Nature Religions and Revolutionary Social Change: Advancing a Practical Theology for Spiritual Activism
By far the greatest challenges that humanity has ever confronted are global climate change and the other environmental problems created by modern industrial civilization. Monthly the news seems to get worse as we learn that the ecological crisis is far bigger than we first thought and the time left before we face a potential environmental collapse is far shorter. Some well-informed researchers say that it is already too late to avoid catastrophic destruction of civilization or to “save the planet.”
Joanna Macy, a prominent Buddhist eco-activist, labels our current era “The Great Turning” because it can be a period of transition from the old industrial system, which must be brought to an end, and the new sustainable system, which must emerge very soon.1 As she notes, the Earth is both the storehouse and the sewer for our industrial economy, which depends on an ever-increasing consumption of resources. The Great Turning is an ecological revolution which must happen within a few years and which must involve not just our political economic system, but also the values and habits which enable it.
Albert Einstein is often attributed as stating that: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”2 To reach a sustainable society will require a vastly different worldview, a different psychological comportment and a higher level of consciousness than that which we currently have, and therefore we also require a cognitive, perceptual and spiritual revolution. Specifically, we must awaken to our spiritual connections to other living beings and to our planet, re-think the moral and ethical foundations of modern industrial civilization and eliminate the materialist mindset and radical individualism which so often guide our lives.
Some readers might query: “Spiritual revolution? Really? Must we bring matters of ‘spirit’ into our struggles to deal with climate change?” While it is not impossible for those who are secular to achieve an ecological consciousness, humans seem to naturally distinguish between that which is sacred and that which is profane. And the heart of spirituality is the development of this sense of the sacred. To say that Nature is sacred is to insist that it must be treated with reverence and respect and never violated. It is of utmost importance. It is holy and ultimate. Employing a conception of Nature as sacred can radically alter our relationship to the planet, and even if this sacralization process is built upon a leap of the imagination, this conceptualization can be a purposeful act which promotes the ecological consciousness so central to the new worldview we must cultivate.
Several years ago I began to build my personal theology and religious practice, and this essay is a part of that ongoing effort3. Given my passionate concerns for the health and integrity of our planet and my spiritual interests in developing a sense of Nature as sacred, I long ago initiated a deep examination of “Nature Religions”.4 These approaches to spirituality, which regard our natural world as inherently sacred, include some of the most ancient religions on our planet, such as those of most indigenous peoples (such as Native Americans), the classical Pagan traditions of pre-Christian Europe and their “re-birth” in the form of Wicca, Neo-Paganism and Druidry. Nature Religions include approaches that embrace belief in the supernatural (such as versions of Paganism, Wicca and Druidry, which maintain belief in transcendent deities) and naturalistic forms (such as the various forms of Religious Naturalism) which typically reject belief in the supernatural.
Many followers of Nature Religions bring an ecological consciousness to their religious sensibilities. They are reclaiming the primal story of our sacred evolving universe, of our home on planet Earth which abounds with diverse and magnificent life-forms, and of our spiritual connections to all that exists. Awareness of the boundless creativity of the cosmos has triggered a renewal of an ancient sacred vision of our natural world. Their sense of kinship with all that exists and powerful feelings of belonging nurture an ethic of caring in which humans must tread gently as they walk upon these hallowed grounds. As “Earth-centered” traditions, Nature Religions celebrate the rhythms and cycles of our world and place great importance upon protecting wilderness areas and biological diversity. For adherents to these religious approaches, the entire Universe is a “sacred living system” and its destruction is desecration.
Lately, Nature Religions have moved beyond their initial grassroots, do-it-yourself phase and are quickly becoming institutionalized. For example, the US armed services now offer Pagan Chaplains and the Cherry Hill Seminary offers M. Div. degrees in both Pagan and Naturalistic approaches. Academic conferences, textbook materials, and well-developed liturgies and theological reflections all provide evidence of formalization and professionalization process.
Institutional religions tend to come in four varieties—reactionary, conservative, progressive and revolutionary. Reactionaries claim to have The One Right Way, tolerate no questioning of their take on scriptural truth and often advocate the return to a theocracy in which their one true religion will rule. Conservatives are comfortable with the faith of their fathers, draw strength within the protective walls of their synagogues, churches, mosques, and temples and steadfastly defend the status quo. Progressives are open to the world and to new interpretations of ancient myths and are reformist in their political orientations. Revolutionaries want to jettison the narratives of their cultures and radically question the claims of all clerical authorities. They insist on a total re-thinking of our religious sensibilities and demand new organizing myths. A sense of urgency with the mounting problems of the world forces these people to call for rapid and immediate transformations in our vision of the sacred and our worldly social system.
