From Nature to Experience:
The American Search for Cultural Authority
by Roger Lundin,
Rowman & Littlefield, 288 pages, $39.95

About midway through From Nature to Experience , Roger Lundin juxtaposes three moments from American history. The first occurs in July 1632, when a crowd of Puritan settlers watches a mouse battle and triumph over a snake in Waterton, Massachusetts. According to Governor John Winthrop’s record of the episode, Pastor Wilson of Boston perceived an allegory of America’s founding: “The snake was the devil, the mouse was a poor contemptible people which God had brought hither, which should overcome Satan here and dispossess him of his kingdom.”

The second comes some two centuries later, when Emily Dickinson writes a poem about another natural occurrence: a buzzing fly invading the room of a dying woman. The fly disrupts the ritual of dying and makes a mockery of the woman’s efforts to prepare for death. His “uncertain” and “stumbling” flight interposes, the woman says, “between the light-and me,” so that in the end “I could not see to see.” Nature no longer reveals truth but frustrates our search for meaning and order.

The third moment comes at the end of the 1998 novel White Noise , when Don DeLillo describes moderns as shoppers walking “in a fragmented trance” through a supermarket, “trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat” but convinced there is “no reason for it . . . no sense in it.”

As these three vignettes show, the rules of exegesis have changed radically over the centuries. For Puritan colonists, nature-interpreted through the typological lens of the Bible-provided confirmation of the rightness of their experiment in Christian charity. Americans of the Revolutionary era continued to appeal to a somewhat secularized Nature (now capitalized) as a foundation for political and moral order-witness Jefferson’s “Nature and Nature’s God.” In the nineteenth century, Emerson was still living off the crumbs of the Puritan heritage, even as he discarded the last vestiges of Puritan doctrine.

By Emerson’s time, however, all was not well with Nature. What would Thoreau-not to mention Darwin-make of that bout between mouse and snake? Appealing to Nature as an authority assumes a design that can and should be replicated in some way in society, but, in the wake of the Civil War and the penetration of Darwinism into American thought, Americans lost confidence in Nature and her designs. Nature had become the savage, indifferent world of Darwin and Stephen Crane, filled not with meaningful signs but with mere things-and diminished things at that.

The collapse of the authority of Nature is already evident in Emerson, argues Roger Lundin, a widely published professor of English at Wheaton College. Indeed, he argues, two of Emerson’s essays offer a “hermeneutical key” to American intellectual history. Soon after abandoning organized religion of every kind, Emerson wrote an essay called “Nature.” Echoing the Puritans, Emerson claims that natural facts are symbols of spiritual facts: “What is a farm but a mute gospel?”

Like the Romantics, Emerson assumes there is a chasm between Nature and the self, and, also like the Romantics, he aims to retain all that is good in Protestantism by relocating it in the self’s experiences and insights rather than in historical events, ritual, or tradition. He hopes that science will produce what Protestantism failed to produce: a unified understanding of truth. And he longs for the day when spirit will rise to master Nature.

Even in this essay, however, Nature is slipping from his grasp. The more Emerson looks, the less he sees-until he concludes that Nature disperses into an “accident of smoke.” Years later, Emerson wrote “Experience,” expressing his despair that the breach between spirit and Nature could ever be healed. “Souls never touch their objects,” he laments, because between “us and the things we aim at and converse with” surges “an innavigable sea.” In a world bereft of meaning, the isolated romantic self becomes more isolated than ever, unable to commune with Nature or other selves. The self is no longer at the center of a cosmic drama, but a lonely wanderer in the blank chill of a white-on-white landscape, a fleck of froth tossed on a flux without external anchorage, without calm harbor behind or before.

Emerson is the American thinker because he foreshadows the replacement of the Nature-mastering confident spirit of early America with the “skeptical skater on life’s surfaces.” If such a self can find meaning or authority, it must come from within the self. Experience thus comes to occupy the cultural space once held by Nature.

When Lundin talks about the primacy of experience, he is referring mainly to the recent resurgence of pragmatism in American thought. Emerson was no pragmatist, but pragmatism is Emersonian romanticism filtered through Darwin. From Emerson, Lundin examines the rise of pragmatism through William James and John Dewey to the anti-philosophical philosopher Richard Rorty and the polymath gadfly Stanley Fish.

Today’s pragmatists accept without lament the denuding of Nature that Emerson expressed so painfully -and they draw wide-ranging implications. Humanity has no given destiny. Value and ends have to be created, and, since there is no authority outside human experience, they can be only expressions of preference. As Lundin describes it, pragmatism recognizes that “a naturalistic view of the created order” fits neatly with “a preferential view of the moral life.” Questioned about the whys of our actions and goals, we can only mimic Melville’s Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.” Pragmatists give us a kinder, gentler, thoroughly American version of Nietzsche’s willful Superman, who greets the chaos with “frenzied intoxication.” As Bill Holm puts it, we should accept all that life brings and give it an affectionate hug.

