Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Faith Works 10-15-05
Jeff Gill

So, Did They Worship Nature?

"So, Did They Worship Nature?" That was the question one person asked me after I gave a tour of the Octagon Earthworks not long ago, as a volunteer for the Ohio Historical Society, owners of the site.
I had shared the remarkable story of how recent research had rediscovered a fact hidden in plain sight by the builders 2000 years ago, the Native Americans known archaeologically as "Hopewell." The main axis of the geometric earthworks there, a circle almost as big as the "Great Circle" down by Heath, connected by double walls to a vast, 55 acre octagon, open at the corners with small barrier mounds at the breaks, points to the northwest horizon.
At that spot, the moon rises as far north as it ever does in an 18.6 year cycle. The other openings and walls of the figure point out the other main lunar rise and set points through that cycle. Millions of cubit feet of earth, moved by hand, placed with a modern engineer’s precision to orient earth to sky, for purposes we know no better than we know the name they called themselves two millenia ago.
Which made the visitor’s question a reasonable one, in a way. If there was no seasonal purpose for planting and crops involved (as we suspect for the Great Circle, a story in itself), then was this a religious thing entirely?
Perhaps, but that still wouldn’t make for "nature worship." My daily planner notes that Yom Kippur began at sundown a few days ago, ten days after Rosh Hashanah or "Head of the Year" in Hebrew. Those High Holy Days for the Jewish Faith move about a bit, because the ritual calendar is tied to lunar months. The great observance of the "Day of Atonement" Thursday closes a period marked by solar and lunar periods, but no one would argue that Yom Kippur is nature worship.
Right after Judaism marked 5766 in their new year, Islam began the month of fasting called Ramadan. In my calendar, that began Oct. 4, but it said "tentative," as does the close of the sunrise to sunset fasting Nov. 2. Tentative, because Ramadan does not begin until the new moon appears as a sliver (the crescent you see on so many Islamic flags and symbols), which varies from place to place on the globe. The local imam or ayatollah or leader will actually have to see the arc of moon in the sky to declare the beginning and conclusion of the fast, and the feasting which follows.
And the time of Ramadan moves about through the western 12 month calendar, because Islam uses a ritual calendar based on . . . yep, the moon.
What did the spiritual practice of Native Americans consist of 2000 years ago? We simply don’t know. In western cultures, the role of the world and the relationship of the visible world to spirits and higher powers has been complicated even within Christendom, and "tree hugger" now is the equivalent of the cheap critique of "nature worshipper" in another age. All faith traditions that I’m aware of point out the responsibility of believers to respect creation and the divine purposes behind the gift of life, and like most aspects of faith could stand to honored more in practice than in the breach.
We do not worship the moon or nature to want to mark our lives within the cycles drawn across the vastness of the night sky or across the natural landscape. Chartres Cathedral in France, a monument of medieval faith, has a special set of windows and plates in the floor to track the progress of solstices and equinoxes. Did they worship nature, or Nature’s God, by honoring the faithfulness of the heavenly bodies circling ‘round them?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he has been working for the last six months on helping plan the events around and hopes to see you next Sat., Oct. 22! Or just offer regrets at

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