Earth-Centered Spiritualities

The following essay by Marc Boswell discusses his journey into earth-centered spiritual practices. He draws upon his time spent in the bayous, swamps, and rivers of Louisiana, while filtering this through certain spiritual traditions that more straightforwardly revere and care for the earth. His full bio is below.


Introduction

On a balmy June evening in 2016, I stood high atop a levee in Northeast Louisiana, taking in the first sunset I’d ever seen along the Mississippi River. Its quiet, muddy waters were less than one tenth of a mile behind me. Ten miles of an unobstructed view reached before me, to the west, stretching out into green cotton fields not yet ready to flower pink and white.

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Lake Providence, Louisiana

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Lake Providence, Louisiana

As the sky was overtaken by voluminous clouds, the landscape burst into flame with deep shades of orange, various pinks, intensifying reds, and creeping indigo. The experience was undeniably a spiritual one as I felt myself become enraptured by such a sky. For those who have never been to the Delta region of Louisiana and Mississippi, there’s a peculiar eeriness and haunting beauty to the landscape, weathered as it is by centuries-long racial injustice and persistent, deep poverty. Still, with the levee, the crawling river, the blaring cicadas, the lurking alligators, the unrelenting mosquitoes, the brightly colored sky… with all of this there remains a quiet, deep sacredness that can be felt along this ancient river’s rich, fertile floodplains.

It’s a sacredness that overwhelmed me and left me searching for a way to theologically better understand what I experienced that evening. To this day, the memory still remains crisp in my mind.

A Pluralist Perspective

As an ordained Christian minister, academically trained in theological studies, my mind searched for frameworks to make sense of this experience and the many others I would come to have as I explored more of the bayous and swamps across the deepest parts of the Deep South. My thoughts turned to numerous theologians who dealt with topics like “creation care” or “eco-spirituality,” and I remembered biblical passages that intoned the deep goodness of God’s creation.

It’s certainly true that many progressive Christians, and, lately, even some evangelicals, are affirming the need to care for our world in face of climate change and global warming. However, these theologies - valuable and viable as they are - couldn’t address some deeper yearning I felt. It wasn’t that these mainstream Christian approaches weren’t carefully reasoned or well argued. It’s not that they shouldn’t or can’t be satisfying to other reasonable Christians. Rather, my finding them unsatisfactory spoke to an allergy that I’ve developed over the years of having to channel the fullness of my spiritual understandings solely through the prism of the Christian tradition.

For me, this speaks less to some inherent flaw within the faith, but more to the inability of any faith tradition to completely capture the truths mediated by the multiple dimensions of the natural world and the complex layers of human experience. After all, every faith tradition is unavoidably constructed by humans and is necessarily socially situated. If the playing field, thus, is leveled, then what’s the harm in exploring what other spiritual traditions have to say about the earth that we inhabit and which also inhabits us? Besides, it isn’t hard to argue that modern Christianity in the West has done more to dishonor and harm the earth than to honor and care for it.

Another way of framing this is to say that I finally accepted my desire to more firmly embrace a pluralist theology. Pluralism, as I’m using it here, neither equates all religions or spiritual practices to being the same phenomenon or ideology. Nor should this term suggest that all religions point toward the same God, particularly since that assumes a Western-oriented monotheism. Instead, by the term, I simply affirm the goodness and value of non-Christian faith traditions for the construction of one’s theology. This pluralism is not an “anything goes” relativism. Rather, it values and lifts up other traditions in their own right and also considers how they illuminate parts of our lived realities that are not customarily treated in the Christian faith.

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Transylvania, Louisiana

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Transylvania, Louisiana

Being in the Delta gave me permission to step outside of the pressure I put on myself to always run my theological musings through an orthodox or mainstream theological filter - even liberal or progressive ones. As the Delta is a place that has been thoroughly neglected by large-scale centers of power, both ecclesial and political, this allowed me to feel a greater sense of freedom, out from under the watchful eye of those who deem it their job to maintain the boundaries of orthodox Christian faith. As the word “pagan” is rooted in a notion of “rural folk” living in the countryside, perhaps it’s fitting that my turn to the natural world in the rural hinterlands of Northeast Louisiana opened up a similar “pagan” theological space for me, unconcerned any longer with the strictures of orthodoxy.

