We Don’t Need a Candle to See the Sun Rise
In October 1832, several years before he gained fame as a writer and lecturer, Ralph Waldo Emerson jotted down something in his journal that suggests we have religion all wrong—or at least seriously misunderstand it. He wrote: “You don’t get a candle to see the sun rise.” When Emerson wrote these words he was leaving Second Church in Boston, the church where he served as pastor. His grandfather and father had both been pastors. Emerson chose to leave the pulpit and the tradition of his family. The candle of his Unitarian faith was melting.
In the same journal entry, the Sage of Concord, Massachusetts observed that “the whole world holds on to formal Christianity, and nobody teaches the essential truth, the heart of Christianity, for fear of shocking.” Emerson was deeply disturbed that religious teachers present all kinds of “truths” (personal opinions and dogmas), ostensibly connecting their ideas, beliefs and traditions back to the truth of Jesus’ life. Yet, for Emerson, Jesus’ life and teaching was “self-evident,” the “truth of truth.” It doesn’t need to be illuminated by sermons and rituals, creeds and theologies, or even Religion itself. “It is light,” he writes. Then, the passage quoted: “You don’t get a candle to see the sun rise.” The life and teaching of Jesus was bright enough without a thousand candles.
The uncomfortable truth is that religious faith, in all its many shapes and colors, is but a candle held up to the sunrise, a lighter held before a sunset, a match lifted up before the Grand Canyon, a flashlight before the Milky Way. Or, if one believes in God, the forms and conformity of religious practice stand exceedingly dim before the Light.
Emerson continues his journal thought: “Instead of making Christianity a vehicle of truth, you make truth only a horse for Christianity.” Faith is in the saddle; faith has the reins, controlling the truth. He’s identifying the power of religion over the best in human nature—God over Good. The journal writer is troubled by this observation: If people want to be good, to be humble or have faith at all, they are told to go to Christ—the Christ of Christianity (Conformity). And how do we know how to follow his teachings? We’re told they are already in our hearts. “Why then,” asks Emerson appropriately, “shall I not go to my own heart at first?” If religious teachers tell us that the truth, the good, the right, lies embedded in our hearts and minds, then why not go directly to the inner source? In essence, find the candle in yourself.
This is classic Emerson. Faith (as he understood faith) is still important for him. He still believes in God (as he understood God) and honors Jesus (an eminent teacher among history’s teachers). Yet, he grew distrustful of traditional, orthodox religion. He left his robe and pulpit rhetoric. Any “official” instruction or authority outside of one’s own reasoning and experience should be questioned and even ignored, especially if that self-assuming authority claims to speak with the voice of the Lord. When “Come unto Me” is transformed into “Come unto our Church, Come unto our Bible, and we’ll guide you unto Truth,” a person has a decision to make. If I already have the candle in my own mind, do I need someone else to give me theirs, or tell me my wick needs to be trimmed, kindled, and lit by them?
Winter skies can be quite spectacular. Not that the thunder clouds in summer skies aren’t stunning! But the cold starry night sky or sunny brightness of a December or January day are amazing. With leaves fallen and composting the spring under our feet, we can see so much better, so much more, through the frosty air and bare branches. A telescope, camera or any other lens or screen that separates or mediates between the eye and the sky is unnecessary, it buffers a full appreciation and apprehension of nature’s lofty palette. Professionals with cameras, brushes or pens may capture images of these gorgeous skies, but they can’t offer me anything that increases or enhances what I see and feel directly, unmediated, beneath the blue/steel grey/black dome. Isn’t it similar with religion and those who are professionally religious?
A clergy friend commented recently that he feels such an awe and wonder watching a sunset—it is a “spiritual moment” for him. I grew thoughtful: “Those moments are powerful and meaningful,” then added, “however, when we try to put that profound beauty into words we find it virtually impossible.” Anything we say, perhaps particularly using words like “spiritual,” cannot convey the experience, the feeling of being present with senses at full charge. Even as I write this I realize once again: words fade away like the end of a trail, or the sun sinking below the horizon. That is to say, it all becomes poetry, or something akin to poetry. We have to become poets or hand it over to a poet to say something. A healthy imagination enters the scene (as long as we remember we are imagining). But it won’t be the same, it couldn’t be. No one can adequately relate our personal experience of awe or ecstatic relation. My feelings are my feelings, my senses. Similar perhaps, shared images maybe, but it won’t be the same.
This is the great ironic conundrum of religion. Generating countless, endless words when words won’t do. Describing the indescribable. Explaining the unexplainable. A conundrum is a difficult problem, but also “a question asked for amusement, typically one with a pun in its answer; a riddle.” Isn’t that an apt description of so much religious faith, words about the Wordless—a ridiculous riddle, a pitiful pun?
“And the Word became flesh” saith the Gospel of John and that has never been enough, apparently. Centuries filled with words, scriptures, creeds, theologies, sermons. Libraries jammed to the ceiling with books written to tell us what all that means and how to interrelate with that embodied Word, or syllable, letter. For millennia we’ve had “divines,” clergy, theologians, Bible scholars, all attempting to make sense of the non-sensible, filling the vast unknown with incessant words. At least scientists and naturalists give us something to work with, to reason over, to begin to understand the natural world of our human experience.
Here’s where and why we need Emerson and other Fact-checkers and Reality-checkers, those who emphatically say, “Stop right there! Wait a minute! Who says I have to read your books, believe your words or ride your horse to truth? How is your blinding spotlight, your blazing bonfire, better than my lamp, my flashlight, my match, my candle?”
What if the Gospel had said, “And God became the World” or, “The Creator became the Creation”? And maybe that’s what it meant. Those who control the narrative, or think they do, will, of course, object. And maybe this is pure pantheistic pablum that doesn’t ultimately change much. Yet, what if the story, and quite possibly all religious narratives, were attempts to put words on the Wordless (and they were), and what if, in the final chapter that could never be seriously “written” anyway, the message was near to something like: See Nature all around and inside, come face to face, mind to mind or silence to silence with … “God,” if you must call it that, and why must you? Are we really talking about “Divine Light” (as Quakers say) or simply light—natural illumination, fire below, sun and stars above, our eyes, our mind, our own candle?
(To be clear, I don’t see the “candle” as a soul or spirit or some imagined ethereal thing. I would have to part ways here with Emerson and the psychological-theological perspectives. What is the “inner light” but the free human mind, warmed by honest emotion, resting on the candlestick of reason? (perhaps best symbolized in the torch held high by the Statue of Liberty).
You and I, humanity, never need someone else’s light, some other candle, to light our own, to enlighten our way forward. Though we may welcome illumination from a spectrum of candles, they are only helpful if they enhance or expand our field of vision. For us to truly see the wondrous world we inhabit or sidereal space beyond, in a brighter light, we only require that inner star, and our planetary system’s own self-illumined solar lamp.
In the astounding beauty of a sunrise or sunset, it would be sad and silly to search for a candle.