Part 1 of 5: Nature Religions
By far the greatest challenges that humanity has ever confronted are global climate change and the other environmental problems created by modern industrial civilization. Monthly the news seems to get worse as we learn that the ecological crisis is far bigger than we first thought and the time left before we face a potential environmental collapse is far shorter. Some well-informed researchers say that it is already too late to avoid catastrophic destruction of civilization or to “save the planet”.
Joanna Macy, a prominent Buddhist eco-activist, labels our current era “The Great Turning” because it can be a period of transition from the old industrial system, which must be brought to an end, and the new sustainable system, which must emerge very soon1. As she notes, the Earth is both the storehouse and the sewer for our industrial economy, which depends on an ever-increasing consumption of resources. The Great Turning is an ecological revolution which must happen within a few years and which must involve not just our political economic system, but also the values and habits which enable it.
Albert Einstein is often attributed as stating that: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”2. To reach a sustainable society will require a vastly different worldview, a different psychological comportment and a higher level of consciousness than that which we currently have, and therefore we also require a cognitive, perceptual and spiritual revolution. Specifically, we must awaken to our spiritual connections to other living beings and to our planet, re-think the moral and ethical foundations of modern industrial civilization and eliminate the materialist mindset and radical individualism which so often guide our lives.
Some readers might query: “Spiritual revolution? Really? Must we bring matters of “spirit” into our struggles to deal with climate change?” While it is not impossible for those who are secular to achieve an ecological consciousness, humans seem to naturally distinguish between that which is sacred and that which is profane. And the heart of spirituality is the development of this sense of the sacred. To say that Nature is sacred is to insist that it must be treated with reverence and respect and never violated. It is of utmost importance. It is holy and ultimate. Employing a conception of Nature as sacred can radically alter our relationship to the planet, and even if this sacralization process is built upon a leap of the imagination, this conceptualization can be a purposeful act which promotes the ecological consciousness so central to the new worldview we must cultivate.
Several years ago I began to build my personal theology and religious practice, and this essay is a part of that ongoing effort3. Given my passionate concerns for the health and integrity of our planet and my spiritual interests in developing a sense of Nature as sacred, I long ago initiated a deep examination of “Nature Religions”4. These approaches to spirituality, which regard our natural world as inherently sacred, include some of the most ancient religions on our planet, such as those of most indigenous peoples (such as Native Americans), the classical Pagan traditions of pre-Christian Europe and their “re-birth” in the form of Wicca, Neo-Paganism and Druidry. Nature Religions include approaches that embrace belief in the supernatural (such as versions of Paganism, Wicca and Druidry, which maintain belief in transcendent deities) and naturalistic forms (such as the various forms of Religious Naturalism) which typically reject belief in the supernatural.
Many followers of Nature Religions bring an ecological consciousness to their religious sensibilities. They are reclaiming the primal story of our sacred evolving universe, of our home on planet Earth which abounds with diverse and magnificent life-forms, and of our spiritual connections to all that exists. Awareness of the boundless creativity of the cosmos has triggered a renewal of an ancient sacred vision of our natural world. Their sense of kinship with all that exists and powerful feelings of belonging nurture an ethic of caring in which humans must tread gently as they walk upon these hallowed grounds. As “Earth-centered” traditions, Nature Religions celebrate the rhythms and cycles of our world and place great importance upon protecting wilderness areas and biological diversity. For adherents to these religious approaches, the entire Universe is a “sacred living system” and its destruction is desecration.
Lately, Nature Religions have moved beyond their initial grassroots, do-it-yourself phase and are quickly becoming institutionalized. For example, the US armed services now offer Pagan Chaplains and the Cherry Hill Seminary offers M. Div. degrees in both Pagan and Naturalistic approaches. Academic conferences, textbook materials, and well-developed liturgies and theological reflections all provide evidence of formalization and professionalization process.
Institutional religions tend to come in four varieties—reactionary, conservative, progressive and revolutionary. Reactionaries claim to have The One Right Way, tolerate no questioning of their take on scriptural truth and often advocate the return to a theocracy in which their one true religion will rule. Conservatives are comfortable with the faith of their fathers, draw strength within the protective walls of their synagogues, churches, mosques, and temples and steadfastly defend the status quo. Progressives are open to the world and to new interpretations of ancient myths and are reformist in their political orientations. Revolutionaries want to jettison the narratives of their cultures and radically question the claims of all clerical authorities. They insist on a total re-thinking of our religious sensibilities and demand new organizing myths. A sense of urgency with the mounting problems of the world forces these people to call for rapid and immediate transformations in our vision of the sacred and our worldly social system.
Insurgent Nature Religions
Throughout history and across the globe religions are central carriers of tradition and thus typically prevent revolutionary social change. Sociologists often highlight these “functional” roles, including the socialization of successive generations in the moral and ethical values of current generations, the elaboration and justification of worldviews, the legitimization of political elites and the establishment of moral boundaries between good and evil, clean and dirty, and sacred and profane.
