American Transcendentalism Web
Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism
Resources Search Communication Center
Default text size Big text size Bigger text size Biggest text size

Transcendental Ideas: Religion

"Mountaintops and Riverbanks as Pulpits: A Transcendental Return to Nature"

Christopher Baratta, Binghamton University, NY (2012)

The mountain sat upon the plain/In his eternal chair
His observation omnifold/His inquest everywhere.

As an indication of the necessity of its founding and the breadth of its influence, American Transcendentalism is a difficult movement to define, both in terms of what it stood for and what it stood in opposition to. Perry Miller, a Transcendentalism scholar, believes that the impetus behind Transcendentalism was "a religious radicalism in revolt against a rational conservatism." (Warren 10) Having emerged in the early 19th century, localized in New England, the Transcendental movement took a more radical approach to the notion of the divinity of the natural world than the Unitarian church accepted. It also rejected the tenets of sensationalism, as put forth by Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke and David Hume. It can also be seen as a reaction to the materialism of the 18th and 19th century: "their [the Transcendentalists'] mission [was] to awaken America from the materialistic slumber into which the age of steam was rapidly carrying it."(Gura xi)

If you take each subject of rebellion--the church, Lockean sensationalism, industrial and scientific progress--there is one common link between them: the abandonment of the individual. The church preaches conformity and strict adherence to the word of God; sensationalism negates man's ability to create his own truth, his own knowledge; science and technology abandoned the spirit of man in favor of commerce and material wealth. The Transcendentalists believed in the Romantic vision of man that embodied "self-expression and self-cultivation [that] functioned as a form of sanctification."(Young 58) Each man was a god, and the mission of the Transcendentalist was to champion the self-reliant man; the movement embraced power in individualism. And, as this movement was earlier defined as religious radicalism, it is important to remember that at its root the Transcendental philosophy was theological. This theology did not send its priests and pastors to the pulpit though; instead, it sent them to riverbanks and mountaintops.

This opposition to materialism and confining religious doctrines embraced intuition, spirit, and the individual. Theophilus Parsons, a member of the movement, declared in 1840 that Transcendentalism was part of the "universal loosening of all opinion and belief."(Gura xiv) This "loosening" was a hope that men would look to other sources for divine inspiration. And while Transcendentalism embodied many different aspects of opposition and rebellion, this new source of inspiration that all Transcendentalism scholars recognize is the natural world. An integral aspect of this embrace of nature was a reaction to the new "religion" of scientific and technological progress. According to Robert Penn Warren, "Transcendentalism represented a complex response to the democratization of American life, to the rise of science and the new technology, and to the new industrialism--to the whole question of the redefinition of the relation of man to nature and to other men."(12) What the Transcendentalists were opposed to was the rational, scientific approach to nature, which mostly consisted of an objectification of the natural world. Nature was looked at as something to be studied first and enjoyed second. The Transcendentalists revered nature in a divine sense.1 Nature was not subordinate to them, but instead nature was the other part of a symbiotic relationship.

The study of the relationship of man to the natural world benefitted from a symbiotic relationship with philosophy. Under the Transcendentalists, the study of the natural world became more than the study of organisms and their environment. The environmental philosophy of the Transcendentalists became a religious journey that took them out of the churches and into nature. It became a way of life and a path to the divine. Samuel Johnson, in his 1877 essay "Transcendentalism," analogizes the Transcendental desire for a new vision of nature and a new mode of thought:

Ask a dozen men to think of an external object, say a tree: they all turn in one direction, and a supposed common sensation disguises their individuality; but ask them to look at the mental process by which they know the tree, and each finds that the primal source of his perception is internal; and the inference follows that its value must depend on his personal dignity and freedom.(155)
This analogy is the creed of the transcendental view of nature and of man as individual. A tree is no longer a tree; a tree is now an organic being in union with the observer. As stewards of the natural world and the forebears of the environmental movement, men like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau2 not only preached this creed, but they also lived it. Emerson believed that an immersion, or simply a sojourn, in nature was essential for individuals to reconnect with the organic nature of the self. As eco-philosophers and environmentalists, Emerson and Thoreau were cautious of a society embracing these "old age" values where nature was studied and objectified, rather than revered. Both men saw the symbiotic relationship of nature and man, and they saw the extreme benefits of such a relationship, especially when put into opposition to the religious and philosophical doctrines that they rejected. It must be noted though, that Emerson and Thoreau and their fellow Transcendentalists were not atheists. They were still men who believed in God; however, they abandoned the old doctrines as insufficient and as confining with respect to the full development of the individual self. Malcolm Clemens Young puts it best when describing Thoreau's religious nature: "The way Thoreau wrote about, saw, and walked in nature, and his understanding of these practices is more important for understanding his piety than his attendance record at local churches."(13) Emerson and Thoreau moved the pulpit from the church to the mountaintop.

