Williams, David R. Wilderness Lost: The Religious Origins of the American Mind. Associated University Press, Cranberry, NJ. 1987.
- The central theme of this book is focused around what’s called “the wilderness tradition.” This tradition began in the Biblical narrative of the Ancient Israelites who spent 40 years in the Sinai desert before entering the land of Canaan. Most important to the theme is the idea that they were given the Promised Land as the one true chosen people of the true God only after proving their faith by submitting completely to the will of God in a harsh desert, a harsh wilderness, where only God could save/protect them. Only by willingly going through the trials and tribulations of the harsh, unproviding desert does one prove their devotion to God and thus become worthy of deliverance into the Promised Land. This tradition is followed, seemingly seamlessly, according to this book and others (see note) by early Americans, who believed they were fleeing the various persecutions of Europe (i.e. Egypt) to begin a new life in the unknown wilderness of the Americas (the new Canaan, the new Promised Land).
- Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness (F Turner), Errand into the Wilderness (P Miller), Wilderness and the American Mind (R Nash).
Ch 1. The Wilderness
(13) Those who dig deeper than the sandy topsoil of Concord need to see these deeper, stronger roots upon which the Transcendental growth was but a human graft. Many Americans, alienated from their own traditions, persuaded that the West is material and the East is spiritual, have felt it necessary to travel to exotic lands in search of spiritual sustenance. This need not be. Under all of the flag waving and commercialism, American culture rests on a foundation worthy of understanding, if not respect. The literature in which our ancestors defined their struggle with existence contains an understanding of man’s relationship to consciousness as profound as anything the East has yet to offer. Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville cannot be understood, much less appreciated, without a prior understanding of the tradition of Calvinist mysticism in which they were nurtured and out of which they wrote. This book explores a new approach to the study of early American literature and culture in order to clear a path by which modern students can enter into the beginnings of their own culture.
The identity created in the colonial forge and hammered into shape by the Revolution and the Civil War remains the foundation of American consciousness today. No one brought up in the United States can entirely avoid it. In each individual American’s consciousness, and in the culture’s collective consciousness, exist attitudes, feelings, the products of unconscious beliefs, that shape the American character. Both our politics and or literature are influenced by forces from the “invisible world” of our history, and the language in which those beliefs were first articulated was religious. Understanding the wilderness tradition of Puritanism is thus an important step toward understanding ourselves and our occasional desire to break out of structure, to transcend our often stale and boring lives, and to plunge into a wilderness in the hope of being transformed and brought into the promised land freedom.
(14) The wilderness for the Puritans was more than a physical locality, more than a Biblical myth. It was the symbol of an unstructured state of mind that today would be labeled madness. The use of this tradition assumed a model of human consciousness in which that state of mind, the wilderness, undermined the foundations of sanity, and it was used to preach madness as the only path to God.
(14) My central argument is that there is a consistent tradition of wilderness imagery in American literature that embodies implicit assumptions about human consciousness and the means of reconciling that depraved consciousness with the Universal Consciousness call God. With this in mind it is possible to identify a pattern running through American culture, political and literary, which speaks directly to the alienated twentieth century from the heart of seventeenth century piety…Our culture today is still under the influence of ideas first articulated at the dawn of American history.
(15) The original settlers of New England brought with them a desire to suffer in the wilderness in order to be ravished by the love of God. They came to the literal wilderness, so they repeatedly said, for the express purpose of entering the mental wilderness and being converted in the fires of conversion from ego-centered stupidity to the regenerate perception of infinite self-less love. Those first settlers understood that the experience was spiritual and that their sojourn in the literal wilderness was but a symbol of a spiritual state. They knew that they had to lose themselves to terror before they could hope to enter Canaan. They intended to create a spiritual community in which divine vision could be sought without the restraints and temptations of world pursuits. Their goal was a spiritual freedom toward which political freedom was only a means.
(15) [Eighteenth century New Englanders] came to believe, once again, that they had crossed through the wilderness and entered into Canaan. Defending their holy Israel from Egypt, they plunged into the literal wilderness of war in order to build the New Jerusalem, the United States.
(16) Thoreau’s quest for wildness, Hawthorne’s use of wilderness imagery, Melville’s odyssey on the “watery wilderness,” and Dickinson’s sojourn in the wilderness of mind all need to be seen from the perspective of this wilderness tradition. The insistence that human beings surrender their rational egos to a subconscious sea of terror in order to achieve true freedom is a recurring theme that runs from the very beginning down to the twentieth century.
