Spiritual Compost

There’s a discussion we need to have, rather urgently so. No doubt that discussion is happening in places I know nothing about. I’m not saying the discussion has no life, only that it needs a bigger life.

We might say the topic is theological or religious. But I’d prefer to say mythological and spiritual, although it’s also historical, cultural, sociological, and psychological. Since I don’t know how to concisely name it—it’s an inclusive kind of thing, even political—I’d like to slide into it sideways.

In the mainstream Christian West, God is usually thought of in one of four ways: theism (God exists), deism (God sort of exists), agnosticism (God maybe exists), and atheism (God doesn’t exist). So, #1: The superpersonal Creator of the universe not only exists but is passionately interested in everyone’s spiritual temperament and afterlife trajectory. #2: The impersonal First Cause or Prime Mover got everything going way back when, but there’s no evidence (other than legendary hearsay) that SHeIt has been at all interested since. #3: It’s all a bewildering glob of pointy-headed yakity-yak and nobody really has a clue what to believe. #4: It’s all bullshit, we’re all on our who-the-hell-can-figure-it-out own, so get used to it and grow up.

The whole God thing started to slide (Reformation plus Enlightenment) from reflexive devotion to a kind of hardnosed curiosity that developed into scientific methodology in order to figure out how this sucker works, as the best and brightest began exercising the mental muscles of our self-evident dominion. The species with a big brain. And the will to match.

But I don’t think we get—it’s not exactly easy to stand outside a social conditioning that’s simultaneously a psychological worldview—what we might say is both exterior and interior of the same mythological umbrella—that the fallenness of Nature seems to necessitate a kind of rigorous governance by which it’s sometimes necessary to forcefully interrogate evil and punish sloth. In terms of social psychology, we’ve collectively developed an aesthetic insensitivity to the exercise of that interrogation.

One sees the politics of our somewhat ambivalent insensitivity reflected politically in Red Law ‘n Order versus Blue Defund the Police. Devotion to God’s order—more important now than ever, due to the modern consequences of Original Sin—versus that side of scientific inquiry that recognizes ameliorating the punitiveness of traumatic institutions is how we will arrive at a gentler and more humane culture. Control of nature’s unruly mob versus the thoughtful softening of control.

At some point, at some level, even at the realization of inevitable ethical necessity, we need to settle into the dilemma posed by the steps from theism to atheism and by the political dispositions shaped and developed under those distinct psychological umbrellas. “Conservative” versus “liberal.” To toss some Freudian lingo into the “conservative” versus “liberal” political mudpit, we might say that superego constitutes the ruling class and all forms of power by which that ruling class controls its ownership, wealth, and political protection. Ego is the broad “middle-class” electorate split between Red and Blue, a two-hemisphere political brain that’s got an induced dose of civilized schizophrenia and has a hard time communicating between two worldviews with contending explanations of reality.

It’s hard to say what id is in a social sense. Not terribly long ago it might’ve been possible to say id, socially speaking, was peasantry and indigenous. But id has been brutally hammered by civilized megalomania in the righteous exercise of global supremacy. The peasantry, at least in the West, can hardly be said to exist—we had to destroy the village in order to save it—and everybody knows what happened to the indigenous. The only good Indian is a dead Indian.

Theism may be disintegrating, and deism needs to fact check the extent to which it has incorporated the psychopathology of Original Sin into its operating procedures and everyday consciousness, but the diseased structures of traumatic institutions continue to provide the “security” for our daily lives. With the Christian Right of Discovery and the Industrial Revolution, both superego and ego got enormously bigger as id was wrecked and demoralized. Western society no longer has a functional folk base. We’re all civilized now.

It’s probably a stretch to say that all aspects of id have had a common spirituality. But it’s important, perhaps crucially important, to recognize that id is . . . maybe never . . . civilized. If superego is the presiding priest of God devotion and civilized control, and if the bulk of ego worships God in Red and Blue political churches, id hasn’t had a stand-alone political representation since the People’s Party of the 1890s. Id may wonder where the twinkly stars come from—all peoples do—but id also lives, actually and really lives, in the earthly natural world of subsistence aptitudes and associated emotional dispositions. Id’s spirituality is overwhelmingly shaped by that everyday reality. For id folks, the sacred is not primarily head concepts; the sacred is immanent in living nature; it’s living presence.

