Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Philip P. Arnold
Conflict Transformation, Doctrine of Discovery, Henry David Thoreau, Manifest Destiny, Native American, Transcendentalism
Arts and Humanities
This dissertation argues for a rereading of Henry David Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) as "Transcendental scripture writing." By placing his book in this genre, Thoreau's religious thinking comes to the fore. His book becomes a contextualized pilgrimage addressing three levels of human existence in the religious realm: (1) where we have been and are now, (2) where we could be, and (3) how to reach that next, better self with more intimate, liberative relationships with others. As he addresses human limitations and his hope for better human and nonhuman relationships, Thoreau articulates a religion of "preservative care" that seeks to address past wrongs while nurturing sustained peace, which makes his outlook significant for the present.
This vision of life filled with sustained peace, however, does not circumvent a serious reexamination of the violence that went into America's founding. As he addresses the history of the United States, Thoreau emphasizes a dominant oppressive trend in America as Native Americans and the environment are continuously devalued and pushed to the margins. Thoreau associates this oppressive trajectory with a Western politico-theological justification for the domination, conversion, and attempted extermination of non-Christian, Indigenous peoples--a repressive posture that scholars currently define as the "Christian Doctrine of Discovery." Thoreau makes it clear that belief in Christian supremacy and the desire to construct a decidedly Christian nation have led to the attempted mastery over Indigenous populations, their land, and the natural world, which has concomitantly led to diminished lives for those perpetuating this "religion of subjugation."
He counters this with an ideal of non-institutionalized religion grounded in the natural world and informed by Native American values and ways of being. In the end, Thoreau's "wild" religion seeks to preserve The Law of Regeneration or the dynamic laws of nature in all existence--human and nonhuman alike. This is Thoreau's religion of preservative care, and it has important implications for current religious dialogues addressing Indigenous rights and the repudiation of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery--especially within the liberal religious Unitarian Universalist denomination as Thoreau is considered part of its religious heritage. A Week prods the tradition to be more ecologically attuned in religious matters, to be less anthropocentrically oriented, and to be united with the downtrodden through a religious presupposition affirming solidarity with all oppressed beings--human and nonhuman alike. This orientation re-envisions religion as a healthy, transformative presence in the world as it aims to cultivate sustained peace, which is needed in today's world negatively affected by violence and injustice too often grounded in religious discourses and buttressed by pernicious religious sentiments.
Ruehl, Robert Michael, "THOREAU'S A WEEK, RELIGION AS PRESERVATIVE CARE: OPPOSING THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF DISCOVERY, MANIFEST DESTINY, AND A RELIGION OF SUBJUGATION" (2014). Dissertations - ALL. 69.