In his 1836 Nature, Emerson's philosophical foundation concerning the divine, the individual, and nature can be briefly defined as a new path for man to embrace "higher sources of illumination" (Morse 127) through the divine power and an harmonious relationship with the natural world. It is important to note the dual meaning of the tile of this essay, as it alludes to both the natural world and the nature of man. The book is deservedly held in high regard as the beacon of Transcendental thought, as it combined two of the movement's most fundamental beliefs: the natural world as divine and the importance of individualism. Nature stood as a philosophical construct for Emerson; a philosophical pathway to lead man back to a connection with his natural self. This was especially important during the emergence of the industrial and technological revolutions in America. And, it is this view of nature (Nature) as a philosophical construct that separates Emerson from Thoreau.

While Thoreau resided beside Walden Pond, Emerson kept his distance from nature, though he was often seen strolling the Concord green; however, it was on these walks that Emerson surely theorized about the transcendental qualities of man. We can say that Emerson viewed nature as a painter's canvas: the natural world was the perfect empty canvas for his philosophical paintings. The natural world for Emerson is the embodiment of the divine. It was an opportunity for him to bring the divine down to earth; to give people an opportunity to be one with divinity. Emerson believes that "nature concretes the soul."(Young 99) According to Emerson, nature "ministers to man" (25)--a sentiment that both accompanies Emerson's departure from the church and his rejection of the pulpit as a source for the divine inspiration. This is because for Emerson the Transcendentalist, nature exhibits God's creation and it is in nature that man is able to come as close as possible to God.

Sacvan Bercovitch calls Emerson the "first philosopher of American individualism" (101). Emerson aligns the individual with conscience, and places it in opposition to the church and state. The doctrines of the "old age" are to be abandoned. This is evident in the opening of Nature:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? 5
The first step for Emerson toward a universal individualism is a break from the past. This involves new religions and a new interpretation of man. Emerson goes on to say, "Embosomed in a season in nature whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us, by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe."(5)

For Emerson, nature has the power to create a new language for man to speak spiritual truths. And in this book, Emerson employs the Romantic language of poetry and allusions, and discards the language of obedience used by the church. He sees the ever-changing aesthetic of nature as a unified system of revelation, while rejecting the blindly followed Calvinist doctrines. Nature for Emerson is freedom; freedom from predestination and freedom from imprisoned thought. Of the natural world, Emerson says, "All the uses of nature admit of being summed in one . . . It always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute."(14) His use of the word Spirit varies greatly from the definition provided by the "dry bones" that he rejects. Emerson sees Spirit as self-revelatory; each man has control of his own interpretations and his own will: "The world exists for you"(15) he tells his readers.

Although not as often or to the extent as his "disciple" Henry David Thoreau, Emerson spent time immersed in nature. In his essay "The Over-Soul" Emerson places himself in the middle of the universe:

As with events, so it is with thoughts. When I watch that flowing river, which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season, it streams into me, I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up and put myself in the attitude of reception, but form some alien energy the visions come. (262)
Emerson paints an image similar to Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. As the wanderer stands in awe of the fog covered mountains, so too does Emerson stand in awe of the flowing river. Emerson is not only in awe of the physical river though, but also of the relationship of the river to himself, and of both to the divinity of nature. He goes on to describe his new vision of God:
The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all others. . .that common heart. . .that overpowering reality, which confutes everyone pass for what he. . .and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand and become wisdom and virtue and power and beauty (262)
As Emerson now calls the unity of all being the Over-Soul, he creates a new Supreme Being. This Supreme Being displaces the "old aged" doctrines of the past, and the surviving doctrines of the present. The Over-Soul is embodied by the natural world which surrounds "every man's being" and all of reality. Emerson illustrates a secularized interconnectedness that encompasses both physical and mental, man and nature. The Over-Soul is the manifestation of Emerson's thoughts on the unity in the universe. And it is this unity that Thoreau will embrace as he takes Emerson's teachings and embarks on a sojourn into the natural world.

