Nature and the nature of the Otherworld

This post is in part a response to P. Sufenas Virius Lupus´column on Patheos, named Seeing the Forest for the Ents. In it he argues that Pagans do not worship nature but the force within or behind it. Now, please read the following closely, I am not saying the writer is a nazi fundamentalist. I respect him a great deal.  I do not even disagree with most of his writing in this particular essay. I agree with him when  he writes that Pagans do not worship nature if nature is fully and only defined in a scientific way. Even if science is not a monolith – Sufenas does not specify what scholarly disciplines or paradigms he thinks of when he speaks of ‘science’ – this does not matter much for the point that I want to make here.

I think no Pagan, not even naturalistic or humanist pagans (whichever name they prefer), relates to nature in a purely scientific way. No human does.

Yes, their practice may be fully compatible with a scientific world view, but no human relates to its surroundings in a purely scientific way. An atheistic biologist waters its flowers just as most of us would, or pat his dog. His relationship with his biological surroundings may be informed by his scientific knowledge, but it cannot be reduced to it. We are humans. And we relate to plants and other animals as humans. And humans are more than annalists or observers, even when they are exactly that in a professional capacity. Sufenas also recognizes this when he writes: ‘

“But for most modern Pagans and polytheists, science does not present a problem for our foundational beliefs, practices, or narratives. It is, however, important to know what the scientific view actually is.”

What bothers me, is not P. Sufenas central claim. Yet I am uncomfortable with the dualist language he uses to make his point. I understand that the author is somewhat uncomfortable with it too, as shown by the quote here above.

Now, I am not at all certain that all of science as it is practised today is as mechanistic as in the days of Descartes. The modern ecological paradigm is very different from the philosophy and physics in the early days of the Enlightenment. Here and here you can read Allison Leigh Lilly’s plead for a natural (poly)theology which embraces the science of ecology as a basic metaphor for theological inquiry. Yet again, I agree with P. Sufenas that a Pagan view of nature, though often inspired by and compatible with the theories of deep ecology, is still more than that this. But I do have objections. Firstly, there are many conceptions of nature among the sciences and not all of them are completely compatible with eachother. And secondly, it is a small step from using a discursive dualism to distinguish scientific forms of knowledge from religious knowledge, to widening the gap between nature and the sacred. I think this is what unsettles John Halstead from the Allergic Pagan and many other Pagans including me.

Is the Otherworld another world, or is it this same world viewed by different eyes, sensed by other senses?

In Celtic literature there is the concept of an Otherworld, one which I love, which seems to be  exactly the sacred behind or within nature. One could easily view it as another dimension with portals here and there. (In this post I make no claims about whether the Otherworld exists outside of our human mind). Yet there is another understanding of the Otherworld, namely as an invitation to look at this world in new ways, by recognizing the interconnectedness of all things. Nature is always more than we think it is. Nature itself is Otherworldy.

Allison Leigh Lilly hits the mark when she describes how nature itself is at once familiar and full of kinsmen, and at the same time wholly other from our human selves and our human culture. Our relationship with nature is paradoxical.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that we are a part of nature, we arise from nature and nothing that we do is really “unnatural.” Everything about us — from our physical appearance, to our mental abilities, to our relationship with the surrounding environment — arises from the long process of evolution that has sculpted us as physical beings embodied in the material world, in relationship with our surroundings and the other beings who share them with us. (… )

But on the other hand, we have an intuitive sense that “nature” is not the man-made structures and mechanisms of civilization. (…)

To be a nature-lover is to recognize this paradox, not just as a human being in relationship with the rest of the world, but as a lover in relationship with the beloved. When we love nature, we see that our love both unites us with and differentiates us from what we love.

P. Sufenas is right to say that paganism is about more than nature worship if nature is so very narrowly defined. But we are in no way obliged to define nature in this way. We can look at nature through Otherworldy eyes. Or maybe, the true Otherworld is this world.

Going to the Otherworld is an adventure. But usually the biggest adventure is returning homewards.

I am rambling.
I feel I am onto something but it is just out of my reach.

And I really need to pick up those books by David Abram everyone keeps talking off. His name begins with a ‘D’. Maybe I’ll just start with his website.

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