Noisy Water Review

Not-That: The Need for a New Beginning

Anjolie York

“In the beginning…” the story goes. From here the tone is set and the pieces of the tale fall into place. Our early stories, what we now call myths, told us of our place in the world and gave us meaning for our existence. Through myths, our cultural values and ways of life have been transmitted from one generation to the next. Taken literally, “In the beginning” begins with our creation stories. These are the stories that lay down the very foundation of a culture - they are the base design for the fabric of a history to be lived. Nearly all cultures have such stories. These stories and how they are interpreted have a huge impact on how a culture relates to the natural world. Herein I explore the weave of a culture based upon a separation from nature with one that lived in tandem with the natural world and offer an idea of how we might find our way back to nature ourselves.

While it would be inaccurate and possibly demeaning to say that all Native Americans have a stronger connection to the natural world than does the general Judeo-Christian population, it has been shown through “extensive ethnographic work with tribes across North America” that many tribes do have strong “conservation ethics that guide their actions towards the natural world” (Aftandilian 79). These ethics come from the stories that they have been handing down from generation to generation in a primarily oral tradition. This traditional way of telling stories allows the “stories to change and adapt” as the world and its environment changes. In contrast, our Judeo-Christian culture refers back to the first chapter of the Bible and stories of Genesis as told therein. The meaning of these stories is starting to be challenged by today’s Christians but the past interpretations have generated a large chasm between man and the natural world that has yet to be traversed. This separation from nature can most clearly be seen in our most commonly held relationship views of human vs animals.

In Genesis 1, God made the animals first and then humans. He made humans “in His own image” and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (italics added) (Genesis 87). This idea of ruling over or having dominion over the animal kingdom (and by association, the natural world) has colored generations’ view of their relationship with the earth. It has been interpreted as meaning that we can take from nature and mold it to our own desires and supposed benefit, without regard for the consequences of our actions. But if we look at this aspect of “dominion” and its original meaning we see a different dynamic in play.

The Hebrew understanding of dominion portrays a responsibility towards a king’s subjects, more so than any sort of power being exercised over them. “Taken from the background of the Hebrew king who was to rule on behalf of Yahweh, the ruler granted with dominion must “watch carefully over the rights of his subjects, and so ensure, in particular that the weaker members of society may enjoy his protection and thus have justice done to them according to their need” (Moritz 138). Thusly, the original idea of dominion had much more to do with the responsibility of caring for, rather than ruling over. Today, many Christians “are reinterpreting this story to mean [that] instead [of ruling over the earth] that we are meant to act as God’s stewards […], with a responsibility to care for all of creation” rather than having dominion in the traditional sense of the word (Aftandilian 88). While “dominion” of any sort still implies separateness, it does not necessarily imply that those who are entrusted with it are superior in nature to those whose care they are entrusted with.

In the second Genesis story, man isn’t explicitly told to “rule over” the animals but he is given the task of naming them. Man [Adam] is created first and is placed in the Garden of Eden. Upon seeing Adam lonely, God creates the animals for him as companions. The act of Adam’s naming of the animals is often interpreted as an expression of his being given power over the animals; however “it is crucial to understand that this ‘naming’ in itself does not establish a relationship of dominion as has often been argued, but rather a personal relationship between” man and animals (Moritz 135-136). Rather than this naming being an act of exercising dominion or ownership, “the act of naming the animals according to their own identities transitions them from an ‘I-it’ relationship to an ‘I-thou’ relationship” (Moritz 136).

In Hebrew Scriptures naming was intended “to capture in some way the essence of an individual” rather than an arbitrary assignment of a word to a being (Moritz 136). The act of naming was a way of defining that creature’s very being-ness. In this way, naming moves beyond merely identifying a some-thing but is done with the intention of expressing the true nature and character of the actual identity. This also strongly suggests an intimate relationship between the name and the named. As defined in the Encyclopedia of Religion the “name and named exist in a mutual relationship in which the power of the former is shared with the being of the latter”(EOR 300-301). The sharing of power still implies that one has power while the other has not. This “has” and “has-not” thinking is unavoidable however, as this is how humankind relates to the world around them.

“In the Hebrew Testament, to be ‘inconsequential’ and ‘senseless’ is to literally be ‘without a name’” (Moritz 136). In our human reality namelessness is akin to not-beingness. To name things is what we as humans do. We compare, separate, and label. This and that. One or the other. It is the very essence of our dualistic existence - not dualistic as in the body vs soul debate but in the sense that “I” does not exist without “that which I am not”. As the Encyclopedia of Religions states: “To be human is to name, and be named, and thereby to possess full being and the ability to relate to the world in meaningful ways” (300). The correlation between name and being-ness isn’t restricted to Hebrew origin only; it is a relationship that is recognized throughout cultures. Just as One and the Other cannot exist without one another…the namer and the named also are intimately connected.

Of course, the act of naming is not limited to only Christian based cultures. The Native Americans also have stories about the significance of the act. In their tale, “How Coyote Got His Name,” the animals are named by the Great Spirit in relation to their new duties in preparation for the coming of people in the New World. In this account, as told by the gifted Native American storyteller Gene Tagaban, we understand that each animal’s name was to reflect his true nature. In fact, each animal had the opportunity to ask for their name and what it is they wanted to do/be. “Bear” represented a powerful and strong leader and “Eagle” represented far-sightedness and wisdom. Salmon was given the most prized name of them all because he wanted to feed the people. The very name, “Salmon,” embodied this selfless giving nature. These names were more than merely arbitrary assignments -- the names themselves held meaning and the animals asked for them. Through this story we also come to better understand the true nature of Coyote and his purpose in the Native American tales as a teacher of the people, rather than just being a source of random amusement.

