Christianity and the American Wilderness

Drawing upon the work of  Lynn White  and Roderick  Nash, most of ecocriticism has accepted the discourse which posits the American environmental literary tradition as  a romantic contrast to Christianity’s supposed hostility to nature. But this is a serious misreading of the tradition. In fact, the main champions of the American wilderness writing, Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, Jeffers, Abbey, and  others, all are children of a Calvinist culture and their fascination with wilderness comes not from their rebellion against that tradition, but out of a typological reading of wilderness that goes back through the Christian typological tradition to the Old Testament.

That so many of the writers for whom “wilderness” was a mythic place of spiritual import came out of Calvinist families is no coincidence. Robinson Jeffers is one poet whose  celebration of nature as the reality outside  of our human illusions is widely admired by American nature writers, But the connection of his implicitly theological themes to his father, who held the chair of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis at Western Theological Seminary, is widely ignored.  Jeffers grew up reading the Bible, saying the prayers taught him by his father, and memorizing the shorter catechism. In many ways, his “inhumanism” needs to be seen  historically as a secularized version of his father’s Calvinist theology.  Indeed, the perception of wilderness as, yes, a place of pure terror but also of spiritual transformation is central to the American religious experience. That generations of eco-critics have quoted White’s rejection of Christianity as hostile to nature is a stubborn example of what Perry Miller called “obtuse secularism.” To set the record straight,  we need to challenge what is in fact a hostile stereotype and rediscover the Christian theological roots of even our most  dedicated of American nature writers.

This, I know, goes against all that is typically taught in our universities and colleges these days. Nature writers , in particular, are all too pleased to quote Lynn White’s influential essay blaming Christianity for our ecological mess. If White’s essay is not enough, Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind echoed White’s message. More recently. Max Oelschlaeger  and  William Cronon  have echoed this same  critique. To complicate things further,  the rise of the Christian right as a bulwark of conservative and anti-environmental politics has reinforced  this  view of Christian dogma  as the enemy of environmentalism.   All the more reason why an alternative reading of the origins of America’s wilderness tradition  needs to be carefully spelled out.

What, after all,  do John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Robinson Jeffers have in common with Dave Foreman and Edward Abbey? All of these are  famous champions of wilderness; for that we admire them. But all of these white men are also heirs of a religious tradition which established the basis for their fascination with wilderness. We tend too much to emphasize the romantic roots of the wilderness tradition, as if a monist theology was a necessary prerequisite for our interest in the wild. But there is another tradition, one that predates Emerson and Thoreau, and the influence of this tradition has yet to be appreciated.

In addition, we nature writers, like most of our colleagues in the humanities, search out and champion minority voices that had long been overshadowed by an emphasis on the canon. This piles onto the condemnation of the “dead white males” of the once-mainstream Anglo tradition and further obscures the contributions that older canonical tradition has made. We are much more comfortable  tracing our values to native American traditions than to the dour Puritanism of Jonathan Edwards with his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

But such dismissal of the  Protestant mainstream, understandable as it is emotionally and politically, creates a serious historic mistake. The American fascination with wilderness comes not out of the woods or deserts themselves; it is socially and culturally constructed. It does not come out of Paganism, not out of  Transcendentalism, not out of the Enlightenment, nor from Eastern mysticism, nor did Muir and Jeffers and Abbey learn it from Native American guides. Instead its origins are in the orthodox Protestant presuppositions that to this day remain at the core of the constructed belief systems upon which many Americans live their lives. Muir, Thoreau, Jeffers, Abbey and Foreman all came out of historical Calvinist backgrounds, and if we are to understand the wilderness strain in American culture, it is to that Calvinist orthodoxy we need to look.

This is not a welcome note in any academic setting to the left of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. This I know. But I also know that despite Falwell and the secular tilt of most Academic departments, theology was what theory is. This is not fundamentalism I am talking about here but a profound reading of life which both anticipates today’s theoretical debates as it accounts for our own fascination  with the wilderness as wilderness.