Honoring “Pagan” Ancestors

The night I was first up on the levee, I was especially reminded of a thought my dad once shared in a rare moment when he chose to discuss a bit of his spirituality. He said simply that he often felt closer to God in nature than he did in church. This comment stuck with me over the years, especially as such a sentiment fell outside of the bounds of what good evangelicals are expected to say. In many Christian cultures, it’s okay to say one experiences the Sacred in nature, but there’s an unwritten rule that a worship service on Sunday morning is where we should most enjoy and experience the presence of God. For some, this is in the Eucharist, or for others, the sermon, or in the singing of hymns, or simply in the communal act of gathering together with fellow worshipers.

However, there was something about my dad’s honesty that connected with a deeper sense of my familial ancestry. To sound a bit like a cliché country song, I come from a line of “sinners” or pagans who often found themselves at odds with the evangelical church - which, let’s be honest, was the only church of note in the South where I was reared. [1] More of my family members in past generations did not go to church than did. This often stemmed from what was their appreciation for a more rough and tumble way of life than was deemed appropriate by the moral strictures of evangelicalism.

Whether it was my great-grandfather who spent most of his life in prison, or other relatives who were gay and thus unaccepted by local congregations, or my grandmother who rejected the local church for its hypocrisy (and, frankly, because she found it boring), my extended family didn’t always find the Sacred inside the walls of a church. They went searching for it elsewhere, finding it in nature, like my dad… or in bars and bottles of booze… or in their work, in their families, or their art.

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Tensas, Louisiana

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Tensas, Louisiana

At the time my dad made this comment, I was still in the early stages of recovering from my fundamentalist upbringing. His off-hand comment provoked me to consider the actual possibilities of encountering the Sacred in spaces beyond the bounds of Church. If my dad felt the freedom to name that experience, and if I had begun to feel a similar sense of connectedness to the Divine in nature, then I owed it to myself and my other rebellious ancestors to claim this in light of our shared resistance to the power of the Southern evangelical church. I needed to claim that right for myself to also experience and interpret my spiritual connection to the earth, even if this meant moving in a more heterodox direction and with alternative spiritual practices.

This all coalesced with the haunting spiritual sense I perceived the deeper into the South I traveled. There have always been folk or indigenous religious practices of Europeans and non-Europeans that the Church has never completely “Christianized” or suppressed. This religiosity can be found among Southern people who practice Wicca, neo-paganism, Tarot, astrology, hoodoo, or Santeria. Some practice in addition to their Christian identity, while others do not participate in the Church at all. Whatever it was that I was sensing, I felt a camaraderie with and respect for those individuals who were participating in traditions that gave them this alternative framework for understanding and practicing their spirituality. I felt that, perhaps, it was time for me to explore some of these spiritual practices on my own, giving myself the freedom to respectfully explore outside the lines of mainline or sanctioned Christian theologies.

Earth-Centered Spiritualites and Death

With this freedom, I began researching an array of spiritual traditions that share an appreciation for the natural world. These spiritualities refuse to see the earth purely in mechanistic terms or solely in terms of its use-value. My turn to these traditions was not marked by a dramatic conversion experience or my attendance at a local institution. (The Deep South is still the Deep South, and rural areas in Northeast Louisiana are not known for their religious diversity.) I simply browsed Amazon and purchased books on topics such as shamanism and Celtic spiritual traditions. I was introduced to the former by way of theologian James Perkinson, whose book Messianism Against Christology draws connections between Jesus of Nazareth, the prophetic strain of the Jewish tradition, and indigenous, earth-centered religious practices.

Eventually, I came across a wonderful collection of essays by Unitarian Universalists who claim an appreciation for what they call “earth-centered” spiritualities. At a UU General Assembly in 1995, it was decided to use the term “earth-centered” rather than “pagan” due to the unfortunate and derogatory connotations of the latter word - though many practitioners have worked to reclaim the term. While Pagan or earth-centered spirituality refers to a variety of spiritual practices and beliefs, they can be generally characterized by “spiritual teachings…which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”[2]

As I’ve studied and practiced, I’ve mostly learned experientially through years of sitting on muddy river banks, kayaking around ponds, photographing sunsets and hawks and eagles. Some days my practice has been as simple as putting my camera down to take a deep breath and appreciate the stillness or the sounds of nature, the rustling of leaves or the buzzing of bugs, the sticky humidity or the sweat that dripped down my back. I typically say a simple “thank you” or blessing to the earth for sharing with me its beauty and goodness. I’ve been taught patience and appreciation for the cycles of nature, knowing I’ll have to put my camera away during winter months when creatures are less likely to be active and sunsets are harder to catch. I’ve also been taught the limits of my finitude, learning to respect and keep safe distances from black bears, poisonous plants, snakes in the grass, or large alligators.

