[This essay was originally published in the book, Finding the Masculine in Goddess’ Spiral: Men in Ritual, Community, and Service to the Goddess (2016, Immanion Press)].
These ideas are not very original. They must be amongst the oldest and most primal religious impulses. As a child of my era, however, I was drawn to scientific theories on the subject, in particular Gaia theory as formulated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. (Oberon Zell formulated the same basic theory at the same time, but I was not familiar with his work). In simplest form, Gaia theory proposes a holistic view of the planet, looking at the Earth as a single organism. Naming the theory after the ancient Greek Earth goddess alienated many scientists but captured the popular imagination.
It was my thought that science would provide a firm foundation for my beliefs. There’s an irony here, as the ancient Greeks praised Gaia as the “firm foundation” for all. Now I wanted science to provide a firm foundation for Gaia.
When I shared some of these ideas with a friend, she remarked, “I don’t know how you could base a faith on science.” This confusion is understandable given the current state of affairs in the West; indeed it is symptomatic of just how big the divide between science and religion has become. It’s difficult to remember that, once upon a time, science and religion were one and the same. At the dawn of civilization, priestly castes were also practitioners of that oldest science, astronomy. However, since the Age of Enlightenment, there’s been a split between science and religion, which has widened with time to become a chasm which may seem unbridgeable to some.
This split was perhaps a historical necessity, but it has also been problematic. As Abraham Maslow writes, “dichotomizing pathologizes (and pathology dichotomizes).” According to his analysis, science became “too exclusively mechanistic, too positivistic, too reductionistic, too desperately attempting to be value-free,” while at the same time religion has been cut off “from facts, from knowledge, from science, even to the point of often making them the enemies of scientific knowledge.” Science feels it has “nothing to say about ends or ultimate values or spiritual values.” Religion feels it has “nothing more to learn.” The result is the mutual impoverishment of both camps. Maslow observed that “such a splitting off of mutually exclusive jurisdictions must produce cripple-science and cripple-religion, cripple-facts and cripple-values.”
To heal this rift, Maslow proposes “an expanded science.” He does not trust the churches to handle science. Instead, he recommends expanding his own disciplinary field of psychology to investigate religious and spiritual questions and values. He was writing 50 years ago, when such work was only just beginning. In that time much has changed, and scientific investigation into matters formerly considered spiritual is now routine. The rift is hardly healed, of course; in America we have recently borne witness to well-orchestrated attempts to introduce pseudo-science into the public schools under the banner of “intelligent design.”
However, there is some cause for hope. For decades, the Dalai Lama XIV has collaborated with scientists around the world. In 2005 he was able to write, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” This represents a clear and unambiguous message of conciliation from a prominent world religious leader.
In a similar vein, I see no dichotomy between science and spirituality in my life. It seems perfectly natural to look to science for inspiration and understanding, and Gaia theory has been a source of inspiration to many.
In retrospect, though, I question my own motives. While I maintain a healthy respect for the power of the scientific method, I’m not a scientist. Science remains a somewhat murky endeavor to me, something done by others, a little mysterious. Perhaps I fell in to the fallacy of scientism, making a fetish out of science, making science more authoritative than it is, trying to extend science into areas where it’s simply not ready to go. In seeking a “firm foundation” in science, was I not merely substituting the authority of science for the god of my fathers? There’s something patriarchal about this mindset.
In any case, I was soon given an object lesson in the dangers of this approach. Some months after formulating my new devotion to the scientific conception of Gaia, Toby Tyrell’s new book, On Gaia, was published. I got a copy as quickly as possible and found it to be devastating critique of Gaia theory.
In his book, Tyrrell offers evidence and argument in roughly equal measure. The empirical evidence is drawn from a diverse array of sources, most notably evolutionary biology and Earth system science. The philosophical arguments include an extended meditation on the anthropic principle and its implications.
On both fronts, in chapter after chapter, Tyrrell finds the case for Gaia doesn’t hold up. He gives credit to Lovelock for major insights that have proven correct, and for generally provoking scientists and the general public to think about life on Earth in a new way. But at the end of the book, Gaia has been thoroughly dismantled.
