Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Emerson's Harvard Divinity School Address: Reflections on the Sublime

The dean of the American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was in many ways the forefather of the spiritual awakening that many people feel arising in our times. Heavily influenced by the first widespread introduction of Eastern wisdom teachings to the West, Emerson was a champion of the universality of religious teachings and a non-dualist, as the following excerpts from his renowned address to the Harvard Divinity School show.

The site of Ralph Waldo Emerson's
Harvard Divintiy School address.
His address, delivered in the inner sanctum of the Unitarian Church's highest seat of learning, the Harvard Divinity School address was in many ways an heroic stand that Emerson made for his then radical beliefs. Shortly thereafter, he resigned as a Unitarian minister, and although lecturing to receptive audiences worldwide, he was not invited to speak again at Harvard for another thirty years.

Some 175 years later, Emerson's observations on the nature of God and man remain as clear and relevant to our times as they were then. Indeed, they are perhaps more so today, given the current conflicts we see between and among fundamentalists of all faiths, and the spiritual awakening one nonetheless senses amongst both persons of all faiths, and of no one faith in particular. ("As we are, so we associate," Emerson observed. "The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell.")

Ralph Waldo Emerson
In addressing his audience at the Divinity School, Emerson observed:
"The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. . . . If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. . . . The man who renounces himself, comes to himself by so doing."

"These facts have always suggested to man the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind; and that one mind is everywhere, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool, active; and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere baulked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise. "
In pointed and specific, yet beautiful and poetically transcendent language, Emerson observes that mankind's religious or spiritual sentiments are universal, arising in the East, yet giving truth to the 'Being' in each individual. Thus, he notes:
" . . . The perception of this law of laws always awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. . . . It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable, not by science or power. Thought may work cold and intransitive in things, and find no end or unity. But the dawn of the sentiment of virtue on the heart, gives and is the assurance that Law is sovereign over all natures, and the worlds, time, space, eternity, do seem to break out into joy."

" . . . This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in Palestine, where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt, in Persia, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius, its divine impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane men found agreeable and true.

" . . . The divine bards are the friends of my virtue, of my intellect, of my strength. They admonish me, that the gleams which flash across my mind, are not mine, but God's; that they had the like and were not disobedient to the heavenly vision. So I love them. Noble provocations go out from them, inviting me also to emancipate myself; to resist evil to subdue the world; and to Be."

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