Insurgent Nature Religions
Throughout history and across the globe religions are central carriers of tradition and thus typically prevent revolutionary social change. Sociologists often highlight these “functional” roles, including the socialization of successive generations in the moral and ethical values of current generations, the elaboration and justification of worldviews, the legitimization of political elites and the establishment of moral boundaries between good and evil, clean and dirty, and sacred and profane.
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. The realization that the corporate elite will not respond appropriately to avert catastrophe reinforces this commitment to revolutionary social change. 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.
To purposefully create a revolutionary religion one must have a clear sense of the traditions of the existing social order that must be eliminated. Revolutionary religion must socialize the young with different values, promote new worldviews and challenge existing elites. Revolutionary religion does not function to support the status quo but instead to create new societal forms. It should aid and support change agents as they struggle to make a better world and mobilize the masses to participate in social movement activities.
These are times demanding revolutionary religion. As we increasingly come to realize that our planet is dying, a massive spiritual awakening is sweeping across the globe. Today many are not just insisting on the holiness of this world but are adopting or creating “Earth-centered” spiritual traditions which are revolutionary in their political orientations. In the social worlds I inhabit along the central coast of California, which includes many people who typically were involved in the progressive variety of religion, there has been a marked shift to the revolutionary end of the spectrum. Insurgent Nature Religions are on the rise!
As previously noted, Nature Religions can be divided into two broad categories, supernaturalistic and naturalistic. Due to a pervasive skepticism which I believe keeps me grounded in a verifiable and empirical reality, I am developing a version of naturalistic Nature Religion, which I call Dionysian Naturalism. It is a “liberation theology” which explicitly embraces the revolutionary social change required to reach a sustainable society.
“Naturalism” is term which in this context brings two aspects to its meaning: (1) the natural world is all that exists (there being no supernatural realm) and (2) science is a good way (although not the only way) to understand that natural world. With their worldviews framed by the logic and methods of scientific discovery, naturalistic Nature Religions celebrate the great story of the evolutionary unfolding of our cosmos. They find the sacred in this world. Participants remain highly skeptical about supernatural metaphysics. Yet in venerating this world, many are reviving the ancient Pagan notion of animus mundi —the soul of the world– and this form of enchantment softens the materialism, reductionism and determinism which are sometimes espoused by scientifically-minded people.
Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy whose followers were well known for sacred rituals which were wildly festive and transgressive to such an extent that they approached drunken orgies. We now know that the Mystery Religions of ancient Greece often consumed powerful hallucinogenic plants, such as ergot and Belladonna, with sacred intent–perhaps a legacy of earlier shamanic traditions. Dionysus was the “Giver of Ecstasy” who transported his followers through an altered state of consciousness to a mystical rapture, which included wild dancing and other trance-induced activities. Dionysian Naturalists reclaim “ecstatic religion” and the potential of sacramental entheogen use, as well as the use of other shamanic and mystical practices. For me “Dionysian” essentially involves being transported in a non-ordinary and ecstatic state of consciousness to a sacred realm.
I place Dionysian Naturalism in what Caitlin and John Matthews call the “Western Mystery Tradition”, a spiritual current that runs through Western culture, beginning from the native, shamanic lore of many northern and western European people, through classical Paganism, and the esoteric Hermetic traditions, such as medieval Alchemy and high magic5. The Matthews argue that this tradition preserves an ancient and perennial Earth wisdom that is still a part of the West’s spiritual inheritance. Dionysian Naturalism fuses this Pagan and “Earth-centered” tradition to a modern scientific worldview.
I attend a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church in Santa Barbara, and 20 years ago progressive humanism was still the dominant theology. Nowadays, especially among the younger congregants, “Religious Naturalism” is more common and increasingly humanism is regarded as anthropocentric. In 1985 UUs adopted their last principle, generally known as the Seventh Principle: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are part” and a sixth source was adopted in 1995: “Spiritual teaching of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature”. While Unitarian Universalists are pioneers in “liberal religion” (thus embodying the “progressive” version of religion mentioned above) and the first mainline religion to truly embrace Nature Religions, increasingly many are embracing revolutionary stances!
As noted, this essay highlights several contributions religion can bring to social movement struggles for justice and transformational politics. These are times which demand “engaged spirituality”, in which religious people actively engage with the world in order to transform it in positive ways while finding inspiration, moral support and guidance in their spiritual beliefs and practices. To those ends I advance a “practical theology of social change” focused on our intentional interventions to change the world (“praxis”), and outline some of its operating principles and spiritual practices. In later sections I further explore some of these spiritual practices, including prophecy, contemplative reflection, and direct action. This model of transformational politics and sacred activism reveals a few of the best offerings that religion brings to revolutionary social change.