- Beyond Geography, Wilderness and the American Mind, Perry Miller
(16) The alienation and despair so characteristic of the twentieth century had its counterpart in earlier eras under different guises. But without a sympathetic understanding of the theological language in which those concerns were articulated, it is impossible for modern readers to comprehend the extent to which their own heritage has something to communicate to them.
(17) I have assumed, as did Perry Miller, “that the mind of man is the basic factor in human history.” However much they have added to our knowledge of Puritan New England, none of the demographic studies published since Miller’s death have contradicted his thesis that the Puritan settlers of New England were motivated primarily by belief. Even historians who recognize the “ideological” basis of much of history often write as if material and social factors are the only hidden shapers of belief and behavior. But the subconscious, if it exists at all, is a realm of belief, of thought, of ideas with great influence on conscious thought and hence behavior.
(17) Indeed, ideas, both at the conscious and subconscious level, are a central requirement of human security, and the defense of belief is as much a part of self-interest as the defense of property. Hence, ideas are very much a primary causal factor in human motivation.
(24) Because language exists within such a cultural context, certain words often carry with them meanings of which we are only dimly aware. Words like “freedom” and “liberty” command respect and reverence though few can clearly explain why. The explanation requires an understanding of the relationship between cultural and universal psychology. Northrop Frye has explained:
“Man lives, not directly or namely in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from his existential concerns. Most of this is held unconsciously, which means that our imaginations may recognize elements of it, when presented in art and literature, without consciously understanding what it is that we recognize. Practically all that we can see of this body of concern is socially conditioned and culturally inherited. Below the cultural inheritance, there must be a common psychological inheritance; otherwise forms of culture and imagination outside our own traditions would not be intelligible to us. But I doubt if we can reach this common inheritance directly, by-passing the distinctive qualities in our specific culture. One of the practical functions of criticism, by which I mean the conscious organizing of a cultural tradition, is, I think, to make us more aware of our mythological conditioning.”
Thus, within a given culture, certain words become symbols of larger hidden psychological and existential concerns. In uncovering the symbolic “meaning” of our language, we uncover the layers of mythological conditioning in which our very thoughts and beliefs are clothed.
The symbolic word “wilderness” is one of the most powerful in the Judeo-Christian tradition and particularly in the American strain of that tradition. The most ancient and revered of those “mystic chords of memory that bind a nation together,” to use Lincoln’s phrase, have to do with wilderness. Even today, our very use of the word echoes with unconscious meaning. At the heart of American culture, in what Jung called the collective unconscious, a deep memory insistently called the self to lose itself in the wilderness.
(25) [the wilderness symbol] brought together realities of what has come to be called depth psychology with a clear cultural tradition of wilderness imagery, and it was in their understanding of their role in the drama of salvation, in the experience of conversion, that the symbols burned in their souls and minds. These first settlers believed that is was only by losing themselves in the wilderness of self that they might ever achieve salvation. But in time, these first pioneers forgot the spiritual meaning of the metaphor. Confusing the literal woods with the spiritual wilderness, they plunged violently into the forests expecting somehow that they would then be led out of the wilderness into the promised land.
(25) Cruden’s Comprehensive Concordance to Holy Scripture lists over two hundred fifty references to the wilderness in both the Old and New Testament. It is not possible to read the Bible without being impressed by the importance of the experience of God’s people in the wilderness to the writers of scripture. There, at the dawn of Western culture, when the oral tales of the nomadic tribes were first written down, the wilderness already was a powerful symbol firmly embedded in the culture’s growing consciousness.
(26) According to Ulrich Mauser, in the Old Testament the wilderness is not “primarily of locality,” but “a theme full of theological implications.” The two Hebrew words most commonly used to designate the wilderness “combine the notion of confusion and destruction with the image of the barren land.” The return to the wilderness was a basic symbol of repentance, a rejection of the sinful ways acquired during the Egyptian, and later the Babylonian, captivity. By going defenseless into the desert, the Jews expressed their willingness to abandon contrived and sacrilegious notions and to wait, empty-handed, upon the mercy of Yahweh. Being in the wilderness was a sign of their complete dependence.
