Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. – Emerson
Most modern religions have doctrine: holy books, sacred scripture, lists of quoted dogma from sainted heads, annals of kings and battles adjudicated by the eternal powers, recipes for weddings and births and deaths, and so on. Beliefs to be memorized.
I’ve written at length about doctrine and dogma before, and I think it’s dangerous stuff. Instead of opening the mind and allowing spiritual growth and development, doctrine shuts everything down. It can be valuable to have blind faith in some things, for a while, at least; but to keep yourself open to the world and to Spirit, it’s essential to keep your mind alert to new experiences that might contradict your faith. You have to believe in something, but hold your beliefs lightly.
Pagans generally avoid doctrine. Instead of big books of instructions, we rely on two currents: tradition and nature.
There are lots of pagans (“reconstructionists”) who hold tradition as the primary wellspring of belief, wisdom, and guidance. These folks do extensive scholarly research on the practices and beliefs of ancient peoples, and use that to guide their modern lives. And tradition is a great source for that kind of thing: the original tribes and peoples of Europe had tremendous insights into spiritual matters that were lost during the thousand-odd years of Christian dominance. Pagan reconstructionists today painstakingly reconstruct ancient rituals, songs, chants, and practices, and breathe life into them again.
However, you will find very few reconstructionists who think that we modern people today should copy the ancient ways in every single respect. For one thing, most ancient Europeans did some unsavory things — they held slaves, tortured prisoners, and treated women like prized property; and some may have committed human sacrifice. For another, it’s so expensive to erect stone circles these days, especially in urban areas; and as for doing proper animal sacrifice — well, even if you can stomach the sight of entrails, the neighbors can be less than understanding.
So tradition is a great jumping-off place, but it’s not dogma. It’s what people did and believed a long time ago, and that’s all fine; but this is the 21st century. It’s simply not practical. It’s not doctrine, it’s inspiration.
For many, many pagans, including myself, nature is the primary teacher. Most pagans would agree wholeheartedly with Emerson’s quote above. But it still has to be treated carefully. After all, nature isn’t just bees and flowers and sunny days. Lots of nasty things happen in nature.
The viceroy butterfly has almost exactly the same wing design as the poisonous monarch, thereby fooling predators into thinking that it, too, is poisonous.
Many scavenger species wait until the carnivores aren’t looking, and then try to steal their kills.
The “slavemaking” ants, polyergus, capture pupae of neighboring nests and carry them home, where they serve, feed, and care for their masters.
If murder is killing with malice aforethought, i.e. intentionally, then nature is rife with it. One only has to observe a cat for a few minutes (if it’s awake).
Almost every kind of animal that has been observed to form long-lasting pair bonds has also been observed to surreptitiously break that pair bond. Even swans, which were long assumed to be completely monogamous, have recently been shown to mate outside of their pairing. (And they are extremely sneaky about it: only genetic testing revealed their dalliances.)
It is not uncommon for ant colonies to attack each other in organized fashion, reminiscent of human war. Chimpanzees have been observed to conduct organized attacks and raids on each other, too, although this is more controversial.
And don’t even get me started on fratricide, infanticide, pedophilia, etc.
What’s the lesson here? Basically, anyone who wants to commit some terrible vice can look at nature and find something that justifies the behavior. (Except building rockets. No species other than humanity has ever left the atmosphere. For pagans, then, space travel is obviously sinful.)
Our Natural Doctrine
So using nature as a guide to the spiritual life requires a different approach. You do not ask, “How can we be like nature?” Instead, you ask, “How can we be in harmony with nature?” Or even better: “How can we be in harmony with our nature?”
Just because dolphins sometimes kill their own young doesn’t mean that every species does it. Just because ants wage war doesn’t mean squirrels do it. Scavengers sometimes steal food, but trees never do.
Animals and plants act the way they do because they fit in a specific ecological niche. Humans are they same way: our behaviors, foods, habits, and so on arise from the place and time we evolved. If we are to live in harmony with our nature, we need to learn more about that time and place, and the habits and ecology of our ancestors.
This can be very difficult, because we humans have worked hard for 35,000 years to mold the world to suit us. But our deeper nature tends to reveal itself. A simple example: we’ve spread out from Africa, leaving the tropical savannah behind; but everywhere we go, we chop down trees, burn the wood, and wear skins and fabrics, re-creating the tropical savannah around our bodies.
We can also look at other large primates and get an idea of what our truest natures are. Our closest relatives are chimpanzees (the bonobos and the common chimpanzee) with gorillas and orangoutangs close behind. And what do these animals do? They spend most of their time relaxing, grooming and teasing each other gently, picking fruit, playing, and so on. They adopt orphaned apes into their families. They put themselves at risk to help their friends. Occasionally they indulge in “bad” behaviors — stealing small things, tricking each other. And, as noted above, a few “tribes” of chimpanzees have sometimes been observed to engage in semi-organized raids, although apparently this only happens when the animals are threatened with severe loss of habitat and starvation (and never happens at all with bonobos, gorillas, or orangoutangs). But the great vices of humanity — slavery, torture, murder — are unknown to them. (They are also vegetarians, of course. And I would be remiss if I did not mention how severely endangered these species are.)
The Non-Doctrine Doctrine
Now, clearly I am not advocating that we enshrine the ape as the great moral lodestone, the ethical standard against which all human behavior should be measured (although it would be a great improvement). Great apes and human evolutionary history may help us find our truest natures, but even this doctrine must be held lightly. We are modern humans, after all, not chimpanzees, and not our ancestors. Every species and every era has its own call to answer.
But let’s be frank. The doctrines and dogmas of the great religions have too often been used as crutches or excuses for our vices and atrocities. We get jealous, we get greedy, we get fearful, and so we look in our holy books and talk to our holy men and get a moral stamp of approval so that we can do what we want. And all of this is part of our nature, of course. But it is also in our nature to better ourselves, to seek out that best and highest self and reach for it. And to reach for it, we must know where it is.
And where is it? It can be glimpsed in the old dusty books; it can be heard singing in the background of the folktales. But it’s felt most keenly in the warm breeze blowing over the open meadows, bees and flowers and sunny days, the clear waters falling and the deep pools rippling, the cool shade under the fruit-laden trees, and the soft touch of the hair and skin of our kind.
Mere America: It’s Not Just For Kindle.
Mere America: Spring Reading Promotion!
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- Which is better — cities or countryside? Pastoral in Democrat Minor, my post on Pagan+Politics.
- [The path to love] is a wilderness… the more delightful the love, the deeper, vaster, and more solitary it is. – St John of the Cross
- The truest social justice… grows not out of pity or desire to serve, but out of abandonment of the self in God. – Belden Lane
- My latest at Pagan+Politics: the Lost Tribes. What is the role of the tribe in the modern world?
- God… makes something out of nothing. Therefore, if God is to make anything in you or with you, you must first have become nothing.-Eckhart
- The secret of life is to have a task to devote your entire life to… [But] it must be something you cannot possibly do! – Henry Moore
- Ali’s latest at Wedding on the Edge: How Many Druids Does It Take To Make A Marriage?
- Always rejoice for both friends and enemies. If you cannot practice rejoicing, no matter how long you live, you will not be happy.–Rinpoche