Where’s Waldo? is a wonderful game to play with children. Of course, many adults like it too. The lanky and goofy Waldo is hiding in plain sight amid a busy scene. Once you locate him, you’re amazed it took so long.
For years I’ve taught on various challenges posed to Christianity in 19th-century America. In one section of the course, Ralph Waldo Emerson—and other writers such as Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman—receives special attention.
Littered with gifted writers, F. O. Matthiessen dubbed the era the “American Renaissance.” And it continues to shape American self-identity today in ways the church has yet to fully realize and contest.
Giant Among Giants
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was a giant among giants during this period. In 1837 he gave a Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard titled “The American Scholar,” which Oliver Wendell Holmes called America’s “intellectual Declaration of Independence.”
Emerson was already troubled by institutional religion when he gave the lecture. Having stepped away from pastoral ministry among Boston’s Unitarians, he would help launch a movement of sorts called Transcendentalism.
Without getting into all the various ways Transcendentalism was understood, we can simply say the individual supplanted religious traditions and institutions. The “divine self” was given permission to both assess and access truth on its own. Institutions, especially those upholding the importance of doctrine, had to be sloughed off. Boston’s Calvinists were “exhibit A” for what was wrong with religion. But for Emerson and many others, Unitarian belief wasn’t much better. Anyone or anything that stifles the self from discovering its own truth is not worthy of followers.
Emerson’s influence on America’s self-identity is huge.
Emerson’s influence on America’s self-identity is huge. I’ve heard historians say he and Twain are indispensable for understanding the uniqueness of the American spirit. Emerson is everywhere. Not his name per se, though it does crop up from time to time even in pop culture. (Reebok used to feature quotes from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” in a commercial.)
Though Emerson’s name isn’t well-known among most Americans, his influence on their lives is incalculable. And as American Christians, how have we dealt with the trumpeting of self that Emerson made chic?
I reached for three of the most popular apologetic books: The Reason for God by Tim Keller, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, and Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. I also looked at three of the most popular Christian worldview books: The Universe Next Door by James Sire, Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey, and the first edition of Understanding the Times by David Noebel.
Though familiar with these works, I had forgotten how they interacted with Emerson. Needless to say, I was stunned by what I discovered. Emerson isn’t mentioned in a single one. How could a thinker so formidable be so ignored? No one who knows American history doubts Emerson is a major figure we should reckon with.
Individualism is one of the most important “isms” American Christians must address. There’s nothing individualistic (in the Emersonian sense) about true Christianity, after all. Even a cursory read of Scripture reveals that God calls out a people to be his own. Yes, he calls individuals, each of us on our own Damascus road. But individuals are not saved to be individualists, but part of the community of God.
Many American pastors seem to believe crude media and corrupt politicians are the biggest culprits to Christian faith. We might do better to address the multi-faceted challenges from the likes of Emerson.
Brand New You
It’s common today to hear that we can recreate or reinvent ourselves. Again, this isn’t new. According to Emerson, you and you alone hold the keys to the promised land of your identity. You can be whomever you decide to be—which is far better than the person you face in the mirror each morning.
It’s an attractive proposition. And many of us get fooled into thinking this really is in our power.
Remaking the self is big business in America. Great effort coupled with high hopes all in the service of finding the better me.
Christians believe God created each of us with a particular personality. Not only are we fashioned in his image—giving us infinite worth no matter what we produce—but also our individual identity is fixed. Fixed is actually liberating. Instead of the frenzied pursuit to remake our identity, we are freed to discover how best to use our given one.
As God’s people, we can step off the self-remaking treadmill. Not only are we created in his image, but also there is just one of us.
Emerson’s philosophy looks attractive to those who love the idea of remaking the self—which includes all of us in our sin. Yet the road Emerson takes us on is a cul-de-sac, a veritable dead end.
Stuffed with Self
Like Emerson, Transcendentalism may no longer be in the lexicon of most Americans, but its influence lives on. Whether we know it or not, the 19th-century writer broke the dam, and we Americans now swim in Emersonian waters. The water feels refreshing to hyper-individualized Americans, which sadly includes many Christians.
Transcendentalism lives on in the ways we see Christianity facing present challenges. One example would be the “nones,” that growing group of Americans no longer affiliated with any religion. For many, there simply isn’t enough room for organized religion because the “self,” as Walker Percy memorably put it, is “stuffed with itself.” What Percy found troubling, Emerson deemed virtuous.
Emerson’s ghost still prowls among our fruited plains. Perhaps America is more haunted by him than we previously thought.