July 23, 2017

Re-embedding religion in society, the natural world, and the cosmos

This article was written in 1996 following Edward Goldsmith’s participation in a meeting on Patmos, in September 1995, to discuss religious aspects of the protection of the natural world. He argues that the Church must develop a “new theology . . . based on what we are finding out about the original cosmic nature of the Judaeo-Christian tradition” and “have the courage to side with all those people who seek to reverse economic development and in particular the globalization of this fatal process”.

This meeting also gave rise to two further articles on ‘Cosmic Religion’, a longer and a shorter version.


Last year, at a meeting on a ship that took the participants to Patmos, where St John wrote Revelations, the Metropolitan John of Pergamon stated that it should be regarded as a sin to destroy the natural world. It was encouraging to see that dignitaries from other religions – the Church of England, and Catholicism – concurred, as, during the rest of the meeting, did Hindu, Jain, and Zoroastrian speakers.

What they did not note, however, was that this view provided an indictment of the very principle of economic development which we identify with progress and which involves the systematic substitution of the world of human artefacts or the surrogate world for the natural or real world – a process that by its very nature must lead to the latter’s annihilation.

What was not mentioned either was that in terms of the religions with which vernacular societies were once imbued, the greatest sin or perhaps more precisely the most evil and immoral acts, were those that threatened the order and integrity of the cosmos – the world of the gods and the spirits – which was seen as encompassing society and the natural world.

That this was true of early Judaism, and indeed early Christianity, has been demonstrated by a number of scholars, foremost among whom may well be the Reverend Robert Murray, author of that most enlightening book The Cosmic Convenant and Margaret Barker, author in particular of The Lost Prophet and The Gates of Heaven.

Such religions, or perhaps more appropriately religio-cultures, are often referred to as ‘chthonic’, i.e. religions of the Earth. They are also sometimes referred to as ‘ecological’. However, they are best referred to as ‘cosmic’.

I shall briefly consider what have always been the basic principles of cosmic religion. The first is that man is an integral part of a family, a community, a society, the natural world and the cosmos – the world of the Gods and spirits – that encompasses them all. The second is that the cosmos is one, alive, and ensouled. The Third is that the cosmos displays order (cosmos originally meant order) and that this order is critical.

Significantly, all the constituents of the cosmos are seen to be designed according to the same cosmic plan. To quote Fred Eiseman,

“man in Bali is a tiny part of the overall Hindu-Balinese universe but he contains its structure in microcosm. Man’s body has three parts – head, body and feet – just as the universe, macrocosm, has three parts; the upper world of God and heaven, the middle world of man, and the underworld. Man is a kind of scale model of the universe, with exactly the same structure – as is the island of Bali and each village, temple, house, compound, building and occupant of it.”

Not surprisingly, if vernacular man saw his body, his house, his settlement, his society, and the natural world and the cosmos itself, as being designed according to the same plan, it must clearly be governed by the same law, and this we know to have been the case. As Pythagoras wrote

“Themis in the world of Zeus, and Dike in the world below, hold the same place and rank as Nomos in the cities of men; so that he who does not justly perform his appointed duty may appear as a violator of the whole order of the universe.”

This law, of course, is a sacred law. It was enacted by the gods themselves in that mythical – ahistoric period, when all the laws were enacted – what Mircea Eliade refers to as “In Illo Tempore”. and what Radcliffe-Brown refers to as “The Dawn Period”.

“To observe the law and thereby maintain the order of the cosmos is essential too, because the order of the cosmos is a moral order . . .”

To quote Radcliffe-Brown again:

“For primitive man, the universe as a whole is a moral or social order, governed not by what we call natural law, by rather by what we might call moral or ritual law.”

It was also a sacred order, for the notion of sanctity in vernacular society tends to correspond to that of vital force, or what is referred to as ‘mana’ among the Melanesians and Polynesians. Cornford tells us that in the classical world, a place was regarded as sacred because of the presence in it of a dangerous power which made it sacrosanct – “not to be set foot on by the profane”.

Sacred things had to be treated with great respect, indeed with trepidation. They were the source of every benefit, but also of all misfortunes, for “sacred things contained a dangerous energy or vital force”. This vital force was seen as flowing through the cosmos, and concentrating in certain things and beings, and in doing so forming a pattern of power and hence of sanctity – a philosophy known as ‘hylozoism’, and sometimes as ‘dynamism’. What is more important, its pattern faithfully reflected the hierarchical structure of the cosmos.

