Religion & Beliefs

Monotheism and the Spirits of Nature

Recently, on a trip to South Korea, I was moved to tears at a rock formation venerated by Korean shamans.  The place was so holy that the power of it, the energy of it, was immediately apparent and absolutely obvious.  … Read More

By / July 2, 2009


Recently, on a trip to South Korea, I was moved to tears at a rock formation venerated by Korean shamans.  The place was so holy that the power of it, the energy of it, was immediately apparent and absolutely obvious.  And it moved me to tell a story about irony, idolatry, and nature.

Here’s the irony: for many monotheists, nature-centered spirituality smacks of paganism, and thus idolatry.  But for me, being cut off from nature is idolatry.  When I’m surrounded by the noises of the city, and the incessant lures of consumer capitalism, I become diverted from my true self and my spiritual path. 

I’m not such a puritan as to resist the joys of urban life.  Yet those pleasures evoke, sometimes within minutes, a consumption-based perspective of "what do I want and how can I get it" — the yetzer hara indulged so completely that it becomes invisible, taken for granted.  I define myself in terms of the pleasure or pain that is being provided, and confuse stillness with boredom.  Surrounded by glass and concrete, I lose my connection to my Source, and have to work to get it back.  So, to the extent I still subscribe to monotheism at all, I find it enriched, not compromised, by the spirits in nature my Israelite ancestors sought so hard to erase.

Theoretically, as a nondualist/pantheist/whateverist who thinks that "God is Everything" makes more sense than "God is in Heaven," I shouldn’t be so attracted to nature.  My spiritual practice is oriented towards resting in the simple feeling of being, in naked awareness itself, regardless of what perceptions are occurring.  In theory, I should be as at home in a parking lot as in a meadow; awareness is in both.  "Is" — the way I translate YHVH — is in both.  And yet, I’m not.

Perhaps the pivot here is that, while we often think of nature as a positive quality, as if it is something added to our experience, I want to suggest that nature is, well, our natural state.  It is urban life that is something added to life as it is, something that covers up the natural state.   Our ancestors lived in conditions more immediate with the facts of natural life than all but the most rugged of our contemporary vacations.  Like other animals, humans are connected to the cycles of time and the seasons.  Yet unlike other animals, we have created an artificial world that defies those cycles.  That world, not "nature," is the change.  The artificial world is the idol we erect between ourselves and everything else.

So it’s not that "going into nature" is adding ingredients to the soup of consciousness.  "Going into nature" is subtracting noise.  Maintaining contact with "the simple feeling of being" is easier sometimes than others, and when there is something interposed between the soul and its natural state, and that something is a giant titillation of the selfish inclination, it is more difficult to rest in the omnipresent truth.  Nature does not condition God.  But un-nature tends to block our awareness of Her.

There is, perhaps, even a third irony, which is that I am most able to be monotheistically devotional when I am polytheistically awake.  When God is abstract, I am able to approach God-consciousness with wisdom.  But when God is concrete, and manifest in form, then devotion becomes primary.  When I’m in touch with the various spirits inherent in natural settings, my heart opens, and my religious soul awakens.  The fact that the spirit in question resides in a sacred mountain venerated by shamans might trouble some monotheists, but at this point in my journey, the particular form in which God/dess manifests is much less important than the energy of the manifestation itself.  I am a more ardent Jew — that is to say, a more heart-centered and devotional one — when I am in sacred spaces, regardless of the particular traditions which venerate them.

More ardent — and more firmly grounded in what matters.  In my experience, religion denuded of religious experience is likely to have a very short lifespan.  Of course, I know that many people are not interested in spiritual experiences, and do not want to have them.  I didn’t have them myself, until a few years ago.  Ten years ago, if someone had told me they visited a shamanic rock and felt a surge of sacred energy, I would raise my eyebrows and confess that such experiences were not part of my spiritual path.  But because I have trained, investigated, and explored, they are now.  And as a result, I feel closer to, not farther from, the essence of religious life.

My intent is not to pronounce judgment on those who worship an abstract God, or an imaginary father figure derived solely from Scripture.  I have also experienced God in traditional monotheistic ways — as a father figure, concerned with righteousness and integrity — and I appreciate that experience.  But I appreciate it because it is an experience, not because it happens to conform with a text or tradition.  It sits alongside my experiences of Goddess-in-the-form-of-nature-spirit, God-as-emptiness, Spirit-as-eros, and so on.  Thus the last of my ironies is that precisely because I remain a monotheist, I am committed to the holiness of all of these encounters. 

I confess, the spirit of the sacred mountain does not feel to me like the spirit in the ancient tree; they do indeed seem like separate, distinct things, and if I were differently inclined, I might well describe some as sacred, others as profane.  But I am not so inclined.  I want to know the sacred in all of its garbs, recognizing all our concepts and maps as so many attempts to interpret the uninterpretable.  The counter-intuitive and revolutionary proposition of monotheism is that beneath all those forms, there is One Reality.  And to me, the necessary consequence of that proposition is that all religious forms gesture at the truth.  Of course, the interpretations we provide may well lead us astray from monotheism.  But before and beneath those interpretations, there is the experience, and that is where truth resides.

I want to suggest that, today, monotheism needs the paganisms of nature in order to fight the new paganism of commercial capitalism, with its deification of desire and its technologies of satisfaction.  Against the market, God doesn’t stand a chance, unless religion offers a tangible alternative to Mammon — and that means experience.  Indeed, we are seeing in our times a return to non-rational experience, to spirituality, and to personal mystical encounters with the Divine.  This trend is both for better and for worse — all these moves are often couched in fundamentalist religious language, or still more crusader-like zeal.  But if we open the doors to multiple forms and sources of inspiration, monotheistic religion can be radically pluralistic, rather than imperialistic, and, above all, deeply powerful.  Dry religion cannot be felt — but nature religion can.  Let’s open our hearts to the spirits of the rocks and the trees.  They will forgive us our trespasses against them.  We need them.