07/15/2011 02:43 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2011

Divinity School Day: Ralph Waldo Emerson Shocks Harvard

Today (July 15) is celebrated among a small group of dedicated scholars, readers and thinkers as Divinity School Day. On this day in 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a speech (some call it a sermon) on the occasion of the graduation of the Class of 1838 from Harvard's Divinity College, as it was called then.

He gave his talk in the evening in a small chapel on the second floor of what is now Emerson Hall, to a group of fewer than 100 people, made up of six graduates, faculty, parents and friends. Emerson was not exactly a welcome choice for speaker that evening. There were grumbles from the faculty in particular because, even though Emerson himself was a graduate, he had a few years before resigned as a minister and begun a lecture and publishing career, and worse, his ideas were revolutionary. How so? Here are a few key lines from his speech that July evening:

...when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the universe, and make things what they are, then shrinks the great world at once into a mere illustration and fable of this mind. What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched.

Then, once the individual mind was opened to thought:

Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

What happened to authority, to institutional instruction? Emerson then begins his attack on the Church of his day.

Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love.

This emphasis on the person of Jesus was, Emerson taught, an affront to a true spiritual understanding of His message. He goes on:

The second defect of the traditionary and limited way of using the mind of Christ is a consequence of the first; this, namely; that the Moral Nature, that Law of laws, whose revelations introduce greatness, -- yea, God himself, into the open soul, is not explored as the fountain of the established teaching in society. Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead. The injury to faith throttles the preacher; and the goodliest of institutions becomes an uncertain and inarticulate voice.

Here, then, is the crux: Moral nature is lost in the way the Church has evolved. It is the past we are to worship, not anything living. The result of Emerson's attack was to ban him from Harvard for more than 30 years, and only when he became famous and known as the conscience of the nation was he invited back and finally made an Overseer of the university.

If you have some time, read Emerson's Divinity School Address and see for yourself if he doesn't strike the right note for our time and for this July 15.