From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority
reviewed by John Harmon McElroy
From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority by Roger Lundin, a professor of English at Wheaton College, is a thoroughly documented, closely reasoned critique of the religious and literary temperament of Europe and the United States during the last two centuries. But despite its subtitle, the nature of cultural authority and whether Americans have sought it in distinctive ways are not analyzed.
What Lundin does furnish, and it is much, is an analysis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature (Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, Adams, Crane, Frost, Faulkner, DeLillo), European and American literary theorists (Foucault, Rieff, Derrida, MacIntyre, Ricoeur, Hirsch, Bakhtin, Poirier, Fish), and Western theologians and philosophers (Kant, Coleridge, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Nietzsche, James, Dewey, Gadamer, Hauerwas, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Thielicke, Rorty, and especially Barth, whom he calls “the foremost Protestant theologian of the past two centuries”) in regard to religious and literary trends since the Enlightenment.
He summarizes their essential ideas, compares their thought, and summarizes other commentators’ opinions with a mastery of his complex sources and an extraordinary expository skill. The sensitivity of the creative writers in anticipating shifts in collective thought makes Lundin’s juxtaposition of them with the theorists and philosophers especially noteworthy and attractive.
This book is particularly concerned with “key differences” between Christian belief and “contemporary pragmatism,” the philosophy that gained ascendancy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as received religious beliefs declined among Western thinkers.
Emerson provides the paradigm for this development. When he resigned his Boston pulpit three years after his ordination as a Unitarian minister, and embraced a new career as a lecturer-essayist with the publication of “Nature” (1836), he still regarded nature as manifesting design and Spirit.
But this vestigial Christian view of nature, the view that it reveals a hierarchy of transcendent authority that can stimulate man’s intellectual maturation, morality, and spiritual growth, was soon replaced by the subjectivist views he expressed in “Experience” (1844). In this essay he extolled each individual’s inner experience as the only imperative for the conduct of life.
Lundin shows how James, Dewey, and others followed Emerson’s lead in relocating the practical source of truth within each person’s varying experiences. He also indicates how this relocation became a problematic new basis of authority.
Among the effects he described are four I will mention here (this is only a sampling):
1. The proliferation of idiosyncratic choices or “preferences.” Herman Melville’s nihilistic protagonist Bartleby the scrivener provides the perfect image of this self-involvement and destructive isolation: the insane expropriation of God’s self-sufficiency.
2. The tempting idea of pursuing a “lifestyle,” the amoral notion that every choice is experimental, a mere matter of seeing whether it works out, and that one’s freedom to choose concerns only oneself. The idea of shaping language for therapeutic ends has fostered and accompanied this project, which makes indulging in a “lifestyle” more important than ethics or social commitment.
3. The difficulties for the post-1960s academy’s indoctrinators in trying to give meaning to experience as they ridiculed Christian theology. William James’s characterization of the chaotic welter of “data” that experience becomes for adherents of Pragmatism as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion” is the relevant trope for this discussion.
4. The study of vernacular literature and its preoccupation with literary criticism as the most exalted and meaningful of human endeavors. This development occurred after Darwin’s concept of nature as indifferent to man began to replace Christian theology regarding God’s creation, and it incorporated Nietzsche’s idea that men of superior intellect, will, and energy should denounce Christianity and impose their own convictions on society.
The second half of From Nature to Experience (titled “Cultural Consequences”) discusses the problems that “the limits of experience” present for Pragmatism. Foremost among these impediments is the intractable complexity of human beings.
Lundin observes that “in an age enthralled by the power of scientific explanation, it is easy to reduce biography to the art of applying a fixed formula to a fluid life,” and he uses his own struggles in writing a biography of Emily Dickinson to exemplify how inadequate a presumably scientific principle about humanity (e.g., that sexual experiences explain everything) can be in relation to actual persons.
This part of the book is replete with considerations of how “a right understanding” of texts is achieved and how various interpretive theories affect our understanding of the most important texts in the history of Western civilization: the books of the Bible. The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer and the Swiss theologian Karl Barth are prominent in this discussion, and “the greatest American novel yet written” on the theme of understanding history, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, is frequently cited.
Lundin rightly points out that “neither the author who writes the work nor the interpreter who reads it represents a self-consciousness so exhaustive in its capacities that it can fully determine and limit the meaning of that work.” But he does not endorse Pragmatism’s claim that whatever a text seems to any individual to mean is an acceptable meaning.
A text, although of course an artifact of history, has in some sense been freed by its author from the matrix of history to stand out as a meaningful thing in its own right. Thus, Lundin remarks, “In historic Christianity, truth does not only emerge within history; it is also something imparted to men and women from beyond history.”
Many apples have been eaten from the Tree of Pragmatism in Western civilization since the end of World War II. The effects of this are now pervasive. The bleak, naturalistic view of life as birth, copulation, and death that informs Pragmatism offers no beliefs commensurate with the soul’s need for hope.
Faith in our origin and who we belong to (it is certainly not ourselves) supplies that hope. Whether it was Professor Lundin’s intention or not, the knowledge displayed so comprehensively in his book makes us aware of our present-day need to understand our origin.
The most important single statement in From Nature to Experience is perhaps, therefore, Lundin’s remark that “Darwin shifted human attention to the arche, the genesis and origin of life.” For although The Origin of Species speculates on the diversification of life, it does not show how inert matter became living matter capable of reproducing itself. •
John Harmon McElroy is Professor Emeritus of the University of Arizona. As a Fulbright Professor of American Studies he taught at universities in Brazil and Spain. He is the author of Divided We Stand: The Rejection of American Culture Since the 1960s (Rowman & Littlefield), published earlier this year. He and his wife have four children and ten grandchildren. Because of his experience in Poland, he says, he has been a communicant of the Roman Catholic Church since 1983.
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