In other Native American stories, we are shown a direct kinship between animals and humans. The Northern Plain tribes told tales of animal-human intermarriage. These stories talk of the animals’ willingness [and perhaps desire?] to give of themselves to humans to be “hunted, or [to] gift us with spiritual power […], coming to the aid of their relatives, just as any good family member would” (Aftandilian 82). This kinship was also found in the story of the holy “White Buffalo Calf Woman” of the Sioux people, who turned herself into a great buffalo so that the buffalo herd would always freely give of themselves to insure the people’s survival (132-137).

The differences in how these two cultures (at least originally) related to the natural world can be obviously seen through the creation stories that each culture has told. If our creation stories do in fact lay the foundation for all the other stories within a given culture, then how do these stories relate to the current ecological crisis that we face? And if we find that this separation from nature in our Judeo-Christian society does indeed stem from “In the beginning…”, can we perhaps look to the Native American culture for the answers in how to cross the gap? It is unlikely. As Aftandilian explains: “Native Americans did not create our current environment crisis; Euro-Americans did. Therefore, many [Native Americans…] think that Euro-Americans will not find answers to their ecological problems in Native American traditions, but instead must search within their own cultural and religious traditions for answers” (84). These answers can better be found by questioning the stories told in our Judeo-Christian society and reinterpreting them, as many are now doing. It can also be accomplished by writing new stories. “Humans are hard-wired to learn through stories” (Aftandilian 86). This is why so many (if not all) cultures share the common history of story-telling. Stories get through to us and sink into our memories unlike any other form of learning. They are not the perfect way to convey a message but they are a way of “planting a seed, which will take root” (Aftandilian 87). We may not see the result of this planting right away, but once lain the ground is forever altered.

In the film “The Great Story,” Thomas Berry proposes that the Universe itself is “fundamentally a story”. He speaks of the Earth as being a sacred reality and the center of everything - not as in the center of the Universe, but as the center of our consciousness. He proposes the idea that the Divine created diversity because any one manifestation wasn’t enough. This diversity includes all of creation, beyond just us humans and animals but to every plant, rock, ocean - every star in the night sky. “In the beginning” the stars exploded and out of this stardust, everything in this reality was formed. In this story, we are all connected at “the deepest molecular level” (Aftandilian 90).

Barry also states that, “Matter without form is nothing…and form is always spiritual.” Just for a moment, let’s consider that the “spiritual” in form could also be the same as the “intelligence” that physicists say exist in the minutest of forms. For example: All life as we know it is governed by DNA (or RNA) - strands of biological data which encode every living cell with the duties required to sustain life. Scientists can explain the process of DNA but they still can’t explain what causes DNA to ‘know’ what it needs to do. Take this beyond even the cellular level, all the way to the inside of the not-so-empty space of nothing in which photons appear and disappear, and we see the potential for a new kind of story; a story “more attuned to contemporary scientific worldviews” (Aftandilian 90); a story that our post-modern generation may be able to find some faith and direction in.

Epilogue

“In the Universe of Man, we have the thoughts of men. We see the rabbit in the grass. We see the rabbit as not us. We see the rabbit eating the grass. Some of us see ourselves eating the rabbit…but even then, we are not the rabbit. If we were the rabbit, then we would not be men. It is in our very nature to not be rabbit. Man is perfectly, not-that-which-is-not-man.

In the Universe of Rabbit, there is rabbit. Rabbit thoughts are most likely “rabbit”. Rabbit does what rabbits do but in all likelihood rabbit goes about his day just being rabbit. Rabbit probably does not even consider the fact that he is rabbit. All is rabbit. Rabbit is perfectly rabbit.

In the ‘real’ Universe there is no man or rabbit. What we call man and rabbit exist without name. There is no sense of not-man or not-rabbit. All is man. All is rabbit. Perfection cannot exist anymore than Not-perfection. All Is.”

~Anjolie York
(inspired by one Mathew Thomas Williamson)

 

Works Cited

Aftandilian, Dave. "Animals Are People, Too: Ethical Lessons About Animals From Native American Sacred Stories." Interdisciplinary Humanities 27.1 (2010): 79-98. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

“Genesis.” Myth and Knowing - An Introduction to World Mythology. Leonard, Scott., and Michael McClure. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2004. 84-90. Print

Moritz, Joshua M. "Animals And The Image Of God In The Bible And Beyond." Dialog: A Journal Of Theology 48.2 (2009): 134-146. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

“Names and Naming.” The Encyclopedia of Religion. 1986. Print.

Tagaban, Gene. “Raven Dreaming.” Whatcom Community College. Bellingham, WA. 14 November 2011. Live Performance.

Thomas Berry: The Great Story. Dir. Nancy Stetson and Penny Morell. Bullfrog Films, 2002. Film.

“White Buffalo Calf Woman.” Myth and Knowing - An Introduction to World Mythology. Leonard, Scott., and Michael McClure. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2004. 132-137. Print

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