Religious Sensibility and Knowledge II

I’m going to follow up on my remark in my last post that getting at the heart of a religious sensibility can bypass familiar philosophical questions regarding belief and justification, the rationality of atheism and theism, the particular attributes of God, the problem of evil, and so forth – questions Gary Gutting raised in his series of N.Y. Times interviews. Here, and for the next post or three, I plagiarize from my upcoming book, Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Literature, Religion (Bloomsbury 2015).

1. Thoreau follows the habits of birds and muskrats and he dates the honeysuckle bloom. He enters phases of detached observation and diligent scholarship. Sympathy can precede science’s disciplined counting or theorizing. Sympathy can isolate why it matters to count blooms or to subsume under a theory. We might just sympathize with this corner of the plant kingdom, or with the overall ends of science. Why bother, in particular, to date the honeysuckle bloom? If love, love of what in this bloom? Sympathy for this particular is a moment unnecessary to scientific practice, strictly speaking, yet perfectly compatible with it. On the other hand, sympathy might emerge not as a prelude to measurement or classification but some time after counting or categorizing. We look at our display-box of pressed blooms in the living room months later, or at our newly printed article – the presence of the object studied sings nicely when laid out in fresh print.

More generally, sympathy with the living enhances the living – we want to protect and sustain what draws on our sympathy, whether plant or fish, tree or the sick. And sympathy with the dying can bring new life to the dying – as Thoreau’s writing about John Thoreau, or his scooping out a small pond around John’s grave, brought new life to each brother. Sympathy for the neglected brings them to center-stage, while sympathy with the music of life can replace inane noise and chatter. Thoreau includes in the music of nature the braying hound. Not completely tongue in cheek, Thoreau has sympathy for local swamps and the singing of their gnats.

I can fancy that it would be a luxury to stand up to one’s chin in some retired swamp a whole summer day, scenting the wild honeysuckle and bilberry blows, and lulled by the minstrelsy of gnats and mosquitoes![1]

Some think taste is an utterly personal matter, and so Thoreau can have his swamp — we’ll take the mall! But he’d persuade us otherwise. All options are not born equal. “To devote your life to the mystery of divinity in Nature or to the eating of oysters: would they not be attended with very different results?”[2] He is frank about his own vocational convictions: “My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature — to know his lurking places.” [3]

Thoreau would bring us there to nature, to the swamp, for a sense of the ambient foot-slosh, the mushy alternative to a preference for the mall’s metallic escalator precision. Landscapes and swamp-sites are best perceived from immersion, letting their presence sink in. The swamp teems with life in all sizes and shapes. Mall life is not wet and squishy and is for the most part restricted to other shoppers, sales attendants, and security guards. It sizes me up relentlessly by the measure of my wallet, of my looks, fashionable or unfashionable, of my taste in accessorizing. This mechanical un-living steel and glass box is engineered to make me spend, to scoop up merchandise, to consume. How unlike the swamp! There we find life in all sizes and shapes – lilies, frogs, fish, weeds, decomposing leaves, singing mosquitoes, tree roots, grassy hummocks – life close enough to my own that with a dose of imagination sympathy will bloom! How can I not love a mud bath for toes?

Thoreau shows us what he can do here that is impossible at the mall. He sinks in (at least in reverie) with things that eat, breath, bloom and die, that procreate, that are wet and smell, that move, swim, stand and sway. Such is the sphere of the wild we inhabit; a place that reciprocally arouses wild life in us. Just try to have the mall’s metallic or plastic clank or snap, its inane shopping chatter, bring out the raw life in us. At the swamp, nothing is priced; everything is priceless. It yields a palette of presences we can live with, our body coming alive with the wet, the leaves — fish and floating feathers.

Can we prove an hour in the swamp is preferable to a day at the mall? Thoreau had little use for abstract debate, and wouldn’t have debated the issue. Ecstatic hours watching seals at play will do more for appreciation of life than all the arguments one might muster to establish that life is exuberant and precious. Hours by the sand-cut at Walden thawing in spring will do more for sensing the ubiquity of organic life than all the arguments one could muster that earth is alive.

[1] Week, 300

[2] 1851, September 7th

[3] September 7th 1851


2 comments on “Religious Sensibility and Knowledge II

  1. dmf says:

    that’s lovely Ed, the whole showing vs saying thing can’t wait to see the rest.

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