A Practical Theology of Social Change
I draw upon a practical theology of social change in which faith communities and other groups 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. This model is grounded in congregations and neighborhoods and transforms global issues into local issues. “Practical” in this religious context does not mean “useful” or efficient”, but instead means “based upon the notion of praxis”–a somewhat intellectual concept emerging from philosophical discourses emphasizing theoretically-informed and change-oriented interventions6.
Practical theology as an academic discipline used to focus on the religious actions of clergy and other pastoral concerns. Today there is an increased focus on “lived religion” – that is how people do religion. Praxis happens when we “walk the talk” and “live our values”. It also implies taking insights derived in classrooms and bringing them to the real world. Typically praxis is conceived as a cycle of action – reflection in which we closely monitor the outcomes of our behavior. Often praxis can refer to novel actions (as opposed to routine habits) in which we evaluate the ethical consequences of our conduct.
The praxis cycle of action – reflection forms the foundation of my theology of social change. We act and then reflect, and then, based upon our insights and evaluations, we act again. If our values are based upon an ecological consciousness we will understand that our well-being is linked to the well-being of the whole and that we all face the same fate. Interconnection and interdependence are defining attributes of our complex web of existence.
This approach is greatly needed at this historical moment if we are to successfully address our environmental problems and create a sustainable society. Something so seemingly small as momentarily pausing to contemplate our values and intentions, and the unintended consequences of our actions, can have significant impact when performed by millions of people. Our personal choices bear unanticipated transformational power. By fully embracing the sacred practice of praxis we become powerful change agents having a positive influence on the world.
We are all intimately connected and we need each other for our health, happiness and survival. Our bonds with each other bind us into what Martin Luther King, Jr;. called a “inescapable network of mutuality”.7 The well-being of each of us is linked to the well-being of the whole and we all face the same fate. Relationships define our lives. Yet each of us is able to make a difference to the whole. We are kin with all other life forms, sharing similar compositions and made from the same stardust. We celebrate the circle of life and know that we must live in harmony with the rhythms of the natural world. The following principles are based on how Nature works.
This is a holistic framework for understanding complex systems, focusing on relationships and interdependence, with the cyclical nature of existence mirrored in the action – reflection cycles. The reflective processes serve as forms of feedback loops, which are standard in ecosystems. Rootedness in the elements of place helps to keep our bearings as we re-acquaint ourselves with the soils beneath our feet, the waters which flow in our creeks and rivers, the air which feeds our lungs and the fires which ignite the passions of our hearts. We must connect with the soul of our local landscapes and draw inspiration from our surroundings.
The guiding principles of this practical theology of social change are outlined here in a roughly sequential manner, but this should not be seen as a simple cookbook recipe for changing the world:
- As people of faith we take responsibility for the state of the world and know that our actions make a difference;
- We bear witness to the injustices of the world and listen to the songs of sorrow of those who suffer (including our non-human friends).
- We thoroughly gather information on the problems we are concerned with, including carefully listening to the voices of our “enemies”, knowing that nothing reveals our moral character as much as our encounters with our adversaries. Listening to our adversaries requires that we “step outside ourselves” (Greek “Ekstasis”). Fighting ignorance and raising consciousness is the best way to confront tyranny.
- Grounded in congregations, neighborhoods and communities, and inspired by our own witnessing of injustice, we undertake grassroots community organizing to empower silenced, displaced and marginalized people to transform their own lives and the structural conditions which deny them justice.
- As diverse communities we come together to affirm our shared values, which we strive to always put into action. The revolution is how we live our lives. If we want a Beloved Earth Community that is just, compassionate and sustainable we must “prefigure” that world today in our behavior. We also come together as communities to decide which issues to tackle and by what means, and then to evaluate their success.
- Prophetic critique of our existing society allows us to name “what’s not working” and prophetic envisioning allows us to imagine “how it should be” (The Beloved Earth Community). As a spiritual practice, prophecy enables communities to access the sacred in order to critically evaluate their existing society in terms of social justice, ecological sustainability and compassion, and points to the systems of domination and oppression and “calls out” the powerful elites who benefit from them. Prophesy also energizes communities with hopes that their visions of a better world can yet be achieved.
- This is a model of social change in which we aim to transform the very structures of our social world and get to the root causes of our social ills through strategic direct actions. While charitable acts are often needed, they are not enough! These strategic direct actions are spiritual practices embodying our life-affirming values, including non-violence, compassion, social justice and respect for the dignity and worth of all life forms. Being “Dionysian”, we hope to insert celebratory, carnivalesque and transgressive pleasures into our transformative actions.
- Through contemplative practices, such as prayer, meditation and reflective discernment, we make contact with the sacred to clarify our intentions, affirm our values, evaluate the ethical outcomes of our behavior and potentially decide to change directions. Sacred reflections on our actions allow us to persistently return to our goals with fresh insights until those goals become reality.
