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2. The Worship of Nature

If we set out to make a survey of the religions that have been practised at different times and places by the numerous human societies and communities of whom we have some knowledge, our first impression will be one of a bewilderingly infinite variety. Yet, on consideration and analysis, this apparent variety resolves itself into variations on Man’s worship or quest of no more than three objects or objectives: namely, Nature; Man himself; and an Absolute Reality that is not either Nature or Man but is in them and at the same time beyond them.

Anyone who has been brought up in the tradition of one of the Judaic religions will have been predisposed by his spiritual heritage to approach Reality in Its personal aspect as God—the One True God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and this approach to Reality may be called an act of worship as aptly as the act of worshipping Man or worshipping Nature. But Muslim, Christian, and Jewish mystics pass on from this worship of Reality as a personality to a union with Reality in which the distinction between personalities fades away; and this vision of Reality as a unitive, undifferentiated, and impersonal state of Being—a vision which is hard to attain for a traveller along the Judaic path—is the first glimpse of Reality which the same traveller would have been predisposed to catch if the accident of birth had endowed him with an Indian spiritual background instead of a Judaic one. A Buddhist or a Hindu will approach Reality in its impersonal aspect as Nirvāna (a state attained through the extinction of Desire) or as Brahma1 (undifferentiated, and therefore ineffable, Being); and his spiritual activity will not be an act of worship. If he is a Buddhist, it will be a process of purgation, in which the state of Nirvāna will be reached when Desire has burnt itself out. If he is a Hindu, it will be a process of union with Reality which it might be more accurate to describe as an intuition that the apparent distinction between his own personality and the Absolute is illusory.

Thus, though the first approaches of the Indian and the Judaic religions are made from different angles along different paths, the Indian vision of Reality as an impersonal state of Being is not unknown to the Judaic religions; and, conversely, the personal aspect of Reality, which is to the fore in the Judaic religions, is not unknown to the Indian religions. The Hinayanian Buddhist gospel of self-liberation through self-extinction has not been able to dispense with the spiritual support of a human saviour in the person of the Buddha Gautama. The Mahāyāna’s line of approach to Reality lies through the human wayfarer’s relation with a bodhisattva who, in all but name, is a personal saviour-god. In post-Buddhaic Hinduism, the Mahayanian bodhisattvas have their counterparts in saviours who are personal and divine avowedly.

Thus the difference between the Indian and the Judaic vision of Reality proves, on examination, to be, not a difference in view, but one of emphasis. In both visions, Reality reveals itself in two aspects, as a personal God and as a unitive state of spiritual Being; neither of these aspects is eliminated in either vision; and, whether we are thinking primarily in Indian or primarily in Judaic terms, we cannot think of Reality as being either Brahma-Nirvāna or God exclusively. Throughout this inquiry, we shall have to try to think in terms of both the personal and the impersonal aspect of Reality at once; and this comprehensive way of thinking is hard to achieve and no less hard to express. The personal form of expression will be likely to predominate in a book written primarily for Christian or ex-Christian readers by a writer brought up in a Christian milieu. But, wherever the present writer drops into this Christian Judaic usage, the reader must construe his Judaic language as a shorthand script for referring to Reality in both of those two, out of its perhaps innumerable, facets that have revealed themselves, so far, to human seekers.

If we are right in concluding that all the higher religions have an identical object of their worship, or objective of their quest, in a Reality that is one and the same behind its diverse aspects or facets, we shall be confirmed in our finding that the alternative objects or objectives of Religion are only three; and we shall then find that the history of Man’s choice between these three alternatives is a drama that, in our time, is not yet in its last act. We can already, perhaps, make out the elements of the plot, but we do not yet know the denouement. Man begins by worshipping Nature; when he ceases to worship Nature, he is left with a spiritual vacuum which he is impelled to fill; and he is then confronted with the choice of substituting for the worship of Nature either a worship of himself or an approach to Absolute Reality through the worship of God or quest for Brahma or for Nirvāna. This religious issue was raised by the recent rise of the civilizations, and it has not yet been decided. In a twentieth-century world in which the whole living generation of Mankind is being knit together into a single society within a framework built by Western technology, this is the fundamental issue underlying all current economic, political, and ideological controversies. Shall Man worship Man or shall he worship God and seek Brahma-Nirvāna?

