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Spiritual Ecology: Is It the Ultimate Solution for the Environmental Crisis?: Nature Religions

By Leslie E. Sponsel

Nature Religions

Nature religion is a generic category encompassing a broad and diverse range of the world’s oldest to youngest religions, among them indigenous, pagan, pantheist, and New Age religions.  Common to most nature religions is some variant of animism, a belief in spiritual beings and/or forces in nature.  Graham Harvey’s Animism: Respecting the Living World remains the best overview of past and contemporary aspects of his subject.  He is a practitioner as well as a scholar of animism, particularly neo-paganism.

In Land and Spirit in Native America, Joy Porter skillfully examines in historical and comparative perspective the spiritual ecology of Native Americans.  Native American Wisdom: A Spiritual Tradition at One with Nature, coedited by Alan Jacobs and Mick Gidley, compiles spiritual insights from many Native American nations in the form of past and present poems, songs, prose, speeches, and stories.  In Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming, Ojibwe author and activist Winona LaDuke critiques the history of government hypocrisy and abuse regarding Native American people, culture, and environment while identifying ways to cultivate a better future through the people themselves defining and accessing the sacred.  Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan explores enchanted nature through her personal experience in Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World.  Peter Nabokov’s Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places describes a large variety of sacred sites and landscapes, including associated oral traditions and rituals.  In Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World, Frédérique Apffel-Marglin provides information and insights from her extensive research in Peru and India, demonstrating through a discussion of ritual and other phenomena that animism remains a lived religion in much of the world and can contribute to developing lifestyles that are more sustainable and greener.

Turning to other manifestations of nature religion, Joyce Higginbotham and River Higginbotham in Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions provide a comprehensive overview of the subject.  Starhawk, a prominent Wiccan, ecofeminist, and activist, offers her perspective on paganism in The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature, including meditations, chants, and blessings.  Paul Harrison, founder of the World Pantheist Movement, in his Elements of Pantheism, discusses in an unusually clear and concise as well as informed and interesting manner this variant of reverence for nature.  The book contains fascinating observations, such as that Wordsworth, Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, and Einstein were pantheists.

The philosophy, science, and spirituality of nature mysticism are investigated by Carl von Essen in Ecomysticism: The Profound Experience of Nature as Spiritual Guide.  His work reflects a pivotal principle of ecopsychology as well as spiritual ecology—that is, the interdependent connection between environmental and human health, the latter emotional as well as physical.  Like Bron Taylor and others in spiritual ecology, von Essen argues that mystical experiences in nature are the ultimate motivation for many environmental activists.

Even some individuals adhering to atheism and scientism who believe that nature is purely natural may consider it capable of generating feelings of awe, wonder, and mystery.  This is the argument of philosopher Donald A. Crosby, a convert from theism to atheism, in his second book on the subject, The Thou of Nature: Religious Naturalism and Reverence for Sentient Life.  This is also the perspective of Jerome A. Stone in Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative, which is noteworthy for discussing several dozen prominent philosophers, theologians, scientists, artists, and literary persons.

In Reconsidering Nature Religions, Catherine L. Albanese presents a concise survey of how such religions permeate much of American society, from nineteenth-century personages like John Muir to New Agers.  Using historical and ethnographic sources in New Age and Neopagan Religions in America, Sarah Pike considers the beliefs and practices involved in these growing phenomena for an estimated 12 million Americans and an industry worth up to $14 billion.  Again challenging conventional views and boundaries of religion, Bron Taylor edited Avatar and Nature Spirituality, a set of interdisciplinary essays exploring the popular culture and religious meaning of the blockbuster film.  As a specific case study, Michael I. Niman’s People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia describes this loosely organized and anarchistic countercultural community that holds large gatherings in remote forests to pray for world peace and create a model of a sustainable utopian society.  Rebecca Kneale Gould’s At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America presents a historical and ethnographic description of the back-to-the-land movement from the late nineteenth century onward; it often involves a return to nature as spiritual quest and a rejection of consumerism through voluntary simplicity.

Works Cited