Pagan Studies

Steel is tested and shaped on the anvil. Here, we try every Pagan idea on the anvil of history, hammered by insight and intellect, to forge a Pagan Future.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Is Nature Enough?

Paganism is often described as religion of “Nature Worship” or as “Earth-Centered”. Is it? Should it be? Is Nature, in how we use it, a euphemism for the wilderness, or the biological, ‘living’ part of the world, or is it a name we put on the world as a whole? Is Nature big enough for it to be a descriptive characteristic of our group spiritual life? Much depends on the definition of Nature. . .


Nature worship is considered by many Pagans an essential characteristic of our movement. Some of our  development in the 1960s & 70s was deeply tied to the environmental movement and so adopting a spiritual attitude towards nature is not surprising. Yet this is being challenged today. For instance Joseph Bloch of the Heathen Patriot blog has recently distanced himself from this idea, finding “sacredness not in ‘nature’ as a whole, but within the interpersonal, family, and tribal structure.” He isn't being exclusive about this, recognizing that “Naturally, this is not necessarily an either-or proposition. It’s perfectly possible to revere the Earth as well as one’s family or tribe. But it is also possible to revere one’s tribe and the Gods that exist in the world without feeling a concomitant feeling of sacredness for ‘nature’ as a whole.” He goes on to argue that “the very concept of Deep Ecology and even species extinction itself was foreign” to the ancient people.

It is important to note this. One of the things that makes Pagans different from ancient peoples is that most of them were trying to get away from the ravages of Nature. That’s one of the reasons they built cities. Nowadays this can be summarized as a friend put it: “I like my nature on the other side of a sheet of glass.”

Many of us live in cities, and some even long for country life (I’m a city boy). Attitudes that arise from this often come with placing a premium on the value of unspoilt wilderness, or at least nature preserves and parks, or green belts and areas set aside or otherwise protected from development. While I applaud the efforts of those who courageously struggle to preserve these beautiful and life-supporting spaces and ecologies, there is a danger in unreflectively weighing our values towards the wilderness. One of the first places this happened was with the Conservation movement that arose in the early 20th century, which gave us many of our national parks. Some of the critiques of it centered on the appropriation of wilderness areas away from those who were dependent on it livelihood, including indigenous populations. (That may be your scenic vista, but it’s my larder.)

This movement was motivated by a desire to preserve beauty, which, while laudable in itself also alludes to a more subtle issue of establishing a romantic relationship with Nature, which historically is a key aspect of what gave rise to Paganism, especially Wicca in the early 20th, which came out of the Romantic movement of the late 19th century. Let’s me cite here Gus diZerega’s excellent article on the positive side of this equation, "A Pagan Perspective on Wilderness”. From that side, so well expressed, let me turn now to the other.

A problem with a romantic view is that it is actually human centered and constructed around human values and purposes for the object of romance. Like the aforementioned problems with indigenous, etc., populations, it can lead to serious errors from attempts at the maintenance of these spaces. One simple but powerful example was the long-time practice of fire suppression in forests essentially motivated by the desire to preserve their beauty for human enjoyment. Recent years has shown us the folly of this practice. With the build up of undergrowth and choking downed wood, when the inevitable fires started, profoundly destructive and wide-spread fires destroyed vast regions in the Western portion of the US. As we began to understand the proper place of fire in the ecology of forests it became clear how vital fires are to both clear out overgrown areas and in the case of some plants necessary to release seeds and stimulate growth. Our romanic attachment to beautiful forests led to massive disasters. We have learned here, but how many other lessons await us?

An even more difficult to distinguish problem arises from the privileging of the value of wilderness, specifically over urban environments. Pagans, like many other folks, oft go to nature recharge and to connect with the Divine. I do, too. But, this can lead to a devaluation of urban spaces and a sense of living in a profane or even a ‘bad’ place, while “over there/not here” in Nature is where the Divine is. This can produce a progressively degrading experience and relationship with where we actually spend most of our lives. It can lead to a dualistic locative theology making where we are not sacred and valorizing somewhere else. At levels subtle or coarse this can can act to make us feel separate us from the Divine rather than know that the Divine is immediately present.

