December 20, 2015 § 1 Comment
As a political and social change movement and philosophy, bioregionalism stands on completely different ground than the arena defined by the traditional conflict between left and right. Bioregionalism challenges the very foundations of modern social-political organization. Instead of the United States of America, we would have the United Bioregions of America.
Likewise for economics. Corporations, and indeed, all economic entities, would be treated as households whose consumption and disposal would be accountable to algorithms derived from bioregional carrying capacity. Of course, in today’s globalized economy, this would be impossible, virtually inconceivable, except by the bioregionalist fringe that I inhabit.
I suspect that this is the main reason bioregionalism has faded from public view. Its vision is too radical and implementing that vision is virtually impossible, at least until the eco-apocalypse makes even the most radical new forms of social organization possible. Maybe when Florida is under water . . .
But things are different for religious communities. Quakerism could bioregionalize. The only people who care how we are organized is us. And we are sovereign over our own outward forms. The vision of a bioregional Quakerism is no less radical; it would face the same fierce resistance that you would get from capitalism or even democracy. But we could in theory implement a Quaker bioregional vision to a considerable degree, if we thought that’s what G*d wanted from us. Just discussing the possibilities would transform the movement. That’s my goal here—to open a conversation about who we are on some new ground.
So here are some ideas for what a bioregional Quakerism might look like:
Identity your bioregion.
First, meetings at all levels would identify their bioregion. Bioregionalists often turn to the landmark work by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, Ursula K. (Kroeber) Le Guin’s father, for how to define a bioregion. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America was the first work to categorize North America’s indigenous nations according to the way their culture, especially their sustenance patterns, were defined by the place in which they lived. Kroeber’s regions are more like macro-regions—the northeast woodlands, for instance includes a vast region in the northeast.
Redefine our borders and rename our meetings
Once we had mapped the bioregions of North America against the map of North American Quakerism, we would redefine the territories of the yearly meetings and replace their history-defined and often urban-centered names with bioregional ones.
The first place I would go for guidance on new boundaries is Kroeber’s and other anthropologists’ work defining the territories of indigenous nations. For Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, for example, we might consider the territory of the Lenni Lenape. New York Yearly Meeting might divide into two yearly meetings defined by the territories of the Iroquois Confederacy in the Finger Lakes and western New York and the Algonquin-speaking peoples to the east.
Or we could use the standard organizing principles of bioregionalism—watersheds, major bodies of water, and mountain ranges. This would redefine Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PhYM) naturally around the Delaware River basin. (I choose to use “PhYM” because Pacific Yearly Meeting calls itself PYM also, and somehow, it makes more sense to me than PaYM. Of course, bioregional names would probably eliminate the overlap, and Pacific Yearly Meeting is, arguably, already sort of a bioregional name.).
New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) is more complicated. The Hudson River valley is one clear starting point, but the rest takes some thinking. I plan a case study for both yearly meetings that illustrates how this thinking might develop.
This is a radical proposal sure to upset a lot of Friends, a sort of cosmic version of proposing to change the seating in the meeting room, which, as any meeting that has tried to do this knows, usually leads to months, if not years, of bitter dispute, only this would involve all the meetings in North America. So this is an exercise in thinking bioregionally. Personally, I myself think it’s worth taking this project seriously. Just having the conversation over say a decade or two between and within yearly meetings would raise bioregional consciousness among us a lot.
Besides redefining their borders and renaming themselves, meetings in a bioregional Quakerism would also undertake whatever reinhabitationist activities they felt called to. These might include:
- Ecological inventories. Enlist an environmental engineering consultancy to draft an ecological inventory and assessment of your bioregion—probably meaning a micro-region, the local bioregion around your meeting. If they won’t do it very cheaply or pro bono, do what you can yourself, or find a grad student in a local university who’s looking for a project. Or maybe your region already has one; if so, help to publicize it and its implications for local zoning, etc.
- Ecological restoration. Initiating and supporting ecological restoration projects—restoring local ecosystems to their natural condition. Reforestation in the country, urban gardens in the city. Could your meetinghouse roof support a roof garden or solar panels? In cities, this might also include cleaning up and restoring streams. New Brunswick, New Jersey, where New Brunswick Meeting (NYYM) is located, is almost completely surrounded by Mile Run Creek, but that creek is almost invisible. Very few residents even know it even exists, let alone that it comprises the city’s boundary. And it’s in terrible shape. It needs restoration.
