Emerson on scripture and redemption

Monday May 1, 2006

Reading Emerson even in Bliss Perry’s mutilated version – I mean no discourtesy to Mr. Perry – I see how it is as Dion Fortune said, or Carl Jung – the gods do not reinhabit their old dwellings when they once abandon them. We hear of Jesus or religion in a certain context and it leaves us unmoved. We hear of them in some true, living, context and we are again set afire. But there is no way to send the advance columns into the old houses, for there is nothing there but stragglers, clinging to what is familiar rather than setting out on their own voyages.

Maybe there is nothing wrong with that. We can’t all be explorers in every field, and those who are called to explore in one area must of necessity leave other areas unexamined, and take other people’s word for it all.

[My brother] Paul made the startling suggestion that I could contact Mr. Emerson, which had not occurred to me. I have not yet adjusted entirely to this new state of things. Mr. Emerson, if you would like to say something I’d be very glad to hear it.

If you wish to know your own heart, look to what moves you in the words or recorded deeds of others. How could you resonate to a string tuned to a different note? We will leave the musical analogy as neither of us is musical, but you do get the meaning of it. It is nothing more nor less than what I said all my life: Trust what you sympathize with. There is a reason why you were made the way you were made. Your strengths, your weaknesses, your talents, your inabilities – you judge them all and you cannot rightly judge any, because of all mankind you have the worst vantage point of judgment – which implies a little distance, after all. But you have the best, and the only, vantage point for reflection and action.

When you just sent out that email quoting me on the origin and nature of religious impulse – though that is not how it was phrased – what were you doing but the same thing I did? It is startling to people – “men,” we would have said stylistically, in my day, but as you know we used “men” as you might use “human” – it is striking to people to hear someone speak of God, of spirit, of Jesus, in a context devoid of cant, of “piety,” of artificial separation from the rest of life.

It is this lack of a living faith that is killing the civilization you were born into, for what seems to your time to be a great divorce – between Christians on one side and secularists on the other – is a disagreement only when seen from the one angle of what does either side believe, or think it believes. When you look at how either side acts when it is not thinking of religion, you see that in each the same mainspring moves them in the same way toward the same goals.

Christians that are afraid to die! Christians that are afraid of accidents, that live by purchasing insurance and live their religion as a sort of insurance against eternal death! Christians that are afraid of free inquiry into religious impulses!

And their counter-pole, the materialists. What practical difference can be found? And is not “a distinction without a difference” one of the elementary fallacies in logic?

A people afraid of life is not a people to whom God is a living reality. A people afraid of God is not a people in whom God is a felt presence.

None of this is new, it is but the working-out of tendencies that have been operating for centuries, if not forever. Every generation must face the dilemma of condemning the old books, the old wisdoms, or reverencing them and living them without being imprisoned by them.

You call the Bible not a book but a library, and this is one way to loosen the bond without rejecting the value. But an entire generation has been raised up – again! – most of them dead to the living presence.

They cannot be redeemed by Jesus’ life and death. They can be redeemed only by the effect of that life and death within themselves. But what effect? Guilt? Obedience to church officials and church doctrines? Fear lest they say or do or think or suspect something they shouldn’t? Mindless – that is, unmindful – reverence of what they do not comprehend, without a corresponding faith that God will have given them the means of distinguishing truth from error?

It boils down now to what it boiled down to in the past and boils down to in the future: If you cannot trust the voice within, you are reduced to accepting outside authority. But – given that we must each decide what we believe and what we cannot believe, a moment’s thought shows that even those who accept outside authority over their own inner voice use the inner voice to decide which outside authority to obey! How else could it be?

Now, there is a difference in temperament that ought to be noted. One man – one person – will search his inner nature and follow what the inner voice prompts. Another will find an outside authority to accept and will accept it.

