The Necessity of an Ecopsychology of/as
"Nature Religion"

Prepared for the panel on "'Nature Religion' as a Theoretical Construct: Reflections from an Emerging Field" held at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Orlando, Florida, on 23 November 1998.

Daniel C. Noel
Vermont College of Norwich University

As a psychologist of religion, I should like to make some observations about the relationship between the human psyche and the other-than-human natural world, in particular as one tradition in psychology sees that relationship. Let me begin by quoting words I take to be both exemplary for the tradition in question and pertinent to our discussion of "nature religion":

Yet there is so much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, and the eternal in man. The more uncertain I have felt about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things. In fact it seems to me as if that alienation which so long separated me from the world has become transferred into my own inner world, and has revealed to me an unexpected unfamiliarity with myself.

This striking passage appears on the last page of C.G. Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections , written at the end of his long life and career in psychology. It was initially pointed out to me for its evocative oddness by James Hillman, Jung's revisionist successor, in connection with a theme Hillman has pursued since at least 1982, when he published an article on it entitled "Anima Mundi : The Return of the Soul to the World."

By this Hillman means the return of psychological subjectivity to the outer, non-human world, including the world of nature. There is more to be said about this ambitiously "post-Jungian" theme and its bearing upon the problematics of "nature religion" as a theoretical construct. But first we need to consider carefully the large inferences Hillman draws from Jung's strange statement.

After some sixty years of contributions to the modern psychological delineation of subjectivity, the search for individual self-knowledge, there is a dramatic shift in Jung's orientation. Notice, with Hillman, all that he is shifting away from: his statement refers to "that alienation which so long separated me from the world." For James Hillman and his fellow post-Jungians, such an alienation from the world is endemic to the rise of Western psychology itself , to which Jung gave so much. It implies an alienation of psyche from nature that was required for Western psychology's construction of the self-conscious self.

Now all psyche, all living soul-qualities, must be withdrawn from nature in order for the modern self, psychology's self, Jung's self, our selves, to subsist. A relationship that was once a sacred one, an animistic interaction through which soul was "in" the natural world as well as "in" the subjective self, could not continue , Hillman and his colleagues are inferring, if psychology were to develop. One of these colleagues, Michael Whan, has written of a modern "dehumanization of nature" and a "denaturing of psychology" that had to occur simultaneously for us to experience the subjective identities we take for granted today. The most basic ingredient, one would think, in a full-fledged nature religion--the perception of a sacred ensouled ecology--has been rendered unreal by and for our psychology.

Even the term "animism" which we use to name the, if you will, naturally-religious nature religion of pre-modern or indigenous peoples, the "ecological perspective" which Catherine Albanese says in Nature Religion in America "came, for the most part, easily--unselfconsciously--among traditional tribal peoples," comes into English as a derogatory designation from anthropology, to be joined by its psychological accomplice, "projection."

There could be no psyche in nature, no anima or animating force. Only humans could contain such qualities, which they might then "project" superstitiously, impermissibly, upon the flora and fauna of the environmental surround. The birth and growth of psychology has thus abetted the "death of nature" even before the pesticides began to poison the waters or chloroflorocarbons punched a hole in the ozone layer. Another post-Jungian, Peter Bishop, writing about depth psychology as a deep ecology, makes this point forcefully. Just as Australian aborigines hold "increase ceremonies" where "sacred stories are told, songs sung, and dances performed" to keep local fauna and flora from dying, Bishop notes, so for us "until the things of the world are soulfully recognized then we already walk in a cemetary. We don't need to wait for the material degradation to catch up. The worst has already happened."

While Augustine's confessionalism and the philosophies of Descartes and Kant--not to mention the domestication of animals, the advent of written language, Indo-European patriarchalism, biblical transcendentalism, and the Industrial Revolution--surely prepared the ground for our modern alienation from the natural world, psychology has provided its culmination with the arrogation to the human subject of all subjectivity, all psyche, all soul. Accordingly, seen from a psychological standpoint--a standpoint we cannot now evade, though we may be unconscious of it--any nature religion which takes an ensouled, or animistic, nature as its focus can only be "psychological," or psychopathological: projective, romantic, nostalgic, deluded. So long as the nature of psychology itself remains what, in the post-Jungians' view, it has been for us thus far, we can have no comprehensive definition of "nature religion" that does not acknowledge this reality of alienation we in the modern West inherit.

This means that a psychology of nature religion true to its own disciplinary origins would have to say that, as a theoretical construct, "nature religion" applied to any modern practice names only a yearning, a fantasy, perhaps a kind of impossibility. Our recourse to the word "symbol" in defining the role of nature in a "nature religion," by the way, may be masking this situation or only dimly acknowledging it: does nature, in such definitions, "symbolize" its own former sacrality, an ensouled ecology which had once been available to perception?

