((released 2007-07-01) (handle mh-86-m) (supplement true))
Guests on Volume 86: Roger Lundin on why, after Vietnam, American literary critics forgot about American religion; Lawrence Buell, on diverse visions of America and Nature; Harold K. Bush, Jr., on the glorification of the American way as a civil religion; Roger Lundin, on the transformation of the nature of belief in the late nineteenth century; Katherine Shaw Spaht, on radical autonomy, marriage, divorce, and law; Steven L. Nock, on how broadly shared cultural assumptions affect laws regulating marriage and divorce; Norman Klassen & Jens Zimmermann, on the Incarnation and humanism, and on how various dualisms affect our assumptions about faith, knowledge, and higher education.
“In the 1970’s there emerged a strong and vigorous critique of all things American in the study of American literature, at the center of the discipline, and that critique included a very skeptical look at the role that religion had played and continued to play both in the production of American literature and the reception of it.”
Roger Lundin, editor of There Before Us: Religion, Literature and Culture from Emerson to Wendell Berry, reflects on the religious overtones and influences in American literature in the past two centuries, influences that have been largely ignored by the academy. He discusses why so little recent scholarly attention has been given to the role of religion in American literature, and moves on to consider the nature of those influences. Lundin notes how writers’ divergent understandings of the immanence and transcendence of God, the distance between God and man, were mirrored by changes in the fundamental questions the writers were asking themselves. He then talks about the role of religious community in the life and work of authors such as Flannery O’Conner and John Updike.
“Wilderness doesn’t take on a positive connotation before urbanization, before people start feeling not only safe but impounded within their urban and suburban enclaves, so wilderness, as an honorific, really takes about 200 years after the beginning of settlement to develop.”
Lawrence Buell, the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University and author of The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and The Formation of American Culture (1995) and Writing for an Endangered World (2001) talks about the interplay between religion, environmental concerns and American ideals in the literary imagination of nineteenth and twentieth century writers. He talks about the public influence of the writings of American authors on nature and man’s relation to the environment. Buell also considers the conflicting attitudes towards technology many American writers struggled with, especially as urbanization developed over larger portions of the nation, and the tension between preservation and usage in religious views of nature. His essay in There Before Us is entitled “Religion and the Environmental Imagination in American Literature.”
“But one of the preoccupations of the Transcendentalists, for example in the writings of Emerson and others, is that we are enslaved to the culture, to the status quo with our minds, and we need to be liberated from those things. And so there’s a sense in which Ingersoll’s more popular and vernacular expressions of this desire to ‘break free from the chains enslaving the mind’ and so forth is really a kind of pop reduction of Emersonianism.”
—Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Harold K. Bush, Jr., author of Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age (University of Alabama, 2007), converses about the religious conceptions of American ideals shaping the spiritual crisis surrounding Mark Twain, and the impact of this crisis on Twain’s work. Bush argues that the free-thinking influences on Mark Twain, as seen in the ideas of Robert Ingersoll, were tinged with religious understandings of the nature of humanity and the redemptive value of American freedom, or to be more precise, liberty. Twain shared in this glorification of American ideals for all humanity, as well as in suspicions of institutions that might enslave the minds of the common people and hold back human progress. Slavery, in fact, was a prominent theme used to communicate a new sort of American civil religion that was developing since Transcendentalism, a civil religion whose adherents struggled with internal contradictions during this period of transition.
“I find it fascinating to think about the implications of the fact that it was between 1850 and 1870 or 1880 that open unbelief emerged as a fully viable intellectual and social option.”
Later in Volume 86, we return to Roger Lundin to talk about his goals in assembling the anthology. Lundin wanted to study the period in American history which saw a transition from the acceptance of traditional Christianity to a spirituality free from the tethers of institutional authority. He argues that this transition mirrored a similar transition from struggles with religious belief centering around morality to struggles with religious belief centering around epistemological questions. As epistemological doubt rendered certain belief implausible, the social acceptance of unbelief became a reality, and the literature of the time reflected these issues.
“If you look at our law at the beginning of the twentieth century and you look at the law regulating the family, and what we’ve seen is law withdrawal from regulating the family. That has been interpreted by a very legalistic society as meaning that it’s no longer immoral to do these things that are no longer in the law. They equate the two.”
—Katherine Shaw Spaht
Katherine Shaw Spaht, the Jules F. and Frances L. Landry Professor of Law at the Louisiana State University law school, discusses the cultural and legal roots of the contemporary vulnerability of marriage. Spaht argues that the weakening of laws reinforcing marriage and the family serves to undermine public sensibilities of the importance of marital stability, and that legal structures giving expression to the value of lasting marriage, such as Louisiana’s covenant marriage, are necessary to support the institution of marriage. She also comments on the difficulties faced in enacting such measures in current legal and political situations. Lastly, she discusses the legal and cultural impact of no-fault divorce on the way marital and familiar legal battles are carried out on the ground.
“Every institution has its own dominant belief system, its domain assumptions. And if one of those assumptions is that relationships are temporary or potentially temporary, then everything follows from that.”
—Steven L. Nock
Steven Nock, professor of sociology and the director of the Marriage Matters project at the University of Virginia, examines marriage law in contemporary American society. Nock argues that law is more a reflection and embodiment of public values rather than a tool for cultural change. He thus regards the covenant marriage laws in Louisiana (and now Arkansas and Arizona) as regimes that allow and support those with higher standards of commitment in marriage to make a decision to reflect those values. Nock further discusses contemporary views of relationships and the embodiments of these assumptions in legal structures and policies which spill over to other spheres of society.
“The nature of reason needs to be at the forefront of discussion, and I would say even at the university level. What is rationality? Do we have a common rationality with others? What is the Christian concept of reason; and I think that precisely the Christian concept of reason is broad enough to include reason, emotion, fact and value, to put them together.”
Norman Klassen and Jens Zimmermann, professors at Trinity Western University and co-authors of The Passionate Intellect: Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education, converse about the purpose of the university and the role of the humanities in higher education. Their intention in writing this book was to stir thoughtful reflection on the nature of the intellectual life of Christians. Their experience with Christian students in higher education has shown them that most students lack a coherent understanding of the purpose of learning, and this book is an attempt to reclaim a Christian passion for learning. Klassen and Zimmermann address some of the main institutional and conceptual culprits in preventing such an appreciation of knowledge and of the life of the mind in historical and contemporary philosophical and religious circles. They trace some problems of how learning and education is understood through some of the main historical developments in epistemology.
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
—Irenaeus, cited by Norman Klassen
In this bonus segment, Klassen and Zimmermann continue their discussion on the implications of the Incarnation on the meaning of humanity and on learning. They discuss various sources of humanism, their strengths and their weaknesses, and end with encouraging remarks for students pursuing higher education.