This is Part 3 of a 3-part series.
Spiritual Practices to Make the Natural World a Sacred Object
Modern secular society tends to regard the natural world as something for humans to use. This “utilitarian creed” is reinforced by an extreme anthropocentrism in which humans constantly imagine that it is all about them–that the world exists solely to satisfy human desire. They worship the gods of Progress, Economic Growth and Profit, and faith in this trinity has led to a near ecological collapse. Humans are so asleep to the consequences of this mechanistic conception of nature that we need a revolutionary religion to jolt open our eyes and awaken us to the world we’ve created. We are born of the earth, live all our days within it and shall ultimately return to it.
In studying the cosmologies of indigenous tribal people across the globe as well as the tenets of modern Nature Religions a set of moral and ecological insights emerge which coalesce into a holistic body of knowledge that I am calling the “Wisdom of the Earth”. These teachings remind us:
- Of the shared origins of all forms of life
- Of the ecological integrity of natural systems
- Of the ancient bonds of kinship between humans and other species
- Of the cycles of nature
At the heart of the Wisdom of the Earth is the idea that the natural world is inherently holy, that it is alive and animated by a single, unifying life force and that it is unfathomably mysterious. Moreover, humans are responsible for sustaining harmony within nature, must express gratitude and make sacrifices in return for the benefits they derive from the natural world, and must routinely honor nature.
To re-sacralize our natural world and to turn it into a “Thou” rather than an “it”, Dionysian Naturalism hopes to develop spiritual practices, including rituals and ceremonies, liturgies, and mythopoetic narratives. We need to discard the hierarchical schism between human beings and nature. Humans are a mere part of nature and not the center of the universe.
Embodied Rituals and Our Relationship to Nature
Most indigenous tribal societies have had intimate relationships with their natural surroundings, sustainable cultural practices which often lasted hundreds of years and earth-centered spiritualities grounded in rich ceremonies and rituals. Modern industrial civilization with its emphasis on practicality and instrumental rationality often finds such earth-affirming ritual practices frivolous curiosities at best, and lack insight into the wisdom they contain. The embodied rituals of Nature Religions are best understood as sophisticated spiritual technologies which help to maintain a healthy relationship between and people and their natural world. To repair our bonds to nature, Dionysian Naturalism urges us to reclaim such spiritual practices.
Many Nature Religions celebrate the Wheel of the Year and the eight seasonal holidays of which it is composed. I urge Religious Naturalists of all persuasions to find ways to honor the cycles of life through these solstices, equinoxes and the cross quarter days. We need to particularize these festivals so that they fit the rhythms of our given localities and the actual manifestations of nature found therein. Let us create meaningful and creative rituals filled with myth, art, story and dance which can deepen our connections to our bioregions and the living communities they contain.
Numerous other spiritual practices found in Nature Religions act to strengthen the relationship of humans to their natural world. The practice of “casting a circle” in Wicca by invoking the four directions and the four elements situationally emplaces us within a local setting. “Grounding” is often used in contemporary Pagan rituals to explicitly connect participants with the earth. People are urged to imagine tree-like roots extending from themselves to the ground beneath their feet allowing a circuit of energy to flow between themselves and the earth. And finally, by celebrating the Passages of Life we honor the rhythms of nature. It is the repetition of these rituals, which focus upon our finding ourselves within nature, which helps to restore sacredness to our world and to ourselves.
We develop a sense of nature as sacred through first coming to see ourselves as sacred,. What embodied rituals and other spiritual practices can we employ to see ourselves as sacred? Parker Palmer states: “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others” (Let Your Life Speak, 1999, pp. 30-31) Diet and exercise are two important ways we care for our bodies and have been a mainstay of religious regimes from time immemorial. Contemplative practices, such as prayer and mindful meditation, nourish our minds and allow for mental space to consider our gifts to the world. Slowing down allows us to be present and take time to acknowledge our reverence. Deep thought allows us opportunity to reflect upon our values and our attitudes, which are always choices we get to make. Most importantly, contemplative practices can aid us in deeply knowing ourselves and our own mysteries. No sharp line of demarcation separates us from the world. We each are manifestations of energies which have created and continue to create the universe. We must awaken to this ecological conscience by allowing a spirit of respect, compassion and care to pervade our everyday lives and interactions. We must take responsibility for how we live and live our lives with integrity.
