Thoreau's Religion

Walden Woods, Social Justice, and the Politics of Asceticism

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Alda Balthrop-Lewis
  • Cambridge: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , January
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There is much to be gained from sitting in retreat with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (2004 [Yale University Press] and 2008 [Norton] versions), as Alda Balthrop-Lewis demonstrates in Thoreau’s Religion. This is a result both of Thoreau’s genius, and the critical exegesis of Walden by Balthrop-Lewis. She writes at the intersection of religion and ecology/nature, political theory, applied theological ethics, and environmental ethics, with a needed undercurrent of critical race theory, so that she can undertake a “practical” theology for the “deeply dark days” (226) of climate change, political divisions, and “the stranglehold of capital and power on public goods” (271) that face humanity’s collective future.

This practical theology is a “case study in just how ascetic practice can contribute to flourishing social life and political transformation” (206) and should feed into an engaged practice of community making, where political asceticism is “the disciplined practice, often of renunciation, oriented toward better things, including enacting just social and political life” (207). As Balthrop-Lewis argues, this matters for solving the looming problems of today because “personal practice is not a distraction from large-scale transformation. It is essential to it. . . . Political asceticism consists in the practices that enable persons to cultivate their own transformation and contribute to the transformation of their communities” (198). In this function of political asceticism Balthrop-Lewis holds up Thoreau as a leading exemplar of committed personal practice feeding community transformation, and she analyzes his autobiographical writings to understand how Thoreau’s time at Walden was spent in trying to transform the various communities within which he was a member.

Here Balthrop-Lewis sees Walden as scripture, because of its relevance to ongoing social and political traditions (189), and since scripture allows its readers to grow together into a community able to act on their ethical aspirations communicated via scripture. According to Balthrop-Lewis, Thoreau in Walden was writing to his community, asking them, even demanding of them, to pursue justice for all. The strengths of Balthrop-Lewis’s book include the convincing argument, the use of Thoreau’s own words, the use of secondary sources on Thoreau, and the updated historical context for Concord in Thoreau’s time. Thoreau saw himself as a member of various communities, and it was to these various communities and his obligations that he engaged in political asceticism (14).

In terms of his communities and obligations, Thoreau’s well-known nature piety (82) led him to see the woods where he dwelled as peopled with beings (trees, birds, deceased humans and animals, other living humans, animals) to whom he owed allegiance and collegiality. And he pledged solidarity to displaced and oppressed workers, including African Americans (however, Balthrop-Lewis includes needed nuance that Thoreau was blinkered on racial issues, especially compared to today [7]), and he critiqued philanthropy. He committed to living by example, which Balthrop-Lewis distills into a relational theology in which Thoreau saw ethics as acting for the good of all in his community, at all times, in ways that brought to his relations empowerment, solidarity, and freedom.

There is much to celebrate in this publication. Balthrop-Lewis explains that “religious studies and theology are only beginning to notice the ways in which Thoreau participated in and shaped theological traditions that came before and after him” (163). Her efforts in showing the relevance of Thoreau’s political asceticism and relational theology based on nature reverence and solidarity and justice with all in his community speak to the larger goal of the edited series within which Thoreau’s Religion is published, the New Cambridge Studies in Religion and Critical Thought, which asks “How should attention to race, class, gender, sexuality, capital, empire, and domination inform our assessment of religious traditions, institutions, and practices?” (front pages). Balthrop-Lewis’s hermeneutics of Thoreau is in the context of answering this question and attempting to convince the reader that Thoreau’s scripture speaks to most of these categories.

My question as a reader is not one of worth, effort, or argumentation—Balthrop-Lewis has clearly spent a lot of time with Walden and the literature around it and clearly offers something new here, bridging political philosophy with theology and environmental ethics. Rather, my question is twofold: Is Thoreau still the canonical figure he once was, where a critical mass of readers still cares what he has to say and thus will be inspired to revisit their own political and theological convictions based on Thoreau’s? And, will readers be convinced to see Thoreau through the lens of theology and as having written scripture, let alone scripture that can speak to today? I do not have answers to these questions, but they do give me pause. Balthrop-Lewis does her best to make this book one of “traditional theology” (23) in an effort to package Thoreau as being more relevant to today’s issues than ever before, given her new reading of him as political ascetic. This reading suggests a diversity of audiences who could engage with this book in graduate and professional settings: political philosophers and theorists; Americanists, especially those who focus on New England; Transcendentalist scholars; scholars in religion and nature/ecology, especially those wanting another perspective on Thoreau; philosophers and psychologists who emphasize affect; cultural scholars; and theologians, especially those with a liberal approach to their respective faiths.

Overall the book is well written, with a nuanced balance of autobiography, critical scholarship, and championing of Thoreau’s relevance to the 21st century. At times the text becomes bogged down in footnotes, and I would have liked to see a bit more rigor in analysis of passages of Thoreau as primary source (rather than sharing Thoreau’s writing, then repackaging it as an argument that says the same thing Thoreau just wrote). Furthermore, Balthrop-Lewis misses an opportunity to engage with the whole lived religion corpus (see especially 202) in situating Thoreau. These critiques aside, clearly this is a valuable, well-written, and well-argued book, which asks important questions of theology through the lens of Thoreau as political ascetic and recognizes “How we each live is connected to what politics will become” (271). Balthrop-Lewis convincingly argues that Thoreau still has something relevant to say on politics, theology, justice, and treatment of the natural world, and thus something to say to how each of us lives in an era of resurgent white supremacy and climate breakdown.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Todd LeVasseur is a visiting assistant professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and director of the Sustainability Literacy Institute and its Quality Enhancement Plan at the College of Charleston, SC. 

Date of Review: 
September 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne


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