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