Sunday, November 6, 2011

From Indigenous Cultures to the Western Worldview

article by Dennis Merritt

One of Jung’s biggest challenges to modern men and women from an ecopsychological perspective is to unite our cultured side with what he called “the two million-year-old man within.” The “indigenous one within” is a person living in a sacred and symbolic relationship with nature, in a world where “we are all related”—the two-leggeds, four-leggeds, six-leggeds, etc. To understand Jung’s challenge, we begin by looking at our Western indigenous roots and the evolution of the Western worldview. Indigenous cultures, including our Celtic, Slavic and Teutonic ancestors, considered all elements of the cosmos to be spiritually alive and interrelated. Humans were seen as but one element humbly present in the grand scheme of things. (n 4) Our ancestors spoke of gods and goddesses and other beings in nature equal or superior to humans “such as giants and dwarves, elves and trolls, fairies, leprechauns, gnomes, satyrs, nymphs and mermaids,” Ralph Metzner notes. “These deities and beings could be communed with by anyone who was willing to practice the methods taught by the shamans and their successors the witches, the wise women of the woods—using magical plants and stones, chants and incantations, dances and rituals.” (Metzner 1993, p. 7)

Traditional cultures also tend to revere close relationships between people, making kinship and clan identities far more important than the individual person. Small groups allow easier connections and face-to-face interactions, facilitating democratic decision-making processes. In traditional cultures,
Reciprocity and belonging rule human interaction…Shared communal spaces and cooperatively tended land are…typical. The purpose of life is…to live in harmony with one’s group, honoring tradition and continuity with the ancestors, as well as the spiritual world, which provides for human needs. (Winter 1996, p. 53)
A radically different Western worldview has evolved over the last several hundred years, a worldview that to this point has been very successful in material terms. The scientific priesthood starting with Bacon (end of 16th century) arose to understand and control the natural world as a means of defending against nature’s threats. (Ryley 1988, p. 227) Newton and Descartes established the foundation of a mechanical view of a universe composed of inert, physical elements that gradually replaced the spiritual view which had until then been dominant in Western culture. A mechanistic, soulless natural world made it vulnerable to the extraction mentality wielded by Western engineering. (n 5)

John Locke (1632-1704) interpreted God’s command to subdue the earth to mean that man had to work the land to “improve it for the benefit of life,” justifying private land ownership to possess the “[necessary] materials to work on.” (Locke 1988, p. 290-292 quoted in Winter 1996, p. 40) (n 6) “[Calvinists] who helped settle America and promulgate the Industrial Revolution in England” thought of work as being a divine “calling” and “material rewards were signs of God’s blessings on labor well done.” (p. 44) (n 7) In our worldview,
No longer do we have primary moral or psychological responsibilities to the society (instead they are to our own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness); no longer is the most important purpose of our life to ensure our passage to heaven or to honor our ancestors; no longer is our essential identity based on our family or kin relationship. Instead, our lives are lived as individuals, competitive and separate, pursuing our own material wealth through the God-given rights of freedom and noninterference from the state. (Clark 1989, p. 268 referenced in Winter 1996, p. 43, 44) (n 8)
The Judeo-Christian tradition established a very different relationship with nature than that of our indigenous ancestors. The Hebrews condemned the followers of the Canaanite great goddess Astarte whose shrines were in wild places. (Metzner 1993, p. 7) Judaism lost the sense of other Near Eastern religions of “the harmonious integration of man’s life with the life of nature.” (Frankfort 1948, p. 342 quoted in Sessions 1991, p. 109) Christians worshipped a transcendent creator far above human affairs who couldn’t be communicated with directly and they “denied and denigrated the creative spiritual energies inherent in nature.” (Metzner 1993, p. 7) Christian belief in a special covenant with a transcendent Father deity “gives them a sense of a divine mission in the world and a spiritual destiny beyond that of other members of the created world,” prompting ecotheologian Thomas Berry to claim, “the ultimate basis of our ecological difficulties lies in the roots of our Christian spirituality” (n 9):
In the original Christian teaching there were rightly considered to be two scriptures: the scripture of the natural world, and the scripture of the Bible. Nature was seen originally as both created by the divine and as a primary self-presentation of the divine. (Ryley 1998, p. 224, 225) (n 10)
Church fathers demonized the many spirits and deities consulted by the Greeks and Romans known to them as daimones. (von Franz 1980 referenced in Metzner 1993, p. 7, 8) (n 11) So began the long and sordid Church history of demonizing and crushing what it perceived to be its opposition. It violently destroyed the early Gnostic Christian sects who taught rituals enabling ordinary men and women to commune directly with the divine. Many reform movements were popular within Christianity in the 12th century, such as the Cathars in Provence, France and the Knights Templar. The Church branded the adherents as heretics and launched inquisitions and internal crusades against them. Pagan witches became the focus of inquisitions in the 14th century, when the Church expanded the use of torture to extract confessions of being in league with the devil. Estimates are that between 2 to 9 million witches were tortured and burned over the next 300 years and their property confiscated. (p. 7, 8) The vast majority were women, originally known as the “wise women of the woods”:
[Many were] simple country women, some of whom were maintaining the herbal knowledge, especially as related to midwifery, contraception and abortion. Some were shamans who used hallucinogenic plants (particularly of the solanaceous or nightshade variety) to induce visionary experiences of shaman’s flight, referred to as flying through the air to witch’s Sabbath. (p. 8)
In the analysis of Ralph Metzner, the heart of the problem is a split between nature and spirit in Western consciousness. (Metzner 1993, p. 6) This philosophical split goes to the very root of Western philosophy beginning in ancient Greece. In Bertrand Russell’s opinion, “What is amiss even in the best philosophy after Democritus [i.e., after the pre-Socratics], is an undue emphasis on man as compared to the universe.” (Russell 1979, p. 90 quoted in Fox 1991b, p. 107) In The Illusion of Technique, William Barnett states:
The idea of nature has played a small part in contemporary philosophy. Bergson once remarked that most philosophers seem to philosophize as if they were sealed in the privacy of their study and did not live on a planet surrounded by the vast organic world of animals, plants, insects, and protozoa, with whom their own life is linked in a single history. (Barnett 1979, p. 363 quoted in Fox 1991b, p. 107)
Christian anthropocentric (human centered) theology had a strong influence on the leading philosophical spokesmen for the Scientific Revolution. Science and religion gradually evolved into a division of domains following a medieval transition:
The world of the creator, of spirit, of divinity, of transcendent realities and of moral concern, was the realm of religion, and science agreed to stay out of it. On the other hand the world of matter and forces which could be perceived through the senses and measured and manipulated was the realm of science, and the church gave the scientists free rein to develop their value-free, purpose-less, blind, yet totally deterministic, mechanistic conception of the universe. Thus the stage was set for a further and complete desacralization of the natural world, with the transcendent creator progressively marginalized, until we have the totally life-less, non-sentient, purpose-less world of the modern age. (Metzner 1993, p. 4, 5) (n 12)
The Protestant reformation eliminated “the last vestiges of pre-Christian European paganism” in the overlay of Christianity onto pagan sites and the practices that survived, especially in the cult of Mary. The Black Madonna was and is its most potent form; to this day it can be found in over 500 European churches. The Black Virgin cult is essentially a popular retention of the “ancient black goddesses such as Artemis, Cybele and particularly the Egyptian Isis.” (Begg 1985 referred to in Metzner 1993, p. 5) (n 13)

