A spirituality of THIS world

This week’s posts have been about astrophysics–what scientists are finding out about cosmology and how the universe is put together. You may wonder: What is physics doing in a nature and spirituality blog? My answer: Focusing on THIS world–or this universe–because in my view it’s what any truly useful spirituality does. 

As someone who teaches religious studies in a graduate program, I am always amazed at how much of American religion and spirituality today focuses on somewhere else–on an afterlife or on an etherized, “pure” existence apart from the body or even on catching a spaceship to elsewhere. It’s as if THIS world was a place to escape from if at all possible. (Or, in its kinder, gentler form, a place to learn something on our way to elsewhere. Earth as school in preparation for the “real” world. Blech.)

What all these “elsewhere” spiritualities share is an idea of “spirit” as different from “body.” Plato popularized the trend. He didn’t start it–plenty of people before him thought the body was the prison of the soul–but it was Plato’s focus on some ideal world that set Western cultures down the path of comparing “here” to “elsewhere” in a way that puts THIS world in a bad light.

So to speak. Plato’s famous cave allegory likened THIS world to an underground prison in which we have been chained all our lives, where the only thing we can see is the cave wall before us and the flickering shadows cast on it by the small campfire at our backs. Now suppose one of us breaks free of this prison and manages to crawl to the surface: How to make sense of that dazzling, bright world? The world of our senses, said Plato, is like that cave with its flickering shadows; the mental world of ideal forms, freed from the chains of the body, is the bright sunlit reality–more real by far than this poor excuse of a world called physical reality.

Still, Plato thought the soul and body resided together, if somewhat uneasily, in each person. In fact, the soul had a kind of physicality; it took up space. (Anyone remember the Star Trek race of Trills? For Plato–and people a thousand years after him–soul was like a symbiont, physically present within a person.)

It took Descartes at the dawn of the scientific revolution to forever remove spirit from body–and cause us four hundred years later to automatically think “elsewhere” when we hear “spirituality.” Descartes is famous for “I think, therefore I am,” but it was something else he said that forever sealed the fate of spirituality. People in Descartes’s time thought that body and spirit (or mind) were so completely fused that Descartes took pains to state the opposite in the extreme:

There is nothing included in the concept of body that belongs to the mind, and nothing in that of mind that belongs to the body.

In one fell swoop, he sliced mind away from body. Body was physical while mind (or spirit, a synonym at that time) was nonphysical. And never, in Western cultures, have they met up again in the four hundred years since.

Shades of Plato, echoes of Descartes–the gulf between body and spirit (or mind) is so great in the Western mind that we find it almost impossible to conceive of a spirituality of THIS world. It’s why anyone hearing “spirituality” automatically thinks “elsewhere”–some disembodied reality, some spirit world different from or in conflict with THIS world.

But THIS world is the one we live in–the world you can touch with your fingertips and measure with lab instruments, the world of physics and biology and chemistry. THIS world is full also of things you can’t touch, like feelings and stories and creativity and values–things that shape our lives just as surely as the visible, tangible objects that science studies.

And precisely here, where stories and galaxies dance, is where a truly useful spirituality is found. It is a spirituality of THIS world.

Update: This post was drawn from my book, Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature, published in 2012. More about the book at kissedbyafox.com.


6 Responses to A spirituality of THIS world

  1. Johan says:April 10, 2009 at 10:57 am

    It is almost as if one who would call the ‘body’ just as spiritual as the unseen would, often is, called a heretic, an unbeliever on the highest order. I remember my history lessons about when the general consensus was that the ‘world is flat.’ Of course, we know in this time it is a sphere and there is no edge to fall off of. We are, once again, in the throes of a ‘new dawning,’ a awakening to realms and understanding of our own personal power that even Star Trek is only the beginning, but in a kinder, gentler presence. As we explore our personal universes and unadulterate our adulterated thinking/belief systems we open to our connectedness from our individual perspectives.

    Bottom line is that it is quite ok to be different while all the while coming from the same….
    something to ponder!

  2. Birrell Walsh says:April 11, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    Hi, Priscilla –

    As far as I can tell, the tradition of the separation of body and spirit comes out of Pythagorean lineage, and that from Thracian Shamanism. It is shamanism that is has experiences in which the consciousness moves separately from the body.

    Are you renouncing shamanism and all its works?


