Druidic author Emma Restall Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of Western philosophy. In her latest work, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, she presents a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature's inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. Although the book is a challenging read, the thoughtful reader will find much to ponder in her systematic treatment of a modern animistic perspective on concepts of self, soul, community, individuality and consciousness.
What the Robin Saw: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity (Part 1)
I was still pretty young the first time I heard an animal speak. It was a lazy summer morning, and I was curled up on the back porch with a book in my lap. All around me in the yard, the birds were singing... and then I saw, only a few feet from me, a robin. I tried to still every part of me — heart, body and mind — quieting even my thoughts so that I wouldn't startle him away. Then the voice spoke, precise and articulate, nonchalant, almost amused. It must have all happened in less than a minute. My reasoning mind struggled to make sense of what I'd experienced. But the words still echoed. Had it all been in my mind? No more than the stars are in the sky.
Anthropocentrism and Animal Instinct
Where does our anthropocentrism come from? Some scientists cite evolutionary pressures as one possible influence among many. But others point to instinctual cognitive processes to explain just the opposite, suggesting that the anthropocentric worldview is actually a rejection of the human instinct, not its inevitable consequence. Even if anthropocentrism isn't instinctual, for many of us it is deeply ingrained. To a man with a shovel, it can be hard to imagine any other solution but to keep digging our way out of this anthropocentric hole we find ourselves stuck in. Western society has spent a long time convincing us that the shovel is the only effective tool we have. Are there alternatives? How do we learn to think beyond the biases of anthropocentrism and reconnect with the more-than-human world?
What is anthropocentrism? Turns out, there is no single, simple answer to this question. (Just among the nearly fifty books on environmental ethics and deep ecology that I have, only one actually offers a definition of the term, despite almost all of them referring to it in their discussions. As with many words, its meaning often has to be teased out and inferred from context.) In my earlier post I hinted at the beginnings of a definition when I referred to an approach to ritual that "takes for granted a worldview in which humans are the only measure of what is real." The question of how our idea of "the real" and our practical responses to it (for instance, through ritual activity) influence our underlying values and where we locate (or create) meaning is a complex conversation in its own right, and it is in this particular theological meadow that I'll do much of my lingering and bee-gazing in the following posts. But for now, it's probably more helpful to sketch out a basic definition, one we can use as a kind of measure against which we can hold up more complex, fidgety ideas later in the conversation...
Talking about Anthropocentrism in Modern Paganism
On the same day I published "Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mists," Irish animist Traci Laird also shared a piece in which she confronted the issue of anthropocentrism in modern Western Paganism more directly. She points out, very rightly I think, that "the belief that human-persons are the most significant species on the planet, plays out within paganism in subtle and tricky ways." The response to our two posts has been incredibly varied, with writers across the Pagan blogosphere grappling with notions of anthropocentrism that range so widely at times it seems they're hardly talking about the same thing at all. The more responses and reactions I read over the past couple weeks, the more I realized that the issue of anthropocentrism in Paganism is incredibly complex and at times very confusing. Subtle and tricky ain't the half of it! And so I wanted to spend some time teasing apart some of these ideas about anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism in Pagan ritual and theology.