The Re-Sacralization of Nature Through Entheogenic Sacraments
Dionysian Naturalism reclaims the shamanic heritage of the first Nature Religions. Specifically, it embraces the entheogenic mysticism of our ancestors, who celebrated the holy in ecstatic rituals, often involving mind-altering sacred plants (entheogens) We currently live in social worlds which strictly prohibit the use of so-called “drugs”. The whole notion that altered states of consciousness might be gateways to spiritual experiences and insights is largely absent from our dominant culture. We deny the history of the world’s religions and we deny our true human natures. If we are a species prone to drunken orgies and getting stoned, let us accept who we are and embrace those aspects of humanity.
I envision a post-prohibitionist religion of the future in which the sacred use of plant-gods once again flourishes. The “forgotten gnosis” which is the outcome of the ecstatic rituals at the heart of Dionysian Naturalism serves to re-sacralize nature. Initiates often begin with the feelings of alienation so common in our modern world. We sense that something vital is missing from our lives and feel disconnected from others and our natural world. The consumption of entheogenic sacraments are framed as sacred journeys in which initiates face a symbolic death and rebirth. Mythopoetic narratives and embodied and emplaced rituals are constructed to elaborate these themes in a powerful language of reverence. These deep and profound personal mystical experiences lead to a transformation of consciousness regarding our place in the world.
In our normal states of consciousness, there is a clear separation between us and the outside world. Under the influence of hallucinogens, the boundary between the experiencing ego and the outside world disappears or becomes blurred. As the ego reaches out to objects in the external world, they seem to come to life and acquire new meaning. We feel blissfully linked to objects in the world and may sense a unifying wholeness to the cosmos. This cosmic consciousness is recognized as a transcendent experience and a core aspect of religion. The I-Thou barrier may be relaxed or dissolved and the individual feels at one with the whole of creation.
Frequently, commentators on the entheogenic experience note that prolonged and repeated use leads to the dissolution of the ego and an overwhelming sense of the unity of the cosmos. What is left, according to the late entheogenic researcher, Terence McKenna, includes a “collective connection to the Earth”. McKenna argues that the loss of these rituals has had a devastating consequence for Western civilization. There has been a steady focus on the ego, and we have broken our relationship with the sacred feminine and the mysteries of life. Our estrangement from nature is a direct result of the suppression of the Pagan mysteries and the banning of the shamanic use of techniques of ecstasy. As McKenna states: “An interrupted psychophysical symbiosis between ourselves and the visionary plant is the unrecognized cause of the alienation of modernity and the cultural mind-set of planetary civilization” (Food of the Gods, 1992: p. 245). McKenna calls for a revival of the use of psychoactive plants in order to repair our relationship with nature.
I realize that this aspect of my approach to spirituality is the most challenging to people. People who embrace my ecotheology, my concerns for social justice, and ethical framework might wince when they discover my support of entheogenic religion. Often they are not aware that the very origins of religion may be found with these mind-altering sacraments (“the Wasson thesis”). Or they may be ignorant to the very special wisdom obtained through such practices, what Nietzsche called “ur-eine”. Most do not realize how our special human bonds with our natural world were likely greatly enhanced by these psychoactive plants.
Dionysian Naturalism as a Revolutionary Spirituality
Dionysian Naturalism (DN) begins with the historical experience of massive environmental devastation, as well as other social problems that result from our current social system, especially economic inequality, racism and sexism and other forms of oppression. To create a just and sustainable society we need a spiritual revolution to awaken our consciousness to our bonds to other humans, to other species and to the planet. We need to re-evaluate the moral and ethical framework of modernity and change it to one built upon total respect and dignity for ALL life forms and to every aspect our natural world. We need to come to see everything in our world as inherently sacred and worthy of veneration.
