A Few Possible Critiques of the Nature Connection Movement

The importance of standard critiques

I remember one ethics class where I commented with deliberate wary tentativeness, “One comment that has been made about the atom bomb is that it didn’t just save lots and lots and lots of American lives, it also saved lots and lots and lots of Japanese lives,” and then added something very important: “…but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are,” bracketing that claim in a considerable degree of unknowing. And I was not surprised, nor did I argue, when a later resource in the course had someone comment in reference to just war, “The claim is not, ‘If we do not do this, this is what they will do,’ but ‘If we do not do this, this is what we will do.'” I have heard some people point out that American politicians had campaigned on a platform of unconditional surrender by the Japanese, but this assertion is a detail of American culture and an irrelevancy if you are going to claim to be within just war theory. (Another unintelligible point on just war terms is the choice to make civilian cities the ground zero of an experiment.) “We campaigned for unconditional surrender” is not a consideration that factors into the principles of just war. Neither jus ad bellum nor jus in bello explains why it is justifiable to reject any surrender short of an unconditional surrender, a condition tantamount to letting infidel trample on the holy city. I do not know what the terms are on which the Japanese emperor sued for peace before the use of the atom bomb, but he did sue for peace before we dropped the bomb, and the burden of proof falls on people who assert it was a matter of just war to detonate nuclear weapons in a push for unconditional surrender rather than try to work with the Japanese emperor for terms of peace, perhaps not all those originally proposed by the emperor, that would deal with the threat but not insist on unconditional surrender and consent to let the infidel trample on the holy city as much as they saw fit.

(It might also be commented that Albert Einstein asked that his theory be used to develop nuclear weapons to stop Hitler, and he was horrified that his work was used against the Japanese, which he did not consider to be picking on someone our own size: “Should I have known, I would have become a watchmaker.” But, culturally speaking, once we started to develop nuclear weapons there was essentially no way culturally we were not going to use them, and if we did not have nuclear weapons available in time to use them against the Nazis, Japan was next in succession.)

My reason for mentioning this is that I added an important qualifier: “but I don’t know what the standard critiques of this claim are.” These are not weasel words. I am no fan of weasel words nor slippery rhetoric: see a dissertation focused on slippery rhetoric. But in a very real sense, what I was saying was that I didn’t understand the right import of the assertion (that nuclear weapons were mercifully quick, and had a far lower body count compared to the anticipated bloodshed of a land invasion where women and schoolchildren were doing combat drills and preparing in every way for a fight to the death), because I didn’t have a situated understanding, in particular knowing what lines of standard critique would be. (I have not heard anyone deny that assertion; the critique I saw essentially said, “No contest that it would be less bloody, but you are using the wrong standard and here is why.”) More broadly, understanding an assertion in the Great Conversation is incomplete if you do not grasp how it is situated in the Conversation, and part of that is understanding standard critiques.

Two senses of nature connection

I did a search for “nature connection critiques” on Google and DuckDuckGo, and Google got very quickly into academic articles having those three keywords but no connection to the nature connection movement, and DuckDuckGo gave nature connection pages without any critiques I could discern.

So I may be blazing a bit of a trail here in trying to situate nature connection.

I would like to begin by making a distinction between two significantly different senses of “nature connection.”

The first sense is an engagement with nature across many times and places, usually without any sense of nature connection in the second sense.

The second sense is an engagement with the nature connection movement’s tools, core routines, etc. The distinction between these is the difference between a general first category and a specific second type. The concerns I raise here mostly regard the second specific type.

I desire greater connection in the first sense, and it is one of the things I hope for in Orthodox monasticism, an arena that normally exposes one to nature a great deal and reaches further. (Perhaps I should say a third and other specific type centered on such things as virtue.)

A glimpse into a larger pattern

One place to start is Coyote the Trickster. Coyote is described in the pages of Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, or at least what he does is described, and I’m not sure how to pin Coyote down (if he even should be pinned down). Is he only an animal as materialist science would understand an animal? That one possibility is the one I would be quickest to reject. Perhaps a coyote, the animal, is special, but what is Coyote? A spirit? A god? An archetype? A familiar? A patron saint? A Platonic Idea? An astrological sign? A totem? One god who is part of a henotheist God or Greatest Spirit in vaguely Hindu fashion?