But having understood what post-Jungians say are the sources and strictures of the alienation from nature that psychology has wrought, we need also to reflect on the strange shift Jung felt at the very end of his life and described at the close of his autobiography to inspire a reader like James Hillman.

We recall that, having felt a "kinship with all things" ("plants, animals, clouds, day and night, and the eternal in man"), Jung also encounters "an unexpected unfamiliarity" with himself, an uncertainty about himself. Here is confessed a startling reversal that we can see, with Hillman, as the genesis of a sweeping eco psychology, offering a measure of hope that the alienation from nature and the severe obstacles to a modern nature religion imposed by a psychological culture might be mitigated if not overturned.

Beyond modest if valuable ecopsychological efforts to psychoanalyze attitudes toward environmentalism or to use diagnostic categories to assess the mental causes of our historical divorce from nature, psychology's sense of the boundaries of the self will need to expand, so that the individual psyche, losing its familiar isolation, might become an "eco-psyche," participating in the subjectivity of the more-than-human as well as human realms. Such a reconceptualizing of the self would, at its most extreme, require that psychology revision its own nature and purpose, admittedly a political unlikelihood. Still, we who are trying to reflect upon nature religion's contemporary reality would be well-advised to take account of these post-Jungian issues and options.

Such a psychological education would learn, for instance, that through sensing a kind of widespread cultural grieving for the biosphere--perhaps that soulful recognition of the things of nature for which Peter Bishop called--post-Jungians also allow the possibility that psyche is manifesting itself once more in the outer world. This, at least, is an implication of Hillman's 1982 article on the return of the soul to the world, where he says that. . . that cataclysm, that pathologized image of the world destroyed, is awakening again a recognition of the soul in the world. The anima mundi stirs our hearts to respond: we are at last, in extremis , concerned about the world; love for it arising, material things again lovable. For where there is pathology there is psyche, and where psyche, eros. The things of the world again become precious, desirable, even pitiable in their millennial suffering from Western humanity's hubristic insult to material things.

The ramifications of Hillman's heartfelt words here are worth probing in relation to what I am proposing about the need for an ecopsychology in relation to "nature religion."

He emphasizes, for one thing, that "the more we confine interiority to within the individual, the more we lose the sense of soul as a psychic reality . . . within all things." Notice the critique of individualism that comes with this application of the anima mundi perspective. A return of soul to the world in a revolutionary ecopsychology will entail a more communitarian focus. As Hillman puts it,

In place of the familiar notion of psychic reality based on a system of private experiencing subjects and dead public objects, I want to advance a view prevalent in many cultures (called primitive and animistic by Western cultural anthropologists), which also returned for a short while in ours at its glory through Florence and Marsilio Ficino. I am referring to the world soul [anima mundi ] of Platonism which means nothing less than the world ensouled.

But it is important to understand that the Renaissance sense of an anima mundi , which he significantly equates here with tribal animism, is not only a "view" being "advanced" by Hillman intellectually. It is also, he insists, a presence experienced through the pain of our alienation from the world , including our mistreatment of non-human nature. "Psychology," he says, "always advances its consciousness by means of pathologized revelations, through the Underworld of anxiety. Our ecological fears announce that things are where the soul now claims psychological attention." This assertion connects to the point mentioned above about the appropriateness of cultural grieving, what the late Michael Perlman wrote about as an "ecology of mourning."

To reiterate, a post-Jungian ecopsychology, collective as well as individual, emotional as well as intellectual, does not have to succeed politically at present for it to be of value to those of us seeking to understand "nature religion" as a theoretical construct. So let me conclude with a few inferences for the panel to consider.

Near the end of her Nature Religion in America Catherine Albanese refers to Starhawk's version of contemporary nature religion, her Goddess spirituality, as a "religion of ecology." To be sure, Professor Albanese does not propose that that ascription be accepted as a base-line definition of nature religion. I, however, am proposing that we entertain something very similar. Not only does post-Jungian ecopsychology almost comprise a species of postmodern nature religion itself, but its perspective could usefully inform the definition of any contemporary Western nature religion. To move from the Algonkian Indians facing the Puritans with what Nature Religion in America calls an easy and unselfconscious ecological perspective to the probably difficult and presumably selfconscious religion of ecology in Starhawk's New-Age nature spirituality is a psycho-historical transit that requires something akin to the ecopsychological thinking of Hillman and colleagues to encompass fully as theory.

Clearly theoreticians and practitioners alike need to be selfconscious about historical and sociological factors in the construction of "nature religion." But I am highlighting the psychological ones both because of my area of specialization and because they have been the most neglected ones. And therefore what, in sum, I should like to recommend is that the understanding of the changing relationship between the human subject and other-than-human nature represented by post-Jungian ecopsychology be thoughtfully applied to our deliberations concerning what most centrally constitutes "nature religion" today.