Is not the past large enough to let you find some place where you may disport yourself without becoming ridiculous?—Nietzsche
It is nothing new for poets, painters, and philosophers to harken back to Utopian “golden ages” when greatness or harmony flourished. The German Romantics were inspired by the ancient Greeks. The British Romantics longed for the pastoral beauty of pre-industrial times. The American transcendentalists thought that man was most fully himself in the presence of unspoiled nature. Novelists have depicted the innocence of primitive “island” peoples. Scientific socialists and political revolutionaries, too, have characterized their efforts as a corrective, a reformist attempt to restore society to its rightful founding values.
While previous Utopian movements may have romanticized the past, they stopped short of rewriting whole chapters of world history at will. This is not the case with today's proponents of Afrocentrism, radical feminism, and “deep ecology,” all of whom—in their own way and to their own ends—are thoroughly uninhibited about offering up entirely new versions of the past. In the case of the feminists and Afrocentrists, the driving force is primarily a desire to create an illusion of social and cultural power. In the case of the deep ecologists, there is more of a heartfelt wish to turn the clock back to a time when earth was untainted by the presence of man.
What is especially remarkable about these latest Utopian accounts is that they are being put forth by groups that are ostensibly concerned with real-world problems crying out for real-world solutions. Feminists, black educators, and ecologists have difficult roads before them, as they seek to eliminate discrimination, improve the educational skills of minority children, and conserve our planet's resources. It is surprising, then, that they should be fretting, not about the best ways of dealing with these problems, but about things that may or may not have happened long ago.
In his ground-breaking 1954 book. Stolen Legacy, George James asserts that what the West has come to call Greek philosophy actually derives from a body of teachings developed by the ancient Egyptians, who he believes were black. These teachings formed part of a “Mystery System,” a cultic religious scheme of salvation. This secret order educated its followers in the mysteries of the arts and sciences, but—for secrecy's sake—forbade that any of these teachings be written down. As Greeks began to enter Egypt during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C, they gained access to ancient African wisdom and brought it back to their own land—a land that was far too turbulent, says James, to sustain the practice of philosophy. Everything that the West has come to associate with greatness—the achievements of the pre-Socratics, Pythagoras, Democritus, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, advances in language, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy—all were stolen from the black Egyptians and claimed as their own by the Greeks.
This notion that Africa was the cradle of civilization and that much of what we consider Western thought actually derived from the early Africans has gained tremendous ground in the past decade, articulated most powerfully by Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University, Ali Mazrui of SUNY/Binghamton, Asa G. Hilliard, III of Georgia State, and Leonard Jeffries, Jr. of CUNY. Asante, chairman of Temple University's African-American Studies department and widely regarded as the founder of the current Afrocentric movement, paints a bright picture of life in Kemet (ancient Egypt). In his latest book Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge, he describes this ancient culture:
[Kemet] contrasted sharply with the crude customs of northern barbarians and the incipient cultures of the East. Kemet was preeminent in art, literature, astronomy, geometry, and ethics—all roads actually led to Kemet. The achievements of Kemetic genius are found in the civilizing role it played in Africa and the world. The Kemetic people seemed to reason about every aspect of human activity. They did not lose themselves in wonderment nor in idle self-congratulation but in intellectual and artistic pursuits that would govern human ideas for many centuries. . . . We owe to them the basis of science, art, ethical teachings, religion, dance, monarchy, and ritual drama.
When the Greeks appropriated the knowledge of the Egyptians, they affixed their own terms to these disciplines, lending credence to the myth that they are Greek in origin. Nothing could be further from the truth, insists Gabonese scholar Theophile Obenga; the Greeks were actually “the last philosophers in the world.”
