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A Sense of Homecoming

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report was, as some of my readers grasped, more than an attempt to imagine the far future without reference to the contemporary folk mythologies of progress and apocalypse—though it was also that, of course. In particular, I hoped to evoke from my readers a specific response or, rather, two precisely opposite responses: the two sides of a fault line along which the tectonic pressures of the collective imagination are pressing toward crisis.

The results were as good as I could have hoped. Some of those who read last week’s account of a future without limitless progress, to be sure, found the prospect unbearably dismal. The most vocal spokesperson for that point of view was, unexpectedly enough, SF writer David Brin, who contributed a fine thumping tirade—helpfully posted to his own blog as well as this one—full of the sort of “if you disagree with me, you’re just being negative” rhetoric most often used these days to market Ponzi schemes and perpetual-motion devices. Still, he also took the time to characterize the narrative as an infuriatingly gloomy “paean to despair.” Though nobody else seems to have felt quite the same need to bluster about it, a number of other readers expressed similar reactions.

What makes this fascinating to me is that a rather larger number of my readers had the opposite reaction. A vision of a future in which civilizations, species and worlds follow life cycles like those of all other natural things didn’t leave them furious or depressed. Their comments instead featured such words as  “comforted,” “delighted,” and “awed.” It’s easy, and also common, to mischaracterize such feelings as simple schadenfreude at the failure of humanity’s overinflated ambitions, but there’s something rather more significant going on here. Not one of the readers who made these comments made gloating remarks about the fate of humanity or the Earth. Rather, what comforted, delighted, and awed them was the imagery of Nature’s enduring order and continuity that I wove throughout the narrative, and brought to the tightest focus I could manage in the last two paragraphs.

This division is one I’ve been observing for quite some time now. It so happens that my unpaid day job as the head of a contemporary Druid order brings me into contact with a tolerably large number of people who fall more generally on the latter side of the division I’ve just traced: whose sense of wonder and instinct for reverence are far more readily roused by the order of Nature, and their own necessary participation in that order, than it is by the overturning of natural order that plays so crucial a role in the theist and civil religions of mainstream Western culture. It so happens, for that matter, that I find myself consistently on that side of the division I’ve just traced. Reflecting on my own sense of alienation from the conventional religiosity of our time, and on what I’ve learned from the many other people who experience a similar alienation for similar reasons, I’ve come to believe that what’s going on is the emergence, for the first time in more than two thousand years, of a genuinely new religious sensibility in the western world.

A religious sensibility isn’t a religion. It’s the substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions on which religions are built, and to which religions owe both the deep similarities that link them to other faiths of the same general age and historical origin, and the equally deep divides that separate them from faiths of different ages and origins. Between the tendency of modern religions to insist loudly on  their uniqueness, on the one hand, and the opposed tendency of modern irreligion to run all religions together into a formless blur, on the other, the concept of distinct religious sensibilities is a difficult one for many people nowadays to grasp; the best way to make sense of it is to glance back over the emergence of the religious sensibility that currently dominates the western world.

If you had the chance to survey the religious landscape of the western half of Eurasia and North Africa two or three millennia ago, unless you happened to be looking in some very obscure corners, you would find very few similarities to the religious institutions, practices, and ideas of today. People didn’t belong to congregations that met regularly inside buildings to pray together; questions concerning life after death weren’t a big deal for most people, and nobody wasted time waiting for the end of the world; sacred scriptures in the modern sense were distinctly rare, next to nobody claimed that a god had created the universe, and even the most devout believers in one deity freely conceded that other deities existed and deserved the reverence of their own worshippers.

The core religious institution of that era was the temple, a house for the deity rather than a meeting place for worshippers—rituals in the old temple cults took place out in front in the open air, not inside—and the core ceremony was sacrifice, in which worshippers invited the presence of a deity for a feast and quite literally “killed the fatted calf” to supply the main course for divine and human participants alike. (Food storage technology being what it was at that time, that was the way you provided meat for any honored guest.) The status of priests varied from one part of the western world to another, but in most places they were elected or hereditary officials set apart from the laity only in the most pro forma sense, and you didn’t have to be a priest to perform a sacrifice.

Behind all the richness and diversity of the religious life of the time was a distinctive sensibility, one that saw the cosmos as a community to which gods and men both belonged. The modern notion of equality had no more place in their cosmos than it did in any other ancient community, but the sharp differences in rights and responsibilities didn’t prevent every member of the community from having a share in its collective life and benefits. That sensibility once had the force of revelation; the Jews, for example, were late adopters of the temple cult, and the awe and wonder palpable in Solomon’s prayer at the consecration of the temple of Jerusalem (II Chronicles 6) conveys something of the power of a religious vision in which gods could “in very deed dwell with men on the earth.” It was by way of that emotional power that the sensibility of the temple cults superseded a still older sensibility whose traces can just be made out in the oldest strata of Western religious traditions.