This is not a matter of faith or of intellect, though it may look like either; it is a matter, one might say, of style. One may go wrong or go right following either path. If the one side offers closer connection and greater confidence, it risks what you call Psychic’s Disease – unwarranted certainty. If the other side offers greater consistency and an immunity from individual error, in that the community is the keeper of the group’s conscience, one might say, it risks petrifaction and bigotry. No path is all right or all wrong. One might say no path is right or wrong in any degree – for the person in question. But the social, cumulative effect of too many people on one path may call out for compensating numbers or intensity representing the complementary approach.

Your time tends to think of the nineteenth century as Christian and settled, where in fact it was far less Christian even in name than the America of the 1700s, and that of the 1700s less so than the America of the 1600s. And all this progression had good and bad effects. We weren’t hanging witches in the 1800s, and we gradually ceased to use scripture to justify human slavery. There was a decline of the fanaticism that always accompanies a religion that has come to rely on numbers and uniformity of utterance to outface the times and the inner doubts that the times produce. Yet the more secular mode of expression was not uniformly an advance over the grim-visaged Puritans we had been. How could it be? Life is less a matter of truth and falsehood than of a prism, showing now this color, now that one, each in its turn attractive beyond all others.

I have been saying for some years now that I believe the crisis of our time is a matter of greater consciousness. It occurs to me, perhaps that sounds to some people as though I am saying it is a matter of more thought.

You will never say a sentence that cannot be misunderstood. And if it were not for the occult sympathies and ties that bind individuals outside of their sight and beyond their thought, no one would ever understand another even slightly, even so much as they do. That is why God in his mercy made man with an infallible detector of a true thing – if he may be persuaded to listen to it!

Bob Dylan says, “it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

He also says “it’s a wonder that we still know how to breathe.” But it is more a wonder that we ever learned it. It is a wonder that we come into the world, and inhabit it, and leave again unscathed, shaped, enriched by the experience.

Your life was a great inspiration to people, and we thank you for it.

My life was an experiment like anyone else’s, and reasonably successful. I had honor, achievement, family, affection – even reputation. Quite an accumulation for someone who early on cast his respectability to the winds and dared to live by faith. This of course is the tie that bound me to Henry Thoreau. His path was not mine, but he too lived on faith, and in faith, and there can be no greater gulf fixed than that between those who live on faith and those who cannot. He and I were on the same side of the divide, and we knew it. And if after a time the strain of our various inequalities became almost too great, still we helped each other and I believe we never ceased to be glad that the other was in the world.

Well, it meant a tremendous amount to him that you were there to recognize him and help him early on.

I merely showed him his soul in a mirror and suggested that it came also from God. And he lived each day what I had only imagined.

I have thought that the strains between you were mostly differences of externals: you half a generation older, famous, of an old established family, and more conservative for all of those reasons; he younger, relatively unknown, always the unfavorable end of the comparison between you, and he more radical.

True enough but of course none of those differences were accidental, and none determinative. The truth is that he and I were in very loose harness and had different kinds of lives to lead. It was only in times that we forgot and sought to make the other think and feel and be like us that the awareness of difference became irksome. Otherwise it was merely spice.

I have tired and must go. My thanks.

My thanks as well, as my best wishes.


One thought on “Emerson on scripture and redemption

  1. Frank

    I also admire Emerson very much, and this is my favorite quote:
    “Trust yourself – every heart vibrates to that very string”.

    Clearly, this is what he refers to, when he says here:
    [ How could you resonate to a string tuned to a different note? We will leave the musical analogy as neither of us is musical, but you do get the meaning of it. ]

    I find it interesting that you picked an older article that talks about this, as just yesterday I read your blog post about “Notes, Chords, Harmonies”, relating to “singing the universe”.

    is this not related to “Notes, Chords, Hamonies?”

    In it, TGU say, we don’t sing a note, the note IS who we ARE! And here, emerson says: everybody has his/her own iron string, finely tuned, and we resonate to it, we ARE that string. I always thought this to be beautiful.

    We all have this note, this chord inside, and we have to learn to listen to it, and trust ourselves…

    A side note: [ …. in a context devoid of cant …] I find the use of the word ‘cant’ striking. I looked up the historical usage notes on google and in emerson’s time it was 3-4 times more common than today. It fits his style of writing, don’t you think?

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