Leaving the church and finding God.

Who is the greatest figure in the history of American spirituality? If you ask me this highly subjective question I will tell you it’s the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here’s why.

A graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson serves for three-plus years as a minister at a Unitarian church. But at the age of 29 he decides to call it quits, not because of a crisis of faith, but due to a crisis of dogma. Emerson has issues with the acts of public prayer and communion, as well as the unchanging nature of the church itself. In his words:

In order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers…this mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it.

Emerson sets out on a new course and it involves writing essays and lecturing across the country. Within a few years, his message catches fire, drawing both praise and extreme criticism from those who hear it. The reason for the mixed response? His ideas on individuality, the soul and God, veer away from the teachings of the Bible toward a uniquely American brand of spirituality based on self-reliance.

At his core, Emerson believes that all of life is connected to God—which therefore means all of life is divine. In turn, the “truth” does not have to come from God but can be revealed through intuition and experienced directly through nature. In his words:

Anyone, at any place and time, can have direct and immediate access to the central truths and experience of life itself.

This is the truly radical part of his message as he is stating we all have the ability to access God from virtually anywhere. It’s no wonder that Emerson deems the church unnecessary as he believes we all are born with the God-given gift of intuition and by tapping into it we are able to access the central truths of life. He writes:

Let us be silent, and we may hear the whispers of the Gods.

So how does one access God? Emerson believes there is a source of guidance available to us all that he calls the “divine soul”.  To communicate with this source, he engages in something he refers to as “lowly listening”:

There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word.

“Lowly listening“ is pretty much what it sounds like and involves getting into a relaxed state—which today we might achieve through meditation—and while not trying too hard, listening. The great Emerson scholar Richard Geldard explains what happens during lowly listening like this:

Solitude, stillness, reflection, judgement and understanding all come together to guide us.

Emerson believes that the guidance that comes through lowly listening is an invaluable ally in life and is accessible by all of us:

There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man….we prosper when we accept its advice…we need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

In another passage, he states his belief that lowly listening should be incorporated into our daily routine, as it helps us accomplish more than we ever could using our own wits. In his words:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher law than that of our will regulates events…our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless….only in our easy, simple spontaneous action are we strong.

I once had a friend tell me that she hears lots of words within, the problem is in deciphering which are the ones that come from the divine source. And maybe that’s the hard part. But once you’ re able to tune in to what Emerson calls “the soul at the center of nature”, you may find there’s a single, authentic voice there. It’s a voice that sounds nothing like the rest and whose every word rings true.


  • Ambaa

    He was very inspired by Hindu teachings and scriptures. His American brand of spirituality bears a tremendous similarity to Hindu philosophers :)

    • Tom Rapsas

      A great point, Emerson was very influenced by the Hindu teachings as Richard Geldard calls out in his book “The Spiritual Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson”. Emerson had read the Vedas and believed strongly that “illusion is the greatest barrier to freedom” and that the false illusions of the mind can “veil us from the truth”. Another fascinating part of the Emerson story that probably deserves its own post! Thanks. ~Tom

  • jerry lynch

    You write, ‘
    “Anyone, at any place and time, can have direct and immediate access to the central truths and experience of life itself.”

    ‘This is the truly radical part of his message as he is stating we all have the ability to access God from virtually anywhere. It’s no wonder that Emerson deems the church unnecessary as he believes we all are born with the God-given gift of intuition and by tapping into it we are able to access the central truths of life.’
    The Bible says, “…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Emerson’s message was not radical; it was plain from the beginning.
    And his “lowly listening”? “Be still, and know that I am God.” Tapping into the essence of life, at the hearth of our being a core of the Eternal, at-one with the All. Freedom is not being unrestrained, of doing anything we want to do, but a willing enslavement to the heart’s divine intent.
    As to self-reliance, I see that as needed and useful in the first half of life, part of The Process. Yet I know today that on my own I can do nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing. Self-reliance is now seen as a boondoggle of the ego. It could also be seen as a feature of social darwinism or the philosophical Superman, who is nothing more than a selfish, disconnected twerp.
    I apologize for being so heavy-handed in my comments. Probably an allergic reaction to anything with traces of neo-con thinking.

    • Tom Rapsas

      Thanks for your note, Jerry, I can assure you I am not a neo-con. :-) I think the most radical thing that Emerson did was, as a former man of the cloth, to come out and say all the answers can not be found in the bible or the church and that what was needed was a certain amount of self-reliance and introspection–balanced by the teachings of a variety religions and philosophies. (As the previous commenter pointed out, Emerson was heavily influenced by the Hindu teachings among others.) Also, I do believe in the role of community, church, and yes, the government–my beliefs in “self-reliance” relate strictly to finding God. Best wishes. ~Tom

  • Pete

    I’ve heard Emerson before but his name never interested me… Leaving the church and finding God did… It seems that he was way ahead of his time. If he was around today I would say that what he experienced was nothing new but over 100 years ago I can’t imagine the opposition, especially from the various churches that were around…
    It seems that what he was talking about is very similar to a lot of channeled stuff or new age stuff that talks about “going within” or finding God within yourself and listening to your Guides or being more in tune with the Spirit realm… Interesting to know that Emerson was way ahead of us… you can really see spirituality start to change or evolve around the turn of the 20th century.

  • jerry lynch

    Don’t get me wrong. I found Emerson very appealing, but he failed to develop further, perhaps enamored by his self-reliance to rest on his laurels. “I did it!” And it is enough. Like Romney. Too funny.
    If it were not for human trafficking and other sordid and common ways of the world, I might find a less abrasive response sufficient. And I should. I must admit to being so weary and cranky over spiritual conjecture that I am losing a broad compassionate perspective. This is unseemly. All I said is reduced to rubbish. My amends.

    • Tom Rapsas

      You make some fine points, Jerry, no harm taken! ~Tom


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