I have a confession to make. I am an animist.

This may surprise or confuse you since ten days ago I said I was a sister in the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans. At that time I spoke about how the deconstructing of binaries characterizes the gift (or charism) of Francis and Clare to the church and the world. I mentioned the binary that separates humans and the rest of creation, setting us over everything else. I did not, however, deconstruct the binary of the divine and creation.

So, let me explain what I believe about animism.

“Animism,” from the Latin word anima for “breath, spirit, or life,” refers to the belief that objects, places, and creatures (animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, and so on) are all animated and “alive,” possessing a distinct spiritual essence. This definition is from Wikipedia. Merriam Webster’s second definition is this: “An attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or in inanimate objects.” And the first definition that Dictionary.com gives is: “The belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls.”

I’ll need to do better than that. First of all, I’m not a dualist. I don’t believe there’s a supernatural realm and that the “soul” (or whatever we might call it) has a separate substance or reality apart from the material body with which it is associated.

I’m a monist. I believe that consciousness or mindedness, intelligence, wakefulness, or awareness is intrinsic to matter and energy, and even the vacuum of space, that is, to whatever is physical. The two are not separate things or substances or realms. I think they are as inseparable aspects of the same thing, as the inside is from the outside.

Nor can one simply be reduced to the other. Consciousness cannot be reduced to the physical activity of neurons, nor can neural activity be reduced to pure consciousness. I agree therefore with neither idealism nor materialism. One cannot be explained in terms of the other.

My choice of words — consciousness, mind, intelligence, wakefulness, awareness — does not reflect an intention to anthropomorphize awareness. I am not saying that other forms of awareness are the same as ours. We humans do not even perceive the same way as each other; we don’t even experience our bodies in the same way. How much more is this the case between different kinds of animals. Yet, that they are intelligent and aware is unquestionable. In the past, modern humans have suggested that animals were mere machines reacting to stimuli, that they experience nothing. Perhaps more than a shameless few still think this. I do not expect that my reader would.

Even trees are intelligent, aware of their environment, responding to it, communicating with other trees, and so on. Science has become increasingly aware of the intelligence that is at work among plants. Can a lifeform without a nervous system be conscious? I believe so, but it would be a form of consciousness so different from our own that we probably could not imagine it. The same is true of fungi and their network of mycelium. More intelligence is at work in the soil than we ever knew about before.

When we consider Gaia (the planet as a system), or any ecosystem and its subsystem, even a river or a mountain, or a bacterium or another single-cell creature, or even an atom or quark, we see intelligence, even choice, at play. Can we say that they are not aware and therefore in some way conscious? We may choose to say so, but we cannot prove it. We can only arbitrarily draw a line by our criteria and then assert that the things on one side of this line are conscious (for example, humans, or humans and mammals — and birds) and all the things on the other side of the line (for example, rocks and minerals — and plants) are not, even if they act intelligent-ly.

Life on Earth has evolved together in a balanced web of interrelations, as a whole ecology. One element (such as humans) cannot be singled out as more evolved than other elements since they all evolved together in interrelationship to each other. Complexity of intelligence does not fall out into a hierarchy of species. If we are conscious, then the entirety of the web of life is probably conscious, and like ourselves, so is each element of the web individually.

This is a basic point about my animistic “faith.” Whatever is and its intelligence and its mindedness are inextricable. Everything is minded. I am finding this to be very hard to articulate; I certainly can’t claim that what I have said is precise or exact (or even accurate). I’m asking you to follow me with your intuition!

Everything also exists in relation; everything is connected. Everything is aware of what is in its environment and responds to it; it even communicates. Nothing is isolated. Things seem to relate to other things even when there is no physical contact; perhaps there is only memory, or not even that.

Moreover, as much as I perceive my surroundings, what is in my surroundings also perceives me. This is undeniable in a natural setting. I am being perceived by the myriad of lifeforms around me, but also by the landscape (however subtly). There seems to be some kind of mutuality of “wakefulness” that makes each of our different awarenesses of the other possible.

This suggests to me that mind or consciousness is a field that is bigger than any one perceiver. What if everything exists in this field, a field without boundaries? What if we are immersed in consciousness like it were an ocean, a boundless ocean? What if consciousness is not something inside us (in our brains or nervous systems) but rather outside ourselves? What if it is all around us and our sense of consciousness is only our participation in it, through our sensory perceptions and memories? We identify consciousness with perception, but what if our perception takes place within a shared awareness?

What if the thing we call our self is a construct created by the localization of our sensory perceptions by our nervous system and by the memory that clings to the changing form of our bodies? What if consciousness is one, and the sense that we have of plurality is from our experience of consciousness by our participation in it through our separate senses and memories?

Then consciousness, as we are mutually aware of each other, is between us as much as within us, or rather, in terms of consciousness, there is no “within” except the sensations within the confines of my skin. But consciousness itself is in the emptyness between us and which our bodies occupy.

Then I might be talking about not only monistic animism but a kind of pantheism.

The question of pantheism arises from the question of the oneness of consciousness and its inseparability from everything that is: matter, energy, space, and all their structures and recurring patterns. The questions I have are

  1. whether to call it pan-theism at all — for we could deny that there is anything “divine” about it (this might only be relevant semantically, for we may choose to call it divine or not, depending on what we mean by “divine”), and
  2. whether there is a divinity beyond this One.

We can call the intelligence of an ecosystem a goddess, implying consciousness, and we would not be wrong. However, when we take the perception of the awareness in which both I and the ecosystem are immersed and turn it into a word that conjures an anthropomorphic image (in which we imagine a very human-like consciousness), we have separated this ideation from reality and distorted it. We have taken what is wild and mysterious and made it seem familiar and manageable.  This happens when people superficially adopt neopaganism. So, while my view of everything being conscious might be considered polytheistic, to do so would overlook my understanding that the consciousness of everything is One.

