Stephen Fry, burrowing insects, and lions and tigers and bears

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses' skin and infests the horse's intestines.

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses’ skin and infests the horse’s intestines. (Wikipedia)

Recently, Stephen Fry was asked how he would respond if he met God. His response was entirely understandable within the context of Christian theology. If there is an all-powerful supernatural creator god, why does he/she/it allow hideous suffering like parasitic insects burrowing into the eyes of children? As Fry so aptly pointed out, who would worship such a god?

But what he has done is take Christian theology and turned it on its head, as so many atheists do. There is more to life than Christian theology. There is no supernatural creator god (as atheists have very ably demonstrated). That does not mean that the concepts of deity and deities are completely redundant, as a supernatural creator deity is only one possible mythological or theological construct.

Indeed, Fry went on to say that if he turned up at the gates of the afterlife and it turned out to be run by the Greek gods, he would have more respect for them, because they do not claim to be anything other than human in their appetites and capricious in their ways. I think even this is still too close to the idea of a creator (or creators), because the Greeks did not actually believe that the universe was created – and most ancient pagan creation myths actually acknowledged the existence of death and conflict as the very basis of the creative act (the killing of the giant Ymir in Norse myth in order to create the world, or the slaying of the dragon Tiamat by Marduk to make the earth, for example). But he is going along the right lines towards understanding the pagan worldview (both ancient and modern).

Yes, insects that burrow into children’s eyes are horrible, but they are neither evil nor good, they just are. They have their own agenda, like all other beings, and that agenda – finding something soft and squishy to lay their eggs in – happens to be massively in conflict with our agenda.

Right-wing Christians assume that humans are the pinnacle of  “creation” and that the world exists for our benefit. Atheists often turn this on its head and claim that the universe is hostile, but fail to notice that we are just one species among other species. The universe is neither 100% hostile, nor is it 100% benign. There is food that we can eat, and oxygen to breathe, and most of the time, the temperature is about right (until we screw it up by causing unprecedented climate change). But the fact that we exist at all, as oxygen-breathing animals, is at the expense of the organisms that existed on Earth before the atmosphere had oxygen in it – and there was a mass extinction of those non-oxygen-breathing organisms when oxygen entered the atmosphere. One animal’s beneficial environmental feature is another animal’s deeply hostile environmental feature.

The world was not created for our benefit – indeed, it was not created. The sooner humans realise this and stop behaving as if we own it, the better. There are other sentient beings who deserve our consideration – elephants, dolphins, whales – all intelligent and sensitive. And the other (supposedly lesser) animals also deserve our consideration. That doesn’t mean that I would not kill the insect that was trying to lay eggs in a human eye – but I recognise that the insect is not evil, it is just doing what comes naturally to it.

Neither atheists nor Christians seem to consider that we could only have evolved in the environment we are in (and that the the same applies to nasty insects). The environment in which we live is generally quite hospitable, but it also happens to be hospitable to some things that we consider unpleasant. Monty Python nailed it with their wonderful send-up of All Things Bright and Beautiful, aptly entitled All Things Dull and Ugly. (Listen to it on YouTube here.)

Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.

Yep, the universe contains both “all things bright and beautiful”, and “all things sick and cancerous”. This means that any theology worth its salt must deal with this fact somehow. (To be fair to Christian theology, it kind of gets around this by explaining that the Devil put the nasty stuff there, because he’s spiteful – but obviously there is still a flaw because in order for this to happen, the Devil must be just as powerful as God, and then you get Manichaean dualism, which is not allowed in mainstream Christian theology.)

The universe just is, as it is. Not created, not hostile, not especially benevolent, but many diverse beings and species, each with their own imperative to survive and thrive, and some of those in harmony with our imperative to survive and thrive, some of them in conflict. We have to learn how to manage those conflicts, not blame them on an all-powerful supernatural creator (or creators). As Terry Pratchett wrote, “There’s no justice. There’s just us”, implying that we have to create our own justice.

Pagan theology deals with the fact of death and predators and icky parasites by taking the view that there are many beings (including deities and nature spirits), all with their own agendas, their own imperatives for survival, some of which may be in conflict with ours. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and sharks, and horrible insects, all have to eat, but we would rather they did not eat us. So, for the most part, we stay out of their way. Hurricanes emerge from the weather system and wreak havoc in their path, but this is an unfortunate fact of existence. Nature spirits also have their own agenda, and sometimes that aligns with ours, and sometimes it does not. That is why Icelanders take care not to demolish the dwellings of the huldu-folk (elves and trolls), and why British folklore advises against cutting down hawthorn trees, because the Fair Folk live there.

Pagan deities are not seen as all-powerful, but beings on their own journey, who may sometimes walk with us and help us. They are not there for our benefit, and we are not here for their benefit. Just as you make friends and forge alliances with other humans for companionship, or to further some collective goal like campaigning for social justice, the same applies to deities – we make alliances to further a common cause, or we make friends with them.

