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.