Mary Balkon: Spirituality and the Non-Human World

September 18, 2018
Mary Balkon, M.Div '20

Residents at the CSWR are scholars deeply committed to the study of religion. Below, we spoke with Mary Balkon, M.Div. '20, on her research in animism, spiritual care, and the non-human world.

CSWR: How has being a resident at the Center affected your HDS experience?

MB: One of my professors said the other day, “No one ever represents an identity group. People can only really represent their own identity.” When we're studying religious theories and histories and groups, it's so helpful and important to be in conversation with individuals who are living their own identity in relation to those categories. And it's an amazing gift to live in an intentional community where identities are expressed in everyday practicalities as well as academic discussion. The people who live here all want and actively seek to encounter and understand each other's experience. This has been very physically and emotionally grounding for me in the midst of the intensely intellectual environment of HDS.

I also enjoy the intimacy of the CSWR community within the larger HDS community within the even larger Harvard community. I'm a pretty intense introvert and I am easily overwhelmed when confronted with large numbers of people. Even the weekly HDS tea in the Braun Room can be difficult for me. The scale of the CSWR gives me meaningful community on a scale that doesn't overwhelm and exhaust me.

The programming at the CSWR has also had a huge impact for me. It's an incredible thing to have all of these world-class scholars right in my living room. And then to be able to spend days and weeks digesting and discussing their ideas in community, since other residents have attended the same events. There is almost always someone to talk with who brings a deep and interesting perspective which is radically different from my own.

CSWR: You’ve recently completed a summer field education placement in working with the HDS Community Garden. What inspired you to take this on? How does this relate to your research?

MB: I did my first field ed placement at Mount Auburn Hospital, which was great both because it taught me a lot about ministry and also because it taught me that hospital chaplaincy is not my vocation. I had a great supervisor there who helped me explore why not. One of the things I realized was that, as a pagan, the sterility of the hospital environment was directly contrary to my own spiritual practice which draws on the abundant life of the natural world for healing and meaningful relationship.

In writing my proposal for my summer field ed I said that I wanted to work on ministering to the more-than-human world and especially to the wounded relationship that humans often have with that world. Listening to the garden and letting it teach me how to care for its inhabitants, figuring out non-harmful ways to deal with rabbits and fungi, engaging with the surprising community of relationships around the garden, volunteering at Faith Kitchen where Betsy uses herbs and some of the vegetables from the garden, and reading and writing about the implications of animist cosmologies and gift economies with other-than-human-beings . . . . It was an amazing experience which confirmed the importance of this ministry for me, and also how complex it can be in a world where people's relationships with food and the natural world are so conflicted.

CSWR: You are also an incoming Research Fellow for the 2018-19 academic year at the Center. What do you hope to focus on during the year?

MB: Very much related to my garden ministry, I'm so excited to be facilitating a reading group on animism at the CSWR. Animism is a world view which acknowledges the living intelligence in the nonhuman world, and recognizes that we exist as individuals within a network of related beings.The term “animism” is somewhat problematic, because it was coined by a European anthropologist to describe what he considered the “primitive” beliefs of indigenous peoples. As I have discussed the project with others, I have repeatedly been told by kind scholars who have studied in Africa and India, that nobody there calls it animism because “it's just how the world is.”

So I keep using the word precisely because it is a European and European American word, which emerged in the academy. The fact that we have a word, that we need a word, points eloquently to our lack of, and desire for, understanding. As Native American writer Linda Hogan observed about her own culture, “We call it tradition.” So we'll be reading recent anthropologists and indigenous voices, post colonial thinkers, ecologists, artists, physicists, and advocates for social and environmental justice. We'll be exploring what all sorts of scholars have to say about the science, spirituality, and politics of an alive world which we share with nonhuman persons.

The really interesting thing that I've learned in my own research is that the notion that the nonhuman world doesn't have volition and personality is actually a relatively recent one. As a pagan of European descent, it's helpful to me to recognize that Europeans had to colonize themselves before they started colonizing everybody else. That's likely to be the focus of my personal research going forward.

Other people in the reading group are focusing specifically on art and created beings, on mountains and landscape as spiritual teachers, on nature writers as the visionaries and poets of the natural world. There are so many directions to explore as we recover this cosmology for ourselves and revision our own spiritual lives within it.