- Awareness of our interconnections with the web of all existences keeps us committed to the common good and to the life of our planet and working to eliminate the poisonous effects of ego.
Most social movement activists do not yet fully incorporate spiritual practices into their organizing. There is often a “hush-hush” around issues of faith in progressive communities for fear of hearing about fundamentalism. This practical theology of social change brings to community organizers and social activists a set of well-developed spiritual practices which infuse political dissent with spiritual passion. They elevate the playing field with thoughtful and compassionate actions. They link our actions to a history of value-rich ideals and noble intentions. Most importantly by demanding that we thoroughly live our values they shift our behavior with our adversaries.
On Spiritual Practices
Spiritual practices are tools that allow us to experience the sacred – that which is most important for our lives. They transform us in numerous ways – opening our hearts, reducing our anxiety, expanding our compassion and developing our wisdom. With clearer minds and calmer bodies, we become aware of those gentle voices in our heads. In the following sections, I highlight four spiritual practices found within this practical theology: praxis itself, prophecy (critique and envisioning), contemplative practices, and direct action. These practices are, I believe, some of the best resources that religion has to offer revolutionary activists.
These spiritual practices are specific techniques which must be cultivated with discipline, but eventually become natural ways of being. They are powerful, yet simple, exercises directly applicable to our lives. If life is a spiritual journey in which we awaken from our slumber and potentially reach higher levels of awareness, spiritual practices such as these propel our progression.
For those who regard Nature as sacred, how we experience the sacred is often through direct experiences in wilderness in which we become aware of the interdependence of the web of existence. This “cosmic consciousness” is crucial to Nature Religions. It fills us with awe and wonder as we feel the mystery and majesty of the natural world, realize our absolute dependence on this world for everything we need and have, and recognize our humble fragility compared to its vast powers.
Because much social movement engagement will happen on our city streets, we must remain creative in finding ways to bring our particular sense of the sacred to these struggles. Pagan-inspired and “Earth-centered” rituals that acknowledge and strengthen our relationships to the natural world can be useful. In celebrating the Wheel of the Year, for example, we honor the cycles of Nature. Or through Wiccan practice of “casting a circle” by invoking the four directions and the four elements, we become more deeply emplaced in our local settings.
More On Praxis
To do the right thing I sometimes stop what I’m doing out of habit, contemplate the (often unintended) consequences of my potential course of action and consider the ethics involved. When I change my behavior and put my values into action, I’m engaging in a process philosophers sometimes refer to as praxis.
With each action that we take, we make the world. With each action we take, we potentially make the world better or worse. Our ordinary activities count. For it is through these everyday behaviors that the social world is constituted as an orderly event. The idea of the world as open to transformation by human intervention is crucial to our conception of modernity. We are now more aware than ever before that we can—make that must—construct a different way of social life for the survival of our species and our planet. That we are conscious of other imaginal worlds, and conscious that our actions will create these different worlds are particularly “modern” phenomenon.
We know that the social world will change and that these changes will be the result of changes in our actions. In earlier times in human history, people thought of the social world as just being “the way it is” and did not regard it as connected in any significant way to their personal behavior in everyday life. The social world was seen to exist “out here,” constraining personal action, but not really created by it.
While people can “reproduce” the structure of society by doing what they previously have done, there is no guarantee that they will. People are always able to act differently than they do. The possibility for change is inherent in every act of social reproduction. These are the spaces in which praxis enters. Praxis is for me a spiritual practice imbued with holiness because we let go of ego-driven thinking and consider the common good, thus allowing us to open our hearts and minds to spiritual possibilities. Praxis is autonomous and creative intervention which does not reproduce a society structured in dominance.
By performing acts of praxis, we move away from what Erica Sherover-Marcuse calls a “mystified consciousness” – our routine and habitual modes of being in the world which feel good because we have done them so many times before8. These ways of being in the world appear so normal to us that we are blinded to the fact that our actions reproduce systems of domination. The road to collective liberation is found when humans move from a mystified consciousness to an emancipatory consciousness. This is no easy task as the habits of oppression and injustice are deeply embedded in our subjectivity.
A rigorous process of “unlearning” is necessary in which one scrutinizes the very suppositions of one’s language and one’s emotional demeanor in the social world. We thus begin to cease our participation in reproducing hierarchy and hatred. To become aware of one’s participation in systems of oppression and to consciously choose to cease that involvement because one identifies with the downtrodden and disinherited, one stakes a moral claim that all humans are equal and warrant dignity, respect and love. This is a spiritual act.
