Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare
June 1, 2012 § 13 Comments
We are hard-wired to protect ourselves when we’re threatened. The environmental movement often invokes this reality in its appeals to care for the earth, claiming that, since we and the earth’s other creatures and processes are all interconnected, we protect ourselves when we protect the environment. This is especially true regarding climate change.
This sounds good and it is sound ecological science. But for most of us in the West, at least, this idea is what Friends used to call a ‘notion’—just an idea that has only very shallow roots in our actual experience. Even for those of us who have had profound spiritual experience of the natural world, these experiences tend to be isolated events that struggle to remain vivid in the face of modern life’s overwhelming alienation from a sense of relationship with the ecosystems we depend upon. And our communities—our meetings—only very rarely have had collective, land-based religious experience. Why? Some claim religion—Christianity, to be specific—is the reason.
In 1967, medieval technology historian Lynn White published a landmark article in Science magazine, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” (Science, 3-10-67; vol. 155, no. 3767). In it, he blamed Christianity for our ecological crisis. Many have found fault with aspects of his argument, but its central thrust has the ring of truth: by desacralizing creation, by denying the presence of spirit in nature and locating spirit elsewhere and elsewhen instead, Christianity has abstracted the human from the natural world and removed the spiritual impulse to care for the creatures and processes that are our ecological relations.
This stands in stark contrast to the indigenous peoples of the world, for whom religion is defined by place, by spiritual practices that build relationships between communities and their landbases. These practices deeply involve, not just the sustenance patterns, the creatures and processes that their local ecosystems require for sustainable preindustrial civilization, but also the social, political, psychic, and religious lives of the community and its individuals. For these communities, spirit not only dwells in the heart of the natural world but also communicates directly with the human, through visions and other shamanic practices employed not just by their medicine people but by everyone in the community. The faith of the animist worldview and the practice of shamanic religion and spirituality guided indigenous peoples in ‘lifestyles’ that remained remarkably ecologically sustainable for centuries before contact with ‘civilized’ peoples.
I would take this argument a few steps further. Christianity is both a ‘cosmic’ and a universal religion. It speaks of ‘earth’ and ‘creation’ rather than the local landbases and ecosystems of its communities. And it claims to be spiritually relevant and valuable (if not spiritually necessary) for all peoples in all times in all places. Religious practice is virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries, with very little change (at least within any one tradition). Most importantly, our religious practices have nothing to do with where we live. We have almost no religious culture of place.
Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ as the primary god of our religious attention and on his atonement for sin on the cross as God’s primary function has tended to devalue Jesus’ Father and the Father’s role as creator rather than judge. Furthermore, Christianity actually inverts the moral view of creation that prevails in animist and preindustrial and aboriginal spiritways: far from being sacred, creation is anti-sacred, even evil. Christianity views creation as the stage upon which the drama of sin, judgment and salvation plays, yes, but creation is not a morally inert ‘environment’; it actually shares in the sinfulness that lies at the heart of the drama. Nature is not just a stage upon which the salvation story plays; it is a character in that story. Sin came from a fruit, an animal, and a woman, after all.
Furthermore, from the cosmic battle between Yahweh and Baal in ancient Canaan through the conversion of the pagan peoples of Europe and the Western Hemisphere to the witch burnings in the Middle Ages to the war against ‘New Age Spirituality’ today, people who have felt drawn back to concrete spiritual relation to the land have often suffered violent persecution for answering that call.
Quakerism has spiritualized religion even further, doing away with all the religious practices that call to the senses: no music, no incense, no genuflections or sacred bodily movement, no art, no food. Most importantly, perhaps, we’ve done away with the two outward practices that could actually serve as channels back into relation with our landbases, baptism and the Eucharist. To be fair, these land-based sacraments don’t reconnect worshipping Christian communities to their landbases, anyway: how many parishes know where their baptismal water comes from or how it’s treated, let alone use rivers or lakes for baptism? How many know where the grapes for their wine are grown or whether the workers in those vineyards breathe and touch pesticides for a living, let alone make their own wine? But they could know and do these things if they chose. We Quakers can’t.
So how do Friends find their way back to the ‘earth’ if not to their local landbases? We have precedents: Fox and his days and years walking about England outdoors, his very localized visions and the way they opened the ‘virtues of the creatures’ to him; Woolman and his earthy compassion for the creatures around him. But naturally, inevitably, perhaps, we Quakers are drawn outside our tradition for meaningful ways to connect spiritually with our landbases.
