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  • Religious Self-Reliance
  • Randy L. Friedman

The land was ours before we were the land's.She was our land more than a hundred yearsBefore we were her people. She was oursIn Massachusetts, in Virginia,But we were England's, still colonials,Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,Possessed by what we now no more possessed.Something we were withholding made us weakUntil we found out that it was ourselvesWe were withholding from our land of living,and forthwith found salvation in surrender.Such as we were we gave ourselves outright(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)To the land vaguely realizing westward,But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,Such as she was, such as she would become.

—Robert Frost (316), "The Gift Outright"

Robert Frost read "The Gift Outright" to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at William & Mary College almost one hundred years after Emerson delivered his famous lecture "The American Scholar" before the Society's Harvard chapter. In his talk, Emerson proclaims, "Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close" (Essays and Poems 53). It is no accident that Frost's poem brings to mind Emerson.1 The possession of the American imagination by other lands and its "withholding from our land of living" declare the same distractions. The distance between ourselves and our own possibilities represents for Emerson the misdirection backwards toward Europe, and not forward to the land vaguely realizing westward, the open horizon of our own discovery, as individuals and as a nation. Becoming our land's people requires redefining our present in terms of our future and taking possession of our own possibilities, as we are possessed by them. [End Page 27]

Addressing Emerson

It is easy to be distracted by the many debates surrounding Emerson. Is he a secularist? Is he a democrat? What is Emerson's place in a possible genealogy of American thought? And, does he have a future?2 In the two most well-known genealogies of American philosophy, Kuklick and West, Emerson does not fare well. Kuklick ignores Emerson, and West takes him to task for founding a tradition that avoids "epistemology-centered philosophy" (West 5). In Emerson, I find an anti-dogmatic, pluralistic, and "tough-minded" approach to religion, which deeply influences both James's and Dewey's philosophies of religion. I want to understand how Emerson translates traditional religious and philosophical categories, and to explore what is involved in his "naturalistic metaphysics."3 In short, I want to read Emerson as a philosopher of religion. By asking these questions, I place myself in a line of interpretation that includes Russell Goodman, David Jacobson, Charles Mitchell, and Stanley Cavell, all of whom read Emerson philosophically, engaging his ideas and folding them into a discussion of the progression of classical American philosophy.

Emerson's turn from organized religion to religious experience preludes James's work on religious experience and Dewey's reconstruction of religion. Although Emerson leaves organized religion and its supernatural God behind, he retains a deep religiosity. Emerson offers a faith in individual experience that is meant to replace the faith of traditional religions with its attendant dogmas, rituals, and dependence on supernatural revelation. In other words, self-reliance does not entail a secular individualism. Emerson's turn to the individual is not another form of subjectivism. I will argue that the sublime that Emerson intimates in nature and through experience serves a pragmatic, melioristic end—one that is set against the ritualized worship of a supernatural deity in traditional religions Emerson rejects in "The Lord's Supper," "Divinity School Address," and elsewhere.4 The contrast between Emersonian religiosity, or religious self-reliance, and what might be termed traditional theism parallels the discord found in the debates between orthodox and liberal Unitarians in the early nineteenth century. The distinction is between two rival conceptions of experience and self. The first, which is deeply influenced by Locke, provides only an anemic empiricism, which allows access to the material but makes the individual dependent on supernatural revelation. Liberal theologians, inspired by James Marsh and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, recover a version of Kant's...


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