Bioregional Quakerism & Spiritual Ecology

December 8, 2015 § 5 Comments

In a moment, another story that illustrates what I call spiritual ecology.

Human ecology is the study of the dynamic relationship between human communities and the places where they live. According to Wikipedia, “spiritual ecology” “joins ecology and environmentalism with the awareness of the sacred within creation. It calls for responses to environmental issues that include spiritual awareness and/or practice.” Specifically, in my writing, spiritual ecology denotes the relationship between religious communities and their landbases.

Now here’s that story, one that almost all of us know very well—or think we do:

Now it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightaway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: And there came a voice from heaven, saying, “Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.
And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.

Jesus’ baptism—the full story

Let’s picture the scene in detail:

Jesus has waded out into the Jordan River with John, while behind them on the bank stand other penitents (Mark 1:4) waiting their turn. With his hand on Jesus’ head, John speaks some words as Jesus ducks or perhaps kneels in the shallow river. (Perhaps this is the very place where Jesus’ people had crossed into the promised land under the leadership of Joshua, Jesus’ namesake. Perhaps right here they had marched on dry land while the power of the Lord held back and heaped up the waters (Joshua 3:15-17). Perhaps this is why John has chosen this forsaken spot. Or is it forsaken . . . ?)

As Jesus stands up, a thunderhead comes barreling in over the bluffs to the west, low and fast and flickering with lightning. And before the two men can reach the shore, the heavens open and rain pelts down in sheets. And just then a bolt of lightning blazes from the roiling mass above and the echo of the thunder bounces back and forth between the cliffs on either side of the river. And then, across the violent tableau wings a dove.

All who were there knew they had witnessed a sign; they had been visited by God himself and he had spoken. For this was the wilderness, a desert where the rains never came. And had not God always visited his prophets in the storm (Exodus 16:20)? And was not rain one of God’s most precious personal gifts to his people (Numbers 28:12)? Did not God send a dove as a promise of land after the catastrophe of the Deluge? Surely this man was favored among men.

The man himself was visibly shaken. They all had heard the voice of Yahweh. And though only Jesus had seemed to have heard the words that were spoken, all who were there understood the message: God had revealed God’s self just as Jesus had been baptized; he was chosen.

Jesus returned to the bank, put on his sandals, donned his robe, spoke some words with John, and then, like a man driven, as a man possessed by some spirit, he set out for the deeper desert—where, it was later said, he was with the wild animals and the angels.

Spiritual ecology

Jesus’ baptism happened during a thunderstorm. How do we know this?

Palestine is built like California. To the west, a sea; on the coast a range of hills, a “coastal range”. Then a central agricultural valley. On the eastern border of the land rise the highlands of Palestine, not as high as the Sierra range, but high enough. For beyond the highlands, a Palestinian Nevada—a desert wilderness.

Storm cells form over the Mediterranean Sea in the winter, as they do in California over the Pacific. They tend to be small, low in altitude, fast, and violent. They ride the prevailing easterly winds toward land and hit the hills along the coast. If they are low enough, they dump some water. But usually they continue inland until they hit the highlands. There, they dump their load in torrential downpours and often, lots of lightning. The water gushes down the hills, gouging steep-sided gullies, and flows west into the central valley. Rarely do these storms get past the hills, so only desert stretches beyond them to the east.

In the Hebrew of the Bible, the term for a rainstorm is, “The heavens were opened”. The heavens, the firmament, was conceived to be a kind of invisible bowl arching over the world, holding out the cosmic sea from which God had separated the land on the second day of creation (Genesis 1:6). God personally oversaw rain over the promised land and he did this by opening a kind of window in the firmament, so that the sea that surrounded the world could pour in. God “opened the heavens”.

In the Hebrew of the Bible, the word for thunder is, therefore, the word for “voice”; for thunderstorms were the manifestation of God, thunder was his voice, and lightning was his face, his “glory”. The white beard, the white robe by which God is often described in Hebrew scripture represent the lightning of his glorious face.

Jesus’ father, Yahweh, was a rain god.

In Jesus’ time, and for roughly 1,400 years before his time, the Israelites knew their god as a rain god. And his close association with rain, with thunderstorms and lightning, continued deep into even Christian literature, though some of its Hellenized, Greek-speaking authors seem not to have fully understood it.