The Calvinist and hence Edwardsian use of wilderness is widely misunderstood. Perry Miller himself said that the New England Puritan fascination with wilderness came out of the New England forests and was not carried over from the old World. In this he was mistaken. Evidence abounds of European Protestants, long before 1630, using the wilderness as a type of the crucifixion.  Roderick Nash in his Wilderness and the American Mind uses Cotton Mather as his archetypal Puritan and thus sees nothing in Puritanism but a hostile attack on wilderness as somehow the devil’s territory. The embrace of Wilderness as the abode where every sinner must go to be converted escapes him. More recently, William Cronon, in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” echoes Nash’s mistake as he writes of the Puritans,

          Wilderness in short was a place to which one came only against ones will, and always    in fear and trembling.  Whatever value it might have arose solely from the    possibility that it might be “reclaimed” and turned toward human ends, planted as garden , say, or a city upon a hill. In its raw state, it had little or nothing to offer civilized men and women.

Long before the Puritans settled in Boston in 1630, even before the outbreak of the Reformation in England,  as Roderick Nash does indeed show in his Wilderness and the American Mind and as I further elaborate in  Wilderness Lost, the  wilderness was already a significant theological metaphor. The origins of this Old World idea of Wilderness that was then carried to America are, Max Oelschlager to the contrary,  to be found not in the Greeks or the Enlightenment, but in the Protestant Reformation, in the very heart of the evangelical core of the nation’s founding, not in its fringes but in its mainstream.

In the hermeneutic tradition called typology, a tradition that goes back to the Church Fathers, the Old Testament was read as an extensive metaphor, or type, of the new Testament, which itself was read as a model for modern life.  The literal history of the Children of Israel and their sojourn to the Promised land signified the spiritual death and resurrection promised in the New Testament. In this reading, the Children of Israel were the Children of God, of whatever nation and race and time; Egypt the universal symbol of the constructs of the literal world; The wilderness, the void outside of worldly constructs; and the promised land, the promise of escaping from the sham of textual corruption and finally returning to the paradise where our original ancestors once walked in the garden with God.

To leave Egypt was to leave, not just political oppression, or worldly sinfulness, but the constructs of the world itself. It was to leave rationality behind, to head into egolessness in the hope that out of the destruction of rational consciousness might be reborn a new consciousness this time alive with the spirit and at one with God. It was not a political but a spiritual journey, one which required the surrender of the human illusion of agency and presence  and  control to the  reality outside ourselves,  to head into that place Derrida said did not exist, the reality outside the text.

In coming to the howling wilderness of New England, the Puritans wanted both the crucifixion in the wilderness and the passage into Zion, but they knew that crucifixion had to precede resurrection.  They assumed that human beings, alienated from life, at war with both their own nature, to be incapable of  spiritual insight by their own efforts. To get right, to experience an at-one-ment with nature, they believed that they first had to , like Christ, undergo a psychic crucifixion before they could be transformed. And following the typological metaphor of the children of Israel escaping from Egypt,  they believed that this experience had to take place in the wilderness.

Yet since the Children of Israel left Egypt and entered into the wilderness in order to die unto their old selves and be reborn, the wilderness has been the type or symbol of the central religious experience of Christianity. Here is Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion :

             We must regard the Egyptian bondage of Israel as a type of the spiritual        captivity   in which all of us are held bound, until our heavenly vindicator, having freed us    by the power of his arm, leads us [ across the wilderness] into the Kingdom of         Freedom.


Here is the influential English Puritan preacher William Perkins, who died in 1602:

    As the Israelites went through the red sea across the wilderness to the promised land of Canaan, so we must know that the way to the spiritual Canaan even the Kingdom of Heaven is by dying unto sinne.


Here is John Preston the master of Emmanuel College, another early English Puritan:

Consider first: the greatness of thy sins in particular and make catalogues of them. And then secondly, let our actual sins lead us into our corrupt heart, which is the root of all. So God dealt with the children of Israel Deut. 8.2. where it is said God led them 40 years in the wilderness, to humble them and to prove them, and to know what was in their hearts.

Nor did the literal word “wilderness” have to be used for the congregation to understand the reference. Here is John Welles in London in 1639, assuming his audience knew where it was that John the Baptist prepared the way  for the coming of Christ:

Christ enters not into the heart  by grace unless John Baptist first prepare the way by repentance. God leads us into hell by serious griefe that afterward he may bring us back by the sweet taste of his grace.

In New England, at first landing, John Winthrop made use of the wilderness parallel. As did John Davenport and Peter Prudden when they founded New Haven a few years later, preaching on Christ in the wilderness and asking the scriptural command, “What came ye out in to the wilderness to see?” In all of these sermons, the literal wilderness was obvious, but the ministers all took pains to insist that the literal wilderness into which they had entered  was but a type of that spiritual wilderness within the human soul.

