By Christopher Zehnder
When I was younger, perhaps purer, but certainly more impressionable, I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. What I read deeply stirred me, particularly Thoreau’s reasons for retreating to the woods. “I went to the woods,” he wrote, “because I wanted 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.” Thoreau said he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” Though I could not fully articulate what it meant to “reduce life to its lowest terms,” I knew it was something I wanted to do. I wanted my small house on Walden Pond. I longed to hoe my patch of beans.
Though a sensualist, I have always been attracted at least to the idea of simplicity. Thoreau thus bespoke my soul with his quest for “life” – by which he meant earthly life; the life which is the “liquid fire” of growing things, the shimmering, crystalline purity of water, the bellowing might of Ocean, the teeming, but silent, fecundity of soil, the driving impetus of autumnal winds. In the waste of our own lives, in the hurry and bustle of the world of men, we miss Life, said Thoreau. “We live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men, it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.”
It was my (secret) approval of Thoreau’ castigation of religion that gave me pause. I knew the words were, at least, near-blasphemous, but I gladly grudged the truth of “most men” are “in a strange uncertainty” whether life is “of the devil or of God.” Such men, said Thoreau, have “somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’” Like an impure image in the mind, which, though resisted, allures, this indictment of religion drew me even while I threw up every defense to impede it. Continue reading