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The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality

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

15: Tensions and commonalities
between neo-paganism and deep ecology

Neo-paganism and deep ecology are by no means the only forms of ecological spirituality, but they are the two I personally find the most compelling. And there are, as I have stated, important ways in which the two movements can complement each other. But there remain potential areas of tension between the two as well. One question that has been raised is: can the animistic worldview of Wicca and neo-paganism coexist with science? Many environmentalists, myself included, have an interest in science and have studied ecology and conservation biology. Must this inevitably lead to embracing the mechanistic worldview usually associated with modern science, or is it possible to hold a more holistic view? Can one look at a jack pine tree and perceive both its role in the boreal forest ecosystem and its indwelling spirit?

Personally, I have never had any problem doing just that. I think it is a question of, as LaChapelle put it earlier, learning to relate to the world with our whole beings, not just as isolated left or right brains. To function as a whole and healthy human being, it is necessary to integrate one's intellect and intuition in order to have a balanced perspective. Emphasizing the spiritual to the exclusion of the practical leads to the kind of blissed-out inaction Foreman criticized in "The Arrogance of Enlightenment," while the reverse leads to the empty world our society has already been inhabiting for far too long. The beautiful science-based meditations in Thinking Like a Mountain, and in particular, John Seed's invocation to Gaia, show that science and the spirit and coexist:

We call upon the spirit of evolution, the miraculous force that inspires rocks and dust to weave themselves into biology. You have stood by us for millions and billions of years -- do not forsake us now. Empower us, and awaken in us pure and dazzling creativity. You that can turn scales into feathers, sea water into blood, caterpillars into butterflies, metamorphose our species, awaken in us the powers that we need to survive the present crisis and evolve into more æons of our solar journey.

O stars, lend us your burning passion.

O silence, give weight to our voice.

We ask for the presence of the spirit of Gaia.[57]

On a related note, many deep ecologists may be wary of the elements of magic and occultism that pervade Wicca in particular, and other neo-pagan traditions to a lesser extent. While the idea of ritual as a means of emotional support for political work may make sense to them, the idea of magic -- of ritual being able to create change in and of itself -- may be seen as being a cop-out, or as just plain weird. There is no simple answer to this problem; in some respects, the question of supernatural phenomena reaches deeper than many other spiritual matters, as it involves not just questions of how we choose to perceive the world, but of what the world actually is, and is capable of doing.

In Out of the Ordinary, the proceedings of the 1991 Fife Conference on Folklore, David J. Hufford proposes what he terms an experience-based theory concerning folk beliefs, in which he suggests that many people's belief in supernatural phenomena can be described as reasonable in that it is derived in some way from experience.[58] In my experience, this is broadly true of most Wiccans; the experiential emphasis within the religion means that blind faith is frowned upon. In this light, what the matter essentially boils down to is the willingness of individuals whose experience of these matters has been different to acknowledge that other people's experiences may be valid. To avoid what I identified earlier as an anthropocentric bias, it is not necessary to blindly accept the reality of any and all supernatural phenomena; merely to accept that Western science may not have all the answers all of the time.

Another question that must be addressed in dealing with the existence of spiritual or religious motivations behind environmental activism is whether that motivation should be publicly admitted or not. For those who hold such motivations, is it better to show their true colours openly, and risk alienating potential supporters or appearing irrational, or to conceal them and risk relying on utilitarian arguments that may betray us?[59]

Yet another point that must be kept in mind is the importance of avoiding dogmatism. As stressed several times throughout this paper, it is spiritual experience, not doctrine, that is crucial to any meaningful form of ecological spirituality. Blind faith is not empowering, and demanding blind faith of others is outright oppressive. Our purpose should be not to create some new orthodoxy or eco-evangelism, but to encourage and empower people to open up to new experiences, to rediscover the sacredness of the world in their own way, and make their own spiritual journey, in whatever direction it may take them. The attention I have given to neo-paganism within this paper has been due to my extensive experience with it, which allows me to discuss it with more assurance than I could, say, Franciscan Christianity or Zen Buddhism, both of which have certainly inspired their share of environmental activists as well.

Any of these paths can fulfill the crucial tasks of ecological spirituality: The challenge Seed speaks of, of how to integrate the information we are flooded with, how to make it real and relevant and personal; the need for what Macy terms "despairwork," a means of overcoming the paralyzing hopelessness that the daily flood of bad news can engender, of finding a way to keep on going in spite of everything; and the need, if we are ever to attain deep-rooted, lasting change in our way of relating to nature, to escape from Eliade's desacralized cosmos, to rediscover a world "impregnated with sacredness."



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