Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Challenging Longstanding Sacred And Profane Biases Of Separation

THERE ARE TWO MAJOR sacred and profane impetuses driving the popular sense of wildness as non-human: faith-based beliefs and rational beliefs.

First, faith-based beliefs of literate societies generally argue that human life is not really of the Earth.  Kim Stafford, in Having Everything Right, writes that since the Middle Ages, “The Earth itself was corrupt, and ultimately doomed, along with those too devoted to it.  Home was in heaven, and Earth was only a perilous stopover on the soul’s pilgrimage.”[i]  Human beings are described as children of God who were placed on Earth with an everlasting afterlife beyond the Earth.  From this perspective, humans may inhabit biological bodies that even share key aspects such as DNA with all flora and fauna, but true human essence is described as spiritist.  Wildness is the stage-set for entry into a spiritual afterlife, a test ground of sorts, rather than an aspect of human identity.  And wild behavior or a desire to affiliate with wildness can be a measure of spiritual dysfunction.

When human life appears to be outside nature, this perception reflects our limits rather than reality, or anything that our scientific measures tell us.  Gary Snyder suggests, “We need a religious view that embraces nature and does not fear science…”.[ii]  This is not unlike Benedictine monk and Zen adept, Willigis Jager, who states “…the most sacred dogmas were formulated when the earth was still considered to be flat and the stars were holes in the firmament.”  Jager goes on to state,“…humanity is not the center of the universe.  Our earth is a grain of dust in a relatively small galaxy that itself is among nearly 125 billion other galaxies, at last count.”[iii]  Beyond Jager, it is generally accepted that ninety percent of the universe remains unknown as well as ninety percent of the human genome remains unknown due to the “dark” quality of the infinities of both largeness and smallness.

Jager suggests that our models must aspire to portray reality rather than become “postulates that, over time, are simply repeated without question.”  Jager continues, “scientific models change as life changes,” and that “religions should have the courage to rearticulate religious experience and create new models or interpret old ones in new ways.”[iv]  Jager cites C.G Jung’s observation that belief tends to trump knowledge in order to avert despair, which leads to a tendency to sustain beliefs rather than challenge them.  And yet, Jager suggests that people may also “despair at not knowing who they are” if “the old paradigm no longer supports reality,…”[v]  

In contemporary life, the primary impact of any belief or model upon our actions is not simply psychological discomfort.  If psychological discomfort was the primary issue, the debate over tradition or change might go on ad infinitum.  The ongoing re-articulation of all of our models is important because we apply these models to our daily life and they affect us in a very real, concrete way.  In Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity,[vi] anthropologist Roy Rappaport stresses the importance of reconciliation between religion and science both because religion creates consensus, and because religion sustains when it fits life.  He does not suggest the need for a new theology because it provokes argument rather than consensus.  Rappaport encourages a focus on ritual because he feels that ritual constructs the concepts that become our beliefs.  Now, as we become residents of a peopled Earth, our rituals—our routine actions—are gradually transforming. 

Whether religious or non-religious, we have beliefs about origins and destiny.
Our beliefs affect every action and are not simply esoteric or aesthetic or theoretical or psychological or philosophical inquiry.  Whether our models place human life outside the Earth or place it within the Earth dramatically affects our environmental actions toward not only the nonhuman landscape but also, first, the quality and, second, potentially the sustainability of human life.  Beliefs about creation may have seemed secondary to everyday life when we were pioneers in a vast uninhabited Earth that could sustain us regardless of our actions.  Now, in “peopled” the Earth with no vast physical frontiers to absorb our billions of daily uses, our beliefs affect every action that form everyday “rituals” and profoundly impact not only the local place but also global process. 

Continuing with Willigis Jager as one representative example of self-critical theological inquiry with regard to theology and nature, Jager suggests that in Aristotelian philosophy, “God is the ruler above all things: the pinnacle of creation but not in creation.  In other words, the Aristotelian God is not an overflowing fullness revealing itself as creation.”  Envisioning a transcendent and personal God “can lead to a dualistic view of the world, resulting in a wider gap between God and creation.”[vii] 

In examining possible directives for transforming faith-based beliefs, Jager suggests that if “the cosmos is the meaningful manifestation of God,”[viii] then we might encounter “the inherent religiosity in many of our everyday activities.”[ix]  Then “everyday life is prayer,”[x] and “living our lives is the actual content of religiosity.”[xi]  In this context, our identity becomes transpersonal or extends beyond ego, and our mysticism becomes directly experienced in the events of the world.  Then actions in behalf of self may extend into a longer reach of self and these actions are supported by both science and religion. 

Envisioning human life as wild and as an expression of the Earth does not require either an abandonment of a theologically based religion for either a pantheistic place-based spirituality or a secular rejection of religion.  It simply recognizes human life as an expression of nature rather than an exception to nature.  It recognizes human life as occurring within an evolutionary process.  It does not deny a sense of divinity and mystery and grace in human life but extends this into the world, and this brings the world inside our identity.  We encounter mystery and vastness and complexity to a degree that exceeds our knowledge in both the micro-ecology of a fish scale or a mosquito’s ear and the astro-ecological interactions of stars.  And this encounter admonishes our cultural traditions to do as they always do, that is, to enhance our languages to meet the changing conditions of existence rather than abandon the richness of the tradition.  

