Religious Naturalism: Thoreau, Justice, and The Human

Carol Wayne White on Thoreau’s Religion

There is much to mine and appreciate in Alda Balthrop-Lewis’ capacious rendering of Thoreau’s religiosity. Thoreau’s  Religion: Walden Woods, Social Justice, and the Politics of Asceticism features a key principle that also animates my work as a religious naturalist: cultivation of a just, multi-species community that structures all existence, including humanity’s. I see this affirmation of relational ontology structuring Balthrop-Lewis’ provocative interpretation of Thoreau’s ascetic practices, enriching her assessment of the socio-political-ecological significance of Walden, and supporting her convictions regarding the significance of Thoreau’s legacy of justice in the contemporary era. This expansive concept of relationality is also why I find Balthrop-Lewis’ assessment of Thoreau’s humanity so appealing, making it the focal point of  my reflections.  

In an early assertion, Balthrop-Lewis observes:  

I am inspired by the life Thoreau lived, especially by the ways in which he articulated the concerns that we share. He resisted the emaciated vision of the human promoted by industrial economy, and I find this feature of his writing deeply heartening. He was funny, and he struggled to find his way, and he loved and was loved deeply. In this way, I am drawn to how he articulated his humanity, and, by doing that, sometimes enables the rest of us to be a little more human. 

While sharing Balthrop-Lewis’ appreciation for the model of humanity that Thoreau enacts in Walden, I am equally intrigued by another possible admission in this passage. Is Balthrop-Lewis also suggesting that in Thoreau we may be witnessing representative humanity?  If so, what to make of this claim? From the vantage point of religious naturalism, Thoreau’s enactment of his humanity in Walden is both admirable and illuminating for many of us today precisely because it offers a conceptual space in which to grasp humanity’s embeddedness in myriad nature, and to explore the ethical resonance of that embeddedness. The main point here is not so much about de-centering Thoreau (an intriguing “representative” human), as much as much as it is about re-centering Walden (representative of myriad nature) as that milieu from which an expansive appreciation of our humanity is possible.  

As I have argued in my various works on religious naturalism, humans are relational processes of nature, essentially embedded and entangled with other natural processes. Accordingly, deeper reflection on the constitutive relationality structuring human existence, and how humans characterize that relationship with the more-than human worlds that sustain us, can make a world of difference in the type of environmental strategies and politics we explore and enact.  

Thoreau’s Conception of Relational Justice  

Balthrop-Lewis creatively conjoins two strands in Thoreau studies to offer a portrait of a complex, composite figure whose activities, reflections, and sense of relationality to many others in Walden Woods can help counter isolationist rhetoric and perspectives found among contemporaries inspired by the figure of Thoreau. She asserts: 

What I mean to do is offer an interpretation of Walden that will unify the two strands I described before, the nature piety and the social justice, to show those who have been inspired by his nature piety that their piety entails a social justice politics, and those who have been inspired by Thoreau’s vision of individualist politics that such a politics rests on a relation to nature that ought to be characterized by piety, which is to say reverent acknowledgment of dependence. 

With this aim, Balthrop-Lewis draws attention to Thoreau’s relational conception of justice, which she distinguishes from other liberal models. Accordingly, Thoreau’s model is rooted in a pragmatic principle that is evident in our situated lives when “we set the relationship between us right”; this principle of justice is enacted “between us not outside of us.”  For Balthrop-Lewis, this notion of relational justice is understood fully when considering the capacious nature of Thoreau’s social world.  She describes Thoreau’s investment  in a social vision that “included more-than-human and more-than-living beings, or, as he usually called the social actors of the woods: ‘inhabitants’”; as well, she notes, Thoreau often spoke of “cultivating  relationships with them, whether by keeping appointments with trees, weeding beans, or by ‘conjuring’ the now-dead ‘former inhabitants’ of Walden Woods.” 

These insights underscore a fundamental feature of religious naturalism that I think is a crucial contribution of humanistic discourse to contemporary ecological studies: the ethical import of affirming and reflecting on the ontological “nature” of nature. As I have argued in Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism, one appeal of religious naturalism within current theoretical debates on nature is its fundamental conception of humans as natural processes intrinsically connected to other natural processes. The advances of the sciences, through both physics and biology, have demonstrated not only how closely linked human animals are with nature, but that we are simply one branch of a seemingly endless natural cosmos. As Loyal Rue contends, humans are ultimately the manifestations of many interlocking systems—atomic, molecular, biochemical, anatomical, ecological—apart from which human existence is incomprehensible. This view of the relational, material human leads me to a deeper appreciation of Balthrop-Lewis’ grasp of Thoreau’s enacted humanity in Walden. In summarizing why Thoreau is vital for many of us today, she writes:  

“But the thing I admire about him is that he saw the deep connections between justice among humans and justice for all beings. He had a nondominative doctrine of nature, it is true, and what it yielded in his life was a radical politics for labor justice that contributed to the enfranchisement of many oppressed people throughout the twentieth century. That is something to admire.” 