Still, by 600 BCE or so, the initial power of that vision had long since settled into a comfortable routine of thought and practice, and by 600 BCE or so, in turn, the first stirrings of a new and very different religious sensibility were starting to appear.  Orphism in the Greek-speaking communities of the Mediterranean basin and the earliest forms of Buddhism in India rejected the celebration of life’s good things in the community of gods and men, and offered in its place a radically different vision—a vision of salvation from the natural world and the human condition itself, available to an elite few willing to embrace a life of radical austerity and spiritual practice. 

Then and long thereafter, this was a fringe phenomenon that appealed only to a tiny minority of intellectuals.  Most people either believed and practiced as their great-grandparents had, or settled into fashionably up-to-date materialist philosophies that discarded belief in gods without stirring the smallest fraction of a cubit from the religious sensibility that underlay the traditional faiths. Still, the new sensibility spread into popular culture as the years passed.

You can track its spread by the way that robust traditional celebrations of human sexuality gave way to shamefaced discomfort with the facts of reproduction. Many Greek religious processions, for example, carried large wooden penises as emblems of the gods’ gifts of fertility and delight; by the time Greek philosophy was a going concern, intellectuals were muttering excuses about symbols of the abstract progenitive power of the divine principles to justify to themselves a tradition with which they were obviously uncomfortable.  Attitudes toward sexuality of the sort that we now call “Victorian” found an increasingly public voice as the new sensibility spread, though here again most people simply rolled their eyes and did what they and their great-great-grandparents had always done.

The great breakthrough of the new religious sensibility took place over the half-millennium after 200 CE, as three great religious movements—Christianity, Islam, and Mahayana Buddhism—democratized the older vision of salvation for an elite, by proclaiming faith in a uniquely holy person and his doctrine as a valid substitute for the lifelong austerities and spiritual disciplines of the older tradition. The shift was never total; ordinary members of all three movements were expected to take up certain practices and austerities, of the sort that could be pursued alongside an ordinary lifestyle, and all three also evolved roles for those who aspired to the total immersion of the older tradition (monks and nuns in Christianity and Buddhism, Sufis in Islam). By that time the new sensibility had become sufficiently widespread that throwing open the doors of salvation to all and sundry got an enthusiastic response.

It’s indicative of how deeply the new sensibility had percolated through the society of the age that by the time Christianity began its final rise to power in the Roman world, its Pagan rivals were as deeply committed to the idea of salvation from the human condition as their Christian rivals. The writings of late Pagan intellectuals such as Iamblichus and the Emperor Julian show as much discomfort with sexuality and physical embodiment as those of their Christian contemporaries; what differentiated the two was simply that the Pagan writers defended the older, elitist conception of salvation for those who earned it by austerity and spiritual practice, against the new vision of salvation by faith, and made common cause with what was left of the old temple cults because those had long been a focus of Christian animosity. Their rearguard action failed, though its literary remains became a lasting resource for those who never did fit in with the new sensibility—or, more to the point, with the specific institutional forms that the new sensibility took in its cultural and historical contexts.

A religious sensibility, after all, is not a monolithic thing, and its expressions are even less so.  In Europe and the European diaspora, the division between more elitist and more democratic visions of salvation became an enduring fault line, to be joined by the divide between centralized and collective concepts of spiritual authority, on the one hand, and between more this-worldly and more otherworldly concepts of salvation on the other.  Fault lines of comparable importance, though radically different nature, ran through the older religious sensibility as well, and can be traced in the very different religious sensibilities of regions outside western Eurasia and the Mediterranean basin.

For that matter, older religious sensibilities and their institutional forms can quite often find a way to survive in the interstices of the new; consider the way that Shinto, a temple-centered polytheism of the classic kind, has been able to hold its own for more than fifteen centuries in Japan side by side with Mahayana Buddhism. The repeated revivals of Pagan worship in the western world from the late Middle Ages to the present suggests that the same thing could as well have happened in Europe and the European diaspora, if violent intolerance along religious lines had been less of an issue there. The point that needs making here is that the dominance of a religious sensibility is never total; even when a great majority of people take the presuppositions of a given sensibility for granted as unchallengeable truths, there are always those who don’t fit in, whose personal sense of the sacred pulls them in directions outside the accepted religious sensibility of their age: some toward sensibilities that have been dominant in the past, others toward sensibilities that may potentially play the same role in the future.

