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From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (American Intellectual Culture)
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007
278 pp., $42.00
Harold K. Bush
Roger Lundin has had a long-term interest in the distinctively American aspect of modernity, particularly as it took form in the 19th century. In From Nature to Experience, Lundin suggestively links these concerns to contemporary culture as well. The central figure in Lundin's narrative is Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lundin's title reflects this preoccupation by alluding to two of Emerson's most famous essays. Lundin ingeniously reads these two rather oppositional pieces as symptomatic of "a dramatic shift in cultural authority" that leads ultimately to the postmodern theories of Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, et al., writers who "assume as givens a series of beliefs about nature and human destiny. … [and yet provide] neither proof of their beliefs nor an apology for them."
In the course of showing how American intellectuals have grounded belief over time, and why Americans have "come to prize experience as highly as we do," Lundin tells a story that echoes a number of other influential books, including James Turner's Without God, Without Creed, Andrew Delbanco's The Death of Satan, and Bruce Kuklick's Churchmen and Philosophers, all of which are cited. But there are several remarkable aspects of Lundin's argument that are worth noting here. First is Lundin's daring attempt to bring certain Christian thinkers into close conversation with the looming cultural and literary theorists of our era. It is not often that one reads criticism of this sophistication pairing Rorty and Fish with Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Lundin's mastery of literary theory is on full display here, and he writes a lucid prose that makes this mastery accessible. Along the way, he highlights the accomplishments of theorists and critics whom he believes share his desire to bring theology and the Christian tradition into closer dialogue with the reigning priests of the "hermeneutic of suspicion": in particular, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Charles Taylor, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Paul Ricoeur all receive ...