The problem lies in the conflict with our contemporary information, especially in describing human life as separate from nature and center stage, and as an intrusion.  The integration of the human into the larger Earth simply fits observation.  And the perspective of the universe helps us overcome our limited view and locate ourselves in space and time.  The new task is really not something radically new, but rather is the enduring one found in all traditions of challenging the beliefs that tend to lag but slowly modify as a form of cultural progress. 

Second, and far more influential than faith-based belief in post-industrial societies, material technologies that developed into the Industrial Revolution and post-industrial culture produced a broader popular rational, almost anti-spiritist, rational profane orientation.  In this profane orientation, contemporary human life is sensed to have evolved to the point of being predominantly cultural rather than creatural.  Contemporary human life is described as domesticated and incapable of returning to a stage of human wildness that is defined as a trait of preliterate cultures. 

In the predominant profane beliefs, wildness is, at best, envisioned as an archaic human stage of development and not an ongoing post-industrial, human action state.  Further, contemporary human life increasingly occurs in a built environment that is artificial in the sense of being synthetic and cybernetic.  The “house” of human life is envisioned as culture, and culture is described as a qualitatively different state of being from nature, and distanced from nature if not an opposite of nature especially in post-industrial civilization.  Even if human beings are biological creatures, they are sensed to no longer demonstrate traits that one would associate with wildness, except as remnant qualities.  Further, there is no solution in an association with wildness.

Solutions to “modern” dilemmas tend to be viewed as only capable of being resolved by further refinement of sophisticated material technologies.  With mechanization and industrialization, the universe, and especially the built environment, was objectified and approached as a machine.  Earth and cosmos were envisioned as ordered.  Science became a way of discovering both grand and minute expressions of  order.  Wildness became perceived as archaic behavior that was no longer functional in literate societies, and that remained present only to a minor extent as ignorance and irrational superstition or even disorder.

With increasing centralization of human life, cultural linkages to wildness were proscribed.  “Freedom” and other characteristics that may be attributed to wildness are, in fact, envisioned as being created by cultural development.  For example, Paul Gruchow describes an industrial agricultural perspective that “Science had brought farming…freedom from wildness.”[xii]   Modern freedom is popularly sensed to result from expanding technology to enhance material comfort and dependability.  Modern rational freedom aspires to foster independence rather than dependency.

Whether sacred or profane, the popular or public perception of wildness in modern life is one of human life having clearly moved beyond wildness as a primary dimension of contemporary human identity, and this transformation judged to be a fair trade.  While modern life can seem domestic to the point of restricting freedom and create an isolating anomie or “half-life,” it is sensed to offer the possibility of reliable comfort and improved health and less dominion by superstition and a freedom of alternatives.  Human survival now seems primarily cultural, requiring cultural skills to meet needs.  And landscape exists as a material resource, not realizing its potential, either as a resource to be activated or as an active no cost “recycler.”

Throughout human development, there has always been a secondary tradition that has envisioned human life as inseparable from the broader landscape.  For example, in News of the Universe, Robert Bly offers an anthology of verse that challenges the “smugness of reason.” [xiii]  Coming to consciousness of human life as an expression of the cosmos has been a quality associated at times with high spiritual and psychological development.  But such an effort is popularly viewed as an aesthetic intellectual pursuit rather than a fundamental human directive, and nearly proscribed as something of primary value.  This secondary tradition that has intuitively viewed human life as inseparable from the broader landscape is now being reinforced by ecology, which looks broadly at ecosystems and monitors rates of energy exchange.  Increasingly, it attends to human activity as an element in ecosystems.  Unlike the dominant tradition that envisions human activity an intrusion, this secondary tradition envisions human activity as a natural expression of the Earth. 

Now, very contemporary scientific efforts that look at the extreme infinities of largeness and smallness, such as quantum mechanics and cosmology, challenge the fundamental concepts such as the “order” of nature.  At first, these new perspectives that challenged a sense of objects in relationship to each other and that described an inseparability between events were felt to be limited to distant cosmic processes such as the interior of stars.  Now, there is a sense of quantum process occurring moment-by-moment in the most fundamental daily processes such as photosynthesis.  A strong part of this unseeing of a different reality was due to pre-existing beliefs about the nature of reality.  Now, uncertainty is a real, concrete everyday reality that has mathematical form in chaos theory that describes the everyday landscape and that is observed in “chaotic patterns, for example, in bird flight and weathers, in the flow of water, and in erosion that make uncertainty into “order.”   There is pattern, but there is also wildness as a central dynamic of a vast nature in which human life is deeply immersed.  And to a very real degree, there is this uncertainty in the formation and ongoing development of human habitation as it adapts to the changing conditions of existence in the very frail “certainty” of post-industrial life.

[i] Kim Stafford, Having Everything Right. Confluence Press, 1986, p. 11 [Penguin edition].
[ii] Gary Snyder, “Writers and the war against nature,” p. 9.
[iii] Willigis Jager, in Christoph Quarch, Ed., [trans. Paul Shepard], Mysticism for Modern Times, Conversations with Willigis Jager. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori/Triumph, 2006, p. xiii.
[iv] Willigis Jager, p. ix.
[v] Willigis Jager, p. xiv.
[vi] Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
[vii] Willigis Jager, p. xx.
[viii] Willigis Jager, p. 56.
[ix] Willigis Jager, p. xxix.
[x] Willigis Jager, p. xxx.
[xi] Willigis Jager, p. xxxi.
[xii] Paul Gruchow, The Necessity of Empty Places. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981, p. 217.
[xiii] Robert Bly, News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980. p.3

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