Junior high school students studying from the popular Afrocentric text Lessons From History: A Celebration in Blackness encounter the following blanket assertions in the first seven pages of their book: “the birthplace of humanity is in Africa,” “Africans founded the first university,” and “the introduction of the lunar and solar calendars and the study of astronomy were made by Africans.” They learn that Imhotep—not Hippocrates—”was the father of medicine.” (Here some proof is offered: “Many history books say that Hippocrates was the first doctor. Imhotep lived in the era of 2800 B.C, but Hippocrates was not born until 2000 years later.”) Students also discover that “Pythagoras did not create the theorem,” that “the beginning of religion was in Africa,” and that “it was only during the European Renaissance that Michelangelo was commissioned to paint Jesus White.” They read the details of the Napoleon-Sphinx encounter, in which “Napoleon was so jealous of this great feat he ordered twenty-one shells of fire aimed at the face of the Sphinx to alter its facial features so people would not know it was African.” In addition to learning that the Africans, not Columbus, discovered America, they are taught that, throughout their history, “Africans used much of their intellect to build pyramids, temples, tombs, and universities. Europeans used most of their brains to develop military weapons.”
Elementary school students across the country who are taught from the “African-American Baseline Essays” learn that the Ten Commandments probably originated with the Egyptians; that Aesop, Ramses, and King Tut were likely black; that Pushkin and Hannibal were of black ancestry; that Newton's theories on gravity and refraction derived from the work of Muslim scholars.
Correcting history, George James realized, would involve nothing less than a revolution in consciousness and would thus require a massive propaganda effort. James also recognized that any elevation of African contributions must be accompanied by a depreciation of Western achievements. The process of reeducation, says James,
should be done by a world wide dissemination of the truth, through a system of reeducation, in order to stimulate and encourage a change in the attitude of races toward each other. In combining their efforts, both races must not only preach and teach the truth that the Mystery system of the African Continent gave the world philosophy and religion and the arts and sciences, but they must see to it that all false praise of the Greeks be removed: for this is the practice that has blind-folded the world and has laid the foundations for the deplorable race relations of the modern world.
Today's Afrocentrists are bolder still about the positing of an actual white-conspiracy theory. As Molefi Asante states, “Greece gained in prominence while Egypt fell in reputation due to a combination of European racism and chauvinism.” In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong'o advances the thesis that a “cultural bomb”—such as the one Westerners dropped on Africa centuries ago—is more dangerous to people than weapons. “The effect of a culture bomb,” he writes, “is to annihilate a people's belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of nonachievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. . . . “
Asa Hilliard, an educational psychologist at Georgia State, focuses on Western techniques of miseducation, including “temporal tampering” (such as discussing Hippocrates as if he preceded Imhotep); “isolated texts” (focusing on isolated European accomplishments in an effort to overshadow long-standing African achievements); and “creating illusions” (positing the existence of a race of people called the “Negro”). These and other Afrocentric assertions about historical events are by their very nature unprovable, since they rest on the two-fold assumption that the ancient blacks relied primarily on an oral transmission of knowledge and that any existing evidence has been routinely suppressed by whites.
Feminists have taken similar liberties with history. They have posited that all existing life forms descended from a single female DNA; that male lifeforms owe their existence to the female life forms that created them solely to assist in reproduction and evolution; that women emerged from the primal ocean walking upright, causing men to evolve into upright hominids; that primitive women invented medicine, law, clothing, agriculture, trade, and fire.
According to Rosalind Miles, author of the recent The Women's History of the World, women were clearly better off in ancient times:
Men in hunter/gatherer societies do not command or exploit women's labor. They do not appropriate or control their produce, nor prevent their free movement. They exert little or no control over women's bodies or those of their children, making no fetish of virginity or chastity, and making no demands of women's sexual exclusivity. The common stock of the group's knowledge is not reserved for men only, nor is female creativity repressed or denied. Today's “civilized” sisters of these “primitive” women could with some justice look wistfully at this substantial array of the basic rights of women.