(33) “the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart,” (Duet 8.2)
(34) According to Calvin, whether we descend into ourselves or attempt to ascend directly up to God, whenever we leave our tiny floating islands of self confidence, we encounter surrounding us the chaotic wilderness of eternity, the wrath of God.
(38) Calvin had brought to men’s attention the significance and the urgency of conversion. The revival of the typological tradition within English Protestantism allowed theologians to apply the often communal wilderness imagery of both the Old and the New Testament to this renewed emphasis on personal conversion. The Exodus account of the flight from Egypt could now be read asa type of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and as such it could be preached as a type of the conversion experience that every English man and woman was called to undergo. In this way, traditional wilderness imagery was carried into the English Reformation with all of its original symbolic power in tact.
(43) It is neither an exaggeration nor an anachronism to say that these Puritan theologians were dealing with the same mental experiences that are treated in our time by doctors of the mentally ill. As do Freudian and other psychotherapists today they believed that a thorough unveiling of all of the “filth” repressed or hidden in the subconscious was a necessary prelude to any possible salvation. As Perry Miller has stated, if we are to understand and appreciate what that terror was that so dominated the Puritan’s lives, we must “appeal to psychologyand to such techniques as the twentieth century has so far discovered for dealing with the unconscious and inaccessible depths of the human spirit.” (The New England Mind).
(45) [the New England Puritans] were not only going to repeat the journey of the Jews, they were going to participate typologically - symbolically - in the conversion process itself. They were going to cross their Red Sea and enter into their own wilderness. And there, they knew, was where their ordeal was going to begin. Some surely imagined that the crossing of the sea would be enough, but those who knew their Bibles and who were familiar with the rich tradition of wilderness imagery knew better. There were as sinners fleeing out of Egypt and the whole conversion process was still before them.
Ch 2. New England: Canaan and the Wilderness
(46) As long as the Puritans thought of themselves as sinners pleading in the wilderness for the showers of God’s grace, then whatever land they inhabited would be to them a “howling wilderness,” a place of refuge and of trial, of suffering and hope, the scene of both their damnation and their ultimate resurrection.
(47) There had always been within English Calvinism a tension between those who saw themselves as sinners in need of wilderness trials and those who believed themselves safe and secure in the promised land of Canaan. The extremes of this division can be seen in the controversy in the Bay Colony in the 1630s between the “Arminians” and the “Antinomians.” Those who distrusted claims of absolute assurance and who insisted on working to prepare a way in the wilderness for the future coming of Christ were labeled “Arminians.” Those who distrusted the highly ritualized “morphology of conversion,” who did not believe that all converts had to pass step by step through the trials of the law, who believed all “works” to be signs of hypocrisy, were called “Antinomians.”
(48) Puritanism thus contained within its complex theology two apparently contradictory strains, a communal pessimism that looked to the wilderness of human depravity and an individualistic optimism that rejoiced at being one with God in the sunny vineyards of Canaan. The tension between these two strains can be discerned clearly in the history of New England in the 1630s. But this tension had a more than antiquarian significance, for the ripples then set in motion continue to spread. The struggle between doubt and affirmation, protest and celebration, denial and devotion has been an integral part of American culture ever since.
(49) The Massachusetts Bay Puritans’ public explanation for emigrating, The Planter’s Plea, written in 1630 in England, looked forward to that time ‘when we shall be in our poor cottages in the wilderness, over shadowed with the spirit of supplication, through the manifold necessities and tribulations which may not altogether unexpectedly, nor we hope, unprofitably befall us.’ The anticipation of a redemptive wilderness experience is evident here. The note of hope is significant. The first generation may have expected New England to be a wilderness, but they also expected at the end of their wilderness sojourn to enter into Canaan.
(50) This dual expectation of danger and deliverance was a common theme among the English migrants on the eve of their departure…John Eliot claimed that ‘we chose’ purposefully to settle in a harsh wilderness where nothing could be expected ‘but religion, poverty, and hard labor, a composition that God doth usually take most pleasure in.’ He made it clear that the emigrants wanted neither a paradise nor a neutral environment. They fully desired trials and temptations as searching as those undergone by the Jews in the Sinai.
- Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness
(51) In his (John Winthrop) ‘Objections Answered,’ he speculated that God may ‘by this means bring us to repent of our intemperance here at home, and so cure us of that disease, which sends many among us to hell; so he carried many of his people into the wilderness, and made them forget the fleshpots of Egypt.’ Here, in one sentence, can be found the desire for wilderness trials, the parallel with the wilderness sojourn of the Jews, and an expectation of conversion in the American wilderness.
(53) Those who believed themselves to be sinners and felt the need for the law tilted toward the Arminian position; those who believed themselves to be recipients of Christ’s grace tilted toward the Antinomian side…Puritans who saw themselves as sinners under the wrath of the law say New England as a wilderness. Puritans who believed themselves already saved, already among the converted, saw New England as Canaan, as paradise, as the garden of the Lord.
(57) Peter Bulkeley, the first minister of Concord, was one of those who had come down hard on the Antinomians in 1636…He reminded them that:
‘When the Lord will come to the soul, and draw it into communion with himself, he will have his way hereto prepared in the desert; not in the throng of the city, but in a solitaire desert place, he will allure us, and draw us into the wilderness, from the company of men, when he will speak to our heart, and when prepares our heart to speak unto him’ (Hosea 2).
This wilderness condition, he argued, is the only condition for sinners who want to experience Christ’s mercy. Echoing the English Puritan Richard Baxter, he affirmed that Christ will not come to those ‘living in the throng of a city.’…Nature did not convert, but the descent into nature did facilitate conversion.
- John Winthrop, John Cotton, John Davenport, Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, Roger Williams (important New Englanders).
(59) Winthrop touched on an important theological difference between the two sides. The Arminians, being true Calvinists and heirs of the Reformation, believed that justification by faith meant accepting Christ’s justification in place of one’s own. It meant accepting the possibility of one’s own damnation and rejoicing, instead, in the eternal glorification of righteousness in Christ. The Antinomians, on the other hand, foreshadowed that flip in Protestant dogma which would have justification by faith refer to the justification of the sinner because of his or her faith in Christ. One interpretation stressed self-denial [in place of/Arminian]; the other led to self-exaltation [because of/Antinomian]..
(65) Like most Calvinists, the ministers of New England realized the danger of an unimaginative literalism. They believed that eternal truth exists beyond this plane and that symbols are a necessary approach to that spiritual reality. At the same time, they agreed that ignorant sinners, mistaking the symbol for the reality, as [Roger] Williams warned and the Papists proved, can confuse the symbolic with the real. Symbols, while necessary, clearly were dangerous. They agreed with Williams that it was in fact a mistake to confuse the literal journey into the New England wilderness with the spiritual journey of conversion [but that both were necessary?].
However, they also knew that to abandon the use of symbols altogether led to the danger of allowing too much imagination..
- Platonic Idealism
(67) To Winthrop’s puzzled comprehension, Williams seemed to be falling into the errors of medieval monasticism, believing in an ascetic withdrawal from the world to some imagined purity. To the orthodox Puritan, the ‘dung heap of the earth’ was the unavoidable site of mankind’s ordeal and it could not be fled, except in death. Human nature was not considered capable of comprehending the glorious wholeness of God. Therefore symbols had to remain symbols.
(68) The social and political instability that shook England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries forced many ‘vexed and troubled Englishmen’ [Carl Bridenbaugh] to re-examine their loyalties. This look behind the veil of worldly security brought many face to face with the wilderness within. External political chaos helped to open the doors of perception and expose the internal chaos that threatened the self confidence of each individual and, once acknowledged, threatened the entire social structure. Convinced by experience they called the fear of God, they adopted the religion, Calvinism, that spoke to their condition by trying to make sense of their fear. Motivated by this profound anxiety and buoyed by a theology that sanctified their terror, they ventured into the wilderness of New England in the hope of finding salvation.
- a theology/culture sanctifies terror when it is built on, exists only because of, an idea of constant crisis (Wandering God, Beyond Geogrpahy).
(76) Cotton Mather viewed the wilderness as a realm of Satanic threats.
(77) The wilderness portrayed by Mather was an almost wholly external place. Mather did not deal with the subtle psychology of Thomas Hooker. His wilderness was not of the mind but the literal forest of New England. And just as the wilderness became externalized in his thinking, so did the demons and serpents that inhabited that wilderness. As the devils and imps once crept around the walls of conscience, Indians and witches now crept through the forests of the night.
