Nature Religion as She Is Conceptualized in 2013

I am off Thursday to Cherry Hill Seminary’s “Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes” symposium. Although not one of the marquee speakers, I have a small part to play as a respondent for one panel.

What does a respondent do? First, you read all papers in advance. Of course, there is often somebody who has a string of excuses for not sending his or her paper, so (assuming that person does not bail out totally), you hope that you can take some notes during its delivery and extemporize some remarks.

Having heard the presentations, it is your turn to take a few minutes and discuss common themes, opportunities for further research, and the like. It is considered bad form—at least in the conferences that I have attended—to say, “Jane Doe’s paper was jumbled and had nothing useful to say about Problem X.” You might say, however, “Jane Doe rightly draws our attention to Problem X.”

On the other hand, I have heard respondents critique the overall theme of a session as being poorly thought out, so it’s not always all sweetness and light. But the respondent responds constructively, rather than conducting an oral examination.

Cherry Hill is a seminary too, after all, which means some of the presenters engage in more theologizing than I am used to in my corner of religious studies.

To get in the right frame of mind, I have been re-reading parts of Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, which lays out different aspects of what he calls “naturalistic animism” in particular, that is to say, animism that is does not require any supernatural component but is more of a shared web-of-life experience. Is this the same as the “New Animism”? Perhaps we have a theme for an AAR session here.

This new book, Walking in the Land of Many Gods: Remembering Sacred Reason in Contemporary Environmental Literature by A. James Wohlpart, looks like it might belong on the same shelf. I need to order a copy.

Also related: I have added Adrian Harris’ BodyMind Place blog to the blogroll. A psychotherapist in England, he gives ecopsychology-based workshops in the UK under the name Nature Connection. Here he writes about what happens when he took one of his psychotherapy techniques . . . outdoors!

Gerald Gardner and the Question of Polytheism.

I recently reviewed Philip Heselton’s latest biography of Gerald Gardner, but I did not have time to discuss one of his final observations, written in a too-brief closing chapter, “An Assessment of Gerald Gardner.”

Heselton writes, “Indeed, he really didn’t, I think, have any of what we might call ‘spiritual’ feelings: at any rate, he never wrote about any.” Nor, in his assessment, did Gardner believe in spirits or have any success at working magick on his own (640).

Think about that, the chief founder of a new Pagan religion who never had one of those knock-you-down experiences with the gods that convinces you that She, He, or They are really there. Compare, for example, the experience of Feraferia, Fred Adams, also back in the mid-1950s.

If he, Edith, and friends were talking about witchcraft during lazy days at the nudist camp in the late 1940s, they had a lot of concepts swirling around, concepts such as these:

  • Witchcraft was merely a collection of psychic abilities available to everyone.
  • It was spells and herbal curing and folklore and whatever, with no clear organization — just a soup of this and that.
  • It was power given to someone after a pact with the Devil.
  • It was power that you were born with, either for good or ill.
  • It is a super-secret Pagan cult that survived 1,000 years of Christianity in western Europe (Margaret Murray’s view).

All of these ideas are swirling around and bumping into each other in Witchcraft Today (1954). But there is not much about deities — for that, Doreen Valiente should get the credit, I suspect.

Somehow this vagueness and messiness of definition ties in — in my mind at least — with P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’s recent blog essay, “Bringing Back the Gods.”

What I am noticing more and more recently, however, is that modern Paganism is being purposefully defined so as to not include the gods. In recent weeks alone: Jonathan Korman has defined “the pagan sensibility” as not necessarily needing to include the gods; John Halstead has discussed the four centers of modern Paganism, but has portrayed the deity-centric forms of Paganism as inherently creedal; and here at Patheos’ Pagan Portal, Yvonne Aburrow has defined “theology” as “reasoning about the Divine” rather than “reasoning about the gods,” which is not remotely the same thing (on which more will be said in a moment).

For a long time now, I’ve been hearing modern Paganism characterized as a “nature religion” or an “earth-based religion.” That is true to an extent (and in some cases, far less true than others—and not necessarily in a negative sense). However, I suspect a huge reason that it is characterized that way—especially to non-Pagans—is because of fear of being thought foolish or “primitive” for recognizing the gods. We have then internalized that dialogue and have spent lots of virtual and actual ink on determining whether or not one group or another is truly “earth-based,” when in fact that understanding in itself might be more of a problem than an accurate portrayal.

On the “nature religion” part, I would suggest that non-theistic nature religion is rooted in 19th-century American thought, and Catherine Albanese tackled it well in Nature Religion in America and other writing. So it is not a reaction against contemporary polytheism originally, but a genuine spiritual current on its own. I have argued that the existence of that spiritual current made it easier for Pagans in the 1970s and 1980s to grab the “earth religion” label — partly as camouflage.

And some people just have not had that knock upside the head that leaves you saying, “All right, You are real and now we have some sort of relationship.”

I would agree that there is a cultural prejudice against polytheism. Some practitioners of what look like polytheism to us have maybe learned to emphasize a “Great Spirit” or “High God” behind them in order to avoid that label. It’s what you say when the missionaries have you backed into a corner.

Pentagram Pizza for May 1

Four toppings this evening. . .

This made me laugh.

• Some occult-cult films from the past reviewed by Peg Aloi.

• Teaching a course in “world religions” is not as simple as it looks, once you start sorting out “religion,” “religious,” and questions of group identity.

• In the “Finding a God” chapter of Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton describes the rise of Pan in Victorian literature. Sometimes he personified an idealized countryside while at others he was “a battering-ram against respectability.” He appears in America during that period too — this time as sculpture.

No to “Neopagan,” plus Other Pagan Blogging

At Pagans for Archaeology, Yewtree makes the argument (started by Graham Harvey, as I understand) against using the term “Neopagan.”

Lupa at No Unsacred Place on greeting the land in a new place.

• At The Alchemist’s Garden, can your spirit helper be a machine?

• Finally, at This Lively Earth, some thoughts on the pluses and minuses of celebrating Groundhog Day with kindergarteners in a post titled “What Are We Teaching Kids on Groundhog Day?

I couldn’t stop the thought: And this is what award-winning education looks like. It was education that had gotten the climate wrong, the animals wrong, and the children wrong as well. By feeding the students a pablum of anachronisms about the natural world instead of teaching them to sink their hands in mud, to feast their eyes on the colors of tree foliage, to recognize poison oak and name the first wildflower in spring, this brand of education disrespected the students. It inculcated a story from another time and place instead of encouraging the students to observe grasses or flowers or woodland using their own eyes, their fingers and toes, their ears, their skin. It treated the children as if they didn’t have the capacity to appreciate or synthesize the results of their own observations.

Yep.

Protest-Site Paganism

A Life in the Woods: Protest-Site Paganism” is an essay by Adrian Harris.

Dusk is falling as I get off the bus but within 10 minutes I find myself walking down the rough path towards the camp. A voice hollers out a “Hello!” from the bank above me. “Hi! It’s Adrian – I phoned the camp a couple of days ago.” At the moment I’m no more than a shadow in the dark, so I want to reassure them that I’m a friend. “Oh, hi! Come on up. There’s a gap in the fence over here”. A guy who calls himself ‘Oak’  meets me with a smile and leads me to the fire pit where people sit huddled round the warmth.

The piece references a “bender,” which is a temporary dwelling made from lengths of flexible wood (or metal rods) and covered with fabric, plastic sheeting, etc. You can see an example and explanation here. An American might say “wigwam,” from the Algonquian.

You can also read his PhD thesis, “Wisdom of the Body: Embodied Knowing in Eco-Paganism,” for more thinking on what makes nature spirituality.

The Wanton Green—Both Book and Blog

Adrian Harris describes a new Pagans-and-place publishing project, The Wanton Green.

For many contemporary Pagans the relationship between bodymind and place is fundamental, but that relationship has rarely been explored in any depth. Paganism is often described as being polytheistic, animist or about ‘nature worship’, and while that’s all true in a vague and anodyne way, it’s of limited value.

Follow the link for more.

Why Did I Agree to Do this Workshop?

Fire and law enforcement people gather as the Sand Guch Fire spreads.

Photo from April 29, 2011. All the gray in the background is smoke. I am in the yellow shirt, lower center, trying to get a word with the sheriff. (Photo from the Wet Mountain Tribune)

I have spent much of today being nervous about the weather (warm, dry, windy) while yet working on a workshop presentation on nature religion.