  3. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:April 12, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Hi, Birrell, no, not renouncing shamanism; almost the opposite. I’m influenced by indigenous traditions from North American and certain other places in the world (shamanistic as you’re using the word, if I understand you), in which the concept of “spirit” retains a connection to “place.” I’m thinking of Vine Deloria Jr.’s (Standing Rock Sioux) assertion that place is an essential ingredient of all beings: “Power and place produce personality,” he said, where power is “the living energy that … composes the universe” and place is “the relationship of things to each other” (Power and Place, 22-23). In this kind of system beings that Euro-Americans would consider nonmaterial spirits (like persons in dreams) still wear a certain kind of body, although a more subtle one than the physical body. But they are “bodied” rather than disembodied, which is how Euro-Americans tend to think of spirits. So, in other words, the boundary between physical and nonphysical is more permeable, less fixed, than in Euro-American thinking, and the nonmaterial realities are more connected to (less divorced from) material realities. I am wondering if in indigenous Euro-Asian traditions, like Thracian shamanism, the spirit floated freer of the body than in the indigenous traditions of the Americas. I get hints of this from anthropologist Alice Kehoe in her essay “Eliade and Hultkrantz,” from American Indian Quarterly (1996). If so, these are simply two very different paradigms for interpreting reality originating on two different continents. I’m happy to share my academic work & bibliography on the subject if you’re interested.

  4. Birrell Walsh says:April 21, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Ah, I am perhaps an inherently fussy person. Or perhaps aware-of-antinomies-and-paradox is the real issue. But I find that neoindigenistic thought has so many of the characteristics of the thought that it objects to, that it gives me pause. Check me and see if these are false:

    – NI thought tends to dualism. Among the “goods” are indigenous, native, wild and non-European. Among the “bads” are human-urban (anti-urban is OK), European, “linear,” and invasive/exotic. The latter means non-indigenous.

    – For instance, are the Diné indigenous or invasive? They arrived in the Southwest about 300 years before the Europeans, displacing and annoying the Pueblos and referring to them as Anasazi, the enemy. Are the urban Mayans good or bad? How about the urban Aztecs? Are the Chippewa/Ojibway, who have memories of moving from the Atlantic Coast, indigenous in their current homes? How about the Sioux, who seem to have moved onto the prairie not too many centuries back? Are Navajos living in Chicago indigenous people? What if they moved to Chicago a century after the Germans, which they did. Are the Chicago Germans more indigenous in Chicago than the Chicago Navajo? Who IS indigenous? How many centuries before people are naturalized?

    The “who is indigenous?” issue has its own humor, because most of the knights of NI are located far from where their ancestors lived.

    – Among those who are ethnically Indian um Native um First People, there is the issue of Méti-hood. Is the rare person who has no white ancestry more indigenous than an activist who is half-white?

    – Positioning Euro-American thought as believing in one body and one spirit, and as the parent of dualism, is a tad too simple, I think. The local-body as capable of sending out selves is preserved in the European terms “fetch” and “doppelganger,” both of which are distant presences of a still-living person. European Neoplatonism – descended, yep, from the teachings of the dreaded Plato himself – came to believe in intermediates between the poles and espoused the idea of a World Soul, the Anima Mundi, that was present in all being. Late Neoplatonists like Proclus came to practice the rites of all pagan peoples they knew.

    All of these dualisms are fine in a person with a sense of humor, such as your noble self. But they get fierce when the humor goes. When one explains that all suffering has arisen from one kind of people, soon someone will come along and suggest at a minimum some ethnic cleansing…

    All of this, as Chaucer said, “So as it semed me…”


  5. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:April 21, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Hi, Birrell, I notice that your objection to indigenous thought rests on the question of who is indigenous rather than on what can be learned from a philosophy of place; the latter is what interests me. To say that the mainstream Western worldview separates body and spirit, or nature and mind, is not to deny that some Western individuals and subcultures have disagreed. Spinoza, for example, taught a worldview in which mind and matter are two different aspects of something called “God or nature.” But Spinoza’s view did not win; he was banished from his Jewish faith. (I hear he took it peaceably, commenting only that it allowed him to focus on his writing.) I think Descartes needed Plato and his focus on the nonmaterial ideal world in order to evict mind completely from the physical world of nature. And therein lies the Western consensus. I think of the scholar of shamanism, paganism, and animism Graham Harvey, who commented to me a couple of years ago that in a recent pagan ceremony, the leader invoked “the ancestors.” “Now whose ancestors, and from where?” Harvey asked. He took it as emblematic of the tendency among those steeped in the Western consensus to instantly forget about the physical world and the links (and obligations) to place when we engage in spirituality and ritual. I also recommend Val Plumwood’s 2002 book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason for a more systematic treatment of a spirituality of place.

  6. Gail Storey says:June 7, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    OMG, Priscilla, your engaging and intelligent analysis, in your posts and comments on the comments, is a breath of fresh air. Your insights about Descartes and Spinoza are little gems set off by the deep space of nonduality. ;-D