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I think Earth Day is a particularly important moment for contemplation and commitment by us Pagans. Often American Christian critics accuse us of “pantheism,” and in a important respect they are right. We do find the sacred, most of us, in the earth without reference to any transcendental spiritual force. In my mind there is a transcendental dimension as well, but it is not needed at all for us to honor the earth as sacred.
Even important Christian traditions honor the earth as sacred. Paul Metzger’s new book, Connecting Christ criticizes Pagans for their pantheism or, in my case, “panentheism” compared to his purely transcendental view of God. (For my purposes here the two terms are equivalent. Panentheists are Pantheists ‘plus.’) He kindly offered me a chance to respond to his critique of Pagan spirituality. I pointed out that Bishop Kallistos Ware, a Christian he cited approvingly in a different context, also described his own view as panentheistic.
Metzger’s argument was not between Christians and Pagans, it was between those of us, Christians included, who regard the earth as a manifestation of the sacred, and those Christians who do not. The view that the earth is just stuff, perhaps made by God but completely separate from “Him,” is in my view a conceit of those who have allowed their pride and sense of entitlement to get in the way of their hearts and minds. It ignorantly diminishes the Sacred.
It is also a conceit that many secularists have picked up and run with, to disastrous effect for the planet, us included. Modern America is increasingly an autistic civilization incapable of appreciating any relationship with others, human or not. This autism initially developed towards the earth and now increasingly characterizes America’s relation towards everything. This attitudes underlying this tragedy are captured in a story Herman Daly tells about when he was senior economist with the World Bank. He was evaluating a manuscript, Development and the Environment. Howard Silverman relates Daly’s account of what happened.
“The evolution of the manuscript of Development and the Environment is revealing. An early draft contained a diagram entitled, The Relationship Between the Economy and the Environment. It consisted of a square labeled ‘economy,’ with an arrow coming in labeled ‘inputs’ and an arrow going out labeled ‘outputs’ – nothing more.
“I suggested that the picture failed to show the environment, and that it would be good to have a large box containing the one depicted, to represent the environment. Then the relation between the environment and the economy would be clear – specifically, that the economy is a subsystem of the environment and depends upon the environment both as a source of raw material inputs and as a ‘sink’ for waste outputs.
“The next draft included the same diagram and text, but with an unlabeled box drawn around the economy like a picture frame.
“I commented that the larger box had to be labeled ‘environment’ or else it was merely decorative, and that the text had to explain that the economy is related to the environment as a subsystem within the larger ecosystem and is dependent on it in the ways previously stated.
“The next draft omitted the diagram altogether.”
This episode depicts a secular version of Metzger’s Christian vision of the earth as without intrinsic value, a place for us to dominate and subdue, but not to honor and love as an expression and manifestation of the sacred.
I wonder whether an autistic relationship with nature breeds an autistic ‘relationship’ with people. A kind of “autistic psychopathy.” Increasingly I think it does.
In his blog Mark Kleiman once observed it seemed to him as if those businesses that simply extracted from the earth and had no need to sustain it, bred exploitive mentalities towards both nature and people. I have thought about his conjecture ever since he made it, and I think he is right. Treating the earth as simply a storehouse of things to be used magnifies pride and greed and so a willingness to use everything, people included, as tools to be thrown away when no longer useful. It’s ultimate manifestation is the public corporation which makes even normal people accomplices in such behavior.
Ultimately it even reverts back upon the religious beliefs of those who have adopted such a position.
Today “Christians” like Paul Ryan endorse the ethics of Ayn Rand, for whom everything, including people, is a resource to be used or regarded as useless or an impediment. Americans are rapidly losing the ability to think of themselves as a people or even of their communities as anything other than resources for individual use. Mitt Romney doesn’t know the purpose of public lands. Rick Santorum says the same. They also do not know the purpose of Americans caring for one another or seeing themselves as part of a community that matters ethically. Combined, those who support these men form the overwhelming majority of the Republican Party, a group that has lost all sense of citizenship in a free society and replaced it with egoism tarted up as morality.
If I am right one deep root of this pathology is disrespect for the earth. Until we can as a society honor and respect the earth, our capacity to honor and respect other people will be undermined.
Earth Day is a day where we can reconnect with the sacredness and not just the utility of this beautiful place that is our home.