I am excited by this vision of Thoreau’s enacted humanity, as it exemplifies beautifully the religious naturalist’s conviction that humans are not outside of the web of relations that constitute life. More specifically,  this description of Thoreau’s humanity aligns with my view that our humanity is not an abstract, metaphysical given, but an achievement that is grounded in an appreciation of our materiality. In other words, awareness of our humanity stems from realizing the irreducible, inescapable, entanglements and mutual interdependence of the human with other processes of nature. This expansive view of humanity takes the form of here-and-now poetic, political, and social expressions of such entanglements. Breaking into view, it is entangled with natural landscapes and processes that inspire  awe, wonder, and gratitude, just as Thoreau demonstrates in recounting his experiences with Walden’s many inhabitants. My earlier point of decentering Thoreau is thus important to consider at this juncture. The many social relationships Thoreau cultivated in the woods inspired him, becoming the impetus for his expansive sense of justice in which the key maxim is to set all relationships right. As Balthrop-Lewis observes, this political-ethical-eco principle is encapsulated in the wonderful phrase, “Such relational setting right just is what justice is.” 

In my work in religious naturalism, I have consistently argued that a naturalized, relational vision of justice addresses various harms to myriad nature, including certain racialized human life forms, in new, radical ways. There is something about the natural landscape—which is to say the grounds on which humans understand our interdependence—that helps us recognize who we are in keen ways. I thus appreciate Thoreau’s enactment of his humanity in Walden precisely because his political asceticism was developed, nurtured, and made possible by his Walden connections. As Balthrop-Lewis argues, “Thoreau’s religious, ascetic practice was conceptually and practically tied to his politics against slavery, industrial capitalism, and wars for territorial expansion. Voluntary poverty, he thought, could contribute to new forms of just economy and government.” Inspired by such entangledness, contemporaries are much more aware of a mode of reflecting on, experiencing, and envisioning one’s relationality with all that is.  As I suggest in Black Lives and Sacred Humanity, “The sacredness of human beings becomes one precondition for conceiving particular notions of communal moral reasoning, for it is only through an acceptance of one’s material, concrete embodiment and perceived relatedness that one begins envisioning (or is even challenged to think of) what might lie beyond one’s self-perceptions and thoughts.” Moreover, recognizing a relational ontology within nature can help us make better sense of intersectional analyses in approaching injustice of any shape or form. Any action done to one affects all. In Balthrop-Lewis’ study, this critical principle seems to be operating in Thoreau’s ascetic politics of clothing and in his investment in a radical politics against industrial capitalism. 

Thoreau’s Perspectivism and Black Walden

Balthrop-Lewis deepens our understanding of Thoreau’s social vision with an intriguing discussion of his “lively interest in spatial, scalar, and perspectival questions,” replete with a sense of the ethical resonance of such perspectivism. For example, Thoreau’s perspectivism “entailed a commitment to viewing figures that might be coded marginal in one way of thinking about society as in fact central.” She also highlights Thoreau’s playful decentering of the outside gaze of the villagers, or that of the random individual who wanders into the woods. Thoreau’s perceived relationality with the various inhabitants of Walden–both alive and deceased—and his recognition that “the center of any society might be anywhere, depending on your point of view” share affinities with the concept of metaphysical perspectivism endorsed by Donald Crosby in Living with Ambiguity. This empirically-driven position contends that the world we inhabit has a plurality of entities, each with its own individuality and particularity of expression. Accordingly, everything that exists in the world has a distinctive perspective on everything else. As Crosby writes: 

“All the elemental particles, atoms, molecules, compounds, inorganic and organic entities and combinations of those entities, including human beings and their histories, cultures, and societies, and all of the actions, reactions, functions, qualities, and traits of these particular things and their relations are included. No two perspectives or systems of them are exactly alike.” 

Thoreau’s evocation of this type of metaphysical perspectivism is highly suggestive in his delight in beholding a “community of creatures and other phenomena” and in the description of days at Walden as “full of animated life.”  

Thoreau’s perspectival approach is also illuminating when considering his accounts of the experiences of “formerly enslaved inhabitants of Walden Woods,” and his sense of the violence done to them. As Balthrop-Lewis intimates, Thoreau’s relational justice employed a perspectivism that recognizes the importance of the voices and perspectives of forgotten blacks who also inhabited Walden. I agree, and suggest that Thoreau’s inclusion of the realities and experiences of Black Walden anticipates the fuller theoretical richness of an African American religious naturalism that honors the nexus of relations constituting nature. 

