In Part 1, I reviewed the conceptions of the natural world found among our archaic ancestors. In Part 2, I addressed our modern image of nature. In Part 3, I will conclude by arguing that we need a new way of thinking about nature as a “sacred living system.”
The New Worldview
As we have seen, throughout most of human history our conception of nature was based upon the image of the sacred living cosmos, which largely supported sustainable cultural practices. We know that aspects of this conception do not fit the facts of the world and should not be re-instated. While I am certainly not anti-religious and deeply respect the religious views of other people, I find no evidence of supernatural beings that would warrant building a whole scientifically-grounded cosmology around one.
Superstitious notions about imaginary beings are best left out of the new worldview. While there are still plenty of mysteries surrounding our natural world that leave us with wonder and awe and which provide the basis of naturalist religion (as supported by this blog), we have figured out significant aspects of how nature works and need not revert to unfounded superstitions to explain the world.
Yet there are also crucial aspects of the ancient image of a sacred cosmos that must be restored. Specifically, we need to re-sacralize our natural world. Several visionary thinkers are promoting a “New Story of the Universe” based on a new conception of nature — the evolutionary narrative of how our universe emerges from the Big Bang to our present moment. Cultural historian Thomas Berry pioneered the framing of this “sacred cosmos” conceptualization. Other intellectuals advancing similar images of nature including Brian Swimme, Duane Elgin, David Korten, Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow.
Industrial civilization, which is an outgrowth of the mechanistic paradigm, has nearly destroyed the biosphere. The “New Story” shows us that we are an expression of the Earth. Through human consciousness, the Earth, and thus the whole universe, are able to reflect on themselves. Our role as humans embodies the evolutionary dynamics from which we emerged.
The universe is not a lifeless machine but is instead a “sacred living system.” This phrase brings together three distinct intellectual trends that are circulating within our culture — namely, movements which see nature as sacred, movements which see nature as living, and movements which see nature as a complex system. This new conception is intended to change our relationship to the planet and even if it is built upon a somewhat mythic metaphor this radical leap of imagination can be a purposeful act which promotes ecological consciousness.
Advocates for a new conception agree that the reductionism, materialism and mechanical aspects of our current conception of nature promote massive environmental degradation. We humans are embedded within a complex and interdependent web of life — a vast network of communities in which each and every part has a role to play and has value to the system. The more that we become conscious of this embeddedness, the more we value all members and choose to live responsibly. A new global ethic emerges from this increased awareness in which all objects in the universe are valued and respected. As we awaken to this complex web we participate in the awakening of our planet to itself.
What does it mean to say that nature is sacred? First, there is an incredible mystery at the center of our understanding of the cosmos. So much about how our universe unfolded over 13 billion years from the Big Bang to our present moment goes beyond our comprehension. Perhaps our brains will never be able to grasp how it all happened. As we unravel some of its mysteries we continue to feel awe and wonder at the limitless creativity we find. Thus, numinous qualities of nature’s majesty and mystery allow us to perceive the universe as “sacred”.
Second, nature is the absolute source of all life and we are totally dependent upon it for our sustenance and survival. Our natural world provides everything for us and is a source of inspiration, revelation and fulfillment. For many of us, it is the source for our religious engagement. Third, our humble fragility in the face of nature’s powers again leads us to feel wonder and awe.
Humans seem to naturally make distinctions between what is important to us and what is not. To say that nature is sacred is to say that it has the highest value, must be treated with respect and reverence, and that it must never be violated. Moreover, nature is sacred because of its transcendence — our experience of its majesty originates beyond ourselves.
In stating that all of nature is sacred, I am arguing against seeing any parts as profane. While some places hold special importance to us — wilderness areas, consecrated grounds, ancient worship sites — even the most abused and barren lands are worthy of respect and veneration. Otherwise we risk re-enforcing notions that some places are important while other are not, that some places should be respected while others should not.
The vision of nature as a “sacred living system” brings together the wisdom of religion and science and encourages a closer dialogue between them. Nature is a biophysical reality which is a consequence of evolutionary processes which exhibit emergent properties and bear the sacred features of spirit. We must remember, as stated above, that nature is surely more wonderfully complex than our humble minds can comprehend. Truth is neither wholly objective nor subjective and our understandings are inescapably metaphysical.
