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.