The problematic racialization of nature that African-American religious naturalism underscores also sheds lights on value of the Black Lives Matter Movement today. Its recent attention to the violations against black lives and its resistance to the forces of anti-blackness as important points of departure — indeed evocations of a moral imagination— are essential for comprehending and championing the value of all processes of nature and all materiality. I  evoke Melvin Dixon’s extended use of the notion of lieux de mémoire  (sites of memory) to augment this point.  In “The Black Writer’s Use of Memory,” Dixon shows how African-American writers reconsider the psychic and physical spaces we inhabit, underscoring how such spaces help imbue group or individual identities. Evoking a site of memory, black writers introduce a political and ethical imperative of reclaiming abject bodies and identities, as well as establishing the value of cultural memory and the very kind of history that is marginalized by dominant textual strategies. Sites of memory help us appreciate forgotten identities by grounding a group or individual’s experience within a larger structure of meaning and cultural relevance.  While I am hesitant to conflate Thoreau’s account of Black Walden with the articulation of sites of memory found among black writers, I still think the remembrances of Black Walden that Thoreau make possible are helpful in unmasking a modern narrative of “racializing nature” that religious naturalists continue to challenge. 

Ascetic Practices, Environmental Ethics, and A Politics of Nature

I end this essay with some brief reflections on Balthrop-Lewis’ view of the favorable role ascetic practice can play in contemporary environmental ethical practices. Inspired by Thoreau’s religiosity and structured by a tripartite aim, she envisions a viable environmental ethical discourse “that resists orienting itself by the desire to solve technical problems ethicists are not competent to address, that accounts for the centrality of character in the moral life, and that realizes that the cultivation of virtue apart from politics is not sufficient to address the most intransigent moral problems we face.” Encouraged by the humanity of Thoreau, Balthrop also suggests that political asceticism offers an understanding of personal practices that is integrated into larger forms of sociality and politics. How we live each day is connected to what politics will become. These astute, wise insights lead me to raise crucial questions about the possibility of constructing a politics of nature. How do our views of the “nature” of nature help us to practice a politically astute environmental ethics?  Can we imagine a politics of nature that can effectively challenge or resist a “popular fantasy of nature rescue” narrative that often undergirds humans’ ethical relations to myriad nature, and in problematic ways?  I believe these questions are monumental and require our attention when proposing a politics of nature in general, and, more specifically, when inspired by the figure of Thoreau, as Balthrop-Lewis seems to suggest with this study. 

In what follows, I offer some tentative reflections on these matters that I continue to explore in my work. First, I consider the possibilities of a politics of nature that asks us to consider the symbolic and ethical resonance of one root meaning of the word “religious,” which is “to bind together,” or to make connection, as in a real relationship. With a profound sense of connection to that which is ultimate as a fundamental meaning of religion, the politics of nature emerging from my religious naturalist discourse explores and celebrates the fact of human animals’ deep, inextricable homology with the rest of the natural world. The human is always, already part of myriad nature. If such is the case, community with other natural processes does not happen to us as a result of our efforts; rather it is that out of which our ethical capacity is made. I think Balthrop-Lewis’ depiction of Thoreau’s ascetic practices in Walden validates this view, as well,  and wonder if she would agree with me. 

Second, the notion that humans’ perspectives are included with, and inflected by, the perspectives of other existents in the universe compels us to ask about the nature and distinctiveness of human agency among other forms.  Here, I consider Kevin Schilbrack’s helpful observation “that the world is deeply and richly structured even before humans arrive on the scene with their particular senses, ways of thinking, and discourses.” In short, humans reside within an appreciable universe. Human modes of valuing can be viewed as part of a vital sphere of activity within the biosphere, understood as a single interconnected system of values and valuing. This idea is suggested in Phil Clayton’s view that every organism, every living thing is an agent composed of communities of living parts, which sense or perceive their environment, process data, and make appropriate responses.  In short, the life-world is agent-centered; it is an ontology of living agents. Does not this multifaceted, constitutive relationality that comprises the “all” provide its own justification for advocating a politics of nature that sees human agency as both distinct and yet not superior to others?  

Finally, with this focus on an ontology of nature, I am keenly aware of the charges brought by Lisa Sideris and others who critique the limitations inhering within the grand narratives of those advancing the New Story, Universe Story, or Epic of Evolution. These are those religious naturalists who are primarily focused on the mytho-poetical possibilities of science. As iterated earlier, my model of religious naturalism invites us to further examine the type of human implied in promoting efficacious agency. It asks whether subtle notions of “anthropos” are driving a politics of nature that perpetuates human animals’ exceptionalism and autonomy from myriad nature, justifying our calls to rescue it. In other words, an astute politics of nature continually questions how, when, and to what extent we continue to harbor outdated ontological lines of demarcation in our environmentalisms. I bring these critical sensibilities to my reading of Thoreau’s Religion, curious about the politics of nature made possible by  Balthrop-Lewis’ rendering of Thoreau’s admirable, illuminative humanity.

Carol Wayne White is Presidential Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Bucknell University. Her books include Poststructuralism, Feminism, and Religion: Triangulating Positions, The Legacy of Anne Conway (1631-70): Reverberations from a Mystical Naturalism, and Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism, which won a Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Titles.