As mysterious and unfamiliar as the presence of awareness all around me is — the incomprehensible differences in perspectives — it is not alien to me, for the perception of me on the part of the one whom I am perceiving and my perception of the one perceiving me are both soaking in the same sink of awareness. This is what’s mysterious, not simply the incomprehensibleness of another’s different perspective through different faculties of perception.

Moreover, how do I know that what we each are feeling is not shared in some way? Am I sharing it with the other or is the other actually sharing it with me, and how do we each in our own way perceive this “feeling”?

In any case, is there a Creator who made all this, or is all this self-created? Is there a transcendent divinity that is outside, above and beyond creation, or that is more than creation though including it (a doctrine called panentheism)?

In short, I do not believe so. How I come to this conclusion, on historical and metaphysical grounds, would require another essay. In any case, the idea of a transcendent divinity is a construct, and seems to exist only in the mind, arising as a result of the invention of the phonetic alphabet, first among the Hebrews and then, after the vowels were alphabetized, the Greeks. Transcendentalizing the divine is moreover unnecessary.

Transcendence can describe how the mystical experience of the One transcends the limits of our ability to comprehend it. The One can be “known” but cannot be thought. This is true. The divine can only be known within a certain “unknowing” by the cognition. Nevertheless, this transcendence to cognition does not mean that the divine is transcendent to creation. If mystics have said otherwise as they sought to collaborate their insights with orthodoxy, I disagree with their interpretive conclusions. In doing so, however, I am not (necessarily) discounting their experience or even their basic insight.

We experience creation in time but creation also exists in simultaneity, apart from time, that is, in eternity. It might be that time emerged out of a singularity and returns to the same singularity, as if eternity unfolded into time and time will enfold back into eternity. All of the multiverses exist in this singularity, which is one and the same at the beginning and end of their times, and therefore time takes place within eternity and, therefore, is always accompanied by eternity as its own transcendence.

If we were to equate, however, the eternity of creation with the transcendence of the divine, and our existence in time as creation “proper” and where the divine is immanent, the divine would still not be other than creation, not even more than the creation, for the creation is still all there is.

It is an interesting idea that would help retain the transcendent/immanent distinction in Christianity, for example. However, while this transcendence of the divine — eternity —can be known in a moment of insight into the present moment, or known in an insight as the Alpha and Omega of creation, the experience of the divine in time (acting historically) would still be of immanence and not transcendence. Therefore, the idea of a divinity separate from creation acting upon or within creation, which is what we have in our traditional theologies, does not hold up.

This idea of a divinity, distinct from and independent of creation (however immanent it makes itself in its creation), is a patriarchal construct — which is why historically this deity is so often portrayed as a strongman bully-god — and, while descriptive of a version of the superego, is not truly descriptive of our experience of the divine, which we are and in which we are, and which is all around us present and alive and active in everything.

This everywhere animistic presence of mind can be called “divine,” in which case I am describing a certain kind of pantheism, but the word might simply reify an experience of perception and using it might take us away from the perceptual reality of it. In this case, the “-theism” in “pantheism” is problematic and mislabels that to which the word “pantheism” attempts to refer.

The appellations “God” or “Goddess” or even “divinity” for the ubiquity of consciousness may, therefore, be misleading. Yet if one were to ask if I believe in one divinity, I would nevertheless have to deny two-dimensional materialistic atheism and point to this ubiquity of awareness that is intrinsic to and inseparable from matter and energy and space.

This then is the confession I make:

I am a monistic animist pantheist.

For further reading I suggest first of all the ecophenomenologist David Abram, who relies a lot on the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (whom I have yet to study): everything you can get your hands on. There’s also Ted Toadvine, whom I have yet to read.

I found Emma Restall Orr’s 2012 book quite helpful: The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature. She engages the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas as well as other great Western thinkers.

In the past, I also found Christian de Quincey’s book on panpsychism, Radical Nature (2010). He takes an in-depth look at the postmodern cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead in particular. While this book is thorough, and I have read Whitehead in the past, I have yet to research Whitehead to the extent that I can understand his writings on this topic independently.

Now, did Francis and Clare deconstruct the binary of the divine and creation? At first glance, the answer would have to be “no.” However, if we look at the initial inspiration of these two saints, between 1204 and 1215, before the Fourth Lateran Council which overawed Francis and which grated upon Clare, we might wonder. If we limit our consideration even further to their vision and forma vitae prior to 1209, when the Pope Innocent III tonsured Francis and commissioned him and his brothers to preach, the initial inspiration might become even clearer. It was to this original vision that Francis returned in the last years of his life when he returned to Clare and her sisters and wrote the Canticle of the Creatures.

If we consider this Francis (and this Clare), then it seems to me that their experience of the divine (before their over-involvement with clergy and theologians) was naively phenomenological in practice. Francis never departed from his animistic tendencies, and in the end, when Francis recapitulated his vision in the Canticle of the Creatures, we hear him speaking possibly as a panentheist or even as a pantheist. (Commentators explain that he speaks as a “mystic,” not a scholastic theologian.) If we consider how Francis and Clare related to the divine and the creation in these periods of Francis’ life that I singled out (reading critically the years of his infatuation with the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council and the papacy’s betrayal of his vision in 1220) and for the duration of Clare’s life (she lived for 27 more years after Francis’ death), I do not think it is qualitatively different than what I am confessing as my own “faith.”

Whether this way of believing measures up to the criteria of acceptable Christian belief, is a question I’m not going to worry about.

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