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Cameron, Louisiana

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Cameron, Louisiana

One concern that I’ve carried with me into this exploration is the charge that earth-centered or earth-honoring traditions tend to romanticize the world of nature. What about the Christian idea of the Fall, some theologians ask? How do we account for sin? The Unitarian Universalist minister, Kendyl Gibbons, writes that theistic and humanist traditions are right to view with suspicion “unsupported claims of an idealized past or the simplistic goodness of nature.” [3] Gibbons is referring to this very tendency in some proponents of earth-oriented spiritualities - or at least stereotypes of them - to romanticize nature and downplay the grittier realities of suffering and death that is constitutive of our own lives and of our otherwise beautiful Earth.

While such ideas might be found in certain writers, my time in the wilds of Louisiana has kept those tendencies at bay. Under every nest of baby egrets, for example, is a hungry alligator waiting to devour one of these babies if they wriggle out of their nests. A cute frog is the dinner of a waiting hawk. A fly-covered, decaying animal carcass is the breakfast of nearby turkey buzzards. In the Louisiana summertime, each beautiful sunset is accompanied by throngs of mosquitoes, gnats, and other flying critters that can quickly make an experience equal parts sublime and miserable. The natural world - of which we’re part and parcel - is rooted in death and the taking of life for the sustenance of life. Anyone who spends a decent amount of time in wildlands that aren’t carefully curated will know this.

Conclusion

In my reading, I see writers and practitioners who tend to honor these realities more than romanticize them. Earth-centered spiritualities, in other words, are perhaps more attuned to the grittiness of life than would be acknowledged by their detractors. Likewise, they tend to have an acute awareness of the damage being done to the earth and to our own bodies because of matters like climate change and the increased production of highly processed (and less natural) foods. Perhaps, then, it is fair to say that these earth-centered spiritualities don’t misplace a strong notion of sin for a naive sense of the goodness of nature. Instead, they are even more aware of “sin” and are respectful of the fragility of the web of life in which we participate and on which we rely.

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Lake Martin, Louisiana

(Photo: Marc Boswell) Lake Martin, Louisiana

Lastly, earth-honoring spiritualities, as I’ve experienced them, can nurture a more robust sense of the Divine that isn’t rooted in judgment or wrath, and yet they can still make sense of the necessary suffering and death that is part of what it means to be alive. These same spiritualities have been able to help me begin, quoting Gibbons, “to reclaim this Earthly, bodily life as sacred…to stop seeing ourselves as immortal, separate from the rest of life.” [4]

It is in this very sense that they’ve helped me to stop seeing the natural world as a problem - an earth to be razed by a vengeful God - a created order that needs to be made new by a deity in some future time. Such ideas may be comforting to some, but until such a time arrives, these spiritualities root me back to the earth from which I come, and they orient me to the eternal presence of the Divine in the Now - even in the swamps - in the heat and misery - and in the breath-taking beauty that makes up a good Louisiana landscape.

With this, I can peaceably live.


[1] I’m playing off the Christian use of the word pagan, not to denote someone with earth-oriented spiritual practices, but in the derogatory way that conservative traditions will often refer to someone who’s not connected to a local congregation or living an “acceptable” Christian lifestyle. In the South, people outside of the Church will embrace the terms “heathen” and “pagan” in an act of resistance to the strict morality of evangelical culture.

[2] Hildebrand, Jerrie Kishpaugh and Shirley Ann Ranck, “Introduction,” in Pagan and Earth-Centered Voices in Unitarian Universalism, Hildebrand and Ranck, eds. Boston: Skinner House Books, xiii.

[3] Gibbons, Kendyl L. R., “Finding Resolve in Liturgical Dilemmas,” in Pagan and Earth-Centered Voices in Unitarian Universalism, 93.

[4] Ranck, Shirley Ann, “Changing Unitarian Universalist Thea/ology,” in Pagan and Earth-Centered Voices in Unitarian Universalism, 179.


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Rev. Marc Boswell, Ph.D., is founding editor of Progressive Southern Theologians. He currently serves as the director of the faith-based non-profit, Together for Hope, in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He has lived in the Delta for the past two years and enjoys photography and writing. His research and teaching interests include constructive/liberation theologies, community development, and race in American culture. He is a proud alumnus of the University of Mount Olive and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University.