When trying to make sense of the state of the world
and the mess it is in, we surely must consider the ways in which our
psycho-spiritual understandings have helped shape this mess. What follows is
this author’s attempt to sense-make.
Alfhol (tiny houses) built for
elves in Iceland.
First, I must acknowledge the particular circumstances within which I was born, raised, and now function within the world. I recognise myself as being a member of the most privileged sector of humanity that has possibly ever lived. I have a western European heritage, am male, and was born in one of the most affluent nations in the world – New Zealand. Furthermore, I was born into that generation (baby boomers, 1946 – 1964) that saw massive advances in well-being and wealth.
Although I often may have rebelled against much of my cultural upbringing, I nevertheless have been privileged by it. The following thoughts arise from this socio-cultural perspective.
Even a cursory examination of humanity’s roots and ancient histories suggests that our ancient forebears understood (perhaps intuitively, or instinctively) that we humans are part of nature, not distinct from, nor even a privileged form of it. We participated in an intimately connected, symbiotic, inter-dependent community of all life on this planet.
Life, and our part in it, was considered as a whole – undifferentiated. In this sense, all life was viewed as sacred, considered holy, or hallowed. Indeed, all these words – whole, holy, hallowed, plus health – derive from the same etymological root. This would indicate just how closely our ancestors understood the sanctity of all life.
But, what animated this life? It is easy to visualise early Homo sapiens, and generations following, pondering this question. Perhaps, around the communal fires, stories were told (some of them becoming famous myths and legends) that attempted to “answer” this question. The human quality of imagination no doubt was invoked and something beyond the immediately observable was posited.
A variety of spirits, sprites, demons, and other deities would have been spoken of around the fire. Many of these would have been imbued with human-like form, manifesting as elves, giants, dwarves, satyrs, nymphs, fairies, leprechauns, and other inhabitants of the forests, lakes, streams, mountains, and deserts. Many of these would later be transformed into gods and goddesses. No matter whether these were imaginal or not, in our early history these were primarily connected with a nature-based understanding of the world.
Furthermore, all people could recognise them and communicate with them. The job of shamans was to make these intra-natural (only later did they become super-natural) deities recognisable to the rest of the clan, group, or tribe.
There were places where it was known that these deities tended to inhabit and, so, early humans came to honour such places; e.g., forest groves, springs, mountain/hill tops, stone circles, caves. Such sites became sacred.
To our ancestors the world was known as a holy (whole) realm with many sacred sites and beings.
Sacred Become Ecclesial
However, things did not remain this way. Gradually the plurality of gods and goddesses were supplanted by the monotheistic god of Judeo-Christianity, and the shamans replaced by priests who interceded between people and god.
Spirituality was traded for religion. The sacred had become ecclesial.
Significantly, this monotheistic god did not reside on or in the Earth. This god was “booted upstairs” as the Buddhist and comparative religion scholar, David Loy, put it.1 Humanity’s view of what was holy and sacred was shifted radically from seeing ourselves as part of nature to a skyward gaze. Alongside this, the duality of Heaven (in the sky) and Hell (of or in the Earth) began to take hold. Thus, belief in, and hope for, the after-life became more consequential than the life here (in nature) and now.
These shifts ripped apart the recognition of the Earth and nature as being holy and endowed with sacred sites. The movement towards the Earth becoming a secular entity – totally devoid of any sense of sacredness – was underway.
Without a sense of holiness (and with life’s meaning being directed towards the after-life) the Earth began to be regarded as simply a resource that humans could exploit. Forests that once housed the fairy-folk could be felled. Lakes and streams where once water-sprites lived could be used as rubbish dumps. Hill tops, the home of giants, could be mined and dug into with abandon.
Within my cultural heritage this exploitation was not confined to Europe. The poorly named Age of Discovery2 began in the 15th century and exploitation and colonisation was exported throughout the world, with disastrous effects upon indigenous peoples and ecosystems in all the continents and oceans of the world.
The door leading towards a mechanistic, deterministic, Cartesian view of the world had been not just opened, but violently kicked in.
God is Dead
‘Gott ist tot’ (God is dead) wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882, although similar utterings had been made by others in the decades before Nietzsche made his now infamous claim. Not only did this statement inter God, but it also massacred any sense of spirituality and summed up, in just three words, the previous three centuries.
Following on from the age of discovery and the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution further imbued the world as simply a mechanical mixture of nothing more than ‘things.’ The conception of nature as a community of living energies was discarded. If it could not be observed and measured, then it was unworthy of consideration.
Even humans were not exempt from this idea. René Descartes famous dictum, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ implied a subject (I) entire unto itself, not needing connection with other humans to exist or to know oneself.
The secularisation of the world was well and deeply embedded.
God was dead. The sacred was lifeless. Nature was inert. The spirit world was exiled.
Next week’s blog will explore some of the symptoms of this secularisation and ask if the sacred can be restored?
1. David Loy, In Search of the Sacred, Tricycle magazine, 20172. Poorly named because Europeans discovered nothing that was not already known to one culture or another.