“Steps Toward A Dionysian Naturalism: Making the Earth Sacred in a Time of Ecological Disaster, Part 1” by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

This is Part 1 of a 3-part series.

Our Ecological Crisis

As I look out upon the world the most pressing problem I see confronting humanity is climate change.  If we do not significantly curb our emissions soon and there is a 4° C rise in the global average temperature, most coral reefs would be killed, the Amazon rainforest would dry up and at least 40% of the world’s species would be doomed to extinction.  Our species and our planet have never faced such an enormous human-made crisis.  Modern industrial civilization, fueled as it is by petrochemicals, has drastically damaged the fragile biosphere that supports all life on this planet

Those of us living through the early 21st century are experiencing the dying of our planet.  A massive wave of extinctions along with the ubiquitous degradation of diverse ecosystems are killing a significant portion of nature’s abundance and diversity.  While during the last few centuries first Western societies and then increasingly others around the globe (including China, India, Brazil, Japan, etc.) have witnessed an economic experience which has greatly increased the amount of stuff one portion of our populations have, the consequence has been the destruction of our natural world.  Many of us feel that it is not yet too late to avert a total environmental catastrophe.  But it could be very soon.  Indeed, this is a very frightening time to be alive.

Screen-Shot-2013-06-25-at-3.41.24-PMThis is the global context in which I am exploring the nature of my spirituality.  I recently committed myself to a multi-year “quest for truth and meaning” to clarify my theological orientations.  Specifically I am exploring ways to integrate science and religion through a naturalist cosmology centered on the Epic of Evolution–a Pagan-inspired creation spirituality ground in reality but filled with awe and reverence.  While I have attended a Unitarian-Universalist church in Santa Barbara, and have largely embraced the progressive humanism espoused there, I want to flesh out more precisely my theological beliefs, develop my religious literacy and enhance my spiritual practice.

Theology in the age of the Anthropocene must respond to the potential death of our planet as we know it.  This environmental emergency weighs heavily upon my mind as I explore what it means to be a spiritual person and to lead a spiritual life.  Joanna Macy describes our current era as “The Great Turning”–a period that is a transition between the old industrial economic system, which must be brought to a close, and a new economic system based upon sustainability, which must emerge.  The Great Turning is, according to David Korten, a spiritual revolution “grounded in an awakening consciousness of our spiritual connection to one another and the living body of Earth” (Korten, The Great Turning 2006, p. 18).  I want to align my theological inclinations with this spiritual revolution and to thus raise our awareness of our bonds to other humans, to other species and to our planet.

The de-sacralization of nature is a central causal factor in our ecological crisis.  No people who truly revere our natural world could allow such a massive destruction of so many ecosystems.  Within the last several thousand years our bonds to our planet have become broken and frayed. Many humans have moved from a sacred conception of nature to a mechanistic conception of nature.  I envision my spirituality as a necessary corrective to these problems.  To guide us through these turbulent times and to help us transition to a sustainable society, we need a revolutionary approach to religion that rethinks the moral foundations of western civilization which, I believe, have supported our ecocidal, repressive and hierarchical social systems.

Nature Religions

The logic of my approach to these concerns is rather elementary.  If, as I assume, our current dominant theological approaches are a part of the problem in that they provide the moral and ethical framework of Western industrial civilization and have thus contributed to the disenchantment of our natural world and to the deterioration of its sense of sacredness, perhaps we need to examine those religions which regard the Earth as a most holy object, examine the spiritual practices they use to maintain that sacred status and evaluate the values that they cherish.

Those approaches to spirituality which regard our natural world as inherently sacred might be termed Nature Religions.  These include, to name but a few, some of the most ancient religions on our planet, such as those of most indigenous tribal peoples, (such as Native Americans), the Pagan traditions of pre-Christian Europe and their modern “re-birth” in the form of Wicca, Neo-Paganism, as well as Druidry.  Over the past 30 years I have learned much by studying the wisdom of these rich and diverse earth-centered traditions.

In 1981, I arrived in San Francisco as a 22-year old youth studying for the GRE exams and considering the many fine graduate programs of the University of California.  It was here that I first encountered people calling themselves Witches and Pagans.  I was greatly intrigued by how these religious rebels were creating their own approaches to matters of the spirit. Some were firmly feminists who sought to build a non-patriarchal religion focused on the Great Goddess.  Others seemed more swayed by concerns for “New Age” metaphysics and the so-called “personal construction of reality”.  Still others were folk healers of various sorts who tapped into those shamanic aspects of the “Old Religion”.  All of them regarded our natural world as sacred.  Fascinated by the emergence of this new religious movement, I initially thought I had found a topic for my Master’s thesis.

Contemporary Paganism and Wicca take diverse forms, and it is hard to make generalizations about the beliefs of these modern followers of Nature Religions.  There is a sizable proportion who believe in the reality of deities, supernatural realms, spirit beings, magical powers and paranormal activities.  It is not hard to find how-to guides for Witches and Pagans instructing initiates on how to cast spells to lure boyfriends, how to heal with crystals and how to “read the future”.  The modern Pagan authors I most appreciate have rich metaphorical expressions in which esoteric language cloaks largely scientific worldviews.  Still, I often find myself a bit uncomfortable with the “woo-woo” aspects of Paganism and therefore choose to call myself a “Naturalist”.