The magnitude of the environmental crisis compounded by the time limitations that exist before we face a total environmental collapse, lead me to the conclusion that revolution is required. The realization that the corporate elite will not respond appropriately to avert catastrophe reinforces this commitment to revolutionary social change. As revolutionaries we must steer the populace towards a better world and lead the transition from a period of life-denying human practices to a period of life-affirming practices.
To purposefully create a revolutionary religion one must have a clear sense of the traditions of the existing social order that must be eliminated. Revolutionary religion must socialize the young with different values, promote new worldviews and challenge existing elites. Revolutionary religion does not function to support the status quo but instead to create new societal forms. It should aid and support change agents as they struggle to make a better world and mobilize the masses to participate in social movement activities.
These are times demanding revolutionary religion. As we increasingly come to realize that our planet is dying, a massive spiritual awakening is sweeping across the globe. Today many are not just insisting on the holiness of this world but are adopting or creating “Earth-centered” spiritual traditions which are revolutionary in their political orientations. In the social worlds I inhabit along the central coast of California, which includes many people who typically were involved in the progressive variety of religion, there has been a marked shift to the revolutionary end of the spectrum. Insurgent Nature Religions are on the rise!
As previously noted, Nature Religions can be divided into two broad categories, supernaturalistic and naturalistic. Due to a pervasive skepticism which I believe keeps me grounded in a verifiable and empirical reality, I am developing a version of naturalistic Nature Religion, which I call Dionysian Naturalism. It is a “liberation theology” which explicitly embraces the revolutionary social change required to reach a sustainable society.
“Naturalism” is term which in this context brings two aspects to its meaning: (1) the natural world is all that exists (there being no supernatural realm) and (2) science is a good way to find out about that natural world. With their worldviews framed by the logic and methods of scientific discovery, naturalistic Nature Religions celebrate the great story of the evolutionary unfolding of our cosmos. They find the sacred in this world. Participants remain highly skeptical about supernatural metaphysics. In venerating this world, many are reviving the ancient Pagan notion of animus mundi—the soul of the world — and this form of enchantment softens the materialism, reductionism and determinism which are espoused by some scientifically-minded people, and helps defend naturalists when those terms are used to dismiss or attack naturalists as a group.
Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy whose followers were well known for –sacred rituals which were wildly festive and transgressive to such an extent that they approached drunken orgies. We now know that the Mystery Religions of ancient Greece often consumed powerful hallucinogenic plants, such as ergot and Belladonna, with sacred intent–perhaps a legacy of earlier shamanic traditions. Dionysus was the “Giver of Ecstasy” who transported his followers through an altered state of consciousness to a mystical rapture, which included wild dancing and other trance-induced activities. Dionysian Naturalists reclaim “ecstatic religion” and the potential of sacramental entheogen use, as well as the use of other shamanic and mystical practices. For me “Dionysian” essentially involves being transported in a non-ordinary and ecstatic state of consciousness to a sacred realm.
I place Dionysian Naturalism in what Caitlin and John Matthews call the “Western Mystery Tradition”, a spiritual current that runs through Western culture, beginning from the native, shamanic lore of many northern and western European people, through classical Paganism, and the esoteric Hermetic traditions, such as medieval Alchemy and high magic5. The Mathews argue that this tradition preserves an ancient and perennial Earth wisdom that is still a part of the West’s spiritual inheritance. Dionysian Naturalism fuses this Pagan and “Earth-centered” tradition to a modern scientific worldview.
I attend a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church in Santa Barbara, and 20 years ago progressive humanism was still the dominant theology. Nowadays, especially among the younger congregants, “Religious Naturalism” is more common and increasingly humanism is regarded as anthropocentric. In 1985 UUs adopted their last principle, generally known as the Seventh Principle: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are part” and a sixth source was adopted in 1995: “Spiritual teaching of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature”. While Unitarian Universalists are pioneers in “liberal religion” (thus embodying the “progressive” version of religion mentioned above) and the first mainline religion to truly embrace Nature Religions, increasingly many are embracing revolutionary stances!
As noted, this essay highlights several contributions religion can bring to social movement struggles for justice and transformational politics. These are times which demand “engaged spirituality”, in which religious people actively engage with the world in order to transform it in positive ways while finding inspiration, moral support and guidance in their spiritual beliefs and practices. To those ends I advance a “practical theology of social change” focused on our intentional interventions to change the world (“praxis”), and outline some of its operating principles and spiritual practices. In later sections I further explore some of these spiritual practices, including prophecy, contemplative reflection, and direct action. This model of transformational politics and sacred activism reveals a few of the best offerings that religion brings to revolutionary social change.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.
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.