In 1770, Paul Henri d'Horbach published the influential scientific work The System of Nature. Goethe's reaction to this work is a sentiment that one could attribute to Henry David Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists: "How hollow and empty did we feel in this melancholy, atheistical half-night, in which the earth vanished with all its images, the heaven with all its stars."(Warren 14) Goethe is lamenting the death of an individual's experience of the divinity in nature and its images. The Transcendentalists wanted their own version of nature, and not the nature of common sense (in the context of the sensationalism expounded by Locke and Hume), nor the nature confined to science inquiry. They were concerned with a Romantic view of nature; a poetic, divine nature; a nature to be experience and to be united with. For nature to observed and studied in a strictly scientific sense was a blasphemy against the foundation of Thoreau's philosophy.

Seeing the negative effects of the industrial intrusion on both humans and nature, Thoreau understood the need for unity between man and nature. The ideas put forth by Enlightenment thinkers and scientists--of human dominion over nature, materialism, science and technology--were to Thoreau, harmful to a divine unity of man and nature. Like Emerson, Thoreau seeks to "turn away from building monuments for historical religious leaders to seeking God personally in nature." Young's use of the phrase "seeking God personally in nature" (231) shows that he is quite familiar with Thoreau's philosophy. For Thoreau, the power of religion does not lie in a connection to an "historical object of faith" (Smith 489), but instead it lies in an eternal longing for the holiness in nature, and through his works he understands that an understanding of nature merely in scientific terms does little to establish a connection to the divine. This scientific approach--the objectification of nature; an inability to look beyond the physical aspects of nature-- is at the core of what Thoreau was rebelling against when he embarked on his sojourn at Walden Pond.

Thoreau has described himself as a mystic, a transcendentalist, and a natural philosopher. These labels ensure that he neither fits into a narrow world of religion nor science. "Self isolation is the first step to self-consecration" (Johnson 155). The need for this "self-isolation" is a result of his dissatisfaction of the American way of life. In Walden, Thoreau "justifies his rejection of ordinary life in the emerging commercial-industrial republic mainly with his claim that it destroys intimacy with 'the workman whose work we are,' the God who unifies all nature." (Young 13)

"On balance, Thoreau seems to write much more as if nature exists as a whole--as a discrete, living, immanent, and transcendent entity--rather than as a collection of objects which humans project meaning." (Young 56) Thoreau constantly juxtaposes his views on divine nature with materialist, industrial American society. In the chapter titled "Economy," he denounces the need for possessions and rejects the idea that technological breakthrough and convenience are inevitably linked:

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved ends, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate about (Walden,33-34)

Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is considered to be one of the first American studies of comparative religions. The book, published in 1849, contrasts the religions of the East and West. It is in this work, the first of his books to be published, that Thoreau questions if man is able to find God in nature, instead of through traditions, doctrines, and creeds. He tells the reader that he loves "man-kind {sic}, but I hate the institutions of the dead unkind [my emphasis]." He laments the fact that man is governed by these aged traditions and moral codes. And the dead, the unkind, according to Thoreau, "rule this world, and the living are but their executors."(117) To Thoreau, men who subscribe to the old theologies are mere puppets for their God, and they are not individuals; they are not living as God had wished. To continue down that path of obedience to the "dry bones" of scriptures was a dead end; but to embrace nature and the Transcendental Over-soul, one stands next to God and becomes a god himself. To Thoreau, nature is God and God is nature: "Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed. Next to us is not the workman we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are." (Walden 134)