One of the few differences can be found, not surprisingly, in the sermons of John Cotton, that near antinomian, who said that God had planted the colonists “not in the wilderness of the world but the garden of his church.” This was and remains the heart of the debate: should our approach be a negative dualist theology,  in which we are in the wilderness and God still absent, or should ours be a monist theology celebrating presence in which we are in “christ” in the garden, at ease in Zion? The first generation clearly saw themselves as sinners in the wilderness. John Cotton was nearly expelled along with the antinomians for his tilt the other way.

But  Thomas Hooker of the first generation of  New England Puritan Ministers, educated in England, is the Puritan most widely quoted for his wilderness references. He was also a favorite of Jonathan Edwards who borrowed from his sermons. Hooker said explicitly that ”their being in the wilderness was a type of the saints’ conversion.”

   There must be contrition and humiliation before the lord comes to take possession…. This was typified in the passage of the children of Israel towards the Promised Land. They must come into and go thru a vast and roaring wilderness, where they must be bruised with many pressures,  humbled under many over-bearing difficulties, before they could possess that good land. The truth of this type the prophet Hosea explains (Hos 2:14,15) “I will lead her into the wilderness and  break her heart with many bruising miseries, and then I will speak kindly to her heart….

The mistake that Nash and Cronon make comes  by emphasizing  third generation Puritans like Mather rather than those more mystical theologians like Hooker and Edwards. By the third generation, Puritanism in New England had degenerated in to a “state apparatus,” not a mystic calling to conversion but a settled way of life. Where the first generation of Puritans had identified with the children of Israel in the wilderness, still sinners, still struggling, still advancing toward a promised land off in the distance, the third generation, having grown up in their parents pews imagined that they had become the Children of Israel of the Promised Land and were, despite Scripture’s waning “at ease in Zion.” They imagined themselves converted, in Christ and thus beyond the need for wilderness conversion.  This is an entirely different mentality.

The first generation minister Thomas Shepard had urged his congregation to be converted in the wilderness. His son, Thomas Shepard Jr.  years later, could not understand all this call for wilderness conversion. In “Eye-salve,” a sermon preached in 1673,  the younger Shepard no longer sees the wilderness as a place for sinners to go to get converted. Instead he is puzzled that anyone might want to return to the wilderness since he imagines himself and his congregation already saints, already saved, already in Zion.

This fear of the wilderness and the assumption of grace in Zion is the mentality that Nash and Cronon  attribute to all Puritans. But it was not the whole picture by any means. Cotton Mather may have never doubted that he had crossed through the wilderness was truly in Zion. But for that, he has stood in our history as the very epitome of Puritanism at its worst, but he was not representative of the whole.

But even then, many  saw Mather’s position as a mistake.  Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, is perhaps the man most responsible for bringing back  the wilderness tradition of hell-fire and damnation preaching. He rejected the prevailing notion that the members of New England churches, half way or otherwise, were in fact truly converted, truly “in Christ,” and truly at ease in the Garden.  He lambasted the pious hypocrites in the front rows shouting:

Men in a natural condition live in a world of sin….Some live in ways of sensuality, and wallow like swine in the mire; Some live in ways of injustice, they are beasts of prey; Some are mere earth worms, seeking an heaven upon the earth; They are under the curse of the serpent. Such shall be the serpent’s meat. And such of them as are addicted to morality and religion are serving their lusts therein. The most orderly natural men do live an ungodly life.

During his ministry, he experienced five periods that he called harvests in which sinners, smitten by the power of his words, felt the terror of the void and became, so he hoped, true Christians.  His famous acceptance of anyone, not just the saints,  to the sacraments has often been interpreted as somehow a liberal democratic move, as if he was saying that all people are equally good and thus ought to be admitted to the church supper. Instead, he was saying that all people are equally bad, the so-called converts in the front pews as well as the outright sinners in the back, that they were all sinners in Egypt and all had to undergo his wilderness preaching.

Having learned his theology and his preaching style as an assistant to Stoddard, Edwards also believed that the community had become complacent and self-satisfied, so he too returned to the first generation’s emphasis on wilderness conversion. When he took over the Northampton pulpit, he continued in his grandfather’s practice of preaching hell-fire to the whole congregation.  Solomon Stoddard had led the way back into the wilderness, but it was Edwards and his powerful style which sparked the Great Awakening and carried this language throughout the colonies.

