Welcome to Love of Place. Most of my work celebrates our connection to the natural world.

My Knocking on Heaven's Door is the winner in the category of science fiction in the 2016 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards and in the category of fiction in the 2016 Arizona Authors Association Awards. A number of reviewers have been enthusiastic, including the website Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom! But I am happy to embrace the complexity of my personality.

I'm also so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World has been awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, as well as the 2014 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West.

My historical fantasy Teresa of the New World won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association Award for best Children's Literature and was a finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards.

These are nice landmarks in a writer's life. I would be writing regardless--but, still, whew. It's good to have some encouragement.

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com or through my author Facebook page, Sharman Apt Russell.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Below is included the final sections of the first chapter to Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist. Included here is a discussion of Baruch Spinoza and a definition of scientific pantheism.


My experience on a porch step in a small American town is a version of pantheism first expressed in the seventeenth century. In 1656, the Jewish community of Amsterdam excommunicated the twenty-three-year-old Baruch Spinoza for his “evil opinions” and “abominable heresies.” The cherem or banishment of the young man was unusually harsh:

Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smote against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven.

Although the Jewish elders did not record the nature of these heresies, they likely referred to the pantheism that Spinoza would develop fully in his mature work Ethics, which on publication in 1670 was immediately banned and suppressed throughout Europe. Spinoza’s ideas were not new. Greek philosophers in the sixth century B.C.E. had also rejected the idea of supernatural gods in favor of a universe made up of a single divine substance. Centuries later, the pantheistic Roman Stoics believed in a divine Unity which they called God or Fate or Providence or the logos. As recently as 1600, the scholar Bruno Giordano had been burned at the stake by the Inquisition for his notion of an immanent God who could assume many forms. But Spinoza was the first to describe pantheism in a way that would appeal to a more modern and scientific sensibility, offering what he saw as a logical “geometric proof” that God was and could only be an infinite substance identical with Nature. Ethics remain Western philosophy’s most coherent and complete defense of this idea.

Spinoza concluded that nothing can exist outside God. There can be no Creation outside the Creator. At one point in Ethics, he lightly scolded, “There are those who imagine God to be like a man, composed of body and soul and subject to passions; but it is clear enough from what has already been demonstrated how far off men who believe this are from the true knowledge of God.” He later conceded that if a triangle could think, it would also imagine God to be like a triangle. But both triangle and man were wrong.

Spinoza’s logic led him to deny personal or individual immortality. Something eternal lived on when a human being died but it was not that human’s personality or soul. There was no after-life in the sense of a heaven or hell. There was no relationship with a loving, engaged, personal Father. The Bible said these things because the Bible was written by people who wanted to believe them. God did not write the Bible. God didn’t really care about human beings. God was existence itself.

These ideas were a harsh rejection of both Jewish and Christian tradition--and for that time and place, very dangerous. People were being imprisoned, tortured, and executed for less. Spinoza knew this and wrote discreetly, sometimes just to friends, sometimes anonymously. His major work Ethics was kept in a desk drawer and only published after his death by lung disease at the age of forty-four.

The philosopher himself never used the word pantheism. That would be left to one of his disciples, an Irish writer named John Toland who first coined the term in the early 1700s. In honor of his mentor, Toland also called pantheists “Spinozists.” Toland had his own problems with Church authorities and lived in fear of religious persecution for most of his life. He waited until he had nothing to lose—until he was sick, dying, alcoholic, and penniless--to write and distribute his personal manifesto, which he titled Pantheisticon.

Toland’s description of pantheism relied more on poetry than logic. Grandly, he proclaimed, “The sun is my father, the earth my mother, the world is my country, and all men are my family.” He defined a pantheist as someone who believed that the only eternal and divine being was the material universe, which was infinite with an infinite number of stars and other earths circling their suns. Thought was a property of the brain. Soul was another. Thought and soul were forms of matter, and death was the endless transformation of matter. The death of one thing brought about the birth of something else, contributing “to the preservation and welfare of the Whole by a continual change of forms and a marvelous variation which forms an eternal cycle.” Virtue was its own reward.

At odds with the religion and culture of his day, Toland was a lonely man. In Pantheisticon, he indulged himself and imagined a secret society in which his ideas were celebrated and applauded--a network of private, underground clubs with pantheistic creeds and rituals. In such a refuge, educated gentlemen could eat, drink, joke, and debate philosophy. Toland wrote as if such clubs existed, and one British Druid Order claims it descended from such a gathering in 1717. A few believers think that Toland started the Masons.

