Cascadia ain’t religious. It is famous for it. Data released in 2022 from the latest Canadian national census suggest that in the far west of Canada more than 50% of people do not define themselves as affiliated with any religious tradition. There are questions we could ask about how such data is collected—I personally wonder whether the data would look different were it collected in, say, the run up to Christmas. But however we might cut the data or quibble about the precise results, I am quite sure that the data is essentially telling us a fundamental reality about this place: Cascadia ain’t religious.
And yet, there is a phrase that I hear people say: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I have lived most of my life in England, a place that has an established Church, but a similarly high level of disaffiliation with religious traditions, and people say it there, too. The strange thing is that, historically, spirituality has been a part of religion, but now it is often abstracted from it. Those who claim to be spiritual but not religious are still likely talking about exactly the same inner yearning for a spiritual life of which anyone from centuries past would have spoken.
Experiencing the Spiritual in Nature
The other side to this is that even though they are disenchanted with “religion,” many Cascadians still yearn for something more than the mundane world. For many, nature provides both inspiration for this desire and an answer to it. Anyone who lives in this part of the world cannot help but feel that they rise above their worldly problems when they get out into nature. The mountains, the fjords, the Pacific Ocean, the forests, the wildlife are all experienced in an immediate and sometimes overwhelming way, such that one is caught up in both the beauty and in the sheer existence of all that is beyond oneself. It is a transcendent experience, potentially accessible to anyone who takes time simply to be present in the midst of nature.
Such an experience is rightly described as spiritual, for even though we experience it in our bodies—how else could we experience it?—it also takes us well beyond our bodies so that we are intimately connected to all that is, at least to all that we are present to in that moment. Even though Cascadians may not naturally turn to Christianity to give expression to their spirituality, such spiritual resources do exist within the Christian tradition. It is possible to find a Christian spirituality that takes the Cascadian experience of nature seriously whilst also pointing beyond that experience and on to the Creator. The mystical experiences of St. Francis of Assisi, which remain at the core of Franciscan spirituality to this day, offer just such a Christian spirituality. Here is a deeply Christian spirituality that relates strongly to the Cascadian experience.
St. Francis’s Spirituality
The man who was to become St. Francis was born into a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy, around 1181. As a young man, he had a profound conversion experience leading him to renounce his wealth and status, instead devoting his time to prayer and to the service of the Church and the world, especially service to the poor. He is often rightly thought of as a mystic, discovering the Creator in and through creation.
St. Francis’s Canticle of the Creatures is the best known of all his works and is a wonderful example of his appreciation of his place within the created order. “Creatures” in this canticle refer to any aspect of the world. So we find “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brother Wind,” “Sister Water,” and several others. Each verse of the canticle is not only an appreciation of his natural brothers and sisters but is also an opportunity to praise God and to remember that he and the Sun, Moon, Wind, Water and all creation have the same Creator. Thus, Francis begins each verse with the words “praised be you, my Lord, through…” before naming one of God’s creatures as his sister or brother.
Reverence for all of God’s creatures extended to his fellow human beings, especially, finding outworkings in his generosity to those in great need, often at the expense of his own comfort or well-being. He disregarded any care for himself and went far beyond what most would advocate as even vaguely sensible. Indeed, at the end of his life he apologized to his body for being so hard on it! Anyone who feels inspired by St. Francis needs to take care not to follow him in all matters, for that would be a recipe for very ill health.
That said, St. Francis’s example provides guidance to us as we consider the crises of our own time, particularly the climate crisis. He has much to say about how we can appreciate and care for creation. However, St. Francis’s words sometimes suffer from reductionism, such that he is taken to be saying simply that we should all look after the natural world. Francis did indeed have a deep reverence for nature. This is because he saw himself as a brother to all. But looking after nature is merely one outworking of his spirituality—albeit a beautiful and currently urgent facet of it. But there is far more, for Francis actually discovered access to the Creator through meditation on creation.
Cascadian Spirituality & the Incarnation
Francis was famed for going away from people to pray and meditate alone, and it is obvious from his writings that in these times he had some form of transcendent and unifying experience in and through nature. He really had experienced the spiritual oneness with the natural world that Cascadians crave. Francis took this experience further. He used his awareness of his fellowship with all creatures to recognize the Creator. He also recognized that in Jesus, God had come to this universe in human flesh and so as a brother of all creatures. In Jesus, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Francis himself, and we today find that the Creator is also our sibling, because of his presence in human flesh as Jesus Christ.
For Francis, the wonder of the incarnation is that God, in Christ, is also a brother to all: the Creator becoming a creature. Care for nature is a part of what we can derive from St. Francis, but his spirituality runs far deeper than this. It is the discovery of the Creator—the transcendent other—in and through creation, of which Francis and all of us are part. Jesus is God incarnate, Creator-as-creature, Divinity-as-our-sibling.
Pursuing a Deeply Cascadian Christianity
Being “not religious” can be a perfectly reasonable, logical position to take. There are plenty of churches I have visited and would not want to go back to for a whole variety of reasons. We should also consider the reality of the church’s abuses of indigenous peoples and its failure to seek justice for the LGBTQIA+ community. All of this is so inconceivably abhorrent to the thinking of most Cascadians that if this is what religion looks like to them, then no wonder Cascadia ain’t religious.
However, it is possible to be deeply Cascadian and also deeply Christian by taking creation, Jesus, and the incarnation far more seriously than is sometimes the case in what passes for organized religion. There are many ways I do not want to be religious. But in St. Francis’s experience and writings, we see that both the doctrines of creation and of the incarnation are made indispensable and essential. Francis took the incarnation so seriously because he knew Jesus in tandem with his experience of the whole created order, to which God has come to be our sibling so that we can be at one with God and all of God’s creation. Cascadia ain’t religious, but with St. Francis, there are real possibilities for how to be spiritual in both a Cascadian and a Christian way.
Cover photo credit: Joel Cross