I was watching Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers Program 2: The Message of Myth yesterday and the role that nature plays in myth was brought up as part of the discussion. There was a basic distinction shown in how different myths and religions view nature. Nature is either seen as something that is corrupt and must be conquered by man (as in the Judea-Christian traditions) or it is seen as an expression of or part of the divine (as in the Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, and Native American traditions). I had never noticed this distinction before, but now that it has been pointed out, it is very glaring.
So what does this tell us about the societies that created these mythologies? In the case on the Judea-Christian societies, it seems to show a strongly paternal society that wants to control the world around them (see Genesis chapters 2 & 3). This is something that can been seen throughout western society and I think that it is safe to say that it is the influence of the Bible that helped build these mores into the western culture. The Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, and Native American societies it seems to show, overall, peoples that prefer to live in harmony with nature instead of controlling it. Obviously I am speaking in generalizations here because one can easily find great differences in the societies that I have lumped together here.
There seems to be a general break between western and eastern cultures and how they view nature and the role of man and the divine in regards to nature. The west sees nature as a force that must be controlled because if it is not, it will corrupt humanity and take man away from God and the east sees nature as something to live in harmony with, going so far as seeing the divine, i.e. God, in nature.
As with any study of religions and mythologies, one must look at the culture that created the material, the part of the world that said culture came from, the time in history, and what kind of world those people were living in to put the mythologies into context. In the case of the Israelites, they lived in a very harsh, desert climate that would make life difficult, so the fact that their religion teaches that nature is to be controlled is not that surprising. In the case of the Native Americans, they lived in a climate that was varied and bountiful, so it makes sense that their religion would promote living in harmony with nature. (Note – Yes I know that the Native Americans are not examples of eastern cultures, but in this case they have more in common with the beliefs of the Hindu and Shinto religions and people than that of the traditional western cultures.)
Personally I find the eastern belief of living in harmony with nature as more productive and overall it just appeals to my philosophy and spirituality. I am also one that believes that we see God in the world around us. We can see God in the trees, rivers, mountains, oceans, and especially in the eyes and smile of a baby. Since the world was made by God, and we were made as part of the world, it is an expression of God and the divine.
For those who are not familiar with Joseph Campbell he was one of the 20th century’s foremost experts on mythology and comparative religions. He’s most famous for his seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces which was hugely influential to a young film maker in the 1970’s, George Lucas. You can learn more about Campbell from his Wikipedia entry and from the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s website.