Whatever the case, the meetings described in the Pantheisticon would make for a pleasant evening. The president begins by ejecting any unworthy or dangerous outsiders, “Make sure that vulgar laymen are far away.” The community responds in unison, “The doors are locked, we are in safety.” The president exults, “All things in the world are One, and One in All in all things.” The community praises, “What is all in all things is God, and God is eternal, has not been created, and will never die.”

Toland died hoping for a future of religious tolerance. He would be delighted today with the World Pantheist Movement, a lively Internet-based organization founded in 1998 with over a thousand members in fifty countries. The WPM’s earnest goal is to promote pantheism and support the values of environmental activism and human rights. Their advisors include scientists like James Lovelock, author of the Gaia theory, and cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, a prominent figure in another organization called the Institute of Religion in an Age of Science. Secrecy in such clubs is no longer necessary, and the small membership of these groups may be misleading. Paul Harrison, founder of the World Pantheist Movement, believes that up to 10% of people in the religions of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as many others outside organized religion, have quietly abandoned their belief in a personal god or after-life even as they retain a strong sense of religiosity. These 200-350 million have shifted their focus of reverence from the supernatural to the natural. After parsing out the history and meaning of pantheism, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy agrees, “There are probably more grass-root pantheists than Protestants or theists in general.”
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Like any religion, pantheism disagrees with itself. There is confusion and contradiction. We can define pantheism as the belief that the universe is an inter-related whole which deserves human reverence. Everything is God. But the definition of everything varies.

What Paul Harrison calls scientific pantheism imagines the universe to be made of one substance--matter/energy. The dance of matter/energy is beautiful and holy but also impersonal and non-sentient. As Spinoza first outlined, human consciousness is a product of matter and dies when the body dies.

For a few pantheists, including some Hindus and Buddhists, the reverse is true. The universe is also made of one substance, but that substance is mind, not matter. Matter is an illusion, a product of mind. Everything is God, and God is consciousness.

Other pantheists (also known as dualists) separate the universe into two substances, matter and spirit. Since spirit can exist without matter, the human soul can exist outside the human body--beyond death. There may be a collective World-Soul which manifests in different forms, such as gods. A form of soul or spirit may be present in plants, animals, and rocks. This kind of pantheist might also be a polytheist or an animist. He or she might have a magical worldview—supposing, for example, that simply thinking about an object can affect that object and that nothing is bound by merely physical laws. Non-flying things can sometimes fly. Non-thinking things can sometimes think.

I don’t believe that. I am a scientific pantheist, credulous in my own way. The culture of science is a distinct one and certainly mine. I believe that the latest discoveries in biology, chemistry, and physics are true, or at least true for the moment, for science is a method, not a destination. I believe we live in the body of the world and that we are compelled to know the world. We are compelled to witness. Thoreau set the bar, “The woman who sits in the house and sees is a match for a stirring captain. Those still, piercing eyes, as faithfully exercised on their talent, will keep her even with Alexander or Shakespeare.” I believe in that woman. I believe that what we see is real and important and we have a natural urge to see ever more clearly.

I believe that I live inside larger laws. In the culture of science, the religious impulse can be explained by evolutionary biology. Religion either had some genetically inheritable advantage or was a byproduct of something that did. That’s fine with me. The fact that a sense of the numinous may be hardwired does not make the numinous less of a true feeling. Similarly, if I know anything as a parent, I know I would give my life for my child. The fact that maternal love is hardwired does not change that love. Moreover, I would not want to feel differently. I would not want not to love.

I believe that science is about connection and complexity, harmony and surprise. Science is about beauty. The more I see--the more I know--the more beautiful the world seems. Importantly, the way I experience beauty has always been physical. The yellow sunflower hits me with a friendly punch. A mountain view causes a flutter in my chest, a subtle movement, something like an ache. We say that the heart soars, a common description for what we feel before a beautiful natural scene (or a painting or a piece of music). There is a sense of hollowness, a hormonal cascade. There are sensations.

Neurologically, however, I am not built for mysticism. My heart soars at the sight of beauty. Something in my chest flutters. But I never faint or have aural hallucinations. My spiritual responses are not dramatic. Because of this, I have to work hard for my religious view. I have to have faith.

My sense of beauty is also limited, almost always evoked by the natural world. Once I did feel an enormous connection, the heightened pleasure of existence, standing in line at a pharmacy in WalMart. All that color! All those things! And the smiling, complicated faces of people. I recognize that humans are not outside nature and our accomplishments are often extraordinary. But for the most part, I am moved to an understanding of the divine by the non-human, the Beloved-that-is-not-me. In this, I am fairly conventional. A lot of my friends feel the same way.