(79) “There never was any people on Earth so parallel in their general history to that of the ancient Israelites as this of New England. To no other country of people could there ever be so directly apples a multitude of scripture passages in the literal sense as to this particular country…one would be ready to think that the greater part of the Old Testament were written about us, or that we, though in a lower degree, were the particular antitypes of that primitive people.” (minister Thomas Prince, 1730.)
Ch 3. The Great Awakening of Fear
(83) Conviction of personal depravity and the temptation to destroy oneself in the wilderness for love of God remained the heart and soul of the Calvinist strain of New England culture.
(85) The early history of New England is the history of a people tornbetween two visions: a mysticism that longed for regeneration in the wilderness of should and a materialism devoted to the planting and nurture of the vineyards of Canaan. Money and morality competed with the ancient demand for an introspective journey into the wilderness of self. It was the tension between these two forces, and the dynamic synthesis of them forged by Jonathan Edwards, that eventually touched off the raging conflagration of American nationalism and, a half century later, fueled the fires of American Romanticism.
(86) Those responsible for the witch trials were trying to strike back at the ‘invisible’ forces that they believed were threatening their traditions and their institutions. The witch trials were part of a growing protest against the abandonment of New England’s religious identity to the invisible forces today called ‘capitalism’ or sometimes ‘modernism.’ Cotton Mather at first believed that the trials were a necessary purgation that could judiciously be controlled. In the end, he found that passions had been unleashed which threatened to rage out of control. By the time the Governor’s wife was accused of witchcraft, Mather was forced to do what he could to put an end to the procedures. But he could not stifle the growing social rebellion of which the trials had been an opening shot.
(96) Jonathan Edwards preached terror not to scare people into being good but ‘in a use of awakening to impenitent sinners,’ to force them into the depths of panic beyond the walls of the self’s defenses. He preached terror as a means of forcing sinners to see themselves of God must see them in the hope that this might drive them out of their minds and be the means of their conversion from natural depravity to the selflessness of the love of God. ‘Something will have the heart of man,’ and if it is the self, then it cannot also be God. The self must be destroyed before there can be true love of God. Otherwise, that which is called love is only a projection of self love. Human beings cling so tightly to their straw egos that it takes an extraordinary effort to make them let go and lunge for the sure and steady rock that alone might save them from drowning. It takes terror.
The experience of conversion, the experience that Edwards urged on his congregation, was what today would be called a psychological crisis. The wilderness that he called on sinners to cross was the howling desert of the soul, and the experience of conversion, as he defined it, was the destruction of the self, the ego, in the chaos of the subconscious mind. This is not to say that God can be identified with the subconscious; it is to say that what was called the wrath of God was made manifest to individual humans in that region today labeled the subconscious. The terror of the wrath of God was the terror of psychic disintegration. But in Edwards’ view, conversion could not take place until the old ego was yielded to that terror; before this occurred, there could be no re-integration, no discovery of wholeness, no psychic health. The Calvinist image of consciousness as a think layer of rationality suspended over howling chaos can be found in modern psychology. C.G. Jung believed that humans had to be exposed to the subconscious before they could achieve wholeness, and the subconscious he knew to be terror:
"The opening up of the unconscious always means the outbreak of intense spiritual suffering; it as as when a flourishing civilization is abandoned to invading hordes of barbarians, or when fertile fields are exposed by the bursting of a dam to a raging torrent. The World War was such an eruption which showed, as nothing else could, how thin are the walls that separate a well ordered world from lurking chaos. But it is the same with every single human being and his reasonably ordered world. His reason has done violence to natural forces which seek their revenge and only wait the moment when the partition falls to overwhelm the conscious life with destruction." (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, p 240).
(97) It is the psychologists who have taken over where the theologians of Edward’s world left off.
(98) As Thomas Szasz has written, ‘with the decline of religion and the growth of science in the eighteenth century, the cure of (sinful) souls, which had been an integral part of the Christian religions, was recast as the cure of (sick) minds.’ (The Myth of Psychotherapy).
(102) Edwards wanted to dispel the illusion that being conscious of one’s behavior, even one’s mental behavior, means being somehow in control of it.