So, also, in rabbinical literature. From the Tosefta (I think; I can’t find my notes on this, so I paraphrase from memory), we have this saying:

Three things has the Lord our God kept unto himself [that is, not given to his angels to perform]: the keys to the womb, the grave, and the clouds; that is, the creation of souls, the resurrection of the dead—and the rain over Israel. 

That’s how important the rain in ancient Israel was.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is spiritual ecology straight from the heart of the Jewish and Christian traditions, and its roots go back at least to the lawgiving on Sinai.

There is so much more to say about this, about how Jesus used the landscape of Palestine in his own spiritual practice in other ways—where he went, to do what, and why. And about the very origins of the tradition itself: the roles that ecology and technology played in shaping the western religious religion.

For the highlands of Palestine had been uninhabited for 500 years when the ancient Israelites “conquered” them. Why so long? Because rain was so scarce, so erratic and unpredictable in its distribution, that the highlands couldn’t support agriculture for any sizable settlements.

The ancient Israelites overcame this obstacle with five technologies they got from Moses—a waterproof formula for plaster to line their cisterns, rain catchment engineering to fill the cisterns, terrace agriculture to hold onto the soil and the moisture, iron tools to gouge the rock and till the rocky soil—and a knowledge of the land’s spiritual ecology. Plus a covenant designed to guarantee radical dependence on God and social systems for mutual aid when the rains failed.

Unpacking all the claims I’m making here is a book’s worth of writing, which I’m working on, so it will have to wait.

But here’s what I’m getting at with this story of Jesus’ baptism: This kind of spiritual ecology has been lost to us. Christian churches and Quaker meetings have no such sacred relationship with their landbases and their ecosystems, as Jesus did. His relationship with his landbase was central and it was intimate. He could have been a wilderness guide for the secret places of Galilee and the Judean desert.

I would like to reclaim this kind of relationship. I would like to see Friends explore a land-based spirituality. I would like us to develop a Quaker religious culture of place over time.

Jesus had a thousand or more years of tradition behind him. European and European-American genocide against this continent’s indigenous peoples has nearly obliterated religious culture of place in America. But we can start to reinhabit a sacred landscape.

I have some ideas about how to do that.

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§ 5 Responses to Bioregional Quakerism & Spiritual Ecology

  • treegestalt says:

    What you’re saying here is clearly true — yet certainly a surprise to me.

    However, I’m inclined to think that the message to be learned from all this is that God set up this particular people from this particular kind of climate as a source and transmitter of revelation for the world — because what you can learn from a precarious way of life is precisely how much everything worth having depends upon God and mutual support.

  • simonjkyte says:

    nice post – thank you and interesting about the rain god thing

  • I’m so grateful that you’re writing about this, Steve. A newcomer to life in the Midwest, I’m still trying to get to know the spirits of the land, the water and the living things here in Richmond, Indiana, home to both Whitewater Monthly Meeting and Clear Creek Monthly Meeting – speaking of water-based names. I’ll keep you posted if I learn anything from the Miami, the Amish, or other locals who know those spirits, and the places alive with holy energy.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Fascinating argument. (Having lived in the desert of the interior Northwest, I can relate much.)
    As for the Quaker culture, you may want to consider how many Meetings were named for water and waterways. Stillwater, West Branch, Whitewater, Miami, Deer Creek, Pipe Creek, Deep River, Sandy Springs, Gunpowder (after the river), Clearwater … that might prime the pump for you, if you’ll pardon the pun.
    One other thing to add: whenever people meditate together over time, whether in open worship or silent prayer or some related form of contemplation, the place becomes imbued with a peaceful vibration that lingers long after.

    • Richmond, Indiana, has its own kind of spiritual ecology. It was settled by Friends fleeing the slave culture of North Carolina in the early 1800s. They settled in Richmond because it was the farthest west they could get—that is the farthest from the slave culture of their original homeland—and still be within the territory ceded by the Six Nations in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix and still include a river suitable for a mill. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix was believed at the time to have been a fair land cession and it specifically addressed concerns the Six Nations had with earlier negotiations with the Penn family. So the White River in Richmond provides the key to a spiritual ecology for Friends in Indiana.

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