Nature and religion

The history of religion charts the relationship between environment and culture. The natural environment or geography in which ancient peoples lived was the physical context of their culture and society.

Thus, the three scriptural religions of the Western world shaped cultures with a desert mentality, a desert religion. The vast horizontal land, arid and unpopulated, and the vast sky and unyielding sun, shaped the religion of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These religions demanded a huge god, an all-encompassing god, a god who must command and be obeyed if his followers are to be saved — just like the tribes in the desert, where no one could leave the group and survive. The individual only existed in terms of his smallness in the vastness, his dependence before God and his absolute loyalty to his absolutely unique tribe.

But in the Mediterranean, the landscape was different. Mountains descended to fertile valleys or temperate rocky crags, to meadows and streams, always bathed in dappled sunlight, down to the sea. Each village experienced variations of climate, soil, moisture, and what grew from the earth. Each geographical variations harbored a spirit of what it was (water or copse or mountain) but also of what it meant (fertility, foreboding, abundance, tranquility, color, grain, vine, woodlands). Gods and spirits in the rest of the world were bound to differ from the harsh and arid gods of the desert. Peoples were bound to differ, too, culturally, socially, and in terms of religion. And the variations only continued as history and time brought the confrontation of peoples and their cultural and environmental experiences into encounter, from north to south, east to and west.

When we study a set of religious beliefs, it is well to ponder where the beliefs came from, what experience the peoples had with their natural setting, and how these factors could evolve a particular way of looking at the universe, as much as a way of looking at their neighbors near and far. The xenophobia of the ancient Hebrews, based on desert survivalism, intrinsically affected Christianity and Islam. Christianity’s Jesus, an aberration from eastern religious influence, was quietly reabsorbed by the successive Judaic elements of the episcopates, with only the desert hermits escaping the larger rabbinical structure of Christianity. Islam’s Muhammed restores the primacy of prophet and desert imperium in the historical continuity of Abraham and Jacob.

In Europe, the Celtic spirits of rivers and trees are as alien to the dominant Western religions as are the Greek sprites and daemons, or the German forest view as haunted and deathly. The Indo-Europeans who brought Greek Mycenea its warriors and sky gods also brought India its horse sacrifices and holocausts, not to be overthrown but undermined, like Judaism, by the spiritual element of the Upanishads and Jesus respectively. In both cases, class, caste, and power elements eked their way back to the warrior and desert theologies of Indo-Europe and Hebrewism respectively.

The figure of Jesus looms so uniquely in the Western world because of its status as an aberration. But the influence of Jesus is well contained and neutralized by the dominant ecclesiastical structure. Not so such sage figures in the East, where no such religious structures existed due to the undermining of the brahmanic structure in Hindu spirituality, especially where sadhus embraced the forest environment as an alternative to the urban strongholds of the priest class. In China, a clear distinction arose between the Confucian collaboration with authority, and those circles outside this collaboration, specifically among Taoist and Buddhism circles, where, again, natural settings like forests were preferred to article environments such as cities.

Modern times set out to abolish natural settings because natural settings resist centralization of thought and control. The cathedral in a large city may retain the architectural inkling of a vast forest, but it has eliminated the analogy by restoring the inimical desert thinking and the necessary sense of dependence. The intimate chapel may retain the environmental inkling of the hermit’s cave or grotto, but connotes a refuge that cannot but be temporary and anomalous rather than the foundation of a body of thought. Ironically, Jesus advised praying in one’s room, away from crowds, away from other believers, away from authorities, and the desert hermits took this word to heart. Those hermits still lived in the desert, it is true, but their compatriots over the centuries learned how to reproduce their lives and insights in the hills, forests, and crags of Europe.

Eastern hermits were already perceptive of nuances, having lived among mountains and forests and rivers and witnessed the nurturing elements of these natural environments. While Confucius created a philosophical method for the authorities in urban areas, the Taoist and Buddhist hermits having discovered nature as a counterpart and alternative source of wisdom, created a spiritual method that could bypass the intellectualized and co-opted thinking of centralized authorities. Spirituality, and religion, was thus ascribed to the alternative sages and not to the official state religion. The West had no comparable movement. Jesus may have well have been reduced to the dry formulas of Confucianism, to the degree that his thought has largely disappeared within the folds of the ecclesiastical.