glorycloud's Diaryland Diary


caused even polite Unitarians to gasp in horror: the deification of man

"It is difficult to distinguish precisely where Romanticism ends and Transcendentalism begins in the American experience. Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and a host of other writers draw from German Romanticism in their celebration of nature and self.

In Boston, still the intellectual center at this time, Unitarianism was reigning. You will remember that the Unitarian Church was the unofficial state church of Enlightenment deism in America. Jesus was not a divine redeemer, but an enlightened moral example; salvation was not a matter of setting sinners right with God by grace alone, but of social and self-improvement by works. For the Unitarians, Christianity was little more than ethics and inspiration to service.

However, in the 1830's a trend was emerging within Unitarianism which even that group considered heretical: Transcendentalism. As the name suggests, its adherents sought to transcend the physical, tangible, objective world and tap the resources of the spirit. Determined to discover their oneness with the Divine (Emerson's "Over-Soul"), the Transcendentalists were the mystics of their age. Thus, the Boston intelligentsia began moving increasingly from deism to pantheism.

Historian Gregg Singer explains: "Even in those denominations which were historically evangelical. . ., there were strong influences at work for the creation of a 'democratic theology,' namely a theology which would modify such Calvinistic doctrines as the sovereignty of God and the total depravity of the race, in favor of a theology which would emphasize the love of God at the expense of His justice and holiness." Furthermore, this theology "would insist that man was not totally depraved and could, to come degree at least, cooperate with God in the achievement of his own salvation." As Arminianism was a first step toward the democratization of the evangelical faith in America, so Transcendentalism was the radicalization of that process.

Transcendentalism dared to pronounce what Arminianism would never have entertained and which would have caused even polite Unitarians to gasp in horror: the deification of man. Said Emerson, "I see all the currents of the universe being circulated through me; I am a part and parcel of God." This process is clear: From the Puritan belief in human lostness and confidence in the sovereignty of an infinite and yet personal God who was profoundly interested and involved in his creation; to the Arminian weakening of the biblical faith to the level of mere sentiment. Deism entertained a god who was removed from the scene altogether, except as a moral governor and creator. As we reach Transcendentalism, the individual is finally enshined as the object of knowledge. In the American experience, we come full circle to Satan's first temptation: "You shall be as gods."

Thus, what Friedrich Schlegel called "the abyss of individuality" replaces the sense of being a part of something larger than oneself and subject to a gracious God above. As for the older faith, Emerson informed Harvard in 1838, "There is a great famine in our churchs," and argued that "whatever hold the public worship had on men is gone or going." Doubtless, the Bostonian had in mind Unitarianism more than the previous Puritan, evangelical faith. Once the supernaturalism of the Reformation creed was gutted, nothing was left. When God is no longer the center of attention, worship and religion in general, become rather useless. Without a creed, a tradition, a community, or a philosophy of life, the Transcendentalists turned inward for answers with the intensity with which the Rationalists had turned outward." pg. 99-101 Michael Scott Horton "Made In America: The Shaping Of Modern Evangelicalism"

1:07 p.m. - 2010-10-31


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