In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the first indications of Thoreau's "eastern leanings" are present. These leanings emerge after careful study, but also with his first descent into what he calls "the wild." We see his wild nature coupled with a rejection of the Christian Sabbath as he declares "there is no infidelity, nowadays, so great as that which prays, and keeps the Sabbath, and rebuilds the churches"3 (73). That is the first step toward an immersion in nature. Thoreau next connects God with the wild. Thoreau is searching for a God that does not resemble the God of the Old Testament, nor does he resemble the God found in Calvinist or Unitarian scripture. Thoreau's God is as wild as he, and he admonishes those who do not embrace this "wildness": "A man's real faith is never contained in his creed, nor is his creed his article of faith." (A Week, 74) This acknowledgment of God's presence in nature and not in creeds or doctrines is the next step toward finding the divine in nature. In order to take the next step, Thoreau is aided by Asian philosophies and their dedication to nature as a spiritual conduit to the divine.

Thoreau's connection to Asian religions opens up a new understanding of his views of the divine in nature. Thoreau was well-read in the scriptures and traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the writings of Confucius. Arthur Versluis quotes Thoreau scholar Rick Fields who sees the mix of Asian religion in Thoreau's philosophy:

One might say that Thoreau was pre-Buddhist in much the same way that the Chinese Taoists were. He forecast an American Buddhism in the same way that a certain quality of transparent dawn forecasts a clear morning. . . .He lost himself in nature as the Chinese painters did, by becoming one with nature....He was perhaps the first American to explore the non-theistic mode of contemplation that is the distinguishing mark of Buddhism. 93
Versluis sees the connection to Asian scriptures in the conflicts found in two chapters from Walden, "Economy" and "Higher Laws." In "Economy" Thoreau battles with a prudent approach to goods and possessions: "With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wise have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese Hindoo [sic}, Persian and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, [but] none so rich inward" (8-9). This idea of prudence with respect to economics is, according to Versluis, influenced by Thoreau's readings of Confucius and the Hindu Laws of Manu, and not the sentiment shared by his fellow American: "American business cry 'expand,' and Thoreau cries 'simplify!" (84)

For this study though, I want to focus on Thoreau's connection to Taoism as I see this connection to be the strongest in its revelation of God in nature. Thoreau's knowledge of Taoism is a contested issue among Thoreau scholars. I belong to the school that sees a direct influence of Taoism in Thoreau's writing, most prominently in his journals and in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.4 Concerning Field's observation on the mixture of Asian thought in Thoreau's work, Versluis says that Fields is "on the mark" and that Thoreau's natural contemplation closely parallels the Taoist love for and absorption into nature. A simple description of the beauty of the pond exemplifies this parallel:

Standing at the smooth sandy beach at the east end of the pond, in a calm September afternoon, when a slight haze makes the opposite shore line indistinct, I have seen whence came the expression "the glassy surface of a lake." When you invert your head, it looks like a thread of gossamer stretched across the valley, and gleaming against the distant pine woods, separating one stratum of the atmosphere from another. 121

Thoreau never leaves nature in this passage. His absorption is evident in the language used in his descriptions of the pond. His vocabulary, like his physical being and his soul, does not depart from the present time in the natural world. He elevates the beauty of nature with descriptions of the pond's surface in relation to the trees and the valley. This quote illustrates the interconnectedness of the natural world: the surface of the pond connects to the valley which connects to the trees which connects to the enveloping atmosphere. It is all connected and it is all one. This is the Taoist concept of the unity of all things in nature. The next step for Thoreau on his Taoist trek is to unify himself with nature.

Thoreau's Taoist unification with nature comes in the form of self-transcendence. This involved a sojourn into and deep contemplation of nature--his time at Walden Pond-- and an ascetic moral discipline.5 Versluis tells us that the aim of the Taoist hermit was to "leave the ego behind, to transcend the self. That aim is to be realized by the transmutation of one's present life, in this very instant" (94). Thoreau writes in Walden "in eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are here and now. God culminates in the present moment and will never be more divine in all the lapse of all the ages" (63).