The ancient soul of the world, the Pagan notion of anima mundi, must be revived. Our ancestors communicated with stars and water, forests and creatures, as ways to honor them in a communion of sprit. With the rise of the mechanistic conception of nature, the world’s numinous and animating qualities receded. Anima mundi disappeared. How can we go forward recognizing the world as soul-filed?
The other part of the new conception of nature that I am advocating is “living system.” This phrase combines two trends: the use of “systems thinking” to understand our natural world and the movement proclaiming that the universe is alive.
Key characteristics of systems thinking include the ability to shift one’s gaze from parts to wholes and between different systems’ levels. Throughout nature we find systems nesting within other systems. In contrast to scientific reductionism, systems thinking examines the entirety of systems by studying the linkages and interconnections between their composite elements. There is a focus on features such an interdependence, emergent features, feedback mechanisms, complexity and self-organization. Systems thinking is an ecological approach to world.
Our universe is not a lifeless machine, but is instead a unified living system. While the galaxies of our vast universe are separated by millions of light years, the new physics describes a reality that is thoroughly interconnected — a single undivided whole. Rather than separating the universe into living and non-living separate things, a life force permeates everything, running through all matter, energy, and what we once considered empty space. Life flows through the fabric of the universe. The new conception of the universe describes a unified system that continuallly regenerates itself. The flow of creation continually runs through the vast cosmos.
The capacity for reflection, or consciousness, is basic to life and scientists now find some form of it operating at every level. This, of course, is not human consciousness, but is a reflective capacity appropriate to an object’s level — atoms, molecules, single cell organisms. Our cosmos is responsive.
Our universe is a unified system in which interrelated parts create the conditions of the whole. Infused with massive amounts of energy, continually reproducing itself, and making use of a reflective capacity, the universe meets the core requirements of life. The living universe paradigm allows us to rediscover the aliveness at the core of our world and to realize our intimate connection to the world. Our communion with a living universe demands an ethic in which our actions contribute to the well-being and harmony of the whole.
Our new understanding of complex systems reveals that meaningful disturbances trigger feedback processes that may rapidly lead to the emergence of new order. But the moments of systemic instability may lead to breakdowns rather than breakthrough.
Human beings are part of nature and therefore part of the larger evolutionary story of the unfolding of the cosmos. We find ourselves at a critical turning point in that grand narrative, the outcome of which will be determined by the beliefs we affirm through our everyday actions. While “the epic of evolution” typically occurs through gradual patterns of change, numerous sudden breaks in the Earth’s history have left multitudes of species extinct. Life on Earth is currently undergoing a massive extinction equal in size to the catastrophic episodes that marked the extinction of the dinosaurs. Sadly, human beings are the central agents behind this system-wide collapse, yet most remain grossly ignorant or indifferent to the plight of our fellow species.
As we humans move forward into the twenty-first century, we face a world in which two developments are on a collision course. First, global capitalism seeks to maximize the wealth and power of its elite, and its concerns for money-making take precedence over human concerns, social justice, and ecological integrity. Second, the movement toward sustainability values a healthy planet, human dignity, and all forms of justice. To avoid ecological collapse, we must change our value systems so as to make them compatible with the demand of ecological sustainability. Centrally, we living in wealthier counties must significantly decrease all material consumption. The paradigm shift from mechanistic thinking to systems thinking supports a profound value shift. Rather than finding fulfillment in material consumption, the focus should be on finding fulfillment in nurturing relationships and meaningful lives.
For those of us who already view the natural world as sacred and who have committed our lives to reaching a sustainable society, our work is not done, and we cannot sit back complacently knowing we’re on the right side of history. We must become evangelicals, heading to the streets to spread the gospel of our sacred cosmos. With so many of our brothers and sisters asleep to the environmental catastrophe we imminently face, we must take responsibility to wake our neighbors up. A new worldview is emerging — a novel set of assumptions about how the world works — what some call a paradigm shift. Central to this new worldview is a new conception of nature. The vision of our natural world as a “sacred living system” brings together the wisdom of religion and science to change our relationship to the cosmos.
To heal our connection to the world, I believe that we must re-enchant nature and revive anima mundi. Only when we realize that the world is sacred, that we are an intimate part of the web of life and kin to other species, will we acquire the sense of belonging to this planet needed create a global ethic in which all beings are valued and respected and choose to live responsibly.
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.