- Art and education. Support bioregional themes in local art and in local education. Here in Philadelphia, where I live, which is famous for its public art and especially, its outdoor murals, we could encourage scenes of the city’s bountiful natural places with both money and public presence. The Sourland Conservancy, formerly the Sourland Planning Council, has had great success helping earth science teachers in some of its region’s school systems to develop field trips and learning units around the Sourlands, a large and largely undeveloped forest on volcanic ridges in central New Jersey.
- Religious education programs for both adults and children in which you teach yourselves about your bioregion—or invite local professors to help. Sponsor a lecture series.
My first encounter with the distinctive Quaker way of clerking a meeting for business was the governance sessions of the first North American Bioregional Congress in 1984. The Congress had asked a Quaker clerk from some meeting to facilitate their consensus-based decision-making sessions. I don’t remember who the woman was, but she was very good.
Those sessions had a bioregional aspect to them that I would like to see us consider in our own business meetings. Some of the participants were formally appointed to represent various aspects of the natural world. If I remember correctly, someone listened and spoke for the four-leggeds, the wingeds, the standing people (trees), and the waters. You get the idea. Could we not appoint some Friends to be mindful of the bioregion while we do our business?
Local earthcare witness => bioregional witness
Christianity in general, and Quakerism in particular, tend to think in cosmic and universal terms. Jesus came to save mankind (sic). Quaker earth-care witness. Global warming.
But many of the decisions that degrade the quality of our lives, as individuals and as meeting households, take place in local governments. Municipal governments and county governments often have environmental commissions that oversee the environmental impact of the government’s decisions and regulate the behavior of individual and corporate households. And local governments almost always have some kind of planning or zoning board. Big cities often have neighborhood associations (my neighborhood in Philadelphia does) that have a presence if not a say in city policy. Our meetings should be tracking the agendas of these agencies and standing in their midst as earth-keepers.
A persistent, consistent, well-informed, respectful, and morally-oriented presence in these bodies changes the way these bodies work. When they know you are going to show up, they anticipate your message; they even internalize it to some degree. And it helps to keep the rest of the citizenry from going nuts. These meetings tend to attract people with a lot of time on their hands, not to mention axes to grind, with chips on their shoulders, ignorance and prejudice in their minds, and anger and disrespect in their hearts. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? The perfect arena for some Quaker peacemaking.
Next—a case study.
I have started thinking about a case study for bioreginalizing a yearly meeting. I think it will be New York Yearly Meeting, because I know it pretty well. But it’s really complicated and I don’t know my bioregions well enough yet, so I have some studying to do. And it will necessarily mean thinking about Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, New England YM, whatever is the FGC yearly meeting in the eastern midwest, and probably Canadian YM, as well. So maybe not for the next post. But soon I hope to have something to offer.
December 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
Bioregionalism is—was—a social change movement that flourished in the early to 1970s and 1980s built around the idea that humans should live as though the places they lived in mattered. It put deep ecology at the center of everything. It held that human systems should not just respect the systems of the earth and its organisms, they should model itself on them, they should grow organically out of them, or at least integrate themselves with the ecosystems of their bioregion rather than the other way around.
I was involved with the group in New York City. That group’s leading intellectual voice was Kirkpatrick Sale, who has written what I think is the only book on bioregionalism. Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. Our spiritual godfather was Thomas Berry. At the time, the Roman Catholic church had prohibited him from publishing, but his graduate students at Fordham, where he taught comparative religion, were publishing his monographs using the bindings used for dissertations, so we were reading the beta versions of the essays that became The Dream of the Earth, watching the New Cosmology be born in our midst. In the group also were a biologist and an architect who were building one of the first green roofs in New York on a building that was part of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine complex. And there were artists, poets, and other folks in an extremely dynamic and creative revolutionary cell.