But the main proof offered by feminist historians to support the idea of a golden age for women is the supposition of an ancient “goddess culture.” For anywhere between 30,000 and 200,000 years, the theory holds, society was matriarchal, peaceful, and egalitarian under the role of the Great Goddess. (Here feminism dovetails with Afrocentrism in asserting that the original Goddess was most likely black.)
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a culture where there are no soldiers or defensive battlements. Instead, the people farm and create superb painted pottery and sculptures. Women serve as the religious leaders and family heads. . . . Neither sex dominates the other—they live in harmony and cooperation rather than competition. Spirituality is not confined to one day of the week. All of life is sacred and celebrated. And at the heart of this peace-loving, egalitarian, and earth-centered society is not a grandfatherlike figure meting out justice from a throne in heaven, but the Great Goddess. . . .
This is bow one journalist swoons in reaction to the writings of Marija Gimbutas, professor of European archaeology at UCLA and author of, most recently. The Language of the Goddess, a book that celebrates goddess-worshipping prehistoric societies. (This will soon be followed by The Civilization of the Goddess: Europe Before Patriarchy.) The Language of the Goddess, a glossy, lavishly illustrated, coffee table book with an introduction by mythologist Joseph Campbell, is by no means the first bit of goddess literature to have made the leap from the pages of academic journals onto the shelves of Crown Books. Merlin Stone's When God Was A Woman, Shinoda Bolen's Goddesses in Everywoman, and Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade are among the many books on the subject that are widely available and that are proving to be sturdy sellers.
Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade, a best-seller currently in its eighteenth printing, maintains that the notion and practice of dominance was foreign to the goddess-worshipping (“chalice”) world until the Indo-Europeans (the “blade”) came on the scene. So popular has this book proved to be that the author has just introduced a companion workbook that helps the readers apply “chalice” principles in their everyday life.
In a recent interview in East West magazine, Eisler praises Gimbutas for her path-breaking work in feminist history, and especially for her decision to elevate speculation over scholarship (Gimbutas describes her unique blend of research and interpretation as “archeomythology”). Eisler cites Gimbutas' “courage” in interpolating such sweeping theories from such scant factual material on the period: “A lot of people have looked at the data,” Eisler says, “but they've been far more tentative.”
Numerous feminist theologians, New Age-influenced writers on feminist spirituality, historians, and literary critics have accepted this notion of a matriarchal “golden age.” “When God was a woman,” writes Rosalind Miles, “all women and all things feminine enjoyed a higher status than has ever been seen since in most countries of the world. Where the Goddess held sway, women did so too.” Poet Adrienne Rich praises the gynocentric cultures in which Woman was venerated. “Let us try to imagine for a moment,” she writes, “what sense of herself it gave a woman to be in the presence of such [venerable] images. If they did nothing else for her, they must have validated her spirituality. . . . They told women that power, awesomeness, and centrality were theirs by nature, not by privilege or miracle; the female was primary.”
Artist Judy Chicago, in the introduction to her famous sculpture, “The Dinner Party,” harkens back to the time when “Mother Goddesses were worshipped everywhere” and when life was “egalitarian, democratic, and peaceful.” The Fall was a bitter one: as Chicago describes it, “female-oriented agricultural societies gradually gave way to a male-dominated political state in which occupational specialization, commerce, social stratification, and militarism developed.” Gimbutas explains that the pre-Indo-European peoples were centered around “the moon, water, and the female,” whereas the marauding Indo-Europeans glorified “the sharpness of the blade.” They “exulted in the making of weapons, not pottery or sculpture.” The Indo-Europeans, many feminist scholars agree, were threatened by the success of matriarchal society. Various psychoanalytic explanations are offered for why this was so, but most feminist historians agree with the assessment of author Charlene Spretnak that patriarchy is an historical anomaly, a distortion of the natural order. (Still others, like Rosalind Miles, maintain that males themselves are a biological deviation from the natural order.) “At the moment [men's] awe turned to envy, resentment, and fear, patriarchy was born,” Spretnak writes. “Since men could never possess the elemental power that women have, they sought to hoard all the cultural, i.e., invented power.”