Versluis laments the fact that Thoreau's interest in Asian religions seemed to have, five years after the publication of Walden, waned. This doesn't take away from the fact that Chinese religions, most notably Taoism, played an important role in his writings and way of life. While it is true that Thoreau's posthumous publication The Maine Woods has very few references to Asian religions, Thoreau's immersion in and absorption of nature cannot be dismissed due to its "exclusion" from one of his later works. Gary Simon explicitly states that "Thoreau. . .evidenced, in my opinion, a greater affinity for Taoism than any other oriental religion" (253). According to Lyman Cady, Walden suggests a deep affinity for and knowledge of Taoist philosophy: "the profound similarity of points of view, their nature mysticism, love of the simple life and 'primitive,' distaste for convention and governmental interference, and the repeated use of paradox" (31-32). The success of Thoreau's unity is evident in one of the most popular lines from Walden, found in the chapter titled "Solitude": "I go and come with a strange liberty in nature, a part of herself" (84). If there is a quote by Thoreau that exhibits the Taoist creed of unity with nature, then this is clearly it. So, unlike Versluis, I am not lamenting the limited references to Taoism or Buddhism in Thoreau's later writings; instead, to me, the lack of references is an indication of full assimilation into the culture embodied by Asian religions.

It is my belief that the Transcendentalists, especially Emerson and Thoreau, were agnostics. Although they separated themselves from Unitarianism, they still held on to the belief in God; however, through their writings it is clear to me that this is not the Christian or Judaic God. Emerson and Thoreau believed in a god as creator; a god that is alive and who dwells amongst his creation: nature. This is the reason why the natural world was so revered by these two men. Nature was the divine space, not a man-made church. Nature is where man can walk side by side with God; nature is where man can see God's gifts; and nature is where man can embrace the god within himself.

Arthur Versluis feels that the "essential point" in Walden and in the philosophy of the Transcendentalists with respect to nature, the individual, and the divine, is the question, "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul." (81) These men felt that the search for God or the divine, especially in the artistic or poetic sense, brought them closer to the Self. And both men no longer believed that His presence could be found in a book or a creed; they felt that the landscape offered more than the pew. In a prophetic statement for the 21st century, Young sees Thoreau's commentary on technology, the railroad, steamships, and the telegraph and how it "gives the illusions of intimacy6 but ultimately have the practical effect of separating us from our home." (185) For Emerson and Thoreau, nature is home, and home is where the spirit of man and the true Self resides.

1 This sentiment is shared by the New England Puritans of the time. Jonathan Edwards, speaking for the New England Puritans, saw nature as God's language. Edwards was considered a natural philosopher, and he saw in nature a constant reminder of God's sovereignty. (Young 107)
2 Edward Abbey, a leading 20th century environmentalist writes, "Thoreau's mind has been haunting mine for most of my life.' And, many environmentalists of the 20th century-- Bill McKibben, Annie Dillard--have acknowledged Thoreau as an influence.
3 In Thoreau's time, this "unorthodoxy" was so severe as to warrant conflicts with publishers and audiences.
4 For a more in-depth look at the influence of Taoism on the life and works of Thoreau, see "Thoreau and Taoism" by David T.Y. Ch'en.
5 I will set aside the connections between Walden and Siddhartha for a later study.
6 Today, we see this phenomenon in Myspace, Friendster, or Facebook.

Works Cited
Cady, Lyman V. "Thoreau's Quotations from the Confucian Books in Walden." American Literature. March 1961. 20-32.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature." The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: Random House, 1968. 5-44.
---. "The Transcendentalist." The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: Random House, 1968. 87-106.
---. "The Over-Soul." The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: Random House, 1968. 261-279.
Gura, Phillip and Joel Myerson. "Introduction." Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. Eds. Phillip Gura and Joel Myerson. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982. xi-xlix.
Johnson, Samuel. "Transcendentalism." 1877. Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. Eds. Phillip Gura and Joel Myerson. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982. 142-167.
Smith, Duane E. "Romanticism in America: The Transcendentalists." 1973. Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. Eds. Phillip Gura and Joel Myerson. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982. 483-504.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. New York: Dover, 1995.
---. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. 1849. New York: Signet, 1961.
Versluis, Arthur. American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.
Warren, Robert Penn, Cleanth Brooks, and R.W.B. Lewis. "Introduction". Romanticism: Critical Essays in American Literature. Eds. James Barbour and Thomas Quirk. New York: Garland, 1986. 3-26.
Young, Malcolm Clemens. The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau. Macon: Mercer UP, 2007.

Home:     Criticism
American Transcendentalism Web
Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism
Resources Search Communication Center