I could offer many examples of Edwards’s use of the image, but let me quote one in particular, my favorite, from his Treatise on Religious Affections:

And that it is God’s manner of dealing with men, to lead them into a wilderness before he speaks comfortably to them, and so to order it, that they shall be brought into distress, and made to see their own helplessness, and absolute dependence on his power and grace, before he appears to work any great deliverance for them, is abundantly manifest by the scripture. Then is God wont to repent himself for his professing people, when their strength is gone, and there is none shut up or left,  and when they are brought to see that their false Gods can’t help them, and that the rock in whom they trusted is vain. Before God delivered the Children of Israel out of Egypt, they were prepared for it, by being made to see that they were in an evil case, and to cry unto God because of their hard bondage. And before God wrought that great deliverance for them at the Red Sea, they were brought into great distress, the wilderness had shut them in, they could not turn to the right hand or the left, and the Red Sea was before them, and the great Egyptian host was behind them, and they were brought to see that they could do nothing to help themselves, and that if God did not help them, they should be immediately swallowed up; and then God did appear and turn their cries into songs. So before they were brought to their rest, and to enjoy the milk and honey of Canaan, God led them through a great and terrible wilderness, that he might humble them, and teach them what was in their heart, and so do them good in their latter end.

The fruit of this conversion, Edwards preached, would be a new sense of the beauty of God. Too many teachers, if they teach Edwards at all, teach “Sinners in the hand of an Angry God” without understanding that it represents only half of the Calvinist position,. There is the wilderness, but there is also the promised land of Canaan. There is crucifixion, but there is also resurrection. The trick is keeping these in balance, not to surrender to despair, but neither to assume an arrogant self-righteousness. “Sinners in the hands” always should be taught alongside “The Divine and Supernatural Light.” It is in this latter sermon that Edwards outlines the possibility of regenerate vision, that “new sense of the Glory of God” which could come to one who had been through the wilderness and truly changed. He made it as clear as he could that the new light is not dogma, nor behavior, but a mystical sense of the beauty of the whole. Justification was not a justification of the sinner because he believed in Christ; it was an acceptance of the justification of Christ in place of the sinner’s own justification which would never come to be. “Not me, but Thou, O Lord” was the cry of this theology. The perception of the beauty of the works of God, including nature in all its glory, was part of that regenerate perception, Not something that came to all people democratically. By no means. But something that came to the saints who had been sufficiently terrorized and had died unto their old selfish selves.

Nor is this appreciation of the beauty of the whole an academic or, in Edwards’ words, “speculative” belief.  It cannot be taught in a classroom. Edwards’ famous line is important:  “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.” It is an emotional, or spiritual, experience that can only be obtained as a result of the crucifixion of the self, or losing oneself in the wilderness.

But his treatise Religious Affections is testimony to the tragedy that beset Edwards, and still I would argue is the bane of environmentalism, if not Protestantism, today.  Edwards made a tragic mistake, an understandable one, but one with terrible consequences. He allowed himself to believe too readily, to embrace too quickly, to let his hopes get ahead of the evidence before him. Perhaps the physical beauty of the Northampton woods seduced him into mistaking the type for the anti-type. Perhaps his wife’s mystical oneness with nature swallowed him up. Once the Awakening had shaken the land, he began to believe that perhaps these were the end times,  that the Millennium was about to begin, that it would begin in America, and if so, then the need for wilderness conversion would be over. Israel could be said finally to have arrived in Canaan and could rest under the fig trees in the land of milk and honey, that Christ was come. Hence was born American evangelicalism with all of its triumphalism. Edwards realized his mistake. He wrote Religious Affections, so he said, to try to set the record straight, to say, yes there is such a thing as a true religious conversion, but there are also false conversions. The point of the book was “to distinguish true religious affections from False.”

But it was too late. Once imagining themselves born-again saints in Canaan, the people were not willing to return with Edwards to the wilderness. Instead, he lost his pulpit, and many of his followers, imagining themselves beyond the need for terror, saw the wilderness not in terms of the terror sinners had to undergo, but as the arena where the sinful soul loses its self-love and becomes converted. Emphasis upon the terrors of the damned changed to emphasis upon the joy of the delivered. Images of the garden regained replaced images of hell.  The wilderness became nature. Any mere sensation of beauty became the divine and supernatural light. Romanticism was born.

