Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Emerson and Spiritual Development

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'

And he replied, 'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!'

Minnie Louise Harkins 1875-1957

Emerson and Spiritual Development: The Struggle Against Conformity

The foundation of a person’s ministry is the discernment of a call. Whence comes this call and how might it be distinguished from all the other signals one receives from the ideas and influences encountered in the world of expectations? The world is form, pretense. Society is the expectation of a certain adherence to forms which are already known, tested, accepted. In this environment, there are two available avenues to the individual soul. It can be conformed to this world, or it can be transformed by the renewal of the mind. (Romans 12:2)

To have discerned a call to ministry is a particular stage in one’s spiritual development that sooner or later requires a decisive step, either toward resignation to form, or toward transformation; the possible but not yet manifest. Emerson, in his essay “The American Scholar,” addresses this choice facing humankind and identifies the helps and hindrances of accepted forms on, “the one thing in the world of value…the active soul.” (47) As one soon discovers in the call to ministry, there exist serious consequences to the choice that is made at this juncture, regardless of the direction chosen. Emerson might agree that the important work of the active soul is to refuse the simple substitution of a worldly form for the attainment of the individual’s own unique potential. However, in his essay, he doesn’t deal sufficiently with the process by which the active soul can be awakened and achieved by one who may be, at the moment, accepting the forms of the world as his own truth. This, however, is where the minister, and surely those to whom he ministers, may find themselves when they first hear a call toward something possible, but not yet manifest, in themselves. Emerson distinguishes the “mere thinker” from Man Thinking (44) and describes, in this essay, the conditions and consequences of these states of conformity and non-conformity. But he neglects to illuminate the path by which a soul can be transformed from one to the other, and to point to the specific tool that must be developed for this transformation, namely that of faith.

That said, in our consideration of religious education and spiritual development, Emerson can be helpful in examining the credence given to certain influences encountered as one begins to follow this call. We might say of religious education, as Emerson says of books in general, that it is the influence of the mind of the past on the individual. This pursuit engages all the religious ideas and experiences encountered by souls who previously walked the earth. It instructs about tradition and culture, it bequeaths religious practice and belief. We inherit the truths of our forefathers. But Emerson cautions the proper use of this information. As he says of books, our religious education should be “for nothing but to inspire.” (47) It should be held to this criterion alone, accepted as inspiration, rejected as influence. If the soul defers to that which has come before, “instead of being its own seer…a fatal disservice is done.” (47) Thus, in our pursuit of ministry, the proper role of religious education as we might interpret it with Emerson’s help, is only to inspire and awaken the spiritual possibilities in our own soul.

Emerson would encourage the soul to trust its individual, spiritual discernment, to search for “facts amid appearances,” (52) and “to defer never to the popular cry.” (53) Spiritual development, in contrast to religious education, is based on the wealth of knowledge and experience possessed by the individual soul, a reflection of the “Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” (59) It is particular, yet timeless; a manifestation of the One life in whom we all have our being, a force with a unique purpose and mandate. This innermost guide, in the process of spiritual development, is responsible for trying and testing all that society dictates one must do or be. If the soul is not in active reflection on the accepted forms of society, accepting what upbuilds, rejecting all that judges without authority, one runs the risk of ignorant accord with pretense and the forms of the world. In unconsidered compliance, the soul loses authentic identity, its unique contribution. In imitation, it can be annihilated completely. If the soul falls short of its rightful state, Emerson’s Man Thinking, he can become a victim of society; “a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” (44) True spiritual development is non-conformity. Paying particular attention to one’s tendency to conform is the important work of the minister in sustaining the active soul within himself and others.

The active soul stands in relation to the world as one who must trust, above all, the truth as he sees it, “without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.” (54) This begins a dual struggle in the individual, the inner/outer conflict. Outwardly, one battles the expectations of the world; inwardly one confronts “the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty…which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed.” (52) Emerson rightly identifies the lonely situation of a soul that has made the choice to pursue its own truth and points out the “state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society.”(52) But he neglects to further instruct the non-conforming soul as to where to locate the strength it will need in taking this brave step toward freedom.

The demands of non-conformity produce enormous fear and doubt in the soul, and this, though Emerson encourages one to be free and brave, is not sufficiently explored in his text. He mentions fear, but dismisses it as the domain of the “protected class,” meaning women and children. (54) Man Thinking, according to Emerson, would not tolerate or run from fear, but would turn and face it, challenge it and discover it to be a lie, an indulgence. While one could argue that this is ultimately the appropriate response, and the right process through which an active soul needs to confront its doubt and weakness, Emerson gives too little import to this fundamental stage in one’s spiritual development, and assumes that turning to face fear could be a natural, immediate response. On the contrary, facing fear requires a period of struggle and the development of strength and courage that the individual may or may not currently possess.

It is precisely at the point of abandoning the comforts of form to step into the unexplored, yet palpable potential of the individual soul, that one encounters this crisis and fear. This is a pivotal moment in spiritual development, where one must examine and establish the authoritative source from which one is going to draw strength, where one’s particular skill of trust is developed and where faith is both granted and tested. Emerson acknowledges but does not validate the fear encountered at this stage--the chasm where one dangles for a time between a desperate need of the acceptance, approval and confirmation of the world, and the alluring but not-yet-illuminated transformation of the soul which can only be achieved through faith and trust. True spiritual development requires that one must step from the forms of the world, which have provided the semblance of solid ground, out onto the water of invisible possibility.

Taking that step often involves a very long and painful period of inner preparation and a process of outward separation from forms, “incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder (one) aside.” (52) Finding eventual security and peace from the world’s disdain requires that the individual identify by what authority he defies the world and its grip on him. For Emerson, this authority might be labeled “self-trust.” For him, it may suffice Man Thinking “to feel all confidence in himself.” (52) Though he alludes to God, Emerson doesn’t directly address the importance of faith or reliance on God in the process of awakening the active soul. But there are particular conditions under which the soul discovers its highest nature; under which a “mere thinker” can be transformed into his active soul. It is the moment in one’s spiritual development where the soul meets, fears and trusts its Author, the very place where God’s presence, existence must be recognized and truly believed in order to transform the impossible into the possible. This is the renewal of the mind—a faith developed and recognized out of dire need to refute conformity.

One’s call to ministry is often a call to this precipice. The call is not a known way, but it is a call to “go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.” The mistake for ministry, for Emerson’s “American Scholar,” or for any soul that finds itself questioning conformity would be to turn back from this fearful place, to cling to the comforts of the known, to rely on the mind of the past, or to forfeit spiritual development for lack of the courage to face fear. A good minister, by courageously choosing to be transformed, comes to know faith, and through what kind of struggle it is won.


Atkinson, Brooks ed. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Random House, 2000.

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