Hope is a Stubborn Buoy

Short panicked breaths

Treading icy water

Rounded waves pulse—Zenith and nadir

Tidal times—like the moon drawing our living water toward Underworld

Alone.

The lights of shore blink

The choking drench of wet waves blinds and garbles

One, two last buoyant breathes…

Silence. 

But hope is a stubborn buoy

Even with the rock and tilt of the storm,

I rise, peak and pitch above the soaking wet

The marrow in my bones refuses to be frozen

At last, grace orients me across the patterned swell

And I begin to swim

I am not adrift, but have somehow set sail

I sprout mast and sail and rigging and lift off the water

Catch the howling wind and am one with the very waves that menaced destruction  

Encounters with Coyote

In many plains and southwestern cultures, Coyote is an ancestral kin. In many stories, Coyote’s antics introduce pain, suffering and chaos into the world. In comparative mythology, Coyote-like characters are often portrayed as Tricksters. A Trickster often subverts the norm, plays tricks, and holds secret knowledge. Coyote can also be a Hero figure where he slays a monster like Thunderbird. The astrological season of Gemini (May 21-June21) is also Trickster sign, at least according to the folks at the School for Mythopoetics where I have just enrolled as a Founding Member.

Today, I was walking home from the library through Queen Elizabeth Park. I was walking slowly up a hill, and was mostly in my head as I thought about the day’s tasks. As I came to a fork in the steep path, I looked right, and there squatting in the middle of the path was a large coyote taking a shit. We locked eyes as the turd flopped to the ground. I recoiled in disgust and started laughing hysterically. Had I arrived seconds earlier or seconds later and I would have avoided the encounter, and probably felt more of a sense of wonder than of aversion.

I love to find beauty and meaning in the natural world, my writings at Holyscapes is all about this. But today, I was reminded not to take myself too seriously. Reminded that our plans don’t always go the way we expect. Seeing the Trickster in the act of defecating was the ultimate overturning of order and my expectations of natural beauty. Love live the Trickster!

Easter Vigil

On Maundy Thursday

I will wash my feet in the riffle of a creek

On Good Friday

I will lament the crucifixion with the dear earth

and venerate the weeping wood of too many crosses born by still living trees

On Holy Saturday

I will sit in vigil

at the tomb under a night sky

greyed by a shroud of sleepless electric lights

And on Easter Sunday

I will wander and worship

the resurrection body

in the cherry petals

that bloom and waft all over my garden city

More on Embodied Contemplative Spirituality

In a previous post I discussed the ethical questions of borrowing spiritual practices from the Hindu and Daoist traditions. Wary of inappropriate cultural appropriation, I have resisted adopting practices outside of a general contemplative Christian framework. However, I realized that Christianity simply does not have the resources for an embodied spirituality that many other traditions such as Yoga and Daoism do. Some may disagree, but this has been my experience. In this post I just want to add a bit more context to the question of embodiment in spiritual practice.

For many years I have been a somewhat consistent practitioner of what has been called contemplative spirituality or Centering Prayer. Fully fleshed out by Trappist monks like Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating in the 1970s, the practice modernizes the musings of the medieval author of the Cloud of Unknowing. This form of prayer is Apophatic, in that it attempts to move beyond words, images and ideas about God and into a place of unknowing, or forgetting the world of self, sacrament and matter. Apophatic prayer moves beyond Cataphatic prayer, from creation to creator, from world to heaven. The writer of Cloud states, “During contemplative prayer all created things and their words must be buried beneath the cloud of forgetting.”[i] (The author imagines a Cloud of Unknowing above and a Cloud of Forgetting below the novice meditator.) The practice strives to move the practitioner into the Cloud of Unknowing, the very presence of God’s being, toward a sort of objectless awareness beyond guided meditations, mantras, rote prayers, petitions, visualizations. This is of course a form of (neo) Platonism, moving from body and world to Source and God. And even if the author maintains the goodness of creation, as they do with words, the ultimate experience of God is beyond all words and things.

Centering Prayer is meant to train us in the slow lifelong spelunking to the cave of the heart, to the core of our being where God is actively creating us in each moment. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk largely responsible for popularizing contemplative spirituality in the 1950s and 60s, in his book Contemplative Prayer wrote: “Monastic prayer begins not so much with ‘considerations’ as with a ‘return to the heart,’ finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God.”[ii] For Merton, contemplative prayer was a practice for achieving the ultimate communion with God, who could be conceived as dwelling at the inmost space of our being, much like the Atman/Brahman (Soul/Source) theology of the Hindu Upanishads. Catholic critics of Centering Prayer however, claim that Centering Prayer is not prayer at all but a form self-hypnosis or even self-worship.[iii]

In recent years, writer Cynthia Bourgeault and Franciscan Father Richard Rohr have become the most visible advocates of Centering Prayer through the Center for Action and Contemplation. They teach the method as a form of prayer and self-discovery.[iv] In recent years, there has been some lovely discussions of the method taking forms not narrowly influenced by the more sedentary Zen sensibilities of the practice. For example, Barbara A. Holmes in her book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (2017) surveys the history of contemplative practice in the black church in North America (Mostly the United States) which takes place in spaces that are saturated with the charismatic worship of black churches and the vital spaces of political activism in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

So far I have described spirituality in at least two senses:

Spirituality 1: “The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things” (Oxford Dictionary). In this sense, spirituality is a dualized concept that sets spirit in opposition to matter. The intuition behind aphorisms like: “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Spirituality 2: “An understanding of how life should be lived and an attempt to live that way” (Gottlieb 2012). In this sense, spirituality is a method or practice designed to achieve a religiously-minded goal. Contemplative Prayer it seems is often framed in this way. We engage in the practice to achieve some state of mind or being but also with a hope in some end goal, usually communion with God, enlightenment, Moksha, Nirvana.

However, beyond these two senses of contemplative spirituality, a broader definition is emerging that blurs boundaries between ontological and methodological senses. Many in North America have begun to adopt a more “immanent frame” to borrow Charles Taylor’s phrase from his landmark book A Secular Age. This sense can defined this way:

Spirituality 3: “Spiritual but not Religious”. No longer as concerned with Transcendence, we claim to be spiritual in this sense when we have a vague notion of the world’s sacredness, or when we are in a zone of body-mind synchronization (Flow States or In the Zone). This “New” spirituality is expressed most often in the surge in popularity of the vaguely spiritual athleticized forms of North American Yoga.

It would see that Senses 1 and 2 are compatible, and Senses 2 and 3 are compatible, but Senses 1 and 3 are not compatible. In North America the assumption that one could be spiritual without the trappings of a specific religion is almost an article of faith. We have seen books and seminars on Bodifulness rather than Mindfulness. Art, music, performance, dance, craft, sex, rock climbing, surfing are spoken of as a kind of spiritual practice in Sense 3 above.

Forest Bathing as a therapeutic and spiritual practice has also rocketed into the collective imagination. Zero Waste, Green, Sustainable and Vegan lifestyle-isms have taken not only a moralizing character but a sort of green monastic asceticism. And attending to the dying and death practices has also become an area for discussion both as a form of ecological activism, critique of capitalist professionalization the death industry, and a form of accompaniment-based spirituality.

For me, the exploration of Yoga and Qigong (still very amateur) are motivated by a blending of Senses 2 and 3 of spirituality. Because Centering Prayer tends to have a strong Sense 1 and 2 motivation, engaging the body has been less a part of the conversation in contemplative prayer circles in my experience. We focus on the power of silence and stilling the monkey mind. Of slowing down and not being in movement all the time. Centering Prayer finds God in the center of our being. This is powerful stuff! I think practicing stillness and silence will always be important to my practice. But could an Embodied Contemplative Spirituality help us de-center the Self and thus de-center the presence of God? Not only found in some core Essential Self, but within the wider Ecological Self that is hopelessly entangled, hybrid and open to the more-than-human world. Rather than contrasting Transcendence and Immanence, to speak of Inscendence as the intertwined threads of the tapestry of Being.[v] Not as distinct domains of reality but as folds and contours in the evolving fabric of Cosmos.

Does Embodied Contemplative Prayer resonate? What practices do you engage with that you would consider a form of Embodied Spirituality?


[i] The Cloud of Unknowing (Image Classics) (p. 65). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Merton, Thomas (2009). Contemplative Prayer (First paperback ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-307-58953-8.

[iii] https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=234

[iv] https://cac.org/

[v] https://www.contemplation.com/inscendence-and-deconstruction/

Practicing Presence

“Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, creation is projected towards divinization, towards the holy wedding feast, towards unification with the Creator himself.”

–Pope Francis, Laudato Si, #236 (several quotation marks excluded)

People sometimes ask me why I like to attend Mass. So many have grown up under the obligation of going to church and when they reach adulthood breathe a sigh of relief when they are no longer required to go. Like a strange or creepy partner, many of my friends don’t understand what I see in this seemingly archaic and painfully boring rite. The Mass is essentially the exact same words, interchanging seasonal flourishes and lectionary readings. On top of that some priests (all too many it seems) have spiritually checked out and are often clearly coasting on autopilot through the rote prayers and recycled surface level sermons.

But just as a water strider (Gerridae) is able to glide along the surface of a pond due to water’s properties of maintaining surface tension, there is a kind of spiritual surface tension to the Mass. It is pretty easy to stay on the surface, and many Anglicans and Catholics (especially if it appears they are there for someone else) do. In order to sink more deeply into the Eucharist, I find that it is easier to simply relax into the flow of liturgical waters rather than try to extract relevant meaning from the spoken words or sermon by an extra effort of attention.

In fact, I don’t really go for the scripture readings, the singing, the community or the sermons. I go for the Eucharist. I love the Eucharist, as I will try to describe here, because it is an act of practicing God’s presence in something as humble and unassuming as a wafer of bread. This practice of presence helps me to find that presence more readily in myself, other people, mother earth and our vast evolving cosmos.

When talking about the Eucharist in Christian circles, it is common to take one of two views: First, that the Eucharist (sometimes spoken of as Communion) is symbolic of the sacrifice of Jesus, and the common communion of his followers. Second, is the Catholic dogma of the Real Presence, which states that by speaking the words of Jesus in the New Testament during the Last Supper, the celebrating Priest effects a change in the substance (true essence) of the bread and wine whose accidents (appearances) remain the same.

Generally speaking, modernity has attempted to demystify the world; to rid the world of superstition, ghosts and animating spirits. The material world is governed by predictable laws that govern the world, and God has been banished to a sort of cosmic Turner-of-the-Ignition.

After the Protestant reformation, the Eucharist took a more symbolic meaning for many Christians as scientific materialism became mainstream, viewing the Real Presence as a kind of superstitious magical thinking.