What about Life? Is that what we worship? In a recent discussion of sacrifice one commentor was most vociferous in defending that principal. By the usual definitions of ‘living’, Life is just a thin coat on the surface of our planet. Being alive, life certainly appears to be a primary value to us, but is it inclusive enough? At what point does Life shade off into the inanimate? Or another way of asking the question, how much of the ‘inanimate’ world can we do without? I don’t think we really know yet. Getting far enough outside of the magnetic field created by the very inanimate nickel-iron core of the planet exposes astronauts to dangerous levels of radiation. If we are dependent on on that magnetic field, is it ‘outside’ the system of Life? Looking directly at the principle of Life, is all life good? It may depend on your point of view. The life of the lion is terrible to the gazelle, likewise the cat to the mouse, the bird to the insect. How about the infectious disease to the human it kills? And, especially for those who have lived with it, how about cancer? Cancer is life unbounded by death, cells that proliferate without proper control and with their overabundant life, kill. Nature as ‘Life’ may be too ambiguous to make a primary focus of worship. How we we to distinguish it from not-Life? How do we reckon with Life out of balance?

Continuing up the scale, as we are, what of the planet? What does earth-centered mean? Don’t get me wrong: I live here and have a profound love for this Earth, and encourage the worship of this Divine Being who some name Gaia. But however important the Earth is to us, we must remember to look up and know how much bigger the Universe is, and how the Earth is dependent on the rest of that universe being out there for its existence. Just as every cell in our bodies is part of our organs, and those organs aggregate into our bodies, and we consciously experience ourselves as the unity thereof, so are we but ‘cells’ of the larger organism of our bio-region and that aggregates to the whole of our planet. It is well and worthy for us to render due worship to the living world in which we are embedded. But there is more. We can look up to our Star, giving us the energy on which our life depends, and that Sun is but one of billions of stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and itself one of billions of galaxies arrayed in vast structures, only now known but little understood by humans. Knowing this, do we not need to remember to look up and worship? And this vast collection of galaxies, and of who knows what else Out There, what of the All? The Whole? The Unity the arises from and gives rise to all This? Do we not also need to remember in our worship the All?

From thoughts on Nature, we’ll turn to the Supernatural, next time…

Last modified on
Rate this blog entry:
0
Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.

Comments

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 10 May 2013

    Sam- is there anything in my essay, anything at all, that suggests I did not address the points you raise other, I guess, than the size of the earth compared to galaxies? If not, I think nothing you wrote modifies my argument.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Friday, 10 May 2013

    Hi Gus, I wasn't trying to modify your argument. I like it and cited it to show that aspect of the discussion.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Friday, 10 May 2013

    Good to hear, Sam. Glad you like the essay. I read it as suggesting I was at the end of a continuum the other end of which was those who said nature could be treated simply as a means to our ends.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Friday, 10 May 2013

    Gus, I was using your essay as a good example of a healthy relationship to nature/wilderness, then I went on to theological discussion and some issues that arise from an unreflective stance towards nature.

  • Diotima
    Diotima Saturday, 11 May 2013

    There is so very, very much we do not know about the interwoven web of life that we call Nature. The sustainable and ever-changing cycle of the seasons and existence is so awe-inspiring, when you really step back to consider it as Muir did, that simple respect for its being is enough to make me worship it. To know, without doubt, that there is a level of consciousness, different from and more expansive than my own, always more to expand into, always more to learn, is a religious experience for me. Nature is fully entwined with my religion and my spirituality. It takes, I will admit, real effort on my part to understand those who do not feel a similar connection.

    From the more practical point of view of someone who spent many years studying the agricultural and ecological sciences along with more metaphysical subjects, I know that seeing Nature as somehow "holy" has important consequences to the way people approach it, and we need to approach Nature very, very differently than we are now. As Gus pointed out, our modern concept of wilderness does fill a need to honor a reality we can't understand,but there is an insufficient understanding of what we are doing to it. There is no "untouched wilderness" anymore, of course. We can set aside preserves, but there is a planetary ecosystem, and it is under considerable pressure. No place will escape climate change.

    We are embodied here, and it is Nature -- our still poorly-understood and disrespected planetary Web of Life -- that supports our bodies. We forget that -- and we have -- to our peril. Nature may not be enough, but it is, inescapably, at the foundation of any goals and aspirations we may carry.

  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Friday, 31 May 2013

    Following Gary Snyder, I define "nature" not as trees and flowers merely, but as all processes outside the control of the human ego -- including much of our mind (the "unconscious"), bodies, planets, and cosmos.

    Astrology, for example, is one form of nature religion. So is sex.

  • Please login first in order for you to submit comments

Additional information