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.

Joys of the Quaker Way—Leading #2 Leads to New Openings and Ministry #4

November 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

In the course of writing How Long Will the Land Mourn, I ran across a book on the ecology of Palestine and the agricultural practices of the ancient Israelites, which included a description of their agricultural technologies, which were first-of-a-kind revolutionary. This knowledge blew my mind and it connected with some of my previous study to ignite a new ministry founded on a series of ecstatic new openings.

I had already studied the relationship between the religion of ancient Israel in the tribal period and Canaanite religion and mythology. The Canaanites were the indigenous people of Palestine, who spoke and wrote a language very close to ancient Hebrew, but whose religion was a classic Mesopotamian pantheistic “fertility” religion that was focused in its mythos and practice on agriculture, rather than the mostly pastoral tradition that the ancient Israelites brought with them. And it involved a rich religious relationship with the land.

Something clicked when I understood the rudiments of ancient Palestine’s geology, geography, weather, soils, and ecologies. I saw how Canaanite religion had this “earth science” embedded in its DNA. I saw how, under the leadership genius of Moses, an Egyptian court-trained “magician”, the ancient Israelites had adopted and adapted this sacred knowledge of the land to make possible their occupation of the highlands of Palestine as primitive agriculturists. For the highlands of Palestine had been unoccupied for 500 years before the Israelites came—it was just too hard to farm until he showed them how. I saw how this religious “earth science” became part of the DNA of the religion of the Israelites when they finally settled in Israel. I had a glimpse of the very roots of the Judao-Christian tradition—our tradition—in the ecology of the Holy Land.

This launched me into a more thorough and focused study of the origins of ancient Israel and of ecological language in Hebrew scripture. At some point, I began to see this substrate of religious ideas and practice in the gospels, as well, not just in Hebrew scripture. So I refocused my study of the gospels on how Jesus used the landscape of Palestine and what I call spiritual ecology in his own spiritual practice. My questions were these: where did Jesus go in his spiritual practice, what did he do there, and why? The baptism, the testing in the wilderness, the call and teaching of the disciples, the transfiguration, much of his public ministry, many of his “miracles”, the agony in Gethsemane, the ascension—all of these events took place outdoors, mostly in wild places. But not in random places. I believe Jesus chose these places for religious-ecological reasons.

The arc of this learning and understanding and writing has been the most exciting series of openings I have ever had. A lot of it is speculation and I still have a lot of research to do, or redo. But the joy of it has been unparalleled.

This was the breakthrough I had been looking for when I returned to the study of the gospel of Jesus searching the good news about earthcare. But I found, not teachings—I had been looking for teachings—but practice. It was Jesus’ practice that is profoundly revolutionary for us today as earthcare ministers. Jesus had a spiritual relationship with the landscape of his homeland, with the land itself.  He modeled for us a form of

  • spiritual-religious ecology,
  • a land-based spirituality, and
  • a religious culture of place.

And he did this because he knew that the land, and especially the wilderness and mountains, were the places in which he was most likely to encounter his Father. Because this had always been the tradition of his people, since even before Moses. Because the Father himself was intimately engaged with the land. A mythologist would probably say that Yahweh was a rain god, among other things—or rather, Elohim was, the other important name for God in ancient Hebrew. But that gets us into an exciting but complex tangent.

Out of these openings, which I plan to share in this blog at some point, grew a fourth ministry, a calling to bring Friends and Christians everywhere back to the model Jesus gave us—to reengage spiritually with our own landscapes, to make the places we live in integral to our religious lives, to develop a new religious culture of place, as he did himself.

This sounds like paganism to some people, I suspect. But there’s a big difference between finding the places where divine revelation is most likely to occur and worshipping in that place—and worshipping the place itself.

Also, for Quakers, the “outwardness” of such a practice is rather foreign to the “inwardness” of traditional Quakerism. Anyone who’s been in a meeting for worship outdoors in a forest knows how difficult it is to center down when the bugs are biting (sooner or later, the gnats always find you), when the seating is primitive and uncomfortable, and when the world around you is so beautifully distracting and often, noisy. Furthermore, at least in my experience, communion with the divine outdoors, especially in the wilderness, invites a much more active participation than just sitting.

I would love to know how Jesus dealt with these things as he and Peter, James, and John centered down before the transfiguration on the mountain; how they centered in prayer on Gethsemane, even “falling asleep” there. Maybe Palestine has fewer bugs.

Anyway, this is my fourth ministry now: writing and speaking and exploring bioregional Quakerism, spiritual reinhabitation of our landbases, spiritual ecology, land-based spirituality, and a Quaker culture of place.

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.

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