Jan 052011

Hello all…

We live in odd times. Here in Pittsburgh, I can look out my window and see bare trees scratching the icy sky, and see the brown grass edged with frost, and watch the animals in the yard hunched against the cold, with puffed-up fur and eyes blinking in the wind. The land is quiet and sleepy, its animals and plants huddled into themselves for warmth, its waters frozen or slowed, its air void and dead. The young sun has a long way to go yet to bring us back to life.

But I can turn to the television or the internet, and see a world alive and burning with passion: ideologues, politicians, pundits, advertisers, spin doctors, grandstanders, all thrashing and moving and fighting, like a raging flood in high summer. They are oblivious to the earth at rest outside — or, if they’re forced to slow down by a snowstorm or a seasonal cold, they grumble about their blessed chance at inactivity. The human world spins faster and faster, ignoring the slow pulse of the earth, as if they were entirely separate planets. Odd times, when one can live in two worlds at once.

At my blog, Druid Journal, I hesitate to go too deeply into the tides of the world stage or current events.  Ideally, each of those blog posts is ‘eternal content’, and could profitably be read by someone years from now.  But things are moving quickly in the world; and there is a lot to be said about how the spiritual life influences that movement.  I want to write about where our human world is now, what historical factors have brought us here, and the (rapidly narrowing) choices ahead of us.

A forum such as Pagan+Politics has great potential, because paganism offers a remarkable opportunity for the political thinker:  the opportunity to see the factors influencing the world’s transformation as they really are. The evangelical Christian, or the common person who gets their news from Jon Stewart or CNN or Fox or the talk by the water cooler, does little more than choose an opinion from the two or three they’ve heard that day. The pagan who not only has studied the currents of history and ancestry and nature, but has felt them moving through their lives, is in a unique position to see further. They can sense the broader patterns and offer different options and perspectives.

Case in point. A few weeks ago, Gallup published a study showing that 40% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so.” 38% believe that humans evolved from other animals, with God guiding the process; and 16% believe that humans evolved, and God had no part in it.

The responses to this study were entirely predictable. Among the 54% of evolution-believing Americans, there were cries of outrage and consternation, and finger-pointing at the Christian evangelicals who dominate certain school boards, and calls for more funding for education. Among the 40% of God-fearing Americans, there were cries of outrage and consternation, since the 40% figure is actually the lowest percentage since 1982, when these questions were first asked.

But as a pagan, I do not think the root cause is the horrible state of education in this country (though it is horrible) or the influence of anti-intellectual evangelical Christianity (though it is lamentably strong), but our profound disconnect from the natural world. A pagan knows for a fact that humanity evolved on earth, because anyone who spends ten minutes at a zoo or in a forest with open eyes can see very clearly the close relationship between ourselves and other animals on this planet. Our kinship with the great primates, in particular, is obvious — obvious to children, obvious to our ancestors and obvious to modern indigenous peoples (the name orangutan comes from Malay for “man of the woods”). Stories from around the world tell of marriages between humans and animals, shape-shifting back and forth, raising each other’s young. The Norse speak of humans being made from trees. The idea of God creating humans in a separate act of creation 10,000 years ago is madness.

Of course, non-Christian traditions tell all sorts of crazy myths about how humans came to be, but it is understood that these myths take place in the “Dreamtime”, in the world of story and spirit, not the literal past. The “literal past” is a very modern notion anyway. The myths of world-creation are really stories about humans in the present, not humans in the past.

What’s more, “God created humans 10,000 years ago” isn’t even a good story about humans in the present. In that story, humans are given a special pride of place, one which explicitly denies their connection to the rest of the world. It’s a world-denying myth, a story about how Humans are Special. It’s a myth to justify our own hubris.

And so this Gallup poll reveals not just the sorry state of our education system, but a deep problem in American culture. You may have heard of “American exceptionalism”, the idea that America is somehow qualitatively unique, different, or better than other nations? Certain conservatives in this country were upset recently that President Obama wasn’t giving enough lip service to the notion. This is another symptom of our cultural disconnect from the natural world — it’s just taken one step further, so that Americans are seen as not just separate and different from the natural world, but separate and different from other humans. What greater hubris is possible? It would be laughable, absurd, if it were not so chilling. We are not the first nation to toy with this idea, and it has never ended well.

We have to step outside of hubris based on pride of tribe and species. Only with humility can we get a true sense of our destiny as human beings: as one species among many. This is the broader vision, the vision of the world as it is.

As pagans we stand athwart the two worlds; we realize we are children of both culture and nature, ethnicity and ecology, speech and silence. If we cannot turn off the world of the television and the internet, we must at least carry the other world with us — the world of the frost and the forest, the young sun and the old crows. We must engage the raging flood of human affairs with true vision: the vision of the single planet, the vision of the pagan.

