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Religion versus nature and the feminine

In Insight and Experience by LivingNowLeave a Comment

 My early childhood in the English countryside, surrounded by an abundance of animals and plants, formed me as a nature-lover. In the Catholic boarding school I attended in Sydney, I used to wonder at the supernatural world I was taught to believe in and the natural world I could see outside the classroom. There was a lack of fit that made me uncomfortable. When as a university student I began looking at the stars and learned some of their names, this sense became even keener. For years, however, my attention was given to reading myself out of traditional Catholicism into the new and more attractive version inspired by the Second Vatican Council. 

But even this grew stale. Much later I came across the works of Alan Watts. I read his seminal books Myth and Ritual in Christianity and Nature, Man and Woman, published decades before but undiscovered by me. Watts spoke of the “deep and quite extraordinary incompatibility between the atmosphere of Christianity and the atmosphere of the natural world. It has seemed well-nigh impossible to relate God the Father, Jesus Christ, the angels, and the saints to the universe in which I actually live” (Nature, Man and Woman, pp. 27–8). This exactly expressed my feeling of discomfort. I knew where my real sensibilities lay; I had not forgotten that the springs of selfhood lay in the green fields and copses of Somerset.

Because I read Watts at a turning point in my life, his words bit all the deeper. I gained the view that my religion didn’t stand up to scrutiny, that the deep things I’d always felt were not to be found there. The white light that shone at the back of my mind turned its beam away from Catholicism to another direction altogether. As well as Watts, I read Joseph Campbell, Ken Wilber, Jean Houston, Matthew Fox, Carlo Suarès and Clarissa Estés. All of them introduced me to a worldview that confirmed the inadequacy of my religion for the human spirit. I had touched mystical traditions in which there was no separation between God and humanity, between the divine and the natural, where you could be your natural and inviolate self. It felt as though I had come home.

The shutting out of the natural world from the heights of religion, and hence culture, has had terrible consequences, two of which are the unthinking exploitation of natural resources and the alienation of city life. When I read about the reverence for nature in indigenous cultures I am painfully aware that our present gross materialism has behind it a history of Christian dismissal of natural things as pagan. Mother Earth never figured in the Christian pantheon.

In his extraordinary book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle talks about the burden of pain born by women, who, he says, are more attuned to the natural world. “If the balance between male and female energies had not been destroyed on our planet, the ego’s growth would have been greatly curtailed. We would not have declared war on nature, and we would not be so completely alienated from our Being.” Under the Inquisition, “It was enough for a woman to show a love for animals, walk alone in the fields or woods, or gather medicinal plants to be branded a witch, then tortured and burned at the stake. The sacred feminine was declared demonic, and an entire dimension largely disappeared from human experience” (pp. 155, 156). For Catholics, the feminine principle was securely stowed away in the figure of the Virgin Mother, where it could be worshipped, especially by celibates, without any sexual taint. Woman as a powerful sexual being was nowhere to be seen. For centuries of western humanity, the universe was thus torn apart. A male principle of violence and submission gained ascendancy and has had a disastrous effect on the world. 

Recently I read Laurence Gardner’s Genesis of the Grail Kings, and a piece of this historical puzzle fell into place. According to Gardner the separation between God and nature is much older than Christianity. It is the consequence of Abraham choosing the severe Sumerian god-figure Enlil as his God over Enlil’s half-brother Enki, who was much more friendly to humans. Of the process of making Enlil/Jehovah the absolute God without wife or brother or peer, Gardner has this to say:

“To the Hebrews, Jehovah transcended even nature herself, and in consequence of this evolving thought process the true harmony of humankind and nature was forfeit. In erstwhile Mesopotamian, Canaanite and Egyptian thought, the unexplainable divine was manifest within nature, and nature enveloped both the gods and society. This belief, however, was shattered for all time by the biblical Hebrews, who forsook harmony in favour of subservience. Hence the balance of relationship between humankind and the phenomenal world was destroyed, and what was ultimately lost was integrity” (p. 108, my emphasis).

