[The Dionysian Naturalist] “Nature Religions and Revolutionary Social Change, Part 5” by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

Part 5 of 5:  Conclusion


The mounting scientific evidence on global climate change reveals that we face a “terminal crisis” in which most life on the planet is threatened, and that already catastrophic destruction of civilization is inevitable.  The magnitude of the environmental crisis compounded by the time limitations that exist before we face a total environmental collapse, lead me to the conclusion that revolution is required.  Modernity must be crushed and a new civilizational epoch based on sustainability must emerge.

As revolutionaries we must steer the populace towards a better world and lead the transition from a period of life-denying human practices to a period of life-affirming practices.  This gap between the way things are and the way they should be leads us to revolt.  We accept responsibility for the state of the world and stress how our everyday habits and attitudes contribute to the situation.

My concern in this paper has been to consider what religion brings to the table for revolutionaries in this age of climate crisis.  While religions typically function as the carriers of tradition, and thus constrain social change, they can also inspire movements for social justice, help us to clarify our values, and serve to mobilize the masses. Importantly, religion connects people to community and for the processes of social change that means collective efforts can go into affirming our values, deciding which issues to tackle and by what means.  People of faith are vital participants in social movements and very often its leaders.

Religion also brings to revolution a drastic shift in both style and content.  Spiritual activism elevates the playing field and turns radicals into “holy warriors”.  It brings nobility, dignity and grace to social change struggles.  Religion infuses transformational politics with compassion, mindfulness and sacred intent.  The strategic direct actions of people of faith are principled and informed by deeply cherished values.

While the greening of religion instills ecological concerns within mainstream religion, that is not enough.  I have cast my own personal theology, Dionysian Naturalism, as an insurgent Nature Religion.  Insurgent Nature Religions insist upon the sacredness of this world and therefore regard the destruction of Nature as desecration.  This sense of the sacred derives from: (1) the mystery and majesty of our natural world, which elicits strong feelings of wonder and awe; (2) our absolute dependence upon Nature as a source of sustenance, inspiration, recreation and revelation; and (3) our awareness of our humble fragility compared with Nature’s vast powers.  This sense of the sacred also motivates our goals of radical social change.  As a most holy object, Nature must be protected and preserved and never violated.

Nature is the source of our lives and all that we find valuable, important and meaningful, and this connection and dependence lead us to know that we belong here. We recognize that all living beings are our kin and that we share ancestral roots. This combined sense of belonging and kinship necessitate a global ethic of caring which demands that we treat all life with respect and reverence, and recognize the valued place of each life form in the complex and interconnected web of existence.  This ethic of caring informs our goals of revolutionary praxis, as well as mandating a major re-thinking of the moral and ethical foundations of modern industrial civilization (whose dominant values have justified and supported our ecocidal way of life).

I briefly outlined a “practical theology” of social change founded on the notion of praxis.  Praxis is situated activity in which we act with purposeful intention, live our values and consider the potential ethical consequences of our planned actions.  This practical theology consists of a sequence of nine principles to guide faith communities and other groups to engage in grassroots community organizing to empower displaced, marginalized and silenced groups to transform their own lives and the structural conditions which deny them justice.

I elaborated on four spiritual practices which were included in these principles which I claimed were particularly relevant to the work of social activists. Those cycles of action – reflection referred to as praxis can inspire social movement participants to “get their own house in order”.  Praxis motivates progressive activists to align their behavior with their beliefs, values, and theories, and therefore motivates anti-oppressive efforts, such as feminist and anti-racist education and application. Contemplative practices allow often too busy change agents an opportunity to pause so that they might deeply reflect on their lived experiences in the world.  Reflecting on past actions provides time and space to learn about ourselves and our environment.

Prophetic critique and envisioning provide political activists with sacred techniques to formulate the problems of our existing society which must be addressed by contrasting them with a vision of a future utopian society.  Prophesy can also name the spiritual practices that should be used to bring about the changes, which brings us to the fourth set of practices I reviewed. Religion brings to revolution nobility, grace, reverence and “class”.  It replaces angry resentment with committed compassion, and replaces unruly mobs the disciplined people of faith seeking to transform the structures which create the injustices.  Spiritual activism incarnates praxis through strategic direct actions filled with intention, compassion and mindful presence.

