What is our destiny as humans? From dust we come, and to dust we return. Yes, but what kind of dust is the question. The dust of the earth, life-giving humus (which shares its etymological origin with the word “human”)? Or star dust, the stuff of cosmic ovens? Of course, both are true, in a literal sense. But symbolically speaking, which one we choose to focus on has profound impacts on the course of human history.
Interstellar is actually just the latest version of a very old story, the most dangerous story ever told, the story of progress. Except in the older versions, instead of the stars (i.e., the “heavens”) being our destination, it was heaven. From ancient times to the present day, the dominant myth of civilization has taught us that our home is not the earth, that our destiny is to transcend our physical limitations, that those who would be heroes must reach beyond the here and now.
As time goes on, more and more of my daily news feed consists of reports of ecological collapse: fires, hurricanes, floods, droughts. It’s increasingly easy to believe the earth is telling us to leave. It’s increasingly tempting to believe that there might be hope among the stars. Especially when the same scientists who have warned us about climate change are also promoting missions to space. But this is just an extension of the pipe dream of progress which has brought us to this place. …
When I left the Mormon church in 2000, I had to figure out a short way to explain to people why I left. I learned quickly that nobody wanted to hear my Mormon version of Luther’s 95 Theses. I think the most succinct, if perhaps not the most satisfactory, explanation I came up with was this:
Note: This is a work of fiction. It was inspired by news stories about migrant caravans from Central America and photographs of personal belongings that were left along the way, especially the photo above of the abandoned stroller. This is a dark take, so be forewarned. It is intended as a creative way to explore the stages by which our civilized identity may be shed during a period of civilizational collapse.
“Civilizations die in familiar patterns. They exhaust natural resources. They spawn parasitic elites who plunder and loot the institutions and systems that make a complex society possible. They engage in futile and self-defeating wars. And then the rot sets in. The great urban centers die first, falling into irreversible decay. Central authority unravels. Artistic expression and intellectual inquiry are replaced by a new dark age, the triumph of tawdry spectacle and the celebration of crowd-pleasing imbecility. …
For many people, finding out about the inevitable collapse of civilization is like getting diagnosed with a terminal illness. It feels as though the wind has been knocked out of you, and all of your dreams and hopes for the future begin to evaporate as you realize you’ve been living in a fantasy world that never really existed.
This is a video of a presentation I recently did at the Harvard Divinity School “Ecological Spiritualities” conference on April 29, 2022. A copy of my paper can be found here. This is an updated version of a paper I presented at the Greening of Religions conference organized by Cherry Hill Seminary in 2016.
Many Pagans and scholars of Paganism presume that Paganism is and always has been an earth-centered religion. But this claim needs to be interrogated closely by academics and participants alike to determine whether and to what extent Pagan beliefs and practices are actually earth-centered.