I had come across Enki and Enlil some years before in Zechariah Sitchin’s book The Twelfth Planet. In the Genesis story that derives so plainly from its Sumerian antecedents, Enlil is the figure behind the God who tells Adam and Eve they will die if they eat the fruit. Enki, represented by the serpent, tells them they will not die but will become ‘as gods’. By making Enlil into the absolute supernatural being Jehovah, and casting Enki as an evildoer who tempts mankind to disobedience, a clear choice was made at a highly significant crossroads in religious and cultural history: choosing for one’s God a being who was bent on punishment, revenge and slaughter and who demanded service and sacrifice, instead of one who wished humans to have the knowledge that could free and fulfil them – and in the process removing altogether from the godhead the balancing female element. This redaction of the Sumerian story became scripture, the ‘Word of God’ against which no argument or resistance was possible.

Such a significant founding choice has resulted in a religion that has fear built into it: wise people are said to be ‘God-fearing’; in Catholic tradition the seventh Gift of the Holy Spirit is timor Domini, fear of the Lord. God has to be begged for mercy as a matter of course (Kyrie eleison, ‘Lord have mercy’; I have not met anyone who is aware of the implications of this phrase). Devoutly religious people believe they are naturally sinners and live in fear of divine judgment; children are brought up in fear of what ought to be a natural, joyful dimension to their consciousness.

I found Sitchin’s account of things liberating because it confirmed my instinctual distrust of this religion of fear, my refusal even as a schoolgirl to feel deep down that I was intrinsically sinful. Reading Sitchin, it is fascinating to discover that Sumerian figures like Enlil and Enki were not ‘gods’ at all, but Annunaki beings who hailed from the planet Nibiru a very long time ago, and who were thought of as supernatural because of their power and skill. This reinforces my conviction that Yahweh/Jehovah is not God in the sense of Prime Creator, the Source, the All That Is, but merely a creation of the human psyche, and one that has damaged us.

Christians have assumed that Yahweh/Jehovah is the loving Father that Jesus spoke of. I doubt it. Jesus’ message was one of liberation and joy – not the simple joy people have in singing hymns but joy arising out of deep reality. Liberation and joy seem to have been occluded as Christianity developed. In one of the carols my choir sings at Christmas is the profound comment, ‘Then why should men on earth be so sad, Since our Redeemer made us glad’. Why indeed. The good news became tangled up with what Tolle calls the collective human pain-body. It needs to be rediscovered. We need to sort out all over again, without the interference of religious stories and strictures, what liberation and joy actually mean for us.

All this leads me to think that the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the one absolute God, the Bible story, the divinely ordained Church and so on is not history or fact, but something constructed out of the struggle between human yearning and human pain, and in which the human pain-body has had the greater say. But the story itself is largely unchallenged. Gardner makes the point that Christianity’s hold over Western thinking is so complete that although the ancient Sumerian historical records have been available to scholars for decades they are, in every sphere that touches the public, relegated to ‘myth’, while the distorted story that superseded them is regarded as sacred history, and therefore factual truth. It seems we have put the cart before the horse.

I acknowledge that justice and charity are evident in both Judaism and Christianity. But the tradition they rest on I now see as a vast untruth foisted on humankind. The devout spend time poring over the pages of the Bible (badly translated from a Hebrew text that was already corrupt); Bible scholars puzzle endlessly over what this difficult text actually means; intelligent people spend years doing courses in theology. It looks to me like a wasteful expenditure of human effort and goodwill.
But there is hope. Consciousness is changing; a new paradigm is on the horizon. The present concern for the environment is surely a sign that respect for the natural world is returning, and new sensibilities are becoming evident. Intuition and creativity are increasingly valued. Women are empowering themselves, shaking off the suppression of centuries of male religion/society. Awareness of where we are in the universe is expanding beyond what can be seen and measured on this planet. The signs are good. It feels like coming home.

Venetia Somerset, MA PhD, is an academic writer and editor, keenly interested in the spiritual path. She lives in country Victoria. 

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