Social activists, as people committed to changing the world, can greatly benefit from developing praxis as a spiritual practice. For some it may mean a shift in focus from the realm of public politics to the more private realm of everyday life. Rather than the focus on transforming institutional settings and the more obviously “structural” features of our society, as change agents typically do, developing praxis as a routine part of one’s daily life enables the close scrutiny of supposedly mundane tasks, such as family life, work routines, consumption patterns, leisure activities and interpersonal relationships.
Of course, each of these arenas is essential to the composition of modern society and will be sites rich in potential change. Washing the dishes, one might consider how to more frugally use the water. Talking to one’s children one might consider how patriarchy has shaped one’s childrearing practices. Driving to work one might again consider how carpooling on some days and using public transportation on others might benefit air quality. All of us need to examine our habitual patterns of everyday life with an eye to how they might contribute to the ills of our world, for it is through these ordinary activities that “societies” are constituted.
Some questions and suggestions to help you turn your actions into praxis: Take time to quietly contemplate what you are doing, for nothing reveals the inadequacies of our behavior as much as contemplative practices such as prayer and discernment. Consider some of these questions in your meditation. What are your intentions with this action and what goal(s) do you hope to achieve? Does it serve the common good? How does this action align with your values? Is it an expression of compassion? What is your vision of a better world? How do current actions contribute to social problems, social injustice and ecological devastation? What are potential unintended consequences of your action? Does this action support ecological integrity? What are alternative courses of action that you could take?
Biblical scholar Marcus Borg argues that a prophet is one who speaks by divine inspiration, often critically evaluating an existing society and putting forward a vision of a future society. Prophets are critics who are passionate about social justice and who have the courage to challenge existing domination systems and ruling elites9.
Prophesy can be a fundamental and valued spiritual practice in service of radical social change. The moral vision of “what isn’t working” and “the way it should be” aid a people to understand their world and change it in accord with spiritual principles and visions of social justice. Rather than “predicting the future”, as is often misunderstood, the energizing messages of prophets generate hope and create a new vision of the future.
Social injustice can be defined as the state in which people are treated without dignity and respect and are not provided access to basic human needs. Social injustice thus incorporates a “redistributive claim” which seeks more just distribution of resources and goods, and a claim in the “politics of recognition”, in which so-called minority groups are accorded equal respect. As we learn how to see injustices, we become aware that they plague our planet. Manifestations of social injustice include severe poverty, world hunger, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, oppression and exploitation based on ethnicity, gender or social class, and violation of human rights.
Systems of oppression, including capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism (etc.) operate on individual, institutional and societal levels through conscious and unconscious actions and beliefs to exploit some people and benefit others based on membership or perceived membership in social groups, including those based upon race, gender, class, age, ability, sexual orientation and religion (to name some, but not all groups). These systems are interconnected and mutual reinforcing. Through these processes members of dominant groups receive unearned privileges. These unearned privileges come, not as a result of merit or effort, but as a result of systems of oppression.
Allow me to offer some prophetic observations about modernity by very briefly critiquing “what isn’t working” and briefly formulating a vision of “how it should be”. Specifically, three major problems are articulated: (1) our ecological crisis, especially global climate change; (2) systems of oppression that perpetuate inequality, oppression and exploitation; and (3) a mass psychology of misery, in which nihilism, alienation and cynicism abound.
Our current environmental situation is bleak—global climate change is wreaking havoc across our planet—fires engulf Australia, Arctic glaciers dissipate rapidly, crop failures everywhere. And two decades into this hot-house world and industrialized nations still use fossil fuels as if nothing changed. We’ve entered the “sixth extinction” and thousands of species are disappearing. Industrial civilization rapidly extracts everything it can from our fragile ecosystems and leaves behind toxic wastes and all forms of pollution.
As if that weren’t enough, modernity has unleashed levels of greed almost unimaginable. Several months ago Oxfam announced that the world’s top 62 billionaires have more wealth that the bottom half of the world’s population.10 Our current forms of social organization are predicated on oppression, exploitation and social exclusion. Capitalism, while continually providing us with lots of shiny new toys, hurts lots of people badly, leaving millions barely holding onto the social ladder.
Accompanying modernity’s ecological devastation and oppressive structures is a mass psychology of misery, in which nihilism, cynicism and alienation abound. A lot of people are not very happy and have numerous mental health symptoms. These unhealthy mindsets are obstacles for the great transformational work which lies before us, in which we must feel our connections to all that exists, optimistically move forward saying “Yes to life!”, knowing that we are blessed to be here sharing the bounty of this glorious world.
