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.

Review: Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief

Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief
Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief by Roger Lundin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The very fact that I am writing these words and you are reading them suggests some kind of belief about the function of language. Exactly what that function is has been called into question by recent literary theory. At one time if I said I was writing about a book by Roger Lundin titled Beginning with the Word, you would think that my words had reference to the actual (or virtual) book. Recent literary theory has separated word and thing such that any use of words is simply representing what they signify in my mind, my own subjective experience, and not the actual book.

Certainly there is warrant for this idea. One of the daunting tasks of reviewing is to attempt to do justice to an author’s ideas, whatever one’s critique of them may be. Actually, this is something I felt I struggled with more than usual in reading this book, reading it twice, and even then, not being sure I am doing the author’s ideas justice.

What Lundin seems to be doing in engaging 19th and 20th century writers like Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner as well as theologians like Karl Barth, as well as literary theorists like Ricoeur and Gadamer is to explore the skepticism of belief in both modern literature and literary theory that arises from this separation of word and thing. In so doing he explores the desire to believe in the midst of such skepticism, the desire for a storied existence in a literary culture suspicious of any metanarrative. He considers the power of words to awaken awareness using Frederick Douglass’s autobiography of how reading gave him an awareness of his personhood and the desirability of freedom.

Lundin would propose that there is even yet ground for belief because of the Word who became Flesh, the One who incarnated a union (reunion?) between word and object. This is a central tenet of Barth’s theology and provides a basis for a belief in the transcendent, in the possibility of grace, and for being part of a story that makes sense and gives meaning to life.

The author positions himself not as one proposing an “absolute” argument as a modernist writer might, but rather speaks as a “witness” weaving together a theology of the Word, his own experience, and themes in literature (story, making sense of time, a longing for home, and dreams of justice and deliverance) to affirm that it is possible to make statements of belief that aren’t simply polite fictions, personal sentiments, or statements about what we know isn’t so, but rather affirmations of ultimate, life-giving realities rooted in the One who brings Word and Thing together.

I confess that I struggled to follow the train of the author’s thought at points, particularly where he delves into literary theory. The thematic approach reflects less a linear argument than coming at an idea from several perspectives. Yet I suspect that for some these elements along with the humble yet forthright “witness” that affirms while leaving room for others might in the end prove winsome and more persuasive than any absolute, linear argument. Certainly for any student in literary studies who wrestles with critical theory and questions of belief, this is an important resource.

[This review is based on a complimentary e-galley version of this book provided by the publisher through Netgalley. I have not been in any other way compensated for the review of this book.]

View all my reviews