There were groups in other parts of the country, too. In San Francisco, Peter Drum was publishing Planet Drum, which is still around. A performance artist from that group did a piece on the life cycle of salmon that I saw in New York and was a revelation about how powerful the arts can be as reinhabitationist tools (more about reinhabitation in a moment). And there were several back-to-the-land groups that bought land and became bioregional homesteaders, especially in the Missouri Ozarks.
The bioregion. The organizing principle behind bioregional thinking is the bioregion. “The main features [of a bioregion] are generally found throughout a continuous geographic terrain and include a particular climate, local aspects of seasons, landforms, watersheds, soils, and native plants and animals.” (Peter Berg, Bioregionalism: An Introduction) For practical purposes, this often means either a watershed or a mountain range.
A bioregion “is a geographic terrain and a terrain of consciousness.” (Berg) Bioregionalists seek to “1) restore and maintain local natural systems; 2) practice sustainable ways to satisfy basic human needs such as food, water, energy, housing, and materials; and 3) support the work of reinhabitation.” (Berg)
This idea of reinhabitation is what I’m trying to get at with this thread on Bioregional Quakerism. In a bioregional Quakerism, meetings would seek to “reinhabit” their bioregions, transforming the way the meeting as a household lives to conform to the limits and gifts of its local ecosystems.
Other key principles of bioregionalism include the following.
First, carrying capacity—no bioregion should exceed its carrying capacity, its capacity to support its human population sustainably in terms of both resources and waste management, unless it offsets its burden on its ecosystems by importing the resources its needs to keep from drawing down the resource base of its own bioregion—but always seeking to hold the overall net burden across the macro-region to zero. So a system of ecological inventory accounting would always be in place to govern local human system design.
Second, upstream-downstream—everything and everybody is related in the dynamics of an ecosystem, and humans have a responsibility to all the other people and systems and organisms in their bioregion, and to the future inhabitants of your bioregion, and to the other bioregions your actions could affect. The key metaphor for the interdependencies we’re talking about was how important it was for communities that are upstream in a watershed from other communities to be mindful of downstream’s needs when meeting their own.
Bioregional Quakerism. I started unpacking what bioregional Quakerism would look like and it’s going to be at least two, maybe three more posts. So I will end this one here.
December 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
Just as individuals have certain spiritual gifts, so do religious communities. The Quaker movement has been endowed with quite a few, and some of them equip us uniquely to practice spiritual ecology, to engage as individuals and as local meetings with our local landscapes and ecosystems as channels of divine revelation.
Direct experience of the divine
The most important of our collective spiritual gifts equipping us for a religious culture of place is the very core of our faith and practice: our experience of direct communion with G*d, our experience of the Light and of the gathered meeting. Quakerism is already shamanistic.
We already know how to seek and find what we call continuing revelation. We already ground our social witness in this experience of G*d’s leading. We already expect that leadings can come to anyone, not just the officially ordained, and that leadings can draw one into a very broad range of ministries, not just preaching and pastoral care. We already understand earthcare as a religious ministry, as a testimony to divine truth revealed inwardly and collectively about our earth-keeping responsibilities.
Many religious communities do not have this gift for direct revelation available to all in the community.
We also have a tested spiritual infrastructure for testing and supporting earthcare leadings—the faith and practice of Quaker ministry . . . in theory. In fact, most Friends only know committees as the way to structure witness activities; they are used to using visioning exercises, brainstorming, and open discussion within a committee to seek for revelation. A shamanistic Quakerism will rely on prayer, meditation, and worship for revelation . . .
. . . and time spent in the land that is our meeting’s landbase. We will want to join the annual Audubon bird count around Christmas. Find, join, support local nature centers, preserves, and so on.
And we will need to study. We will need to learn our earth science and the place we call home. Even if we live in a city, we will want to know where our water comes from, where our waste goes, what natural features have survived development, which ones haven’t, where the fault lines are, where underground rivers and streams are, where they have been buried by development, where the wetlands are and where they have been filled in, where the holy places are, the places that play indispensable roles in the overall ecosystem.
This is our second strength. We tend to be well educated and we have always embraced science as a tool for human betterment.
This should include political science. We will want to start tracking the local ecological commissions, planning and zoning boards, and other local governmental bodies that have jurisdiction over our landbase. A meeting that has a consistent, respectful, and well-informed presence at the local government level can have a really meaningful impact on its decisions.
