Roger Lundin makes a strong case for why we Christians are foolish to neglect Emerson:
The flowering of unbelief in the last decades of the nineteenth century was in many respects a natural outgrowth of a spirit of religious indifference that had been sown on the cultural winds several decades earlier. This indifference appeared specifically within the history of American Protestantism, and when we track its origins, we find that many of the most heavily traveled paths lead to and from the early career of Ralph Waldo Emerson.4
Emerson’s work isn’t well known among Americans, but his influence on our lives is incalculable. All this got me curious about how we American Christians have sought to deal with the trumpeting of the self that Emerson made chic.
Where Are the Christian Responses to Emerson?
I reached for three of the most widely used apologetic books to consider how Christian writers of this genre interacted with Emerson. These included The Reason for God by Timothy 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: Universe Next Door by James Sire, Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey, and Understanding the Times5 by David Noebel. Even though I was familiar with all these books, I had forgotten how they interacted with Emerson. I was stunned by what I discovered. There was absolutely nothing said about Emerson in any of these books. How could a thinker as formidable as Emerson be so widely ignored? No one who knows American history doubts that Emerson is a major figure we should reckon with.
Learning from Heretics
Before we consider various responses to Emerson, it is necessary to check our motives. Are we defensive and angry? Yes, there is a godly anger, but it can so easily devolve into the unrighteous type. Furthermore, do we believe there is anything we can learn from critics of Christianity? One well-respected Christian scholar believes that we Christians have some important things to learn from the likes of Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, and by way of extension, Emerson:
To read Marxian atheism for Lent is not to find some way to dismiss or discredit him. It is rather to let ourselves, individually and collectively, be cross-examined so as to uncover the ways in which we are self-deceived about the social function of our piety. It is well to remember that the German Christians lent their support to the Nazi regime by their own anti-Semitism, whether it was vocally overt or silently complicit. (Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like those Germans.)6
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