Even those who profess a Roman Catholic identity tend to see the Eucharist through a strictly realist metaphysics that straightforwardly affirms that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus during the consecration. Interestingly, this has led to a rise in reports of Eucharistic miracles wherein host bread mysteriously transforms into what appears to be sinew and flesh (morbid, I know).

While the doctrine of the Real Presence does affirm that Jesus is really, truly and substantially present in the Eucharist, the accidents do not change in any way that is perceivable by our senses. Thus Eucharistic miracles that affirm a material basis to the theology of the Real Presence appeal to the predominant modernist mind which is hungry for visible proof, substantial evidence and explanation of religious belief that can be used to counter incredulous atheist claims of superstition.

This seems to be an unfortunate foray away from the power of the rite. As I pilgrim’d into the catholic tradition, I struggled with the strongly literal emphasis on the dogma of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. I was trying to wrap my head around the doctrine of Real Presence with a sort of concentration that sought to shift my mental perception of the host. I seemed to be trying to get my mind to accept that the Real Presence was true with my mind rather than perceive it as real with my heart. It was like trying to taste salt with my finger. However, I have found that just as the Mass requires a different kind of attention in order to enjoy, experiencing God’s presence in the Eucharist is more about a practice than a perception. 

Many years ago, before I was catholic, I was living in West Jordan, Utah. One day, I walked past a field of wheat that had not yet been converted into single family dwellings. The sun was hitting the short stalks of maturing grain like the teeth of a comb and I stopped to watch as they strummed and swayed. As a Mormon I had participated in the weekly Sacrament Meeting for most of my life, wherein bread and water were reverently passed to the sitting congregation by young men in white shirts and ties. Each week we saw this bare bones ritual as a means of renewing our baptismal covenants. We would take the bread and bow our heads in prayer while the young men finished passing the trays throughout the quiet bare-walled chapel. This was a time for grateful reflection and hopeful prayer.

Standing over the field of wheat, intuiting a sacramental theology of the Real Presence that I would later embrace, I felt that for most of my life, the primary emblems of the sacrament (for Mormons as small torn pieces of bread and water) were eclipsed by my rush to symbolize them. The bread was quickly chewed and swallowed and I moved on to prayer. Forgotten was bread’s iconic participation in the Divine by being an element of creation. By this I mean that the bread is inextricably inter-connectedness with sun, air, water, insects, worms, fungus, bacteria, soil and human labor. By reducing the bread to a symbol that marked an inward spiritual exercise, I was neglecting the ways in which the bread was inviting me into a deeper sense of an expansive cosmic mystery. This is what a more catholic, sacramental approach has done for me in the Eucharist.

As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes beautifully of the Eucharist in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, “The Eucharistic rite encourages us to be fully aware so that we can touch the body of reality in us. Bread and wine are not symbols. They contain the reality, just as we do.”[i] Nhat Hanh’s theology of Inter-being develops a classical Buddhist doctrine called Dependent Origination. Devoid of a discrete soul, the self emerges in relation with many aspects of Reality. There is no thing called a flower, only an interconnected web of non-flower phenomenon that converge like a wave in a vast ocean and eventually fold back into the cosmic waters from which they emerged. Surely, if creation can be experienced in a morsel of bread, God can be as well.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism of differs from a Christian theology of the soul, the True Self that is deeply connected with the Source of Being we call God. However, learning of the doctrine of the Real Presence, Nhat Hanh couldn’t help but connect it to this fundamental property of the Buddhist cosmos.

Thus Buddhists who meditate speak of their spirituality as a practice. This is because they are practicing being fully present to that interconnected, emergent, always changing Reality in every moment. Zen/Chan Buddhists in particular have honed this skill of mindful awareness by doing all sorts of other things as well, from archery to washing the dishes to sweeping floors.

Starting with my experience near the wheat field, continuing through my reading in Buddhism, and my eventual conflicted conversion to Catholicism, I began to see the Eucharist as a practice of the presence of God. The more attuned I was to God’s sacramental presence in the world, the easier it was to perceive the Real Presence in the Eucharist and vice versa.

In the quotation at the beginning of this essay, Pope Francis speaks of the Eucharist as an emblem of Divinization. The Eucharist is not as some place marker for an eventual eschaton but as an icon of a mystery that is always, already at our feet. As Gerard Manley Hopkins writes in a much celebrated poem: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The Eucharist, hitched as it is to everything else in the cosmos, shows that in Nature “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

When I sit attentive to the Real Presence of God in a wafer of bread, it becomes easier to discern that presence everywhere else. Participating in the Eucharist or sitting before the Blessed Sacrament ensconced in a monstrance is an invitation to practice God’s presence is something as humble as a morsel of bread. We then take that attention with us as we consume the body and blood of Christ through our mouths and into bodies and then go forth (the Latin meaning of Mass) into the world as a tabernacle of God’s presence; an invitation as Saint Teresa of Avila wrote to be God’s hands and feet in the world.

Sometimes, I watch as people approach the altar for the Eucharist. They reverently bow and take the Eucharist into their outstretched hand or open mouth from the Priest or server. Often, that same person will, out of habit, continue to genuflect or bow to the tabernacle behind the altar as they return to their seat. This is of course a common act of piety when crossing in front of the altar or tabernacle. However, to my mind it seems to demonstrate that they have not fully internalized the implications of the Real Presence: YOU are now the tabernacle. Live accordingly.


[i] Pg. 32

Questions for the Forest Therapy Guides

Rice Lake

In 1982, the Japanese Forest Agency began promoting ‘forest therapy’ as a form of preventative medicine. Shinrin Yoko as the practice came to be known means Forest Bathing and the idea is that spending unstructured, unhurried time in forest, temple and park spaces could contribute to positive health outcomes.

In the 1990s, peer reviewed studies seemed to corroborate these findings. Walking in forests increases immune system function, lowers blood pressure and lowers stress hormones. There is a positive impact on symptoms of PTSD, stress, focus and general wellbeing.[i]

These findings are well documented and while they are not necessarily conclusively causative, they are absolutely resonant with increasing our health through lifestyle choices and time away from screens. However, some spokespeople for forests and forest bathing such as Diana Beresford Kroeger, an Irish-Canadian who has a bold vision of reforestation, can speak of the benefits hyperbolically. For example, during an interview on the Wisconsin Public Radio program To the Best of our Knowledge, Diana claimed that just touching certain leaves or plants could prevent leukemia or certain types of cancers.[ii] For example, she claims that by simply touching the green fruits of Black Walnut trees the ellagic acid absorbed through the sweat glands will protect children from leukemia. I couldn’t find anything close to proof of this, so it seems dubious.

In North American, a growing number of organizations are offering trainings to become “certified” Forest Therapy Guides. These trainings typically cost anywhere from $3000-$4000 for a six month program that often includes an in person immersion. When I learned about this practice, I was very interested. But the more I thought about it the more concerned I became. Despite a danger of over-exaggerating the benefits of walking in the woods, what worries me about the increasingly popular phenomenon of Forest Bathing in North America is its flagrant exoticism and the monetization of certification programs.  

The first point. It seems that whenever eco-spiritual seeker types get ahold of a concept from “The East”, we immediately read into it a sort of ancient, ecological wisdom. Japan does indeed have a strong sense of identity connected to trees and forests. They have one of the highest rates of forest cover of any nation. Shinto shrines are often located among sacred groves, some of which can be quite ancient. However, Shinrin Yoku as a concept only started in the 1980s. Why is it that despite a massive cannon of poets, naturalists and forest walkers in the Western European and Transcendentalist tradition, many of my fellow Westerners of European descent feel the need to appropriate a modern Japanese practice in order to lend legitimacy to a practice they are eager to monetize?

This brings me to my second question. Why do we need Forest Therapy Guides? Why not just offer a one hour training in Forest Bathing and invite people to do it in small groups that are self-facilitated? Why turn an open source skill into a product? Why charge money to become a certified mediator of the forest space? This seems like it crosses a line.

In an official video linked through the Forest Therapy Guide Association website, the speaker states that guides are needed to slow us down and engage us in “sensory activities that will be unlike anything you have ever experienced before.”[iii] Really? Sure its great advice to put my phone away, to forget about a destination, to open my senses to the forest around me, to slow down and wander; but unlike anything? That sounds like snake oil to me. It sounds like the Transcendental MeditationTM folks who sell Sanskrit Mantras© with the promise of a transformed work-life balance.

So maybe folks who are invested in this movement could share their experience. I know plenty of wonderful folks who are Guides, so this critique is not a personal attack. It’s a serious concern and a question that has been building in me for a while. Let me know what you think.

Post Script: While it seems that Japan does have specific trainings for Forest Therapy programs, I am doubtful that these are standalone programs apart from other essential healthcare services. I would be happy to speak with someone who knows more about the movement in Japan. Are Forest Therapy programs in Japan similar to the ones in North America? I know that there are certification schemes for forests and walking trails in Japan, but I am not sure what the training system looks like for anyone who would be the equivalent to a “Guide” in North America.


[i] Li, Qing. “Effect of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on human health: A review of the literature”, Santé Publique, vol. no. HS1, 2019, pp. 135-143.

[ii] https://www.ttbook.org/show/can-science-be-sacred

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxLbmMwlI4U

Discerning Cultural Appropriation in Spiritual Practice

Theses on the Not West

I have participated in my share of circles where Western folks like me are seeking deeper spiritual connection outside of their Christian or Abrahamic roots. Many of us have come from more rigid religious backgrounds that felt moralistic and spiritually anemic. In addition, the unfortunate legacy of violence, toxic patriarchy, intentional genocide and overt structural racism within the cultures that cluster under the umbrella of Western civilization has led to an understandable longing for the “Not-West”. As a result many of us have mixed, dabbled, converted, or fawned over traditions generally labelled as Eastern, Indigenous, Pre-modern or non-Western.

We say things like “Christianity is dualistic” or “Western civilization is patriarchal”, “colonialism is violence”, “this land was stolen”. We feel ashamed of our history and seek to extract ourselves from tainted, offending identities by talking about the need to move toward anything but the “West.” The general belief seems to be that unlike our civilizations, Indigenous cultures and Eastern philosophies are animistic, more spiritual, and egalitarian.

This disillusion with the entirety of one’s own culture/civilization can be quite distressing. One may, as many of us have, descend into an internalized self-loathing rooted in a self-imposed cultural exile. We feel lost, uncertain, despairing. The centering of our sin as Westerners compels us to seek atonement through our lifestyles as post-Western, post-Christian, or what have you.

