Bioregional Quakerism—Spiritual Ecology and the Collective Gifts of the Spirit

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?

Bioregional Quakerism—The Shaman and the Scientist

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.

Bioregional Quakerism—The spiritual face of Lake George

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.

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