Recap of “The Spirituality of ‘Walden'”: Versions of the Sacred in Play

Junior English major Reese Harper recently attended Dr. Bob Davis’ colloquium event, “Sacred Play: The Spirituality of Walden” and published an article covering the event in the Wittenberg Torch.

On behalf of The Torch, here is Reese’s article.

Last Thursday, Professor of English Bob Davis presented a synopsis of his upcoming book to be titled “Sacred Play: Spirituality and American Literature.” The book will focus on American spirituality through the lens of Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist literary masterpiece Walden.

Former English professor Emerita Mimi Dixon introduced Davis and “Walden” itself.

“Bob’s classes are interdisciplinary, integrating literature and science, for example,” Dixon said. “Thoreau similarly combines religion with literature in Walden.”

Published in 1854, Walden details Thoreau’s thoughts and experiences in response to a pond near his residence over the course of two years. The text engages with themes such as contemplation and man’s relationship with nature. However, Davis is most interested in Thoreau’s version of the sacred: buoyancy, freedom, playfulness and possibility.

Davis referred to Thoreau’s philosophy of the sacred as “divine play” and this term will form the basis of Davis’ book.

“Thoreau’s literature is based on experiences of the sacred that are larger and more enduring than ourselves,” Davis said. “Play is an experimental model of religious devotion tuned in to the divine.”

Davis quickly clarified that Thoreau’s spirituality differs from the piety associated with organized religion. Thoreau resisted “associating faith with the special province of religion,” Davis said.

“Thoreau compares religion to a pond, its ripples different than ones caused by insects or fish,” Davis said. “His goal of religious practice is perseverance and being faithful to a divine spirit that’s infinitely variable and free.”

After clarifying Thoreau’s spirituality, Davis shifted to the text’s historical and theological origins.

“Versions of the sacred in play can be found in the theology of south Asia,” Davis said. “We know that in the fall of 1840, Thoreau studied key texts in Hindu spirituality. These texts refer to some gods as ‘divine creators.’ They are ends in themselves. Their existence is play, and it is sacred. For example, Vishnu is both discreet and indiscreet, substance and spirit. Krishna appeared with multiple faces studded with jewels, a god whose face is everywhere. Likewise, in the plot of Walden, the pond is a sacred grove, a prism that helps Thoreau experience objects from multiple standpoints, its prisms and hidden facets. The pond opens his mind to a god whose face is everywhere.”

Davis also found origins of the text’s spirituality in Christian thought.

Some Christian theologians refer to a concept like sacred play called ‘nimbleness of mind:’ being able to sense shifts in perception,” Davis said. “Christ ‘plays’ in many places. Jesus is a gardener, carpenter, revolutionary or stranger depending on the scene where he appears in the gospels.”

For those unfamiliar with Walden and skeptical of the immense symbolism within his pond, Davis concisely reasserted his position.

“People who have never read Walden would say ‘it’s just water;’ it’s never just water in Walden,” Davis said. “Walden is a very busy book. It uses up every myth, idea and color the mind has made up before it allows the one to wander.”

Davis did, however, qualify his findings.

“When other people break his rules of faithful living, Thoreau is just as quick to condemn as adherents to organized religion,” Davis said. “Thoreau’s lifelong quarrel with dogmatic Christianity was also a lifelong quarrel with himself—a rigid and serious man who claimed to never have changed his mind about anything. He shares that head-on religion is dangerous, and pursuing god directly leads to various ego traps. He tells us to look at god like stars, not face to face, but to notice them from the side.”

In the end, Davis succinctly relayed what he believes lies at the core of Walden.

“Thoreau teaches us to love our day, love our homework and love the facets of the pond,” Davis said.

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