Emerson’s essay The Preacher spends quite a lot of time, about two-thirds of the essay, winding up to say something about the kind of person a preacher should be and the kind of work a preacher should do. Actually, it says more about people and religion than it does about preachers.
The winding up is an assessment of sorts of the state of religion. Emerson writes:
The venerable and beautiful traditions in which we were educated are losing their hold on human belief, day by day ; a restlessness and dissatisfaction in the religious world marks that we are in a moment of transition…. The old forms rattle, and the new delay to appear; material and industrial activity have materialized the age, and the mind, haughty with its sciences, disdains the religious forms as childish.
Is it just me, or does it seem like this is still the case today? Emerson sees people who scorn hypocrisy, who are gracious, who are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of integrity, but the “sacred affirmative…hides in the deepest abyss.”
There are those who take delight in poking holes in religion, in belief in God, in church and the sacred. These people do not understand, says Emerson. Their
understanding presumes in things above its sphere, and, because it has exposed errors in a church, concludes that a church is an error ; because it has found absurdities to which the sentiment of veneration is attached, sneers at veneration; so that analysis has run to seed in unbelief. There is no faith left.
“There is no faith left,” what a fantastic and powerful sentence. What a sad sentence. I can imagine Emerson saying that sentence, his blue eyes filled with sadness, his voice dropping a little, the intake of breath that it must have caused his audience.
We should not undervalue or reject churches just because we are annoyed by them or find error in them. All churches were “real” churches once; they filled a need in their time. There is much we owe to the past for the way we think today.
This is the environment in which a preacher must work. What kind of person must he be? He must have self-possession and knowledge and a personal force that is able to meet the force of the congregation. He should look for the similarities between religions and not the differences. Sensation preaching–“the personalities for spite, the hurrah for our side, the review of our appearances and what others say of us!”–should not be undertaken. church is for self-examination, to “see how it stands with us.” But neither should church ignore the world and the things that make “our blood beat and our countenance dejected Saturday or Monday. No, these are fair tests to try our doctrines by, and see if they are worth any-thing in life.” A preacher should say the things the congregation needs to hear, not what they want to hear.
In a world in which we are enamored of surfaces, it is the purpose of religion to take us past the surface, to teach each one of us to be a whole person, acting with one purpose and one motive instead of an individual split up into different pieces, each piece arguing with another, keeping us from achieving anything meaningful. Emerson observes:
The human race are afflicted with a St. Vitus’ dance ; their fingers and toes, their members, their senses, their talents, are superfluously active, while the torpid heart gives no oracle. When that wakes, it will revolutionize the world.
“When that wakes, it will revolutionize the world.” Unlike the sentence about faith, this one gives me chills. It is also an example of what I love about Emerson. He doesn’t leave us with the sad lack of faith sentence, he gives us hope, something to lift our heads up about, something to make us say, “Hey, I want to be a part of that!” He makes us, makes me, want to be a better person. And in this essay he reminds us
that though ministers of justice and power fail, Justice and Power fail never. The open secret of the world is the art of subliming a private soul with inspirations from the great and public and divine Soul front which we live.
Next week’s Emerson: The Man of Letters