Another scientist might publish something tomorrow that rehabilitates Gaia theory, bringing to light evidence Tyrrell did not consider. As a non-scientist, I can only sit on the sidelines and follow such debates to the best of my ability.
In the interest of accuracy, I should note that Tyrrell only debunks the strongest formulations of Gaia. The point, however, is that scientific opinion does shift and evolve, and I realized that grounding my spirituality on science was problematic. This was not a “firm foundation” but a constantly shifting one. While I was (and remain) willing to revise my beliefs subject to new science, I felt that the basis of my spiritual life should not be subject to such whims.
Eventually, I realized that the problem was not a matter of foundation for beliefs. The problem was that I was thinking in terms of beliefs at all. As Starhawk asks, “Do you believe in rocks?” Most of us would not think of that as a matter of belief. We experience rocks directly. In the same way, I experience Mother Earth directly — the rocks beneath my feet, the atmosphere all around me, the ocean in which I swim on the occasional trip to the beach, the bonfire I kindle in our backyard. All these are matters of direct experience.
To impute more beyond what I can experience directly, to theorize on how these systems interact, how life evolves in relation to environment, these are indeed matters of belief, matters subject to scientific inquiry. But they are not necessary to spiritual life. I do not need, nor had I desired, to impute beyond experience.
To receive this experience as sacred — that seems to me to be the crucial thing. Again, not a matter of belief so much as a matter of engagement, of attitude, affect, relation. It is something I feel, something I do, something that does me, not something I believe.
Thus I found myself trading theory for metaphor. A metaphor cannot be proven or disproven. It doesn’t make sense to ask if a metaphor is true or false. The relevant questions regard a metaphor’s power. Is it helpful, compelling, beautiful? Surely the metaphor of Mother Earth is all these things.
This image, this metaphor, fits with common definitions of divinity and is congruent with ancient myths. Reverence for earth deities may be found throughout human history.
Some cultures have conceptualized male earth gods, such as for example the ancient Egyptian Geb. This always comes as a surprise to me. The metaphor that arises in my mind is invariably female. I’m sure this is culturally conditioned, but nonetheless it just seems to make sense as a metaphor for the creativity of the biosphere. While male and female both contribute to sexual reproduction, it is after all the female that gives birth, bringing forth new life into the world, in the same way that the world brings forth new life into the universe.
A romantic-erotic re-imagining of our relation to the world is in order. Seeing the Earth as female accomplishes this — for me, and perhaps for others. I don’t feel there’s anything particularly hetero-normative about this vision, as I’ve been told by people of a variety of genders and orientations that they see Gaia the same way.
Your mileage may vary. To be clear, the world is not gendered, but this metaphor is. If your metaphor is gendered differently, that’s no problem. I happily consider as a co-religionist anyone who reverences the Earth and strives to do no harm, no matter what myths, metaphors, or images they use in their work.
I was born male and have identified as male all my life. Does the female metaphor shut me out? To the contrary, this conception makes it easier for me to feel a sense of connection to (even identity with) the divine. I don’t think so. She gives rise to all, including the masculine. I am part of her. She sees through my eyes, thinks through my mind, feels through my heart. Male or female, it matters not, we all can recognize our participation in her mysteries if we so desire.
This has been account of my personal journey so far. From this vantage, it seems as if a recovery of a divine masculine sensibility is possible. I’ve barely caught a glimpse of what this might mean. It takes time for wounds to heal. What comes after is still beyond my imagining.
(See Part 1 here.)
Written July 2014, published February 2016 in Finding the Masculine in Goddess’ Spiral
© Bart Everson 2017
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. His formative years were spent in Indiana and northern Sweden, and he has lived in New Orleans since 1999. His work has appeared in Red Rock Review and the collections Please Forward, Godless Paganism and Finding the Masculine in Goddess’ Spiral. His new book is Spinning in Place: A Secular Humanist Embraces the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. Currently he is working to establish a local chapter of the Green Party in New Orleans. More at BartEverson.com