Highland Books

Books & Photographs by Chris Highland

Emerson

The following is a portion of my essay “Emerson: Heretic for Today”

and I devote an entire chapter of my new book, Life After Faith, to Emerson.

A major gift of Emerson is that he was rapaciously honest.  And the context of that honesty, presented as it was in the early American matrix of pioneering political, philosophical and religious exploration, adds even greater significance to his contribution.  Emerson’s journals reveal an incisive honesty.  Much can be revealed in his private entries.  Yet the Emerson I’m most interested in is the man speaking through his lectures.  Those lectures, what he called “my annual inventory of the world” (Journals, October 18, 1839), were collected into books that we can read at our leisure but the orator, the public personality, of Emerson intrigues and attracts.  I enjoy his use of the language and his reasoned philosophic argument.  I am also drawn to the ironies and inconsistencies that for me reveal his integrity and make the man real.  He himself warned of a “foolish consistency” and he did not escape his own hobgoblins.  Emerson the human being transcends even his transcendentalism and places him among the wisest we have produced.  If there is a preacher or professor we need today, it indeed is Waldo Emerson.

One of my deepest appreciations for Emerson is his insistence that we cease looking over our shoulders and quoting the past.  He was deeply suspicious of the practice of education that demands rote learning, especially in religious matters.  He castigated those who would simply quote the personalities or the holy books without speaking or living authentically in the present.   “Our age is retrospective.  It builds the sepulchres of the fathers [and mothers].  It writes biographies, histories, and criticism.  The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.  Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” (Nature, 1836).  Emerson, the good heretical scholar, catches the spirit of the pioneer movement with a twist.  His inspiration was primarily the journey East, not West.  “Trace these colossal conceptions of Buddhism and Vedantism home, and they are always the necessary or structural action of the human mind” (Journals, 1845. quoted in Richardson, Mind on Fire, p. 393).  For the fiery mind of Concord (Massachusetts), a reasoned look back at the great Eastern texts, the Gita, the Upanishads, the Analects of Confucius and others, serves the purpose most needed in a settling society:  to recognize that exploration is in our blood and therefore we can never fully settle or homestead our thoughts or hearts.  Ultimately, this may be the greatest threat posed by the heretic; it’s why we are so uncomfortable, unsettled by them.

Every age requires its heretics, those who will push out and beyond the old and accepted, pulling us across the sacred fence-lines that hold us in, that make us “herd” (a sharp word wielded by the heretic Nietzsche)  Heresy is fundamentally to choose another, newer way and the heretic is the herald of choice, decision, the intellect and the heart.  The heretic is anti-herd. S/he is the spiritual insurgent. True, some heretics heft large and self-adulating egos, yet even they serve their noble purpose, urging us to break down the mental Berlin walls and embrace a divine freedom.  The unsettling nature of heresy has been known from early days.  The monotheism of Moses was new and heretical for his people.  Buddhism was Hindu’s heresy, Christianity, Judaism’s.  And for two-thousand years, the Church has been divided time and again by factionalism and reformation wherein heretics bubble up into the mainstream and either lose their heads or become the heads; get burned or become torches for the way of the faithful.  And consistently, heresy has been the catalyst for change like no other force.  A heretic is the only one who can truly diagnose the diseases of the time–illness that grows from festering creeds.  “Creeds [are] a disease of the intellect” cries the heretic.  S/he says, “I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors and recites fables merely of his brother’s, or his brother’s brother’s God” (Self-Reliance).  The one who slaps our faces to wake us up will not be welcomed as a comforting reformer but as an agitating revolutionary confronting us to throw open our own temple doors.

Chris Highland, 2008

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