Seeing the Forest for the . . . Ents?!?

One of the most misunderstood sections of my "Bringing Back the Gods" column was the following:

Pagan or polytheist practice that emphasizes cultus presupposes a definite being with volition and consciousness on the other end of the interaction. (Cultus, for the present purpose, is active and deliberate interaction with divine beings.) Thus, when I hear Pagans being described or self-defining as "nature worshippers," I wonder how interaction can take place at all. "Nature" doesn't care if you make offerings, hold festivals, or sing its praises and dance and feast with your friends. Dancing at Lughnasadh will not avert global warming; singing a hymn won't stop an earthquake; pouring a libation won't prevent it from raining. The best way to "honor" nature is to do things like recycle, not drive, reduce one's carbon footprint, and so forth.

But, if one (for good or ill, depending on who one asks) personifies nature to some extent as genii loci, land wights, and other spirits of nature and place, then one can usefully interact with these things even if it still might rain, have earthquakes, or get warmer. The more ecologically-conscious one's religiosity is, the more scientifically-informed it tends to be; and if that's the case, then the utter irrelevance of "nature worship" in any cultic fashion should become all the more obvious. Nature—and the wider cosmos more generally, with its colliding asteroids and exploding stars—is utterly indifferent to human existence at this stage, and likely will be so forever.

Some of this misunderstanding was of my own doing: I could have expressed this much better than I did. Unfortunately, I suspect far too many people read part of the column, reacted poorly, and then didn't read further.

I would like to give further nuance to this set of statements here and clarify what they mean in terms of polytheism, animism, pantheism, and panentheism. It will be important to read the full argument and understand it before objecting to any individual part of it. I would ask readers, therefore, to please see where the argument ends up before objecting to individual statements out of context.

Nature and the cosmos, as understood by science, are fascinating in beautiful and ferocious ways, a fact that is appreciated by many modern Pagans and polytheists. It is not uncommon to see books on botany, zoology, astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a wide variety of other natural science subjects on the shelves of a modern Pagan or polytheist's library right alongside the great works of literature, philosophy, theology, and devotion of the last four thousand years. Some religions have found scientific understandings of the universe and nature to be at odds with their beliefs. This tension has caused difficulties for these religions and has resulted in the "culture war" that plagues parts of the United States (for example, the ongoing fights over altering public school science and history textbooks). But for most modern Pagans and polytheists, science does not present a problem for our foundational beliefs, practices, or narratives.

Science tells us that there is consciousness of various sorts in every animate species besides our own—of course, animals have consciousness, but plants do as well. It has been recently demonstrated that plants do feel pain, for example, and can warn their neighbors of difficulties through complex chemical communications. It has long been recognized that playing music for plants helps them to grow, which I have seen in action at my father's house: it went from having a small patch of back yard to having a beautiful garden over a few years, with the sounds of many different musicians playing on a big stereo as gardening takes place from spring through autumn. It has also been suggested that birdsong in the morning helps the stomata on the leaves of plants to open up and prepare for intake and outtake of carbon dioxide and oxygen.

But plants don't care if your musical tastes are Loreena McKennitt or Black Sabbath, Yanni or Tuvan throat-singing, The Spice Girls or The Drowning Pool.

All things considered, about all we can know for certain about other living creatures is that they'd probably prefer to be alive, on the whole. Animals do not speak nor understand our language, nor do plants; and rocks, rivers, and clouds most certainly do not. Nature and the wider cosmos are quite indifferent to humans, at least as science describes them to us.

But, if one is a polytheist, an animist, a pantheist, or a panentheist, this need not be the case at all. Whether the existence of gods, land and nature spirits, totems, and other divine beings can be proven objectively or not, belief in the efficacy of interacting with them (which is experiential, as discussed in my last column) brings meaning and enhanced life and integration for many modern Pagans and polytheists. This is as it should be. The mechanistic view of nature that science has created in the post-Enlightenment period is what it is, but it need not be the only view on the matter—and, note, it is not the view that I hold personally. It is, however, important to know what the scientific view actually is.