Scholars of religion have often pointed to the Transcendentalists as progenitors of a distinct tradition of nature religion in the United States. Nevertheless, this work has not fully dealt with the problematic qualities of “nature” in light of growing concerns about the ethical and socio-political implications of human powers in the Anthropocene. This paper presents a brief overview of “nature religion” while focusing on the often uneasy way that Ralph Waldo Emerson is treated in this work. By looking at how Emerson is viewed as a stepping stone to Henry David Thoreau, I argue that it is precisely what the tradition of nature religion finds problematic in Emerson—his strains of recurrent idealism—that allows him to have a more expansive notion of nature as the environments in which we live, while preserving the importance of human moral agency. What follows, then, is a more nuanced position in environmental ethics that is informed by an Emersonian sense of the irreducible tension between being created and being a creator.
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