Review: From Nature to Experience

From Nature to Experience

From Nature to Experience, Roger Lundin. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Summary: Using two essays by Emerson, “Nature” and “Experience,” traces the shift in American moral and cultural authority during the last two centuries.

Roger Lundin was an English professor at Wheaton College until his death in 2015. In this work, he left us with a masterful literary and intellectual history of 19th and 20th century America. He structures this treatment around two essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” and “Experience,” tracing the shift in authority from Nature, that is the external world ranging from physical reality to Christian revelation to Experience, the perceptions of the individual know-er.

Lundin traces this intellectual movement through the American pragmatism of Dewey to the post-modernism of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish. Along the way he engages philosophers like Nietzsche and intellectuals like Henry Adams. He also traces this intellectual shift through the lives of literary figures like Emily Dickinson, of whom he wrote in a separate work, a short story of Stephen Crane, and William Faulkner. And he brings all these in dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth.

The movement he traces is one from a nature that is enchanted, connected to a transcendent God, to disenchantment, and from a reality and truth rooted outside oneself to subjective glimpses of reality and truth reduced to what works. I’ve probably stated this summary far more polemically, and with less nuance than does Lundin, who shows a deep acquaintance with and respect for the intellectual and artistic power of each of these figures, with whom most of us, including this reviewer have a passing acquaintance. For that reason, his invoking of Christian sources, and the transcendent vision of authority they represent, comes off as careful scholarship and rigorous argument rather than polemics or proselytizing.

What Lundin does instead is model Christian scholarship at its best, of engaging the minds of one’s discipline with a thoughtful Christian mind. He also offers more. In a culture suspicious both of science and anyone else’s claims of truth, and an academy witnessing the self-inflicted eclipse of the humanities, Lundin’s discussion offers hope for the retrieval of the sources of authority lost to academy and society alike. Sadly, this work, still in print, does not enjoy the circulation it deserves. My own search to find the book in our state’s libraries only turned up a single copy. Perhaps calling renewed attention to Lundin’s work may both serve as fitting tribute to his scholarship, and invite a new generation to take up his work.

Remembering the Books That Have Made Me


Southworth & Hawes, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Public Domain via Wikimedia

I came across a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson recently that rang partly true. He is reputed to have said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so they have made me.”

I think of this ringing partly true in the sense that I read quite a few books, even in a given year, and part of the reason I began to write reviews on Goodreads, and this blog, is that otherwise, I do forget some of the books that I read. It also seems only partly true, because some of the books were not memorable. I don’t think they became a part of me. After all, not all the food I eat becomes part of me, or makes me!

At the same time, there are a number of books that I’ve read that I do remember. William Manchester’s biography  of Churchill helped me understand the extraordinary greatness and courage of this man. The Lord of the Rings captured my imagination with the idea of ordinary people caught up in a great adventure. Francis Schaeffer was the first Christian writer to demonstrate that Christian thought had any relevance to the wider culture. H. Richard Niebuhr shaped my thinking about how we might engage that culture. Wendell Berry helped me think about technology and the land and community and what it means to have a sense of place and to love that place. The writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. helped me understand the urgency of the civil rights movement, particularly his message, “Why We Can’t Wait.” John R.W. Stott showed me the power of careful study that brings forth the message of scripture. Science writers like Lewis Thomas, Brian Greene, and Stephen J. Gould have instilled wonder as I’ve considered the world around me. All these have shaped and made me, at least my mental furniture.

Still, this quote leaves me wondering. Memory is a funny thing. There are memories not at conscious recall that arise–in a dream, with a smell, or a sight, or a random comment. Sometimes the contribution of some books to my mental life may be no more than a piece of a thought. Sometimes, books simply remind me of what I’ve already understood, like a recipe I’ve enjoyed before and enjoy again. Sometimes a fictional character will stand out in a singular way, and at other times remind me of those I’ve known.

Speaking of Emerson, it strikes me that I’ve read little of him or the other American transcendentalist tradition. From what I know, I probably would not be in entire sympathy. But Emerson has helped shape the American mind, even among those who do not remember reading him. Perhaps it is time to read some of him, perhaps to be made, or to see what I make of him.