Prophetic envisioning allows us to create an imaginary of a better world, in which all people are treated with dignity and respect, a sense of fairness pervades all institutional operations, human suffering is minimized and we live in harmony with all life on the planet. These are sacred visions that best emerge in collective dialogue and with spiritual practices that involve deep contemplation. These visions are ever evolving. Through history a story emerges of an evolving communal quest for greater justice. Generation after generation the body politic has gradually become more just. People and populations who were previously silenced, marginalized and treated as non-persons have been given a voice, have moved to the center and have become enfranchised.
Another way to invoke a vision of a just, compassionate and sustainable society would be in terms of strengthening three sets of institutions vital to social democracy:
- A democratic political system in which power is shared and balanced and opposition is encouraged and celebrated;
- the economy is sufficiently regulated to ensure the protection of consumers;
- a system to redistribute overall wealth to generously support the health and well-being of all citizens.
The fairness of these institutions is paramount to a just society, insuring that all citizens are treated with dignity and respect.
I don’t think that we should create detailed blueprints of our future society and its accompanying institutions. As the core of our crisis is found in our modes of thinking, particularly our sense that economic growth is essential to a vibrant economy, I think that our focus should be on addressing our cultural worldviews. As Johannes Krause observes massive systems change cannot be managed nor controlled and it is impossible for us now living in modernity to know what will be at the end of the transformative process.11
On Contemplative Practices
Contemplation is any practice designed to quiet the mind and cultivate a capacity for deep concentration and insight. While usually practiced in silence, some types of contemplative practice involve voice or other use of sound. Types of contemplative practice include prayer, meditation, mindful walking, yoga, vision quests and council circles.
Through contemplation the individual brings aspects of themselves into focus and becomes more fully aware of the interconnectedness of life. Contemplation can be a solitary experience or one that is communal. The intention with which a practice is done is a very important factor. Contemplation connects us with an inner source of wisdom – a deep spiritual dimension. While contemplative practices are today employed as practical tools for stress reduction and relaxation, their transformational potential is vast.
The spiritual potential of contemplation includes:
- Deep, focused attention that dissolves our preconceptions so that we can observe situations as they more truly are;
- Putting ourselves in another’s shoes as a way to bear witness to the suffering and pain of others;
- Paying attention to what is in your heart;
- Remaining open to outcomes and remaining unattached;
- Conceiving of loving action toward others and ourselves;
- Recommit ourselves to nonviolence, reverence for life, solidarity, justice, democratic practice and sustainability.
Silence, mindfulness, contemplation and discernment allow them mind to calm down and focus clearly on what is at hand. At times we direct our thoughts to certain topics or concerns and metaphorically send them out to the world. When we clear our minds of thoughts and attempt to just be with the breath, we focus on the embodied sensations of the moment. At other times we attempt to open our minds and hearts and be receptive to the wisdom of the universe (discernment).
Prayer is a particularly powerful spiritual practice which creates a sacred space, provides hope for what we are doing and connects us to the spirit of love. When praying I attempt to:
- Rejoice in the glorious wonder of the universe;
- Focus on what is in my heart;
- Remain humble;
- Speak the truth;
- Acknowledge the suffering of the world;
- Express gratitude for all I have;
- Recognize the changes I have to make;
- Imagine a better world made through good works;
- Recommit myself to others, and above all;
- Express love for my neighbors (and adversaries).
Contemplative spiritual practices can benefit political activists by allowing them to slow down and reflect on their circumstances. The numerous benefits of mindfulness have been documented by science.
On Direct Action as a Spiritual Practice
Practical theology shifts the concern in religion from sets of beliefs to real-world actions. The focus on praxis means that we must live our ideals. We affirm our worldviews through our actions. By strategic direct actions I am referring to long-term, large-scale plans to reach our goals of changing our social world. Revolutionary social change requires a wide range of strategies, including civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts, lobbying, direct confrontation, obstruction and occupation.
By analyzing the root causes of our problems we hope to change the structural features of our social world, and not merely apply band-aids. Because of our commitments to collective liberation, we must build alliances with other groups, especially those who have been marginalized in our society. We remain committed to empowering disenfranchised people to change the social structures that deny them justice.
As a Dionysian Naturalist, I insist upon bringing carnivalesque pleasures and joyful celebration to my transformational politics. Since the 1999 Battle of Seattle, street protests in North America have become more theatrical and fun, with costumed clowns on stilts poking fun at militarized police squads. Song and dance and spiritual rituals do much to temper the tone of protest marches.
What religion brings to these social change actions is a focus on living our values. If we want to create a world that is just and compassionate, we must use strategies that are also just and compassionate. The “means” matter. As stated above, the revolution is how we live our lives. Through social movement participation we reveal our values and embody the ends we seek. I draw inspiration from Jesus’s words: “Love your enemies.”