The feminist reconstruction of the past has found a ready ally in the growing ecology movement. This was only to be expected, given the emphasis feminist historians place on the symbiotic relationship between woman and nature (the Great Goddess is variously known as the “earth goddess” or “earth mother”). The analogy is an ancient one, but it is here given a distinctly political twist: Just as the egalitarianism of ancient goddess-worshipping societies reflected the harmonious relations between human beings and their planet, so in patriarchal societies where women are exploited by men, the earth is abused and violated by “male” forms of agriculture, technology, and weaponry. In a similar vein, a recent book. The Sexual Politics of Meat, explores the relation between carnivorous eating practices and the social domination of women.
Spretnak—a prolific author and lecturer on feminist issues—observes that ecofeminism is the only logical response on the part of women interested in issues of gender, culture, and history; of women who reject all forms of dominance theory, including Marxism; and especially of feminist theologians who are inspired by nature-based religions of neopaganism and goddess worship. Once there is an acknowledgment of the intricate relation between the subjugation of women and the subjugation of nature, feminists will have no alternative, says Spretnak, but to “work for ecopeace, ecojustice, ecoeconomics, ecopolitics, ecoeducation, ecophilosophy, ecotheology, and for the evolution of ecofeminism.”
It stands to reason that if the devaluation of women and the devaluation of nature went hand in hand with the rise of civilization, so too must their revaluation—with a little help from a vision of a pre-civilized golden age. But the precise nature of this vision makes the ecofeminists uneasy allies of the “deep ecologists.” For while radical feminism rejects the dominance and inegalitarianism of patriarchal society, it is still concerned with restructuring society in a manner that will benefit human beings. This is not extreme enough for the deep ecologists, who maintain that earth must be saved for its own sake, not for man's—or even woman's.
The utopian vision of the deep ecologists needs to be viewed in the context of its sweeping critique of Western civilization. The notion of “deep” ecology (as opposed to “shallower,” aesthetically motivated forms of ecology and environmentalism) was introduced by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1973. It has only recently gained prominence, though, as a logical extension of both the feminist and the ecological critiques of civilization; while ecofeminists are halfway there in seeing men as the problem, deep ecology fulfills the vision by recognizing Man as the problem. Deep ecology, as formulated by its key proponents Bill Devall and George Sessions, “is a process of ever-deepening questioning of ourselves, the assumptions of the dominant worldview in our culture, and the meaning and truth of our reality.” Tulane University's Michael Zimmerman characterizes it as seeking to “overturn the major Western categories that are apparently responsible for humanity's destruction of the biosphere: anthropocentrism, dualism, atomism, hierarchalism, rigid autonomy, and abstract rationalism.”
If the deep ecologists pose the most radical critique to emerge from all the anti-Western Civilization movements of the past two decades, they are also the most explicitly Utopian—or, as they say, “ecotopian.” They share with feminists the belief that a Golden Age existed some 600 million years ago, but they differ from the feminists in showing a much stronger inclination to recreate life as it existed in primitive times. (The slogan of the ecotoge group Earth First! is “Back to the Pleistocene!”) In The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, Paul Shepard presents a stark ecotopian view of life in hunting-gathering societies: “Most people seem to agree that we cannot and do not want to go back to the past; but the reason given is often wrong: that time has moved on and what was can never be again. The truth is that we cannot go back to what we never left. Our home is the earth, our time the Pleistocene Ice Ages. The past is the formula for our being. Gynegetic man is us.” Shepard is forced to wonder, “Can we face the possibility that hunters were more fully human than their descendents?”
