According to Emerson, since you are autonomous, you, and you alone, hold the keys to the promised land of changing your identity. Congratulations! You can be whoever you deem to be, which is far better than the pathetic person you now face in the mirror every morning. It’s a sexy proposition. As a result, many of us get snookered into believing that this is in our power. Remaking the self is big business in America, because the marketplace is amply supplied with gullible guys and gals who gladly buy the latest workout equipment, make-up, head to some exotic locale, or, best of all, receive some artificial manipulation of body parts. Great effort coupled with high hopes — all in the service of finding the better me.
As Christians, we have good news to share here. We believe God wisely created us with a particular, even unique, personality. We are not only created in His image (which gives us worth and dignity no matter what we can produce), but our individual identity is fixed. And fixed is not a bad thing. Fixed actually is liberating. Instead of the frenzied pursuit to remake our identity, we are freed up to discover how best to use the specific identity God has bestowed on us. Christians don’t need to be exhausted by the never-ending treadmill of remaking themselves. God has made us a certain way, and that uniqueness reminds us of our value. Not only are we created in His image, but there really is just one of us.
The Emersonian philosophy looks attractive to Americans who love the idea of remaking the self. But the road on which Mr. Emerson takes us is a cul-de-sac, a veritable dead end for restless idealists who desperately think the self can be remade.
Say What You Believe, Believe What You Say
Emerson had little patience with ministers who blathered on about their religious platitudes. On one occasion, Emerson contrasted the beauty of a snowstorm with the pointless musings of a preacher:
A snowstorm was falling around us. The snowstorm was real, the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.11
Elsewhere Emerson wrote that people will only “drink” what we say when they are convinced it is an authentic message.12 It is sad that Emerson did not seem to be exposed to compelling Christian communicators.
The Puritan Richard Baxter would have agreed here with Emerson. Baxter famously said, “Men will not cast away their dearest pleasures upon a drowsy request of someone who does not seem to mean what he says.”13
Conviction about the truth is crucial, but so are creative methods. The great reformer and educator, Hannah More, has much to teach us here. More modeled and sought to persuade fellow teachers to teach “in a way which shall interest their feelings, by lively images, and by a warm practical application of what they read to their own hearts and circumstances.”14
Christians who communicate with conviction, creativity, and joy are compelling. Wolfhart Pannenberg was one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. Growing up he was a devotee of Nietzsche, but then something, rather someone, completely changed the trajectory of his life:
I became interested in studying Christianity because our teacher in German literature, though a Christian, did not fit the picture of Christian mentality which I had received from Nietzsche. Contrary to my expectations, this teacher obviously enjoyed and appreciated the fullness of human life in all its forms, which he was not supposed to do, according to Nietzsche’s description of the Christian mind. I decided that I had to find out about this.15
What a motivation! The model of a compelling Christian life can truly cause others to take notice, even someone out of the Emersonian mold.
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