Thoreau

Just a bit late getting to this, thanks to my wife’s birthday at the same time.

Henry Thoreau has just turned 200. Walden was one of my high school summer reading books, and immediately changed my life. In a fit of authenticity,I attempted to lie under my parents’ evergreens to read it. Ants and needles put a quick end to that folly! But every word aroused my spirit, even as its scope stimulated my brain. At the end, I looked around, in those pre-internet days, for Emerson’s Address to the seniors at the theological school im Cambridge. By the time school opened, that teen was a Unitarian Universalist.

These days, though, I can see Thoreau was a giant due to Unitarian shoulders beneath him. From Emerson he seems to have taken above all the model of spiritual individuality. But Emerson was too much the thinker, constrained in his passions by the urge to anchor in scholarship. From Channing Thoreau took, above all, the romantic hero worship that led Channing to study literary and political figures he admired. Thoreau’s gift — and his radical gesture — was to cast himself as the hero by embracing the experience of his passions, but basing those passions on everyday life and its items. So many religious writers fail where he succeeded: simultaneously enlarging the dimensions of one’s life while shrinking it to insignificance against its contexts.

But in Walden, Thoreau brought into Unitarian Universalism the method we use to this day: appropriation of world religious materials in support of his own contentions. It is worth reminding ourselves that the pioneering scholar of this material, Miss Hannah Adams, had insisted on capturing interfaith materials, as much as possible, in the words of their oown adhetents, and to understand their own purposes. She made clear that she had her own views on religious matters, but insisted that everyone else was entitled to theirs as well. In Thoreau’s era, this material, repackaged by Lydia Maria Child, was still fairly new.

So who was right — the anthropologist or the appropriator? Most people’s religious views change over their lifetimes. Within communities, diverse experiences, rituals, and interpretations abound.  Adams might have over-idealized the very concept she sought to examine, because members within each denomination were treating their own materials the way Thoreau treated everyone else’s.

All I can say is that when UUs complain we have no single sacred text, I rebut that assertion with Walden. And for having to read it  while I was still young enough to build my religious life on his model, I give thanks. Happy birthday, Henry.