This is unfortunate for at least two reasons.
1) Tylor argued that animism is simply “the doctrine of the human soul” that is common to all religions, including those of the modern West: “The theory of the soul is one principle part of a religious philosophy which unites, in an unbroken line of mental connexion, the savage fetish-worshipper and the civilized Christian.” Despite his vulgar social Darwinism, Tylor expressed a truth: to be real, God must be accessible, and to be accessible God must exist in nature, here and now in our lives, as our “soul”: the interface, and simultaneity, of God and nature. To disparage animism as “primitive” or “savage” is to disparage the idea that humans have souls—and isn’t that unfortunate?
To show you Tylor was correct, it’s worth sampling how two revered theologians in the Jewish and Christian traditions expressed animist beliefs. Moses Maimonides, the premier Torah scholar of the Mediaeval era, wrote “The Hebrew nefesh (soul) is a homonymous noun, signifying the vitality which is common to all living, sentient beings. (Gen. i. 30). It denotes also blood,” as in ‘Thou shalt not eat the blood (nefesh) with the meat’ (Deut. xii. 23) .” This equation, which explicitly links human souls to those of all other creatures, is observed today in the Kosher prohibition of eating blood.
Closer to our own time, “America’s most important and original philosophical theologian,” Jonathan Edwards developed his “vision of God’s visible glory in every aspect of the natural world” (Ahlstrom 299). He was walking in Northampton, very close to what is now our downtown, when this happened:
I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my father’s pasture, for contemplation. And as I was walking there, and looking upon the sky and clouds, there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, as I know not how to express.—I seemed to see them both in a sweet conjunction; majesty and meekness joined together: it was a sweet, and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.
After this my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of every thing was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet, cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost every thing. God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things.
Careful not to stray too far from the Calvinism of his forefathers, Edwards ultimately retreated the pantheist implications of his near-deification of nature. But later philosophers were happy to develop the equation of God and nature, and none so influentially as Ralph Waldo Emerson of Concord, who wrote: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing ; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
2) Hopefully you are curious, if not excited, about what you’ve read so far. The question remains, though: why would learning about animism benefit you and what does it have to do with environmental philosophy?
To answer the first part of the question, we can see that for both Edwards and Emerson, the feeling of unity with God and nature was the most profound moment in their lives, and served to inspire them to live a full, meaningful and productive existence. If you have ever felt such unity, this course will help you to understand that your experience was/is wholesome, and that it is not “out there” or “primitive”; it is a central part of a universal spiritual tradition that—though seldom taken seriously in our culture—is the foundation of religion itself. In short, no matter what your religious background is, this course will give you the materials and support to explore and develop your own experiences of animism, and perhaps revitalize your commitment to personal and collective spiritual growth.
Secondly, at this pivotal moment in history when we are compelled to imagine and build a civilization without cheap fossil fuels, we need to re-assess and revise our antiquated conception of nature. For over two hundred years, our culture has been driven by industrial capitalism, a kind of economy that by necessity regards nature as dead, or as a soulless repository of “limitless resources” that are to be exploited for short-term financial gains. When we look at our own communities, we see the tragic, and economically devastating, results of this worldview.
As a result, we have been deprived not only of a sustainable civilization; we have also been deprived of a healthy, empowering way of knowing ourselves, and how we fit into the designs of God and nature. Given that the purpose of institutional education is to train students to succeed in the economy as it is (and not as it should be), we lack the words and stories to express our connections to nature, except in those scientific, legal and economic terms that business condones; and this is why animism is still considered the religion of “primitives.” Lacking these words and stories, we are deprived of the materials—intellectual and social—that would stimulate our imaginations, individually and collectively, so we can envision and achieve a new and healthier way of living. Needless to say, if we cannot imagine a new way of living that is economically “green” and spiritually fulfilling, we will fail to overcome the immense challenges we face. So: animism is the concern of environmental philosophy because it offers the words and stories we can use, share, and re-envision, to develop the”green” worldview that will necessarily accompany the civilization we will build in the post-fossil fuel era.
1) The Sun, the River, the Moon, the Earth: Animism in Ancient Egypt
2) The Gods are with Us: Animism in Hellenic Greece
3) When God walked with Adam and Eve: Animism in Ancient Judea
4) The AUM of Siva: Animism in Ancient and Contemporary India
5) The Land is Sacred: Animism in Lakotan Culture
6) Becoming Native to this Place: Animism in Modern American Culture
The texts for our classes will be accessed primarily from the web. Suggested editions for the other texts are found by clicking on the class title.
You’ll also receive links to, or hand-outs of, secondary sources so you are introduced to the historical contexts from which animist theologies emerged. The curriculum is structured recursively so that each class builds upon contexts established on the one before it, so that when we get to our investigation of animism in contemporary America, you have the conceptual tools you need to understand how animism manifests itself around us. Finally, you’ll be provided with questions and prompts online that will help guide you through the readings, so when we meet you have already begun to understand what animism is. You are not required, but are strongly encouraged, to keep a journal of your reflections and questions which, if you desire, your instructor will review and comment upon.
This 6-session course investigates the traditions of animism in the cultures of Egypt, Greece, Judea, India and Native, and contemporary America.