Of these three religions or spiritual paths that have been in competition for Man’s allegiance during the Age of the Civilizations, the worship of Nature is by far the oldest and the most deeply rooted. What Man’s original religion may have been is a question that was still under debate in A.D. 1956. The evidence existing at that date did not seem to warrant either the rejection or the adoption of Father W. Schmidt’s theory based on his observation of common elements in the religions of the most primitive surviving peoples, now scattered in holes and corners at opposite extremities of the inhabited surface of the Earth. Father Schmidt’s conclusion is that the worship of God which has been brought into the field by the latterday higher religions is a revival, not an innovation, and is, in fact, a revival of the earliest religion of Mankind.2 It is, indeed, conceivable that Man did not begin to worship Nature until he had begun to be able to manipulate her for his own purposes; for it would perhaps be difficult to worship a power which one had no hope of being able to influence. The worship of Nature will have had its floruit in the long age during which Man felt himself to be neither wholly impotent in the face of Nature (so that it was now no longer quite useless for him to try to influence her) nor wholly master of her (so that to try to influence her was still worth his while). This period, which will have begun when Man began to pass out of a purely passive food-gathering stage of winning his livelihood into a comparatively active hunting and fishing stage, must have lasted for hundreds of thousands of years. This is a long spell of time by comparison with the 3,000 years or thereabouts during which Man—having reached a stage in his history at which he is no longer willing to worship Nature because he fancies that he has subjugated her—has been torn between Man himself and God as the object of his worship (or between human power or happiness and Brahma-Nirvāna as his spiritual objective).

Man did achieve the subjugation of Non-Human Nature in the Upper Palaeolithic Age a few tens of thousands of years ago—at a date, that is to say, which is very recent on the Time-scale of the age of the Human Race, but is a considerable time ago on the Time-scale of the age of the civilizations. Since that date there has been no possibility of any other creature’s challenging Man’s supremacy on Earth, and no possibility of Man’s losing his battle with Inanimate Nature so long as the climate of the Earth’s surface remains within the range within which it has oscillated since this planet first gave harbour to Life. Before the close of the Upper Palaeolithic Age, all Man’s subsequent technological triumphs that have been achieved within these last few tens of thousands of years—down to the discovery of the techniques for combating or fostering disease-germs and for splitting the atom—were already virtually assured. They could have been predicted, no doubt, at any stage, by a twentieth-century man of science if he could have been carried back into the past by some Wellsian ‘time-machine’.

Yet, in spite of this apparently decisive and definitive victory of Man over Non-Human Nature, the worship of Nature is still to be seen embedded in the living higher religions. Its presence is very evident in current Hinduism (e.g. in the worship of the lingam as a symbol of the self-reproductive power of Life). It is also to be seen in the Mahāyāna (e.g. in the charting of the structure of the Subconscious Psyche in the mandala) and in Christianity (e.g. in the cult of the Mother and Child and in the sacrament of the Bread and the Wine). The worship of Nature is to be found even in Islam, which is the most rational of all the living Judaic higher religions, and which is a match for Judaism itself in the severity of its monotheism and in the clearness of its apprehension of the transcendent aspect of God. The Black Stone fetish embedded in the wall of the Ka’bah at Mecca may serve as a symbol of the survival of elements of Nature-worship, not only in Islam itself, but in all the living higher religions.

Moreover, these elements of Nature-worship embedded in living higher religions are something more than the fossilized remains of a dead primitive religion; they are indications that, below the surface of the Psyche, the worship of Nature is still alive. It is alive because the Non-Human Nature over which Man won his decisive victory in the Upper Palaeolithic Age is only one half—and this the less formidable half—of the Nature with which Man is confronted. The other half of Nature, with which Man still has to cope, is Nature as he finds her within himself.