The universe contains both great beauty and great brutality (as Stephen Fry also acknowledged). You can’t ignore one and focus entirely on the other; they are both part of a complex picture. I recommend anyone who thinks that Nature is all fluffy bunnies and cuddly animals to spend a few hours on the Wikpedia category on parasitic insects. But for anyone who thinks that Nature is entirely hostile, go outside and bask in some warm sunshine, look at some nice trees recycling our exhaled carbon dioxide, and browse the list of edible foods that you can gather in the wild. And gaze up at the stars to be reminded of just how big the Universe is, and be thankful that you can behold such beauty, and reflect that you yourself are formed of atoms forged in the heart of a star.

Art, Agriculture, and Ancestors

Patheos Pagan is hosting a conversation about honoring the ancestors this month. I didn’t write anything for it, having no established practice to speak of. More truthfully, the whole concept challenges me.

The relatives I’ve lost (thankfully few) weren’t a very spiritual bunch. They lived deeply in this world. I honor them best by enjoying good food, good friends, and remembering to appreciate the small beauties of each passing day.

As for ancestors of the land, having just passed “Indigenous People’s Day” (which is still known as Columbus Day in much of the nation), I have at best uneasy relationship with this idea. Who am I to assume that the ancestors of this place called Wisconsin, called the USA, welcome my attempts to reconcile with them? They might well be furious—at the genocide and displacements of their people, at the ignorance with which we carved up and plowed into the land, at the disrespect we show to their descendants, even now, in how we treat both the peoples and the land. I would like to believe some sort of connection is possible, but I don’t think I’ve yet put in the work and time that would make this an honest effort. At best, I can bow my head, and promise to try to listen, to teach my children how to listen.

***

But there is a ritual pilgrimage my family makes in October each year.

Too Much Pig, artist: Brian Sobaski

Too Much Pig, artist: Brian Sobaski

Traveling about an hour up the road, the town of Reedsburg, Wisconsin serves as host to a ten-day Fermentation Festival, celebrating all things fermented, from compost to chocolate to kimchi to beer. And as part of this celebration, each year arising out of the farm fields in a 50-mile loop, the Farm Art DTour.

People come from as far away as the Twin Cities and Chicago to drive the loop, stopping at the installations—some of them by professional artists, others by the farm families that own the land, local 4H groups, and some pop ups from local artisans and neighbors. We move as pilgrims through the rural landscape, stopping at each station to read, consider, pause, interact, take pictures, try the food.

Red bandanas, traditional, strung and draped (prayer flags?) in native burr oak.

Red bandanas, traditional, strung and draped (prayer flags?) in native burr oak.

It’s always a profound experience for me to see so many people spend a day visiting art of all kinds, driving through the autumn fields. The DTour ties together agriculture, culture, art, food, history and land. This year, the very first stop was a new sign with this text:

 

Wanąğomįk cinąk

The native inhabitants of this area were called Winnebago by the neighboring Sauk and Fox tribes. In 1993 the tribe reclaimed their original name of Ho-chunk, or “People of the Sacred Language.” Reedsburg has long held a respected place in the history of the Ho-chunk. In the winter of 1893 the citizens of Reedsburg stood up to the US Government military in order to protect the Ho-chunk from the decimation of the forced removal from their homelands. Due to the large number of church-sponsored cemeteries or final resting places located in Reedsburg, the Ho-chunk refer to the city as Wanagomjk cinak, or land of cemeteries.

 

The words washed over me like cool water, reminding me that history is always more complex than the stories we learn (no matter which stories we learn). That in every generation, peoples can work together in spite—or even because of—their differences. That respect and appreciation can grow anywhere. Maybe, just maybe, keeping in mind this piece of local history, I can begin to find my way to connecting with the ancestors of this place in a way that is respectful to them and honest to myself.

A Call to Beauty, artist: Mary Dickey

A Call to Beauty, artist: Mary Dickey

We drove on. Soon we came to a spiral labyrinth mowed into the corn, with signs along the way reminding us to “still your lips” “open your ears” “quiet your mind” “listen to the land…”

Listening Labyrinth

Listening Labyrinth

when we reached the center of this contemplative journey, there were stairs leading up to a platform that allowed us to see over the cornstalks, the view expanded in front of us to embrace the landscape. The metaphor was unmistakable.

One of my favorite aspects of the DTour is that it forces one to see the land, agriculture, and culture, anew. If this is art:

 

Invasive Species, artist: Isabelle Garbani

Invasive Species, artist: Isabelle Garbani

 

Sylvan Chapel, artist: Peter Krsko

Sylvan Chapel, artist: Peter Krsko

What about this?

 

Tractors, photo R. Busse

Tractors, photo R. Busse

And what about this?

 

Cemetery, photo R. Busse

Cemetery, photo R. Busse

How we find food, prepare it, share it, and how we honor our dead…these things may vary from generation to generation, from one culture to another, one region to another, but… we all do procure and share food together, and we all do honor our dead.

 

By the time we finished the loop and headed for home, we had enjoyed pork and sauerkraut sandwiches, Asian-inspired potstickers (including a macaroni-and-cheese version–this is Wisconsin, after all), fermented salsa, local chocolates. I felt my connection to this place reaffirmed and reframed—by returning to the land with a reverential attitude, I already begin to connect to the ancestors of this place, and in doing so, I reconnect more deeply to my own humanity.