Modern social sciences, history included, are essentially behavioristic: the blind forces of urbanism, modernism, capitalism, etc, determine the behavior of people in the mass, just as they determine each individual of that mass. But even here, there is a tendency to forget that each individual has a mind that makes decisions. It is not the individual who is determined; it is the ideas, the beliefs, the emotions that are determined, and behavior is ‘freely’ chosen as a result of determined ideas in the mind. [B.F.] Skinner too often gives the impression that people do not think, that they only react like machines. This our own experience tells us, is false. But Edwards’ argument is that despite our conscious decision making we are still determined because it is not immediate choice but the mind with all its fundamental ideas and emotions that is the thing determined.
(104) If a person’s beliefs and prejudices constitute identity, then it can be said that identity actually controls perception. A man who believes himself in the wilderness in need of conversion sees the forest both as the arena of struggle and as the place of deliverance; it appears both frightening and promising. It has all the qualities of the ‘numinous’; it is mysterious, frightening, and fascinating. A man already sure of his conversion, at ease in Zion, sees the wilderness only as a threat to his imagined security. To him the forest appears as dark and dangerous and full of demons as it did to Cotton Mather. There is no appearance of the sublime in it.
(105) The destruction of belief is as much a threat to the self as the invasion of a foreign army. Many would rather die fighting an invader than give up fundamental loyalties. The loss of personal identity is the self’s final defeat.
According to Edwards, the threat of the loss of identity is a constant part of consciousness. In every moment, nonbeing threatens being. This waiting terror creates anxiety and is felt in the souls of the sensitive few who cannot take the illusions of personal or communal identity for granted. Only a very thin, and rotten, membrane separates the sanity of natural men from the fear of God. This image was one of the most enduring products of the Calvinist mind. ‘Unconverted men,’ warned Edwards, ‘walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in that covering so weak that they will not bear their weight.’
(106) To Edwards, there was a crucifixion that had to precede regeneration. A person had to renounce his or her very identity and fallback through the layers of conditioned beliefs and feelings, as if from adulthood, back to childhood, to innocence, ignorance, and fear. It was Edwards’ duty to force his congregation into this psychological crisis. Thus he preached terror, not to scare people into being good, but to put them in touch with the wilderness of fear in their souls, to push them through their defenses into terror. Like a modern psychotherapist leading patients through the agony of self-revelation, Edwards believed he was doing it for their own good.
Ch 4. Revival and Revolution
(111) The major impact of the Great Awakening of the 1740s was its reaffirmation of an evangelical American identity set in stark contrast to the rational Arminianism that characterized Anglican England. Calvinists’ peculiar sense of themselves as a community of God’s chosen people on a holy errand to rebuild Jerusalem in the wilderness was given new emphasis and was spread by evangelical Protestants throughout the colonies of British North America. Colonial hostility toward England began not with the Stamp Act or the French and Indian War, but with the flourishing of a new identity that required a contrast against which it could define itself. The renewed Israel required an Egypt to escape from. Arminian commercial England became that Egypt.
(114) The eighteenth century outpouring of evangelical enthusiasm thus came together in the form of an intense American nationalism, but in doing so it violated the tenets of the Great Awakening. The possibility of universal love was sacrificed to the achievement of national salvation. The participants thought that they were furthering the Kingdom of God. To be the chosen builders of God’s New Jerusalem seemed to them to be justifiable cause for pride. But in fact, they were creating, not the Kingdom of God, but only the United States of America.
(115) To defend into the wilderness of the wrath of God meant to do mad. That is why Edwards preached terror. One hundred years before, in England, Richard Baxter had defended this practice with the question, ‘Can you be madder than you are already? Or at least can there be a more dangerous madness, than to neglect your everlasting welfare, and willfully undo yourselves?’ Thomas Hooker approvingly described a ‘broken battered soul’ in the jaws of conversion as ‘marvelously distracted’ to the point of appearing ‘a silly sot, and a mad man, in regard of the horror of heart that hath possessed him.’ These Calvinists did not recoil from madness; they encouraged it.
(116) ‘All people,’ according to [Erik] Erickson, ‘because of their common undercurrent of existential anxiety, at cyclic internals and during crises feel an intense need for a rejuvenation of trust which will give new meaning to their limited and perverted exercise of will, conscience, reason, and identity.’ But if the trust is not rejuvenated, there remains only that underlying ‘existential anxiety.’ Paul Tillich has called this existential dread the threat that nonbeing constantly poses to being. The psychologist Rollo May has said:
“Anxiety…is rather an ontological characteristic of man, rooted in his very existence as such. It is not a peripheral threat which I can take or leave, for example, or a reaction which may be classified beside other reactions; it is always a threat to the foundation, the center of my existence. Anxiety is the threat of imminent non-being.”
