My Faith: Some Clarifications (with Special Reference to Emerson)


The Simpsons, Fox Broadcasting Company

by Justin E. H. Smith

I have declined, and continue to decline, to reply to many of the diverse points of criticism directed against my profession of faith, which I released into the world a month or so ago. I had thought it would be clear that there is a sort of writing that does not invite arguments in opposition, but simply says lo! behold! ecce!, and carries with it an implied Whitmanian ass-covering: “You say I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself!”

I admit it surprised me how many people seem to be unaware of even the existence of this sort of writing, let alone the august tradition behind it. Some critics seem to be operating with an extremely limited set of resources, supposing that the only legitmate end to which thought and expression might be put is in coming up with fine little chunks of reasoning that might be suitable for inclusion in an introductory textbook of critical thinking. God bless the young adepts who have discovered logic, and put great hopes in it. But what a great portion of history’s most sublime and rapturous writing will remain off-limits to them!

I admit, also, that I was surprised at how many people, believers and non-believers alike, were entirely unfamiliar with the tradition of thinking about God as something other than an entity, to be placed on the list of other candidate entities right alongside dolomite, sharks, bigfoot, and unicorns. As if God’s ‘existence’ (something for which I do not argue) were something to be established in the way we might establish an existent Sasquatch from a clump of matted, orangish hair caught in the bark of a tree. Damn it, God isn’t like that! There is a millennia-long tradition of thinking about God as in some way or other ‘beyond being’. I take it that this is the primary understanding of God in most of the Abrahamic traditions of speculative theology, and I take it that one variation on this way of thinking is the belief that God is love.

Is love a thing? In some respects, yes, but it does not leave residues (unless you believe, as I also do, that everything is a congealing of love, in which case you may say that it leaves its smears and clumps absolutely everywhere). At any rate, it is not a thing in the way that Sasquatch’s hair, were Sasquatch to exist, would be a thing. You can think this way of thinking is misguided, but heavens, please try to bear in mind that I am not the first yokel to be sucked in by it, and if you reject it you are also rejecting a good chunk of what can justly be called ‘the wisdom of the ages’. Now this is not at all an argument ad auctoritatem; St. Paul and Plotinus and Emerson could all be utterly wrong. But it is an admonition, first of all, to go get some old-fashioned learning in you, and, second of all, to not allow the terms of the debate (as if debating were at all worthwhile here) to be determined at the outset by the unlearned, by people who can understand no other form of commitment than the sort that is modelled on the discovery of a clump of matted hair. These are not the terms in which serious religious thought has ever been articulated.

I was also criticized, strangely, for a supposed immature fervency, as if I were someone who had just discovered faith and was now a-quaking and a-shaking like some mad Swedenborg. I say this is strange, because I thought I had made it clear that this was not an account of a conversion, but rather a profession of a faith that I have always had. It might yet mature, of course, but it is not, as of now, in a stage of initial effervescence.

Finally, and relatedly, some critics did not appreciate my dismissiveness concerning reports of ‘Western’ conversions to ‘Eastern’ faiths (one critic claimed to know ‘hundreds’ of successful long-term converts to Buddhism; I don’t know hundreds of people of any sort). I say ‘relatedly’ because, again, in that essay I was not interested in conversion at all; I was interested in taking stock of faith, and I suppose I am at least conservative enough to believe that such stock-taking can best be done in the terms already available to one. Because it touches upon something so deep, moreover, something the first bubblings of which come with the first experiments in thinking as a young child, it is fitting that one draw on the cultural forms that were already there at that early stage, rather than the later calques that came with the various young-adult projects of ‘mind-expansion’. I am a student of the Upanishads and of Dharmakirti; but I am, in the spirit of Emerson, a Christian student of them.

It was Emerson, in his 1838 address to the Harvard Divinity School, who acknowledged that “the evils of the church that now is are manifest,” and asked, “What shall we do? I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms.” The dean of American transcendentalism was not bemoaning the sort of yogic-quaker syncretism this very address unwittingly helped to usher in and legitimate, but rather the rise of a form of radical secularism as ersatz religion: “All attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason, — to-day, pasteboard and fillagree, and ending to-morrow in madness and murder.”

