Thoreau and The Future of Social Justice

Alda Balthrop-Lewis

At various moments in the 20th century, some corners of US academic culture were blinded to religion, having been seduced by the idea that American society was becoming less religious over time. When the historian Perry Miller described Transcendentalism as a “religious demonstration” in 1950, he took himself to be responding to an academic culture that had emphasized the so-called literary – which was then code for secular – preoccupations of the movement. Fifty years later, the scholar of religion Alan Hodder found himself in a similar position when he wrote Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness, pushing back against a scholarly culture that seemed, to him, to have effaced a key feature of Thoreau’s life: his religion.

There has been a “turn to religion” in the study of Transcendentalism since the late 1990s, a turn in which Hodder played an important part. But even those scholars who focused quite closely on Thoreau’s religion often underemphasized the sense in which Thoreau’s religiosity undergirded his political commitment to justice for all beings. Sometimes scholars described Thoreau, as he described himself, as a mystic, but in so doing they unintentionally participated in a long history in which the ascetic practices taken up by religious mystics have been depoliticized – represented as spiritual in a sort of other-worldly sense – when in many emblematic cases ascetics like these have also been, at the same time, economic reformers taking aim at wealth inequality and labor injustice. A modern, privatized understanding of religion has deeply affected how scholars represent Thoreau’s religion.

Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Thoreau’s Religion: Walden Woods, Social Justice, and the Politics of Asceticism. Cambridge University Press, 2021. Series:
New Cambridge Studies in Religion and Critical Thought. ISBN 9781108891608. 256 pp. Hardcover: $99.99.

For another example of the spiritualization of asceticism, take Francis of Assisi, who was described as an environmental saint by Lynn White in a famous article from 1967. White praised Francis’s doctrine of nature, his nature spirituality, but White was silent about Francis’s economic dissent. Our tendency to erase the radical message from our icons is the reason Dorothy Day is reported to have often said, “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” When working on the research for my book Thoreau’s Religion, I worried something similar had happened in spiritualized portrayals of Thoreau’s religion.

In response to this concern that rendering a practice “spirituality” is often depoliticizing – a concern taken in part from an argument made by the political scientist William Chaloupka that Thoreau has had an “apolitical legacy for American environmentalism” – Thoreau’s Religion argues that contemporary environmentalist followers of Thoreau should take a different lesson from Walden than they often have. People usually read Walden as the “naturalist” end of a spectrum that runs from it to what we call the “politics” of “Civil Disobedience.” But when I read Walden, especially under the influence of Elise Lemire’s Black Walden and Neil Roberts’ Freedom as Marronage, it seemed to me to be just as political as “Civil Disobedience,” especially when interpreted as an expression of religious life and thought.

I see Walden as a book invested in a controversy about the demands of the Christian gospel in a world of unfreedom and economic injustice. As I argue, Walden condemned so-called “philanthropy,” a common Christian response to the poor in the period, and it made its argument on biblical grounds. This condemnation, at the end of the first chapter of Walden, motivated the rest of the book, which offered an alternative answer to the question of what the gospel required of Christians. Where Christian philanthropists tithed ten percent, Thoreau called foul, suggesting that true justice would require restoring to the common wealth all of the profit the philanthropist had gained for himself from the community. The book offered an alternative picture of Christian goodness: the philanthropist should sacrifice his unjust advantage over those to whom he takes himself to be charitable and in so doing establish the relational justice called for by the gospel. 

The rest of Walden painted a picture of what this kind of life of voluntary poverty could look like in Concord; the book was a seduction to the good. The long, descriptive, naturalist, middle chapters of the book aimed to seduce the reader to believe that another economy, a tenderer economy, a just economy, would be better for everyone and, importantly, would fulfill the call of the gospel. Thoreau models what I describe in the book as “political asceticism,” which is to say, asceticism – like that of some famous saints and mystics – that is driven by a religious and political commitment to just economy, including ecological flourishing for all beings.

So Thoreau’s Religion took its inspiration from an effort to clarify the significance of Thoreau’s religion for our understanding of his most famous book, though it is less about the question of what happened in all the intricate detail history offers. (Other scholars have done more detailed work on Thoreau’s engagement with Asian religious traditions and his situation in the social movements of the period. Lydia Willsky-Ciollo is situating Thoreau’s theology in broader religious histories of North America.) My book is concerned more with what we take Thoreau’s life and writing to mean. It is a deeply interpretive project, filled with (perhaps excessively) close readings. It takes religion and related terms – terms like divinity, sacred, virtue, piety, and spirit – as keys that open up Thoreau’s significance for the politics of ecology in our time.

This is important because Thoreau’s reception through the twentieth century has affected contemporary readings. In the United States, it was too easy for elite white readers living in an apartheid society to read the naturalist, middle passages of Walden as an endorsement of our loving relationships to nature, while ignoring the sense in which the book also condemned our wealth and class advantage as a symptom of a society that was still ignoring the radical call of the Christian gospel. As Drew Lanham said in a talk at the Thoreau Society in 2021, “that part got washed out, because it was inconvenient to talk about.”

The generous responses to Thoreau’s Religion help me to think again about what I was trying to do when I wrote it: to offer an interpretation of a book that still has great power among many environmentalists. I wanted to remind people of what many of them already know but are sometimes less than perfect at enacting; it won’t do us any good to save a world and a form of society that is not worth living in. We must do two very important things at the same time: resist unjust economic inequality among humans and offer respect and care for the natural world of which all us humans are an integral part. If Thoreau’s religion is right, those two things may wind up being one thing after all – a new form of life that brings its own delight.

Alda Balthrop-Lewis is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia, where she lives and works on Wurundjeri land. She is a scholar of religion with particular interests in environmental ethics. Her research has appeared in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and the Journal of Religious Ethics.Thoreau’s Religion: Walden Woods, Social Justice, and the Politics of Asceticism (Cambridge University Press, 2021) is her first book.