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Emerson's Divinity School Address, Metaphysically Interpreted

The Most Important Document in New Thought

Divinity School Address

Hello, Friends,

The document I am about to share is the most important document in New Thought because it established that experience is the highest authority for the faith of Jesus and for the faith of metaphysical Christians everywhere. If you have ever been discussing religion with family or friends and used the phrase “my experience has been...” then you are talking like Jesus, who appealed time and again to his first hand experience of God.

The document is the Divinity School Address, given by Ralph Waldo Emerson to the graduating class of six students at Harvard’s Divinity School on a Sunday night in July 1838.

What is new is that the address is now online, segmented and annotated with commentary from a metaphysical Christian point of view. Today, the address is read and interpreted primarily by academics. But years ago, it was devoured by Catholics and Protestants who were looking for a better way. One of them was Emilie Cady, who quotes Emerson more than another person in her book Lessons In Truth. Another was Charles Fillmore, who read Emerson incessantly.

The landing page for this address on TruthUnity is entitled “Emerson’s Divinity School Address, Metaphysically Interpreted.” I have tried to be true to Emerson’s ideas as he held them in 1838, but I’m also including metaphysical ideas as Cady and Fillmore read into them in the 1890s. That’s new. I hope you will read them and give me your comments. And I hope the academics will forgive me for any places where my interpretation gets out into the weeds.

Is this important? Ask Dr. Martin Luther King. While sitting in a Birmingham jail in 1963 he wrote a letter to Christians and Jews, replying to the many critics of his actions there. Dr. King’s letter is nearly 100% based on his experience and the experience of black Americans at the time. In defending his actions, he could have appealed to the Bible. Or he could have appealed to church teaching. Or he could have appealed to reason. He bypassed all three of these and chose to appeal to experience. Reason was embedded in the Constitution and it actually supported slavery. And neither the Bible nor church teaching had done anything to lift us out of a consciousness of slavery as being normative. Martin Luther King wants his fellow Americans to understand and feel what it was like to be black in America. To do that, he had to appeal to experience.

Episcopalians, Methodists and some others will recognize the four-fold source of authority in theological discourse that I am describing. The authority for centuries was church tradition and scripture. The Protestant reformers shifted scripture above tradition and one hundred years later the Enlightenment thinkers inserted Reason above the other two. But it was Emerson and others in the early to mid 1800s who claimed that Experience, particularly the inner experience of intuition, is the primary authority for assessing our religious beliefs. Emerson’s address to the six graduates of Harvard’s Divinity School is the seminal document for that claim.

Experience takes place in the mind, or, as Emerson refers to it, the Soul. That should tell us that we have shifted our focus from the outer, physical world, accessible to the senses, to an inner world, accessible only by the soul. Church tradition, Scripture and Reason are valid sources of authority for theological reflection in the outer world. But Experience lets us build on those sources to explore the inner world. When we do that we have shifted from Catholic Christianity and Protestant Christianity to Metaphysical Christianity.

I invite Protestants and Catholics to read Emerson’s Divinity School Address and to consider how experience might make you a better Christian. And I invite everyone to read Letter from a Birmingham Jail and to consider how experience might make you a more understanding and compassionate person.

Mark Hicks
Sunday, August 30, 2020

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Annotations and Commentary by Mark Hicks/TruthUnity Ministries
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