This is an extraordinary time. It’s coming up to the end of a momentous year in which more and more experts are saying that hope is running out for sustaining diverse life on the planet. The solstice on the 21st December marks the start of a new era according to the Mayan long-count calendar, the era of Pacha – togetherness – following the era of Macha – selfishness. We may not share belief in the significance of this calendar, but the solstice is a significant moment – the astronomical turning of the year – and a perfect moment to turn towards a new way of thinking. I feel that it’s important for me at this time to make a statement about my own beliefs. I’m not trying to be clever, comprehensive or innovative – it’s quite simple.
I’m one of 25% of people in the 2011 census to have no religion. You routinely hear commentators describe people like me as ‘having no faith’ or ‘non-believers’ which gives the impression of lacking beliefs, morals, community or spirituality. I’m not a member of an organised religion but I do have tenets of belief and a strong sense of the transcendent. I was raised as a Quaker-inclined Humanist, yet with enforced daily Church of England worship in school. When I was five, having heard a few assemblies at my infant school, I announced to my lovely teacher that, as none of us could see or even really imagine the shape of this God, it didn’t make any sense to talk about him so much. I remember the thought process I went through to arrive at this statement, as I was trying to draw God and realised that it couldn’t possibly look like a man. It wasn’t a firm opinion but a very distinct sense of doubt. From that point on, I felt that if the entire adult edifice of school, church, Queen etc rested on foundations of such a vague invisible authority figure, I couldn’t authentically submit to their authority. Obviously I didn’t use those kind of words, but I chewed the thought around a lot. As a teenager, I strongly identified as a pacifist and was very active with CND. At times, I thought of myself as a Godless Christian, as we made such extensive study of the New Testament at my grammar school it was hard not to find resonance in it. However, I shocked one teacher by insisting that Jesus was a real man, just cleverer than most, fighting against the status quo. I could never conform to any hierarchical institution founded on a myth of an ultrahuman intelligence (as God in distributed form and as Christ in embodied form) responsible for universal creation. But I still am a pacifist, committed to Christian ethics of ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ and ‘do not store up treasures on earth’. I cannot imagine physically hurting other people, even in self defence. I believe that differentiating and excluding people by gender or colour or any other identifier is a form of violence. I feel ashamed about my complicity in a system of consumption that leads to animals being killed and their habitats polluted or destroyed. I believe in forgiveness but I find it hard to avoid judging those who are wilfully or stupidly supportive of ecocidal and war-mongering regimes or companies. I may be complicit but I am painfully aware of it and resist or criticise it where I can.
Nationalist materialistic turbo-drive capitalism is not, in my view, conducive to peace. It may be that life for many people has been more peaceful while global consumer wealth has grown over the past 30 years but the arguments that capitalism brings peace tend to ignore ecocide (violence against biodiversity) and the inevitability of a fall into more conflict as resource scarcity and climate change take greater effect.
In the past two years I’ve celebrated solstices to the extent of organising small community festivals, the Garlick Man in summer and Night of the Beasts in winter. This doesn’t mean I’m a pagan, animist, Celtic reconstructionist or any other label. I’m awed by and grateful for the fact that this planet is dangling in a fantastically massive universe and yet here it is supporting such beautiful and diverse life.
I want to celebrate the ancient traditions, similar between all indigenous people but also very specific to particular places, which honour water, trees, air, soil and animals. The illustration is a photo I took in the Alpujarras, a place where water can be felt as sacred for its force and for what it sustains. Of course water can be analysed as H2O and additional trace elements, and by its dynamics of flow, but it’s also deeply symbolic – without water there is no life.
I want this biodiverse life to continue and I believe that we need both mythos and logos, both metaphorical and data-based, strategies to try to sustain it and/or to live through a descent into mass extinction.