Wealth, photo R. Busse

Wealth, photo R. Busse

 

With thanks to my husband, Reed Busse, for the photographs. My daughter insists that I use some of hers as well. Alas, she missed my deadline…so expect to see more DTour shots in upcoming essays. 

Joy at the Breakfast Table

I went out to my favorite trail to run again, Pheasant Branch in Middleton, a three mile loop that takes me through both the prairies and the woodlands of Southern Wisconsin. I know every turn and twist, which helps me see the minute changes from week to week as the seasons progress.

This connection to a specific place, as well as the running, grounds me.

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A week ago, three sandhill cranes flew right over my head, belling their prehistoric music, maybe on their way to find the bigger flock they’ll migrate with. I don’t believe in coincidence. The card for JOY in my tarot deck shows three cranes dancing, and my jogged mind said to me, You better write about this.

Joy in the parents with their now-grown chick, headed back to join their community. What is more archetypal than that?

 ***

Not every dance a family does is quite so joyful. My oldest is thirteen now and suddenly my used-to-be-morning child is slugging pretty hard into his bed. No matter that his alarm goes off at 5:30, the past couple of mornings he’s tumbled downstairs, scarfed breakfast…and needed a ride to school because he missed the bus and it’s too late to walk.

“This is your problem to solve,” I holler up at him. “I’m not going to drive you to school every day.”

“I’ll skip breakfast!” he yells from upstairs. “I’ll skip lunch! I deserve to be punished!!”

Change is hard for my kid.

 

There’s the savvy old saying, You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. This is pretty practical advice for parents. Unless you give birth to a mule.

My kid is something of a mule. When he gets thirsty, I know from long experience I can’t lead him to the water. He’ll just balk. Instead, I have to nod my head casually and say, “I hear tell there’s water over thataway.”

I’d like to solve all his problems for him…but he resists that, and I know deep down he is right to resist it. He’s gotta figure it out for himself. Each of us does. My job may be, more or less, to keep a little space clear at home to give him the place and the quiet he needs to become himself in the world.

 ***

I’ve been sitting on this essay for a week, because there’s something about it that felt unfinished, half-realized. And I think, reading it over again, that it’s right here, in the acknowledgment of my own limits. This strange little piece is not just about one mother and son relationship. Maybe this is the best we can do for each other, ever: to keep a little space clear in all our relations to allow family, friends, colleagues, to be and become themselves. I can’t solve your grief. I can’t tell you how to fix your life. I can’t know you, ever, fully. But I can give you room. And I can help to define the boundaries of that space by listening closely, deeply, to your voice.  

 

If we could look at each other and promise, You can be yourself with me, it’s okay, what a gift that would be. What a revolution.

  ***

While I was driving my kid over to school, he said angrily, “Maybe I need to start setting my alarm for 3 a.m.”

“Well you know,” I said, eyes remaining on the road, “I don’t think the alarm is working. Maybe it’s already set too early.”

“Hey–yeah,” he said. Sometimes there’s grace. Sometimes a person is receptive to a new idea. We’ll see how it goes tonight.

 

 ***

Meanwhile, after the kids have gone to school I light a candle
and search out Wayland in my notebooks.

He’s reading a copy of The Anvil’s Ring and says absently,
Did you know they’re still trying to figure out
the Ulfbehrt swords?
He chuckles, shaking his head.

Hey, I say. I could use a little direction here.
This hasn’t been an easy season.

But I should know better by now.

He doesn’t even look up, just smiles to himself.
I hear there’s water over yonder. If
you’re thirsty. Follow those cranes.

 

***

One week later…my son walked to school this morning, and was probably late getting there. He’ll figure it out. Yesterday the three cranes were closer to the trail when I jogged by. You’re still here, I said. The tallest one looked at me. Of course. You haven’t published that essay yet.

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Moving Beyond “Environmentalism”

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.


“Has Pagan Environmentalism Failed?” the prompt asks us to consider.

I don’t even know what “Pagan” environmentalism is.

But the question is moot. The “isms” can be thrown away. The world is alive and aware and we are part of it. The world is not dying, but it is possible that we, along with so many other species, are.

Traditional environmentalism will tell you that agriculture in the Midwest in the 19-20th centuries destroyed the great prairie ecosystem. But there is another story, from another culture, that says the prairie is waiting, just under the surface, and will come back when our relation to the land changes.

What does that mean?

**

Each morning I go down to my office and share a cup of coffee with whatever gods and spirits the day will bring my way, whichever wights the night has left me. Now, you can laugh (and I’m quite sure some of my friends and family do, yes) at the thought of me slopping a couple of tablespoons of coffee into a mug each morning in my office. What’s it gonna get you? What is it for? Nothing happens.  That is missing the point. Through our gift, we acknowledge we have already received, simply by being alive, being present, being part of the pattern.  Through our gift, we weave ourselves a little more deeply into that pattern. We establish connection, relation.

So nothing is supposed to “happen” (except hopefully the coffee wakes me up).