Contemporary anarchist activism is very strong on these forms of “prefigurative politics” in which we put our values into action through praxis, and have means that resonate with the ends. Anarchists are committed to address all forms of domination, and attempt to deal with these, even among activists themselves. And these internal concerns are truly exciting because who wants to listen to radical activists who talk a good revolution but do not have their own house in order. Sexism, racism and homophobia (and other forms of oppression) pervade all institutional forms on the North American continent, including progressive social movements.
Nonviolence is a cardinal principle for the forms of social change I advance. Collective liberation must not harm others. We must learn from the great nonviolent revolutionaries who have changed the world for us, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez. Change agents must remain noble, dignified and above rebuke as they critique existing institutions. They must never attack personalities, but must focus on principles.
All forms of direct action must be thought fully considered. Is the destruction of private property justified? Obviously the “disruption” of the normal routines of public lives must be interrupted. But how much? Even “protests” must be spiritually motivated and never mean or hateful.
Self-Bound Thinking in Modernity is a Spiritual Disease
Modernity is a “civilizational epoch” noted for industrial capitalism and increases in the rationalization of social practices. It has been an epoch of many scientific discoveries and technological inventions that continue to alter our lifestyles. For the first time in history humans have a sense of the age and size of the Universe, and are beginning to understand the processes by which it operates. We are beginning to grasp our place in the cosmos and know that we are the Universe reflecting back on itself. As noted above, modernity has caused massive ecological damage, created levels of inequality unrivaled by any other time in human history, and produced a mass psychology of misery, in which alienation, nihilism and cynicism abound. Quite frankly, modernity isn’t working and must be crushed.
Modernity must be brought to a close and a new society made in its place. We need a new social system based on sustainability, justice, and love. There seems to be broad agreement among progressive change agents that if we are going to undertake a massive transformation of our social structures to deal with our ecological crisis, we should seize this opportunity to address other major social problems. Within the last few years there has emerged a growing literature exploring this potential transformation in social systems, often called The Great Turning or The Great Transition.
The root cause of many of our current social ills is a particularly modern form of egotism –a self-bound and self-centered type of thinking which dominates the populations of western industrial civilization, as well as the ruling classes of most of the world. This mindset allows people to focus so exclusively on their own needs and situations that they fail to take into account the perspectives of others—both human and other living beings.
Regarding our ecological problems we fail to grasp the perspectives of other life forms. With our prevailing anthropocentric thinking we totally ignore the perspectives of other species. Within the modern era, certainly in “western” societies, we tend to regard Nature as merely a resource that is there to serve human needs and desires. We fail to value the inherent worth of every life form. We are so wrapped up in our almighty human perspectives that seeing the world from the point of view of polar bears, jack rabbits and starlings goes far beyond our current imagination.
Regarding our problems of inequality and oppression we fail to grasp the perspectives of other human beings who are less fortunate than us. Our self-bound thinking and egotistical mindsets prevent those in power or who have unearned privileges from grasping the perspectives of those without power or privilege,
Genetics, modern childrearing practices and a culture of radical individualism cultivate a myopic self-consciousness which blocks the empathy required to grasp the suffering of other beings, both human and other life forms. The result has been an egotism and anthropocentrism which, as stated above, are the root causes of our ecological crisis and many other social problems.
The biological evolution of human beings over hundreds of thousands of years has created a mental system in which our “default position” includes a “tendency to analyze everything as an immediate, personal phenomenon: what does this mean to me” (Ornstein and Ehrlich 1989, p. 93).11 While our biological nature is relatively fixed and difficult to mold, another aspect of our psychology is adaptive and molds to fit the needs of society. This “social character” (Erich Fromm) exacerbates the self-referencing of our biological nature. Capitalism has a ruling ethos stating: “if only everyone strives for himself on the market, the common good will come of it.”12 Our private dealings are governed by egotism, with people typically out for themselves.
And this egotism begets anthropocentrism, which is a form of that same self-bound thinking brought to the species level. We have become alienated from the natural world and have become disconnected from other living beings and therefore discount their inherent value, while inflating our own value.
In order to empathize with another we must step outside of our heads and take their perspective. Without the ability to empathize we lack compassion, and treat the world harshly and coldly. This lack of empathy and absence of compassion amounts to a “spiritual disease” because it eliminates reverence from our lives. At the heart of many religious traditions is the Golden Rule which instructs us to treat others the way we wish to be treated. Exploring the emergence of the Golden Rule across the globe during the “Axial Age,” religious historian Karen Armstrong argues that sages such as Confucius, the Buddha and Jesus each created “spiritual technologies” that utilized natural human energies to counter aggression (Karen Armstrong p. 390).14 Their programs were designed to eliminate the egotism which causes violence.
I want to build on this insight, yet to expand its scope to include all living beings. We need to treat all living beings with respect and reverence, not just other humans. We must eliminate the anthropocentrism which pervades our thinking and develop an ecological consciousness.