It’s important, it seems to me, not to impose the traditional folk mythology of progress onto these shifts from one religious sensibility to another.  Of course it’s been a rhetorical strategy common to many modern religions to do exactly this, and to portray the replacement of the old temple cults by the new religions of salvation as a great leap forward in human progress. Still, that strategy runs serious risks. There’s always the danger that some more recently minted theist religion will play the same card, and argue that just as Paganism was replaced by Christianity, say, Christianity ought to be replaced by the latest, hottest, newest revelation, whatever that happens to be. There’s also the considerably greater danger that atheists will make exactly the same argument. This latter has been a valuable weapon in the atheist arsenal for centuries now, and it gets much of its power by drawing on the same arguments monotheist religions used against their polytheist predecessors. As an edged joke common in Neopagan circles these days puts it, when you’ve already disbelieved in all the other gods, what’s one more?

Still, the contemporary quarrels between atheists and theists, like the equally fierce quarrels between the different theist religions of salvation, take place within a shared sensibility. It’s indicative, for example, that theists and atheists agree on the vast importance of what individuals believe about basic religious questions such as the existence of God; it’s just that to the theists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from eternal hellfire, while to the atheists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from the ignorant and superstitious past that fills the place of eternal damnation in their mythos. That obsession with individual belief is one of the distinctive features of the current western religious sensibility; in the heyday of the old temple cults, while acts of impiety toward sacred objects or ceremonies would earn a messy death in short order, nobody cared about what opinions individuals might have about details of religious doctrine, and thinkers could redefine the gods any way they wished so long as they continued to show proper respect for holy things and holy seasons.

The hostilities between Christianity and contemporary atheism, like those between Christianity and Islam, are thus expressions of something like sibling rivalry. Salvation from the natural world and the human condition remains the core premise (and thus also the most important promise) of all these faiths, whether that salvation takes the supernatural form of resurrection followed by eternal life in heaven, on the one hand, or the allegedly more natural form of limitless progress, the conquest of poverty, illness, and death, and the great leap outwards to an endless future among the stars. It’s precisely the absence of those common assumptions, in turn, that makes communication so difficult across the boundary between one religious sensibility and another. The gap in understanding that reduced an intelligent man like David Brin to spluttering fury at the suggestion that salvation might not be waiting for humanity out there among the stars is exactly parallel to the one that drove normally tolerant Roman thinkers to denounce the early Christians as “enemies of the human race.”

Still, the fact remains that to a growing number of people nowadays, promises of salvation from the natural world and the human condition—whether that salvation takes the more traditional form of eternal life in a supernatural realm or a more contemporary form decked out with spaceships and jetpacks—fail to evoke the emotional responses they get from participants in the older religious sensibility. It’s not merely that these promises no longer ring true, though in many cases that’s also an issue; it’s that they no longer have any appeal. What stirs awe and wonder in these people, rather, is a sense of belonging and of participation in the great cycles of Nature, an awareness of oneness with life that does not shrink in terror from life’s natural completion in death.  What inspires them is not the hope of a final separation from the realities of nature, life, history and time, but a conscious and delighted participation in these realities—not the promise of salvation, but the reality of homecoming.

The emergence of this new religious sensibility has been, as such things always are, a gradual process. Historian of religions Catherine Albanese in her useful 1990 study Nature Religion in America has traced it back in American religious life to colonial times, and its roots in older European cultures go back considerably further still. That said, it seems to me that the last few decades have seen the new religious sensibility approach something like a critical mass.  It’s become much more common than it once was for me to encounter other people who, as I do, find more cause for reverence in the curve of a grass blade in the wind or the dance of energies through an ecosystem than in the dubious claims of past miracles offered by theist religions or the equally dubious promises of future miracles made so freely by the civil religion of progress.

If I’m right, and the new religious sensibility I’ve outlined in this essay will play a significant role in the religious imagination of the western world in the decades, centuries, and millennia to come, a case could be made that its emergence is timely. More than any other single factor, the civil religion of progress helped to drive the weird astigmatism of the collective imagination that makes blind faith in vaporware seem like a reasonable response to the converging crises of our age, and convinces so many people that the only possible thing to do in a blind alley is to keep stomping on the accelerator in the vain hope that the brick wall in front of them must surely give way. 

More generally, as ecologist Lynn White pointed out many years ago in a famous essay, the origins of our environmental crisis are deeply entangled with the religious sensibility of salvation and the beliefs and institutional forms that emerged from that sensibility. Understanding that entanglement, and how a different religious sensibility might help to unravel it, can offer some useful insights into how we got into our current mess and how we might get out of it; we’ll discuss that next week.

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: MatthiasKabel, own work, 2005, Wikipedia.

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