In the latter part of his career, the eminent anthropologist Loren Eiseley embraced increasingly ecotopian views, asserting the need for man to reenter “the first world from which he originally emerged,” that “sunflower forest he had thought merely to exploit or abandon.” So in tune were early men with their environment, noted Eiseley, that they “projected a friendly image upon animals: animals talked among themselves and thought rationally like men; they had souls.”
As Devall and Sessions assert in their basic text on the subject, “Developing ecotopian visions is part of our environmental education . . . . Ecotopian visions present affirmations of our bonds with earth.” There are even ecotopian novels which, like all Utopian fictions, serve as a criticism of the current age: the best-known of these are Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging. (The former is set shortly after the secession from the United States of Oregon, Washington, and northern California—and that's not even the Utopian part.) Ecotopian Gary Snyder, a prominent member of the bioregionalism movement, has called for a transformation of “the five-millenia-long urbanizing civilization tradition into a new ecologically sensitive harmony-oriented wild-minded scientific/spiritual culture . . . nothing short of total transformation will do much good.” Shepard's Utopian vision for the future is more concrete: he has developed a detailed plan to remodel life after early hunter-gatherer societies, urging that the entire world's population (which he would like to see stabilized at eight billion people) cluster along the coastlines of the continents, leaving the interiors untouched by human habitation.
The task of modern (i.e., post-Pleistocene) man, says Eiseley, is “how nature is to be reentered; how man, the relatively unthinking and proud creator of the second world—the world of culture—may revivify and restore the first world which cherished and brought him into being.” This task of “reentry” into the golden age is most eloquently explored in the work of ecotheologian Thomas Berry. Berry has the ability both to reflect upon the history-making process and to engage in it himself, at one point maintaining that while the violence of our age is, well, violent, “in prior ages the violence of the natural world was “essentially creative in the larger arc of its unfolding.”
Berry is aware of the crucial role a historical narrative can play in a people's self-understanding. In The Dream of the Earth, he observes: “We are in trouble now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories.” The values of Western civilization are repudiated, and people are at a loss. Thus, “we must begin where everything begins in human affairs—with the basic story, our narrative of how things came to be. . . . We need a story that will heal, guide, and discipline us.”
Western society has always depended heavily on history for its own self-understanding, notes Berry, and a culture's history is intimately linked with its future possibilities: “a new historical vision is emerging to guide us on our way to a more creative future.” The creation of history is itself an historical event—the ecologists' new description of the past is “the supreme historical event of recent times: the discovery of a new origin story, the story of the universe as emergent evolutionary process over some 15 billion years. . . . “ While we are limited by the fact that “our own experiences can never again have the immediacy or compelling quality that characterized this earlier period,” we can strive for a “post-critical naiveté.”
The deep ecologists' critique of Western civilization—indeed all civilization—is so profound that it is, for all practical purposes, transpolitical. The same cannot be said for the Utopian critiques posed by the Afrocentric and feminist movements. What is so striking about these two groups is the extraordinary ease with which they rewrite the past, and the boldness with which they invoke the truth of origin stories whose ink is barely dry. In their hands, the old-fashioned notion of history as the discovery of facts—that is, a search for truth—has given way to a notion of history as the creative narratives of oppressed peoples—that is, a striving for power.
That is particularly obvious in the rhetoric of feminist historians. As authors Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor assert, “We believe that nothing could be more politically relevant than knowing why we got where we are now, by seeing how we got here and where we began.” To know that a matriarchal society once existed “is to give its future existence not only credibility, but empowerment; we need this confidence of precedence not only as a core of spiritual vision, but as the core of our political vision.”
Feminist histories and spiritual writings on the goddess are replete with references to “power” and “empowerment.” Judy Chicago provides the most succinct explanation for this. “Our heritage is our power,” she states. “We can know ourselves and our capacities by seeing that other women have been strong. To reclaim our past and insist that it become a part of human history is the task that lies before us, for the future requires that women, as well as men, shape the world's destiny.” As Charlene Spretnak says, “Women are coming together to cultivate the powers that can result from exploring matrifocal heritage . . . “ Merely believing that goddesses once ruled, explains art critic Gloria Orenstein, enables women to “reconnect with a source of empowerment” and “evoke the energy needed to create the new situation.”
