Seven years ago, one of my closest friends, Alfred Struble, lost his 3-year battle with cancer, dying before he was even 30 years old. While I have long since accepted his passage from this world into the otherworld, I find that the anniversary of Alfred’s passing is a good day to reflect upon the cycles of life and death.
Since coming to druidry and embracing an animistic worldview, death has taken on new meaning to me. The Christian worldview, the religion of my birth, teaches that we are imperfect, sinful beings always striving to reach the state of ultimate happiness (heaven) through salvation from ourselves and our own human natures. This view assumes a “one-shot” attempt at life; a linear progression from nothingness, to something faulty, to something eternal. But this path, from birth to salvation, doesn’t really reflect any other cycle or path in real life (except if you were to believe that every life only has one opportunity on this earth to live). The more that I considered this path, when I was still within a Christian worldview, the more it made little sense to me.
I like to look to the patterns of nature to explain life and death. There are several worth bearing mention here:
1) The pattern of no waste. If you look at a forest, it’s a perfect system. Life gives way to death, which is then used to foster more life. Nothing in a forest is wasted, and everything is recycled—air (from oxygen breathers to oxygen makers); dirt (living plants consume the energy from dead ones); water (streams, rivers, water trapped by rich hummus in the soil, the trees forming as a canopy to keep the moisture contained within). If we look at our planet, it too is a perfect system. The process of photosynthesis forming the basis of plant life, which is then fed upon by animal life, which, when it dies, nourishes the plant life.
Nowhere, in any natural system, is the idea of “waste” generated. Everything in a natural system has a purpose—everything fits. What then is the place of spirit or soul in this system? Does it, too, go through a recycling/rebirth?
2) For the second principle, we come to Isaac Newton, who claimed that matter can be neither created or destroyed. If we accept the basic principles of law of the conservation of energy, this also provides us some insight into life and death. Does this same law apply to non-material things? Like souls and spirits?
If the universe is a perfect system, a system that doesn’t produce waste; and if energy can be neither created nor destroyed, does this suggest the recycling or renewal of our souls?
3) In nature, we see a cyclical pattern everywhere. From the wheel of the year where we mark the passage of the seasons to the cycles of water, of air, and of plant and animal life, we see that everything passes in a cycle that is connected to the whole. It seems that even if the matter does not stay in the same form (ice to water to gas), something about its essence is preserved (in the case of water the atomic building blocks of water remain).
Can this same cycle be applied to the soul?
4) Finally, we can look to evolution to see why a one shot path seems inconsistent with the patterns in nature. Recently, I was able to attend a talk by Richard Dawkins, who was talking about his new children’s book The Magic of Reality (which is an amazing read!). At the beginning of his talk, Dawkins presented a view of evolution that was so insightful, it bears repeating here. He argued that if you look at the short scale, say of only a few generations, there appears very little or no change between you, your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents and so on. But each generation changes a little tiny bit, and if you went back far enough and widened your scope, you would eventually get back to something that looked nothing like you or your current generation. He then displayed a graphic that went back 40,000 generations, leading to a rather hideous fish-looking thing. His point was that evolution is slow, and many successive generations refine and adapt and grow to something greater.
Does evolution only happen, again, with living organisms? What about the spirit, the soul of such organisms? Can our souls evolve, grow, learn, and adapt just as our own species has done?
Concluding Thoughts – The Web of Life and Cycles of Rebirth
Some modern animist thinkers describe this as a great web of life—each node, an individual life, and the strands going out in millions of directions, connecting us to each other. When one passes on, he/she is reabsorbed into that great web, and within time, forms a new node. Is that node like the last? Likely not. Its evolved, its grown, and the cycle continues.
In the end, everything that I’ve written is philosophy. But I’d like to think that nature teaches us lessons—and these lessons can be applied to our understanding of and interaction with the otherworld.
- Our lives are but a small fraction of the whole!
[ This blow post will be in the Oct 1st 2013 Animist Blog Carnival]