As people of faith who affirm life we advocate nonviolent methods to achieve major structural changes in the organization of society.  Such actions in defense of the Earth are spiritual practices, and we are nothing less than Holy Warriors.  As participants in an “engaged spirituality”, adherents to Insurgent Nature Religions affirm their beliefs through their actions (praxis) and align themselves with other social movements concerned with justice and ecological integrity.  Revolution for us is the way we live our lives.   322600_2589971223536_704588491_o

Embracing a theology of power, we value democratic process, speak truth to Power and assist those who have been traditionally marginalized, displaced and silenced to find their voices.  Celebrating the rhythms of Nature’s cycles we perform embodied rituals celebrating the sacredness of life and the importance of local places.  We know that everything is constituted in relationships and systems of relationships.  Each strand in the web has value and importance for the strength, well-being and integrity of the entire whole.  We know that we make a difference and reject cynical apathy and indifference.

The effects of climate change create a massive existential crisis in which we fear facing the inevitable future which lies before us. It is very challenging to accept the potential level of ecological devastation before us and equally challenging to accept that we are not responding as needed.

This is a time for revolution.  The climate crisis threatens to destroy much of our planet and we face an environmental catastrophe unprecedented in human history.  We have known for over 20 years how pumping carbon into our atmosphere affects our climates.  And, for 50 years we have known about how industrial civilization poisons the ecosystems in which it exists.  We are coming to realize that the extraction of valued resources, so central to capitalism and modern industrial civilization, is destroying countless ecosystems. Let us struggle together to transform our social systems and to create a just, compassionate and sustainable society.

Acknowledgements and Notes

Relationship and interdependence are not just ecological concepts relevant to understanding the natural world, but mark the contours of our wild and previous lives.  So many spiritual activists in Santa Barbara have taught me what I know about the practicalities of transformational politics and social justice work.  UCSB Professor Dick Flacks, campus radical and social movement intellectual, was one of the reasons I moved to Santa Barbara to do graduate work over 30 years ago and I still draw inspiration from his example.  The theology of change I advance emerges from my direct experiences as an activist and community organizer focusing on ending homelessness in my community.  I suffer from some mental health challenges which have left me homeless multiple times in the past 15 years.  While my time on the streets or living in shelters is relatively brief compared to many, those experiences allowed me to bear witness to social injustice through coming to know many beautiful people whose lives were very difficult and often very short. Even in a community as small as Santa Barbara (100,000 people) there were years in which a death of a person experiencing homelessness happened almost once a week.  As a formerly homeless person, working as a social worker doing street outreach, I often knew these people. In 2007 I began to attend the Homeless Activist Luncheon, hosted by Chuck Blitz and Cath Webb, which introduced me to a group of concerned community change agents, including Ken Williams, Roger Heroux, Gary Linker, Lynne Jahnke, Rev. Jon Lemmond,  Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges and Lynnelle Williams, who each have done so much to improve the lives on those on the streets.  The board members of the Santa Barbara chapter of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-SB) live their values through their commitment to structural change, and I am especially indebted to Rev. Mark  Asman, Rev. Julia Hamilton, Anne Anderson, Maureen Earls, John Michals and Becca Claussen. Two women who have done much to improve mental health services in SB County are Suzanne Riordan and Catherine Birtalan.  Other local luminaries who have taught me much include Professor John Foran, Cheryl Schnell, Chuck Flacks, Sayre MacNeil, Catherine Albanese, and Jeffrey Albaugh.  The idea for this project emerged from dialogue with Rhyd Wildermuth , founding editor of Gods&Radicals. The editors of Humanistic Paganism, John Halstead and Jon Cleland Host, have nurtured and supported my writing.