We tend to think bigger than that. We call this testimony earthcare and we seem to naturally focus on the big issues and the planet as a whole. And that’s important. But our chance for the most significant impact is at the local level, where many of the decisions that directly affect people you can talk to and work with actually happen.
Finally, liberal Friends at least have a unique religious worldview that opens us to new forms and channels and messages of revelation.
Our theological diversity is mostly a weakness, I think—diluting your tradition with foreign and even contradictory elements confuses people and leaves them wondering who they are as a community. The only real value in having so many members with different religious and even non-religious worldviews is that it makes you open and flexible; it opens you to revelation—as long as you still rely on deepening, prayer, and worship.
Some Friends have been extending the tenet that there is that of God in everyone to saying there is that of God in all creation. Some Friends actually turn to this belief as the foundation of their witness.
As many of my long-time readers will know, I have a lot of problems with this trend of basing our testimonies on “that of God” thinking, and I think the thinking itself is usually so sloppy, shallow, and unconsidered, and so ignorant of our real tradition, that it strains the testimony of integrity.
Nevertheless, this phrase, this thinking about “that of God”, does work for a lot of Friends. The neo-Platonic “divine spark” idea behind the modern liberal Quaker interpretation of Fox’s phrase has a very strong appeal and it applies nicely to earthcare witness, as long as you are willing to uproot it from Quaker tradition, or at least, from its context in the writing and thinking of George Fox. “There is that of God in all creation” sounds great, as far as it goes.
However, let’s be clear: we are led into earthcare witness, not because we believe that there is that of God in all creation, but because that of God in ourselves—the Light—has revealed to us the truth of earthcare as a witness concern and has given us a passion for it. This passion is a religious leading.
We also need to be clear about what we mean when we say that there is that of God in all creation. My own experience is that there is, in fact, that of God in creation. But I don’t mean by that that nature is to be worshipped, only that in nature we can encounter the Divine. As Jesus did at his baptism, as Moses did at the “burning bush”, as Ezekiel did by the River Chebar, as Peter, James, and John did at the transfiguration. As I have many, many times, though less spectacularly than these biblical figures.
So I think we need to really work out what we mean by “that of God in all creation” more than we have. Many Friends just don’t like or trust theology. They are happy just to use a phrase that works for them and leave the religious ideology alone. This is especially true, in my experience, with “witness Friends”.
But without a religious understanding of your language and your work, you will end up—as our witness committees so often do—relying instead on just the language and thinking and tools of science, politics, and the secular social change nonprofit world. But that aspect of earthcare has already been covered by the secular environmental movement. Our strength, our unique contribution, is the moral and religious argument.
Which is why we can’t afford to just jettison the Bible—but still must know our science. That’s why I keep combining the two in this thread. We need a shamanistic science and a scientific shamanism for a bioregional Quakerism.
Next—what is “bioregionalism”? What is a bioregional Quakerism?
December 11, 2015 § 2 Comments
On both counts—as a place sacred to the People, and as a place essential to a healthy water culture in the northern Plains—I learned of Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, as a holy place from some Lakota person. I don’t remember if it was Vine Deloria, Jr, Lame Deer, Black Elk, Rolling Thunder, or some other writer.
But I could also have learned it from the physiography textbook in my personal library. We may not have many medicine people who can commune directly with our landbase, but we do have earth science.
Until last year, I lived in the Sourlands of central New Jersey. This ancient igneous intrusion forms a ridge that curves eastward and northward in a long arc from Lambertville, New Jersey, to the Palisades across the Hudson River from the Bronx. It starts as the Sourland Mountains in the southwest, dives below ground and resurfaces as the Watchung Mountains, dives down again and resurfaces as Snake Hill in the Meadowlands, dives a final time and resurfaces as the Palisades. It has some outlier ridges, as well, including one that surfaces in Rocky Hill and Princeton.
Like the Black Hills, the Sourlands are the source of recharge for an aquifer—the Hopewell aquifer below Hopewell valley, which stretches south toward Trenton from the Sourlands. Like the Black Hills, the Sourlands have been invested by the Creator, by the creative process of geophysical evolution, with a sacred earth-keeping role.
I’m betting that the Lenni Lenape, the Delaware Indians, who were the original inhabitants of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, treated the Sourlands in a fashion similar to the way the Lakota treat the Black Hills. It’s a mountain range—if you are willing to call hills that are only a few hundred feet tall “mountains”. (The Black Hills aren’t very “mountainous” either.) The Sourlands have great rock outcroppings, like the Black Hills, and some “caves”, hollows between huge rocks tumbled on each other. These would have made decent vision questing sites for the Lenape. It’s too rocky to farm in most places, so they probably only used the region for hunting camps.
But the Lenni Lenape are long gone from New Jersey. They no longer have a living tradition of shamanic relation to this landbase. But you go hiking there, go to Roaring Rocks and the rock formations nearby, and tell me the place is not holy. Or browse through my Geography of New Jersey textbook. Either way, you will find good reason to protect the Sourlands from over-development.
There’s a Quaker meeting in Princeton. Their meetinghouse is a sacred space. I can testify—I was married there. Nearby is this holy place, the Sourlands, a place that needs protecting. I can testify—I have hiked there a lot. That place plays an important earth-keeping role in the region. I can testify—I served on the board of a nonprofit that commissioned an ecological survey of the Sourlands as part of their (successful) efforts to get the five towns and three counties with jurisdiction over the Sourlands to revise their zoning and land-use ordinances.
So here are my queries: What does your meeting know about your landbase? Could you identify the holy place(s) in your region? Are there still indigenous people in your region whose stories and relation to the land might guide you? Do you have hikers in your meeting? Do you know where your drinking water comes from? Does your local library have a geology or physiography textbook you can consult?
If we wanted to explore the possibility of a “shamanistic” earth-keeping Quakerism, a bioregional Quakerism, a religious culture of place in which the place we lived in mattered religiously, we have several things going for us. First, we love education and respect science. Second, we already believe—because we have experienced it ourselves—in direct, unmediated experience of the Divine. And third, among liberal Friends, anyway, we already are probing in this direction, we are open to new sources of revelation, new understandings of what “the Divine” means to us—we are unfettered by the traditional conservative Christian knee-jerk opposition to “nature worship”.
But anyway, I am not proposing “nature worship”. I am proposing using our landscape in our personal and our collective religious practice the way Jesus used his. I am proposing following in the footsteps of that spirit-possessed prophet who, after being called by his Father, was “with the wild animals” in the wilderness (Mark 1:13).
More about these advantages in the next post.
December 10, 2015 § 4 Comments
We all have a sense of sacred space. Many of our meetinghouses hold an aura, even when they are empty, a sense of presence that draws us toward stillness and toward our center. A meetinghouse doesn’t even have to be old or historic to do this. It just needs deep worship. The Quaker space that has radiated the strongest sense of the sacred to me is the meeting room at Pendle Hill, which isn’t that old, I don’t think, though the barn it’s in might be.
This aura, this palpable, sensible sacredness of a space is invested. We invest a space with the sense of the sacred through worship. We draw up living water of the spirit from the well at the center of our worship, it infuses us with G*d’s presence, and we radiate that out to the rest of the worshipers—and out into the room. When the drawing and the radiating reaches critical mass, the Presence in our midst becomes sensible in the gathered meeting.
Perhaps our auras are the medium for this communion. Perhaps the room retains a memory of it. Perhaps it becomes a vessel to contain the collective aura of communion as a kind of standing wave.
Whatever the metaphysical mechanisms, we know something is really happening when the meeting is gathered in worship, and we know that some meeting rooms communicate something of this depth of spirit.
But some places are holy in themselves. Some places have been invested by G*d G*d’s self, if you will.
The Black Hills are holy
The Lakota people have considered the Black Hills to be holy for centuries. They have sent their young people to vision quest there. In their traditional days, they wintered in its skirts in small camps, but otherwise left Paha Sapa mostly alone. And they defended it with their lives against the European-American invaders when, first, gold was discovered there, and later, uranium.
I am not clear how they came to feel this way about the Black Hills. Based on their other sacred stories, however, some spirit of the land probably told them so. I suspect they explained it to themselves with a story of “divine” revelation.