Non-Human Nature can be subjugated by Man by main force. It is true that, on the face of the Earth in A.D. 1956, there were some striking exhibits—for instance, the ‘dust-bowls’ in the basins of the Yellow River and the Mississippi—of the posthumous revenge that even Non-Human Nature has sometimes succeeded in taking on her high-handed human conqueror. On the whole, however, she has yielded to Man like a docile sheep, whereas Human Nature has shown itself as refractory, and as recalcitrant to human control, as a goat or a camel or a mule. When Man tries to coerce Human Nature, he defeats his own purpose; for, so far from cowing it, coercion merely stimulates its obstinacy, rebelliousness, and animosity. It was Human Nature that Horace had in mind when he wrote that Nature will always keep on coming back at you, even if you drive her out with a pitchfork;3 and, in the Subconscious Psyche’s repertory of ‘primordial images’, this Nature that is Man’s inseparable and intractable companion is expressively portrayed as a bull. This creature, far stronger physically than Man, which Man has precariously subjugated by the exercise of his Intellect and his Will, is an apt symbol for those subconscious principalities and powers in the Psyche which are so much more difficult for the Intellect and the Will to cope with than any veritably non-human living creature is.

Two antithetical alternative policies for coping with this psychic bull are commended in two significant myths. In the Mithraic myth a hero slays the monster and staggers forward with his victim’s inseparable carcase weighing on his shoulders. In the Zen Mahayanian Buddhist myth a boy-herdsman makes friends with the great ox and comes home riding on the monster’s back to the music of the rider’s flute. The boy’s deft diplomacy is a more effective way of dealing with Man’s problem than the hero’s crude resort to force; for the force which sometimes recoils upon its user, even when Non-Human Nature is its target, is a wholly inappropriate instrument for dealing with the psychic bull. The contrast between these two antithetical policies lies at the heart of a problem which was exercising the people of the United States in the sequel to the Second World War. In a previous chapter of their history, in which they had been breaking in the physical continent of North America, the people of the United States had disposed of the historic bison on the Great Plains in Mithras’ way: they had just set upon him and exterminated him. But now they were having to cope with a psychic bison incarnate in the Russians, in the peoples of Asia and Africa and Indian America, in the Americans’ own European kinsmen, and, most awkward of all, in the Americans themselves; and this could not be done by the drastic methods that had proved so effective in dealing with forests, wild animals, and human savages who could be treated as part of their continent’s fauna. In A.D. 1956 the Americans were being pushed, by the sudden transformation of the dramatis personae on their stage, into changing over from the Mithraic tactics to the Zen Buddhist tactics at short notice, and this task of psychic re-adaptation was imposing on them a severe nervous strain.

The abiding untamed power of the great subconscious abyss of Human Nature has been underestimated by Man in Process of Civilization since the discovery of the Intellect and the Will by the philosophers, though the philosophers have not gone to the same lengths of hybris in all societies. In China the uncompromisingly rationalistic Legist school of philosophy was eventually driven off the field by a Confucian school which tempered its Rationalism with a conservative respect for a prerationalist tradition. In India the Hinayanian Buddhist school of philosophy recognized that the demonic sub-rational elements in Human Nature could not be conquered without an arduous struggle, and it was concerned to conserve psychic energy for employment on the Will’s formidable ethical enterprise by discouraging the Intellect from exploring the boundless realm of Metaphysics.4 Yet the Hīnayāna underestimated the difficulty of the task that it was setting itself; for it believed that Desire could be extinguished by the Intellect and the Will through their own unaided efforts. In Greece the rationalism of the philosophers was still more overweening. It was inclined to ignore the existence of the subconscious abyss of the Psyche altogether; to treat the Intellect and the Will as if they were the whole of Human Nature; and to deify them as if they were masters of the situation.

When the Intellect and the Will thus ignore the subconscious abyss of the Psyche, they do so at their peril; for, so far from being the whole of Human Nature, they are merely a spirit moving upon the face of the waters5—a feeble light cast by a wick that draws its faint luminosity from the opaque oil in the bowl of the lamp on whose surface the wick is floating. ‘The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.’6

