Continued from Part 3 …
DIONYSIAN NATURALISM AND THE QUEST FOR ECSTASY
Unitarian-Universalists and Religious Naturalists are both groups of people concerned with infusing reason and science into modern religious life and practice. In social worlds often replete with supernaturalism and superstition, this itself is a noble goal. And while in so many ways I am with them in that pursuit and definitely want a religious cosmology ground in scientific evidence, I follow Friedrich Nietzsche in seeing modernity as expressing the triumph of the Apollonian. Instrumental rationality and cold calculation have almost killed the soul of the world—the Pagan notion of anima mundi—and we desperately need a Dionysian revival.
Dionysian Naturalism, while ground in a scientific worldview and in the practices of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry, maintains a healthy place for the passions and the emotions. Moreover, our human impulses and instincts are seen as related to our sacredness. “Dionysian”, for me, invokes the Earth-centered Pagan traditions of the ancient world and their corporeal form of communion. Dionysian Naturalism reclaims the Sacred Journey at the heart of Western Nature Religions. And it celebrates these forms of ecstasy as ways to re-sacralize the natural world. Thus, I want to bring together Pagan and Naturalist traditions.
In ancient Greece ekstasis meant “standing outside oneself” and referred to the flight of the soul from the body. While I originally associated the “Dionysian” with wild states of frenzy, profane experiences of “partying” and drunken orgies, I now know that the “Dionysian” essentially involves being transported to a spiritual realm, in which even calm and meditative, but no less profound, states of consciousness may be experienced. While reclaiming ecstatic religion and the potential of sacramental entheogen use, Dionysian Naturalism also explores other alternative non-entheogenic spiritual practices which may equally serve to re-sacralize nature and create transcendent experiences.
Personally I have learned that, because of my prior abusive experiences with cocaine and methamphetamine, I must be vigilant about sobriety, for my mind will tell me that all recreational drug use is equivalent to entheogenic sacramental use (“Go ahead and get high! “The Will to Party” is a sacred instinct!”), and when that happens I tend to loose everything in my life. Being someone with bi-polar disorder with a history self-medicating with high-powered stimulants leading to repeated bouts of homeless, I must continue to discover new ways to “dance with Dionysus” This has opened up my spiritual journey in greatly enriching ways and has lead to deep study of meditation, yoga and tantric sexuality. Elsewhere, I detail “The Amethyst Path” of recovery I follow in which I seek Dionysian spirituality while maintaining sobriety.
I describe much of contemporary naturalism as “disenchanted”, that is, as a deterministic, mechanistic and reductionistic scientific worldview in which everything can be explained through natural laws and mechanisms, with no mystery left behind. Disenchanted naturalism observes the natural world through a detached objective perspective in which any notion of wonder has been removed. The consequence of this way of thinking has been near ecological collapse. By conceiving of nature as mere “inert matter” with the central purpose of serving human needs we set up a situation ripe for human abuse and exploitation of the biosphere.
To “save our planet” we must re-sacralize nature, for no people who truly revere our natural world would allow it to become destroyed. Thus, “enchanting” naturalism is essential to the survival of our planet. To change from a disenchanted naturalism to an enchanted naturalism one need only acknowledge that one is in the presence of the sacred. We must open ourselves to the mysteries of the Universe with ways of knowing that integrate imagination, aesthetic sensibility and religious intuition. As stated, the Pagan notion of anima mundi—the soul of the world—is being revived. Through acts of enchantment our alienation from the natural world can be removed and we can again feel the magic of a spring morning, a shooting star on a warm summer night and the majesty of a snow-capped mountain. Without doubt, Dionysian Naturalism is an enchanted naturalism!
A paradigm shift is occurring in which the Universe is now imagined, not as a clocklike mechanism in which wholes are reducible to their parts, but as a sacred living system with emergent properties. This new worldview brings together the wisdom of religion and science to change our relationship to the cosmos. By re-enchanting nature and reviving anima mundi, we re-affirm that we are an intimate part of the web of life and kin to other species. The resulting sense of belonging to this planet is required if we are create a new global ethic in which all objects are valued and respected and choose to live responsibly. Our ancient Pagan roots are still alive and we must graft our modern spirits onto them to protect our sacred living planet.
About the Author
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.
I love your journey and the perspective to which it has brought you. Thanks for sharing so much, so candidly.
As a pagan and a science educator, I remain a bit skeptical of your call to re-sacralize nature by retaining the “spirit of nature”–i.e., the aptly named anima mundi. I have experienced the awe of existence in profound landscapes and the rational contemplation of minor bits of scientific knowledge. But I have not seen it diminished in knowing how some of the mechanistic/deterministic explanations. The truth remains that I will probably remain ignorant of many aspects of Nature, no matter how much I learn in my lifetime. There is room for mystery and wonder there. Yet I find assurance that as a species, we Homo sapiens will come to understand.
I am far more worried about how your message might be received by someone who doesn’t have any degree of higher education. A vast and real gulf of understanding separates us from many in this world, and filling the gap with “acceptable mumbo jumbo” for the desired effect (re-sacralizing) shouldn’t be our only option.
Nevertheless, your blog posts are extremely well written, and I find myself stimulated by reading them. Keep ’em coming.