This persistent notion of the past as power source leads many feminist and Afrocentric historians to attribute near-magical qualities to their Utopian visions. Molefi Asante states that “the Afrocentric method seeks to transform human reality . . . the Africalogist knows that the results of the Afrocentric perspective are so profoundly revolutionary in the field of knowledge that it virtually constitutes new knowledge.” Africalogy is a “liberating discipline.” This is not so very different from George James' quaint hope, nearly four decades ago, that a new history focusing on African achievements would not only lift the veil of prejudice between whites and blacks, it would “emancipate” black people everywhere “from their serfdom of inferiority complex.”
Contemporary Afrocentrists do not use the term “inferiority complex” (although they frequently speak of the need to increase self-esteem). In more ways than they would care to admit, though, they share James' dream of transforming a people's station in life by bestowing on them a glorious past:
Now that it has been shown that philosophy and the arts and sciences were bequeathed to civilization by the people of North Africa and not by the people of Greece, the pendulum of praise and honor is due to shift from the people of Greece to the people of the African continent who are the rightful heirs of such praise and honor.
This is going to mean a tremendous change in world opinion and attitude, for all people and races . . . would change their opinion from one of disrespect to one of respect for the Black people throughout the world and treat them accordingly.
It is also going to mean a most important change in the mentality of the Black people: a change from an inferiority complex to the realization and consciousness of their equality with all the other great peoples of the world who have built great civilizations. With this change in the mentality of the Black and White people, great changes are also expected in their respective attitudes towards each other, and in society as a whole.
James' efforts to instill among blacks a sense of self-worth through meditation on the past continue today. In an elementary school classroom in Washington, D.C, students are taught to stand in a circle, hold hands, and “breathe in and breathe out” while “invoking thoughts of your ancestors.”
While the invocation of a golden age can inspire and, to a degree, legitimize, it is doubtful whether any historical narrative—even one of one's own creation—can in fact empower. What it can do is provide a sensation of power when the genuine article is missing.
Afrocentrist and feminist historians have a mistaken notion of how social and cultural power—the sense of being central, significant, and influential—comes into being. They suffer from the same misperception about esteem as the critics of capitalism have about wealth: that it is a limited and fixed product existing “out there” and available to those presently without it only by seizure or redistribution. As feminist author Barbara Starrett writes, “The generation of power, alone, is impossible because power is always used. It always goes somewhere, does something. It cannot be destroyed. But it can be transformed.” On the contrary, the ability to garner honor and esteem is a direct result of the creative energies of individuals. Social and cultural power flows from actions that, in one way or another, leave a mark on the world.
But Afrocentrists, radical feminists, and deep ecologists are not, in the final analysis, interested in leaving a mark on the world. They are interested, alternately, in appropriating the marks that other people have left on the world, and in positing an ancient, edenic time when conditions were such that there was no need to make a mark on the world. The impression one comes away with after reading the works of these various radical thinkers is that they imagine that rewriting the past alters reality, that conditions are actually improved simply by the telling of a new tale.
It is easy to forget that those who are spinning these tales were originally motivated by pressing issues: the educational status of inner-city black children, women's desire for professional advancement and personal dignity, the growing hazards posed to the environment. That these very real problems get lost in the Utopian shuffle is, as the Marxists would say, no accident. It is much the easier route to reject liberal reformism, as each of these groups resolutely does: the radical feminists dismiss it as a hopelessly naive desire “for sexual egalitarianism from within a structure that is patriarchal”; the deep ecologists dismiss it as “ineradicably anthropocentric”; the Afrocentrists dismiss it as a manifestation of “self-hate.” In each case, liberal reformist action is to be replaced by radical theory—a theory that will not only account for the interest group's current status within society, but will also offer a customized genesis myth.
