Down to earth: Nature-based religion

For my own purposes, I have crafted a broad working definition of Paganism as “a religious movement embracing earth-centred spiritual traditions that celebrate the sacred circle of life and teach us to live in harmony with Nature and each other”. I have explored the meaning of “the sacred circle of life” aspect in a previous post. In this post I will explore the meaning of the “earth-centred” aspect, which I have discovered is inextricably linked to the rest of the definition.

Finding an objective, universal definition of “earth-centred” religion is almost as difficult, if not impossible, as finding such a definition for modern day Paganism. They are new concepts, they are evolving concepts and they are also highly personal concepts. To complicate matters, not everyone uses the same name for it: “earth-based”, “nature-based” and “green” religion are just a few other ways people describe it.

Why do I bother with all this? Because I can’t buy into something that I don’t understand. Because I believe that something worth doing is worth doing well. And because I am anal about details.

A dictionary definition 21’st Century Lexicon defines “earth-based religion” as follows:

“Definition: the worship of all aspects of nature; nature as a whole considered to be the source of universal consciousness and energy; various forms and traditions involving this
Example: Celtic Druidism, Gaia, Native American religion, Paganism, Shamanism, Shintoism, Wicca, and witchcraft are earth-based religions.”

A book definition

River and Joyce Higginbotham have this to say about it in Paganism, An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions:

“Most Pagan traditions… build their sacred year around the cycles and seasons of the earth. Because of this, Paganism is often referred to as an ‘earth-centered’ religion… the observance of the seasons is also about honoring aspects of life and spirituality… Pagans celebrate their personal seasons as well.”

Pagan principles

The Three Principles of Membership of The Pagan Federation based in the UK are:

Love for and kinship with Nature. Reverence for the life force and its ever-renewing cycles of life and death.

A positive morality, in which the individual is responsible for the discovery and development of their true nature in harmony with the outer world and community. This is often expressed as “Do what you will, as long as it harms none”.

Recognition of the Divine, which transcends gender, acknowledging both the female and male aspect of Deity.

On being a Pagan

Author Edain McCoy expresses beautifully what it means to be a Pagan (source: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance).

“When one defines oneself as Pagan, it means she or he follows an earth or nature religion, one that sees the divine manifest in all creation. The cycles of nature are our holy days, the earth is our temple, its plants and creatures our partners and teachers. We worship a deity that is both male and female, a mother Goddess and father God, who together created all that is, was, or will be. We respect life, cherish the free will of sentient beings, and accept the sacredness of all creation.”

The Divine in Nature

The Pagan pentacle symbol, a star within a circle, represents the five elements of life: spirit above manifesting as earth, water, air and fire. All creatures great and small are made from these elements. Our physical bodies comprise and require the dense element of earth in our bones and other organs, water in our blood, air in our lungs and breath, and fire energy obtained either directly or indirectly from the sun via photosynthesis. We are all spiritual beings in this earth school, and when our souls leave our physical bodies we experience physical death.

The Goddess in Nature

The planet Earth is a symbol of the female aspect of deity, personified with names such as Mother Earth, Mother Nature, and that of the ancient Greek Earth-goddess Gaia. In Earth Power: Techniques of Natural Magic, the late Wiccan author Scott Cunningham (1956-1993) writes “The ancient goddesses of the earth have survived to this day in the guise of Mother Nature, a deity being reclaimed by nature-conscious souls in the dawning of the twenty-first century.” The importance of the Goddess varies across and within Pagan traditions. Some Pagans revere the Goddess either exclusively or as a central deity, but that does not apply to Paganism as a whole which, in any event, is a rapidly evolving movement.

In a broader sense, the words Earth and Nature may be considered interchangeable here and include both feminine and masculine aspects of our natural environment. (The elements of earth and water represent the receptive, feminine energies, while air and fire represent the active, masculine energies.)

The bigger picture

My definition of Paganism was inspired by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregation’s sixth source of inspiration, which is supported by their seventh guiding principle:

“Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

This interdependent web is illustrated by the 17th century German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher in an alchemical print relating to his study of magnetism and his theory that the world is bound by secret, or invisible, knots.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology’s exhibit on Kircher’s life and works quotes Valentine Worth (a pseudonym for the late Canadian author Thomas P Kelley) “All of nature in its awful vastness and incomprehensible complexity is in the end interrelated – worlds within worlds within worlds: the seen and the unseen – the physical and the immaterial are all connected – each exerting influence on the next – bound, as it were, by chains of analogy – magnetic chains. Every decision, every action mirrors, ripples, reflects and echoes throughout the whole of creation. The world is indeed bound with secret knots.”

We are all made of the same substance and we are all interconnected in one sacred web of life, an energetic matrix connected by invisible knots. Each one of us is a microcosm of the macrocosm, a part of a greater living organism which is the Earth. This reminds me of a passage from the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:19): “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?”. Our personal bodies, the earthly home for our individual souls, and our planetary home are both temples of our divinity and should be treated accordingly, with respect, honour, gratitude, love and kindness. An injury to one, or to any part of the greater whole, is an injury to all of us.

South Africa has a special word for this concept, ubuntu meaning “I am what I am because of who we all are”. In No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu writes “Ubuntu… speaks of the very essence of being human… you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’… ‘I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.’ A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

Natural law

The law of return, a concept similar to karma and the Golden Rule, relates to the Pagan understanding that whatever we do comes back to us one way or another. There are differences of opinion on how many times but regardless of whether it comes back to us once, three times, or ten times, when we harm others we inevitably harm ourselves.

Full circle

The “earth-centred” aspect of Paganism cannot be separated from the “sacred circle of life” aspect. The cycles and seasons of the Earth and the moon, our personal cycles and seasons, and the natural law of return are all circular.

Back to earth

The Earth, and Nature in general, sustains human life on this planet. This may not be so obvious in a time when many of us exchange paper or plastic currency earned behind a desk in a corporate office block for neatly processed and packaged food found on a supermarket shelf. In our everyday lives today many of us are very far removed from the source that sustains us and our greater earth family, and it is this distance that enables us to harm and abuse our own Mother Earth, each other and ultimately ourselves. It is humbling to know, and sometimes hard for me to believe, that I am only a few generations removed from ancestors of mine who worked the land with their bare hands.

“Earth mother, star mother,
You who are called by a thousand names,
May all remember we are cells in your body and dance together.
You are the grain and the loaf that sustains us each day,
And as you are patient with our struggles to learn
So shall we be patient with ourselves and each other.
We are radiant light and sacred dark -the balance-
You are the embrace that heartens
And the freedom beyond fear.
Within you we are born, we grow, live, and die –
You bring us around the circle to rebirth,
Within us you dance

Singing the Living Tradition (UUA Hymnal) #524, Starhawk (1951-)

This article was first published on 2 August 2011

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