  1. See for example, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (2012) Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. Novato, CA: New World Library.
  2. Albert Einstein. Controversy concerning this quote and it’s source are found at: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Albert_Einstein#Unsourced_and_dubious.2Foverly_modern_sources retrieved on June 14, 2016.
  3. As a proud Unitarian Universalist (UU), having been a member of the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara for over a decade, I embrace the seven core principles of our faith. Initially I was drawn to its “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” which allowed me intellectual space to figure out what I believed. Unitarian Universalism is a “non-creedal” religion and a home to freethinkers of all types, for whom matters of faith are determined by personal conscience.  UU congregations often contain liberal Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Humanists, and Pagans.  A common message is often that there is beauty and truth in all religions.  We often say “deeds not creeds” and emphasize living our shared values through active social justice engagement.  Throughout the 20th century, Humanists formed the intellectual core of our faith with their insistence that reason and science have a crucial role to play in theological formation. Yet, the current UU “multi-faith” approach to theology seems to abandon these defining concerns for reason and science.  Can someone believe in supernatural deities, unsubstantiated miracles and woo-woo hocus pocus and be a UU?  Apparently so.

My personal theology is grounded in the rapidly growing approach known as Religious Naturalism, which is firmly grounded in a scientific worldview.  Its roots are found in Spinoza, Thoreau, Whitman, Dewey and Santayana, among others.  Many of the leading contemporary UU theologians are engaged in developing this religious approach, including Jerome Stone, Robert Corrington, and Michael Hogue.  Other prominent Religious Naturalist theologians include Loyal Rue, Donald Crosby, Karl Peters, and Ursula Goodenough.

My version of Religious Naturalism is called Dionysian Naturalism, and it tempers the Apollonian emphasis on reason and science with concerns for passions, bodily sensations and the emotions. Incorporating shamanistic elements and drawing upon the ecstatic religions of our ancestors, it affirms the sacred role of personal mystical experiences and other non-ordinary states of consciousness, including by entheogenic consumption. Our celebratory rituals are often filled with transgressive pleasure.  Nietzsche greatly inspired my initial forays into Dionysian spirituality and while I have not located a textual reference, it could be that he called his religion of the future “Dionysian Naturalism”.

My previous essays developing this theological approach include “Steps Toward a Dionysian Naturalism (2015),”Our Universe is a Sacred Living System” (2015, “Enchanting Naturalism” (2015), “Dancing with Dionysus: Ecstasy and Religion in the Age of the Anthropocene” (2016), .all of which appear on the website Humanistic Paganism.  A briefer version of  “Dancing With Dionysus” also appears in John Halstead (Ed.) Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagan.

  1. The now classic book on Nature Religions, by my fellow Santa Barbara Unitarian Universalist, Catherine Albanese, is Nature Religions in America: From the Algonkian Indian to the New Age. (1990) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. For an excellent guide to Nature Religions, see Bron Taylor (2010) Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. Caitlin and John Matthews (1994). Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.
  3. Some of these thoughts come from other essays I’ve written on praxis, including for the blog Everyday Sociology and the local Santa Barbara news outlet Noozhawk.
  4. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967). “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” Retrieved from http://www.ecoflourish.com/Primers/education/Christmas_Sermon.html  on June 14, 2016
  5. Erica Sherover-Marcuse. (1986). Emancipation and Consciousness: Dogmatic and Dialectical Perspectives in the Early Marx. New York: Basil Blackwell.
  6. Marcus Borg (2001). Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. San Francisco: Harper.
  7. Oxfam Report. (2016). An Economy for the 1%. Retrieved from www.oxfam.org on June 14, 2016.
  8. Johannes Krause. (2014). “Transformation: Reflections on Theory and Practice of System Change.” Retrieved from http://deeep.org on June 14, 2016.
  9. Ornstein and Ehrlich (1989). New World New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution. London: Doubleday.
  10. Erich Fromm (1955) The Sane Society. NY: Holt.
  11. Karen Armstrong. (2006). The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Anchor Books
  12. Aldo Leopold. (1966). A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

lSslgGSWayne 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.

See Wayne’s Posts


%d bloggers like this: