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It is a healthy thing for Christian scholars to have some favorite heretics. I have a small group of them that I confer with occasionally. Most of them are long gone, so I have to communicate with them by going back to their writings.

Some folks may think that the very idea of having favorite heretics is itself heretical. I disagree. I don’t know what God will do with my favorite heretics at the Final Judgment. That’s God business, not mine. But for now, my view is that their heretical ideas are there, and I might as well take advantage of that fact. To be sure, some heretics are simply wacko in their views and ought to be ignored. But others are intelligent and provocative, and there are some benefits to allowing them to provoke us with their intelligent, but heretical ideas.

One of my favorites is Ralph Waldo Emerson. While I do find him hard to take on occasion, I often find it particularly helpful to re-read his “Divinity School Address,” a speech he delivered on the Harvard campus in the spring of 1838. That speech created quite a fuss when he gave it. Many of the Harvard faculty and students were Unitarians, and Emerson had recently decided that even the Unitarian church was a bit too intellectually and spiritually restricting for him. His Harvard presentation was his manifesto in this regard. He boldly proclaimed the innate goodness of the human soul and decried any attempt to impose ideas on the individual soul from the outside. Doctrines, traditions, religious authorities—all of that is bad stuff, he argued. If we really want to follow Jesus, we will do what he did—tap into the inner resources of the individual soul in its connection to the divinity that constitutes the inner core of each of us.

That was a bit too much for many of the Unitarians who heard Emerson deliver his speech. And for my own reasons, I too disagree with the basic thrust of what Emerson said. That means that I am inclined to endorse the opposite of what he presents as his practical recommendations. At one point, for example, he tells his audience to move out on their own spiritually. Be courageous enough, he says, “to refuse the good models, even those most sacred in the imagination of humans, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good people, but say, ‘I also am a human being.’”

I see that as very bad advice. So here is my alternative counsel to my fellow Christian scholars: Do just the opposite of what Emerson recommends. Find out more about “the good models” in the Christian tradition. Dig into the past with a humble spirit, intent upon drawing upon the wisdom that is to be found there. And not just the past. In our internationally and ethnically diverse Christian movement find some “good models” from other cultural contexts and do what you can to learn from them. Explore the riches of diverse Christian streams of spirituality and scholarship. Do a bit of cross-disciplinary exploration.

Most important, though, look to Jesus for that which Emerson warns us against. Reading Emerson keeps me focused on what is really at stake in responding to Jesus. He is not, as Emerson insisted, an example of a human being reaching out to the eternal. Rather, Jesus is the Eternal God reaching down into our human condition by becoming one of us, so that he could go to the Cross to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Emerson wants us to “dare to love God without mediator.” He is wrong. We need to dare to love God because God has provided the mediator that we need, in Jesus Christ.

To keep those truths about Jesus in our hearts and minds is important in our intellectual journeys. We are committed to Christ-centered teaching and scholarship And it is the Christ-centeredness that can anchor us, even as we cultivate a few favorite heretics!

Richard J. Mouw

Dr. Richard J. Mouw serves as Professor Emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary and Senior Research Fellow at Calvin University's Paul B. Henry Institute on Christianity and Politics.


  • Marybeth Baggett says:

    Great post. Thank you for it. I, too, find Emerson eminently intriguing and am drawn to his enthusiasm for life and exuberance about the human spirit. I have taught his Divinity School Address numerous times in American Literature and have always found it a good challenge to think through what he gets right and where (and why) he is off. It’s a thrill to read someone whose charming personality and bracing passion for important issues (even if misguided in his conclusions) comes through so clearly in his writing. Your post has given me new ways to think about Emerson and this specific address.

  • As always, I so appreciate your insights. I will need to read Emerson’s address. For me, returning to the writings of great existentialist authors (Sartre, Camus, Kafka) help me envision a world without God, or transcendent meaning. While I admire their courage to find some sense of purpose (good faith to use Sartre’s term) in a world utterly void of divine guidance, reading them makes me appreciate the peace and meaning found in a Christian worldview.

  • George Brown says:

    I appreciate the lesson: As iron sharpens iron. Christian apologetics needs to meet challenges. I would have argued, though, that Jesus Himself quotes Scripture extensively, particularly in response to His enemies. As a believer, I have confidence that He speaks from His own eternal divinity, but to non-believers I would answer Emerson and them, He speaks from sources outside of Himself in His incarnation. Truth must be taught. I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’s contention in The Abolition of Man that children must be taught truths so that when they come to the age of reason/need, they would embrace them. (Sorry I don’t have the text, but I believe that’s the gist of it). Thank you again.

  • Joseph 'Rocky' F Wallace says:

    Often, it’s the “heretics” who drill to the core of Christianity and grow the movement in healthy ways.