So, to drag out the mythological dolls of Mother, Father, Son, and Daughter is to conceptually reintroduce living nature to the extraterrestrial God paradigm. I realize that there are those, with real grievance, who want to dispose of all superego statuary. But history can’t exactly be deleted or landfilled. The past stubbornly remains exactly what it was, even as our understanding of and reverence for that past may radically change. I’m proposing we keep Father and Son in the mythological pantheon as we bring Mother up from her dungeon and restore her to first position even as we gently remove the moldy swaddling shroud from Holy Ghost and find out what sort of lovely Daughter she is under all those dogmatic rags. She is a mythological figure. Let’s at least be curious as to all the ethical attributes and erotic empowerments projected onto her vibrant female image.

That’s the mythology part. It is, in my estimation, an important and even crucial corrective to cultural male dominance and civilizational hubris; but it may not be (at least for some) explicitly spiritual. And, to some extent, that’s to be expected. The mythological stuff may want to stay in the intellectual realm of consciousness. It’s got a lot of exploratory wiggle room there. But the spiritual is more like an exposed nerve extending down and into the depths of being. Going spiritual is a deeper plunge, one that commits the intellect as well. And that takes a lot of patient reflection.

Well, to reconfigure a three-figure Trinity into a four-figure Mandala is already enough to make some people uneasy. It’s one thing to acknowledge Mother deserving first position—that’s historically accurate and mythologically plausible—but to discover Daughter in the rags of Holy Ghost activates a certain religious resistance and emotional giddiness. It hints at an underlying spiritual energy or archetypal intelligence. It suggests at least the possibility that mythology has roots in what Jung—and maybe Freud, too—would’ve called collective unconscious or an energy in the collective unconscious that, in the limited vocabulary of our limited consciousness, we might as well call spiritual. Well, that’s the intellectual nature of authentic mythology; it’s an inherent challenge to the exclusively intellectual (or ideological) temperament. But something spiritual nevertheless seems to beckon from just over the horizon. And that can be a bit of a tease and maybe even a torment.

And what is this “spiritual”? Well, we don’t really know, do we? It’s a deeper thing than our conscious minds usually register. (It’s why some people meditate.) We’re biologically evolved to survive and reproduce in a hungry world where everybody eventually gets to be somebody’s groceries. No exceptions. Our evolved attention is conditioned in the arts of survival. (Except that now, of course, the culminating technologies of class and war are doing an End Times run on survival, which is what happens when fear and greed manage to get fully armed in the City of God citadel.)

In other words, the “spiritual” that repudiates death, that identifies death as the enemy to be vanquished, is a thing governed by fear. Yet the rich compost good gardeners love is composed of death. Death is how we all get folded back into whatever it is we’ve popped out of as conscious beings. And, for the most part, we enjoy the experience of being alive. We cling to its perpetuation. This too is natural. All beings—try swatting a buzzing mosquito—have a built-in impulse to survive.

So there’s a really big paradox here. We are evolved, reproduced, and reproducing creatures who have a built-in . . . let’s call it instinct . . . for survival; and the collective unconscious from which we’ve emerged not only produces life in all its amazing varieties and forms, it also welcomes—it even insists upon—our eventual return to spiritual compost. No matter what Paul the Apostle may have said, and no matter what anxious theologians have asserted about the absolute truth of sacred scripture, we’re all walking compost. We may not be eager to jump in the hot tub of compost, but that’s where we’re all headed.

To acknowledge the trajectory toward compost is an affirmation of the spiritual, a far fuller and more complete spiritual recycling than an idealized ego that supposedly gets sucked up to Heaven in order to live forever in the City of God while all the shucked-off parts burn forever in the smoldering landfills of Hell.

It’s a huge relief to let go of godly superego fear. Maybe at first (especially if one began the journey with adoration of civilization and obeisance to God, as I did) atheism felt bleak and sterile, a world devoid of spirituality, a life with no intrinsic meaning. I suppose there’s a certain desperate logic in saying that if death is the enemy then life is only a sordid ruse, a cynical and even sadistic trick, by which the voracious appetite of death gets fed. (Images of the hungry Devil, yes?)

The reason we have such a hard time coming to evolutionary and ecological spirituality is not so much our natural evasion of death, which is a survival characteristic of all living beings, but the induced and conditioning forces—civilizational and religious—which are the institutional agents of our collective estrangement and fear. End Times is the culmination of these institutional agents. The traumatic institutions of security are killing us. But if we shake off our collective estrangement and fear, and delve into a deeper level of spiritual comprehension, we will be able to live far more freely and much more fully than we now do. Affirming our compost is the portal to spiritual liberation.

Paul Gilk

The Loghouse

N3920 County E

Merrill, Wisconsin 54452



Paul Gilk lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin. His home is a reconstructed nineteenth-century log cabin, without electricity or running water. He is the author of several books including Green Politics is Eutopian, Nature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture, and Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego.