- Roads to Divinity
Not long before he died, Henry David Thoreau was asked by a friend where religion was to be found in his writings. Thoreau responded by saying that his religiosity pervaded his works but that no one noticed it. This result was enabled by the cultural belief that religiosity entailed formal religion, creeds, fixed rituals, and overt discussions of God or gods. Thoreau’s point—a development of Emerson’s “Divinity School Address”—was to show the mistakenness of this compartmentalization of one’s religious life. For Thoreau, genuine religiosity pervades and marks every aspect of one’s being—body and soul. “Our life,” Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1840, “is but the Soul made known by its fruits, the body.”1
Living religiously was Thoreau’s life’s aim, and in fulfilling this aim, he well exemplified William James’s notion of saintliness. For James, saints “are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animaters of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie dormant forever.”2 Living religiously for Thoreau entailed one’s engaging an element of wildness to resist the satisfactions and comforts of “fitting in” that tend to overwhelm us in life. As he suggested in his late essay “Walking,” a religious life requires us to practice a bit of outlawry. This was indeed the central message of the opening chapters of Walden; and by the end of the book, Thoreau asks his readers to create their own laws rather than rely on what they’ve been given: “It is not for a man to put himself in such an attitude to society, but to maintain himself through obedience to the laws of his being.”3 However, outlawry does not come easily to human animals. On the whole, lives of “quiet desperation” and civilized “success” bring us a tameness of life and a devious sort of contentment with which most of us live and yet are not fully content. This is the key to the experiential forcefulness of Nietzsche and of existentialism generally. For Thoreau, finding a way to live religiously in the face of this [End Page 87] discontenting contentment requires more than a sheer act of will. We must put ourselves in position to find exemplars for re-envisioning our lives and to find catalysts that will awaken us.
In 1853, Thoreau wrote that “[n]ature is a prairie for outlaws.”4 Natural—wild and uncivilized by whatever measures one uses—settings are important to living religiously. Nature enables, and sometimes engenders, a “border existence” where we must remain awake and carefully alert and attentive to what goes on around us. Thoreau offers a stunning example in “Wild Apples” when he argues that the taste of the wild apple is only genuine in its home setting. For Thoreau, nature requires a simplicity of life that helps us stand back from the fray to see our lives as they are—lost in the petty concerns we have created for ourselves. Finding the divine in the natural, we can better judge our own existences and develop a deeper sense of humor and a moral depth we otherwise miss. In short, living in league with nature is one way of living religiously.
Thoreau lived a relatively private life and in 1852 wrote: “I pine for one to whom I can speak my first thoughts; thoughts which represent me truly; thoughts which have a bloom on them, which alone can be sacred and divine.”5 Over the years, Thoreau has found many of us who hear the sacredness and divinity of his thought and life. Even in the nascent years of neuroscience, there are readers who feel the force of Thoreau’s question: “With all your science can you tell me how it is, and whence it is, that light comes into your soul?”6 In a steady and patient way, Thoreau’s writings—the bodily fruits of his soul—give evidence of his Jamesian saintliness as “an effective ferment of goodness, a slow transmuter of the earth into a more heavenly order.”7 Both his life and his writings offer us a way to rethink what we mean by living a...