Oct 27, 2017

Luther vs. Thoreau and the Meaning of Ordinary Life

By Cheryl Magness


When I was a teenager, I became quite enamored of the writings of Henry David Thoreau and other American transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. They appealed to my idealism, my seeking for meaning, my yearning to believe in the goodness of people, and my desire to feel as though anything were possible, even for a shy, insecure, small-town Texas girl with all kinds of earthly limitations.

Then grownup life happened, and with it a hefty dose of realism: not everything is possible. People are sinful. Dreaming something doesn’t make it true. And sometimes life seems less imbued with meaning than utterly absurd. No wonder Edgar Allan Poe mockingly called the Transcendentalists “Frogpondians.”

Yet there is still much in those 150-plus-year-old musings that resonates. Thoreau didn’t just talk about his vision for what we might today call “intentional living”; he put it into practice (for five years, no less):

 “I went to the woods because I wished 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. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I 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 . . . .” (Walden, chapt. 2)

Especially in my current season of life, I can relate to the fear of getting to the end of my days only to discover that too many of them have been spent on “what was not life.” So I appreciate the spirit of Thoreau’s words. The problem is that his solution lies in the human being’s “ability . . . to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. . . . to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”

I don’t know about you, but sinner that I am, I can’t “elevate” my life by a “conscious endeavor.” I can’t make it “worthy of contemplation.” The very thought exhausts me. Better to take a page from Martin Luther’s Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost:

“Therefore we must constantly take heed to inculcate this Word of God, which does not burden us with any special, great and difficult works, but refers us to the condition in which we live, that we look for nothing else, but with a cheerful heart remain satisfied in it. . . . Our foolishness consists in laying too much stress upon the show of works and when these do not glitter as something extraordinary we regard them as of no value; and poor fools that we are, we do not see that God has attached and bound this precious treasure, namely his Word, to such common works . . . . What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles? How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy, not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth.”

In an odd way, Thoreau and Luther seem to be heading down the same road in these passages in valuing simplicity over glory. But Thoreau, writing from a humanist perspective, skids off into the ditch, ultimately contradicting himself in trying to vest cosmic meaning in human action. For Thoreau, a life well-lived is one that is approached with the proper intellectual mindset; for Luther, it is one that looks not to itself for meaning, but to Christ.

I will probably always have a soft spot for Thoreau. But how much more truth there is in Luther, drawing on God’s Word. How comforting to know I don’t have to think lofty thoughts or “cut a broad swathe” for my days to have meaning. I need only do what I have been given to do, all the while keeping my eyes fixed on the One who gives meaning to the whole creation.


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Cheryl is the sister of ten, daughter of two, mother of three, and wife of one. She was an English teacher in a past life but these days freelances as a writer and musician. She blogs at A Round Unvarnish'd Tale and has also been published by The FederalistAmerican ThinkerOnFaith, and Touchstone magazine. Cheryl lives in Oklahoma with her husband, a Lutheran cantor, and their three children.

2 comments:

  1. A great reminder lay aside "our foolishness" of trying to be extraordinary and to be content with what is in front of us. I especially loved "What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles? How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy, not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth.” I think I would gladly be martyred for Jesus but then have trouble setting aside what I want to serve someone else (not to mention doing it cheerfully) even for a short time. Thank God that He loves us despite our foolishness.

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