Gift economies have been found the world over. The European settlers misinterpreted the Native Americans’ pattern of gift giving in early contact and hence the offensive and mistaken term “Indian giver” came into being. For that matter, we (for I am descended from those settlers and am planted firmly in this culture) also misheard and misunderstood “potlatch”—a feast where wealth is given away and honor accrued through the giving—turning it into “potluck,” at best a church supper and at worst “luck of the draw.”

We misunderstand the nature of religious offerings if we mistake what is a gift economy for a notion of simple reciprocity or a “prosperity gospel.”  This gift economy emphasizes establishing and maintaining good relation. It’s also about passing the gift forward.

**

We brought our culture with us… and we were curiously un-curious about the cultures already here—plant, animal, human — for far too long.

We’re still curiously un-curious in how we approach our place in the world. The failure of environmentalism, Pagan-identified or not, as far as I can tell, is—it has not been radical enough. We have understood ourselves as humans as somehow separate and separated from the environment—it is our specifically human footprint  upon a passive and receptive “nature” that traditional environmentalism addresses. If we can “lessen our impact” we can save the world.

I am not interested in saving this world—I don’t even know what that would mean, outside of me trying to protect my privileged lifestyle, which given the reality of most peoples across the globe I have no right to do. I do hope that humans will survive this wave of extinctions because I have a soft spot for our species. But I’m convinced in order to survive our relation to the land must change. We must listen harder, respond more thoughtfully and also more immediately.

The world is alive and aware and we are part of it. The world is not dying, but it is possible that we, along with so many other species, are. “In the midst of life we are in death. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Given this reality, what does it mean to pay the gift forward now?

I say: in the midst of death we are in life—let’s not forget that. We can honor our beloved dead and mourn extinctions personal and monumental, but our allegiance in the gift economy is to the living and those to come.  Listen, grow. Stay flexible. Recognize what symbiotic relationships you are part of, what permacultures you participate in. Play your role. Nurture those around you, be they human, plant, animal, mineral, other.

We must remember our places. We must remember ourselves within these places. What would it be to acknowledge and embrace our own immersion in the land, and our own vulnerability? As someone who is more an indoor than outdoor person, what I’m saying here challenges me. I’m not advocating for some nostalgic back-to-the-land movement. So what do I think must happen?

I don’t have any easy or quick answers tonight, but somewhat vaguely, I can say: the word “pagan” for me is not a question of believing one thing or another. And it’s not a set of practices or rituals. If it’s anything at all, “pagan” signifies  an altered orientation to the world we inhabit. Who  do you listen to and for? Are you willing to attune yourself to river bend? To the passerine? This summer’s rampant Queen Anne’s lace?

We are in life, meshed, snared, scared and dancing still, and have a responsibility to act like it.

A Theology of Trees and Fractals

June, and my yard is full of leaves again. I’ve been thinking about trees, about forests, dense and wild and other. It’s funny but I can’t think about forests without thinking about the branching paths we take through them, or maybe, the paths that lead us deep into the heartwood. Any forest is a labyrinth, a fractal pattern, complex at every level. Choose a path.

***

I’m reading a book from 1997 on ergodic literature, Cybertext by Espen J. Aarseth. “Ergodic” looks like the gods might be hiding in the text, but Aarseth states the word“derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning “work” and “path.” Unlike a traditional novel or movie, in ergodic literature, narrative is interrupted and the reader must make active choices when the paths fork. The easiest example might be Choose Your Own Adventure books, which I devoured as a kid. Interactive games are obvious examples. The Tarot deck is another. Ergodic literature is wildly fun, juicy, and completely intense all at once:

“you are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed.”

Every day we wake up is Choose Your Own Adventure, wildwood, labyrinth, if we have the eyes to see. I live on the border of grassland and woodland, in Southern Wisconsin. Or: I live in deep forest, the same deep forest we all wander through, that most of us have forgotten. Choose your reality; both are true.

***

Trees catch the wind and give it voice. Words catch at thought. These words like twiggy fingers snag on ghosts and gods. I read over my journals and weave dream and shadow together, stitch that cloth to noon o’clock until everything is weightless, suspended in blue.

The house swings up through ash trees,
to hang in light-scalloped air and interstice,
a lacework net of leaf and gap exactly
like a well-told joke that dangles us
over the pit of the true strange…

***

Sometimes I think of myself as a guide of sorts—

A guide? You? Wayland laughs.
No, I think not—a translator, maybe.

***

Choose a path. We have three large and lyrical ash trees in our yard. Someday not too far off they will all three die from the emerald ash borers now found in Dane county. In one of them, we’ve started hanging bird houses, round little doors peeking out among the green, darts of color and touches of whimsy. I know a woman who tucks her poems into an old birdhouse in her garage. Sandwiched between generations and caring for multiple relatives, she has no time to revise or send work out into the world, and she has no space in her house to call her own. I look at my birdhouse tree, the multiple doorways. Maybe I will start to poke my poems into those apertures, just as I poke them into these essays. Maybe I will shred them and let the birds weave them into their nests, along with my hair and the straw I never spin into gold. Offerings.

