Richard Mouw agrees:
I have visited Authors Ridge [Concord, Mass., cemetery where Emerson is buried] a half-dozen times. Some of my favorite heretics are buried there. I think it is a good thing for a Christian to have some favorite heretics. Not that I am convinced that the world is a better place, all things considered, because heretics have existed. That is a question of theodicy that I have not settled in my mind. But heresy is a fact of life, and given that there are plenty of heretics to choose from, one might as well have a few favorites.
One can disagree strongly with someone and yet find it helpful to wrestle on a regular basis with the particular challenges that this person poses to one’s own way of seeing things. That is how I feel about the writers buried on Authors Ridge. I disagree with the thoughts they set forth, but I find it profitable to keep thinking about why I so strongly oppose what they have written. When I walk among their graves, I find myself experiencing both awe and sadness.7
Suggestions for Fruitful Engagement with Emerson
Emerson believed that greatness lay solely within the individual person. He closed his famous essay, Self-Reliance with “Do not seek yourself outside yourself.”8 Emerson was leery of anything or anyone who would seek to restrict the individual. The “self as individual” is an interesting idea. It has a relatively short history. It describes a person who is completely sufficient and in need of no one or nothing bigger than oneself, which certainly would include the need for religious traditions.9 Emerson’s self-focus took on epic proportions, “A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me.”10
Individualism is certainly one of the most important “isms” American Christians must address. There is nothing individualistic in the Emersonian sense about Christianity. Even a cursory read of the Bible reveals that the Christian faith is about God calling out a people to be His own. Granted, God calls individual persons. In a very real sense, we are all called individually by God on our very own “Damascus road.” However, individuals are not called to be individualists but to be part of the community of God. Too many American pastors seem to believe that crude media and corrupt politicians are the biggest culprits attacking Christian belief. I believe we would do much better to address the worship of the self that Emerson brought into the mainstream of American culture. It is common to hear today that we can recreate or reinvent ourselves. Remaking yourself, a “do over” of one’s image, is also a popular way of saying the same sort of thing.
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