restricted access Chapter 10: Thoreau’s Religion
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Thoreau’s Religion 256 For most men, it seems to me, are in a strange uncertainty about [life], whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” —Thoreau, Walden Through a Glass Darkly “Environmental saint,” “pastoral hermit,” “pantheistic philosopher and religious contemplative”—these are only a few of the labels applied to Thoreau that suggest he was a religious thinker. Among Thoreau’s contemporaries , Emerson was not alone in insisting that although he “used in his writings a certain petulance of remark in reference to churches and churchmen ,” he was actually “a person of . . . absolute religion.”1 More recent commentators have arrived at the same conclusion. Lawrence Buell describes “the religiocentric inquest into the correspondence between the natural and the spiritual” as central to Thoreau’s environmental projects.2 For Buell and others, any understanding of Thoreau as a naturalist, literary artist, or social critic must also take account of the “devotional” calling without which he thought “nothing great was ever accomplished.”3 Thus, while granting that Thoreau was “a highly accomplished and ambitious writer,” Alan Hodder echoes Emerson in asserting that “a dispassionate reader of his journals, his letters, Walden, or A Week can hardly deny that he was an irreclaimably religious person as well.”4 These very texts should move us to consider, however, whether such a conclusion is (as Thoreau says) “somewhat hastily” reached. The question Chapter 10 Christopher A. Dustin Thoreau’s Religion 257 itself may be hastily posed. In his journal entry for June 23, 1840, Thoreau remarks, “We Yankees are not so far from right, who answer one question by asking another. . . . A true answer will not aim to establish anything, but rather to set all well afloat.”5 In posing the question of Thoreau’s religion, one could proceed by settling on the meaning of terms and showing that his thought satisfies those definitions (one could “establish” his religiosity), or one could allow his writing to do what it does so effectively: “to set all well afloat.” Emerson famously observed that although Thoreau’s life was intimately connected with nature, “the meaning of Nature was never attempted to be defined by him.”6 This did not prevent Thoreau from “speaking a word” for it. His unwillingness to define nature followed from the meaning he saw it as having. The same may be said, I believe, of Thoreau’s religion. He himself says as much in the concluding chapter of Walden: “The words which express our faith and piety are not definite; yet they are significant and fragrant like frankincense to superior natures.”7 In what follows, I argue that Thoreau’s vision is fundamentally theological . This is not to say that his thinking is positively theistic. In approaching the question of Thoreau’s religiosity, I am not primarily concerned with establishing his position on the existence of a transcendent or personal God. Thoreau is no more a positivist about religion than he is about anything else. Indeed, this very point is crucial to understanding his religiosity. “The wisest man,” he writes, “preaches no doctrines; he has no scheme; he sees no rafter, not even a cobweb, against the heavens. It is clear sky.”8 Thoreau’s religious view sits within his overall vision of nature. This does not mean that he reduces the divine to the natural, nor does it make him a pantheist. Those who read Thoreau as either replacing God with nature or locating the divine entirely within it are themselves somewhat hasty in treating nature as conceptually solid ground. They overlook the indefinite nature of Thoreau’s nature. Given the difficulty of coming to terms with Thoreau’s religiosity, it is tempting to interpret the religious expressions used by and about him as mere metaphors or rhetorical gestures. We know that terms such as prophecy or pilgrimage, reverence or redemption, can be detached from their strictly religious meaning. But we may overlook the fact that when these terms are being used in the conventionally religious sense, they are already being used as metaphors. An original meaning underlies their conventional appropriation—one that is more experientially concrete. Instead of using 258 Christopher A. Dustin religious language in a way that is less strictly religious, a departure from the conventional meaning might serve to reconnect such language to its original source. Although Thoreau may seek to express his faith in terms...