Thoreau & The Way of Jesus

A few years ago when we moved to Massachusetts, I made the discovery that we lived a mere fifteen minutes from Walden Pond. Since high school, I had long been intrigued by the life and work of Henry David Thoreau, and my new found proximity reintroduced my obsession. Yet, as I started frequenting Concord and picking up some of the best biographies on his life, I found out that not everything was as it seemed.

When we think of Thoreau we often conjure up images of a hermit, a man living on his own terms, describing for us a lifestyle of simplicity, self-trust, and self-reliance. We’ve been taught, about a man in isolation, discovering a fuller experience of living in nature and not tied down by the constraints of others. We believe this in part because it is how Thoreau frames out his own two-year experiment in Walden: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” He states elsewhere, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Yet, it was mostly performance art. Anyone who has actually read Walden or visited Walden Pond knows it sits on the outskirts of Thoreau’s hometown. It had long been inhabited by formerly enslaved Black residents, and by the time Thoreau showed up, it still was home to the town’s outcasts. Hardly the stuff of a rugged individualist truly living in the wilderness. In fact, Thoreau’s odd choice to live on Walden attracted plenty of visitors and company on an ongoing basis. Even more interesting is the fact that he spent plenty of time in town, including eating meals with family and having his mother do his laundry.

The latter point is stuff that has been the subject of a lot of debate. Biographer Laura Dassow Walls in her book Henry David Thoreau: A Life states: “No other male American writer has been so discredited for enjoying a meal with loved ones or for not doing his own laundry.” She’s right, of course. But Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement he belonged to shaped much of the American imagination. Thoreau, in particular, created a character-theme at Walden that has impacted our beliefs of working for ourselves, caring for ourselves, and answering only to ourselves. The truth of Walden makes this nothing more than a veneer.

Now, I should stop and commend much of what Thoreau stood for and the many wonderful things that came from Transcendentalism. They took stands on abolition, women’s rights, industrialization, and many other worthwhile causes. Still, these facts do not make them above critique.

In the 1970s, Dr. Geert Hofstede, a psychologist, published a decade worth of findings on culture with an index that ranked countries based on several dimensions. Among those dimensions is how a country ranks in terms of individualism versus collectivism. According to Hofstede’s work, the United States ranks as the most individualistic culture on the planet. In many ways, Thoreau and his cabin in the woods sit as the model for who we’ve become. He, Emerson, and the rest of the Transcendental thinkers repackaged European Romanticism for us and helped create a tidal wave of personal independence we still strive for today.

All of this should matter deeply to modern Christians. Like anyone from any culture, much of how we see our faith has been shaped by our cultural heritage. As the last 18-months have shown, American Christians deeply worship “their rights.” Issues on masking, vaccines, and governmental mandates have split congregations and have been the source of public debate among Christians on social media. While such conversations can sometimes be healthy, most often our rhetoric and the way of life we’re championing isn’t.

This doesn’t stop at COVID, though. Our deeply rooted individualism impacts discourse around racism, justice, and immigration. Spiritually, this foundation has impacted our Gospel presentations and even how we view our participation in church.

Sadly, few Christians I interact with recognize that much of their decision making sounds a whole lot more like Thoreau than the Apostle Paul. Most of us are championing a worldview that traces its heritage through Walden Pond and not the Sermon on the Mount. We appear to be much more loyal to the Romantics than to the Resurrection way of life. As Scot McKnight puts it in A Fellowship of Differents, “… far too much of Christianity is obsessed with that which is personal, individual, intimate, devotional, and private. In other words, the Me.”

Thoreau’s whisper is in our ear, and we need to recognize it for the siren call that it is. Not only does history show us that he played at being a self-made man, living his life interconnected and dependent on many others, his beliefs are fundamentally antithetical to the Christian community. If we are to truly walk in the way of Jesus and live in light of the Gospel, we must consider that we need to let some of Thoreau’s theory on life die in the grave alongside him.

The early Christians understood that the Gospel changed their priorities. To love God was to learn to share His heart for all people and all of creation. The church from its inception became the place to practice this and to showcase the oneness of God to the world. McKnight, again, points out, “The one who drinks the Me-beer of Thoreau will not find the We-wine of the Eucharist to his taste.” He goes on:

The We of fellowship, then, is spiritual, it is social, and it is financial. But fellowship is not something we create; it is the result of God’s work in us. When God’s people live in fellowship with one another, when they “do life” together, the church embodies the gospel about King Jesus and people respond to the gospel about him. When they live in fellowship, the Me finds its joy in the We. It’s messy, believe me, very messy, but no matter what the mess, the gospel is at work to turn messy people into holy people, even if it takes a lifetime (or more).

As McKnight references, this is absolutely difficult. We aren’t called to uniformity or to diminish our differences. Instead, we are called to a love that transcends them (Gal. 3:28), one that in the model of Jesus lays down its own rights for the flourishing of others.

This way of life extends well beyond the Christian community, though. Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount, in particular in Matthew 5, make it clear that our call transcends individual rights and self-interest. The work of the Gospel becomes visible and tangible to the onlooking world when we lay down our lives, offering love, grace, forgiveness, community, and sacrifice, instead of consuming ourselves in personal liberty.

In fact, maturity in our Christian walk means understanding that there is no such thing as an “autonomous self,” everything we do is impacted by others and ultimately impacts others. I love the way that Frederick Buechner puts it as he riffs off John Donne:

…humanity is like an enormous spider web, so that if you touch it anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling…The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt. Our lives are linked together. No man is an island.

Can the American church rediscover this in its moral and ethical considerations?

The reality is that the answers to much of what divide us aren’t necessarily easy. That said, we must stop allowing our flawed, cultural influences to shape our disposition in such discussions or in our end goals. From the pew to the laptop keyboard, we must struggle together in how to not look after our “own interests, but also to the interests of others,” (Phil 2:4). The Gospel has never, ever been about working just for ourselves, caring only for ourselves, or answering just to ourselves. It’s time to allow Thoreau’s literary theatre to stay on its stage at Walden, and trek back together to Calvary.