What America needs most desperately is a spiritual revival. This is the mission of New Walden. The name of our website comes from Henry David Thoreau’s famous book and so suggests that the Transcendentalists serve as an important inspiration for this mission. They play this important role not because they are any more infallible than the rest of us. The Transcendentalists got some things right, but they got some very important things wrong as well. And they are important to our mission as much for their errors as for their insights.
Our admiration for the Transcendentalists begins with one of their insights. It comes from the William Ellery Channing Sermon “Likeness to God”:
I begin with observing, what all indeed will understand, that the likeness to God, of which I propose to speak, belongs to man’s higher or spiritual nature. It has its foundation in the original and essential capacities of the mind. In proportion as these are unfolded by right and vigorous exertion, it is extended and brightened. In proportion as these lie dormant, it is obscured. In proportion as they are perverted and overpowered by the appetites and passions, it is blotted out. In truth, moral evil, if unresisted and habitual, may so blight and lay waste these capacities, that the image of God in man may seem to be wholly destroyed . . . (Channing, 1950, p. 22).
This statement is filled with important implications, and my new book, The Immoral Landscape (of the New Atheism), can be seen as an exploration and defense of Channing’s position.
But Channing’s thesis is complicated by the writings of the most famous Transcendentalist of all, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson has this to say:
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,—“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it (Emerson, 1949, pp. 34–35).
It is here, in the words of Emerson, that we encounter, in my opinion, the greatest error of the Transcendentalists—the error of Pelagianism: the belief in the natural goodness of humanity.
Human nature—is it to be followed, as recommended by Emerson, or is it to be transcended, as the words of Channing imply? This is the great and fateful question of our generation.
This website is dedicated to the exploration of these fascinating ideas. Does the human species possess within itself a higher, spiritual nature, and does this spiritual nature show its effects in the operation of the human mind, as Channing’s sermon suggests? And what are we to make of Emerson’s words? How can we live “wholly from within” if we have not yet attained to our higher spiritual nature? My book investigates all of these questions, and I hope that we can continue to explore these ideas right here at New Walden. It is the position of my book and the position I shall defend on this website that Emerson’s popular error is responsible for the decline of America, but in the words of Channing’s underappreciated insight are the keys to our salvation. Thus our formula for America’s spiritual revival is this: more Channing and less Emerson. It is our hope at New Walden that such a discussion that is grounded in reason rather than dogma can produce a general consensus among those who are currently at odds in politics, economics, and culture.
A very important point needs to be established here, and it is this—that I am no expert on the Transcendentalists. This will be an exercise in study and exploration. And I certainly invite the experts to share their wisdom with the rest of us.
We also announce the formation of the New Transcendentalist Society, a reestablishment of the Transcendental Club, to bring people together from various corners of cultural America who are interested in a lively discussion and debate of these ideas. Christians and Atheists, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives—All are welcome!
Channing, W. E. (1950). Likeness to God. In P. Miller, The Transcendentalists—An Anthology (pp. 21–25). Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America: Harvard University Press.
Emerson, R. W. (1949). Self-Reliance. In R. W. Emerson, Selected Essays (pp. 31–59). Chicago, Illinois, United States of America: The Fountain Press.