Partly because of Edwards’ revival of wilderness typology, wilderness came to be seen both among the evangelicals and among the secular romantics as the place where the soul goes to get in touch with God.  In his book on Virginia in the American Revolution, the Australian historian Rhys Isaacs noted,

While the fields became scenes for collective redemption, the woodland wilderness became the proper setting for individual spiritual quests. Jesse Lee’s father ‘one day when his conviction was deep and his distress very great, went out into the woods and continued traveling about, and mourning for his sins.’ His sons, in their turn, took themselves off into the wilderness. Indeed, such solitary wandering seems to have been an expected preparation for conversion. John Taylor sought out ‘a lonesome mountain, where nobody lived’ and James Ireland constantly sought ‘solitude and retirement in the woods.’ For these men, the wild forests had become the appropriate haunt of the isolated individual and a symbol of his quest.

Thus was spread the nature romanticism we know so well today, the notions perpetuated by Emerson and Thoreau and others that to go into the woods is to get in touch with the divine. Emerson’s was a literal misreading of a theological metaphor. Because of this misreading,  wilderness which had been a holy terror into which men were called to be converted became nature, the holy garden, into which men were called to walk at peace with God. Emerson’s Calvinist Aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, urged her favorite nephew into the wilderness that he might experience the terror of God and be  converted. Emerson went into the woods, sat on a log, and waited for the mystic visions to come. Frustrated, he wrote back to her. “Perhaps in the Autumn, which I hold to be the finest season of the year,  and in a longer abode the mind might, as you term it, return upon itself.” His call to return to nature to experience the divine can be seen as a literal misreading of a theological metaphor.

But the old wilderness typology, although it became a minority viewpoint, never completely died out. Edwards himself can be said to have lost his battle against the Arminians. Calvinism as a system died to be replaced by Evangelicalism and secularism. But Edwards ideas remained influential among an enlightened, or maybe I should say un-enlightened, few.  In a letter to Hawthorne, Melville speaks of periods of dark depression, a sense of original sin and total depravity,

the likes of which men like you and me, and some others, forming a chain of God’s posts around the world, must be content to encounter now and then…. But come they will, for in the boundless, trackless, but still glorious wild wilderness through which these outposts run, the Indians do sorely abound, as well as the insignificant but still stinging mosquitoes.


Unlike the romantic monists who believe they are “in Christ” or “at one with Nature,” those who believe that humans are somehow cut off, separated, fallen, and unable to comprehend God  either through intellect or feeling the truth within their cells, are known as dualists. They may believe in a God, but their God is an Absolute Truth  beyond human comprehension.  “Our cockleshell,” said Hooker, “can  never comprehend God’s sea.” Augustine’s division of the cosmos into the eternal City of God and the fallen City of Man is a good example of a dualism. Luther, an Augustinian monk, shared this sense of a fallen humanity ensnared in original sin. For him, sola fides, faith alone, was less a human experience and more of an abstract acknowledgement of the Divine Other, not a sense of oneness with it. Augustinian piety is self-denying, not self affirming: “Not I but thou, Oh Lord.” Monism celebrates presence; dualism views the human constructs of the world as illusions which only seem real but in reality manifest absence.  Where the monists believe they are justified because they sense the divine within them, dualists read Luther to mean “we accept Christ’s justification IN PLACE OF our own.”

Such a dualist theology is what Lynn White famously accused of turning Christianity into an ethic that  destroyed man’s intimate  oneness with nature. The usual phrase used to denigrate dualist theology is to call it the worship of a “sky God.” The reference is to the notion that God is not down here among the living but “up there” outside of human constructs. In the December, 2009, Orion, Scott Sanders displays a good example of the romantic disdain for such thinking. After asking “How does a tree’s intelligence compare with ours? What can we learn from it? And why, out of the many giants thriving here, does this one repeatedly draw me to an embrace?” he goes on to point out that the religions of the Middle East, Islam, Christianity, Judaism “are all desert faiths,  created by people who lived in the open. There is a sky god, who would be eclipsed by a forest canopy. “ All these religions, he says, cut down the forests to  build human constructs and “to reveal the heavens:” Worship of a sky God has been costly to our planet. Religions that opposed the heavenly to the earthly, elevating the former and scorning the latter, are in effect denying that we emerge from and wholly depend upon nature. If you think of the eatable, climbable, sexy, singing, material world as fallen, corrupt, and sinful, then you are likely to abuse it. You are likely to say that we might as well cut down the last of the old growth forests, drain the last swamps, catch the last tuna and cod, burn the last drops of oil, since the end time is coming when the elect few will be raptured away to the immortal realm, and everything earthly will be utterly erased. Like other monists, Sanders imagines that  he is in touch with the divine, or can be. “Above all, “ he writes, “ I would need to learn to think like the forest, learn its patterns, obey its requirements, align myself with its flow.” He goes one to say,  “There are no boundaries between the forest and the cosmos, or between myself and the forest, and so the intelligence on display here is continuous with the intelligence manifest throughout the universe and with the mind I use to apprehend and speak of it.”