However, sometimes it feels like there is an unhealthy polarity in this longing for the not-West.  By this I mean that our longing seems to reflect an instinct implanted in us by the very cultures we critique. This is a logic expressed by either/or thinking, by dichotomies. Because we have come to reject the framework of the West, we seek alternatives in culture perceived to be outside of the West. For example, disillusioned Christians will sympathize with a vague sort of Buddhism, which is imagined to be less moralistic, focused on individual spirituality and closer to nature. This view conveniently ignores the fact that Western Buddhisms have mostly found a social niche within counter-cultural individualism. Rarely is it acknowledged that historical and global Buddhisms are quite capable of their own versions of patriarchal sexism, violent Nationalisms or a strict, even suffocating, socially constricted moralizing.

In light of a flood of individuals embracing non-Western spirituality and identities, some social justice advocates have rightfully raised the question of inappropriate cultural appropriation. This is generally defined as: “the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression and doesn’t respect their original meaning or give credit to their source.”[1] This critical gaze is generally cast toward those in the Neo-Shamanic, Neo-Pagan, New Animist, Entheogenic, or the ever evolving New Age traditions. It is sometimes levelled against Western Yogis who teach Yoga that has been stripped of its Tantrism/Hinduism, or Mindfulness meditation stripped of its Buddhism.

I sometimes find that the critics of cultural appropriation are too rigid in their boundary policing and fail to discern between spiritual eclecticism and harmful exploitation. It can be difficult to tell the difference. The practices associated with cultural appropriation that I find most harmful or offensive are not the ones that adopt practices into one’s own spiritual path, but those which twist the practices into something entirely contrary to their original intent.

For example, non-Western cultures which carry a kind of cache or alluring exoticism are easily appropriated as yet another marketing icon in the religion of consumerist self-worship. Late capitalism’s fetishism of brands and consumer goods is unequivocally religious in nature and believe it or not, most of us are members of the Church of the Consumer.

A contrast: Perhaps the use of Yoga primarily as a means to physical fitness with some positive mental and spiritual side effects would be a slight misuse of the practice’s original intent, but certainly not necessarily the kind of repugnant cultural appropriation that is worth denouncing. Rather, appropriation is the intentional distortion and exploitation of the allure of Yoga’s exotic imagery for profit or in service of the exalted, self-realized, human being. Once a yearning for a particular type of life, value, or habit gains any semblance of social cohesion, focus-group-high-priests are there to sell it back to us as a means to self-fulfillment. Your spirituality, your zero waste lifestyle, your veganism, your social justice activism are already being sold back to you in a thousand different ways.

In my view, this twisting is worthy of public denunciation and avoidance by those who care enough to think about it. However, another danger that lurks behind the adoption of non-Western forms of spirituality is that it can enable what has been termed spiritual bypassing: avoiding the necessary healing of one’s own cultural traditions or the reclaiming of one’s own culture’s symbols and archetypes. The term spiritual bypassing was coined by psychiatrist John Welwood who defines it as a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”[2] So, for example, rather than working through our issues with the Divine Masculine, we opt to focus on the Divine Feminine. Harnessing the momentum from legitimate grievances against our own cultures, we ping to the mirror image of a polemical spiritual binary, rather than seeking to re-integrate a broken and abused dimension of the whole. Again, I am not against authentic conversion, or responsible syncretisms, but I think this caution is not often heeded before starting on the journey out of the traditions of own upbringing (if we in fact have had them).

My Own Situation

All of the world’s spiritual and religious traditions formed from some level of improvisational spiritual jazz. I was raised in the Mormon tradition which borrows from Judaism, Masonic rites, folk magic, and Puritan capitalism. Gradually however, I found myself drawn toward the contemplative Catholic tradition with a strong emphasis on the natural world as a means of communing with the Divine. I identify very much with the pluralist impulses at the heart of the Perennial Tradition, Western mysticism and esotericism. So, I converted. Catholicism is an open-invitation tradition, all are invited to join and participate in the forms of Catholicism. It is also within the same religious family as Mormonism, Christianity.

In my personal spirituality I practice Centering Prayer as a method of meditation. This is a silent meditation practice developed by Catholic monks in the Christian contemplative tradition. It is not borrowed from Buddhism or Hinduism, but shares certain qualities and characteristics. However, even if I chose to participate in a Zen community for example, the spiritual goals, though very different, are in some ways compatible. So, even though I would feel justified borrowing and mixing from Buddhist practices, I don’t really need to, as the resources are available within my own tradition. Rather, I am able to admire the Chan/Zen/Dao traditions of China and Japan and cross reference the theologies of the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads to be very resonant with my own Catholic pan-en-theistic pluralism. I do this inter-spiritual work rooted in my contemplative Catholicism.

However, Western contemplative practice is notoriously Neo-Platonist, meaning it often elevates the mental/spiritual over the bodily/earthly. In my own practice I have really struggled with ways to engage in a more embodied contemplative prayer practice. Christianity, as far as I know, has not developed a rich tradition of ‘body prayer’ except for perhaps pilgrimage, which I have embraced. Yet, I have still felt drawn to experimenting with other forms of embodied contemplative spirituality. For example, I have begun to learn more about the basics of spiritual Qigong and Hatha Yoga. I am fascinated by the cosmological depth of Chinese spirituality, and it’s reflection in the human body. Certainly Western forms of astrology attempt this, but do not have any forms of actionable body prayer practices that I am aware of. So, I have experimented with a few rudimentary forms of these practices. I have incorporated them into my own spiritual goals, goals that certainly resonate with the various religious traditions they come from, but not exactly. Unlike the forms of economic cultural appropriation discussed above I would characterize this use as within the bounds of an ethical appreciation and adoption (spiritual jazz).  

However, I am curious to hear your thoughts on the difference between appropriation and appreciation. I wonder if those of us who were raised with a particular tradition should spend more time seeking out and understanding the jewels in our own traditions before we begin to bridge and bricolage with others. This not only honors our ancestors, but builds up a strong point of reference when seeking alternative expressions for specific spiritual goals. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when thinking through the question of cultural appropriation versus cultural creativity:

How would you feel about charging money to teach a specific and known practice from a tradition that has a history of suppression from your own lineage/group?

Was the practice you are engaging with looked down on with skepticism or seen as superstition by previous generations? What historical injustices took place as a result of this?  

Were you trained in your practice by a member of your own culture or the practice’s originating culture(s)? Does that bother you? Did your teachers have a reverence for their lineage?

Did they have the blessing of someone in that lineage to use the practice as a source of livelihood?

Have you listened to traditional practitioners of this practice? How do they feel about you practicing it? Promoting it?

Have traditional practitioners made repeated and public efforts to discourage the use of a certain or set of practices?

Are you participating in a practice that has become athleticized yet retains certain vocabulary and concepts that have been repurposed toward general wellness or individualism, the dominant religion of capitalist humanism?

Are sacred symbols or statuary that are often associated with sacred rites being used as aesthetical objects or décor?

Does your practice feel like it is being used as a weapon in your own rejection of the dominant culture?

To the post-Christians out there, if broadly speaking, Buddhism and Christianity are equally capable of being awful, why is the Eastern foil so consistently sympathized with and apologized for? Why not spend that energy re-claiming, healing and transforming Christianity? 


[1] https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cultural-appropriation-5070458#:~:text=Cultural%20appropriation%20refers%20to%20the,give%20credit%20to%20their%20source.

[2] Fossella, Tina; Welwood, John (Spring 2011). “Human nature, Buddha nature: an interview with John Welwood”. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. 20 (3). https://www.johnwelwood.com/articles/TRIC_interview_uncut.pdf

Give Me That Old Growth Religion: Finding Common Ground in the War in the Woods

Framing a Conflict  

I have a very cool job. I get to teach a mix of environmental studies and humanities courses at Simon Fraser University, in beautiful British Columbia, Canada. This includes courses from ‘World Religions’, to ‘Environmental Ethics’, and ‘Religion and Ecology’ to ‘Forest Ecosystem Management’. When I tell students that I studied forestry and theology in graduate school, I get looks that range from skepticism to amazement. This spring I taught, what to me, was a dream course. It was entitled ‘Sacred Groves: Trees, Forests and the Human Imagination’. The curriculum explored the entanglement between human cultures and forest ecosystems through readings in anthropology, ecology, ethics and sacred texts. The students were from many different faculties and backgrounds, and by the end of the course it was clear to me that we had just scratched the surface of the intersections and material in this interdisciplinary field.

During this time, the so-called War in the Woods had heated up in a remote old growth forest on Vancouver Island. Activists were defending road blocks from a court injunction that gave Teal Jones the right to log several areas of forest identified by activists as old growth in the Fairy Creek Watershed within unceded Pacheedaht First Nation territory. News outlets recycled familiar tropes about jobs versus ecological integrity, and we have witnessed numerous videos of RCMP officers aggressively extracting activists from precarious tripods or underground arm holds and enforcing illegal exclusion zones near cut blocks.

This skirmish was happening in the wake of the Province of British Columbia having revealed an official timeline for enacting a so-called “paradigm shift” in the way forestry is done. The Province has even endorsed all fourteen recommendations from the most recent Old Growth review panel. The report is entitled “A New Future for Old Growth: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems” written by long time foresters Garry Merkel and Al Gorely.[1] The report includes yet another call for the province to shift toward “ecosystem-based management” that includes protecting some of the Province’s remaining old growth forests, especially in the most productive site classes within the Coastal Western Hemlock (CWH) biogeoclimatic zone which covers some 10.8 million hectares of BC (11.4%).[2] The recommendations even includes recognizing forests “intrinsic value for living things.” The term intrinsic value being a term that is typically only heard in environmental ethics courses, or invoked to critique the mechanistic, utilitarian approach to forestry embodied by industrial logging.

On June 17, 2021, during the peak of media coverage of the Fairy Creek blockades, Narwhal journalist Sarah Cox interviewed co-author of the Old Growth Strategic Review, Garry Merkel. The conversation was entitled “What are the real solutions to old-growth logging?” Throughout his comments Merkel continually returned to the fact that a successful paradigm shift in forestry would not be achieved only through advocating for top down policy changes. His thesis was essentially that only when we can start to think differently will we be able to act differently. And then the clincher:

A paradigm shift is a fundamental shift in thinking. It’s essentially a revolution in thinking…Think about it in your own life. For those of you who might have a certain religious orientation. Change your religion tomorrow and think like that. That’s what a paradigm shift is. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of work to help people work through that (43:10).[3]  

It is not often that forestry and religion are discussed together, so Merkel’s comments lit up both parts of my brain. Merkel’s comments also resonated with historian Lynn White Jr.’s criticism of the anthropocentric wing of the Abrahamic faiths, in which the emphasis on a transcendent God at a distance from creation enabled Western civilization to think of the world as so much material given to humanity for our flourishing which has correlated with (if not precipitated) our current ecological crises.[4]

Political theorists may find fault with Merkel’s paradigm shift approach because of its emphasis on the importance of ideas and thinking over structures of power and economic pressures. This is a valid critique, but I fundamentally agree with Merkel’s view that our approach to old growth is as much about worldview as it is about money or jobs. The War in the Woods is not just about territory and power any more, it is also about ideas. It is largely a continuation of a culture war that has been waged for many decades.