I think that all of the possibilities above are at least illustrative, but this choice of the coyote writ large is perhaps not best for Christians, and not just because Coyote is coyote writ large. The text asserts Jesus and Buddha represent the Trickster; Jesus the trickster is illustrated by the cleansing of the Temple. Now it would perhaps be unfair to ask the work to do serious Biblical exegesis, but the cleansing of the Temple was one of the least prank-like actions he took. He wasn’t manipulating people; he was deeply offended by irreverent use of the Temple and drove people and animals out without the faintest mercurial intent. Not to say that there is nothing like the trickster in Christ; the story of Christ and St. Photini (“the Woman at the Well”) has St. Photini enlisting Christ’s help in fleeing from her shame, and Christ opening things up until she has been pulled through her shame and runs with no further shame saying, “See a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Christ?” Christ was mercurial enough that if you tried to catch Christ the Word in some trap of words, you always, always lose. And, perhaps, it is an exegesis of Christ that Orthodoxy has what are called holy fools. But the use of the cleansing of the Temple gives a sense that the text has been conscripted to fit the Trickster archetype. (For that matter, the story of Buddha has his father trying very hard to ensure that he would be a political leader, and he chose instead to go on a quest and found a religion. Perhaps in the cornucopia of Mahayana Buddhism we have Zen masters who may use trickery to teach, but I do not see that Buddha was being a Trickster to choose a divergent career path from what his father wanted.)

And I was trying to think of a good way to present a companion aspect, and I’m not sure I’ve found one. When I was in middle school, one Social Studies question was, if we had lived in the 19th century, we would have braved the hardships to settle the West. And I, little schoolboy that I was, said that the question was irrelevant because the West was already settled by people who had a right not to be killed. My teacher didn’t like that and tried to push me to answer the question on the terms that it was posed, and none of my classmates said anything like that. But to Native Americans, apart from Guns, Germs, and Steel concerns about Europeans carrying diseases Native America had no defenses for, how should Christianity be seen? It was the religion of white Americans who disregarded as basic interests among the Native Americans as life and not being subjected to needless and major suffering, and so it is not a surprise that my brother, a historical re-enactor, talked about one re-enacting group who re-enacted a first contact between white and Native American and who were explicitly Christian, calling themselves The King’s Regiment or the like, and were distinguished for all other re-enactors in that they did not engage in native American spirituality which was understandably laced with something anti-Christian.

Nothing I have listened or read from the nature connection movement is explicitly or directly anti-Christian. Critique may be implied in assertions that reject Christian practice, however nothing I have seen appears to be there for the purpose of facilitating attack on Christianity. However, nature connection is largely grounded in Native American figures, and even if nature connection is mostly secularized, people who dig into nature connection roots beyond nature connection will sooner or sooner run into this. We have, perhaps well outside of Native American culture, seen T-shirts saying:

Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.

But there is something profoundly important besides the humor. As I explained it to a friend at church, if we dug into the Book of Grudges we could probably find that far enough back, his ancestors did nasty things to my ancestors, and far enough back my ancestors did nasty things to his ancestors, but the only things he had needed to forgive me were things I had done personally. That’s not how all cultures work, and that’s not how most or all of the Native American cultures work. The Problem, as seen in Native American cultures, is not just that reservations have 35% unemployment. The Problem is that living conditions in today’s reservations are one link in a continuous chain of maltreatment that is the same thing as the Indian Removal Act and every other form of terrorism since 1492.

I don’t blame Native Americans for this. And I’d be very wary of claiming a teachable moment to impress on these people that Eastern Orthodoxy is not the Christianity of the settlers and it is the #1 religion among indigenous peoples in Alaska, and that my archbishop’s patron saint is one of the patron saints of our land, an Aleut martyr killed by the Jesuits. (N.B. I know a man whose academic career was ended by today’s Jesuits in a singularly unfortunate fashion.) But there are elements in Native American nature connection that conflict with Christianity, and others who dabble in Native American spirituality may dabble in something anti-Christian.

I might also point out that I have looked through wildernessawareness.org and 8shields.org and none of the bios I found let me discern a self-identified Christian of any stripe. I expect that at least a few of the members self-identify as Christian, but if nature connection is just for human beings, and you’re not trying to call people out of Christianity, not having Christians represented is kind of a gap.

A body without a head

The nature connection movement does much of the job of a religion: it does the work of peacemaking without invoking the Price of Peace, its practitioners engage in culture repair without exploring the cultic element of worship, and more broadly it treats what it means to be human without addressing created man as made in the image of God. Possibly there is a failure of complete secularity in pursuing “sacred fires;” I am not completely sure I understand what the word “sacred” means but it is culturally important and best started with a bowdrill or other ancient means. However, I find it difficult to construe the term “sacred fires” as it is used while neutering the term “sacred” to mean something secular.

I might comment in regards to secularity: secularity didn’t arise in Western history because of atheists crying for the Church’s blood; it arose when Western Christianity fragmented and each community treated others as infidel. It arose out of really nasty religious wars as a voice saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” and I call the nature connection movement “secular” as a recognition that it is intended to be appropriate to everyone. I have yet to detect a derisive word from a nature connection leader towards any religious community or tradition. However, this choice of common ground has an anemic dimension, something to do some of the work of a religion, but in a secular way, which psychology does on a larger scale. Orthodox would see this as a body needing a head, and wonderfully animated if we receive it.