***

…Just like a joke,
the crack of alarm gives way to laughter’s gasp.
No one told us this was the day
our possessions would go weightless,
our footsteps sound across suddenly taller floors.

***

Paper comes from trees. All the leafy, dream-soaked notebooks I have written my way through—are my words worth the death of the trees it took to house them? They’d better be.

Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material, independent of the personality of the poet, but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning, a meaning that is not patent on the linguistic plane on which we were working but has slipped in from another level…

–Italo Calvino

(The gods are not even hiding.)

***

Is mine a theology of the Wildwood? Or is it a theology of poems? Of fractals?

Same thing. He’s reading over my shoulder.
Sometimes the Adventure chooses you.

***

“Work” and “path” may be how we locate our gods. Love is work. Poems are work. Living well is work. Asking the big questions and staying ready for the answers is work. Work worth doing. Halfway through the writing of this, I look up from my screen and realize how much of the art in my house features trees. Abstract, realistic, partial or completely representational, trees have been with me a long time, I guess.

 

In my parents’ house, the walls are covered with birds.

When knowledge was power

Lynne Kelly

Lynne Kelly

Ritual often seems like an activity designed only for interaction with the preternatural or the supernatural. However, in non-literate (oral) cultures, it can have a mnemonic function – to remember and pass on traditional lore, about how to grow and manage crops, about animal and plant species, how to interact with the land, how to use tools.

Lynne Kelly is an Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe University. She is researching the ways in which knowledge is transmitted in non-literate cultures.

In a discussion on ritual on the British Archaeology mailing list, she wrote:

My research is into the way non-literate cultures learn, store and transmit information – vast amounts of it – when they don’t have writing. I then apply that to the archaeological record. A wide range of apparently enigmatic objects become very practical when the memory systems used are understood. The deliberate destruction or disposal of objects is common when there is no initiate suitable to take over the object. Unfortunately, it all takes too much to explain in an email. It is all to do with preserving the critical survival information accurately, among other things. Think of initiation as being initiated into higher and higher levels of a knowledge system, much of which is practical. I draw particularly (but far from exclusively) on our Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures.

To give one example of the way indigenous rituals can appear superficial, but aren’t, I’ll use a Pueblo example because it is so beautifully recorded. Alfonso Ortiz in ‘The Tewa world: space, time, being, and becoming in a Pueblo society‘ (1969) talks a lot about the stories of the Corn Mothers and the variously coloured Corn Maidens. Lots of ‘rituals’, many of which are restricted to a select group of initiated males.

Ortiz also suggests, in later writing, that you read Richard I. Ford, an ethnobotanist. Ford describes the same rituals – ceremonies – rigidly repeated acts – in terms of the outcome. Effectively, these ritual performances ensure that multiple varieties of corn, each known by the different colour, have been maintained pure over centuries, if not a lot longer. These are the descendant of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) cultures. Careful selection and planting of multiple varieties means that no matter how bad the weather that season, some corn will produce food. Corn cross-pollinates very readily, so it is quite complex to ensure all varieties are maintained pure. Consequently, Ford titled the paper ‘The colour of survival’, (1980), Discovery, pp. 16-29. [Not the common magazine, Discovery, but an academic journal.] Ford suggests you read Ortiz to get the Puebloan way of describing the same events and outcomes.

I have covered the Puebloan knowledge system and associated ‘enigmatic’ objects in the thesis, and have plenty more examples like this from other cultures. For example, think of ‘Hunting magic’ as ceremonies which remind all of the group about strategies … and so it goes on. Knowledge is stored so differently by cultures without writing that the pragmatism is often disguised and it is easy to see only simplistic ‘religious’ reasons as the purpose for the ceremonies. All the oral cultures I explored integrate the secular and the sacred so the two become almost indistinguishable.

If you think about it, contemporary Pagan rituals are also designed to transmit knowledge – to enable people to understand sacred stories from within, by re-enacting them; to transmit knowledge of magic, symbolism, and mythology. This also got me thinking about how ritual could be used to transmit botanical knowledge, or astronomy, or other scientific information. I once did a ritual about quantum mechanics, so why not? Learning through ritual engages the right hemisphere of the brain as well as the left, so is probably a more effective way to transmit knowledge.

[Note: the above quote is used with Lynne’s permission. Her research will soon be published as a book.]

[Photo credit: Lynne Kelly, used with permission]

Realism and non-realism

There are several ways in which to construe the relationship of religious discourse to the world it attempts to describe, and with other (possibly competing, possibly complementary) interpretations such as science and philosophy.

The NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) position, put forward by Stephen Jay Gould, is that science and religion deal with two different domains, and therefore share no common ground for either agreement or argument; science deals with empirical matters and religion deals with ‘questions of ultimate meaning’ (McGrath, 2007: 18).  Richard Dawkins disagrees with NOMA because he argues that a universe with a creator deity would be a very different place to a universe without one, and therefore discussion of this does fall within the domain of science (Dawkins, 2006: 55).

The POMA (partially overlapping magisteria) position is that there is some overlap, and that they are two complementary ways of viewing the world (McGrath, 2007: 19).

