On Walden Pond: "The Narrowness of My Experience"

The book Walden grew out of a lecture Thoreau gave in Concord on February 4, 1846. Apparently, his neighbors were curious about what he was up to with his experiment by the pond and this lecture was his first attempt to explain. As Thoreau opens Walden in Chapter 1--Economy--he states that "particular inquiries" had been "made by townsmen concerning my mode of life." In light of those inquires, in Walden Thoreau states that he will "undertake to answer some of these questions."

Immediately, Thoreau goes on to offer an apology for the first-person, autobiographical nature of the book:

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this [book] it will be retained...We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.
I'm not sure who offered this sentiment, but I've heard it said, "There is no theology; only biography." This idea, it seems, is a variant of something Ralph Waldo Emerson, friend of Thoreau, had said: "There is properly no history; only biography”

For my own part, I've always felt that philosophy and theology is a form of coping. A way of making sense of my experience. As I experience, I think. Often theologically.

Some people, it seems, have no experience of God. At least no experience they trust. Thus, they feel no need to "make sense" of an experience they lack. These persons are agnostics and atheists. And to be clear, I don't fault my skeptical friends for "making sense" of their experience in this particular way. Their experience is their experience. I can't argue them out of what they feel to be true in their bones.

In a related way, there are those of us who have (and continue to have) experiences that we can only "make sense" of by labeling them as holy, sacred, transcendent, divine, or spiritual. William James called these experiences "ontological emotions," a feeling of thereness. And in light of these experiences people often "make sense" of their lives in ways that we might label "religious."

More, even within the greater religious experience people sit with different felt experiences. Liberals and conservatives, for example, have very different experiences of the world. Consequently, their moral, political, and theological convictions differ in profound ways. This tends to lead to conflict and what I call "communal dumbfounding" in Unclean (a term adopted from the work of Jonathan Haidt).

All this tends to make me fairly skeptical about resolving theological disagreements. Specifically, when people disagree theologically my suspicion is that, behind it all, the individuals just have different felt and lived experiences. They have different religious backgrounds. Different conversion stories. Different mystical experiences. Different personalities. Different life circumstances. The list goes on and on. In the end, the surface-level biblical or theological disagreement is really being regulated by unspoken assumptions rooted in worldview and biography. And given that the discussants are rarely able to articulate these unspoken assumptions, or lay them on the table for critical consideration, the conversation tends to be futile. People just talk past each other.

I think this is why Jesus often said, "Those who have ears, let them hear." You can either hear me, or you can't. And if you can't, I'm not sure what we can say to each other. At some deep level we are ships passing in the night. I think this is the same idea behind the Parable of the Sower. You are either good soil, or not. And the same goes for how we live with each other. You are either open to me, and I to you, or we're not.

Think of hard ground in the parable. I can share with you but if you are not open to me the birds will come and pick the seeds of my life off the hard ground of your soul.

Which brings be back to Thoreau. In the end, all we can do is share our biographies with each other. Our stories. Because, like Henry said, this is really the thing we know the best. So the only issue, then, is how we receive each other's stories. Attempting to be good soil for each other. Allowing the seeds of other's insight and experience to grow in my own heart.

To have the ears to hear.

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8 thoughts on “On Walden Pond: "The Narrowness of My Experience"”

  1. This has been my experience as well. 

    I've had a lot of discussions, recently, on why I think it useless to get involved in political and theological debate. While I understand that there are a few safe places where people are willing to listen to each other, for the most part, folks generally only listen and respond through the lenses of their basic, primal fears. There can be no change without first addressing the sources of those fears, and most people who engage in debate (as opposed to measure discussion) aren't interested in my (totally and completely humble) efforts to provide them with free therapy. 

    In cases of extreme disagreement, I find it more effective to bake and share an apple pie than to try to "win a convert" to my point of view. After the pie is eaten and you're tying into the ice cream, THAT is when (maybe) some actual openness might happen. 

    Perhaps that's why Jesus was so keen on getting people to eat. Think Grace is stupid? Here, have a fish. 

  2. These are good perceptions, and a good starting point for discussing issues with people who tend to create "more heat than light" with their arguments.

    We are challenged that everyone justifies their own worldview out of their own experience. It has been proven many times that we all use our emotions far more than our logic to make decisions. In fact when emotions are cut off, our ability to make good decisions is reduced. I use this point in discussions with scientific atheists to show that there are other ways of knowing that even they use. You must be aware of them instead of discounting them.

    As for those of us who are theists, I agree that there is a tension between theologizing out of our own experience (actually by definition this is mythologizing) and describing a God who is wholy "Other" (this is more properly the work of theology). While God is dynamic in His dealing with us, He is consistent in many respects. And though we are all different, we share far more in the way of our similarities. I am sure that we can find more ground if we allow for a civil, public discourse.

  3. Richard- I would be curious how you would classify me according to what you've said here. I don't seem to fit your mold at all. I was a member the SBC for 59 years, grandson and son of a deacon, and one myself for 17+ years. I left the SBC and have become what John Shelby Spong calls a "believer in exile". I have a 42 year old son whom I would classify as a fundamental, very conservative evangelical. We, obviously, "grew up together", yet I changed theological directions completely while he remained static. Our personalities are very similar when it comes to non-religious things. We do not discuss theology/religion, so I agree with that part of the post. But, with backgrounds so similar, same life circumstance, similar personalities, etc; why the vastly different end result?

  4. Chaos theory. The Butterfly Effect. Sensitive dependence upon initial conditions.

    Human experience is so complex that even slight differences grow, magnify and amplify over time.

  5. Yup.  The real wonder of it all is that there are any central tendencies among us, period.  I suppose that's traceable to the fact that most of the questions we ask (theological, political, etc.) have binary answer sets - "do you, or don't you?" - or at least highly constrained ones.  If the questions we asked had infinitely diverse answer sets, we might just appear to be a mass of random humanity, owing to the compounding effects of individual experience.


  6. "Attempting to be good soil for each other..." Beautiful. Thanks! Being a theologian, I learn a lot from your psychological perspective on theology. Thanks again.

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