Despite such  romantic, and innocent monism, “here” and “there” are still two separate realms, the city of man and the city of God, and like it or not we live in the fallen constructs of the earth. How to get from here to there is still a mystery. Merely wishing we could or pretending that we have is not enough. This is as true for those Christians who imagine themselves “in Christ” and at one with God as much as for the  Scott Sanders and Annie Dillards of  the secular world. Even the most well-intentioned leave a mess behind them. 10,000 hippies at a Rainbow gathering, even if they hike out their trash and bury their poop, simply by their numbers, leave destruction behind. And often those who  naively think that because they love nature they can do no harm,  end up doing the greatest harm of all.

For,  what if the head is a liar and the heart  a traitor? What if truths that seem self-evident turned out to be tricks of the mind and eye played upon us by the Old Deluder? Emerson’s Calvinist Aunt asked him, what if these whims you would follow are from below and not from above? He answered that he did not believe they were but if so,  then he would live then from the devil. The old Calvinist Minister Mitchell,  prayed to God that he not be  fooled by mere “seemings.” What if the euphoria Dillard feels is not “it” but some clever substitute? Franklin undercut his own rationalist approach by  noting that “So wonderful a thing it is to be a rational creature because a rational creature can find an answer for anything he has a mind to do.” So the rational mind merely rationalizes the desires of the heart. And what if the heart is fueled by lust and greed and self glorification, all these able to disguise themselves in some noble rhetoric? Suppose the head  is a rationalizer of a heart which is a diseased snake. What then?

To go back and to read the debates between the different factions of Calvinists in New England in the 17th and 18th century is to see just this debate taking place, as “consistent Calvinism” degenerated from its high theoretical purity to a state apparatus.  So Calvinism in fact did forget its original otherworldliness and allowed a worldliness to infect it and destroy it from within, a process bemoaned by the faithful as “declension.”

As such, the process of declension began almost as soon as the first boats landed in Boston in 1630. The famous Antinomian controversy was, at heart, not a gender war, but a conflict between post-modernists and essentialists. By claiming that the word of God had come to her as a spirit and that she was utterly convinced of its presence in her, Ann Hutchinson put herself outside of the Calvinist vision. Her expulsion from the colony was an attempt, not to put women in their place, but to put essentialists in their place. Yet the distinctions became too difficult to maintain. Ann Kibbey makes the point in her The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism that “the Puritans” failed to stick to the typological reading of the material world around them and fell to the literalism of assuming the natives of New England were literally the Canaanites, and that justified their genocidal behavior. It is instructive that she uses John Cotton, the  minister closest to Ann Hutchinson, as her representative Puritan. My own Wilderness Lost argues that a similar declension occurred in the Puritans’ reading of the natural land. Called to enter a spiritual wilderness of the self, of which the woods were but a material symbol, they (and their nineteenth-century Transcendental descendants) came eventually to believe that entering the literal woods would somehow convert them. One can see this process beginning  in such early texts as Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity narrative, in which she claims her material ordeal in the wilderness as an equivalent of the conversion experience. Called to be in the world but not of it, as they often said, they failed in what turned out to be the impossible task of keeping the two realms separate in their own thinking.

But in this, so has Derrida’s deconstruction. Does it really deconstruct itself? Or do we see today in the universities schools of deconstruction? departments of deconstruction? the institutionalization of deconstruction? Do we not see scholars quoting theory, and then saying, “therefore…” followed by their own social, political, or intellectual constructions? Is that not exactly how Calvinism turned from its spiritual origins? Is not history repeating itself?