Naturalists argue that only the physical realm exists, and phenomena such as consciousness are emergent properties of complex biological systems (Naturalism.org).

Bienkowski (2006: 2) identifies four possible belief positions for adherents of religions: materialism, the belief that only the material plane exists (this is similar to Naturalism, atheism, and humanism); idealism, the belief that the material plane is illusory; dualism, the belief that both material and spiritual realms exist, but are separate (similar to Luhrmann’s two worlds view); and animism, the belief that the spiritual world is immanent in the material world. The ideas discussed are very broad in scope, however, as they are intended to represent a range of religions and philosophies, and something more specific is needed to identify the nuances of Pagan discourse.

Tania Luhrmann (1989: 285-293) outlines four possible positions which magical practitioners take in justifying their views to sceptics. The first is realism, the idea that ‘there is a knowable objective reality and that magic reveals more of it than science’.  The second position that she identifies is the two worlds view, that ‘the objective referent of magical claims is unknowable within the terms of an ordinary, scientific world’ (this is similar to the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ or NOMA position).  The third position is relativism, which ‘defines all truth as relative and contingent’ (which Luhrmann found to be quite a common view).  The final position is the metaphorical view, that magic is metaphorical and is probably objectively not true, but is nevertheless a creative and enjoyable practice.  Luhrmann (1989: 293) says that she rarely encountered this position except among those who had come to magic through political concerns such as environmentalism and feminism.  This metaphorical view is embraced by Starhawk (1999: 219), who says that ‘[s]cientific knowledge, like religious knowledge, is a set of metaphors for a reality that can never be completely described or comprehended.’  However, Starhawk (1999: 7) is one of those Pagans who are deeply involved in environmental and feminist activism, as predicted by Luhrmann.

Luhrmann (1989: 284) states that the four positions are not mutually exclusive; she senses that ‘most magicians will give most of these arguments at some time during their magical career’.

In contrast, Dawkins (2006: 50) identifies seven possible belief positions on the existence of God, from strong theism to strong atheism, with agnosticism in the middle.  However, these are not very useful for the purpose of discussing Paganism, because they only relate to the existence of a supernatural creator deity, and not to the possible ways in which the spiritual and material realms could interact.  Belief in a creator is largely irrelevant to Pagans, since we are more interested in relating to Nature (Harvey, 1997: 145).

Other possible discursive positions include deep ecology, the view that the human order is not separate from the natural order, which implies that all life is sacred (Livingstone, 2002: 347).  This is similar to the animism proposed by Graham Harvey, who advocates an embodied awareness and ‘listening neighbourliness’ towards other species (Harvey, 1997: 141).  The Gaia Hypothesis goes further than this, arguing that the entire planet is such a complex system that it should be regarded as a living organism (Livingstone, 2002: 347).  All of these views can be found in Pagan views of relationship with Nature.

Michael York suggests that, rather than talking about the “supernatural”, which implies that the Divine, deities, and spirits are somehow outside and beyond the material realm, we should use the term “preternatural”:

The supernatural as we know it is largely a Christian-derived expression from the idea that its ‘God’ is over and ‘above’ nature – material/empirical reality. It is this notion that is the target of secular and naturalistic animosity alike. Instead, rather than ‘supernatural’, I turn instead to the ‘preternatural’ that expresses the non-causal otherness of nature – one that comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime. Most important, however, the preternatural does not demand belief or faith but instead encounter and experience – whether through contemplation, metaphor, spontaneous insight, ecstasy, trance, synchronicity or ritual or any combination of these. As Margot Adler expressed it, paganism is not about belief but what we do.

This is an important distinction; much of the criticism of religion offered by new atheists and skeptics is aimed at the supernatural elements of theology – the assumption that the supernatural exists outside the physical world, and that is why it is undetectable by science; whereas atheists would argue that it is undetectable by science because it does not exist.

Another approach to distinguishing between different models of the world is offered by Nuyen (2001: 394), who discusses realism and antirealism in religion.  Religious realism (like Luhrmann’s realist position) asserts that there is an external referent of religious language; religious antirealism asserts that ‘there is no transcendent being or reality to which religious languages and practices refer, and that the source of religious meaning and value lies in us, human beings’ (Nuyen, 2001: 394).  This antirealism is very similar to Luhrmann’s metaphorical position.

There is also a debate within science itself over whether scientific discourse actually has any objective referents in reality, or whether scientific understandings are necessarily metaphors.

Folse (1986: 96) describes the classic scientific realist position as holding that at least some terms in theoretical statements correspond to the properties of entities to which these terms refer.  Another form of realism is ‘the quest for knowledge about the reality producing the phenomena we experience’, which does not necessarily insist that that reality is entirely comprehensible.  This is comparable to religious realism, which also asserts that descriptions of deities have objective external referents.

Muller and Livingston (1995: 16) describe scientific antirealism as the view that scientific terms are merely ‘terminological abstraction(s) designed to account for the… results of a particular set of experiments’ and do not necessarily have any objective referents.  They note that much of the debate between realists and antirealists in science hinges on the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which posits that the observer affects the observed, thereby calling into question the notion of an objective external reality.  Magicians often quote this in defence of the ‘relativist’ position (Luhrmann, 1989: 291); it is interesting because it implies that some scientists understand their descriptions of reality to be metaphorical.

The various positions available in both scientific and religious discourse show that the debate is not simply happening between science and religion, but also within both those discourses, and so it is not accurate to talk about either discourse as if it were a monolithic entity engaged in a titanic struggle for truth and authority with the other discourse; the whole picture is far more complex.

Bibliography

Bienkowski, P. (2006) ‘Persons, things and archaeology: contrasting world-views of minds, bodies and death’, Respect for Ancient British Human Remains: Philosophy and Practice. [online] Available from: Manchester Museum,http://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/medialibrary/documents/respect/persons_things_and_archaeology.pdf (accessed 25.08.2008)

Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. London: Bantam Press.

Folse, H.J. (1986) ‘Niels Bohr, Complementarity, and Realism’. Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1, pp. 96-104 [online] Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/193111 (accessed 07.09.2008)

Harvey, G. (1997) Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press.

Livingstone, D. N. (2002) ‘Ecology and the Evironment.’ In: Ferngren, G. B., Science & Religion: a historical introduction. Baltimore andLondon:JohnsHopkinsUniversity Press.

Luhrmann, T. (1989) Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGrath, A. E. (2007) The Dawkins Delusion? London: SPCK.

Muller, A. and Livingston, P. (1995) ‘Realism/Anti-Realism: A Debate’. Cultural Critique, No. 30, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part I, pp. 15-32 [online] Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1354431 (accessed 07.09.2008)

Nuyen, A.T. (2001) ‘Realism, Anti-Realism, and Emmanuel Levinas.’ The Journal of Religion, 81, (3), pp. 394-409 [online] Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1206402 (accessed 07.09.2008)

Starhawk (1999), The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco.

York, M. (2008), ‘A Pagan Defence of Theism’. Theologies of Immanence.  [online] Available from: http://pagantheologies.pbworks.com/w/page/13621955/A%20Pagan%20defence%20of%20theism (accessed 30.01.2013)

Eco-spirituality in practice

Paganism is often said to be a Nature religion, but often Pagans are not very immersed in Nature. This could be because we get distracted by shiny things like mythology, or because many of us live in cities and so are more familiar with brand names than tree species, or because connecting with Nature is just too hard.

One thing that is often suggested as a way to connect with Nature is celebrating the seasonal festivals. I have certainly found it helpful to have the seasonal festivals in my life as markers of time, and they have made me more aware of the passing seasons, but I don’t know if they have made me more connected with Nature. I also worry that we sometimes impose our own patterns on Nature, rather than listening and looking to see what’s there.

Another way to connect with Nature is to get out more, and walk in the woods, by the sea, in the mountains. Meditating in Nature is excellent, and is a very old pagan practice called “sitting out”. Adrian Harris writes, over at Bodymind Place:

The principle of the sit spot could hardly be simpler: Find a place outdoors and sit there everyday for at least 15 minutes.  Though it’s generally traced to Native American teachers, this ancient practise is cross-cultural. What modern Pagans call ‘sitting out’ has a more explicitly spiritual purpose, but is essentially the same thing.

Cultivating a sense of place is important too. The excellent book The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci by Barry Patterson is one that I recommend highly, because it offers specific techniques for engaging with place, including learning about its history, geology, flora and fauna, mythology, archaeology, and so on.

This approach is also recommended in a bioregional quiz, “Where You At?”, originally developed by Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley, and updated by Connected by Nature. Learn about your local flora and fauna, what flowers, fruits and vegetables are in season at what time.

We also need to be in right relationship with Nature, so reducing your carbon footprint and your ecological footprint and auditing your lifestyle are important.

Eating food that is local and in season helps the environment, but it also makes you more aware of your surroundings. It’s very hard to eat seasonally in some places, but we should at least be aware of the air miles on what we eat, and try to buy more local produce.

 

Eco-spirituality and theology

Eco-spirituality is a new name for a set of ideas that goes back a long way.

Baruch Spinoza and Giordano Bruno both viewed the universe as divine. Their ideas were broadly pantheistic. The implications of the idea that the universe itself is divine are explored by Sam Webster, who prefers immediacy to immanence. The universe is a theophany, the manifestation of the Divine. The implication here is that everything is sacred, and we should take care of the Earth and other beings; we certainly don’t have dominion over them.

A common trope in Western views of reality is the idea that there is an underlying essence to everything, a pure state of being, and that everything else emanates from that. This is a very pervasive idea, from Plato’s concept of Ideal Forms, all the way to Cartesian dualismProcess theology was an attempt to correct this thinking; its basic premise is that everything is always changing. It also views the Divine as involved in the process of change, and developing as a result of the changes:

For both Whitehead and Hartshorne, it is an essential attribute of God to be fully involved in and affected by temporal processes, an idea that conflicts with traditional forms of theism that hold God to be in all respects non-temporal (eternal), unchanging (immutable), and unaffected by the world (impassible). Process theology does not deny that God is in some respects eternal, immutable, and impassible, but it contradicts the classical view by insisting that God is in some respects temporal, mutable, and passible. (Wikipedia)

As Pagans usually view our deities as neither infinite nor perfect, and many of us regard them as beings on their own spiritual journeys, this makes a lot of sense. Cyclicity and change are regarded as positive in Paganism, so process theology fits in well with that. Indigenous traditions also affirm that process and becoming are natural and inevitable; many indigenous American languages do not translate well into English, because English refers to everything as a fixed state (nouns), whereas they refer to everything as a process.

