All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.
For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
Pagans and the Living World
In the two months since the election my broader outlook has become less defensive. I have begun turning from battling the nihilistic right to the vastly more rewarding challenge of helping build a attractive alternative to modernity’s collapsed moral foundations. That collapse facilitated the right wing’s attempt to impose traditional authoritarianism in both secular and religious guise. Now, instead of constantly uprooting the right’s intellectual and moral weeds I hope to help prepare the ground for new growth and beauty. We sure need it.
My reading has shifted from politics to exploring recent studies exploring how our world is truly conscious “all the way down.” So long as materialist reductionism dominate the intellectual conversation, with irrational monotheism as the alternative, we will be regarded as exotic outsiders, and not taken seriously. This conversation desperately needs widening. More and more people are becoming aware of the inner bankruptcy of the Enlightenment project and its monotheistic alternatives, and so are open to views such as that of many Pagans if they are skillfully presented.
Mainstream philosopher of science Thomas Nagel’s short Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, argues materialistic reductionism will not work and suggesting possibilities with more promise. All involve making consciousness in some sense a fundamental aspect of reality “all the way down.” Coming from the perspective of process philosophy, Christian de Quincey’s Radical Nature: The Soul of Matter is a more demanding work making the positive case that nature is conscious. After Nagel demolishes, de Quincey builds. These two books are an excellent beginning, and for most, probably a good ending to seeing how a Pagan friendly outlook helps solve problems in the contemporary worldview, and does so from the perspective of contemporary thinking.
To be sure, philosophy does not immediately change a culture’s outlook. But it prepares the ground. Its views penetrate from intellectual leaders to teachers and then throughout society as a whole. That the New York Review of Books chose to review Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, even if critically, suggests something deep is shifting.
I suspect he real reasons we Pagans experience our world as alive are our intuitions, and for many of us, direct personal encounters with a world that is living. The world is a great mystery, but from out of that mystery it responds to Wiccans and Heathens, to Shinto and to Hindus, to Lakota and Hopi, and to many others as well. Certainly that has been the case with me. Books and philosophers were not necessary.
But our society is fanatically driven to treat everything but humans, and increasingly many humans as well, as nothing but tools to be used efficiently and then forgotten. Economic theory has raised this perspective to a dogma and wrapped it in the trappings of science.
Philosophy helps demolish this obscuration. It helps many see there might be a door in the wall separating humanity from the other-than-human world, a wall that once penetrated transforms both sides. But philosophy can only open a door. We cannot use it to walk through the entry. Even less than entheogens, it cannot take us to what lies beyond.
Through the doorway
What can? Once we begin to suspect there is a beyond, how do we connect with it? Pagan outlooks in almost every case tell us this can be done.
When we seek to work with dogs, cats, and horses, we generally do better when we enter into relationship with them. This is an important clue. Some of us have even entered into relationhips with plants and the sea and land. If Pagan spirituality is to help heal modern nihilism we need to teach our society to relate as the Lakota term puts it, with “Mitakuye Oyasin,” “all our relations.” With the earth and sky, the oceans and rivers, fire and ice, the and the myriad beings with four, two or many legs, or none at all.
To do this we must have learned ourselves. Some reading this will have already done so. Others have not. It is these people this column addresses.
How do we expand the qualitative dimension of our relations with the other-than-human? How do we experience our immersion not in “resources” but in relationships, acknowledged and unacknowledged, surrounding us on every side?
For a lucky few the world or some part of it simply makes its acquaintance in a way they cannot deny. Most people are not so lucky. We have to prepare ourselves, shift our attitudes, open our minds and hearts. Happily there are ways to begin this without turning our lives upside down. Basically we expand our circle of care and respect.
Consider food. Many people who buy organic do so because they think it tastes better or is better for them. I agree. But these reasons can coexist comfortably with the modern world-view of a meaningless mundane universe where we make our way as best we can during our brief sojourn here.
There is also another reason to buy organic.
Today organic food is usually produced in ways benefiting the web of life as a whole. The soil is treated better, and the intricate relationships of living things are worked with rather than denied or overpowered through using poisons and chemical fertilizers that all too often degrade the soil and pollute the water, causing damage elsewhere. Organic agriculture incorporates an ethical approach to the other-than-human world that non-organic agriculture can easily lose from sight, particularly when done only for profit. Some organic farmers know their land is alive, and treat it accordingly. No corporation does.
Buying organic, or buying local, or buying mindfully have an ethical element that to my mind deepens and expands our lives.
Mindful consuming begins to take us through that door because it enlarges our awareness of our connections.
When I was small and my family occasionally said grace, giving thanks to God, I always thought someone was left out. I wondered about the once-living plants and animals whose bodies contributed to the meal on my plate. What about them? They remained mere things that God apparently created just so we could thank Him and eat them. It seemed wrong and today I know it was.
Now I am careful to almost always give thanks to the spirits of what I consume. (I do not bat 1000, but it is close.) If I am with others I try to do it unobtrusively, but I try always to do it.
What if you have no experience with such spirits? Most Americans don’t. But if you want to develop a relationship, politeness and thoughtfulness help a lot more than their absence. Give thanks as if those spirits will hear you. It will be a second step through the door.
A third step
A third step requires a little more attention, but it shifts from being grateful for the necessities of life to being grateful for the gifts of life. When you experience some scene of exceptional natural beauty, say thank you. Beautiful clouds, a lovely flower, magnificent mountains, anything that fills you heart and helps it soar. Say thank you.
Then pause and quietly see if there is any kind of response. It will almost always be very subtle, especially at first.
These are three little steps that acknowledge we are not alone, that we have respect, and that we have gratitude. They do not involve turning our lives around in any risky way. But in my experience they are not wasted motions.
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