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Sacred Nature?

I had the enormous pleasure this weekend of chairing our synagogues Scholar-in-Residence weekend, and thus hearing three talks by Rabbi Jill Hammer, Midrashist and author of _Sisters at Sinai_ and _The Jewish Book of Days_. Rabbi Hammer is an extremely fine and thoughtful teacher, and I learned a great deal about the nature and process of Midrash (that is, the stories both ancient and modern Jews tell to answer questions raised by Biblical texts).

Her last talk, building on _The Jewish Book of Days_, focused on reconnecting with the agrarian roots of the Jewish calendar – she argued that we tend to erase the agricultural content and focus on things that seem better connected to our lives. Thus, she attempts to restore the material and agrarian history of the holiday cycle of the year – seeing Passover, for example, as simultaneously the story of the Exodus and the time of the barley harvest that sustained Jews until Shavuot and the wheat harvest.

She is a very fine teacher, and it was a deep pleasure to learn from her. But she did say something, spun off at the very last moment, that struck me as troubling, an idea I hear repeated fairly often. I should be clear, however, I am describing my train of thought here, and riffing then on an idea that moved me, rather than picking particularly on Rabbi Hammer, who for all I know, may have meant something entirely different.

Rabbi Hammer ended her talk with the wish that we as Jews recover a reverence for nature that she feels has been absent in our lives. It is a language that I hear often in religious communities - from Christians and Pagans and in every faith community I have encountered in between, from the purely secular and the deeply religious, and suggests that if we could only come back to revering nature, to treating nature as fully sacred, we would also preserve and protect nature.

I must admit, in some ways, this language of reverence appeals to me too. I take the idea of “revering” here to mean two things – that is, if we were to treat nature as fully sacred, an expression of G-d (or whatever divinity(s) you are concerned with), we might be careful to preserve it. And if we viewed it as sacred, we might place ritual limitations and taboos upon our use of it that might be more effective than the limitations we currently have - that is, just as we have rituals that shape how we approach sacred objects, we might invoke or create rituals for how we respond to sacred nature. Given the rapidity with which we deplete and destroy our ecology, anything that would constrain our use of resources is attractive to me on a purely pragmatic level.

And yet, as enticing as the possibility of limiting the harm to our ecology through rendering (or rather, re-acknowledging) nature as sacred space worries me. The reason is this – modern people of the Global North have a very strange idea of what nature actually is. My concern with the idea of sacred nature is that I think in order for it to be meaningful, for it to be something more than a feel-good concept that allows religious people to praise themselves for their superior experience of the world, we must first change the idea of what and where nature is – and how we view sacred things in general. Otherwise, we risk the danger of making “sacred nature museums”, much as we make our religious institutions, in many cases into “sacred religion museums.”

What do I mean by this? Well, ours is a culture of clear lines and strong distinctions, in most cases. While there are plenty of exceptions, I think many Americans, at least, thinks of religious or sacred acts as taking places in formal sacred spaces. I can recall this from the days before my conversion – the vast majority of “Christian” acts took place at church, in the space of the church, at formalized times. While my family made a genuine effort to generalize, the overwhelming impression I received was that church was the place one went to be religious, and reading through polls of American religious opinion, it seems that I’m not the only one who got that impression.

Judaism is not a religion whose primary acts are to take place in the synagogue – the temple is recreated ideally, in the home. But American liberal Jews at least (and this constitutes a majority of sorts) tend to also to think of religion as something primarily enacted at synagogue. In fact, this is true of almost all American liberal and moderate religious communities, and some Orthodox ones, according to the Pew surveys I’ve been reading – the primary act of religiousness is going to church, synagogue, temple or mosque. Home-based, daily life integrated acts are a substantial part of religious observation for only a tiny percentage of American religious people. Moreover, most Americans seem to tend to think of private religious experience, or private acts of religiosity as belonging to the more nebulous category of being “spiritual.” That is, we tend to identify personal experiences of the sacred as somehow separate from religious acts. This strikes me as a significant fact.

For me, I think of this division between “ordinary life” and “experience of immanence or sacredness” categorized as ’spiritual’” and “religious institutional life” as having a powerful, if mostly unacknowledge impact on nearly everything in religious life. Our sense of faith, and/or experience of something greater than ourselves exists, thus, in carefully broken down categories of divison that look like Linnean categories of animal division, or some other territory of modern science. In this model, ordinary day to day activities for most people have nothing to do with either religion or spirituality. One chooses one’s work, does the carpool, fixes the deck, makes dinner, goes to a movie without reference to either religion or spirituality, outside of extremely orthodox minorities in any given community. In fact, reference to one’s faith in, say, choosing one’s profession, dress or deciding where one lives is usually considered archaic in the extreme – those who visibly orient their lives around their faith are generally something of a curiosity.