At a time when this question of the relation between the Will and Intellect and the Subconscious Psyche was much on the writer’s mind, he found himself in Southern California among the green lawns of Los Angeles. The city is so extensive when measured by the standard of mobility even of the driver of an automobile that the pedestrian visitor is prone to forget that, on the map of the continent as seen by a traveller in an aeroplane, this garden-city which, on the ground, seems boundless, is merely a tiny patch of verdure marooned in the midst of a vast desert. Moreover, the green is so perpetual that the spectator is also prone to forget that it is kept in existence only by a likewise perpetual tour deforce. Though on every lawn he sees the sprinklers twisting and turning all day long, he soon comes to take the lawns for granted, as if they had been natural products of a non-existent rainfall. So it gives him a shock when on some vacant lot—kept vacant, perhaps, by a speculator in the hope of rising prices—he sees the savage desert sage-brush bristling up out of a parched and dusty ground. He then realizes that, under the artificial green lawns, the same savage Nature that has here broken its way to the surface is all the time eagerly waiting for an opportunity thus to come into its own again. This is the precarious position of the Intellect and Will. At any moment they may be impaled on the bristles of the sprouting sage-brush, be tossed on the horns of the goring bull, or be blown up from the crater of the erupting volcano. In spite of his pride of Intellect and Will, Man has, for his self-preservation, to find some way of coping with a Nature that, in the Human Psyche, is still untamed and that, in this psychic field, cannot be tamed by force. Man has met this need by unavowedly retaining the worship of Nature in an age in which his official object of worship is either himself or God. The relics of a once official Nature-worship that are visibly embedded in the living religions are only a small fraction of the Nature-worship that still survives, as the Pyramids and other visible remains of dead civilizations are small compared with the wealth of the relics that the archaeologists disinter from below the ground, and as the peak of an iceberg that protrudes above the surface of the sea is small compared with the mass of the iceberg’s submerged base.

The new Western science of Psychology, which has come into action in the lifetime of the living generation, has begun to reveal the vast subterranean temple of Nature-worship in the Psyche’s subconscious abyss; and it has already demonstrated that this worship—long since repudiated on the rational surface of Life—has survived at these lower levels because, at these depths, Human Nature is still as wild as ever it was. The Intellect and Will may have gained a decisive victory over External Physical Nature perhaps as long as 30,000 years ago; and, perhaps as long as 3,000 years ago, they may have staked out a claim to be the only elements in Human Nature that are of any account. Yet they are only just beginning, in our day, to discover, explore, and so perhaps master, step by step, the actually still untamed Inner Psychic Nature of Man himself.

The Nature that Man is still worshipping unavowedly in the subconscious depths of his psyche is Janus-faced.

The first aspect in which Nature presents herself to Man’s intellect and will is as a monster who is creating and destroying perpetually, prodigally, aimlessly, senselessly, ruthlessly, and immorally—or, it might be more accurate to say ‘unmorally’, since this bestial Nature does not seem even to be aware of there being any difference between right and wrong. This is the seamy side of the picture of the Universe that has its respectable side in the Indo-Hellenic vision of a cyclic movement governed by an Impersonal Law. Whereas the astronomical side of the picture deadens Human Life to insignificance, the demonic side livens the Universe into a nightmare of lust and of bloodthirstiness. In the external, physical dimension, this nightmare was seen at close quarters by the crew of the Kon-Tiki, who, in sailing across the Pacific on a raft awash, found themselves in direct contact with the only considerable province of an External Physical Nature which post-Palaeolithic Man had not tamed by A.D. 1947. The Behemoth and Leviathan of The Book of Job are symbols of this demonic aspect of Nature in the psychic dimension as well as the physical. ‘Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?… He is a king over all the children of pride.’7

This monstrously creative-destructive epiphany of Nature has been deified as Vishnu-Shiva, Durga-Kali, Cybele-Hecate; and the human worshippers of this Protean Janus-faced power have sought to win its co-operation with their human purposes by pandering to Nature’s lust and bloodthirstiness in such practices as ritual prostitution and as the sacrifice of living creatures on an ascending scale of agony in which the most efficacious victim of all is the sacrificer’s only child. Classical arenas of this hideous worship of Nature the monster have been Mexico, West Africa, India, and, above all, Canaan.

