Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: book review, part 3

This is the third (of three) posts reviewing and thinking about the ideas found in Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. If you missed the first two, the first post gave an overview of the book and the second post discussed the region we might call “Cascadia,” and whether or not there is a nature-based spirituality in the region. Several of the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia assert that this nature-based spirituality is a form of civil religion, so that is the idea I’m going to discuss today, along with a wrap-up of my thoughts on this book and where the scholarly Cascadian community might go from here in terms of further research.

Is nature-based spirituality a civil religion?

In my understanding of civil religion from the perspective of sociologist Robert Bellah, civil religion has to do with utilizing religious language and symbols in order to support a national origin myth/history—usually in the form of nationalism. For example, the idea of Manifest Destiny is an American form of civil religion. This American civil religion bases American conquest and the genocide of native peoples on the religious conviction that it is important for God’s “truth” of civilization and order to be spread throughout the world as gospel. Therefore, the actions of the European settlers, no matter how grisly, were justifiable based on the origin myth of bringing order and civilization to savages, using a particular biblical interpretation. Civil religion tends to celebrate the state, and uphold its policies using religious language and religious-style ceremonies.

In Cascadia, I am not certain that I see a civil religion of this kind that is different from the civil religion of the rest of the United States. Perhaps Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia contain a distinct culture based on proximity, but is it a civil religion?

Mark Silk derives his definition of civil religion from an Italian historian, Emilio Gentile, who says civil religion is:

the conceptual category that contains the forms of sacralization of a political system that guarantee a plurality of ideas, free competition in the exercise of power, and the ability of the governed to dismiss their governments through peaceful and constitutional methods. Civil religion therefore respects individual freedom, coexists with other ideologies, and does not impose obligatory and unconditional support for its commandments. (p. 110)

To me, this sounds basically like the definition of democracy, or at least the definition of pluralism. Silk finds that there is not a civil religion at play in Cascadia any more than anywhere else in the US or Canada, and by his definition I agree.

Sallie McFague, on the other hand, encourages what she calls a civil religion of Cascadia, following the editor of the book’s simple definition of Cascadia’s civil religion as “finding God by taking a walk in the forest.” She puts a comma between “super, natural,” following the British Columbia tourist logo, “super, natural British Columbia,” to indicate that Cascadians’ understanding of the supernatural has everything to do with the natural, and vice versa. McFague implies that the “religion” of the bioregion is a cultural focus on spiritual connection through the natural world, which seems to be true if we focus our understanding of “Cascadia” on the portion west of the Cascades, but is McFague’s idea truly a “civil religion”? What makes it civil, rather than simply a religion?

Implications & Suggestions for Further Research

If we limit the understanding of Cascadia down to its western section and take a closer look at the nature-leaning spirituality present in many portions of urban Cascadian society, this book effectively and helpfully categorizes different forms of “spiritual but not religious” Cascadians and the strengths and weaknesses of their perspectives. One author, Gail Wells, points out that the difference between Cascadia’s emphasis on a more natural faith and the rest of the United States’ civil religion is a focus on what’s “really real.” Wells says she is “going to argue that both nature-based spirituality and conventional religion have the potential to play an important, subversive role in what has actually been Cascadia’s dominant culture: the scientific-rational-secular-liberal culture of North America. That role is to offer an alternative way of thinking about what is real.”

This, in my opinion, is the opposite of a civil religion. Instead of a religion enforced by authoritarian dogmatism and nationalism, it is a religion that grows out of an encounter with the Earth and the supernatural Life-Force (a.k.a. God) that sustains it.

Perhaps it is the bioregion’s beauty and abundance that allows Cascadians to perceive the interconnectedness of life and to look for the sacred outside the walls of political and religious institutions. The native people of the area also felt this way, and another chapter gave insight in this direction. Authored by First Nations member Eli Bliss Enns, the chapter is called, “A Geo-Indigenous World View from the Far West Coast of Cascadia.” Enns defines various terms in his indigenous language, such as, “Wii-cosh-naas: Honoring our mutual source of creation: Everything that exists is born from a common creative source.” He also speaks of the value of each person’s contribution to a discussion, and “owning” the land through protecting it and using its resources wisely, recognizing that we are all indigenous animals and other beings. This seems like the “elusive utopia” referred to in the title of the book, a vision present in our most historic and imaginative, liberative myths and sacred stories, from Native American to ancient Hebrew, and a vision new and freshly reborn for such a time and place as this.

I can get behind this vision and desire, but to truly connect this form of nature-based spirituality to the geography of the area in question would require much more focused research. Further study needs to be done to see if this is legitimately different from other urban areas, and to find out if the whole area of Cascadia fits the description of “spiritual but not religious,” or only the individuals west of the Cascades. Also, research would need to occur regarding whether engaging in outdoor recreation across Cascadia’s girth can correctly be termed “spirituality.”

In short, although there are a number of pieces to this puzzle pointing toward a nature-based spirituality in parts of Cascadia, much more research would need to be done to make the correlation clear, and to determine whether or not “Cascadia” is a useful regional term to describe the area where that culture is present. Perhaps that culture is no more present here than anywhere else, but we Cascadians are simply lucky enough to live in a place where these super, natural spaces have not yet been completely destroyed. If nature is the “second book” where we come to know God (alongside the Bible—though, arguably, nature came first, but this is a different topic—the point is that many theologians across time and now see nature as a second way, besides the written books, to understand and know something of God, especially since so many of Jesus’ parables are based on nature metaphors), living in Cascadia can give us access to that book in more extravagantly beautiful ways than are perhaps still available in other regions.

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