We must enter a phase of human history with more profound social changes than have ever been experienced before. The two prior great societal transformation of human history occurred at much slower paces. The neolithic or agricultural revolution probably happened gradually over many generations. The industrial revolution was somewhat faster, often occurring within the lifespan of single individuals. We do not have the luxury of being able to slowly implement the required changes. We need to almost immediately jump-cut to a new world. And we need a spirituality which will support such huge leaps forward in our social form. Dionysian Naturalism asserts the possibility of these changes.
We live in an age in which a number of “prophets” are envisioning a better future for our world and are devising strategies to get there. A prophet is one who speaks by divine inspiration, often critically evaluating an existing society and putting forward a vision of a future society. The moral vision of “what isn’t working” and “the way it should be” aid a people to understand their world and change it in accord with spiritual principles and visions of society.
Lately, I have been reading the writings of David Korten and James Gustave Speth (among others). Both of these prophetic thinkers call for radically democratic political systems in which power is shared and balanced and opposition is encouraged and celebrated. They call for an economic system that is sufficiently regulated to ensure both the protection of consumers and the sustainability of the Earth. They envision a system in which wealth is redistributed generously to support the health and well-being of all citizens. And they want a social world in which all citizens are treated with dignity and respect. I could name dozens of other prophetic voices echoing these same concerns and envisioning similar futures. When we “speak truth to power,” as the Hebrew prophets Amos and Jeremiah urged, we can tap into the spiritual roots of our political activism.
Experiences of the sacred are a source of a prophet’s sense of mission, her or his passion for justice and the courage to challenge the powers that be. For me, the sacred is our human response to the wondrous mystery of the unfolding of creation as feelings of awe, wonder and humility. Some of these new prophetic voices are inspired by spiritual traditions that proclaim a “reverence for life.” By this is meant something more radical that the idea that every human life is sacred. Rather, what is proposed is that the universe is alive and humans are enmeshed in webs of existence. This “systems perspective” is leading to a profound shift in our perception of reality. A resurgence of wisdom traditions, such as Nature Religions, is occurring around the globe. Central to these changes is the notion that humans do not have “dominion” over nature but are merely a part of it.
Our social system is inherently flawed as it is set upon principles of hierarchy, exploitation, domination and inequality. Modern industrial civilization must be replaced with a form of society grounded in ecological sustainability, cooperation and greater equality. Without doubt, these radical shifts will be very difficult to bring about. Thus, Dionysian Naturalism must be an engaged spirituality in which spiritual sensibilities infuse our daily habits and practices as we remake a new world. The Earth is alive and we are but a small and humble part of this marvelous system. Dionysian Naturalism is based upon a largely scientific worldview concerning the nature of reality which remains skeptical about truth-claims regarding supernatural phenomena and builds a theology upon our human response to the natural world. Eschewing anthropocentrism, it wholly supports the inherent dignity and worth of ALL life forms in our cosmos and takes a holistic view of the interconnected web of life that humans live within.
Contemporary ecotheology must begin with the premise that there exists a relationship between our spiritual beliefs and practices and the current degradation of our natural environment. Given our grave ecological crisis and the dire need for immediate action, I have advocated a revolutionary approach to religion, which massively critiques modern industrial civilization and thoroughly re-evaluates the values which have provided the moral and ethical framework of modernity. Dionysian Naturalism posits that a central spiritual transformation required during the Great Turning, which will aid us in our creation of a new sustainable, just and cooperative economic system, is the re-sacralization of our natural world. By radically changing our sense of the sacred and directing reverence toward nature, Dionysian Naturalism is grounded in an awakening consciousness of our connection to the planet, to other species and to one another. Our holy planet is alive and all species share a special kinship with each other within our fragile web of life because of the unifying and mysterious life force we share. We humans must be humble protectors of these ecosystems and must show our gratitude for nature’s abundance through routine acts of reverence.
May courage be with us all so that we might commence the high and holy work of transforming our social world in a responsible way. No more may we ruin the Earth. Never again shall we allow such gross human inequities. May we no longer have throngs of marginalized, silenced and displaced masses huddled on our streets. Allow us to have that courage to change that which must be changed. A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour has come. Amen.
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.