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‘Religion Unbound’: Jeffrey Stout on Emersonian Democracy

This post is written in response to Jeffrey Stout’s fifth Gifford lecture for 2017, entitled ‘Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God.’ It is part of his larger series, Religion Unbound: Powers and Ideals from Cicero to King that has just been delivered at the University of Edinburgh (May 1-11, 2017). My colleague Andrew Johnson is hosting the Giffords blog, where he has posted summaries of the lectures as well as links to the lecture videos. 

Professor Jeffrey Stout has offered a compelling account of Emerson’s importance for the pursuit of ‘ethical religion’. Emerson’s worthy provocations include an incisive critique, later adopted by Nietzsche, of slavishness and the herd mentality. He therefore seeks to evoke others’ ‘self-reliance’, characterised by the expression of ‘unauthorised thoughts’. In Stout’s convincing portrayal, Emerson is not thereby calling for atomised self-assertion; rather, non-conformity is the necessary condition for a ‘sociality of reason’ (in Terry Pinkard’s phrase) that can alone support democracy.

After all, Emerson’s self-reliant ethic led him to abolitionism. That commitment locates him in Stout’s historical coalition, traced throughout a brilliant lecture series, against that ‘many-headed Hydra’ of human domination. However, Emerson’s ethic had also led him, as Stout briefly acknowledges, to leave the ministry because of ‘reservations about the Lord’s Supper’. Moved as I am by Emerson, I want to question what was lost for the abolitionist cause when he declared that ‘this mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me’.

Part of Emerson’s resignation of his ministry involved a series of arguments against the observance of the ‘Lord’s Supper’. In an 1832 piece, he claimed that Jesus never intended to establish a perpetual rite, that the importance attributed to this outdated ‘form’ was ‘not consistent with the Spirit of Christianity’, and that its performance places those who abstain in ‘unfavorable relation’. He then signals his departure with these memorable words: ‘that is the end of my opposition, that I am not interested in it’.

I am struck by the apparent de-politicisation in Emerson’s account of what Christians hold as a Sacrament. Remarkably, Emerson interprets Jesus’ statements—‘This is my body which is broken for you. Take; eat. This is my blood which is shed for you. Drink it.’—as a habitual mode of teaching, a readiness to ‘spiritualise every occurrence’. This angle on Jesus’ instruction is echoed in several of Emerson’s comments in the later Divinity School Address, which emphasises redemption from ‘formal religion’ towards the ‘formation of the soul’. ‘And thus by his holy thoughts, Jesus serves us’, Emerson asserts, ‘and thus only’.

Admittedly, thoughts are political in Stout’s portrayal of Emerson. With reference to the arrangement of ancient assemblies by political position, ‘moving’ rhetoric entailed the relocation of one’s body in order to stand for an ideal. Relatedly, Stout points out that Emerson’s turn to abolitionism meant rejecting elements of his earlier idealism, which he came to see could ‘reinforce oppression by merely negating it moralistically’. Damningly, ‘the material practice of slavery is idealism’s evil twin’.

What material practice, then, enacts anti-domination?

Democracy, for Emerson, was a term that implied liberty and justice. In Stout’s words, Emerson’s ‘fully democratic culture’ means that ‘individuals treat themselves and one another as loci of authority and responsibility’; ‘Everyone is called to rise out of servility into self-reliance’. This calling is often actualised through the leadership of the ‘excellent few’, a vision Stout compares to the ‘smaller band’ as articulated by leading intellectuals since. One of Emerson’s three critical questions for evaluating such groups is this: ‘can they be made actual in sustainable material practices with which we can, in good conscience, identify?’ After all, as Stout renders Emerson, ‘Ideals not incarnated in action are spectral wrong.’

With this material criterion in view, how about the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist? Would Stout’s Emerson be willing to renew interest in this longstanding material practice? Particularly given his critique of an earlier idealism from the vantage point of abolitionist commitment? Such renewal would accomplish two things:

First, the Eucharist is a political act that communicates in a manner beyond reasoned rhetoric. There is a symbolic aspect to political assembly, as Emerson observes somewhat incredulously in his essay ‘Poetry’:

‘See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!’

This acknowledgement surely included the America of his time, not to mention contemporary surges of ‘nativism’. In contrast, Emerson’s earlier address on religious rites included the statement that ‘we are not accustomed to express our thoughts or emotions by symbolical actions’. As a result, the Eucharistic elements were dismissed as suitable only ‘to the people and modes of thought in the East’. In Emerson’s mind, the Lord’s Supper was merely ‘fruitful of controversy’ in an intra-religious sense.

For Christians, however, the Lord’s Supper relativises the ‘binding’ power of the flag, among other national symbols—and the practices of distribution they represent. As the Lord’s Supper, it renounces domination, for Jesus bears the title subversively: ‘If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’. (Interestingly, Emerson queries why foot-washing had not been made into a regular rite in the New England churches.) Moreover, as the Lord’s Supper, it enacts equal distribution. The segregation of this feast is a parody; in Paul’s argument from 1 Corinthians 11, eating and drinking to the exclusion of others is a damnable failure to ‘discern the body’.

Second, the Eucharist locates divine-human unity in the body of the oppressed-become-victor. It therefore calls into question the starting point of emancipation: does one begin with an ideal that is then incarnated, or with the ‘body, broken for you’ that must condition all thought? This turn to the body challenges the definition of ‘true religion’ as receptivity to the ‘influx of the divine spirit’. As it happens, ‘spirit’ often proves diffuse, susceptible to course through the channels of a dominant Volksgeist.

Not so this particular flesh, the tortured form of the divine-human figure who resisted tyranny to the death. Then, the risen social body—‘Christ existing as community’ in Bonhoeffer’s adaptation of Hegel—that eats and drinks across lines drawn by the status quo. In the scriptural idiom, ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’. The attempt to enact catholicity across ethnic, economic, and gendered lines will involve the ecclesial body bearing, in Luther’s vision, the ‘mark’ of suffering.

To conclude, I am deeply compelled by Stout’s critique of the weary narrative of separation between politics and religion. Because I support the project of coalition building, I have called into question Emerson’s early separation of ‘ethical’ ideals from their ‘religious’ form in the Lord’s Supper. I am hopeful that, in light of Emerson’s later critique of idealism, the bread and wine can awaken new interest in those who would stand unbound.

© David Robinson, 2017