In this essay, I will outline the context and complexities of the most recent skirmish in the battle to protect old growth forests in British Columbia at Fairy Creek. I will make the case for the quasi-religious nature of this conflict and assess Garry Merkel’s suggestions around orchestrating a Province wide paradigm shift. I argue that the essentially religious dimensions to the current old growth conflict mean that any kind of paradigm shift toward more ecosystem-based management will need to incorporate elements of the various conflicting worldviews to succeed.

Holy Wars

The most famous battle of the War of the Woods was fought in the late 1990s when activists blockaded access to a timber license on Meres Island near the town of Tofino on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. This protest resulted in over 900 arrests, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history (until Fairy Creek Protestors surpassed this record in 2021). Counter protests, called Ucluelet Rendezvous, attracted thousands of people as well, and vocalized frustration with the protests and support for the industry that continues to provide for over 60,000 livelihoods in BC.

Eventually the timber company MacMillan Bloedel agreed not to log the forests and First Nations’ forestry companies took over the major timber licenses in the area. In 2000 the area was designated as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, but much of the bioregion remains without Provincial protected status despite the good faith agreements between First Nations logging companies and environmentalists. Emerging First Nations land management programs are re-embedding traditional and spiritual values into their land use plans.

In August of 2020 activists began to quietly blockade several access points to the Fairy Creek Watershed, just north of Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island. Then, in May of 2021, the BC courts issued an injunction against the blockade giving logging company Teal Jones the right to access and harvest trees in the timber license area. Teal Jones was founded in 1946 by Jack Jones as a cedar shingle mill in New Westminster, BC and the company owns mills in the United States and Canada. Some activists have targeted the company and organized protests outside their current headquarters in Surrey, BC. Teal Jones responded by giving away tree saplings to the protestors as a token of their view that the industry is a leader in environmental sustainability.

The group primarily responsible for leading the protests and blockades is called the Rainforest Flying Squad. A Go Fund Me campaign associated with the group has raised over $700,000.[5] Theirs is a deep devotion to protecting one of the few remaining unlogged watersheds in southern Vancouver Island. A quick Google Maps search reveals just how unique the site is to the surrounding patch work of clear cut harvests in various stages of recovery, which appears as an ovate shaped valley of continuous green. 

In the meantime, the leaderships of the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations have issued statements requesting that activists respect their territories and essentially pack up and leave. Each of the tribes has been devastated by colonialism, and standard procedure has been for logging companies to enter their territories, which are officially designated as “Crown Land”, and extract timber for the open market. However, in the new era of truth and reconciliation, rights and title, and treaty commissions, First Nations are winning more and more battles for greater control over how land is managed within their territories. The Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations are negotiating a treaty with the Province together, as on-reserve populations are comparatively small. They are also slowly gaining more economic ground by purchasing local businesses such as a resort and a gas station. Forest tenure agreements, which enable third parties to harvest timber from Crown Land are also being rearranged to ensure tribes get a fair share of timber revenues. The Pacheedaht have even opened up a local saw mill that processes old growth cedar trees for specialty products.[6] The Huu-ay-aht leadership has also been vocal about the importance of forestry to their local economy, and do not see ecotourism as a viable alternative (though perhaps a supplement) to forest harvesting.

However, not all the members of these nations agree with their leadership. For example, Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones has been a vocal defender of the Fairy Creek old growth forests, saying that activists are his guests. He has even stated publically that Frank Jones who claims to be the Pacheedaht hereditary chief was not officially passed that title by his father, making hereditary leadership contested among the Pacheedaht. Jones emphasizes that disease and colonial violence disrupted their traditional governance which included decisions over natural resource management. The Canadian Indian Act, which mandated democratically elected councils to be the nations’ official representation to the state were designed to disrupt systems of kinship and usufruct rights. This means that communities are often divided with respect to the legitimate leadership of their interests, and as in any community hold diverse views on controversial environmental issues.

Media portrayals of the War in the Woods in the 90s as now, often frame the debate about old growth as one between jobs and preservation, economic growth and ecological integrity. Even academic treatments trace these familiar songlines through the landscape. Geographer Bruce Braun wrote an analysis of the conflict in his book The Intemperate Rainforest (2002). In it Braun argues along social constructionist lines that the forest is a contested space. Nature’s impenetrable otherness absorbs our socio-political projections. In this case loggers and environmentalists clash over the contested meaning of forests as zones of ecological integrity versus resource extraction. Caught in the middle were the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples who had dwelt in the Clayoquot Sound by their own reckoning since time immemorial.[7] Braun assesses the forests through a political ecology lens that might be accused of erasing the agency, materiality and objectivity of the forest. Nevertheless, his argument shows how deeply contested a forest can be within a contemporary pluralist society.

In their own public relations materials, timber and forestry organizations boast BC’s high environmental standards and regulations, tree planting practices and the carbon sequestration potential of wood products used in buildings and furniture. Environmentalists argue that old growth have intrinsic value and harbor unique biodiversity. Old forests are also massive sinks of carbon and therefore provide a rich array of ecosystem services which makes them “worth more standing”, a common slogan among activists. Indigenous peoples and their relationships to forests are often marginalized from these dominant storylines, and have expressed resistance to both. At Fairy Creek, we are once again trapped between divergent views of what forests are for, and who gets to decide how we manage them. Yet social science and media portrayals miss altogether the deeply seated quasi-religious commitments of the various interested parties. In the next sections I will explore at least three of these commitments.

The Gospel of Efficiency

In forestry school, we learned that the succession of a forest begins with a phase called “Stand Initiation.” This could of course get going through natural disturbances such as fire or windstorms, but in a commercial forestry setting, this means planting trees in a harvested area.[8] In BC we plant somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-300 million seedlings each year on around 190,000 hectares of harvested area. Learning forestry, it always felt as though this first phase had a somewhat biblically Ex Nihilio—out of nothing—ring to it. Just as the Abrahamic god had created the world through words, benevolent foresters re-create the forest through an act of Stand Initiation—harvesting and re-planting. ‘In the beginning there was a perfectly spaced stand of commercially valuable trees…’

As historian James C. Scott has written in his book Seeing Like a State, the history of industrial forestry in Europe and North America is rooted in the rise of capitalist efficiency and the royal pronouncements of the 16th and 17th centuries.[9] As European wood supply began to dwindle with the rise of the industrial revolution, kingdoms and then secular governments sought ways to more efficiently manage trees and forests for a steady stream of an increasingly narrower range of commodities, primarily timber.

German forestry especially turned vast networks of medieval forest commons into agricultural cropland. Through the application of the sciences, they sought to simplify the forest community to maximize the growth of desirable species and to eradicate the presence of so-called pests and non-economic trees and shrubs. Mathematical equations were developed to calculate the volume of standing trees in a given stand, and estimate the trees’ growth rate. This of course enabled a predicable model of the steady flow of timber resources, and therefore cash. This worked out well enough for 1-2 rotations, but then the soil began to exhaust. Fertilization was often needed, and the forest had to be protected from fire. Bark beetles and other boring and defoliating insects were also more likely to swell in population due to the even-aged character of the forests, which essentially provided a vast arboreal buffet. Some areas after harvest didn’t recover well on their own so nurseries and replanting were needed to supplement natural regeneration. Forest commons were gradually converted into plantations, managed as intensively as any agricultural crop.

In North America, forests were ravaged by waves of agrarian settler colonists (many who were refugees from Europe) and timber operations. With an impending timber famine, forestry in the United States became institutionalized through the political muscle of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1898, Roosevelt appointed Gifford Pinchot, a Europe-educated forester, to lead the Division of Forestry. In 1900 Pinchot was instrumental in establishing the first forestry school in North America at Yale. Pinchot was later appointed the first head of the US Forest Service. Pinchot’s approach to forestry and conservation in general had a major impact on the development of the forestry profession in North America.

In Canada, the first forestry school was established in Toronto in 1907, but the University of British Columbia did not open its forestry school until 1921. What began in BC as a corrupt and unregulated industry, was eventually tamed into the provincial timber tenure system still in place today. A major milestone in this process came in 1909 when Fred Fulton published his “Royal Commission Report on Timber and Forestry” known as the Fulton Commission. The recommendations for this report were institutionalized in the 1912 Forest Act.[10]

Rather than a focus on what we would now call conservation, early forestry legislation in BC was primarily aimed at ensuring the efficient harvesting of timber, the prevention of fire, and the ability to generate public revenues. Instead of allowing for the extraction of only the largest trees, tenure holders were required to harvest all available timber over a certain diameter.

Even the creation of forest reserves which eventually became the Provinces system of protected areas, was not initially about preserving forest ecosystems, rather, it was about ensuring economic sustainability and a supply of timber to future generations. From a functional linguistic standpoint, ‘ecosystems’ did not really exist yet and forests were seen as an inexhaustibly renewable resource that should be managed according to rational scientific principles. Forests did not exist for their own sake, but for ours. Yes, the National Park systems were getting going, but these were primarily about the beauty of Nature, and allowing those who could afford it access to experiences of the Sublime and Transcendent a la John Muir. Which, as we will see in the next section, are the roots of the quasi-religious views of contemporary ecological activists. 

However, it is not the case that this scientific approach to forest management was the opposite of a more spiritual, preservationist perspective that was emerging. Economist Robert H. Nelson convincingly argues that in fact the industrial approach too can be characterized as quasi-religious. While there are many narrower definitions of religion in the field of Religious Studies which restrict religion to its institutional or identitarian expressions, Nelson defines religion broadly as a “comprehensive worldview” or moral vision that is basically understood as true, or how the world works.[11]

Nelson argues that 19th century conservationists sought the fair distribution and utilization of resources for their “highest good” as a way to provide the most amount of benefit to society. This utilitarian view holds that using resources efficiently will maximize the benefits to the greatest amount of people through jobs and economic growth and using forestry techniques to meticulously measure and grade the forests ensures that a certain amount of timber volume will be available indefinitely.[12] The highest good therefore is the benefit of society. The vision of utilitarian conservation became the dominant framework for interpreting the forests of North America and guided legislation and management strategies that focused on the efficient use of timber.[13] Nelson dubs this utilitarian view the ‘Gospel of Efficiency’ as being a quasi-religious devotion to enlightenment rationality and a firm faith in the infinite abilities of humanist Science.