“Thinking Like a Mountain” as Spiritual Practice
To re-kindle their awareness of their spiritual connections to other humans and to other living beings, many modern humans may require a program designed to eradicate their egotism and anthropocentrism. Here I propose as a spiritual practice an exercise I call “thinking like a mountain”, which is designed just for those purposes.
In his classic Sand County Almanac (originally published in 1949), Aldo Leopold urges us to “think like a mountain.” At one point in that book we are following Leopold as he follows the tracks of a skunk in the January snow. We learn to think of different animals as subjects rather than objects, as beings that have their own goals and their own perspectives on the world. As a youth, Leopold kills a wolf and watches the “fierce green fire” die in her eyes. This event leads to an epiphany in which he comes to realize how, while killing the wolf might seem beneficial to the hunter as it allows the deer population to swell, for the mountain and for the wolf, it might not be such a good thing. The deer population’s boom could lead to a drastic reduction in vegetation available for other species.
Like the young Leopold who shot the wolf, we often are so focused on our roles and our needs that we unintentionally ignore the roles of others. To “think like a mountain” is to see the “big picture”, to take a holistic perspective, to grasp the delicate interconnectedness of the web of existence. It entails being able to simultaneously take the perspective of a whole ecosystem. When we grasp our deep connections to the world this amounts to a “moment of grace” in that we realize that our well-being is linked to the well-being of our planet.
To cultivate a habit of reverence for others, whether those others are human or non-human, animate or inanimate, we must transcend the egotism and anthropocentrism so prevalent in modernity. To have empathy for another entity or to understand another’s perspective requires that we get out of our own heads. It is only by stepping outside the confines of our routine patterns of self-bound thinking and consciousness that we can transcend the self-absorption which blocks our sensitivity to our environment and the other living beings found therein. As we become aware of the plurality of perspectives, our sense of having a privileged perspective melts away.
By letting go of our self-obsession and putting ourselves in the role of other beings and grasping their vital role in the interconnected web of existence, we take a step towards the humility demanded for an ecological consciousness. By nurturing this new “other-directed” mind-set and more humble state of being, we can even acquire a constant sacred consciousness, fully feeling the presence of all life around us
The heart of this spiritual practice is a guided meditation, in which we take a journey back through deep time to explore the evolutionary pathways of the atoms in our bodies and the previous life forms from which we have descended. Perhaps some of our atoms emerged almost fourteen billion years ago briefly after the Big Bang, while others emerged from generations of supernova. Moving forward we imagine each of our predecessors as ancestors, whether these ancestors are algae, fir trees, jelly fish, or dinosaurs.
Our bodies are merely the latest incarnation of our being. When we realize that we are kin with all other life forms and even closely related to all other elements in the universe, we escape our self-bound thinking and the egotism and anthropocentrism so prevalent in our thinking. When we truly grasp the interconnected web of existence and the inherent value of all it contains, we begin to “think like a mountain.”
While most humans exclusively identify with their humanness, the point of this inner journey is to recognize our intimate relationship with other species, all other life forms and even the soils beneath our feet and the stars above our heads. The ancient savannah still dwells within our veins. As our memories return a change in consciousness will occur as we replace the anthropocentric structures of our minds with awareness of how evolution and ecology combined to bring our species to this point.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Caitlin and John Matthews (1994). Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.
- 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.
- 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.
- Erica Sherover-Marcuse. (1986). Emancipation and Consciousness: Dogmatic and Dialectical Perspectives in the Early Marx. New York: Basil Blackwell.
- Marcus Borg (2001). Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. San Francisco: Harper.
- Oxfam Report. (2016). An Economy for the 1%. Retrieved from http://www.oxfam.org on June 14, 2016.
- Johannes Krause. (2014). “Transformation: Reflections on Theory and Practice of System Change.” Retrieved from http://deeep.org on June 14, 2016.
- Ornstein and Ehrlich (1989). New World New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution. London: Doubleday.
- Erich Fromm (1955) The Sane Society. NY: Holt.
- Karen Armstrong. (2006). The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Anchor Books.
- Aldo Leopold. (1966). A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a social justice educator, activist and writer, living in Santa Barbara, CA. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from UC-Santa Barbara in 1990. He has taught sociology, social psychology and anti-oppression classes at Antioch University Santa Barbara, Ventura College, the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campuses of the University of California and the Fielding Graduate University, He is also a certified substance abuse counselor and has done social work helping those with severe mental health challenges get off the streets and transition into housing. He sits on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), serves as a Mental Health Commissioner for Santa Barbara County, and helps develop policies for the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (C3H). He has been a member of the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara since 2006 and is active in interfaith efforts concerned with ecological sustainability.