On Naturalism

My goal in this brief essay is to lay out some preliminary ideas on a theological approach I am calling Dionysian Naturalism, which, as its name suggests, is a form of naturalism–a philosophical perspective that asserts the nature of realty based upon a certain kind of knowledge.  While there are many ways of knowing that are valid for some purposes–including appeal to religious authority, intuition, personal revelation–only the scientific method creates objective facts based upon empirical verification. I want my religious cosmology firmly based in these objective facts about the world.

sn-diagramReligious Naturalism is, perhaps, a subset of the Nature Religions, in that it also regards nature as sacred.  Yet, unlike some Nature Religions’ embrace of the supernatural, it is grounded in a scientific worldview that asserts that there is no ontologically separate realm which gives meaning to this world.  Moreover, it asserts that there are religious aspects of this world which can be understood within a naturalistic framework (Jerome Stone, The Promise of Religious Naturalism (2009)).  We might say that Religious Naturalism is a Nature Religion without the “woo-woo”.

As stated, naturalists do not suppose that all truths are scientific truths, what is sometimes called “scientism”.  Rather, naturalists argue only that science offers the best way to understand the nature of reality.  Naturalists believe that answers based in science are generally more reliable than those derived from other ways.

While many religions supposedly make moral valuations based upon a transcendent basis, that does not make the value judgments of naturalists false.  Humans are social animals whose very existence depends upon societies based on moral behavior with each other.  Our evolution has provided us with moral reasoning and therefore morality is a natural phenomenon.

Our physical world consists of a space-time continuum composed of basic elements which are described by physics.  The natural world is all that exists and there is no special realm filled with angels, Heaven or grandfatherly deities.  Our natural world appears to operate without purposes, intention or foresight.  All the processes of the world are describable by science.  These include physical phenomena, biological processes and the psychological and social states and activities.  Thus, naturalists reject the dualistic view of many religions which hold there there are distinct natural and supernatural realms.  This monistic view of the cosmos entails a commitment to scientific empiricism.

The Epic of Evolution: A Religious Story for All Ages

Cosmochemical_flowThe “Epic of Evolution” is the story told by scientists and others about the various processes that have lead us from the “Big Bang” to our present moment.  Included within that story are the processes of natural selection which have populated our world with various flora, fauna and other life forms.  While firmly grounded in a scientific cosmology, Religious Naturalism can be seen as a revival of ancient creation-based spirituality.  According to David Bumbaugh (2001), the scientific story of Creation is a religious story because:

  1. It invites us to see ourselves in terms of the largest self that we can imagine—a self that was present in some sense in the singularity that produced the emergent world;
  2. It suggests a larger meaning to our existence in that through us the universe is reaching for self-understanding;
  3. It leads to an ethical framework for our lives by emphasizing our intimate relationship to everything.

Naturalist spirituality posits an underlying unity and interconnectedness of all phenomena.  It leads to mystery and wonder about why we are here or exist at all.  It leads to a sense that the Spirit of Life is at work in the cosmos.  Increasingly, the scientific community refers to the Earth as if it is a living organism, “the Gaia hypothesis”.  It seems important to note that referring to this world as a Great Goddess acts to reclaim the sacred feminine, which had long been banished from western civilization.  Clearly, Religious Naturalism is not a mechanistic, hyper-materialist, reductionist type of scientific worldview, but one that is holistic.

This perspective acknowledges impermanence and thus urges us to value our moments on earth, because there is no afterlife.  For naturalists the focus is clearly on “this world” and on the present moment.  A focus on the present is necessary for it is only in the present that we can assert our aliveness, engage our projects, change directions and find meaning in our endeavors.

The Dionysian form of naturalism that I am advancing does not fetishize Enlightenment rationality.  I hope to maintain a healthy role for the passions and the emotions and hope to rethink the conventional wisdom concerning human nature and the imposition of reason as the central trait of our species’ being.  Following Friedrich Nietzsche I accept the impulses and instincts of human beings and celebrate our passions.  Moreover, these base instincts are related to sacredness.  We must affirm the deepest parts of our animal natures by finally realizing the wholeness of our minds and not be content with a caricature of Enlightenment thinkers’ ideal of what humans should be–one stressing what we are, rather than what we should be, one dissolving the gap found in the social sciences between systematic models of utilitarian, calculating, goal-oriented and rule-governed behavior, and our more nuanced, more integral, caring selves.

To be continued …

The Author: Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

My name is Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. I am a Santa Barbara-based social justice educator, activist and writer. I teach in the BA Program in Liberal Studies at Antioch University Santa Barbara, a program which promotes “praxis for social justice” in every class. I am also a social worker with a passion for helping our neighbors on the streets transition into permanent housing and self-sufficiency, especially those beset by mental health challenges and addictions. I see this work as a ministry and I enjoy joining with others from diverse faiths and secular backgrounds in these efforts to build community locally and sustainability globally.

2 Comments on ““Steps Toward A Dionysian Naturalism: Making the Earth Sacred in a Time of Ecological Disaster, Part 1” by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

  1. Brother! I felt a great kinship with the perspective expressed in the introductory section of this essay, but your experience with these religious movements appears to be much deeper and longer. I look forward to seeing where you go with this. Also, I wish Gaia was as universally appreciated in the scientific community as you seem to suggest, but my impression is that this is far from being the case.

  2. Yes! Thanks for laying this out so well – and to see Dr. David Bumbaugh mentioned was a special treat. Dr. Mellinger, I would like to discuss the future of UU with you, if you are interested.

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