up to debate, however, it seems that the fundamental tenets of this viewpoint remain consistent and well-expressed. At the core of Emerson’s writings is his idea of Nature, Beauty, Creation, and the Deity none of which could be dissevered from the others components. He sought to decode reality as he witnessed it, to find the great Truth at the core of Creation.

Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson’s Prose and Poetry. New York: Norton, 2001.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Heart Of Emerson’s Journals. New York: Dover, 1995.

Goodman, Russell B. “East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century America: Emerson and Hinduism.”Journal of the History of Ideas 51.4 (Oct. - Dec.1990): 625-645.

Hodder, Alan D. “‘After a High Negative Way’: Emerson's ‘Self-Reliance’ and the Rhetoric of Conversion.” The Harvard Theological Review 84.4 (Oct.1991): 423-446.

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