At the same time, for the vast majority of Americans who do not go to religious instiutions, and probably a majority of those who do, one als has “spiritual” experiences that are private, and largely unshared with others. Some of these take place in nature, others during personal meditations, or in the course of day to day life, and occasionally, someone even has one at church or shul or mosque or temple ;-).

When asked about spiritual life, occasionally this is part of practices that they integrate into day to day life, but most people talk of unusual, rather than day-to-day occurrances – often in unusual conditions, often in what we think of as “nature”. That is, they say they had profound spiritual experiences not while meditativel doing the laundry, or reading in the yard or praying at church, but while sitting on a mountain top, or at a special retreat, or while in the woods. In some cases these experiences are religious in nature, but many people who are spiritual don’t claim any particular religious allegience, nor do they necessarily include G-d or Gods among the defining characteristics of those experience, although, of course, many do.

Then one has religious experiences, and for the comparatively small percentage of Americans who frequently visit a religious institutions, these are formalized – you go to church or synagogue or other institution to do your religious thing – and then you go home, and mostly, on average, don’t “do” religion again until the next time you go.

There are exceptions – there are certainly many people whose lives integrate some or all of these three categories. There are, of course, people who feel no attraction or need to have either spiritual or religious experiences, and people who have/seek out only one of those. My standing joke, precisely because it is the exact opposite of the normal American experience is “I’m not spiritual, I’m religious.” In fact, I don’t think the two are in conflict, but because Americans so strongly identify themselves as spiritual, often without being religious, or while specifically rejecting religion, I find myself tempted to head in the other direction.

I should be clear, I’m not suggesting that those who are spiritual but not religious should become more religious, or that those who aren’t either should become either. I am merely observing that in the modern world, we tend to draw fairly strong dividing lines between kinds of experience. And this is what worries me about the language of sacred nature or the language or reverence for nature. That is, it strikes me as largely not solving the problem of our misuse of nature, because as long as we live in a world where categories of sacred experience are so starkly drawn, and where we do “spiritual” and “religious” at times and in ways very different from the way we live our daily lives, I’m not at all convinced that recovering a reverence for nature will actually do anything to protect it.

Right now, those who report powerful spiritual experiences often report having them “in nature.” But generally speaking, when they talk about being in nature, they are usually not talking about being in the nature that actually surrounds them every single day – they are speaking of the kind of nature that most Americans have to get in a car and drive to visit. They speak of retreats and special events in natural settings, of climbing mountains or standing under waterfalls. And this is, I think, a forceful articulation of how powerful comparatively untouched ecologies are, and how powerfully we are drawn to the woods and the water, the mountains and the sea, where human beings haven’t over-written the world with their hands. Most faiths include transformative religious moments for their leaders in the wilderness, or in extraordinary places. This is not a bad thing by any means.

But our focus on the tranformative power of bits of wildness also speaks to the idea that nature exists, not where we are, but in “nature museums” which are “outside over there somewhere” – that is, nature exists in national and state parks, and extraordinarily beautiful natural settings that are unusual to us. But we don’t speak of nature, generally speaking, as growing out of the cracks of our sidewalk. We don’t tend to be powerfully moved by nature as it appears in our suburban yard in the form of squirrels at our bird feeders.

I see this when people email me, speaking of a calling to grow food, a sense that they have an sacred and religious feeling that draws them to the farm. In many cases, there are barriers to their leaving their present urban or suburban lives, but they speak passionately about how much they need and desire to be in the dirt, and in nature. When I point out that there is dirt in city lots, and dirt under the pavement, and dirt in suburban yards, they often dismiss this as insufficient – there profound sense that the nature we have overlaid with human landscape is not *real* nature, that one can’t do “real” agriculture where humans are populous, that one does nature out somewhere other than where human beings are, in places with beautiful agrarian landscapes, or with wild scenery.

Now beauty does have a powerful role in bringing us to sacred experience, but this deep division between what we see as an absence of nature here, and a presence of nature “over there” is profoundly problematic if we believe that reverence, or the sense of a sacred will help us preserve our ecology. Because just as we see “doing religion” as something we do only in certain places, and not as fully integrated into our day to day life, we see “doing nature” as something done only in certain places, and not part of the whole that is our lives.

