Beyond Geography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Western civilization today is in a state of crisis. Despite our tremendous technological and scientific achievements, political power, and high standard of living, people seem somehow dissatisfied and restless. Many have asked whether the price paid for these accomplishments has been too high—whether, indeed, one might not be better off without material abundance. Observers such as Arnold Toynbee have spoken of the “spiritual” crisis of Western civilization and have counseled a return to the spiritual values of the past. Others attribute the predicament to these very same values and prescribe various alternative remedies, from Communism to one of several Eastern systems of belief.

Frederick Turner, a Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, is among this latter group. His work can be seen as an outgrowth of the revival of interest in Indian cultures which has occurred since the birth of the Native American political movement in the 1960’s as well as the spread of environmental consciousness during roughly the same period. Both of these concerns are manifested within the general context of Turner’s analysis of the cultural crisis he perceives and within his narration of the conflict between the white man and the Indian. While many have chronicled the melancholic story of the white man’s destruction of Native American society, Turner emphasizes equally what the victors lost in the process—namely, an opportunity to come to terms with their own spiritual past and to learn from their victims how to live in harmony with nature and the universe.

Turner argues that both our extraordinary achievements and our present predicament are the consequence of a profound alienation from the natural world, which has permitted its ruthless exploitation and destruction in the name of progress, as well as the objective scientific treatment of the physical world so notable in our civilization. He contrasts this alienation with the animistic outlook of Native Americans, for whom nature is imbued with innumerable spirits who demand reverence and propitiation, and whose gods are of the earth rather than dwelling in some remote heaven. This attitude places rather strict limits on how nature can be treated, and thus on the level of material culture that can be attained, for the gods are easily offended. While more limiting in some ways, this view creates a more comforting and familiar environment, one in which man is not alone.

Turner’s basic point has been made by previous scholars and social critics, such as A. R. Hall, Lewis Mumford, and Lynn White. Turner, however, develops this point more fully than previous writers, to the extent of seeing this alienation as the explanation of the whole course of Western history. This monocausal interpretation is not likely to be accepted by academically inclined thinkers, who eschew such views as simplistic. Nor will he win many friends among theologians when he states that “without belief in spirits there can be no true religious conviction.” This belief in spirits is fundamental to Turner’s concept of both religion and mythology. Although they may disagree with the specifics of his argument, scholars would do well to consider seriously his admonition that “we resign nothing of intellect or learning in taking seriously the voices and spirits of places, the spiritual dimensions of a people’s history.”

Turner traces the origins of the antithesis between the world views he describes to the formulative period of our religious tradition, when the ancient Hebrews did battle with their pagan neighbors. For the Hebrews of the Old Testament inaugurated Western man’s alienation from nature when their God placed man atop the hierarchy of nature and, in creating man in his own image, separated him from the rest of the created world. The Hebrews substituted a more “masculine” view of enduring opposition between man and nature for the more “feminine,” Earth-Mother cults of their neighbors, which stressed the interdependence of man and nature. The author likens the religious beliefs of these surrounding Near Eastern peoples to those of the Native Americans, whom the ancient Hebrews’ spiritual heirs conquered millennia later. The perennial state of conflict between the Hebrews and their neighbors resulted in a one-sided development of Judaism, Turner believes, and the rejection of any elements or accretions that smacked of nature-worship.

The concept of the “wilderness” is critical to Turner’s argument, for he believes that Western man’s attitude toward untouched nature can be traced in a direct line from the Pentateuch, whose prime location it was. The wilderness was regarded as an area of temptation where, in the absence of constant vigilance, God’s people turned to the practices of their enemies. Thus, the wilderness had to be resisted and overcome, made over in man’s image, and domesticated to his purposes.

The founding and subsequent history of Christianity brought an even greater divorce between man and the natural world. Extremists in the young Church regarded even the human body as part of an alien physical world, an impediment to higher spiritual attainments, whose natural inclinations had to be thwarted and controlled. As in the development of Judaism, the perpetual state of conflict between Christianity and its rivals—often of Eastern derivation—within the empire put churchmen on their guard against the intrusion of pagan, nature-centered, beliefs and practices into the growing religion. Moreover, the triumph of Christianity, in Turner’s view, represented the victory of history over myth, as church leaders and theologians deemphasized the message of Jesus in favor of a preoccupation with his historical person. One might question here Turner’s use of the term mythology, for, while scholars do consider Christianity a predominantly historically oriented religion, its mythological content is nevertheless important, and the author needs to develop more subtly the significant distinction between polytheistic, earth-centered mythologies and...

(The entire section is 2485 words.)