It is as if, having realized how much real-world effort would be required to achieve social, economic, and political gains, the critics turn from laborious efforts at improvement to visions of a transformative revolution in consciousness.
This is an impulse that Shelby Steele has recently shed light on in his analysis of black culture. The Content of Our Character. The embrace of the term “Afro-American”—with what Steele calls its “invocation of the glories of a remote African past and its wistful suggestion of a homeland”—suggests to Steele “nothing so much as a despair over the possibility of gaining the less conspicuous pride that follows real advancement.” Steele might be speaking of feminists as well as blacks when he says: “To avoid the shocks of doubt that come from entering the mainstream, or plunging more deeply into it, we often pull back at precisely those junctures where segregation once pulled us back. In this way we duplicate the conditions of our oppression and reenact our role as victims even in the midst of far greater freedom and far less victimization.” In their flight from the realm of action—liberal reformism and bourgeois achievement—into the rarefied realm of theory, radical groups of all stripes attempt to shift attention away from questions of their own performance to grandiose demands that society as a whole—its very language, concepts, mores—undergo transformation.
There is, finally, a poignant undercurrent that runs through all these retellings of the past. In each instance—even in those most clearly concerned with power—the Utopian vision betrays an acute homesickness. The language of “return” permeates these efforts at rescripting history. Loren Eiseley describes the feeling as a “suffer[ing] from a nostalgia for which there is no remedy upon earth[;] . . . what, increasingly, is required of man is that he pursue the paradox of return,” that he struggle to regain “that world we have lost.”
Deep ecology, explain Devall and Sessions, “can potentially satisfy our deepest yearnings.” (Sartre, Heidegger, and Spinoza are favorite sources of the deep ecology movement, as is Buddhism, with its emphasis on the transcendence of dualities.) Primal peoples—even those persisting down to our current age—who are “dwelling in ecosystems, bonded to place, having communion with wild animals, and realizing that spirit and matter are not inherently separated, have experienced this deeper sense of place.” What is so valuable about feminist theology, says Rosemary Radford Reuther, is “its radical return to original human possibilities lost at the dawn of history.” Carolyn Merchant, professor of philosophy at Berkeley and a leading ecofeminist, adopts a similarly prelapsarian tone. “The World we have lost was organic,” she announces at the opening of her influential book The Death of Nature. “From the obscure origins of our species, human beings have lived in daily, immediate, organic relation with the natural order for their sustenance.”
In ancient times, echoes Riane Eisler, “the world itself was one. . . . Our feet danced in sacred groves, honoring the spirits of nature. What was later broken asunder into prayer and music, ritual and dance, play and work, was originally one.” For millennia every activity and chore was done in a sacred manner; “there was no splintering of culture and nature, spirituality, science, and technology.” The rediscovery of this past “signals a way out of our alienation from one another and from nature.” Theologian Carol Christ agrees: “We have lost the sense that this Earth is our true home.” When we finally return to the goddess, Sjoo and Mor believe, “the universe will be our home again, as before. This flight is not an escape, but a return.”
One can sympathize with the emotional pain and spiritual longing that underlie these Utopian outlooks without condoning the practice of using history as a palliative to soothe the pangs of alienation or to bestow a badly wanted sense of power and accomplishment. This is precisely the danger Nietzsche described when he spoke of people's fondness for “monumental history”—the worshipping of the past and the twisting of it to serve one's own ends. (It is a sorry time when one turns to Nietzsche for words of moderation.)
Today, social groups that are confronted with political, cultural, and economic challenges are embracing Utopian visions in a vain effort to comfort themselves in the present moment. It will be interesting to see how long it will take them to realize that in expending their energies in doctoring the past—rather than concentrating their efforts on the future—they are ministering to the wrong patient.
Elizabeth Kristol is Associate Editor at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.