It is thus presumed in modern psychotherapy as in Calvinist theology that underlying all human rationalizations is a vast sea of terror. From the perspective of rational consciousness, this sea is the void that exists beyond the borders of identity.
- the liminal states between concretely felt identity/community, which primitve peoples historically embraced, but which civilization (in it's quest for certainty/ultimate reality) despises. (paradox in Wandering God, Berman)
(119) Patriotism, as Edwards has said ‘cannot be of the nature of true virtue.’ Any love that does not extend beyond nation and ideology (and whose does?) but falls short of the ‘universality of existence’ is merely an extension of ‘self-love.’
(119) The American Revolution thus should be seen not as a protest against taxation or arbitrary government, not as a revolt of the poor against the privileged, and not as the defense of constitutional principles. Gordon Wood argues that it is necessary to look beyond the ‘refined and nicely-reasoned arguments’ of Franklin and Jefferson to the ’enthusiastic extravagance - the paranoia obsession with a diabolical crown conspiracy’ to understand the deeper motivations of the patriots.
(121) One of the factors that allowed the easy alliance of evangelical and liberal interests in the cause of the Revolution was their common belief in ‘liberty.’ In fact, each side interpreted the word differently. The liberals fought primarily for ‘civil liberty,’ the liberty of the political state to control its own affairs. The evangelicals also cherished civil liberty but not as an end in itself. For them, civil liberty was an essential protection for ‘Christian liberty,’ that mystic state of grace for which all Protestants yearned. To the religiously minded and, as John Adams indicated, even to some of the liberals, both were worth fighting for.
(121) The rhetoric of the Revolutionary War was often secular, but its passions were religious. John Adams’ priorities were clear: arbitrary taxation was a danger because it might lead to the destruction of New England’s religion - not the other way around.
(127) To the Calvinists of New England, politics and religion, both local and international, were all part of one unbroken web.
(129) The American colonists believed that there was a conspiracy against them. The British officials may have been conscious agents of that conspiracy, but they need not have been. Satan did not require the conscious cooperation of his human tools in order to use them for his own ends. The colonists’ assertion that all of the different events of history were somehow being manipulated by a master hand has appeared fantastic and paranoid. But to a people who believed in determinism and who believed that the determining environment is not neutral but controlled by supernatural forces, it was evident - even if the British did not realize it - that their actions were part of the Devil’s larger plans. In the woodcuts of the period, the figure of Satan whispering in the ears of the British and their allies was more than just a symbol of evil.
(137) Stephen Johnson’s sermon of 1765:
“Israel was called and set apart for God, in the peculiar engagement of his covenant, that they might be to him a holy people, for a name and praise; and he subjected them to his yoke and redeemed them out of Egypt, and brought them to Canaan…And let us never forget, that our forefathers left the dear delight of our native country, and fled into the inhospitable deserts of America, not for worldly wealth or honors, pomps or pleasures; but for the glorious cause of liberty, and undefiled religion.”
(143) The Revolutionary War was seen as one more instance of the ancient symbol of regeneration in the wilderness of violence. And those who survived it became convinced that they could put self-doubt behind them for theirs was the New Jerusalem come at last.
- Regeneration Through Violence, R Slotkin
Ch 5. The Transcendental Growth
(169) Emerson, remembering his aunt’s insistence that he return to the wilderness to see God, went to the woods and sat on a log and wondered why the mystic visions never came. Because he refused to accept the separation of the real and the ideal, of this world and the heavenly Canaan, like Roger Williams, the Antinomians, and even like Cotton Mather, he declared himself a citizen of Zion. He imagined himself reborn in Canaan, beyond the wilderness, and he elevated his worldly imaginings to the status of the divine.