Closing words

The final critique I would give, with a challenge, is this: nature connection, as it is pursued, is a body without a head that only becomes richer and deeper if it has a head. I would challenge you to read my book The Best of Jonathan’s Corner, or for a better text, take a rebel author who works in caricatures, who decries Western music and blared Wagner’s opera (“Wagner,” as in, “Wagner’s opera is not as bad as it sounds”), and wrote, The Rape of Man and Nature, and see rebellion against all things Western done right!

Furthermore, these words are not meant to dismiss nature connection in either sense. They are written to family, not meant as taking no prisoners. Much of what is delivered in Native Eyes is an approach to core routines, and core routines are about equally foundational to Orthodoxy. It’s nice to see discussion of engaging in core routines. And it’s nice to see agape or love (or as nature connection has called it, “connection”) in reference to nature. A Christian could summarize ethics as saying we should love God with our whole being, love our neighbor as ourselves, and love nature as our kingdom. Furthermore, if you read closely, you may see that I don’t find any critique of nature connection in the broader and more generic sense. I may question Coyote as totem, and I would gently note that my brother with the “What Would Loki Do?” T-shirt says for that trickster that the line between “Ha ha, fooled you!” and “Ha ha, killed you!” is a remarkably fine line. But I do not see a trickster edge as necessary for nature connection in the first, broader sense. Certainly it is not a necessity for nature connection in Orthodox monasticism, where animals cease being afraid of monks and cease to harm them.

Furthermore, the perceptive reader may note that none of my critique really affects nature connection in the broader sense. Historically, it is a rule in ethics that you don’t forbid what isn’t happening. The New Testament was written in an agrarian society where a large amount of nature connection was assumed. A parable takes its literal sense from a Sower sowing seed; Christ says that he is the Vine and his Father is the Vinedresser, and perhaps no one felt a need to explain something a friend pointed out, that you have to love a vine to prune it well. There were some moral failures common to ancient times and our own; the older Ten Commandments remain relevant. But the fact that the New Testament never condemns disengaging from awareness with nature in favor of an inanimate thing: this does not necessarily prove that the New Testament authors would make such condemnations if faced by today’s issues, but it also doesn’t make silence mean that there is no nature connection implied in the New Testament. The evidence concerning “nature deficit disorder” suggests to the person interested in ascesis that the harm caused by a lack of engagement with nature is a failure with a moral dimension. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, “Silence does not equal contempt.” In the Christian tradition, you have homilies for some religious feast which never mention the occasion for the feast. And this is true for questions that had been explicitly raised and addressed.

The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis. The human race is built on a hunter-gatherer chassis, and we ignore this to our peril. The core insight to the Paleo diet is that the human organism works best on the kind of foods available to a hunter-gatherer, even if it takes extra effort to eat that way instead of MacDonald’s and Cheetos, and also that it is highly desirable to approximate hunter-gatherer exercise. The nature connection movement says that we need more than food and exercise, and as much as doctors may prescribe vitamin D for people who don’t get enough sunlight to synthesize the vitamin the natural way, we need to take added effort to consume vitamin N, Nature, even or especially if it takes going out of our way. There may be a Standard Social Sciences Model which asserts that human nature is infinitely malleable, but it is not, and we can still be biologically alive while living in a way that humans aren’t made to function.

There is an insistence among some that “Biology is not destiny.” Maybe, but biology is destiny to those heedless of the chassis we are running on. The less than ten thousand years of civilization (without which written history is possible) represent an eyeblink next to the four hundred thousand years we’ve had Homo sapiens sapiens and perhaps two million of some form of humans: written history represents less than 2% of the time we have existed as humans, with no significant evolution represented. Freedom, such as is available, recognized is as hunter-gatherers. And this may be a point where the nature connection movement deeply informs the conversation.

The nature connection movement is a voice worth listening to, and I hope these words can help it contribute to the conversation.

Epilogue, written some time later

I have backed away from the nature connection movement.

The core reason why, besides noting whether I have business in the tradition’s core routines, is that when I listened to Seeing Through Native Eyes and read much of Coyote’s Guide to Nature Connection, it seemed like as a whole the offering made sense, but at each particular point along the way I held my nose about the particular part I was reading.

That kind of squeamishness is something I don’t consider wisely ignored.

Author: C.J.S. Hayward

C.J.S. Hayward is an Orthodox author and Renaissance man with master's degrees bridging math and computers (UIUC) and theology and philosophy (Cambridge). His most prized work is what he writes in Eastern Orthodox, Christian theology and apologetics. Readers of apologists like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft, contemporary Orthodox authors such as Met. KALLISTOS Ware, and classic authors like St. John Chrysostom will find much food for spiritual reflection.