The Quaker Pagans (Quagans) are trying. I haven’t followed this movement, so I don’t really know what they’re up to. But I was very close to some Wiccans for a while, some of them Friends, and the neo-pagans I’ve known have not found a way to get free of their European psycho-religious background. They are still attached to European gods and goddesses, for one thing. And what role would Demeter, for instance, have in a North American land-based spirituality? She’s the goddess of wheat, and we’ve used wheat as the standard bearer for European agro-imperialism on this continent: we have ‘ethnically cleansed’ the indigenous grasses of North America, especially of the Great Plains, and almost wiped out the indigenous strains of maize, the primary grain of indigenous North America, and we’ve imported European grains instead. More catastrophically for the health of the continent, we have also imported European cattle culture, when the continent once teemed with its own indigenous ungulates. The European deities who embody the spiritual power of European sustenance patterns are no less ‘invasive species’ than the plants and animals these European patterns cultivate.
So also with the popular members of the culture-hero pantheons we’ve inherited from our Indo-European ancestors: the king-smith-warrior-herald (etc.) paradigm that has given us Zeus, Hephaestos, Thor, Hermes, etc. These gods reinforce the socio-political power dynamics of ancient monarchical Europe. Is that what we as Friends want to embrace?
Of course, most neo-pagans (and Quagans?) are women and they have gravitated toward the goddesses—Gaia, Persephone, Isis, Astarte, Innana, even Lilith—all Old World Powers who have nothing to do with New World ecosystems. And goddess-oriented neo-paganism tends, in my experience, to be a Jungian, depth-psychology spirituality: the goddesses are archetypes of female power through which women can rediscover sources of identity, meaning and power within themselves. This is a potentially powerful spiritual path, don’t get me wrong, especially in a social-political-religious milieu that suppresses female power, like ours does. But it has nothing directly to do with reconnecting to the spiritual presence of the land.
So where would Friends turn to resacralize the natural world in which we live, upon which we depend for everything, and which does have inherent spiritual presence? We know this latter claim to be true experientially. I’ve been part of many Quaker workshops and conferences on environmental concerns and these events almost always have opportunities to share personal stories that illustrate why we were attending. Everybody has stories of spiritual opening that took place in ‘nature.’ Many Friends have been profoundly affected by these experiences. Very often, they were childhood experiences.
So many of us have the experience. But our religion provides scant opportunity, either in its faith or in its practice, for exploring this experience, or for deepening and expanding it into a land-based spirituality or a religious culture of place. We have added earthcare to our testimonies. And many Friends have done a great deal to alter their lifestyles to make them more sustainable. But we still are far from a spirituality that would transform our landbases into sacred places that would demand that we protect them by direct spiritual communion.
We still tend to speak of earthcare rather than of care for the Sourlands (where I live in central New Jersey), or Lake Cayuga, or the White River in Richmond, Indiana. We still fly thousands of miles to attend continentally constituted committees of environmental concern rather than attending meetings of the local planning board or environmental commission. We still tend to name our macro-organizations after cities or politically defined geographical regions (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting, Indiana Yearly Meeting), rather than watersheds or bioregions. We still worship indoors using an inward-focused spirituality of silent waiting. We do nothing to open ourselves to the spiritual presence(s) waiting for us in the ecosystems in which we live.
Assuming we think this is desirable (and many of my readers may question this), I see three possible avenues forward. The first is the potential for leadership in our farming communities, especially those in the Conservative branch. They still have the intimate communion with the land that a religious culture of place requires and, because they are still essentially Christian, they will not veer off into ranterist paganism (though paganus means farmer and ‘heathen’ comes from heath—both meant country people originally).
Then there’s Christ himself. Jesus used his landbase in his own spirituality so intensely that it’s one of the most bizarre and telling indications of just how much our tradition has desacralized nature that we don’t think of him that way. He is always going off alone to “a deserted place” to pray, or taking his disciples with him, from the call of the twelve to the feeding of the multitudes to the last night in Gethsemane. I will talk more in a later post about what I call the spiritual ecology inherent in Jesus’ spirituality. Here let us just note that every major revelation associated with the Christ took place outdoors and many through natural agency. And this is true, not just for Jesus, but throughout our religious tradition, beginning with creation itself, the first revelation, through the Exodus and lawgiving to Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill and the conversion of the Seekers on Firbank Fell. The God of this tradition obviously prefers meeting God’s people outdoors, often on mountains, often in the ‘wilderness.’
Finally, there are our young people. They have environmental concerns in their spiritual DNA. Baby Boomers like me remember the birth of these concerns; we acquired them by choice. Our children have grown up with our secondary awareness built into their awareness as a primary reality. And they are just disaffected enough with our spirituality—with its abstractness and its apparent lack of meaningful transformational experience (as I discussed in my last post)—to be ready to seek something else. Maybe they can still hear the screams and pleading of the lands we inhabit and learn to spiritually reinhabit them.