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The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents page for full permissions.

10: The cultural and historical
specificity of disbelief

Certainly, it is difficult for most modern people to place themselves in the position of their animistic forebears. The idea of experiencing the world as alive, sensate, imbued with divinity, may be challenging for many of us now, but I think it is a mistake to assume that it is impossible. No matter how immersed we may be now in Eliade's desacralized cosmos, we need to keep in perspective that we have not been that way for all that long:

It should be said at once that the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized cosmos, is recent discovery in the history of the human spirit. Desacralization pervades the entire experience of the nonreligious man of modern societies and in consequence, he finds it increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious man in the archaic societies.[30] (Italics in the original)

It is important also to realize that denial of spiritual experience is a culturally as well as historically specific phenomenon. Starhawk once recounted in an interview the experience of speaking about her experience as a Wiccan priestess to a small gathering of women from various Afro-Caribbean magico-religious traditions such as Santeria and Voudoun. When she had finished, one woman asked "Do you have trouble being accepted by white people?" Starhawk was startled; she had never before considered how culturally bound the rejection of the sort of spirituality she practiced was.[31]

And I recall an incident earlier this year where, in a class at York, we were discussing a reading which dealt with the phenomenon of spirit possession among Malaysian female factory workers. Both the reading and the class discussion centred on how this might be an unconscious form of resistance to the incursions of industrial capitalism upon traditional lifestyles, but never once referred to the possession phenomenon as anything other than a delusion or hallucination on the part of the workers. The one non-Western student present looked more and more uncomfortable as the discussion progressed, and finally timidly raised her hand to ask if anyone had considered that perhaps the women really were possessed.

An awkward silence followed the question, and deepened when the student added that she herself had had supernatural experiences, having once been haunted by a ghost that had to be exorcised by a Buddhist priest. Most people did not appear to have considered that in another cultural context, it might not be so readily taken for granted that spiritual phenomena were delusional. Personally, I had great admiration for her courage, because I had been thinking the same thing, but had not considered actually mentioning it, fearing that I would be sabotaging my academic reputation beyond repair if I did.

But there does seem to be a small movement afoot, even among academics, towards viewing beliefs about spiritual or "supernatural" phenomena without our culture's usual rationalistic blinders. At the 1991 Fife Conference on Folklore at Utah State University, many presentations dealt with questions of belief and experience, and confronted the fact that what we are accustomed to terming supernatural experiences may be considered commonplace within other cultures, and that to automatically assume that our own culture's view of such experiences as delusional is correct is indicative of an ethnocentric bias, as well as the anthropocentric one I believe it to be.[32]

In her introduction to the book that grew out of the conference proceedings, conference coordinator Barbara Walker writes:

In a way, believing in the supernatural is conceding and submitting to a universe that extend further than human understanding or control or empirical observation, and such belief imbues that universe with possibilities that surpass ordinary human devices. Yet when supernatural powers are tapped or extraordinary events occur, we in some respects are empowered , because then the limitations of any sphere repudiating the magical or the miraculous are outdistanced. We successfully broaden and deepen our world and perhaps open ourselves to a greater reality. In this regard, and in the best senses of the words, belief in the supernatural is primal, is uncontrollable, is subversive.[33]



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