Nature is making me nervous. Ironic, eh? Even though M. and I have been back in our house for a week, we are still jumpy. After all, lightning season has not yet really begun.

At least my little volunteer fire department is suddenly taking training very seriously. And we have some new members.

Last night, when the festival was starting, I was at the fire house, working up an equipment order for the General Services Administration.  More hard hats! More yellow Nomex shirts! And what’s your size?

So today I had to finish the workshop for tomorrow. It’s too much like preparing a lecture.

The problem is, I’m not really a Pagan festival workshop guy.

I used to think I knew some things. Now everything is complicated, nuanced, and requires further thought.

A couple of months ago, this Pagan podcaster was after me and after me to appear on his show.  Finally I told him, “You have to understand that I don’t have a ‘shtick.’ I don’t go around to festivals (other than Florida Pagan Gathering two years ago, where I was  mainly on panels about Pagan history). In other words, I don’t do ‘how-to’ or ‘how ancient wisdom can make you a better Witch’ or anything like that.”

Never heard from him again.

If I had a shtick, I would be like my friend Thorn Coyle. I would walk out in front of a group, and inside of five minutes they would be breathing and moving and chanting and visualizing and liking it. That’s what she does, but it’s not what I do.

So I will try to talk about the ways that I defined “nature religion” in Her Hidden Children, I suppose. And give people an exercise or two to do. Maybe try to convince them that even if they are not capital-N Native (in some legal sense) they can still be “native” in an earth-based spirituality sense.

I have also decided that I am sick of the phrase “spiritual path,” at least on even-numbered days of the month. Being on a “path” sounds like you are trying to get away from something, but as that 1970s wall poster said, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

(Did the same people who said “Be here now” also say that they were “on a path”? And if so, did that mean that they were in fact trying to leave here and go elsewhere? Inquiring minds want to know.)

So, yeah, a workshop. Forty-five minutes worth of blather and then dismiss class early? That might work. This bunch will probably be talkative though.

Were the Gods Angry with Japan?

Adrian Ivakhiv blogs on religious responses to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

All of this resonates with an immanence-based process-relational perspective: nature does what it does, it includes the “good” and the “bad” (which are relative to their perceivers), we are part of it and sometimes we get struck down in it. (Careful readers will know that when I say that good and bad are “relative to their perceivers,” this doesn’t mean that “everything is relative, anything goes, and whatever you think or do is as good as anything else.” The world is layered and folded: perceivers share their perceptual situations with other perceivers, so my “good” is closer to your “good” than it is to the good of an amoeba, a viral bacteria or cancer cell, or an asteroid whipping through the solar system. Hitler’s actions may have seemed “right” to him, but in a human context they come off as psychotic and grotesque. And as for “nature,” if it includes everything, becoming a fairly meaningless term, so be it. It corresponds to what, in an East Asian context, is thought of as “the way,” ziran, an active and unfolding “suchness,” or what Gregory Bateson called “the pattern that connects.”)

There is lots more with interesting links. Apparently even the mayor of Toyko took a “the gods are angry with us” line, although he later backed away from it.

Sometimes, the nonhuman world is not All About Us Humans.

P.E.I. Bonewits 1949-2010

Isaac Bonewits (2nd from left) at the Greenfield Ranch tree planting, Jan. 1978

Isaac Bonewits, second from left, at a tree-planting in 1978.

All around the Pagan blogosphere, tributes are being written today for Isaac Bonewits, who died today.

Here is a chronology of his life and tribute by Ian Corrigan.

I can add only that he was one of the most prolific and visible figures of the Pagan revival from the 1970s forward.

As a student, he took what had been a sort of spoof “Druidry” and turned it into a genuine Pagan religion with a spoofy name, the Schismatic Druids of North America.

That in turn  become Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF), which is very much alive today.

Druids are always associated with trees, and the photo is one that I took in January 1978 at a tree-planting at “Annwfn,” part of Greenfields Ranch, near Ukiah, California.

From left, Isaac’s then-wife Selene Kumin vega, Isaac (leaning on his hoedad), Morning Glory Zell, someone obscured (possibly Gwydion Pendderwen), and would that be Oberon Zell with arm outstretched?

I am glad that I was able to offer Phaedra some help in finding a home for his papers. Although I did not see Isaac often, we were always friends at a distance, and I shall miss his presence on the Pagan scene. Ave atque vale.