The image of the “blue planet,” a new perspective of the earth as seen from the outside, is one of the most popular images in history. This image, more than any other, has shaped the popular notion of the age of the “whole world” and globalization, from a worldwide society linked by the Internet to the current debate on the climate. Using artworks and materials from cultural history, the exhibition will critically explore the application of ecological-systemic concepts to society, politics, and aesthetics.
And how it ended up as a way to sell smart phones.
That the photo of the earth from space changed consciousness on some level is a given of environmental writing. My only concern is that it feeds the “everything started in the 1960s” meme, which downplays the long role of nature-as-source-of-sacred value in American religion, going back to the early 19th century. Catherine Albanese described it well.
The real-estate supplement of the Taos News this week carried an article titled “Five Must-Haves for a Beautiful Backyard.” Oddly enough, four of the five items* were available at the store owned by a person interviewed for the story.
“Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is one of our most popular statues,” said Char Austin, who works at Camino Real Imports. “People like the air of serenity that he brings in, more so when the statue is surrounded by trees, and birds can nest around. El San Francisco definitely contributes to create a peaceful environment.”
The real St. Francis of Assisi was anything but serene. He was more like “Occupy Rome” AD 1204 — an upper middle class young man angry at the establishment, demanding radical change in the Roman Catholic Church. But history has turned him into a bird bath — and perhaps that metamorphosis was inevitable.
Growing up as a Forest Service brat, with an agnostic father and a devoutly Christian mother, I noticed that Christianity seemed to end at the edge of town. Relations with the other-than-human world were not discussed in church. The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer contained a prayer for rain, as I recall, and that was about all.
For the rest, I was offered the secular gospel of conservation: scientific forestry, soil and water conservation, state-regulated hunting. At least that was better than what had gone before: cut-and-run timber cutting, market-hunting that wiped out species, the Dust Bowl . . .
His Franciscan order grew to where it too was a bureaucratic organization, and some of the monks who clung too hard to Francis’ peace-and-poverty ideals (the “Spirituals”) ended up condemned as heretics. (The conflict between hard-core Franciscans and the Vatican appears briefly at the beginning of The Name of the Rose. Most viewers probably don’t get it.)
Yes, he wrote the “Canticle of the Sun,” in which all creation, including animals, the Sun and Moon, etc., is invited to praise God and is depicted as manifesting the divine. And he supposedly preached to birds — but he preferred to preach to people, even to the Muslim sultan of Egypt, who was enough of a sporting gent to let him live. In the story of the “wolf of Gubbio,” he saves the wolf from persecution by the local pastoralists, but at the price of giving up its wolf-ness. There is nothing in the canticle about the ecological role of predators.
Fast forward to 1967, when the journal Science published an essay by the historian Lynn White, Jr., “The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” (PDF), still widely read and anthologized today. In it, White blamed the crisis on the dualistic creator/created thinking fostered by the monotheistic religions, among which he included Communism, given the environmental crises created by Communist Party policies in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe:
Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian theology. The fact that Communists share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy.
Casting about for an alternative to the “domination” model within the Christian tradition, White settled (rather half-heartedly, I always thought) on Francis, even though Francis’ view of non-human nature was thoroughly Catholic. To quote the Wikipedia entry, Francis taught “that the world was created good and beautiful by God but suffers a need for redemption because of the primordial sin of man.” Contrary to the slide show linked above, this is not particularly “closer to Eastern philosophy.”
With the environmental movement growing, religious officialdom had to respond. Some Protestant Christians started talking “eco-justice,” while in 1979, Pope John Paul II named Francis “patron of ecology,” urging Catholics to be like Francis and take care of nature. Francis, said the pope, “offers Christians an example of genuine and deep respect for the integrity of creation” — as long as we understand that it is human-centric and required to praise God the creator, who is outside of creation, for letting it exist.
Of the hundreds of officially canonized saints, Francis was the only candidate for patron of ecology, even though the Vatican had squeezed all the radical ideas out of the Franciscan order within a century of his death.
We could see Bird Bath Francis as an attempt to bridge these traditions, to consecrate a safe, protected, and cultivated nature — if not the self-organizing wolf-ridden wilderness. Followers of what Bron Taylor calls “dark green religion,” which may not be at all theistic, might not be so easily persuaded by the monk of Assisi, were they to meet him on the path.
*Wood carvings of saints, giant metal flowers, concrete animals, small water fountain, and ceramic Sun and Moon faces
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.
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).
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 inWitchcraft 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 inNature 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.
• 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.