This philosophy still seems to prevail among the Bantu today, as we are told by Father Placide Tempels in his seminal book Bantu Philosophy. Leopold Senghor, the poet, philosopher and statesman, tells us that among the Bantu

“All the forces are organized hierarchically: first come the demi-gods or genii, then the original mythical ancestors, then the ordinary ancestors, then living men, in order of primogeniture, then animals, plants and minerals.”

By sanctifying the cosmos in this manner, its preservation was clearly assured.

The order of the cosmos also had to be preserved because it was a divine order. To begin with, the cosmos was created by God, usually out of the dismembered body of a monster that he had defeated in combat. Thus in Mesopotamia Marduk was seen as having created the cosmos out of the body of Tiamat, and in the original Hebrew traditions Jahweh created the cosmos out of the body of the monster Rahab – a tradition that was extirpated from Genesis by its its authors, keen as they were to break with their Canaanite past.

The order of the cosmos is a divine order too because the Gods, like the vital force that they embodied, was seen as organized in such a way as to reflect the critical order of society and the natural world – in this way further sanctifying it. That the gods of such a vernacular society were seen as totally embedded in it is clear if we consider that the ancestral spirits remained members of their families, communities and societies, rather than gravitating to some distant paradise – a concept largely unknown to cosmic man.

In this way, the ancestral gods in chthonic society are as much part of society as are the living. As William Robertson Smith pointed out many years ago in a famous passage:

“The circle into which a man was born was not simply a group of kinsfolk and fellow-citizens, but embraced also certain divine beings, the gods of the state, which to the ancient mind were as much a part of the particular community with which they stood connected as the human members of the social circle. The relationship between the gods of antiquity and their worshippers was expressed in the language of human relationship, and this language was not taken in a figurative sense but with strict literality. Thus a man was born into a fixed relation to certain gods as surely as he was born into a relation to his fellow-men; and his religion, that is, the part of conduct which was determined by his relation to the gods, was simply one side of the general scheme of conduct prescribed for him by his position as a member of society. There was no separation between the spheres of religion and of ordinary life. Every social act had a reference to the gods as well as to men, for the social body was not made up of men only, but of gods and men.”

Not surprisingly, all efforts in such a society are directed towards maintaining the critical order of the cosmos – not only at a human and social level but also a biological and at an ecological level.

At the biological level a few of our more enlightened biologists, such as von Bertalanffy, and Ungerer were impressed by the “whole-maintaining character” of biological processes, to the point of replacing the biological ‘consideration of purpose’ with that of ‘wholeness’. At an ecological level, the same principle has been stressed by Eugene Odum of the University of Georgia.

At a social level this principle could not be better documented. It is easy to show, for instance, as I have sought to do in my book The Way: an Ecological World-View, that the way people living in a vernacular society produce and distribute food and artefacts, the way they design their settlements, educate their children, wage war with neighbouring tribes, and above all conduct their ritual and ceremonial life, serves above all to maintain the critical order of the cosmos at every level of organization within the cosmic hierarchy.

With the development of cities and of commerce, and when what we call today economic development became the overriding goal of society, all this changed. Among other things society disintegrated. To begin with, the pattern of vital force or sanctity and the associated structure of a society’s Pantheon slowly ceased to reflect that of society and the natural world.

Eventually, as society became increasingly atomized, only the family unit survived, and a truncated version of it at that. As this occurred so did all the gods of old fuse into a single deity, now endowed with a wife and a child – the Christian Trinity finding its counterpart in the religions of other disintegrated societies, as in Egypt and Syria.

As this occurred religion underwent a profound change. It ceased to be a social and ecological or indeed a cosmic religion – it was disembedded from the cosmos. But then so was everything else. Morality, for instance, was no longer associated with displaying the right behaviour towards society, nature, or the cosmos, but only with behaviour between individual people, or between the individual and God – an asocial – an anecological and an acosmic God. This was reflected in the moral philosophy taught in our schools and universities. Thus Anthony Flew writes of G. E. Moore, probably the most influential moral philosopher of this century, that his

“argument proceeds as if it were in suspense outside space and time, and, incidentally, in complete isolation from the progress of the natural and human sciences.”

