What Paganism Can Offer
While reading Taylor’s chapter on radical environmentalism(1), I began to have more sympathy for that movement than I’d had before. Their genuine passion and commitment moves me, and I also found myself impressed with the amount of real thought and reason that goes into their worldview. And yet there is much that alarms me about that side of environmentalism; the very word “radical” signifies an extremist, even fanatical viewpoint which is not only repugnant to me, but quite probably self-defeating. If it is to be “no compromise in the defense of Mother Earth”, then they are at war- and almost certainly on the losing side.
So Grant’s(2) question last night- essentially, what do we as Pagans have to offer radical environmentalist nature spirituality?- got me thinking. A good starting place is in an area that he mentioned- interfaith dialogue. Modern Paganism (whatever its ancient roots may be) is young, and as such we have had to find ways to relate with more established religions in order to make our way. Also, Paganism itself is a collection of diverse religions, traditions, and paths; we have had to learn to live and communicate with each other. I can see this doing a lot of good in the contentious world of radical environmentalism.
Pagans can get along even while following wildly diverse paths; one of the reasons is that we have a more relativist approach to spiritual truth than most of the Abrahamic(3) faiths. Polytheism by nature is willing to accept that “there are other gods than what we worship,” and accept those worshipers, too. Even the more duo-theistic or monotheistic varieties of Paganism are inclusive. Radical environmentalism has inherited the Abrahamic tendency towards religious dogma, absolutism, and monoveritism(4). A leavening of Pagan relativism could help them relate to others.
Radical environmentalism has also inherited apocalyptic thinking from the Abrahamic religions. Paganism, on the other hand, is built around the older idea of cyclic time, with the cycle of the seasons and of Nature driving the ritual calendar. The Western idea of linear time enables and enhances the irrational side of apocalyptic thinking. Although there is reason to believe that an environmental cataclysm may lie in our future, a cyclic view of time may help to approach it in a more nuanced fashion.
Another facet of radical environmental thinking is the identification of theism with the “god as separate from nature” element of Abrahamic theology. Paganism, on the other hand, leads towards a mindset where the gods, spirits, and magic itself are not seen as “supernatural,” but as an organic part of nature itself. Combined with a view of humanity as an essential part of nature, this allows full play for the more magical side of animistic and Gaian thought(5)- an area with which radical environmentalists seem uncomfortable. Similarly, Paganism has a “this world” focus, as opposed to the “afterworld” focus prevalent in Abrahamic religions. This emphasis living in the world is a much better fit with nature spirituality in general.
Lastly, a potential benefit that Paganism has to offer is something I’m thinking of as “non-exclusive humanism.” Simply stated, this is the idea that although humanity is part of nature and in many ways not more privileged than any other part, we are also in some way special. We may be a way for the cosmos to know itself, the consciousness of Gaia, or something even more. But the ability to hold two parallel truths like that- implicit in much Pagan thinking if not unique to it- could provide a bridge between the radical environmentalists and other progressive activist movements that are centered around humanist concerns.
(1) Dark Green Religion, Bron Taylor. A highly readable and very informative book on nature spirituality, covering both the history of the movement and many of its current expressions.
(2) Grant Potts, our instructor.
(3) I like this term better than "Judeo-Christian", don't you?
(4) My own coinage, referring to an exclusionist view of religious truth (the "one-true-and-only-right-Way" aspect of religious thinking).
(5) Taylor has a very interesting grid for classifying nature spirituality- one axis is Animist vs. Gaian, and the other is Spiritualist vs. Naturalist. Too long to go into here...