Since there cannot be lust and cruelty without suffering, and since a cosmic monster has no other target than herself on which the suffering can be inflicted, Nature the monster necessarily has another aspect in which she presents herself as Nature the victim, sacrificing herself to herself for the sake of preserving her existence, making her progress, and fulfilling her mission. This is the tragic side of the picture of the Universe that has its triumphant side in the Judaeo-Zoroastrian vision of an irreversible movement governed by Intellect and Will; and this other aspect of Nature was also seen at close quarters, in the external, physical dimension, by the crew of the Kon-Tiki. A symbol of this tragic aspect of Nature in the psychic dimension, as well as the physical, is the dragon Ti’āmat, out of whose slaughtered body the matricidal gods fashioned the Universe according to the Sumerian myth. This efficaciously suffering aspect of Nature has been deified in the tableau of the victim-child and the grief-stricken parent: Tammuz and Ishtar; Persephone and Demeter; Rachel weeping for her children because they are not;8 the mother through whose soul a sword shall pierce as she watches her son being crucified.9 The human worshippers of Nature in this tragic aspect have sought to place themselves in sympathy with her by acts of self-sacrifice, and Canaan has been one of the principal scenes of this tragic form of Nature-worship too.

The identity of Nature the victim with Nature the monster looks paradoxical at first sight; for these two aspects of one power seem to stand at opposite poles of the moral gamut. Yet, when we read the Sumerian Epic of the Creation in the Babylonian version of it that our Modern Western archaeologists have retrieved, we find our sympathies veering round as we watch the transfiguration of Ti’āmat from the monster of a fairy-tale into the heroine of a tragedy. The odious dragon-mother of the Universe who has turned against her own offspring and has set out to destroy them begins to excite pity when, in the last fifty lines of Tablet IV, she meets her fate at the hands of Marduk, the champion of the gods of the younger generation.

With his unsparing mace he crushed her skull.…

Then the Lord paused to view her dead body,

That he might divide the monster and do artful works.

He split her, like a shellfish, in two parts.10

The poem’s climax and close is the transformation of a blind destructive force into a means of creation; and this transformation comes about through the transfiguration of the principal character in the drama from a monster into a victim.

This metamorphosis of the goddess has its counterpart in a corresponding change in the spiritual significance of the worshipper’s act of sacrifice. Mesha’s accepted sacrifice of his eldest son and heir to Chemosh,11 Abraham’s arrested sacrifice of Isaac to Yahweh,12 and God the Sort’s accepted sacrifice of Himself to God the Father are all ritually the same act, yet the first and the third of these three performances of it are spiritually at opposite poles. Mesha’s son, though an efficacious victim, is an unwilling one, sacrificed to a monster god, whereas Christ is God voluntarily sacrificing Himself. Abraham’s arrested sacrifice of an unresisting Isaac is the middle term linking these two morally antithetical extremes. An Attis’ physical self-mutilation and a Christian monk’s spiritual self-dedication are likewise ritually the same act and likewise spiritually at opposite poles; and the middle term linking these is the passage in the Gospel13 commending those who mutilate themselves for Christ’s sake—a text on which Origen is said to have acted as if the words had been meant to be taken literally.

This polarization of the worship of Nature opens the way for the worships of Man and God. The worship of Nature the monster leads on to Man’s suicidal worship of Man himself. The worship of Nature the victim leads on to Man’s redeeming worship of a God who sets His worshippers a divine example by sacrificing Himself for their sake.

  • 1.

    A neuter substantive, to be distinguished from the masculine substantive Brahma, which is the Sanskrit name for the same Absolute Reality in Its aspect as a person.

  • 2.

    See Schmidt, Father W., The Origin and Growth of Religion, English translation by Rose, H. J. (London 1921, Methuen).

  • 3.

    Naturam expellas furcâ, tamen usque recurret.—Horace, Epistulae I, x, 24.

  • 4.

    See further Chapter 5, p. 62, below.

  • 5.

    Gen. i. 2.

  • 6.

    John i. 5.

  • 7.

    Job xli. 1 and 34.

  • 8.

    Jer. xxxi. 15; Matt. ii. 18.

  • 9.

    Luke ii. 35.

  • 10.

    Enūma Eliš, Tablet IV, lines 130 and 135–7, English translation in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, ed. by Pritchard, J. B. (Princeton 1950, University Press), p. 67.

  • 11.

    2 Kings iii. 27.

  • 12.

    Gen. xxii. 1–19.

  • 13.

    Matt. xix. 12.