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Roger Lundin

"To the Unknown Gods"

Pragmatism, postmodernity, and the theology of experience.

When he resigned the pastorate of Boston's Second Church in 1832, Ralph Waldo Emerson forsook his ecclesiastical office but not his ministerial duties. To be sure, he did enjoy a two-year hiatus, during which he undertook a tour of Europe and experienced a period of recuperative peace in relative solitude. But all was to change with the publication of his first major work, Nature, in 1836. The wide dissemination of his essays and his growing fame as a lecturer were to give Emerson a more expansive pastoral charge than he had ever held within the Church. The lectern was now his pulpit, the lecture his sermon, and the public his congregation. If the blind did not see and the lame did not walk as a result of Emerson's secular care, many who labored and were heavy laden nevertheless found rest in his words.

One of the early, restless adherents to Emerson's vision was Henry James, Sr., a man who had been made materially wealthy by birth and spiritually tormented by training. In early 1842, James heard Emerson lecture and was so taken with the message that he wrote the inscrutable man from Concord what R. W. B. Lewis calls "a spiritual love letter, expressing a desire to 'talk familiarly with one who earnestly follows truth through whatever frowning ways she beckons him on.'" He implored Emerson to visit him at his home in lower Manhattan. Emerson obliged, and when he arrived, he was first ushered upstairs to the nursery "'to admire and give his blessing' (in the younger Henry's words) to the two-month-old William."

There is something sweetly incongruous about the picture of Emerson dispensing an "apostolic" blessing and the infant William James receiving it. Few things were more galling to Emerson than the claim that authority could be imparted from without rather than generated from within. Belief in the authority of office and the practice of rites of succession—these belonged to that "icehouse of externals" that Roman Catholicism was to Emerson. As James himself would ...

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