Thoreau’s Challenge

I’ll be teaching a course on Henry David Thoreau this spring.  These thoughts were springing and sauntering off the pages as I read his journals again.

Thoreau’s Challenge to Religion

In an 1850 journal entry, thirty-two-year-old Henry Thoreau wrote a few thoughts on comparative religion, or at least comparing Hinduism with Hebraic and Heathen religion. As he saw it, Hindu scriptures are “inquisitive and contemplative” when it comes to the divine while the Hebrew bible is more about “personal repentance.” In his view, “Repentance is not a free and fair highway to God. A wise man will dispense with repentance.”

Then, a more generalized statement: “I do not prefer one religion or philosophy to another. I have no sympathy with the bigotry and ignorance which make transient and partial and puerile distinctions between one man’s faith or form of faith and another’s—as Christian and heathen. I pray to be delivered from narrowness, partiality, exaggeration, bigotry.” He ends with this universal perspective:

“To the philosopher all sects, all nations, are alike. I like Brahma, Vishnu, Buddha, the Great Spirit, as well as God.”

The pond-side ponderer got me thinking how we might re-frame Religion in a manner that might, could or should make it potentially more palatable if not simply practical for secular people as well.

Inspired by Henry, here are some challenging suggestions for people of faith who want their faith to be more meaningful, to themselves and others:

Pray to be delivered from prayer.

Study holy books to learn not to depend on scriptures.

Repent from the need to repent or confess.

Attend services in order to attend to service.

Follow a spiritual path in order to leave all spiritual paths behind.

The larger your God, the smaller and more insignificant is Religion.

The louder your theological creed, the more the divine may be found in silence.

A healthy study of Religions—including your own—will help you decide what not to believe as much as what to believe.

The more convinced you are of the truth of your faith, the less convincing you are to those who have faith in truth.

Have enough faith to let go of faith.

In his essay, “A Winter Walk” (1843), Thoreau stated: “The best scripture, after all, records but a meager faith.” What did he mean? In context, the writer was reflecting on the inadequacy of religions and scriptures to speak on the woods of New England, the “cheerful snow,” the “gods of a winter night.” He writes: “Their praises have never been sung.” Holy books don’t speak to the season, the goodness of winter and the breaking of ice on the rivers and ponds.

Henry puts words to some of our deepest feelings and thoughts. He is secular-based, yet sounds like the earth-centered people called Pagans, who do not tend to write scriptures in part because, like the heathenish John Muir, Nature is bible enough.

I wonder how many would be courageous enough to attempt the principles listed above?

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  1. Nicely written. I also enjoyed your ACT article today. Poetry.

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