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August 24, 2009

Formal Worship and Nature

Filed under: Religion And Theology — Vasilios Theodorakis @ 8:35 pm

A few years ago, a couple of my nieces decided to put on a “utility play” as a Christmas presentation for all the relatives. Even though the girls came from a family that didn’t follow any formal religion, they were still aware of the basic Christmas story (through media and friends) and went about trying to recreate it by themselves. The term “nativity” was unfamiliar to them so they came up with a word that sounded similar i.e. “utility”. In spite of their parent’s best efforts, these children sought to participate in some level of religious ritual even if it meant making it up from scratch.

What I find interesting, is that I’ve seen other children raised in families with no formal ritual or religion, do a very similar thing. In all instances they try to re-enact stories associated with local beliefs, which they’ve heard about through members of their community. For example, a friend of mine whose people were traditionally Buddhist has raised his kids without any reference to religion; yet, these kids know of the Budda story (through other friends) and try to make up plays about him.

This may of course be about child conformity, but I believe the innate tendency of children to gravitate towards religion is about humanity having a built in need for ritual and spirituality. In its absence, we will always substitute something in its place – just look at how sport is followed and worshiped in secular countries like Australia. The bottom line is we are animals, born on a planet with physical cycles and we have always been tied into these cycles – its hardwired into our genetic make-up. When we progressively removed ourselves from those cycles, that is, by developing sedentary lifestyles, our internal clocks did not suddenly abandon our need for routine or ritual even though we had cut close ties with the environment. In fact, the further we removed ourselves from the cycles of the earth the more dependent we became on ritual in order to “feel ok and normal”. Millions of years of evolution couldn’t be left behind by our genome, just because culturally/socially we had stopped paying attention to the seasons and acknowledging the sun’s rising and the moon’s setting, etc. The simple answer to the good atheist’s question of “Why do we need religion?” is that we need routine and ritual to feel complete and religion is still the best fulfiller of this need.

Built on top of this psychosocial fact is the metaphysics of the situation. Anyone who has ever gone camping and watched the planet come to life in the mornings, or watched pets in captivity when the sun reappears, knows that all sentient creatures turn to the sun and welcome another day of existence with gratitude. So much so, that I swear you can almost hear them thanking existence/their Maker/their Source for their lives. I’ve often thought that the places of worship we build can never match the living cathedral of the planet, where all creatures are allowed to witness the sun breaking over the horizon, are allowed to stand side by side (both friend and foe) and offer up their gratitude in their own way – even if that “survival of the fittest ceasefire” only lasts for a moment of each morning. In this cathedral, this daily event (which inadvertently sanctifies everything that participates) is the right of all life, not just Homo sapiens. The associated tragedy of our settled lifestyles is that many creatures in captivity often can’t see the sun to fulfil our most prehistoric of all biological rituals.

We may therefore have created formal worship (for ourselves) because it completes us in the absence of standing alongside our planet’s brethren as the sun re-appears each morning. In addition to this explanation of formal religion, many religious texts (written by people of insight) have described how non-corporeal beings in the invisible world also hold elaborate liturgies in praise of their Source. e.g. With Christianity, there are many instances in the Bible that describe how the Seraphim and Cherubim have always held formal worship before God. Combine all these physical and metaphysical theories together and it’s not hard to see why we feel most at home when we have something to look up to and thank – whether it be the sun, God or a sporting team.

A thousand years from now, I have no doubt that my nieces’ contemporaries will construct other religious plays that pay homage to existence, God and the meaning of life. Even if no adults are left who believe in anything other than themselves, children will know what to do. I believe our young will continue to hear the call of the sun (or is that the Son?), which is hardwired into our genome, until it is beaten out of them by non-believing adults. It is only the adults who have forgotten to stand beside the Pelicans and be grateful for the fresh air that fills their lungs, the sun that warms their skin and the light that illuminates their eyes. In every era, a few of our children take this instinctive insight into adulthood. Those who do will always be our seers and guides in life.

Addendum For Orthodox Christians: Nature And Christ?

As a species, the more we moved away from the natural world and into the artificial world of societies and cities, the more important formal ritual became. Our internal body clocks which had built in memories for cycles, seem to have happily accepted the replacement of routine (like work) and ritual (like religion) to make up for being taken out of the planet’s normal patterns.

For good Christians, Christ inadvertently had to show up in order to remind us of what we had once known instinctively but had forgotten. Knowing us better than we knew ourselves, he had to re-educate us in regards to His presence, which had existed prior to the creation of the universe, and continued to exist as a conduit to God even though we had forgotten about the conduit and had forgotten about Him. He even had to become one of us and walk among us, for we had become so fixated on our own species, that we were incapable of understanding a connection with the Source other than through our own constructs and through one of our own kind. Living away from nature for so long, we couldn’t see what all the other creatures could still see naturally. Christ’s visit was to primarily restore us to our natural state.

Ironically, some groups of people – especially the nomads, still had a sense of the Source and the connections to the Source through the planet’s natural cycles. Colonial Christian missionaries however, spent hundreds of years prying nomadic peoples away from their lifestyles and unbroken connections with the earth, only to settle them in towns and offer them religion to replace the ritual they lost through settlement. This type of social engineering was not only discriminatory and stupid but also spiritually wasteful! It was analogous to having access to a meal but then throwing the meal into the bin and giving the restaurant’s patrons exactly the same meal (only this time arranged differently on the plate). In addition to this, the restaurateurs (i.e. missionaries) went on to claim that the patrons (i.e. nomadic peoples) never had any food in the first place. Their final strategy was of course to indoctrinate all survivors that this was always the case.

If these people had been left alone, their separation from the Source would never have occurred. Our history is unfortunately riddled with examples of how colonialists “had” to save those that did not need saving, “had” to offer them a connection/communion with God when it was already there and “had” to force them out of Eden as the colonialist’s ancestors had been forced out of Eden thousands of years earlier. How dare someone continue to exist within Eden, when everyone else had inadvertently thrown themselves out in search of bigger and better things than the earth could provide naturally! Ah… the notion of greed – civilisation’s finest friend and first ever catalyst is unfortunately still with us.

Copyright © Vasilios Theodorakis 2009

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