Thursday, July 30, 2009

Christian Navigation...

I have been reading "The Transcendentalist", Emerson's "defence" of the young idealists that he was so responsible for, and it has made me cranky...I love Emerson but he often brings out the fogy in me and I despair over the practical effect of the philosophy on society and, most important for me, on the church. So over the next few days, I want to excerpt a lecture by one of my great heroes, William Phillips Tilden, given to budding churchmen, on another of my heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I hope you find it as interesting as I do:

from, "The Work of the Ministry"


"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,— "Every human soul," says Dr. Holmes in his Life of Emerson, " leaves its port with sealed orders. These may be opened earlier or later on the voyage; but, until they are opened, no one can tell what is to be his course, or to what harbor he is bound."
We will let this serve as a text for our closing lecture. Some of you are getting ready to leave port, loosing your sails, and will soon weigh anchor and steer for the open sea. All of you are expecting to sail sooner or later. You are studying Christian navigation, learning the use of compass, chart, and nautical instruments, all looking to the voyage you are to take. What course you are to steer, when the time comes for leaving port, you know not. You have thought of many pleasant voyages you would like to make, over smooth seas to golden shores. Maybe you will. You cannot tell. Your orders are sealed, not to be opened till you are out of sight of land, and feel the ground swell of the deep sea beneath your keel.

There is something profoundly impressive in these " sealed orders." If only they were open, if you could know just what they were before leaving port, so that you could talk the matter over with old navigators, and learn about the reefs and shoals to be shunned, and the safe harbors one may make in a storm, it would save you from much anxiety. But your orders are sealed. Not till you are off sounding will you know them; and not till the end of the voyage will your friends or the world know just what they were. It is the finished voyage that reveals their character. That was what revealed to Dr. Holmes the sealed orders of Emerson. It was not till the end of the voyage they were fully known. Then all was clear...

Many persons might be selected from our best Christian workers whose sealed orders, judged by their ministerial fidelity, were just as high as Emerson's, and whose obedience to them was just as complete. Nay, many have found in their sealed orders things which Emerson did not find in his papers. His orders were grand and inspiring for the thinker, but not always so helpful for the worker. There are few men who quicken thought like Emerson; but his thought is not easily harnessed to practical work. He followed his own oft-quoted saying, and "hitched his wagon to a star." It was high riding, aerial and breezy, but not always convenient for agricultural purposes. It took too long to change the harness. It was not Mr. Emerson's peculiar views about church ordinances merely, that led him out of the Christian ministry. He was a devotee of individualism. He could hardly have been successful as the minister of a working church. He was not born for that. He had no appreciation of organized efforts. He did not believe in the Church. He thanked God that he never asked one to join it. To his peculiar nature there was a touch of bondage in it. He trusted to his wings rather than to his hands and feet. He had a skylark soul. He could soar and sing better than he could plough and plant. His "wagon" was for commerce with the skies, not for mundane uses. True, he returned to the Church in his old age, as the dove to the ark; but it was only to bring a leaf, showing that the floods of individualism had abated, and the dry land, waiting to be cultivated, had appeared. His sealed orders were of the highest kind for individual life and personal character; but they fail of meeting all the needs of a patient Christian worker for the kingdom of God, who sees the necessity of "working together" with his fellow-men in associated action for human uplifting."

More tomorrow and


1 comment:

PeaceBang said...

EXACTLY. More Emersonian critics and fans should have this text. It describes perfectly the futility of trying to embrace RWE for the purposes of strengthening church life. That's not what he was about. We cannot build a religion on Emersonian philosophy. We can build a philosophy of self-culture on it, and we can build many a beautiful liturgical moment from his words and poetry, but his philosophy is not one that builds community. To do so was not in his "sealed orders." What a treasure, BU. Thanks for this.

I do believe I may use it for my Ferry Beach lecture, since I think it should be heard by more of us.