In Part 1, I reviewed the conceptions of the natural world found among our archaic ancestors. In this part, I will address our modern image of nature. In Part 3, I conclude by arguing that we need a new way of thinking about nature as a “sacred living system.”
The De-Sacralization of Nature
Skipping to the beginnings of our modern era, western science and rationality exerted a powerful influence upon our image of nature. The notion that the cosmos is sacred waned and nature becames profane. The soul of the world — anima mundi — largely disappeared from the modern worldview. While Newtonian science and materialism provided powerful insights into the workings of the natural world, this new conception of nature facilitated the destruction of our planet by turning it into a mere resource for humans to use.
Modern sciences advanced a “mechanistic” conception of nature which regarded everything as explicable by material causes and mechanical principles. A reductionist mindset treated nature as no more than the sum of its parts. Rather than perceiving the world as complex living systems with emergent properties, an image of nature as inert matter developed.
In the seventeenth century, there was something elegant about the mechanistic picture of the universe. The clock was still a recent invention and comparing the universe to a clocklike mechanism showed just how wonderful the world was. The planets and the stars revolved like the gears of a clock, set in motion by God, the cosmic clockmaker. This provided early scientists a way to understand the universe, to take it apart piece by piece, to apply the reductionist methodology of science.
Throughout the modern era humans have seen themselves as the measure of all things and our species has felt entitled to use nature for its own self-interests. The natural world became for modern humans a storehouse of value. An extreme anthropocentrism reenforced this “utilitarian creed.” Domination over nature was encouraged by a technocratic mentality and certain religious beliefs.
The modern era is marked by widespread alienation from nature. The natural world has become for many merely a collection of meaningless objects to use. We feel as though we do not really belong anywhere. The “myth of separation” pervades the consciousness of those following the modern cosmology. We imagine natural objects as separate, distinct entities with clear and firm boundaries between “this” and “that.” Human existence is largely pointless in the larger scheme of things according to the modern worldview.
Copernicus created a cosmic upheaval with his heliocentric theory concerning the place of the Earth in the universe. Since the beginning of human consciousness, people assumed that the Earth was the absolute fixed center of the universe. The scientific revolution led to vast breakthroughs concerning the true reality of the cosmos. Human reason applied empirically was thought to yield cosmological truths — the supposed objective reality of the universe. Over time, this led to a total re-thinking of the place of humanity in the order of the cosmos.
In the modern worldview, the human is clearly separated from the natural world. Humans looked out at the natural world and believed that all the cherished qualities that made them human were absent in the objective world — a sense of purpose, consciousness, intelligence, the capacity for meaning and spiritual presence. Over time the world became de-sacralized — the numinous powers, gods and goddesses, and other spiritual objects no longer assigned meaning to nature. As Max Weber proclaimed, modernity is “disenchanted” — a realm of neutral facts perceived through detached rational understanding. The world was robbed of spiritual and symbolic meaning. Viewed objectively, the world was denied subjectivity. The disenchantment of the natural world allowed humans to view it as a place to be shaped and as a resource to be exploited.
This radical transformation in worldviews allowed for numerous other intellectual shifts which then provided for the development of modern science, individualism, democratic polity, secular civil society and industrial capitalism.
Today the modern cosmology is under attack. The assumptions, metaphors and strategies of the modern mind are being reassessed and the outlines of a new understanding of reality are emerging. This is a very different vision of the world, which has a deeper appreciation of the complexity of reality and a greater awareness of the limits of conventional science. Specifically, the reappraisal of the modern cosmology acknowledges the inadequacy of reductionist, mechanistic and objectivized conception of the natural world. There is a revised understanding of complex living systems and a renewed religious interest in “creation spiritualities.”
The modern cosmology perceives the universe as spiritually void, impersonal and governed by random processes without meaning and purpose. As stated, humans have no purpose in the modern cosmos. A disenchanted and meaningless cosmos creates a mass psychology of misery marked by a spiritual hunger in which consumers fill their empty lives with more stuff, thus cannibalizing the planet.
Our conceptions of the world constitute the world. These worldviews engender our understanding of the universe, other species and ourselves, and capture our sense of what is possible. Underlying this contemporary revolution in our worldviews is an awakening consciousness to our spiritual connection to our living planet and to one another.
We need to change the ways we look at nature. To “save our planet,” we need new ideas. The transition to a sustainable society requires a different conception of our natural world, a different cosmology and a different sense of what is possible.
Our current relationship to the world is marked by alienation. To heal this relationship we must increase our awareness of our relations with other species and the natural world. We need to loose our arrogant anthropocentrism and accept with humility our place within the web of life. Finally, we must acquire a new way of understanding reality that will lead to a sense of belonging to the Earth and a global ethic of responsibility.
About the Author: Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
The Dionysian Naturalist explores Nature Religions in contemporary North America, including shamanistic practices, reclaimed Paganism, but most specifically Religious Naturalism — a recent religious approach at the cutting edge of science and religion. Drawing upon the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, I continue developing a Dionysian Naturalism with a central role for ecstasy and the sacramental use of entheogens. Creating rituals and ceremonies to re-sacralize our natural world are particularly important in this time of ecological crisis. I find particular religious significance in the scientific story of evolution and develop liturgy around these themes.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.