Friday, January 31, 2020

Theology and the Sermon

A wilderness may be very delightful for a man of wit and culture who knows he can return to civilization, but making a living on a frontier is a pretty grim business for an artist and a scholar. (Samuel Eliot Morison The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England 1936
Morison was answering the charge, as common in his day as in ours, of intellectuals bemoaning the lack of fine art and great literature in the first century of puritan life in New England. It was fashionable even then to complain that they wrote little but sermons and theology. The great historian points out that it is amazing that they did anything at all, given the circumstances, and attributes the problem more to the arduous work of founding a colony than any supposed inherent suppression of culture because of that faith. Much of the book points out what they did accomplish compared to many other groups in similar circumstances in history.

It put me in mind of Henry David Thoreau, who I much dislike despite my agreement with a few of his ideas.  Artificial wilderness experiences are fine, and I have liked them myself.  But they carry the danger of convincing us that we understand that life. Thoreau brought his laundry back for his mother to do for him every week, for example. Moving across the ocean to New England, of all places, and during the Little Ice Age, is quite a different matter. They didn't go there to get back to nature - the less nature and more artifice the better, in their view - nor to "get away from it all" in anything but the spiritual sense of getting away from evil and ungodly influence. Going to Walden Pond is fine, but it's not the same thing.

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