The Place of Nature in Naturalist Spirituality – Part I

Wendelin Jacober, photographer. Source: Creative Commons Landscapes.

Nature plays a significant role in my naturalist spirituality. It inspires me and leads me to moments of awe, gratitude, and reflection. And I often hear the same from others who are also on a spiritual naturalist path.

Therefore, I think it’s worthwhile to step back now and then, and reflect on the role of nature in our spiritual lives and what exactly it is about nature that is so spiritually provocative. 

My Irish ancestry, plus my several years of living in Ireland put me in touch with various strands of Celtic spirituality, which is also heavily nature-based, so I’d like to start my reflections on a Celtic note.  

The Oran Mor
“The Oran Mor, the primordial melody, is like a Celtic knot, weaving throughout the entire universe, knitting an interwoven, cohesive reality,” so writes Philip Carr Goman.

In the pre-Christian Celtic imagination, the world came to be and was kept in being by a song — a symphony performed by the interconnected natural world. Every part of nature contributed to the music, and only those with ears attended to nature could hear the spiritual melody. This is the ancient Celtic concept of Oran Mor – the Great Song.

There is much ambiguity concerning the exact meaning of Oran Mor, and while we should not put words in our ancestors’ mouths, we may still reflect on their meanings and perhaps find ways to employ the term anew within our modern context.

For eons, the Celtic spiritual imagination has heard the Oran Mor in the turning of the seasons, in the flowering of the fields, in the harvesting of crops, and the patterns of the sun, moon, and stars. A creative, sustaining power infused within all the world, an immanent vision that led the Celts to deem nature sacred.

Nature as Cosmos
Foundational to naturalist philosophy and spirituality is the conviction that nature is a closed system, that there is only one reality — the natural universe composed of matter and energy. This conviction exists because the sciences have no evidence for anything supernatural — no reliable, repeatable, verifiable evidence for miracles, deities, spirits, and so on. Yet denying the supernatural does not mean denying order or underlying fundamental principles of being — such as physics for example. 

Humans, as part of nature, have long recognized the patterns of order within the world. Despite imperfections, there is regularity, a measure of harmony, and predictability to reality, enough for the ancients to speak of the nature of our world as cosmos as opposed to chaos — meaning an ordered world rather than a random, disordered one. 

Cosmos implies an interconnected system of cycles and rhythms, a dynamic harmony of changes, not all perfect or good, but more or less ordered and balanced. Further, the cosmos also implies the possibility of a world of meaning, whereas chaos implies a nihilistic reality. The idea of the cosmos can also leave one wondering if there is some unified story underlying nature. 

Attuning to Nature and its Underlying Story
Thomas Berry, one of the earliest voices to articulate a spiritual ecology, writes:

We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation … all the ecological disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that spiritual ‘autism.’

Much like the Celts who thought the world sings, Berry goes on to write that the voice of the earth tells a story. And that this story (or song) is the process of evolution interpreted as a narrative. 

Evolution is a factual reality, a dynamism of nature and reality. To be rendered narratively requires poetry, art, metaphor, and symbolism — the tools and parts and pieces of a captivating story. 

Evolution only becomes mythic when we retell it in dramatic, poetic terms. Doing so also starts to pull out possible existential questions and allows them to become embedded in our singular and collective imaginations.

The meaning of the world is contained in stories. Of course, the world is made of things, but the meaning of those things, their connections, and their purposes are revealed in stories. Our lives are meaningful to the extent that the stories we see ourselves a part of are meaningful. 

Myth provides a culture with central narrative(s), thus establishing the framework for wisdom — a collective sense of purpose, place, identity, and set of shared values. Therefore, the language of spirituality is very much that of myth, metaphor, and symbol.

Evolution approached as a story is a running narrative of primal creativity, emergence, and dynamic existence. The story of the cosmos flowing out of chaos, and of life taking shape from inanimate matter. It is a story of swirling galaxies, green planets, developing species, and diversity writ large. 

From an evolutionary-mythic perspective, nature rises to a sacred status in that it is considered worthy of our ultimate concern — it is our source of origin and sustains us — its beauty, value, and awe-inspiring qualities are worthy of spiritual respect and can evoke in us spiritual responses. 

Religion often supplies a culture with a core, unifying narrative. For us living in the secular, even post-secular age, this is no longer the case. We live among competing secular narratives vying for our attention — stories of progress, consumerism, nationalism, and so on. 

Berry further writes how necessary and refreshing it would be if we could embrace a common story of life and civilization, one that is radically different from our present dominant story of consumerism based upon exploitation and related myths that encourage alienation and separation. He proposes evolution as that alternative narrative. 

Evolution is everyone’s story, a narrative we all share and take part in. We all emerge from the same stuff, we all share the origins of the singularity, our lives are sustained by the same things, and we are, above all, the same species, before we are any particular differences. The mythic and practical aspects of evolution unite all of us. 

This is a story that nourishes our deeper selves with a sense of connection to our actual place in the world and our right relationship with other humans and all living things. Jordan Peterson, in Maps of Meaning, writes of myth:

Myth is not primitive proto-science. Science might be considered a description of the world about those aspects that are consensually apprehensible or a specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end). Myth can be more accurately regarded as a “description of the world as it signifies (for action). The mythic universe is a place to act. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, and their motivational significance.

Buddhist writer Joanna Macy argues that evolution points us toward a “work that reconnects.” This work comes in many forms, but a central theme is empowering the individual, opening our eyes and ears to the mystery and wonder of creation in all of its diversity, and returning each of us to a sense of our real place within life and nature. 

While we may accept and understand evolution, we do not directly encounter it in our daily lives, it remains abstract. Humans do not consciously experience evolution as a process or power. Evolutionary change is slow, imperceptible, happening all the time, but also over eons. Our daily experience is of a relatively enduring world that changes along the margins.

Yet our touchstone with evolutionary forces is the cycles, patterns, and rhythms of nature, as well as the patterns and changes of our own lives — cycles of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth, cycles of winter, spring, summer, and autumn, cycles of plowing, seeding, cultivating, harvesting, and returning to fallow. 

Therefore, nature is a mediating conduit to evolutionary processes that can be rendered as a narrative, or even a song. In this sense, nature tells a story, it sings the Oran Mor for those with ears to hear it. 

To be continued …


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