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For a long time after we moved into town, I felt content--even smug. It seemed to me that I could be content almost anywhere, with my family and my writing. I was adaptable. I was self-sufficient. I didn’t know myself very well. I didn’t know that in moving to the country and choosing to stay there for fifteen years, I had followed an instinct. I had heard a voice. Someone had been yelling in my ear: this is who you are. This is what you need. Pay attention.

After we lived in Silver City for about five years, I stopped attending Quaker Meeting. I didn’t discuss this with any of my Quaker friends. I kept paying my yearly dues and receiving my monthly newsletter. I just slowly drifted away. I missed one Meeting and then another and then another. I stopped waiting for the Light. Of course, I was very busy, a working mother of two teenagers. That seemed a good enough excuse.

Today, I am crazy with desire—anxious, grouchy, determined--to move back to the country and reclaim myself. By now, Peter and I have sold our first homestead and bought new property in another rural area also thirty miles from town. These six acres in the Gila Valley adjoin eighty acres of a Nature Conservancy wildlife refuge on the Gila River. Our land, once again, is near the Gila National Forest which extends for another three million acres and includes the Gila Wilderness and Aldo Leopold Wilderness. The scattered communities of Gila and Cliff number about five hundred, a settlement dominated by Mormons and the descendents of ranchers, supplemented by retirees and old and new hippies. The Nature Conservancy sponsors the study of the Gila River, and visiting scientists are part of the mix. Our view includes irrigated farmland, the rugged folds of Bear Mountain, and a more distant view of the Black Hills. We have paid more than we can afford for this and understand better that every country house is a satellite to the city. This time we won’t pretend to grow our own food or sustain ourselves on the land. We go to the country for reflection and redemption. We go despite the fact that living in town is more ecological. We go with a new set of illusions. We will live here until we die or die trying.

This past summer, my father-in-law gave us money to build on our new property a large single room with a bathroom and kitchen, a place where we can live part-time until we manage the move from our jobs in town. The little house was finished in October. An extended porch wraps around walls filled with windows and French doors, as many as I could get for a 360 degree view. We visit the house every weekend and sometimes stay longer, commuting again to work. Every time I look out a window, I hope for the lift of a sandhill crane, a quail or fox, a herd of javelina. Every time, every single time, I am hungry for something.

I can not say now that I am content. Both my children are in college this fall, and I suffer, I grieve, the loss of my life as a mother. You do something for twenty years, and it feels good, it feels important, and then you are out of the game—fast, like a football player with bad knees. The glory years are over. Goodbye to baby smells, doctor appointments, homework assignments, PTA, deep concerns, daily concerns. Every morning you had a reason to get up. You were always needed. You were never lonely. Goodbye to all that. As parents, we are not supposed to admit this selfish sorrow. Certainly we are not supposed to wallow in it.

I am 51 years old, sliding toward death, and I don’t much like myself. I have failed at so many things—not the very best writer, not the very best wife or friend, not even the very best parent. I don’t much like the world either, which is too full of suffering and disease and war, as the world has always been. I am acutely aware of how my country has betrayed itself, refusing once again to fulfill its potential. I am acutely aware of how humanity has betrayed itself, poisoning the earth, heedless of the future we create for our children. As a Quaker, I have lost my sense of the Light. I dislike town. I don’t feel special. I am surrounded by miracles—the porch step, the blue sky, black ravens croaking and gurgling—only I don’t see the connection. What do they have to do with me?

Still, I feel hopeful. My husband and I have a house in the Gila Valley and a new view of mountains. Living in nature will restore me. This time, I will pay more attention. This time I will take along some friends, books I haven’t read for many years, some things I have forgotten. I will take along my science, my neglected pantheism, my neglected Quakerism. If I know anything, I know that I do not want to live in a universe devoid of community, mystery, and awe. I do not want to be alone in my brain, my timid and lazy personality, unconnected to the rest of the world. I cast my lot with Spinoza, Thoreau, and Einstein. I want to live every minute in a holy universe, so pleased and grateful to be part of this existence.

Of pantheism, I will ask the questions we must ask any religion. How can I lead a better and more joyful life? How can I come to terms with my death and suffering? How can I come to terms with all death and suffering? How should we live as humans on the earth? How can we be at home here?

This time, during my days and nights in the Gila Valley, rooting my life back into the natural world, this time I will go deeper.

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