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.
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…
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