This kind of divine revelation takes place in a process completely different than when the Bible tells you so. Such a revelation takes place shamanistically. That is, it emerges from direct, unmediated experience of the divine manifesting in creation, manifesting to the human through vision and narrative. Someone had a vision and the story entered their tradition.
But the holiness of the Black Hills is not just a story from a revelation. The Black Hills are the source of recharge for the Lakota aquifer, the primary underground storage facility for water in the northern Great Plains. Poison the Black Hills with mining waste and you poison the water for a vast region of the continent. Poison the Black Hills with uranium and you destroy a vast source of water for untold generations, not just seven. An earth-keeping people with a sacred relation to the land would protect such a place against desecration—against de-sacral-ization.
The Black Hills are holy, not just because some medicine person says so, but because G*d the Creator—or the creative processes of planetary geophysical evolution, if you will—invested the Black Hills with an all-important earth-keeping role. And that same Creator invested the Lakota people with the same earth-keeping role through direct divine revelation.
This is spiritual ecology. This is a sacred relationship between a community and its landbase. This is what I yearn for in my own religious community, that we Quakers are so in tune with our place, with its creatures and its features, with its processes and its ecosystems, that we receive revelation about our earth-keeping role.
How do we as Friends develop this kind of relationship with the places we inhabit? Next, I want to compare the indigenous path of the shaman with the European way of earth science.
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.
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.
December 4, 2015 § 2 Comments
I seem to be starting a new thread on what I will call bioregional Quakerism. I started a first essay, as is usual for me, with some dense theological exploration of where the revelation of Quaker earthcare witness comes from. But I would rather start with a story instead, something that happened to me that illustrates part of where I want to go with this thread.
The annual sessions of New York Yearly Meeting take place in a YMCA resort on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains. One of the most popular and spiritually enlivening features of NYYM’s summer sessions is the daily worship sharing groups, many of which take place outdoors in tents or in pavilions with 360-degree window views of the lake and the mountains. During one of these worship sharing sessions sometime in the early 1990s, I had a vision.
I saw—and felt—a female human face lying supine, gazing up at the firmament. The face was female, mature, maybe in her late 40s, but in fact timeless in her presence. She was transcendentally beautiful in her features, which were deeply expressive of her character, beyond what words could utter. I wish I could express how drawn to her I was, how profoundly moved I was by the sense of her presence and her wisdom and her beauty. She was Lake George.
Her eyes were open. Her eyes were always open She was always in regard of the sky above, with eyes she could not close.
It was nighttime and it was raining, in my vision. And the rain fell with the force and the sound of tiny steel pellets plummeting into the water, an awful and awefull sound. And overlaying this hideous thundering hiss I heard a scream, a sustained soul-shaking keening that was both high in pitch and rich in timbre. Lake George was screaming.
Because the rain was acid rain, and it was falling into her eyes, which she could not close. And she was going blind, losing sight of the firmament she had gazed upon for untold millennia.
I found I was shaking—I was quaking. I was overwhelmed with sorrow and grief, with anger and despair. I think I may have moaned out loud.
Against my expectation, the vision continued even after I had become aware of it. In spite of my self-consciousness, the pain just deepened. I became more and more in unity with her suffering, for a while. In time, though, probably not very long, the vision faded. I was released from most of the emotional immediacy in the experience. But not all of it. Not ever. Writing now, even, some of that grief comes back.
This experience was shamanistic Quakerism—the riding of revelation on a Quaker spiritual practice to deliver, not so much a prophetic message as a prophetic relationship. I felt transcendentally united with a natural feature of creation in its capacity for communion with the human. There was a message, too: stop acid rain from killing the lakes of the Adirondacks. But it was the relationship that felt transformative; it was the communion that had reforged my soul; it was the Lake’s capacity for communion with a human that had blown my mind.
In subsequent posts, I want to explore this capacity for communion with nature—on the part of nature, on the part of the human individual, and on the part of the human—the Quaker—community. I want to explore the possibility of what I will call shamanistic bioregional Quakerism.
Some of the things I know I want to touch on:
- collective, communal communion with creation;
- spiritual ecology and land-based spirituality;
- sacred places, and holy places;
- earth science, earthcare witness, and shamanism;
- bioegional reinhabitation; and
- the “nature” of religious experience.