Nineteenth century progressives such as Gifford Pinchot and Fred Fulton saw forestry as a correction to the wasteful and plundering style of colonialism, and efficient use of the earth’s bounty as a sacred duty. They wanted to use science to effectively measure and manage the forests and pass laws that protected them in perpetuity for the use of future generations. Therefore it is essential to make a good account of the quantity of our forest resources and manage them efficiently for the good of the whole society.

For a forester or logger trained in traditional silviculture, an ancient forest may be beautiful, but from a management perspective, it is ‘decadent’, past its prime. It has entered into what is perceived to be a stagnant phase of growth where the trees are no longer growing vertically, secondary growth has slowed to nearly zero, and root and heart rots threaten the quality of the tree’s wood and structural stability. Certainly temperate old forests are places with high biodiversity, but they are not necessarily the places with the world’s or even the region’s highest biodiversity. Nor do old forests represent the full range of habitats of an intact forest ecosystem which would typically include stands at all stages of growth depending on the ecosystem’s disturbance regime, fire return interval, or Indigenous land management practices.[14] An old forest is not in itself an isolated ecosystem, but part of the wider ecological landscape.

In other words, according to the Gospel of Efficiency, cutting down old forests outside of protected areas in not a sacrilege, it is a duty. It is part of full cycle good stewardship of the land. It is the final phase that allows the whole forest’s growth to start over again (Ex nihilo). If efficient use of resources is your modus operandi, leaving those trees to rot and fall over (as they see it) is the real sacrilege. As loggers and foresters are often heard to say: trees grow back! Thus, for many rooted in this paradigm, rather than shifting the forestry sector toward wholesale ecosystem management, the system should continue to fine tune the constraints on forestry practices in order to account for previously unaccounted values, leaving old growth management to flourish in designated protected areas. Riparian buffers, proper drainage and culvert placement and replanting trees ensure harvesting does not impact salmon or biodiversity. With these forestry practices in place, and in some cases third party certification to ensure these practices are followed, it is believed that the forest industry can continue to provide wide ranging benefits to society as a whole.

Gaian Devotees

As a young forest grows, trees compete for light. After “Stand Initiation”, the forest passes through a phase of growth called “Stem Exclusion” in which the trees race to capture available growing space. The canopy becomes dense and the understory becomes dark with hardly any other plants able to grow. Eventually, some of the trees are out-competed and the forest begins to self-thin, which passes the forest into the “Understory Reinitiation” phase. Dead trees lose their needles or fall over during high winds and light begins to filter through the canopy. Eventually, there is enough light to support a vibrant understory of small trees, shrubs and ground cover. In the Pacific West, even long lived trees like Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga Menziesii) begin to lose space within the canopy because they cannot regenerate in the lush shady understory they have helped create. More shade tolerant trees such as Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) and Western Hemlock (Tsuga Heterophylla), which have been hanging around in the understory begin to fill in the gaps. But their seeds are able germinate amidst the mossy duff and fallen logs. After the last Ice Age as plants recolonized the Pacific West, what is now classified as the Coastal Western Hemlock Biogeoclimatic Zone reached its current ecological complexity about 15,000-12,000 years ago. The slow maturing of a coastal forest can last hundreds or even thousands of years before a fire comes along and opens up enough new growing space for less shade tolerant species such as Douglas fir, Shore Pine (Pinus contorta var. contorta) or Red Alder (Alnus rubra) to recapture a site.

This story of how trees grow understands trees as primarily individual organisms in competition with each other. It was the dominant view during my time in forestry school, inherited from Gifford Pinchot and the Gospel of Efficiency. This approach was a conscious and empirically founded alignment with a view of trees that favored silvicultural treatments. In fact, during my forest succession courses, views that hinted at the special status of old growth trees, or forests as interconnected biomes were not so subtly mocked as so much sentimental nonsense.

Starting as early as the 19th century, the scientific silvicultural views advocated by conservationists such as Pinchot, came into conflict with what were we might now call preservationist views which valued aesthetics and wild nature. These understandings were classically embodied by John Muir’s movement to protect Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed to supply San Francisco with water. In fact, initially allies, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot had a very public falling out over the fate of Hetch Hetchy. Muir wrote of the plan:

That anyone would try to destroy [Hetch Hetchy Valley] seems; incredible; but sad experience shows that there are people good enough and bad enough for anything. The proponents of the dam scheme bring forward a lot of bad arguments to prove that the only righteous thing to do with the people’s parks is to destroy them bit by bit as they are able. Their arguments are curiously like those of the devil, devised for the destruction of the first garden. . . .

These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar.

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.[15]

Muir’s religious allusions are clear and were meant to stir up the imaginations of American Transcendentalists and Christians alike. By setting his own affinity for Nature against the idolatry of Capitalism he delineated not progress as sacred by the world as a place of encounter with the Divine. He also makes reference to what I am calling the Gospel of Efficiency who propose that the utility of the parks is their highest good. While Muir’s recent reputation has been stained by his overt racism against Indigenous peoples, his ecological spirituality inspired generations of environmental activists who have come to see forests as sacred space, whose primary value is intrinsic rather than instrumental.

The preservationist view was influenced by the transcendental writings of Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In that view, Nature was maintained as a domain distinct from Culture, but was invested with sacredness as a foil to the anxiety-inducing drudgery of the industrial city. In contrast to the utilitarian view which saw a sacred role for humans in managing the forest, the Transcendentalist vision, elevated the experience of an imagined untouched Nature as a potential encounter with the Sublime qualities of the Divine. Said another way, in the utilitarian view wilderness needs redeeming, and in the Transcendentalist view wilderness does the redeeming.

Among Muir’s disciples in the west, old growth forests were valued primarily for their sacred quality, and the majestic size of their trees. John Muir’s advocacy for the Mariposa Grove and the Save the Redwoods League, worked to preserve these groves from the ax and saw. Many more activists across the world have done similar work as a labor of love in service of something greater than themselves, a common religious virtue.

Paradigms of Ecological Succession as Myth

Before we can discuss Muir’s contemporary successors in old growth preservation activism, I need to make a short detour through one of the most contentious debates in the biological sciences: Ecological Succession. The sides of this debate make up the cultural DNA so to speak of the current conflict. The debate revolved around the question of how ecosystems evolve over time. The term ecosystem, an abstract word describing the relationships between “organisms and their abiotic environments” was coined by Sir Arthur G. Tansley in 1935.[16] The main contenders in the debate regarding how ecosystems develop were ecologist Henry A. Gleason (1882-1975) and Frederick Clements (1874-1945). Gleason saw plants as essentially individual organisms thrown together at random by evolution and making their way through their unique adaptations. The Clementsian view was that forests were in fact climate-determined super-organisms, who moved through phases of growth much like our bodies. This meant that disturbances like fire or logging were outside forces to the delicately balanced climax ecosystem. A climax ecosystem was the state that could hypothetically be sustained indefinitely without a disturbance. After World War II, as the Western world debated the merits of capitalism and socialism, Clement’s views fell out of favor in North America, both due to sufficient empirical evidence to support it within the existing academy, but perhaps also because it did not align with the individualistic, market-based civil religion of the era which was bogged down in Cold War with China and the Soviet Union.[17]

Among silvicultural and commercial forestry circles, Gleason’s view has essentially won out. However, environmentalists, and even many conservation biologists embrace the Clementsian view, which takes for granted the intimate, individual-blurring interconnectedness of forest ecosystems. During the first battles of the War in the Woods, ecologists enlisted this interconnected, super-organismic language to advocate for setting more old growth forests aside, arguing that species like the Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis) and the Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) depended on these “climax” (late successional) forests to survive. In the late 1990s, some ten million hectares in California, Oregon and Washington were set aside from commercial harvest as part of the Northwest Forest Plan, which drastically reduced logging in publicly owned forests and shifted official policy toward ecosystem health.[18]

Despite the dominance of the utilitarian vision of forestry that overwhelmingly shapes forestry on crown lands in BC, the so-called Biogeoclimatic Ecological Classification System (BEC) which is used to categorize these lands is rooted in a Clementsian view of ecosystems. This means that the names given to forest types with this classification system enlist climax species as the climatic token of the forest type. My own forest ecosystem is the Coastal Western Hemlock because Western Hemlock is the shade tolerant species that persists through the late successional phase of forest growth, and barring disturbance would maintain dominance in the canopy in perpetuity. Yet, despite this classification, the region is dominated by mostly planted Douglas fir forests that will never reach their late successional old growth phase.

The more organismic understanding of forests embodied in the Clementsian view has been bolstered by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelocks Gaian Theory (sometimes referred to as merely a hypothesis), which, starting in the 1970s affirmed that the earth’s complex interlocking lifeforms act as a sort of single self-regulating organism through a complex web of positive and negative feedback loops which maintain the conditions which are optimal for life.[19] The Greek myth of Gaia is used to bolster the contemporary science-based myth (story) of the earth as organism, or the forest as commune.

Scholar Bron Taylor has classified those who have translated Gaia Theory into spiritual terms, as a subset of adherents to what he classifies as “Dark Green Religion”, the way of life that affirms that nature, life itself, has intrinsic value and is therefore sacred.[20] For Taylor, this is a legitimate religious position outside of organized or institutionalized religion, but religion nonetheless.[21] Religion that enlists ‘bricolage’, the melding of spiritual and scientific understandings of the world into a meaningful worldview and praxis. Environmentalists in this camp have been consistently accused by conservation-oriented foresters of being neo-pagan nature worshippers. If the world is alive, if forests are complex ancient living creatures, then to destroy them is sacrilege. Gaian ethics would assert that we do not just live on planet earth, we are within and among the earth and their myriad creatures.[22]

In recent years, a slew of new studies in plant behavior and ecological science has affirmed the mythos that ecosystems are deeply interconnected.[23] The work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simmard for example, has become enormously popular. Through her rigorous and novel experimental methods, Simmard has documented loquacious tree communication networks that are facilitated through aerosols and most often through mycorrhizae, or fungi who form mutualistic relationships with plant roots of all sorts.[24] A real life ‘Avatar’, forests have been shown to be intimately connected with each other through these webs of fungi that Simard calls the Wood Wide Web. Popular writers and TED Talk manifestoes by Peter Wohlleben and Monica Gagliano have also echoed these messages, which mix science and storytelling.[25]

Activists who have adopted the Gaian stance are putting their bodies at risk to save large, old trees in the Fairy Creek watershed, understand their mission with the zealous urgency of crusaders defending a holy land from infidels. Just as sacred sites are more than just a collection of buildings, or strategic locales but rather places imbued with holiness, an old growth forest is not simply a unit of marketable timber, or even primarily a provider of human valued ecosystem services. Forests are unique and sacred places to those who have come to cherish them, even without having visited. With climate change advancing faster than many worst case scenario models, 1,900 species at risk in BC alone, and shrinking stands of easily accessible ancient coastal rainforest, activists can’t be blamed for their desire to take direct action while provincial leadership engages in what feels like so much “talk and log” tactics—commissioning another study, or employing an independent oversight body, while timber licensing continues unaffected.

Despite the economic value of large trees, and the sacred quality of old groves, there is controversy surrounding just how much old growth forests are left in BC. The Province’s data shows that nearly 23 per cent of BC’s 60 million hectares of forestlands belong to their definition of old growth which is defined by a standard age class cut off: 250 years old on the coast and 150 years old in the interior. However, conservation organizations such as the Ancient Forest Alliance and Sierra Club suggest that only 3 per cent of the remaining primary forests fit the age and structural qualities associated with this old growth phase. This is because forests in BC are stratified by site quality or productivity, which is ranked by measuring the average tree height at 50 years old on a given site. Thus forests that are both old and that contain large trees make up a very low percentage of the remaining primary highest productivity sites in our resource management area.[26]

Interestingly however, it would seem that activists are not merely interested in identifying and preserving old trees or intact ecosystems per se. There are many old trees in the interior or in more inaccessible areas like ridge tops or vast tracks of stunted boreal forests. But these trees do not grow to the same impressive size and girth as the coastal productive forests and are thus less valuable to both loggers and environmentalists. However we define old growth, there is enough volume left in these uncut stands that Garry Merkel admits that with current legal contracts and economic forecasts in place, the timber industry cannot survive without cutting at least some of the remaining coastal and interior old growth trees. To give you an idea of why, one well-formed, relatively rot-free ancient Western Red Cedar can bring in over $30,000. This economic irresistibility, and the kind of devotion these trees kindle from Gaian activists means there will almost certainly be more battles in the War of the Woods on the horizon.

Whereas the efficient management of forests is primary within the Gospel of Efficiency, and cutting old trees is a public good, in the Gaian mythos of many activists, cutting an old forest would be akin to tearing down a cathedral for its stones. The value of old trees and forests is inherent, and the ability to experience what is understood as an intact, integral ecosystem that is free of human tinkering is sacrosanct and our birthright as citizens. They are sanctuaries, and are upheld as a foil to the urban, industrialized places many of these non-indigenous activists hail from. 

Sacred Relations

The Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) is revered as the Tree of Life by many Coast Salish peoples. According to some publically available tellings, Cedar used to be a generous man, who was always giving people gifts. The Transformer Being turned the man into Cedar so he could continue to give gifts. Cedar is at the heart of many Coast Salish cultures and provides both material and imaginal resources.

If loggers and environmentalists represent two extremes in the poles of old growth religion, the religiosity of First Peoples stands out as a unique third way that neither commoditizes old trees nor fetishizes them into sacrosanct precincts/objects. Rather, First Peoples on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, as I understand their publicly available teachings and statements, view old trees as non-metaphorical kin whose relationship is held in a tight reciprocity among peoples, non-human and human.

In Western environmental ethics we often speak in terms of forests being valued either for their intrinsic value, in and of themselves, or for their instrumental value, the value they have for human’s which for the last 200 years has typically been measured in board feet of timber, but can include aesthetical or ecological values important to humans as well. First Peoples, who are often caught between this binary, hold to their own sacred principles which could be said to include aspects of both intrinsic valuation and instrumental use. This has been referred to as a kind of Relational Value.[27] This means that trees and forests can simultaneously be intrinsically and instrumentally valued. A Western Red Cedar can be a person and a resource when embedded in a social relationship of gift giving, exchange and reciprocity. This mixing of subject/object categories has been inherently difficult for Western resource managers and activists to wrap their arms around. In English speaking venues, one can often hear advocates of First Nations’ management techniques fluidly moving between the language of kinship and natural resources as they attempt to break down their relational worldview for outsiders.

First Peoples have not embraced the narrow view of forests as merely timber resources, but they do not view old growth forests as pristine wilderness. The forest is a place of abundant gifts, taken with gratitude and reciprocated with good feelings, prayer and offerings. First Nations revere the Cedar as a relative, and yet they also depend on Cedar as a source of fiber, timber and totem poles. The prayerful, elder-directed selective logging of some Nations looks very little like industrial forestry, though there are many Nations who are developing more revenue-oriented forest operations constrained by their own sacred teachings. And while preservation activists tend to use terms such as ‘virgin’ or ‘pristine’ rainforest to bolster their claims that the groves are untouched, intact, untrammeled and sacred, the groves they are advocating for often have a long history of anthropogenic influence and care. Reflecting this ontological disconnect, long time Tla-o-qui-aht activist Gisele Maria Martin said speaking of old growth forests, “We don’t have a word for ‘wilderness’ in Nuu-chah-nulth languages…The closest translation is ‘home.’”[28] This means that many places which have been advocated for using words like pristine, untouched and wild, are in fact often former resource gathering sites.

This is because as archeologists are now recognizing, thousands of so-called Culturally Modified Trees (CMT) up and down the coast have been intensively managed for their gifts. Many are Western Red Cedar that have been managed for cedar bark or cedar plank harvesting. Many of the old growth forests that remain such as those in Pacific Rim National Park, were once intensively managed ‘orchards’ of Cedar whose bark, wood, roots and leaves were harvested for a variety of uses. Some trees were left to grow to very large sizes so they could later be harvested as totem poles, canoes or long house beams.[29] This does not mean these trees were valued merely as commodities, nor does it allow for the view that Indigenous land management systems were a kind of proto-wilderness protection system. And as Nations reclaim sovereignty over their territories through the treaty process, activists seeking to lock up remaining old growth trees in expanded traditional wilderness areas will have few enthusiastic supporters among a major contingent of Coast Salish Indigenous peoples.

Ritual Protest and Reconciliation 

In an era of reconciliation, the widely successful strategy of building public pressure on a primary resource management agency through both lobbying and direct action is getting complicated. There is a ritual dimension to these strategies which focuses on the symbolic re-creation of the forces of darkness versus the forces of light, in which the supporter and activists are stand in for cultural hero. I do not say this cynically, but descriptively. The bravery of activists is admirable and the optics are undeniably favorable to their cause.

For many years activists have used these urgent public awareness campaigns to pressure and shame leaders into actions with success. The most recent campaign at Fairy Creek is often called “The Last Stand” and evokes the urgency of protecting old growth forests as non-renewable sacred sites with ecotourism, climate change and biodiversity enhancing perks. As in past campaigns they have enlisted petitions, call in scripts, and celebrity endorsements. In recent years, social media has allowed vivid daily reports that include photographs, videos and tallies of arrests with far reaching calls for action across a wide network of supporters and sympathizers. As I mentioned above a Go Fund Me Campaign associated with the blockades at Fairy Creek has raised over half a million dollars.

Activists are calling on Premier John Horgan to immediately defer old growth logging, and to permanently fund the protection of all remaining coastal stands. However, Horgan has said that in a time of reconciliation, the Ministry of Forests cannot simply make this decision without consulting with First Nations, a politically correct, but convenient dodge indeed. And yet, the Pacheedaht leadership have asked activists to leave their territory. They have also asked that the province defer cutting in yet unprotected cut blocks in and around Fairy Creek so that they can write their own resource management plan. Activists have not headed the call to leave their encampments, and the Province has agreed to defer some areas while others have still gotten the go ahead. Even after the deferral of some 2,000 hectares of cut blocks that include old trees, activists remain stationed at several blockades around the Fairy Creek watershed as of this writing. In fact, it appears that arrests are set to exceed the history making civil disobedience of the Clayoquot Sound protests of the 1990s.

After the deferral of the 2,000 hectares, the leaderships of the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations released the Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration which can be read online. The document celebrates the Nations’ sovereign right to manage their lands according to their own three sacred principles: ʔiisaak (utmost respect), ʔuuʔałuk (taking care of), and Hišuk ma c̕awak (everything is one). While the media has often portrayed the conflict as primarily between the timber industry and environmentalists, First Peoples at the heart of the conflict are often enlisted by the different sides to support their positions as is the case with activists siding with Pacheedaht Bill Jones or Teal Jones pointing to the Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration as a justification for their own extractive form of logging.

First Peoples on the West Coast of Vancouver Island are not monolithic, yet the leadership has tired of settler colonialists from both sides assuming they know what is in First Peoples’ interest. In a long piece for the Narwhal, Sara Cox asked Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis what he thought about the blockade’s messaging. He said,

For years we’ve been subject to colonial policy…Some outside force — mainly the federal government — comes onto our land and says ‘we’re going to take care of you and we’re going to do things better than you’ve been doing.

Now I’m seeing some outside force saying, ‘oh you know what, we want to halt old-growth logging. And when we do that we want to halt the First Nations’ rights to harvest cedar for cultural purposes … we want to infringe on their Treaty Rights … I’m seeing systemic racism continuing. ‘You Indians don’t have the ability to carry yourselves, so we’re going to fight for you and we’re going to protect the old-growth whether you like it or not.’ That’s what they’re doing, that’s what they’re saying. [30]

This is not to negate the tremendous harm that colonial resource management, which views forests through the lens of the Gospel of Efficiency, has effected on First Peoples. But mostly white, Western, and predominantly urban activists can sometimes simply invert the binary by asserting their own Gaian view of forests that don’t actually harmonize with the more relational land ethic of First Peoples.

            In this way, the performative, purposeful campaigns of Fairy Creek, while they present inspiring optics are oriented around a political tactic that was born within the colonial system. More Fairy Creeks are likely to occur in coming years, and activists, who claim to be on the side of decolonizing everything, will have to be more diplomatic with their messaging and tactics, and where possible play a supporting role to Indigenous led protest, blockade and campaign.

Will the ‘New Age’ of Forestry Ever Arrive? 

For now it looks as though the Province’s NDP government and public opinion are moving toward broadening the values that shape forest management in the province. It is not clear however if this will be a continuation of an essentially industrial forestry model with restraints, or a more totalizing transition toward a primarily ecosystem-based management. The Province has committed to implementing all of the recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review panel, but this is easier publicized than done. Despite the momentum, and major public support in urban centers along the southern border, there are still many thousands of people who work for and depend on the forest industry especially in the Province’s east and north. These communities rely on organizing forests around a more rapid harvest rotation which does not typically see forests develop into the old growth phase outside of protected or other specially designated areas.

During the webinar with Sarah Cox, Gary Merkel suggested that the most difficult task ahead lie not just in getting top town legislation passed, but in getting buy-in from people who don’t want to see the Province change the way we do forestry too radically. In essence, Merkel seems to suggest that to accomplish this, what is needed is a kind of ecosystem-based evangelization campaign. Merkel recommends a three-pronged strategy:

1. Build understanding of the new ecosystem management paradigm by ingraining the paradigm shift and management strategies into local knowledge, experience and livelihoods.  

2. Build structures that reflect the new thinking, and document examples of where the emergent management strategies are being implemented successfully.

3. Take time to recognize the progress that has been made. Come together to relish in the art and culture inspired by the new thinking about forests, come together to share experiences, and celebrate (and I would add grieve what we have lost).

In addition to pressure for better legislation and funding for protection, Merkel envisions ending the War in the Woods by engaging in a war of ideas and building a network of institutions and events dedicated to the ecosystem-based vision of forestry. Yet, as Merkel admitted above, converting people to a new religion is hard work. Merkel is essentially arguing for an intergenerational struggle to marginalize the ideas of industrial forestry and the Gospel of Efficiency and embrace the integral ecosystems paradigm, which though not explicitly Gaian, lends scientific credibility to the Dark Green character of Old Growth Religion.

With the three perspectives discussed here all seeking to maintain or implement their visions of forestry, it is interesting to me that “A New Future for Old Forests” recommends shifting toward a three-zone management scheme for forests that roughly accounts for these three approaches. The first is protected areas, where forests are managed primarily as ecosystems and their associated biodiversity. The second is intensively managed timber zones, where productive forests and rural communities can continue to sustain a rapid rotation approach to forestry. The third, is less clearly delimited, and is defined as areas where some resource harvesting could happen, but with a much lighter footprint. This could include watershed lands, special biodiversity protection zones, community forests and Indigenous co-management or newly acquired harvesting licenses or agreements within traditional territories. It may well be that the future simply looks like a demarcated tentative co-existence between the three quasi-religious approaches to forest management, rather an full system conversion to ecosystem-based management, at least in the near and medium term.

For now it seems that top down political proclamations are not going to fully resolve this conflict no matter how well aligned the Provincial government becomes with ecosystem-based management. As Merkel has suggested, we will most likely need broader conversations about the nature of our worlds, “Inter-faith” style dialogues which seek for mutual understanding and common ground.


[1] Garry Merkel and Al Gorely, “A New Future for Old Growth: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems” https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/farming-natural-resources-and-industry/forestry/stewardship/old-growth-forests/strategic-review-20200430.pdf

[2] https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/pubs/docs/srs/Srs06/chap6.pdf

[3] Interview with Garry Merkel by Sara Cox, “What are the real solutions to old-growth logging?” https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=162617789229535&ref=watch_permalink Facebook Live link. Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[4] White Jr., Lynn. ‘The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis.’ Science, Vol 155, Issue 3767, 1967 pp. 1203-1207. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.155.3767.1203

[5] Rainforest Flying Squad Go Fund Me Campaign, https://www.gofundme.com/f/direct-action-for-ancient-rainforests Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[6] Government of Canada, 2020. ‘Successful Indigenous-industry partnerships in the forest sector: The People of the Seafoam’ https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/state-canadas-forests-report/successful-indigenous-industry-partnerships-forest-sector-people-seafoam/21197 Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[7] Bruce Braun, The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. (University of Minnesota, 2002).

[8] Ashton, Mark S., and Matthew J. Kelty. The Practice of Silviculture: Applied Forest Ecology. (John Wiley & Sons, 2018).

[9] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. (Yale University Press, 1999).

[10] The Fulton Commission, https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/pubs/Docs/Mr/Rc/Rc002/Rc002.pdf  Accessed on Nov. 29, 2021.

[11] Robert H Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management: A religious question?’ Forest Policy and Economics 35 (2013): 9-20.

[12] Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management’.

[13] Nelson, ‘Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management’.

[14] Nancy J. Turner, Dana Lepofsky, and Douglas Deur. “Plant management systems of British Columbia’s first peoples.” BC Studies: The British Columbian Quarterly 179 (2013): 107-133. https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1077&context=anth_fac Access Nov. 29, 2021.

[15]  John Muir, The Yosemite (New York: Century, 1912), 255–257, 260–262. Reprinted in Roderick Nash, The American Environment: Readings in The History of Conservation (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1968).

[16] Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. (Cambridge University Press, 1994). . 

[17] Michael G. Barbour, “American Ecology and American Culture in the 1950s: Who led whom?” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 77, no. 1 (1996): 44-51.

[18] Spies, Thomas A., Jonathan W. Long, Susan Charnley, Paul F. Hessburg, Bruce G. Marcot, Gordon H. Reeves, Damon B. Lesmeister et al. “Twenty‐five years of the Northwest Forest Plan: what have we learned?.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17, no. 9 (2019): 511-520.  https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fee.2101  Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[19] James Lovelock. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[20] Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality and the Planetary Future. (University of California Press, 2009).

[21] Taylor, Dark Green Religion.

[22] David Abram, ‘Perceptual Implications of Gaia’ https://wildethics.org/essay/the-perceptual-implications-of-gaia/ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[23] Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. (Suny Press, 2011).

[24] Suzanne Simmard, The Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. (Allen Lane, 2021).

[25] Peter Wohlleben, The hidden life of trees: What they feel, how they communicate—Discoveries from a secret world. (Greystone Books, 2016).See also: Monica Gagliano, Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants. (North Atlantic Books, 2018).  

[26] Sierra Club, 2020. BC’s Old Growth Forests: A Last Stand for Biodiversity. https://sierraclub.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/bcs-old-growth-forest-a-last-stand-for-biodiversity-report-2020.pdf Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[27] Kai Chan, Patricia Balvanera, Karina Benessaiah, Mollie Chapman, Sandra Díaz, Erik Gómez-Baggethun, Rachelle Gould, ‘Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 6 (2016): 1462-1465. https://www.pnas.org/content/113/6/1462

[28] Serena Renner, 2020. ‘The Deep Roots of BC’s Old Growth Defenders’, The Tyee, https://thetyee.ca/News/2020/09/16/Movement-In-Woods/ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

[29] Nancy Turner et al., ‘Plant Management Systems of British Columbia’s First Peoples’

[30] Sarah Cox, 2021. ‘Inside the Pacheedaht Nation’s Stand on Fairy Creek Logging Blockades’, The Narwhal, https://thenarwhal.ca/pacheedaht-fairy-creek-bc-logging/ Accessed Nov. 29, 2021.

The Surprising Theology of Netflix’s Hellbound

BEWARE: I spoil the ending.

I

I will admit, I almost jumped ship after the opening scene of director Yeon Sang-ho’s violent metaphysical sci-fi Netflix series Hellbound. The scene opens on a man in a coffee shop watching his phone as he shakes with fear. The clock on his phone strikes 1:20 PM and he freezes, sweat dripping down his face. Then, three low booms are heard and hulk-like smoky demons burst through the coffee shop window and begin to pummel the man. Dripping with blood, he manages to escape them and goes tearing down the middle of the street between cars screaming. The demons give chase and dispatch him in a series of gruesome blows that spatter blood on the surrounding cars. I was viscerally disturbed by the man’s horrific screams and the blood. Then, the monsters hold out their hands and essentially microwave the guy until his corpse is nothing but a charred skeletal torso.

Ya. Intense.

Hellbound has now surpassed Squid Game as the most watched Netflix series in history, so I knew there must be something to it. I persisted and I am glad that I did. Squid Game was an obvious, if creatively twisted allegory for capitalism. Hellbound, whose production is not connected to Squid Game, is nonetheless an equally pointed critique of corrupt religious institutions. Yet, for all the gore and social commentary, I found a powerful theology at the heart of Hellbound.

Some demographic background. A majority of South Koreans do not identify with any religion (56%). This can mean anything from identifying as an atheist to an agnostic, to being the occasional patron of the increasingly popular shamanic arts. Some 15% of Koreans practice Buddhism. Nearly 30% of South Koreans identify as Christian. A majority of Christians are protestant, mostly Calvinists. Some 20,000 Presbyterian churches in South Korea can trace their lineages back to just two Calvinist denominations.

A decidedly metaphysical drama, Hellbound tracks how people and religious institutions respond to an unexplainable super natural phenomenon which follows a chilling pattern. A dark demonic face appears out of nowhere and prophesies the day and hour of a person’s death, and exclaims that they are bound for Hell. Then, without fail, the smoky hulks show up and dispatch them in ever more brutal fashion, char them, and trot back into the void.  

Enter Jeong Jin-soo played by Yoo Ah-In. He is the chairman of a new religious movement called The New Truth. TNT seeks to publicize via social media these cosmic executions in order to encourage people to repent and live more righteously. They are a karmic kind of religion, meaning that individuals are assumed to be punished for their own deeds not any kind of original sin. There is no savior, no grace; only the urgency of avoiding sin and creating a new era of societal harmony. The New Truth draws a straight line between the declarations of death, their condemnation to Hell, and the individuals’ deeds. The more the word spreads, the more relevant the TNT becomes and the more people begin to listen to the kind, generous and altruistic leader—footage of Chairman Jeong rescuing a child from a fire, or talking a knife wielding man down from slitting someone’s throat often prelude his public pronouncements and interviews.

Another major player that emerges with the prophesies is a radical and decentralized group that calls itself The Arrowhead. They see TNT as being too passive in their approach. For them the executions are a divine invitation to actively weed out sinners and publically shame, beat or even kill them with or without the prophesies. They form a loose knit terrorist/hooligan network that is connected through social media and are admonished by an anonymous live streaming black lit make up wearing Alex Jones type character.

A detective named Jin Kyeong-hoon played by Yang Ik-Joon is investigating the strange executions, which are increasingly called demonstrations by the TNT, because once the word has gotten out that someone has received the prophesy, supporters of the TNT gather to admonish the sinner to repent. Jin’s wife had been murdered several years before by a man under the influence of drugs, and Jin still struggles to contain his grief from boiling over. He suspects Jeong is up to something.

Meanwhile, his daughter Jin Hee-Jeong played by Re Lee is wracked by guilt for her role in the mix up she believes led to her mother’s death. The murderer is later released for good behavior, and for having been under the influence while committing the murder. Both TNT and The Arrowhead decry this miscarriage of justice. Jeong convinces Jin Hee-Jeong to kill him as retribution for his mother’s murder, thus entangling her further in TNT. The murderer is immobilized by a stun gun and then wheeled into an abandoned crematorium furnace. This reveals a much darker side to Chairman Jeong.

There are many twists, turns and nuances, but I want to focus on the two main twists in the series. First, it becomes clear that the executions are not correlated with any particular behaviors. In fact, we learn that several young children have been burnt to a crisp in front of their parents. We also learn that Chairman Jeong, the charismatic leader of the New Truth, received the prophesy some 20 years before he met Jin Kyeong-hoon. Chairman Jeong has been tortured by the knowledge of his impending death, going over and over again in his mind how he might have sinned. He concludes that there simply is not connection between the executions and sin, but laments that if the public new this they would panic and social harmony would disintegrate. Detective Jin agrees to keep Jeong’s immanent death a secret, to hide his corpse, and go about his life with his daughter.  

There is a clear parody here of the assumption that religious institutions are patronizing Big Brothers who do not trust the people and need to balance complex truths of the real world with the effective truths of church dogma. This paints religion as the infamous Marxist opiate of the masses, or a sociologically constructed device for making sense a senseless world.

I couldn’t help but connect South Korea’s overwhelmingly Calvinist Christianity with the distinctly twisted pre-destinational feel to the Hellbound phenomenon. Condemnation to hell happens at what is assumed to be God’s will. In reality it is random and mysterious. It is almost like a (super) natural disaster that cannot be predicted only prayed against. And though TNT responds by admonishing all to righteousness, they seem to know that it is only God who decides the sinner’s ultimate fate. And yet, TNT and The Arrowhead all too often take this judgement into their own hands, using the label of Sinner for others, and never themselves.

The New Truth seeks to encourage people to live more righteously, but that righteousness is inevitably mediated through their interpretation. The Arrowhead on the other hand feels emboldened to mete out God’s punishment themselves, enforcing righteousness through violence. Both organizations take different forms, but ultimately they are inseparable. For example, the apparatus of The New Truth uses the Arrowhead to carry out their dirty work, interrogate persons of interest.

II

Episode 4 opens five years later in a world where The New Truth has flourished. They have turned many so-called demonstration sites into monuments and their global ministry is headquartered in a massive fortress-like building in the heart of Seoul. They are led by a quorum of uniformed Deacons who council the slick and savvy successor of Chairman Jeong whose disappearance is assumed to by a mystery.

The latter three episodes reveal the second and most interesting twist. The prophesy comes to the newborn child of Bae Young-jae played by Park Jung-Min while his wife, Song So-hyun played by Won Jin-ah, is still in the hospital with the child. She is horrified and scours the New Truth’s app for precedents. She finds none and decides to ask TNT what do to. Meanwhile Bae, who is entangled in some intrigue of his own, stumbles on an organization called Sodo that helps receivers of the prophesy cover up their deaths so that the event is not appropriated and made public by TNT, saving their families harassment from The Arrowhead and the shame of being associated with a Sinner.

Learning of Bae’s situation, Sodo tries to convince him that broadcasting the baby’s death would topple public confidence in The New Truth’s tightly controlled public messaging that executions are a clear sign of God’s punishment of sinners. Meanwhile, Song arrives at TNT headquarters without Bae’s knowledge and shows her video of the prophesy to a Deacon. After counseling with his fellow deacons and the Chairman, it is not immediately clear what to do. Either, they can adopt the doctrine of Original Sin, which up until now had differentiated them from Christians, or they can seek to hide the execution from being witnessed so that the public does not waver in their belief that there is some pattern behind the brutal suffering, a pattern which legitimates TNT’s global ministry. They abduct the baby to the violent protests of Song who gives chase. When Bae realizes what Song is doing, accompanied by several Sodo activists, he rushes to rescue the baby and Song from TNT headquarters. They miraculously succeed and head to a safe house where they plan to broadcast the baby’s execution to the world.  

After some cat and mouse with TNT and The Arrowhead, in the last scene, the mother lays the child out on a small elevated planter that resembled an altar. It has begun to snow. She gets people’s attention in the small plaza so that they can witness what is about to happen. The sooty monsters emerge from the ground and are about to pounce on the child when the mother snatches the baby from the planter-altar at the last second. A chase ensues, the mother is joined by Bae and they evade the lumbering demons for a few moments. Ultimately however, the trembling parents simply crouch over the baby and guard it from the impending blows. The demons huddle and nuke the trio and we assume all is lost. However, when the demons disappear back into the ground, we hear the soft crying of the baby who has somehow survived the intense heat, and the wrath of the demons.

The mood immediately lifts, as we the audience worried that we were about to see a baby barbequed before our eyes. I was immediately struck by the surprising beauty and richness of this theological twist. It is snowing heavily throughout the scene, implying that it is near Christmas. A surviving activist from Sodo limps toward the crying baby and the charred remains of the parents embracing their child resembles a dark and twisted Christmas nativity crèche. As the Deacons arrive, they are blocked by the crowds, implying that public opinion has now shifted and the scene will now work its way through the channels of social media. Season 2 will perhaps pick up the thread of the fate of The New Truth and The Arrowhead, or take a different tact completely.

While the circumstances are indeed strange, Hellbound manages to end on a major chord. It teaches that while there may not be any rhyme or reason to the brutal executions, our response is what matters. The baby was saved from a certain death and apparently an eternity in Hell by self-sacrificing love, pointing to a theology of atonement. But most of all it seems, profligate love is the most powerful response to a world that seems to be overflowing with suffering.

Tinder and the Theology of Desire

As an introvert at first I found online dating to be a relief. We go to an agreed upon forum to seek out romance. No unwanted public advances, no embarrassing moments of chatting up a lovely person at the grocery store when the partner walks up. We upload our most attractive photos and write a pithy caption of ourselves, and what we are looking for. We then scroll and swipe through people who seem more or less compatible with those desires. It’s quick, it’s efficient. Despite the many pay walls and cheap tricks the apps use to upsell users, one can scroll through age and distance screened members. Some accounts may be stale or even fake, but for the most part you get a tour of your local dating scene at the touch of a screen. Matching and then chatting is a low stakes way to get to know someone a little bit before investing the time and energy in an in-person meet up. So far so good.

Some profiles emphasize the user’s adventurousness, others their sex appeal. Some write precious few or even no words, others write a treatise on the qualities they expect in a partner, and their low tolerance for hook ups, games or pen pals. There are dog people, a few religious folks, lots of love for good food, travel, and plenty of spiritually minded folks who want to know your sign.

Once you hit your daily quota of free swipes, the waiting begins. Out of swipes all one can do is hope that one of the people you liked, likes you back. But even then, once I have matched with someone, there is no guarantee that they will respond. Women tend to get surges of interest, their inboxes quickly fill with messages from fishing-rod-toting, or shirtless dudes who initiate conversations with ‘Sup?’, or simply ‘Hi’. I typically go with a sincere compliment or question. But this is no guarantee that I will get a response. Once a message has been reciprocated, there are those who simply let them sit, or ghost. I have been ghosted so many times, I should start an exorcism practice. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have had some lovely encounters through dating apps. Some that ended up being short term flings, others that blossomed into meaningful relationships, and still others that have become intimate friendships. Overall I am grateful for them, despite the strange, insecurity and exhaustion inducing nature of online dating. After a recent breakup, I couldn’t resist. I rebooted my profile and began swiping. But a sinking feeling quickly set in and I hastily deleted my profile. There is a darker side to dating apps that I am just now beginning to understand. It doesn’t mean I won’t be back! But I have some thinking to do first.

On display in every profile are windows and mirrors. Windows into the lives of people of all shapes, sizes and motivations. There are also mirrors reflecting our desires: beauty, success, sex, intelligent conversation, fun, adventure, security, progeny. Scrolling and swiping have become a kind of anti-sacrament. They represent the promise of something we long for at the tips of our fingers. Each profile, match and chat is an allurement into the hope of communion with another person. But these desires are not an end in themselves, each points to some biological or psychological need (or trauma), they are not fulfilling in themselves.

Like all social media which tries to keep our eyes glued to the screen for as long as possible, online dating keeps us hooked on the possibility of that perfect someone who fulfills our deepest longing. And yet the glut of choices available means that even if we do match with someone wonderful, we perhaps wonder if we could do better if we just kept swiping.

At a summer course on the poetry of desire I took several years ago, poet, musician and Anglican Priest Malcolm Guite suggested that our current social media and marketing landscape is as if we were on our way to a sumptuous feast, but we are constantly waylaid by junk food stops along the road, so we never actually get to the feast. We are stuck in a kind of spiritual hamster wheel. We scratch out a bleary-eyed sign of the cross with our thumbs to a false God that will never fully satisfy. In his lectures, Guite masterfully quoted scripture, medieval poetry, and contemporary literature; but he also peppered his talks with amusing pop culture references: The Spice Girls: “I’ll tell you what I want what I really really want.”  Mick Jagger: “I can’t get no satisfaction” and U2: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” What is apparent in the theology of desire is that at their best, our desires and longings point not just to biological urges, but to the deep desire behind all our desires, the yearning beyond yearning, the desire for union with the Ground of Being.

Guite lamented that Christianity, the religion of the Incarnation, has been so skeptical of our desires for so long. As a result, marketing and social media were more easily able to convince us that what they offer could fulfil our surficial desires, and that wasn’t so bad after all. The excellent documentary ‘The Century of the Self’ (2002), shows how marketing in North America went from being about communicating information about a product’s usefulness (This is a very effective shovel, you are going to love how this shovel digs), to suggesting that a product would fulfill our desires, or even help us to become a better version of ourselves (This shovel will make you cool, it will make you sexy, it will complete you).

What has evolved is a kind binary between pushing down our desires and superficially fulfilling them, the way of God and the way of the world. The Church has ceded all of desire to the world, and taken on the position that the way to God is to rid ourselves of our desires. This does not create saints, it creates guilt, and a kind of binge/purge pattern of neurosis that traps us in narrative cycle of awful sinner in need of redemption. The church has been seen as being all about saying NO to our desires. But as Guite suggests, Jesus always framed his message in the positive: Love. All of the church’s no’s should clear the way for a greater ‘yes!’ Saying yes to the reality of our fundamental unity with a loving God.

Even within the faithful practice of religion, our desire to walk the way of God can often devolve into the worship of a vending machine God. The so-called Prosperity Gospel is a merger of Protestant Work Ethic, Capitalist consumerism and obedience=blessings theology. I was taught to pray by thanking God first and then moving into a litany of ‘please blesses’ which was inevitably a much longer list.

As Guite suggested, rather than extinguish or suppress our desires, we must learn to redeem them. As Guite said, “Pushing them down darkens them.” Rather we need to desire through our desires, past them, beyond them. We should engage them as signs of a greater desire beyond desire. In sacramental theology, we should recognize that there is a divine purpose in all our desires. Plato explored that purpose beyond the world, and Aristotle saw it within the world. Christianity should have no problem seeing that our desires are a kind of beyond within; a transcendent immanent.

If I scroll through dating apps in the hopes of filling a void in my life, I will probably never stop scrolling and I might be more likely to treat people as means to filling the end of my superficial desires. If I realize (still working on it) that I and the people on the other side of the screen are all Words of God expressing the beauty and diversity of creation, I might just be able to see beyond my desires and put my phone away long enough to experience the One truly worth swiping right for.