Why I like Emerson and dislike religion

 

This morning I was reading one of my favorite writers of all time, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I probably agree with less than ¼ of all he said, but that doesn’t matter. This dude can write falsity better than I can write truth, and for that reason I think he’s pretty cool. Anyways, I find his following description of church to be hauntingly realistic. He says,

“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say I would go to church no more… A snow-storm was falling around us. The snow-storm 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 not 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. The capital secret of his profession, namely to convert life into truth, he had not learned…” Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1838 Divinity School Address at Harvard Divinity School.

This is a travesty, a shame, a shambles. But it happens all the time. Many people are forced to deal with it week after week. Most have had, at the least, one similar experience. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word, “religion,” I think of church. Ironically, even as I’ve grown up in the church my entire life, I describe myself as anti-religious. “Religion” defined is man’s way to get to God. I quickly realized we are falling short of the task. It only took a few history courses to find out we aren’t doing a good job. That’s why I’ve always been glad to follow the ever-anti-religious Jesus Christ. Christ isn’t all about me coming to Him. Rather, Christ is all about Him coming to me… before and now and then afterwards Him giving me the constant strength to live selflessly when without Him I never could. So why is church such a dirty word? Emerson reminds us. Too often we come hoping to meet and grapple with God and instead we leave only remembering the flurries as they fall and melt outside the stained glass windows.

God loves to make a world of words. God always has. God creates, raises, and restores through words. Shouldn’t leaders in the church follow suit? Debby Applegate, the Pulitzer Prize winning author writes, “If you have the audacity to ask people to stop what they are doing and pay attention to your words, then the goal must now be to retain the interest of your audience and to reward them for their attention in some way.”

Schleiermacher said that “The whole of religion is nothing but the sum of all relations of man to God.” Exactly! A sermon shouldn’t just spout dry (“heavenly”) information. Where is the feeling, where is the connection to life, why should the average person care about what God has said/done/will do? Preachers make it their duty to help others see the connections, and when these answers are left blank, the people leave in broken frustration. Frankly, I don’t blame them. Too often the gap between the podium and the people is grossly expansive and I pray that I will never succumb to such behavior. May I never be caught spewing out concepts which are not entirely meaningful to my audience. The genius of the Gospel is that it is life-giving, the least I can [should] do is use it accurately in my communication. The Gospel always connects to life now. If people don’t get that from my discourse, my discourse isn’t worth hearing. Isn‘t truth useless if it can‘t be practiced?

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