I’m the first to admit that it can be hard to find nature when it is covered by what Barbara Kingsolver calls “the flat, killing mulch of a sidewalk”, where the only animals you see are starlings, rats and humans. And yet, I would argue, that if we were to treat nature as sacred, it would be here that we most urgently need to reclaim that sense of sacredness. But this is the hardest part – because we have two deep divisions to overcome – the sense that sacred nature is something far away in a state park or a farm somewhere, and the sense the work of reverence, of preserving and protecting and ritualizing our relationship to the sacred is done, not constantly, as part of our lives, but in either closed buildings or unusual, preserved spaces for spiritual experience.

If we reclaim a reverence for nature now, as we are, we won’t preserve a damned thing. I mean that quite seriously – we cannot revere nature in church, as we celebrate an agricultural holiday that means nothing to us, since agriculture is wholly alien from our society, and go out and eat daily cheap industrial food grown without reverence for anything. We cannot go out into nature once a year and camp in the mountains and then come back and chemlawn our own green space. We cannot get together once a year for a nature ritual and flatter ourselves that our acts matter, if 364 days a year, we live life as though nature did not matter. We cannot experience G-d by the sea, praying for rain, and come back and flush our wastes down into that sea. Reverence might be enough in a world where we lived integrally and integratedly with nature, where we saw ourselves as part of nature. Without that, it is a kind of idolatry – nature as a substitute for G-d – because, after all, if G-d exists and is anywhere, G-d is in the squirrels, and the lawn, and the water that courses through you sewer system – because that is nature too.

Thousands of years ago, when the texts and rituals that many of us rely on were evolving, we were a different people – the lines our faiths attempted to draw between nature and human made some measure of sense. We lived, after all, outside, all the time. For the most part, the strong human lives of cities marked only a tiny landscape, and that surrounded by agriculture. The largest cities of the Biblical era were tiny, and agrarian. We small and natural creatures lived by and large by the cycles of nature, we lived daily in nature, and our texts helped us determine how to do so. We revered nature, to the extent that reverence is the correct word (and whether it is depends on the time and place and experience) because like G-d (because it is like G-d in some faiths) it was bigger than we were, more powerful, encompassing, whole. One might go to the temple to perform an important religious activity, or to join in community for a holiday, one might go into the wildnerness or to the top of a mountain to commune *particularly* with G-d (or Goddess or both) – such stories are part of every religious narrative. But these were the spectacular events in a world where religion and experience of the divine were also part of daily life - needed because we were so vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, because we lived wholly in and through the natural world. We have shifted from a time in which nature was sacred because it was our world, to a way of seeing nature as sacred because it is scarce – and thus rendering it more scarce.

Yes, I’d like to see us reclaim a sense of the sacredness of nature, if only for purely practical reasons – because we are less likely to kill and destroy what we view as sacred. But I think that beginning from that project risks the cration of more “nature museums” and sacred groves surrounded by dead zones. At this point, I think much of our much-vaunted reverence for nature in most people allows us to feel self-satisfaction that we preserved a small space in which to love nature, while we ignore the continued rape of the natural world, transformed by our presence, but not absent from it. The idea that we chase out nature by living somewhere is partly right – we destroy wild things and we kill other species and we reduce cultures to monocultures. But we can never excise nature, any more than those of us who are people of faith believe we can excise G-d simply by choosing not to acknowledge or even to believe in G-d.

The first step to restoring our ecology for people of faith, then, is not developing a sense of the sacredness of nature, but developing a sense of sacredness *period* that involves the daily integration of our beliefs about the world into our lives. That is, if we don’t live our faiths at every meal, in every choice, every time we spend money – if we don’t use our conviction to inform our daily lives, why would it matter whether we hold nature sacred or not? Because our daily lives are just that – they are daily, they are the 95% of our acts that don’t we don’t consider “religious” or “spiritual” and their impact will always overwhelm any special religious or spiritual space we make for nature.

Only when we live our lives with care and restraint as though our daily lives are sacred, can we add in the concept of a sacred nature, one that is part of us, integrated into our bodies, the land on which we walk and sleep, into the small and often unseen lives that surround us. We start there with sacred nature – with our water table and our dinners, with our yards and the trees that overhang our street. From there, we can reach out to those special and transformative natural spaces in which have in the past had spiritual experiences, and to our churches and mosques, temples and shuls, where we have the chance in community to teach about and learn about and experience the collective agrarian history of our faiths. But at the beginning, nature starts where we are – it is literally and materially in us, and if we are to show reverence to it, we must begin at the beginnning.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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