Freud cast the European split between spirit and nature in psychological terms, especially the Protestant version of the Christian myth where heaven or the spiritual realm is obtained by conquering the body and overcoming “our ‘lower’ animal instincts and passions.” The natural self includes bodily sensations, impulses, feelings and instincts. Freud denied the spiritual and transpersonal realms. For Freud, consciousness and culture is attained only by ego consciousness struggling “against the unconscious body-based, animal id,” the seething caldron of the unconscious full of constraints and distractions. In this view, there is an inevitable level of discontent in culture because of conflicted relationship with the natural in us, and by projection, with the natural world. (Metzner 1993, p. 6) (see Appendix A)

There were many crosscurrents which complicate the picture of a dualistic split in the dominant collective consciousness of the Europeans. Hildegard von Bingen, an 11th century Rhineland Benedictine abbess, “spoke of viriditas—the greenness, as the creative power of God manifest throughout the creation.” For her, “‘The soul is in the body the way the sap is in the tree’—in other words, the soul nourishes and sustains the body, instead of having to rise above it or struggle against it.” (Metzner 1993, p. 7) “The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history,” St. Francis of Assisi, “tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.” (White 1967/1971, p. 6 quoted in Sessions 1991, p. 110) The sophisticated philosophy of the 17th century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, has a modern ecological base with a spirituality some compare to Zen Buddhism. Spinoza drew upon ancient Jewish pantheistic roots in an attempt “to resanctify the world by identifying God with Nature”—human and nonhuman. He found mind (or mental attributes) throughout nature and used the developing science of the time to help him attain spiritual self-realization and deepen an appreciation of nature. His pantheism influenced “some of the leading figures of the eighteenth–century European Romantic movement (the main Western counter cultural force speaking on behalf of nature and against the uncritical and unbridled enthusiasm for the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions).” Spinoza also influenced the philosopher Bertrand Russell, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (father of the “deep ecology” movement), and Albert Einstein. (p. 112) Calling himself a “disciple of Spinoza,” Einstein expressed his admiration as well for Saint Francis and upheld “cosmic religious feeling” as the highest form of religious life. (Einstein 1942, p. 14 quoted in Sessions 1991, p. 110)

Spirituality associated with the natural world did not begin to remerge in Christianity until the Romantic Movement in the eighteenth century. (Ryley 1998, p. 228, 229) The English Romantic visionary poet and painter William Blake wrote: “the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul, is to be expunged.” Blake believed the Church’s forceful presentation of an abstract mental deity had ruined our abilities to directly perceive spirits everywhere—in nature, places and in cities and towns. (Metzner 1993, p. 7) (see Appendix B: William Blake and the English Romantics)

Notes and Bibliography

The article you just finished reading is an excerpt from Dennis Merritt's:

Jung, Hermes and Ecopsychology
The Dairy Farmer’s Guide to the Universe
We keep forgetting that we are primates and that we have to make allowances for these primitive layers in our psyche. The farmer is still closer to these layers. In tilling the earth he moves around within a very narrow radius, but he moves on his own land. —C.G. Jung
Volume I:  Jung and Ecopsychology presents the main premises of Jungian ecopsychology,offers some of Jung’s best ecopsychological quotes, and provides a brief overview of the evolution of our dysfunctional Western relationship with the environment.

Dennis Merritt, Ph.D., LCSW, is a Jungian psychoanalyst and ecopsychologist in private practice in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dr. Merritt is a diplomate of the C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich and also holds the following degrees: M.A. Humanistic Psychology-Clinical, Sonoma State University, California, Ph.D. Insect Pathology, University of California-Berkeley, M.S. Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, B.S. Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Over twenty years of participation in Lakota Sioux ceremonies have strongly influenced his worldview.
Fisher King Press publishes an eclectic mix of worthy books including Jungian Psychological Perspectives, Cutting-Edge Fiction, and a growing list of alternative titles.
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