He could have said much the same for the arguments of most of the other moral philosophers, as well as the leading biologists and sociologists of recent times. The Social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer in the UK and William Graham Sumner in the USA, saw nature as random, chaotic, atomized, competitive and aggressive. They felt that it was natural, desirable and indeed moral, that man should behave in the same way.

Another school of thought on morality is represented by T. H. Huxley, Gaylord Simpson and Jacques Monod as well as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and the other sociobiologists. They agree that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’ but their reaction is to decree that it is man’s duty to declare war against nature. As Huxley puts it,

“the ethical progress of society depends not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”

Man is seen by mainstream science today as being a total stranger to the cosmos, to the natural world, and even to society. As Jacques Monod put it,

“It is time that man awakens from his millennial dreams, to face the reality of his isolation and of his solitude. He must realize that, like the gypsy, he lives on the margins of the cosmos – cosmos that is deaf to his music and indifferent to his aspirations, as it is to his sufferings and to his crimes.”

Gaylord Simpson and Richard Dawkins have said the same thing in very much the same words. If they are right, then life has no meaning whatsoever. Something which is intolerable to man’s psyche, and which also leaves the world totally open to the destruction, that must be wrought by economic development or progress.

How then can we re-embed religion into the cosmos? There is no magical formula. What is certain is that the Church must be willing to stick its neck out. It cannot continue to accommodate the disastrous trends of today, as it has done so far. It must cease to preach an otherwordly religion, committed to the worship of a god with no social, ecological and cosmic concerns. A new theology must be developed based on what we are finding out about the original cosmic nature of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The message of Jesus Christ must be reinterpreted, as Matthew Fox and others are seeking to do, as being a fundamentally cosmic message.

But this clearly is not enough. The Church must take a strong moral stand against the more intolerable aspects of economic development, such as industrial agriculture and genetic engineering In Switzerland it has now been discovered that human placentas from abortion clinics are systematically being fed to cattle – turning us all indirectly into cannibals. How can the Church countenance such a depraved commerce? How can the Church countenance too the injecting human genes into pigs in order to make them fatter?

If the Church does not take a stand against such moral aberrations as this, does it really deserve to exist? Who can possibly respect it? But it is not just against the worse abuses of economic development that it should take a stand, but against economic development and hence progress itself, and in particular against its globalization.

As this process gets under way both society and the natural world are being destroyed at such a rate that the very survival of our species on this planet is now seriously threatened. It has thus never been more urgent that this fatal process be reversed. This means that instead of globalizing economic activities we should do precisely the opposite and seek to localize them. They must be carried out on a very much smaller scale by very much smaller enterprises, catering for local and at most regional markets. This is the thesis of a book that has just come out in the USA, of which I am the co-editor.

We must realize that an atomized anonymous mass society that the globalization of economic development is creating throughout the world cannot conceivably be imbued with the cosmic world-view. It can only on the contrary, see society as unimportant or a mere fiction as does Mrs Thatcher, and the natural world as but a source of cheap raw materials while the cosmos itself with its gods and spirits can only be seen as a figment of the popular imagination.

Quite clearly only a normal society, one structured into families and communities, living in close contact with the natural world, can possibly be imbued with a cosmic religion and can thereby be capable of living in harmony with the natural world of which it is part.

The Church must have the courage to side with all those people who seek to reverse economic development and in particular the globalization of this fatal process. This is not a Utopian venture, it is a very practical one.

I am a member of The International Forum on Globalization, an organization made up of 40 or 50 students and critics of this process. All of them agree that the global economy that we are setting up will be able to function with perhaps 20 percent of the world’s workforce. In other words it will marginalize and largely render destitute the vast bulk of humanity. None of us believe that it is possible to create misery and destitution on this scale. A reaction is bound to set in.

At the same time one must expect that those whom the global economy have marginalized will recreate their own local economies. They cannot do otherwise, unless they want to starve. This must inevitably provide the economic infrastructure for revitalized families and communities. If this is so then the project is a perfectly realistic one, and it is on the contrary the project of those who, imbued with an aberrant world-view, seek to globalize the process that is leading to the destruction of the natural world, that is utopian.

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