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.

“Jeong” in ecotheology

414gqwwwvql-_sy344_bo1204203200_My review of Grace Ji-Sun Kim‘s book, Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love, went live Monday on Christian Feminism Today. She writes well and covers a broad range of topics of interest to Christian theologians, but you’ll have to go to the review to find out more! For that review I focused more on the book’s contribution to the feminist theology conversation, but I also wanted to comment on its usefulness for ecotheology.

Although Embracing the Other does not purport to be ecotheology, Kim does work regarding care for the environment. She’ll be leading a workshop at Earlham School of Religion‘s spirituality gathering April 27, 2016, “Justice Lives in Relationship: The Poetry & Practice of Eco-Spirituality,” regarding COP21, stewardship, and climate justice. (This looks like a great event! If you’re near Richmond, IN, sign up and then tell me how it goes!) In Embracing the Other, Kim does not address ecotheology directly, but she does write about the importance of a sense of interconnectedness in theology. She focuses on pneumatology due to the Spirit’s inability to be pinned down or boxed up, themes of import in ecotheology, especially in the work of ecofeminist theologians such as Sallie McFague (who, in fact, Kim refers to in her discussion of the Spirit, pp. 129-130).

41y-asoj9zl-_sx320_bo1204203200_Kim introduced me to the work of W. Anne Joh, postcolonial feminist Korean American theologian, who speaks of the Korean terms han and jeong to describe the ideas of unjust suffering and sticky love, respectively. First of all, I appreciate how Kim explains the historical precedent for utilizing terms and concepts already present in another language as Christian theology begins to interact with that culture and its language. She shows how this can expand our understanding of theological concepts and our knowledge of God, which of course cannot fit into one language or metaphor. I have yet to read Joh’s book, Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology, but it looks like she goes into depth on han and jeong as pertains to the crucifixion, soteriology, and Christology. I’ll need to learn more about these concepts from her work, though Kim gave a great overview of her thought.

Second, these terms could open up a helpful conceptual framework for ecotheology, which I don’t think has been done yet. In my recent work, I’ve been struggling to explain the concept of hope and the transformation that occurs through our meaning-making without reducing suffering to a pious asceticism or glorification of poverty, and I suspect that the concept of han may provide some in-roads. Even more useful is the term jeong, which Kim describes as a sticky love that recognizes the interconnectedness between people. This kind of love refuses to become an enemy of a loved one, even when that loved one is also in some ways an oppressor. In liberation theology, I think this kind of love is something that could really help the conversation, since it’s difficult to become conscientized to one’s role as oppressed and then to figure out how to love the oppressor anyway. It can feel dehumanizing, even though the whole goal is re-humanizing the “other” and ourselves. But how do we have this kind of love? Jeong is something many of us feel, I believe, when we love our spouses, kids, parents, and others despite their faults. It’s a choice we make to love the person even while holding strong boundaries about what we will allow as acceptable behavior towards ourselves. It’s a love that refuses to give up on someone, that keeps trying to love, even in the midst of pain and suffering. Jeong can keep marriages together, if both commit to it, or I can imagine that it would also open the space for divorce when one will not commit to jeong but repeatedly oversteps boundaries of safety and care to the point where one partner must leave in order to show true love.

In ecotheology, I see jeong as a helpful concept because it is the glue that holds everything together. Kim talks about jeong as the work of the Spirit, connecting us to one another, providing the life-force, and the “passion” part of compassion. It is grace and boundary-keeping both. It provides an interconnection so deep we cannot escape it, and a framework for a network of caring relationships with all creation, not just with people. That’s where I see it really helping in the conversation about Christians’ care for the Earth. Jeong allows us to be creatures-in-relation, to hold our place squarely in the midst of the interconnected web. Within conversations about the environment, it is difficult to value human life and at the same time to value the environment. Within a Western worldview where we think of “nature” as “everything on Earth that isn’t human,” we have a hard time conceiving of pristine nature that includes us. (For more on this, see Larry Rasmussen’s Earth Community, Earth Ethics, and William Cronon’s essay “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature” in Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader.)

But jeong gives us a place to fit within the interconnected ecosystem of creation, “stuck” to the rest of creation through a relationship of love, care, and life-essence itself. Jeong allows us to acknowledge our vulnerable position within this network: we need the health of the whole ecosystem in order to survive and thrive ourselves. And this vulnerability allows us to live within the space of solidarity with all of creation: its people and its animals, its plants and its networks of ecosystem services. In our role as conscious stewards of this network, we can choose to live within the flow of the Spirit’s jeong-connectedness, or we can choose to increase han, the unjust suffering under which the whole creation groans. When we try to control “nature,” similarly to what happens when we attempt to control the Spirit and tell it through whom it has our permission to speak and move, we end up squeezing all the life out of the context we’re attempting to control. Through the open-handed vulnerability that is the sticky love of jeong, we live into the flow of the Spirit’s work in the world. We become part of the God-created ecosystems, finding our place through care rather than control. We find that we can most be ourselves when we allow others to be wholly other, and wholly, inexplicably, unaccountably, graciously, and intimately loved with a tenacity that refuses to be broken or manipulated. It allows for reconciliation so that we do not have to be against those who live in ways with which we disagree, but we can be conscious of the han in which we are all bound up, and love them with the sticky love of jeong, the Spirit’s interconnecting and transformative, passionate power.


Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature.” In Global Environmental History: An Introductory Reader, edited by J.R. McNeill and Alan Roe. New York, NY: Routledge, 2013.
Joh, Wonhee Anne. Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Kim, Grace Ji-Sun. Embracing the Other: The Transformative Spirit of Love. Prophetic Christianity Series. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.
Rasmussen, Larry L. Earth Community, Earth Ethics. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.