Gaia theology & theory affirms the idea of the Divine as living, and therefore changing. Gaea theology was developed by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart in 1970, independently of James Lovelock‘s better-known Gaia Theory. Oberon Zell-Ravenheart derived his ideas in part from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic palaeontologist and geologist. Both Zell and Lovelock regarded the Earth as Gaia, a living organism, and named the idea after the Greek Goddess Gaia.

According to Wikipedia:

According to James Kirchner there is a spectrum of Gaia hypotheses, ranging from the undeniable to radical. At one end is the undeniable statement that the organisms on the Earth have radically altered its composition. A stronger position is that the Earth’s biosphere effectively acts as if it is a self-organizing system which works in such a way as to keep its systems in some kind of equilibrium that is conducive to life. Biologists usually view this activity as an undirected emergent property of the ecosystem; as each individual species pursues its own self-interest, their combined actions tend to have counterbalancing effects on environmental change. Proponents of this view sometimes point to examples of life’s actions in the past that have resulted in dramatic change rather than stable equilibrium, such as the conversion of the Earth’s atmosphere from a reducing environment to an oxygen-rich one.

An even stronger claim is that all lifeforms are part of a single planetary being, called Gaia. In this view, the atmosphere, the seas, the terrestrial crust would be the result of interventions carried out by Gaia, through the coevolving diversity of living organisms.

Eco-spirituality embraces an ethic of non-violence and sustainability. Non-violence includes respect for life in all its manifestations (human, non-human, animal, vegetable and mineral); harmonious use of natural resources, with respect for the natural order and cycles of the environment, and development compatible with the ecosystem; and listening to Nature, not dictating to it. In Hinduism, non-violence is known as ahimsaSustainability means not using up or depleting the resources available, and maintaining the diversity of ecosystems. Reducing the diversity of an ecosystem, or doing something that creates an imbalance in it, upsets the food web (what eats what in a specific ecosystem).

A key idea in eco-spirituality is deep ecology, which advocates the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their usefulness to humans. Deep ecology argues that the natural world is a subtle balance of complex inter-relationships in which the organisms depend on each other for their existence within ecosystems. This philosophy was named “deep ecology” by Arne Næss in 1973. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a deep ecological approach is needed to ensure sustainability, biodiversity and the continued existence of the human species. Vandana Shiva writes:

‘Deep ecological solutions are the only viable solutions to ensuring that every person on this planet has enough food, has enough water, has adequate shelter, has dignity and has a cultural meaning in life. If we don’t follow the path of living in ways that we leave enough space for other species, that paradigm also ensures that most human beings will be denied their right to existence. A system that denies the intrinsic value of other species denies eighty percent of humanity, their right to a dignified survival and a dignified life. It only pretends that is solving the problems of poverty, it is actually at the root of poverty. And the only real solution to poverty is to embrace the right to life of all on this planet, all humans and all species.’

Another important strand of eco-spirituality is eco-feminism, the idea that the exploitation of the Earth is symbolically linked to the domination of women, with talk of conquest, dominion, and so on; whereas respect for the Earth can be equated with respect for women. This is a big part of contemporary Goddess spirituality, and is obviously related to Gaia theology. In Ecofeminism (1993) authors Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies point out that modern science is not a universal and value-free form of knowledge, regarding the dominant scientific discourse as a projection of Western men’s values.

Another green precept is “Think global, act local“, the idea that before acting, we should look at consequences for the whole biosphere, as well as for the local environment. This is consistent with the Wiccan ethic “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”, which encourages us to look at the consequences of our actions. It also relates to the idea of spirit of place. The Romans honoured the genius loci, and the Greeks honoured the daemon (both terms mean ‘spirit of place’). This was the consciousness inhabiting wood and grove, tree and well, river and lake. Pagans have found that specific locations have a different atmosphere, a sense of presence. Christians have started to talk about ‘thin places’ – liminal places where the numinous can readily be encountered.

One of the things that keeps me Pagan is the importance of wildness. For me, this concept includes the erotic, the instinctive, the intuitive, a sense of connection to Nature, intimacy, freedom, and solitude. It also links in with deep ecology – the valuing of wild places and wild beings for themselves and not for their utility. An excellent book on the subject of reclaiming wildness is Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian psychotherapist and traditional storyteller.

Ancient cultures regarded the landscape itself as sacred, and devised sacred geography to describe it. This includes the concept of the four cardinal directions and their associated symbolism; the idea of the World Tree at the centre; and cosmologies with the heavens above, the underworld below, and the Earth in the middle.

So, how do we put these ideas into practice? That will be the topic of the next post.