Kullervo recently referred to the term “earth-based religion” as “bullshit rhetoric.” I think that what he means by that is that it’s a term that gets used thoughtlessly without a whole lot of reflection as to what it might mean. I asked him if that was actually what he meant, and he confirmed that and added the observation that he saw the term used most often as a code-phrase for other practices and beliefs that had no direct connection to being “Earth-based.” This mirrors my comment to Ruby Sara on her post on the same topic, that “people… seem to think it means something like recycling and keeping a compost heap.” One can do those things – or be a vegan, or a pacificist, or an eco-feminist, as Kullervo says – without practicing an Earth-based religion. He is right that none of these things are inherently “Earth-based”, and one can do and be none of them and still practice Earth-based religion. It sometimes leads people to those places, but just as often it doesn’t. Two people could both sincerely and profoundly experience their religion as Earth-based and come to completely different conclusions about pacifism or veganism, but then I could say the same thing about two Christians.
One of the reasons I haven’t written about it before is that I don’t feel qualified to say “This is what it really means!” I can’t speak for anyone else who uses the term. I could go on about what it means to me to practice an earth-based religion, but that doesn’t speak for what it means to anyone else. As Pagans, we use vague and undefined terms amongst each other all the time with the assumption that everyone else in the conversation has come to their own conclusions about meaning. That’s part of how this religion is – you have to reach your own epiphanies and understanding is not supplied in advance. One weakness of that is that it’s possible to have widely varying understandings of the same term or practice, and yet to still share that vocabulary and practice. That’s the basic problem of orthopraxy over orthodoxy – there is no authority to tell us what it all really means; we just have to figure it out for ourselves. For someone who wants to understand but isn’t committed to or interested in doing the work of coming to a personal understanding, this could be frustrating and puzzling. From that perspective, it could all look very superficial and like, um, bullshit. The only explanations that can be offered to that perspective are the superficial ones, and it would be hard for someone who doesn’t already value the work that others have done to do the work themselves – you have to already believe that there is something there to go looking for it, and you’re not going to go looking for it if you’ve already decided it’s bullshit. My thoughts on the “earth-based” term are a product of my own understanding and if they still sound shallow, that’s the fault of my lack of ability to translate mystical understanding into English. Or, as Terry Pratchett put it, “… we are trying to understand the fundamental workings of the universe via a language devised for telling one another where the best fruit is.”
I do a little internal shudder when I hear people talking about finding the sacred in Nature as though Nature means, I don’t know, the woods or something. Nature as the thing over there beyond the paved roads and the shops, on the other side of the river from the power plant, past the garden fence… I love wild places. I hear the voices of the gods out in those wild places better than I hear them anywhere else, and I assume that is what people mean when they talk like that. I appreciate that others feel this way, too, but it still bothers me to hear Nature spoken of as Other. There are ecosystems in your carpet, in your gut, in your lawn, on your desk – there is no cubic centimeter of anything anywhere that is not Nature. You can find the sacred Earth without leaving your couch, and I think that understanding is the core of an Earth-based practice
While thinking about it in an idle sort of way, I put the term into Google to see where it led. I got two types of results: ones pertaining to modern Pagan religions and ones pertaining to astronomy. Earth-based telescopes are the ones we have here on the ground – they look out into the stars but are solidly Earthbound. The other kinds are in orbit. In terms of astronomy, I understand the need to differentiate, but the orbital telescopes look as solidly Earth-based in an absolute sense as the ones on the ground. They are still tied to the Earth through the reins of gravity and all of their materials came from the flesh of the Earth, just as our bodies do. Even the probes we send off into space are Earth-based – none of their flesh comes from anywhere else and their signals all get sent back here. Unless we start living on other planets, that can’t be any different – and even then, we are Earth-bound, Earth-based creatures bringing the flesh of our planet with us wherever we go. This is who and what we are. Every atom of our flesh, everything we touch, and everything we do is very literally Earth-based. This is a basic truth of human existence, and recognizing this fact as holy is what it means for a religion to be “earth-based.”
We explicitly affirm the Earth as sacred. Flesh is Earth, bones are Earth, plants are Earth, dirt is Earth. So is plastic and metal and concrete. Holiness is not located somewhere else – it’s here, within our own bodies and within everything we touch and breathe and sense. That’s where it all starts and where it all ends.
Since all of the Earth is holy and we are all of the Earth, this can start to sound like pantheism, and I suppose it can be. Ruby Sara notes this, and for some people that is where it leads. I think I part ways with the pantheists, though, in that I do not see the Earth-that-is-holy as a god. I know the gods, or at least some parts of some of them, and they are not the same as the All that we are all part of. They too are part of it. I cannot say that Hekate and the Earth are of the same class of being. They are not. I can’t call the Earth a god – it is the base, it is the ground, it is the matrix in which we all move, but it is simply not the same type of thing as those I experience as gods.
My deities, the ones I experience, are chthonic – they are of the Underworld, they exist in the layer of existence that lies underneath the surface of embodied reality. My religion is earth-based because it finds the locus of the sacred in the flesh of Nature, in the very fabric of materiality, and my gods are chthonic because they exist within the structure of the fabric. I suppose that is what it means, to me in any case, to be a polytheist – there are multiple deities, they exist outside of the self, and they are limited. My gods are not omniscient, omnipresent, or even omnibenevolent – they aren’t omni- or pan- anything. Even the gods of the sky and stars are Earth-based, as the sky is as much of the Earth as the oceans or the continents, and the stars we experience only from the perspective of the Earth (space-based telescopes and probes notwithstanding, we have yet to see the other side of Orion – for that matter, there is no other side of Orion, since the constellations only exist from an Earth-based perspective – the stars only appear close together because of our relative positions.) The star goddess looks down to us here on Earth – if she didn’t, we would never know her.
While I have been recently reassured that people do indeed read long blog posts (thanks to everyone who responded so kindly to my fishing attempt) I think this needs to be continued in another post. More to come!