Now I am not convinced, with Emerson, that secular resistance to religion willy-nilly takes on the traits of religion with the inevitability of some Animal Farm-like determinism. But it is hard to see the temples de la Raison as anything other than a transplantation of secular preoccupations into the cultic shell that had organically grown up around religion and then been forcibly evacuated by the Revolution. And it is hard, also, not to prefer Emerson’s alternative: “Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul. A whole popedom of forms, one pulsation of virtue can uplift and vivify.”

Have I yet adequately expressed how deep my admiration is for Ralph Waldo? I love his language; I love his Americanness. He is not at all American in the way that I and my people are American (when you are from Reno, Boston is already as ‘Oriental’ as Palestine was for Emerson), but man, is he American. I love his total lack of interest in buttressing his truth claims with arguments. Is Emerson, then, not a philosopher? He’s a truth-teller, anyway, and he understands of the truth he tells that it is entirely private and entirely universal at once:

[W]hilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

Emerson is extremely eclectic and creative in the approach he takes to his guiding lights in the history of philosophy. He seems to think that Kant’s transcendental idealism is ‘transcendentalist’ in the sense of Vedanta, and that Kantian duty is something like an intuition of divine law. Thus he uses a sort of Kantian distinction between reason and understanding, but seems to think reason is something like faith or revelation:

[Jesus] said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! There is no doctrine of the Reason which will bear to be taught by the Understanding. The understanding caught this high chant from the poet’s lips, and said, in the next age, ‘This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man.’

As an account of the Kantian distinction between reason and understanding, this fails miserably. As an account of the proper understanding of Christ, though, it transcends its era and joins up with the truth of the Gospels. For Emerson, Christ was so significant not because he was the son of God, but because he was the man who dared to say, ‘I am God’. And everyone is an inflection of God, for Emerson: a truth about our predicament that wells up in the experience of love and joy.

Emerson hates supernaturalism, and believes that any miracle worthy of the name will be “one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” The states of the soul and the states of nature are one, too, and so any propagator of the true Christian faith is one who “shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.”

So far, I have been citing only the 1838 address to the Harvard Divinity School. It is already sufficiently bold about the manifest evils of the church. In other works, Emerson will express himself more frankly about both his debt to other religious traditions, as well as his contempt for superstition. In The Over-Soul of 1841, he castigates those who would treat religion as so much back-alley haruspicy:

The popular notion of a revelation is, that it is a telling of fortunes. In past oracles of the soul, the understanding seeks to find answers to sensual questions, and undertakes to tell from God how long men shall exist, what their hands shall do, and who shall be their company, adding names, and dates, and places. But we must pick no locks. We must check this low curiosity. An answer in words is delusive; it is really no answer to the questions you ask. Do not require a description of the countries towards which you sail. The description does not describe them to you, and to-morrow you arrive there, and know them by inhabiting them. Men ask concerning the immortality of the soul, the employments of heaven, the state of the sinner, and so forth. They even dream that Jesus has left replies to precisely these interrogatories. Never a moment did that sublime spirit speak in their patois.

The real horoscope, Emerson thinks, the one understood by the ‘Hindoo bards’, is the one that understands that the things of nature from which the vulgar horoscopist takes his readings are in the end identical with the soul:

We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith.

It is this innateness and universality that also defines Emerson’s rhetorical register and aims, and here, I think, is the best ‘argument’ I can find in reply to everyone who has expressed concern that I have lost my bearings as a philosopher and started spouting religious nonsense. I am seldom so confident in leaning on a quotation from another person to express what I myself would like to say:

Every man’s words, who speaks from that life, must sound vain to those who do not dwell in the same thought on their own part. I dare not speak for it. My words do not carry its august sense; they fall short and cold. Only itself can inspire whom it will, and behold! their speech shall be lyrical, and sweet, and universal as the rising of the wind. Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.

Emerson knows that he cannot argue, but can only profess. He knows that his words will fail, even as he knows he cannot suppress the desire to use words, to try to describe the character and feeling of his faith. He knows that this is just a wind blowing through him, that he cannot blow it into another who happens for now to be standing in a quiet spot; but he also knows that wind blows everywhere the same, and that it is miraculous.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website