But here is the important difference: Whereas Derrida and today’s otherworldly post-modernists claim that we are trapped in self-referential texts, the Calvinists argued that there was one  remote possibility of escape from the text. If Egypt was the text, then the passage of the Children of Israel to Canaan offered the one possibility of hope.  All but Joshua, that type of Christ, of that first generation of Israelites died in the wilderness, So the chances of escape to Zion are remote. But, as in the movie “The Matrix” that hope however slim is enough to keep one going.

Thus the  Calvinists, however much they shared the discourse of denial, did believe ultimately in the possibility of an escape from the worldly text. Not only did they believe that there is something, however inscrutable, outside the text, but they imagined a way to get from here to there, a way to break out of the cage of subjectivity, to break through the mask, to experience reality fully as it is in itself without any veil interceding. This was the conversion experience in which the old Adam, the humanly constructed self tied to its own self-interests, had to be killed so that a new being, with new perception, could be resurrected from the ruins. Christ on the cross was one signifier of this process. Before him, the sojourn of the Children of Israel, from Egypt, across the wilderness, to Zion, was the original type. Egypt was the type, or signifier, for the world of the text.  The wilderness was the empty void outside the constructs of discourses of human existence. It took 40 years to cross the wilderness not because of the literal distance but because it took that long for the generation that fled Egypt to forget the fleshpots of the world, to get free of their old constructions, and to complete the transformation. This, said their scripture, was “why the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, and to know what was in thine heart” (Deut. 8.2).

Today’s postmodernists, knowing no way to escape the text,  tell us that we must accept our textual cages and take on the political responsibility of  making them more egalitarian. But Melville’s Father Mapple is the type of the otherworldly mystic for whom truth is more important than power, privilege, or prestige, who would escape the text at any cost, for whom, as the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth said of such men, they are “moved neither by pessimism, nor by the desire of tormenting themselves,  nor by any pleasure in mere negation; they are moved by a grim horror of illusion, by a determination to bow before no empty tabernacle” (Barth Epistle 87). That the lone individual might somehow break on through to the other side, might break out of this illusionary matrix of a  text and discover the true Zion was the Puritan vision.  And the means of attaining this vision was  to lose oneself in the wilderness.

We thus have in American literature a consistent tradition of wilderness imagery, which sees wilderness, not just as the literal woods and deserts where no human sets foot, but as metaphor.  The wilderness is the place outside the  constructs of culture in which we are bound. This imagery itself, no doubt, is part of our cage, part of the social constructions of our civilization, one of the oldest. It was one of the first things humans thought important enough to keep alive through generations before becoming one of the first things written down to be preserved, in the documents that came to be the Old Testament.

The journey to Zion, according to this discourse,  requires a terrifying sojourn of 40 years in the wilderness, or like Noah forty  days and forty nights on the watery wilderness, or like Jesus 40 days and 40 nights in the desert.  Ahab endured “forty – forty — forty years … of privation and peril and storm-time! Forty years on the pitiless sea! …. For forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep.” True vision can be obtained, said this  tradition, but only after breaking out of Egypt,  losing ones old self in the wilderness void, and then crossing over into the Promised Land of vision.

Emerson and Thoreau and their romantic friends all hoped that somehow they could get to Zion without having to cross the wilderness, that, in orthodox Christian terms, they could have resurrection without crucifixion, atonement without the cross. Many nature writers still do. The difference between Emerson and Melville is the difference between Nature and Wilderness, between a Romantic approach to Nature and a more problematic view of the human dilemma.

That is why a few, like Edward Abbey, have kept alive this American counter tradition, not a nature tradition but a wilderness tradition. And that tradition is an unbroken thread running through American culture right back from the latest pop culture back through the Puritans to the origins of Western civilization itself.   Here is Abbey in Desert Solitaire:

 In the first place, you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption  and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees,  over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

For the mystics who brought the American Wilderness tradition to these shores, that true sense of the beauty and holiness of the creation, that sense of pure presence,  comes only after leaving our constructions, or contraptions, and entering  this  wilderness; the resurrection of a true vision comes only after the bloody pain of crucifixion. The self is a phony, constructed lie, made up of the shams of a fallen world, but in its painful bloody crucifixion lies the possibility of escape from Egypt  to Zion, from blindness to vision.