Following Hegel and the Romantics, pragmatism is obsessed with language. For pragmatists, however, the world is not (in Charles Taylor’s phrase) “worded.” Language does not disclose the truth of things but is a more or less arbitrary human description of the world and a tool that helps us get what we want as we operate, manipulate, and wheel and deal. At best, the pragmatist goal is, according to Dewey, to formulate a “set of words” that can express moral ideals, even though this “set of words” has no necessary connection to Nature or the will of God. With the natural world scoured of meaning and God consigned to the sidelines, Romantics and their pragmatic heirs retreat into art and literature as a self-enclosed playground. The popularity of New Criticism and aesthetic modernism in the twentieth century, Lundin argues, depends on the prior triumph of naturalism and pragmatism.

Pragmatism’s hostility to metaphysics and its emotivist ethics trivializes Christian doctrine, but Lundin discerns a number of similarities between pragmatism and American Protestantism. Pragmatism’s instrumental view of language is similar to the hermeneutics of Alexander Campbell, an early leader of the Disciples of Christ, and its emphasis on the authority of personal experience owes a great deal to the experiential Protestantism that Americans inherited from Puritans and revivalists. Pragmatism’s endorsement of preference is analogous to nineteenth-century theological arguments in favor of the freedom of the will, and its anti-traditionalism can sound a lot like nineteenth-century anti-Catholicism. Like Emerson, American pragmatists are both post-Christian and thoroughly Protestant.

In the second part of the book, Lundin examines how the legacy of Emerson, James, and Dewey continues in biography, hermeneutical theories, and American fiction. Exploring various aspects of literary culture, he demonstrates the limitations of experience as a cultural, epistemological, and moral authority, sometimes cleverly hinting that experience discloses the limits of experience.

Along the way, Lundin discusses the notion of authorial intention against the background of evangelical debates in hermeneutics, defending Hans-Georg Gadamer against the apparently more conservative E.D. Hirsch. Hirsch’s effort to ground determinate meanings for texts in the conscious intentions of the author is reductive and ultimately relativist. Just as our lives mean more than we are aware of, so texts mean more than their authors consciously intend. Lundin ends with a treatment of William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom , which examines how the novel dramatizes the achievement of historical understanding through its exploration of play, tragedy, and historicity.

From Nature to Experience is full of striking insights, but it is also the product of an overly ambitious and diverse agenda: a history of the rise of pragmatism, a cultural critique of America’s quest for authority, and a work of Christian apologetics in which Karl Barth’s critique of “consciousness theology” plays a central role. Lundin talks about American pragmatism in connection with transcendentalism and romanticism, theories of language, tragedy, hermeneutics, literary criticism, echoes of Protestantism in contemporary culture, modernism and aestheticism, and much else. He warns in the introduction that he intends to juxtapose thinkers who are not often placed together, but the result is that the book sometimes loses focus. Some of the juxtapositions seem arbitrary.

When it works, as it often does, Lundin’s eclectic method bears some remarkable fruit. Bringing Thoreau and literary historian M.H. Abrams into conversation with Barth and theologian Helmut Thielicke, he describes romanticism in terms of the ancient Christian heresy of modalism. Modalists taught that the “persons” of the Trinity were only masks worn by the single person of God. At creation, God wears his Father hat, on the cross he plays the role of Son, while at Pentecost he comes in the guise of the Spirit. For modalism, God in his revelation is not really God; Jesus is not God in human flesh but only a pose that God adopts. The modalist God is a “ghostly form,” inaccessible behind his masks, and the romantic self is his “offspring.” God remains distanced from his own work, an observer of himself, just as Thoreau said of the human self.

Lundin also sees connections between modalist Christology and pragmatism’s instrumental views of language. For pragmatists, words are arbitrary signs. This leaves the interpreter either attempting to guess the author’s intention “behind” the signs or despairing that the signs can be interpreted at all. Language is a mask of reality, as the modalist Son is a mask of the Father. Lundin endorses, instead, Gadamer’s claim that language is a picture of reality. For Gadamer, this picture doubles being as the image of being; yet, because it is the image of being, being and its image constitute one reality. We never encounter a “wordless” world “in search of the proper terms to identify it.” The world is worded, and language mediates the world to us, just as the Son, the eternal Word, mediates the Father. This also means, claims Lundin, that we “never run the risk of exhausting the life of Emily Dickinson, any more than we are in danger of running out of meaningful things to say about Hamlet or the epistles of St Paul.” With one eye on what Lundin calls the “pole of correctness” and the other on the “pole of creativity,” fresh readings can draw latent meanings to the surface.

Lundin challenges “modalistic modernity” with specifically Christian claims about Trinity, incarnation, and eschatology. So, too, he exposes multiple Christian capitulations to the American idolization of experience. It is perhaps too much to hope that From Nature to Experience will induce the Rortys and Fishes to reconsider Christian orthodoxy. If it does no more than incite Christians, especially Protestants, to examine their hermeneutical assumptions, embrace of “emotivism,” and conformity to American pragmatic assumptions, it will make a substantial contribution to the renewal that Roger Lundin’s fine book so skillfully promotes.

Peter J. Leithart is professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. His books include Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart