Can We Find Our Own Way to God?
- Bethany Verrett Writer
- 2020 8 Sep
The search for answers to big questions led humanity to develop theories and ideas about the metaphysical nature of existence. Metaphysics is part of philosophy that deals with abstract concepts like what it means to be, how to know something, and what constitutes identity.
Certain ideas have come together to create a worldview that gains popularity, and manifests itself in the classroom, in art, music, and in theological debates. One such movement that gained traction in the 19th century was the Transcendentalist movement.
The core tenets of this philosophy was that divinity is in all nature and humanity, and it emphasized a progressive view of time. Some of the great artistic movements of that century found their origins in this philosophical movement. Transcendentalism is a movement defined by a focus on the natural world, emphasis in individualism, and an idealized perspective of human nature.
While there is some overlap with Christian values and the art from this movement provided value to the arts, its eastern influences and deistic outlook means much of the thoughts in the movement are not in alignment with the Bible.
What Is Transcendentalism?
The transcendentalist movement began in earnest as a school of thought in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a philosophy that focused on the individual’s relationship with God through the natural world; it is closely related to, and drew some of its ideas from, the Romanticism movement happening in Europe. A small group of thinkers formed the Transcendental Club in 1836 and laid the foundations for the movement.
These men included Unitarian ministers George Putnam and Frederic Henry Hedge, as well as poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. It focused on the individual finding God on their own path, through nature and beauty. There was a flourishing of art and literature; landscape paintings and introspective poetry defined the era.
These transcendentalists believed that each person was better off the less institutions interfered with the natural man. The more self-reliant a person is from government, institutions, religious organizations, or politics, the better a member of a community that person can be. Within that individualism, there was also the concept of the Over-Soul purported by Emerson, a concept that all of humanity is part of one being.
Many transcendentalists also believed that humanity could achieve Utopia, a perfect society. Some believed a socialistic approach could achieve this dream, while others believed that a hyper-individualistic society could. Both relied on an idealistic belief that humanity tends to be good. Preservation of natural beauty, like countrysides and forest, was important to Transcendentalists as cities and industrialization increased. Outdoor sight-seeing trips increased in popularity, and the idea that man could find God in natural beauty was very popular.
Many members of the club were the A-Listers of their day; writers, poets, feminists, and intellectuals embraced the ideals of the movement. Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller embraced the movement. Little Women author Louisa May Alcott embraced the label of Transcendentalism, following in both her parents’ and poet Amos Alcott’s footprints. Unitarian hymn-writer Samuel Longfellow embraced a second wave of this philosophy later in the 19th century.
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What Does The Transcendentalism Philosophy Think of God?
Because transcendentalists embraced free-thinking and individual thought, there was not one unifying thought on God. As demonstrated by the list of prominent thinkers, different figures had varying thoughts about God.
One of the ways that Transcendentalists agree with Protestant Christians is their belief that man does not need a mediator to speak to God. One of the most important differences between the Catholic church and Reformation churches was the disagreement that a priest is necessary to make intercession on behalf of sinners for the forgiveness of sins. However, this movement took that idea further, with many believing that church, pastors, and other religious leaders from other faiths can inhibit, rather than promote, an understanding or God. While some thinkers studied the Bible for themselves, others rejected it for what they could detect in nature.
This way of thinking is closely aligned with the Unitarian Church, drawing heavily from it.
While the Unitarian Church has expanded since the Transcendentalist movement, it is important to understand what they believed about God in America at that time. One of the key doctrines of Unitarianism, and most of the religious members of the Transcendentalists, was that God is one, not a Trinity. Jesus Christ is the Savior, but inspired by God, rather than the Son - God Incarnate. This idea contradicts the Biblical statements about God’s character; “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).
It is also contrary to what Jesus Christ said about Himself when He gave Himself the title “I AM” in John 8, or when He said, “ I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). The Unitarian church rejects these statements as symbolic. There was also a rejection of the infallibility of the Bible. Because of their belief in idealism, Unitarians at the time, as well as Transcendentalists, rejected the notion of original sin, despite the record in Genesis 3.
Transcendentalists mixed these Unitarian beliefs with eastern philosophy. Emerson took inspiration from the Hindu text Bhagavat Geeta. Asian poetry was published in Transcendentalist magazines and similar publications. Meditation and concepts like karma became part of the movement over time. The focus of God in nature was partly inspired by this fascination with eastern religion.
Is Transcendentalism Biblical?
Despite the eastern influence, the Transcendentalists were not entirely wrong that nature reflects God. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). It is not wrong to say one can see God in nature, but one should not worship it, nor should it be the only source of knowledge about God.
While some Transcendentalists believed that salvation from Jesus Christ was essential for salvation, not all of them did. Over time, this philosophy began to embrace the belief that good people can go to Heaven, if they sincerely believe in any religion that encourages them to be morally upright. However, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The only way to be saved from sin and be with God in eternity in Heaven is through Jesus Christ.
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Are People Truly Good?
One of the key beliefs of Transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of the individual, who can overcome his meaner instincts, and that over time humanity can be perfected. If people are inherently good, then if humanity collectively can eliminate the sources of evil – whether it is lack of education, monetary need, or some other problem – people will behave well and society can be perfected. The Bible does not support this belief.
Verses about the inherent wickedness of man include:
- Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
- Romans 3:10-12 “as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
- Ecclesiastes 7:20 “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”
- Isaiah 53:6 “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Despite the artistic inspiration that stemmed from the movement, the Transcendentalists did not understand the wickedness of the human heart. By presenting humans as naturally good, and that evil grows in the human heart because of material condition and can therefore be fixed by humans, makes God more of a guiding compass of goodness, rather than the source of morality and redemption.
While the religious doctrine of Transcendentalism misses the mark on important doctrine of Christianity, it does encourage people to spend time contemplating how God manifests Himself in the world, to enjoy nature, and to pursue art and beauty. These are good things, and, “...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
It is not wrong to pursue the arts, enjoy nature, and try to get to know God in different ways, New ideas must be tested against the Word of God, and not embraced merely because they are new. Transcendentalism shaped a century of American culture, and produced a myriad of art, but it strived to help man transcend their need for a Savior, and ultimately is not a substitute for a real relationship with Jesus Christ.
Gura, Philip. American Transcendentalism A History. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008.
Myerson, Joel, Sandra Petrulionis, and Laura Walls. The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Phillips, Jerry, Andrew Ladd, and Karen H. Meyers. Romanticism and Transcendentalism (1800-1860). New York: Chelsea House, 2010.
Other Sources to Check Out
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.