This American  wilderness tradition is a mostly northern  European tradition,  and religious, and individualistic, and often male,  and for these reasons it has received much grief of late and scarce can be found in our graduate schools and journals. Much of what is called “the canon” is made up of the texts of this tradition. Such texts are often dismissed as racist, sexist, imperialist, escapist. Their themes are ignored while more recent interpreters of American culture turn the study of our literature into a morality play of evil white males and resistant others. William Cronon is  right when he argues that our conception of wilderness is historically constructed, and he is right that many writers, speaking of wilderness, see only themselves reflected. But in this, he reveals that their idea of “Wilderness” is not the wilderness of this ancient tradition but the garden of nature so beloved by the romantics. His complaint should be more against the misappropriation of true wilderness otherness by romantics. These are the people of who see wilderness as “recreation” and, as many feminists also claim, an excuse to escape from social and political responsibility. Instead, the wilderness tradition, rightly  understood,  provides a means of transformation that is seen as possibly our only way to save ourselves from ourselves.

This argument then is as much about religion as it is about language. The two travel together. In Faith in Nature, Thomas Dunlap concludes, “Environmentalism’s rhetorical strategies, points of view,  ways of thought  remain embedded in this evangelical Protestant heritage, which forms the unacknowledged ground of many environmental attitudes and arguments.” (167)  Mark Stoll has provided a wonderful little window into the importance of historically constructed religious attitudes in the shaping of our modern environmental discourse. In “Green versus Green: Religion, ethics, and the Bookchin-Foreman debate,” he chronicles a debate between the deep ecologists, of whom Dave Foreman is his example, and the political activists, for whom Murray Bookchin is the spokesman. Bookchin basically attacks Foreman and his fellow travelers for what Robinson Jeffers called “inhumanism,” an ecological ethic that puts nature before humanity, that “tends to reduce humanity to nothing more than a mere animal species and the human mind to blight on the natural world.” Bookchin is a humanist, a Marxist, who puts human values first.

What Stoll points out is that Bookchin’s “conflict with Dave Foreman was not just a debate between different brands of environmentalism, but a meeting of different worlds of culture and value.” Specifically, he explains, Bookchin came out of a Jewish tradition which historically has been “a practical religion… of scholarly reasoning and debate … and tightly reasoned  rules.” Foreman, on the other hand, grew up in an evangelical Protestant tradition which emphasized man’s original sin and the beauty and divinity of that which is outside the merely human. Nor is it a coincidence, argues Stoll, that so many of our ecological heroes, Foreman, Abbey, Thoreau, Emerson, Burroughs, Jeffers, Muir, Leopold, all came out of similar religious backgrounds. What we have here is the continuing competition of historical discourses going back to and before the Reformation and still arguing it out. The old wine in new bottles.

IN his intro to Desert Solitaire,    Abbey asks why such allure in the very word “wilderness,” and in his answer to that question,  in his very denial of religious meaning, he reveals his own profound debt to both the imagery and the theology of the Old Testament:

 Under that desert in that dogmatic clarity, the fables of theology and the myths of classical philosophy dissolve like mist. The air is clean; the rock cuts cruelly into flesh; shatter the rock and the odor of flint rises to your  nostrils, bitter and sharp. Whirlwinds dance across the salt flats , a pillar of dust by day;  the thornbush breaks into flame at night. What does it mean? It means nothing. It is as it is and has no need for meaning.  The desert lies beneath and soars beyond any possible human qualification. Therefore sublime. (219)

The literal words are full of denial but the borrowed imagery is full of significant reference. The pillar of dust by day is what lead the children of Israel across their wilderness. It was out of the burning bush that Moses heard the voice of God. And what did Jahweh say to Moses? He said,  I Am that I Am. I can not be defined by human language or logic. Do not even try to imagine you can rightly speak or write my name. I am beyond human qualification, therefore sublime.  Abbey might loudly protest that there is anything of any “God” in the wilderness, but the child is still  father of the man.  Political radicals like to tie Abbey’s radicalism to his Wobbly father, and there is truth to that. But he had a mother too and a devout evangelical Appalachian childhood.  Both were influential.

Like it or not, this religious  wilderness tradition lives, if not in academia, than in the culture itself. Rather than scorn it for its gender and ethnicity and the crimes of religion in history, we need to set Cronon, Nash, and White aside and try harder to understand it. For in understanding it, we might begin to come to an understanding of ourselves.


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