  9 Responses to “The Vision of the Pagan: Creationism and American Exceptionalism”

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  2. I had not made that connection before, between political exceptionalism and the separation of the human from the natural inherent in a literal belief in one of the two Genesis creation stories. (I always wonder how evangelicals can miss the fact that there are two, in places quite contradictory stories, there!)

    However, having had it pointed out, it seems pretty obvious–and significant.

    • Yes! As Andrew Sullivan says, to see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle. :-)

      When I first read Genesis I was pretty young, and I remember it being confusing and contradictory in places; but I didn’t actually know out that there were two interwoven stories all the way through the Flood until I took Biblical literature in college. (THAT was a fascinating class!)

    • The connection does seem obvious, however, that might not be as correct as it first appears.

      First off, and this is a fact that seems to be ignored with the same tenacity that the scientific community ignores all creation stories, Evolution is just a theory. A good theory that explains much and likely takes place, but a theory. All too often we view science as Law and Truth, rather than theories. Were they in face Law, there would be no room for the Gods and Goddess that science has done much to prove don’t exist.

      Also, while the idea of American exceptional-ism has been tied up greatly with Christianity, we must make ourselves sit back and think for a moment. For all its ill, and I will admit there are many through the years, America has been a highly exceptional nation. Not only was it a nation founded on Pagan ideals, but we must remember that every ill brought to the nation’s attention has generally been dealt with and improved. No where on earth do we have a basis for as many freedoms as we have here. Have we done wrong, sure, but we do try to fix what we screw up even if it isn’t as fast as some people feel we should do it. It is natural to think one’s nation is exceptional, and this is the case from England to Japan, from Norway to South Africa.

      My people said that Mankind was born of Ash and Elm, the first man and woman. We are a part of nature, but were created and born from the gods and goddesses. It is true that all the world is bound by us and we are related to the apes, but I don’t see how evolution has a better explanation than divine creation. Human beings are special and unique, and while the Monotheistic religions might feel this makes them superiors, we shouldn’t let them get in the way of making us feel like we are more than the animals. Because we are more, but with that greater power comes a greater responsibility, and we should not embrace the attitude that “we are born of monkeys and thus are nothing more” because rather than make us special, that attitude tends to view humans as defective and evil. My people, the Norse, believe we are the children of our gods and that they are our kin. Why should I deny my sacred ancestors in favor of being a “monkey’s uncle?”

      My humble thoughts

      • For myself, evolution is not so much a matter of “science”, but of what I myself have seen observing the natural world. I have done a lot of wandering and a lot of reading, and the more I get to know how ecosystems and natural populations work, the more clear it becomes that the rise and fall of species, the emergent order of ecologies, and the infinitely complex interactions of millions of semi-independent agents form the foundations of life’s development. I have seen the same patterns at work in the development of languages and nations in human history. It is, in fact, a big reason why I am a polytheist, a believer in an ecology of Spirit rather than a single monolithic being.

        This is not to say that I consider the Norse myths to be “wrong”. I think it likely that the story of humans being made from trees is meant to convey the deep spiritual connection that exists between humans and trees (and gods), a spiritual connection that in many ways is more profound and important than the distant common ancestor of ourselves and other great apes. In other words, as I said in the article, it is not a story about the past, but a story about the present. It reminds us that the trees and the gods are our spiritual parents, and we should treat them with respect and humility.

        One other thing I like about the Norse tales is that nowhere is it said that humans were put in charge of the earth. The Norse knew that the world does not belong to humanity; if anyone is it charge of it, it is the gods. Otherwise it would have been named something like “Mannheim” (my Norse is very rusty) instead of “Midgard”. :-)

        As for American exceptionalism — of course America is unlike anywhere else on Earth, but that is true of every nation. We have a Constitution, but most nations have something like that these days; and while ours was the first, that doesn’t mean it’s the best. On the contrary! Other nations have had a lot of time to learn from our mistakes, and have improved over time in just the way you say America has. Norway, for example (to return to the Norse theme) is a magnificent place that has improved on the American model in many, many ways. Again, they are far from perfect, but it seems to me that what American culture needs most now is healthy humility.

  3. [...] recently got a new blogging gig over at Pagan+Politics, a blog of political opinion pieces written by pagans. The articles I post here are supposed to be [...]

  4. Great observation, and like Cat, I had not made that connection either.

    I just wanted to say that I look forward to more of your great writing and a new spin on your topic choices in this venue. Glad to see your expansion.

  5. [...] keeping pets, particularly carnivorous pets such as cats and dogs, has contributed to the sense of human exceptionalism that is so poisonous to our societies. After all, if we humans keep other animals as pets — [...]