This week, I somehow committed myself to preaching a sermon on Henry Thoreau’s Walden. I think I’m going to connect Walden to ecotheology. Not that Walden is a work of theology (or of philosophy), but I think the book has implications for ecotheology.
Henry James wrote that Thoreau is worse than provincial, he is parochial — in other words, Thoreau is so focused on his “parish” that he isn’t even aware of the “province” or region in which he lives. James is right on the mark, although in the postmodern world being parochial may be a compliment rather than the indictment James meant it for.
Others have criticized Thoreau for being worse than parochial. Communitarians have accused Thoreau of being far too individualistic, to the point where Walden becomes a manifesto for rampant individualism. From a theological viewpoint, the communitarians might criticize Thoreau for encouraging individuals to think it is possible to do religion on your own without a religious community. You might call this “bootstrap religion” because you pull yourself up by your own religious bootstraps.
But I’m not sure it’s fair to accuse Thoreau either of excessive individualism or of parochialism. It’s hard to accuse him of excessive individualism when he devotes chapters of Walden to subjects like “Visitors” and “Former Inhabitants.” He may be shy and introverted, but he recognizes his debt to other people. And it’s hard to accuse Thoreau of being parochial when he quotes widely from religious texts from around the world, including such works as the Bhagavad Gita and the Confucian Analects. Rather than being parochial, he is expanding his conversations beyond the Protestant Chrstian tradition — which is farther afield than Henry James went.
Indeed, from a theological viewpoint Thoreau goes beyond individualism or traditional parochialism — because he expands his religious thinking beyond God and humanity to include all of the natural world. It’s a radical step he takes: he equates Nature with the transcendent. I’d say he equates God with Nature, and then goes further to imply that the divine is immanent in all beings, and even in inanimate objects such as rocks or bodies of water. So rather than taking a stance of radical individualism, Thoreau seems to extend subjectivity beyond humanity and God to all of Nature.
I don’t know how this train of thought is going to turn into a sermon, but it sure is fascinating.