Religious Naturalism: Thoreau, Justice, and The Human

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This essay is a critical response to Alda Walthrop-Lewis’ capacious rendering of Thoreau’s religiosity, or his cultivation of a just, multispecies community in Thoreau’s Religion: Walden Woods, Social Justice, and the Politics of Asceticism. I focus on a key principle in the text that also animates my work as a religious naturalist: affirmation of a relational ontology that structures all existence, including humanity’s. I see this concept of relationality 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. From the vantage point of religious naturalism, Thoreau’s enactment of his humanity in Walden is both admirable and illuminative 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. I further explore this line of thinking, reflecting on Balthrop-Lewis’ depiction of Thoreau’s enacted humanity in Walden with key insights from religious naturalism. I view Thoreau’s enacted humanity as an epistemological site that generates deeper reflection on humanity’s relationship with myriad nature, focusing on two themes: (1) Thoreau’s concept of relational justice and (2) the perspectivism he endorses. I conclude with some brief reflections on Balthrop-Lewis’ model of contemporary environmental ethical practice, asking her to consider what politics of nature, if any, is implied therein.


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Religious Studies


This essay was published in Marginalia's " A Forum: A Forum on Alda Balthrop-Lewis' Thoreau Religion"