In retrospect it is a wonder that Ralph Waldo Emerson was invited to address the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School in 1838. By this time he already had serious doubts about his religious vocation, complaining that we “worship in the dead forms of our forefathers.” He had preached a sermon challenging the notion that Jesus ever meant the Last Supper to become a sacramental rite. Only months before he had resigned his pulpit in East Lexington, Massachusetts and would soon preach his last sermon. What could Emerson possibly have to say to those who were taking up a profession he was about to abandon?
Plenty, as it turned out. However, many in the small group of faculty and graduates who heard him speak that day were put off by his remarks, and it would be another 30 years before he was welcomed back to Harvard. Emerson was reportedly surprised by his chilly reception. He should not have been, given his sweeping dismissal of historical Christianity. “We need direct access to the divine instead of the second-hand religion taught in the churches,” he insisted. “God is in the beauty of nature around us and in the moral law within ourselves.”
Emerson’s apostasy was two-fold: first, in asserting that Christ was merely a man; and second, perhaps even more unforgivably, in claiming that men were themselves divine. “The true Christianity--a faith like Christ's in the infinitude of Man--is lost," he said. The notion of Christ having faith in man was, of course, a complete reversal of the usual formulation, quite apart from the question of mankind’s supposed infinitude. Emerson did not actually deny that Christ was divine, merely that he was not exclusively so. As he put it, “the divine nature is attributed to one or two persons, and denied to all the rest, and denied with fury.”
Highly unusual for its time and for the occasion, Emerson’s address contains no biblical citations whatsoever. Yet there is ample scriptural support for his views on humanity’s divine nature, starting with the first mention of mankind in the Book of Genesis (“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion…’”) The Psalmist extols mankind as “little less than God,” crowned with glory and honor. St. Paul, while describing Jesus as the “first-born of creation,” adds that he is the “first-born among many brethren” who are “conformed to the image of his Son.” Jesus himself tells his disciples they are friends not servants and sends them out into the world to do what he did. As he said, “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do…”
If indeed we are only a little less than God, we must ask why we don’t have more to show for it. After Jesus’ spectacular debut as the first-born of creation, there appears to have been a pronounced diminution of returns thereafter. Emerson himself lamented that “man is a dwarf of himself” and blamed it on the Fall – not a fall from grace but a forgetting. If we are infinitesimal rather that infinite, it is because we have forgotten where we came from and who we are. We all know in our hearts that we fall short of the glory of God, as St. Paul once put it. We may berate ourselves for a lack of faith. But the problem is not that we lack faith in God, as we often assume. The real issue is that we lack faith in ourselves.
John 15:15; 14:12
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature