Religion and the Natural World

During early American history, the religion with which one was associated or that defined one’s culture was integral with how one related, responded, and even literally saw to the natural world, as is clearly seen in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation and the Seneca Indians’ The Origin of Stories.  Each culture was deeply rooted in its religion, and as such each held its creation myths, morality tales, and other parables in great reverence.  Despite these similarities, the two contrasting religions result in two vastly different accounts of life in and with the very same places in the natural world.  Bradford viewed nature as a thing of perversion, sin, and death; a thing to be conquered and tamed.   Nature was antagonistic to the Christian quest for purity, and so they were to cultivate it and make it bow in submission to them.  God would not be found in nature.  Instead, nature was an instrument of the Devil, there to lead them in to all manner of perverse things if they let it.  On the other hand, the Seneca Indians viewed the very same nature as a source of knowledge, healing, and life.  The natural world was a wondrous, beautiful places filled with wisdom and enlightenment.  Their God or godly equivalents manifested in rocks and other such elements of the natural world.  For one to truly reach enlightenment an understanding as a noble man in the tribe, one must go to nature and learn the higher things that only nature can teach an individual.  God was not only in nature; God was nature.  To truly grasp just how immensely far apart these religious beliefs placed nature on the spectrum of good and evil, we must first look to core of their religious standards.
In The Origin of Stories, the Seneca Indians’ religious beliefs are easily apparent, characterizing nature as a great parental figure.  This ultimate parent was portrayed as loving, nurturing, and wise.  For example, Gaqka is chosen by the great grandfather rock to be redeemed from his current status as an orphan and an outcast.  Gaqka is not chosen because of his social standing, his physical appearance, talents, or family heritage.  In fact, he is chosen before he even meets the great rock, and is brought to it by a magic canoe placed along his journey to find a better life.  Once he comes in contact with the great rock, Gaqka is bestowed with a wealth of information, in exchange for gifts.  In order to receive from nature, he must first give to it what it is due.  In this act of giving and receiving, Gaqka (man) and the great rock (nature) become one, in a sense.  Without nature, Gaqka was viewed as worthless.  Once he learned and grew in the knowledge of nature, and possessed the wisdom and great stories of the earth, he was highly respected and exalted.  Nature was made equal with honor and respect.  Nature was also characterized as healing; “ ‘Now I shall removed your clothing and take all the scars from you face and body.’   She then caused him to pass through a hollow log, and when Gaqka emerged from the other end he was dressed in the finest clothing and was a handsome man.” (3)  From this, we conclude that if Gaqka had feared or reviled nature, he would have remained a worthless and scarred man.  “Everybody now thought Gaqka a great man and listened to his stories.” (3)  Nature was the key to his redemption; nature had become his very life; nature was a beautiful place to be worshipped and reverenced above all else.
Religions, such as those of the Seneca Indians and the Puritans, compose the stories and myths that shape the cultural byways and mores.  Had The Origin of Stories been a puritanical tale instead of an Indian one, Gaqka’s journey to redemption and honor would have been reversed.  Instead, it might have been a story of how a man, wandering alone and lost in the darkness and evils of nature, possessing substantial knowledge of those perverse things of the natural world, found redemption by leaving the fallen things behind.  Finding favor in the eyes God as one of His elect, Gaqka would be required to what was due Him.  Gaqka would increasingly be bestowed with great knowledge of the theology of Christian Puritanism.  He would then be highly respected and exalted in the Puritan community, and given riches and glory for his heroic journey.  This reinvention of the Seneca Indians’ religious myth into a puritanical religious parable continues to reinforce similar moral standards of honor, wisdom, and redemption, yet reinforces them in conflicting manners.  Nature was clearly feared, just as the unknown has always been feared.  While redemption was still given to Gaqka by the Almighty, he was redeemed through natural resources such as the great rock and the magic canoe, instead of being redeemed from them.  Bradford believed that true redemption was to be freed from the natural evils and brought into the spiritual realm of holiness.  To the Seneca Indians, wisdom was learned directly from the natural world, highest honor was given to the man who communed with nature and became one with it.  These stories could not be interchanged or adopted freely by the other culture’s religion, for the culture’s values and viewpoints were complete opposites, regardless of the congruent moral codes.
In Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford’s puritanical Christian beliefs place nature as the source of Original Sin, and as such, causing death, pain, and all the other afflictions of the natural existence.  Nature was to be tamed, and in its raw state, it was to be feared.  Morality did remain strikingly similar between the two very different cultures and religions, in that both upheld their faith, their God, and the virtues wisdom and respect, but the source of these was now found in technology, in advancement, in God’s elect.  God was still viewed as the redemptive, benevolent figure, but he was not interwoven into the fabric of nature.  God commanded nature, but he did not use it.  No, nature was a tool of the things below, of the Devil and hell.  Bradford references many direct instances where when man became too preoccupied with the natural world, he was drawn into deeply rooted perversion and sin. Bradford states, “I say it may justly be marveled at and cause us to fear and tremble at the consideration of our corrupt natures, which are so hardly bridled, subdued and mortified; nay, cannot by any other means but the powerful work and grace of God’s Spirit.” (351)  They could not redeem themselves, for they lived in nature, they must ascend to the spiritual world for such grace.  Clearly, the only things that could be found by inhabiting the natural world were deviant choices and sinful pitfalls. Bradford spoke of several instances where individuals were led astray by nature’s sinful pleasures.  Thomas Granger was led into many acts of bestiality, a capital offense that would lead to his execution. (355-7)  Bradford documents an instance of attempted murder (one of many, in all likelihood), as well. (354)  There were also at least two accounts of molestation and rape of the young daughters of John Humfry. (355)  Granted, many who preformed such acts were not puritans themselves, but hired workers and servants, yet the correlation between the length of their stay in the new world and the rise of crime cannot be ignored.  The longer the puritans lived in such a natural, untamed world, the greater the toll the perversion took upon the citizens of the Puritan community.
Just as such great importance is placed on the natural world in The Origin of Stories, in Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford and the Puritans placed ultimate glory on that which transcended the fallen, natural world: the spiritual realm.  If the Puritans were to show proof of their election, they would leave behind their desires of the natural world.  They must adopt the belief that they were merely biding time until they reached the next, perfect world: eternity in heaven.  That is were God was viewed as inhabiting, those heavenly things were what He used as instruments to carry out His wishes.  There was nothing on which to spend their time in the natural world that could even compare to that of the heavenly world.  Since Bradford’s religion told him to fixate on those “higher” things, he did just that.  As a result, he was only able to see the natural world around him as fallen and imperfect in comparison.  This was where their redemption from this perverse life was found.  Not in any natural, physical thing, but instead in fixing upon the things above, in those spiritual endeavors and prayerful practices only.  Bradford recognizes this many times:
And yet the Lord so upheld these persons as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness or lameness.  And what I have said of these I may say of may others who died in this general visitation, and others yet living; that whilst they had health, yea, or any strength continuing, they were not wanting to any that had need of them.  And I doubt not their recompense is with the Lord. (85-86)

Bradford believed this and many other instances to be direct results of their faithfulness to remove themselves mentally from the natural world, even if they must remain physically immersed in it.  They would till the soil, they would cultivate the land, but they would not worship it.  They would remain solid in their knowledge that their help came from the Lord, not from nature.
As we have seen in both Of Plymouth Plantation and The Origin of Stories, the two religion’s figureheads’ descriptions are very similar at their cores, for both intervene in dire circumstances, provide redemption, wisdom, and comfort.  Higher knowledge and wisdom was solely found in their Godhead.  However, the construction of their beliefs would lead them down two very different places to salvation.  The Seneca Indians’ would search for life and wisdom in their father, nature.  Here they would find what they needed, and it sustained them.  They would continue to live each day in the assurance that if they did as nature instructed, nature would provide for them.  They gave to their father, and he gave to them in return.  And as they believed, so would their beliefs come true: nature did all this and more.  Bradford and the Puritans would seek life and wisdom from their Father in heaven.  In Him they found what they needed to live and continue on day after day.  They would fear nature, and it feared them in return.  They would not live harmoniously with nature until they stopped fear and reviling its very existence.  They honored God, and they were sustained.  They offered to God what they believed to be His, and he gave to them in return, as well.  Each religion shaped they world in which they lived, and as a result changed the very way nature responded to them in return.

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~ by Mary Christa on September 26, 2008.

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