Highland Books

Books & Photographs by Chris Highland

Thoreau

This is an excerpt from chapter 9 in my book Life After Faith

One World at a Time

Before he caught a cold that developed into bronchitis and eventually opened him to a family strain of tuberculosis that killed him at the age of forty-four, Henry Thoreau gave a great gift to us.  He handed us a new tradition that was, in good heretic style, the old way remodeled for our contemporary sensibilities.  That is, if we still believe in common sense.  I wonder if we have that much faith.

Though we seem to take some morbid delight in placing great value on “last words,” Thoreau’s last words are nevertheless instructive.  A short while before he died so young he responded to his friend Parker Pillsbury, a former minister, who wondered aloud what Henry saw of “the opposite shore” across the river of death.  With a cough and a smile, one supposes, the Concord naturalist simply said, “One world at a time.”1  For the ailing naturalist, as for John Muir and many others, time was too precious and life too short to consider the fancies of human imaginations in some other world above and beyond.  Thoreau was content with taking his daily walks, talking with friends and writing about the direct experience of Nature available to each and all.  As one who loved rivers and spent many a day on the water enjoying what lessons it had to teach, Thoreau had no need for speculating about heavenly rivers and other shores.  One world was enough for him.  Can it not be enough for us as well?  

Thoreau had a long-abiding interest in the un-noticed things of Nature, and in what we most need to notice about ourselves in relation to our world and each other.  His perceptive ventures and saunters into Nature, listening for the true voice of the wilderness, sound like the origin of religion, the sentiment of spirituality.  To read his journals is to be challenged to turn our own pages, to write our own journals, in other words, to speak our thoughts, our stories, our truth.  Next to his voluminous journals, his most famous book Walden was simply the story of one person’s attempt to live more simply for a short while.  He went deeper into the woods near his hometown because he felt the desire “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”2 His one-hundred-fifty year old story of a brief two years by a small pond in New England remains a type of natural scripture for living life after faith.  “To learn what [a life in union with Nature has] to teach.” None of us wishes to reach the end of our road or our river and find that we have not lived, or really learned the abundant lessons all around us.  As Edward Abbey titled one of his witty books, one life at a time please!  If only we could keep in mind, there is only one world and one life to live. 

Following his oft-quoted line near the beginning of Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”3 lie a few more gems relevant to a post-religious life.  He says, “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Resignation (or surrender, even obedience) being a central ingredient to religion.  Then, in a sentence that potentially, potently cracks open the psychology of religious experience, he says, “A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of [humankind].” Games and amusements of humanity. . .and humanity’s religions.  The paragraph ends, “But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”  Here, here.  This tendency to desperately conceal the truth brings to mind Robert Burns’ wonderful lines from a poem he wrote to a minister:  “God knows, I’m no the thing I should be, Nor am I even the thing I could be, But twenty times I rather would be an atheist clean, Than under gospel colours hid be, just for a screen.”4  There’s nothing particularly playful or amusing about these “desperate things.”  The young poet would rather choose atheism than hypocrisy.  So would I.

The amusements, the screens, of religion, tragic and desperate, indeed were not far from Thoreau’s wise woodland thoughts.  Immediately following this paragraph he speaks of the Church catechism that asks “what is the chief end of man?” (the correct orthodox answer being, “to glorify and enjoy God forever”—an end for sure!). Thoreau (like his Danish contemporary Kierkegaard) zeroes in on the despair that forces a choice on humanity.  We feel there really is no choice but to deliberately choose “the common mode of living”5 (including common faith).  But “alert and healthy natures” remember that the sun rises new each day and “It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”  “What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion [orthodoxy], which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” A few lines later the young man in his pondside cabin puts the common life in another way:  “Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new.  Old people did not know enough once. . .to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds. . . .”(an amazing description of air travel though he may only have been describing hot-air balloons).

Thoreau recognized that it was time for us to grow up, not to become older, but to become newer and more mature in our thinking–to utilize our imagination and our uncommon sense even with smoke in our faces.  What he raised in his life and at the riverside of his death was what all the great heretics and those in their essential heretical tradition present to us, namely, How do we confront the essential facts of life and rise above our desperation to choose with “alert and healthy natures” something better than what religion has tossed us, to fetch the fuel to raise our imagination and invention that fires and inspires the honest and true way ahead?  It seems that the Massachusetts philosopher was identifying the course ahead, should we choose to take it, the course beyond “common” and catechetical thinking. His entire life leaves a question mark over faith and religion, a monument that seriously doubts the efficacy and true value of religion for our contemporary world.

 

Chris Highland, Life After Faith

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