(170) Ralph Waldo Emerson’s attraction to nature, then, came not only from the influence of the European Romantics but from his own New England heritage, and more directly from his aunt, Mary Woody Emerson. The typological association of the wilderness crossing with the experience of conversion in the wilderness of the should was much in the minds of the Emerson’s ancestors when they came to New England, and this wilderness tradition was carried to Waldo through the agency of his aunt. That he forgot the spiritual meaning of the metaphor and confused the literal woods with the spiritual wilderness does not weaken the connection between the Transcendental religion of nature and the Calvinist wilderness tradition. The transcendentalists may have looked to mature to bring the self in touch with God while the Calvinists looked to the wilderness to destroy the self in favor of God. But both looked to the wilderness as a means of grace, however different these means may have been. The Transcendental love of nature as well as the sentimental nature worship that followed, was thus a product of a barely conscious fascination with the wildness as the wilderness of the soul, as a projection of the antitype onto the type, of the spiritual onto the literal.
(171) Upon reading Emerson’s Nature in 1836 Thoreau embraced the new religion of Transcendentalism, but still he had had to struggle with such doubts and insecurities as led others to a less happy faith. His college essays reveal that his Transcendentalism did not develop spontaneously. As an adolescent Thoreau had had to choose between the competing visions of Canaan and the wilderness. Before he could become a Transcendentalist, Thoreau, like many of his generation, had had to banish the specter of the wilderness from his mind.
(173) Walden has long been recognized as ‘a song of death and a paean of resurrection.’ Thoreau’s journey into the woods to ‘live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life’ was the Transcendental equivalent of the Christian journey into the solitude of the wilderness of the self. But even more than Emerson, Thoreau was caught up in the literal interpretation of the ancient symbol. If grace was to be found in the wilderness, then ‘the poet must, from time to time, travel the logger’s path and the Indian trail, to drink at some new or more bracing fountain of the Muses, far in the recesses of the wilderness.’
Ch 6. Hawthorne, Very, and Dickinson
(182) The theme of ‘regenerative descent,’ the basic Christian pattern of crucifixion and regeneration, can be found throughout Hawthorne’s writings.
Ch 9. Conclusion
(249) ‘Men,’ wrote Jonathan Edwards, ‘will either worship the true God or some idol: it is impossible it should be otherwise; something will have the heart of man. And that which a man gives his heart to may be called his God.’
According to the anthropologist, Victor Turner, what he calls root paradigms ‘reach down to irreducible life stances of individuals, passing beneath conscious prehension to a fiduciary hold on what they sense to be axiomatic values, matters literally of life and death.’
…’”structure’ and ’system,’ ‘purposive action patterns’ and, at deeper levels, ‘categorical frames.’ These individual and group structures, carried in people’s heads and nervous systems, have a steering function..”
Call them Gods, idols, root paradigms, myth structures, or the content of ‘mentalite.’ Study eighteenth-century theology or twentieth-century anthropology. The message is the same: the behavior of human beings is largely programmed by the thoughts that are in their heads. These thoughts do not spring fully developed out of nothing. They exist in layered structures variably called paradigms, archetypes, myths, behavior patterns, inclinations, or the ideas of the subconscious. They are a living part of each person; together they define a culture. And like legs, eyes, and ears, they have evolved into instruments to be used when needed.
(250) Identity is necessary and identity controls, but there are many possible identities and numerous possible variations within particular identities. No one way is absolute and it is certainly possible to be converted from one to another. There are those who mistake such conversion from controlling identity to another for freedom: ‘capitalism is corrupt, let us be socialist.’ ‘macho is unnatural, feminine is exploitive, let us be androgynous,’ ‘religion is oppressive, let us be free.’ But to shed one identity for another, though temporarily renewing, merely means in the end to shed one cage for another. True freedom exists in that moment between identities, that void between one certainty and another, in what the anthropologists call ‘limitas.’ That is the moment during which individuals can see beyond the idols of identity to what Emerson called the ‘terrible freedom’ beyond relative truths. This was what it meant to stare out into the openness of absolute possibility, to stare ‘fixedly and without relief into the very center of the blazing sun of glory.’ This was the wilderness. It existed before life, it continued after death, it was always present under the relative identities and false gods of the ego. It was the pit and the path to freedom.
- Berman’s paradox (Wandering God), Jung’s individuation occurs only in the constant balancing of opposites, liminal states, Fromm’s ‘golden cage’ of freedom, Radin’s ‘blaze of reality’..
(252) This is what characterizes the best American writing, not a serene acceptance but the frantic alienation of wanting to break free from false identity and idolatry, even red-white-and-blue idolatry, even at the risk of madness if that is what it takes to reach the promised land.