Religious Sensibility and Knowledge (continued)

2. Thoreau is fighting an uphill battle against deep-rooted cultural presumptions. He doesn’t lay out in a sustained exposition the forces he has to neutralize if his voice is to come through. Rather than remark directly about what makes his battle uphill, he just says what he wants, the way he wants. We are left to reconstruct his systematic and deep resistance to cultural presuppositions that outline what is distinctive about European Modernity. I set out five marks of the massive shifts from Pre-Modern through Enlightenment on to cultural constellations of the 19th century and 20th century that he stubbornly resists. As I see it now, his overarching aim is to bring readers to sympathy with the resonances of life. Embedded cultural forces stand in the way of our fully grasping – let alone accepting – what it would be to have our lives flow unstintingly with the resonances of life. For Thoreau to pursuing this aim with as little compromise as possible entails mocking, undermining, and disregarding the unique and powerful structures of our inherited world.

The idea of sympathy with the resonances of life – short hand for his more daunting phrase, “sympathy with intelligence” — taken at full value, recommends nothing simple or superficial. It recommends walking as pilgrimage, becoming exquisitely alert to the echoing presence of things, and creation as a place of illumination and resonance. Thoreau’s themes have religious, prophetic depth. They are the key to redemption of spirit, his own and his neighbor’s. Nothing can be more urgent or difficult.

Articulating what is hidden within the phrase “sympathy with intelligence” jostles and weakens the energies of modernity. Thoreau must resist and disable:

  • the presumptions of a Galilean mechanical science that posits reality as self-evidently no more than dead atoms in motion, and privileges the human stance of detached measurement and theory;
  • the presumptions of Cartesian dualism that a) posits denatured selves facing off against denatured, non-living objects, b) covers up the primacy of embodied persons in continuous mutual communicative exchanges, and c) refuses the thought of an address or voice coming from things of creation;
  • the presumptions that epistemology is paramount in serious thinking,   a Cartesian epistemology that places the ideal of indubitable knowledge at the apex of philosophical and scientific aspiration;
  • the presumptions of market economies that determine all value as market value; every object, talent, or product, from berries to river-rapids, is stripped of inherent value, packaged and price;
  • the presumptions of secularization and “the death of God,” that are deeply mixed in with the forces just mentioned. Thoreau indeed has an uphill battle in a world that has cast, or is ready to cast, everything deemed sacred or religious under suspicion.

It is serious business to question these presumptions, allowing neglected alternatives to speak. It can seem an idle and feckless hope to set out, as Thoreau does, to outline and then bolster conviction in the possibilities of an unknown world, a world that sustains presences addressing our sympathy, that heralds lively illuminations and songs that burst from the core of things, that attests to magnificent plentitude addressing and inspiring (if often testing and discouraging) the depths of spirit.


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