When decolonizing is part of your (spiritual) journey…. deep historical inquiry arises. And big spiritual questions. Leading to… an animist resurgence?

Sara Jolena Wolcott, M.Div.
10 min readSep 10, 2023
Tree of Life — by Tamara Philips

“Do your own work,” “Look to your own culture, not to ours,” “Stop taking other people’s spiritual pathways and cultures! Especially after you have taken our land!”

This is part of what I (and many others) have been hearing from BIPOC folks for decades.

Growing up Quaker, when first encountering those ideas, I took that to mean: stay in my own lane. Dig deeper into Quakerism. That’s my tradition. I was happy to do so. For a while, that was more than enough. Over many years, a series of spiritual experiences, many of which happened when I was living and working outside of my own culture, led me to widen my own spiritual base beyond Quakerism.

“Do your own work/look to your own peoples” shifted meaning. I found myself wanting to go beyond/before Quakerism; looking towards my ancestors’ relationship to land and waters long before Quakerism was even a thought. To the Middle Ages. To before then. To the question of, who were the indigenous peoples of Europe?

Some of this was undoubtably influenced by the growing recognition amongst Quakers of their own complicity in the Indian Boarding Schools and receiving the larger benefits of being colonizers. We thought of ourselves as the ‘cool Christians’, but we too benefited from what Stephen Newcomb refers to as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and were actively engaged in larger economic and ecological shifts that have contributed to socio-religious-economic systems that marginalized indigenous peoples and now put our planet at risk.

And some of it was prompted by the historical research I was engaged in whilst attending a(progressive Christian) Seminary, where conversations with indigenous peoples in New York led me deeper into the histories of Christianity, especially the Doctrine of Discovery, colonization, and a recognition of the importance of re-originating our origin stories around climate change into the Doctrine of Discovery/colonization. Whilst in the midst of that research, I realized that the “Witch Bull”, a Papal Bull written in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII which was used to give moral authority to what became the great European Witchhunts, killing thousands of women, many of whom would have been the stewards of local ecological knowledge in their villages, was written in the midst of the papal Bulls that we now refer to as the Doctrine of Discovery.

My European ancestors were very much caught up in a similar spirit of ‘evil’ that spread colonization around the world, including a transfer of ecological and medicinal knowledge from the traditional caretakers into the hands and via the instruments (including instruments of torture) of a relatively small group of European men.

This knowledge lifts up the importance of animism. It puts into sharper relief Max Weber’s observation, a century later, that the enlightenment/scientific revolution had led to a world that was thoroughly “disenchanted.”

Within that ‘witchy’ lineage lay clues to my own ancestors whom, at some point, were indigenous.

Luminaries such as Robin Wall Kimmerer write of indigenous ways of knowing, inviting people of European descent into a worldview of kinship. “In Indigenous ways of knowing, The land is not merely soil; the trees, not simply timber; the water, not just a resource. They are all relatives….we understand that a person is never alone. There are always beloveds around us, ancestors and teachers in animal, plant, and human form. We need only to listen.”

What I was finding is that while I could find kinship worldviews primarily within Quakerism, I could also find them within other, older European lineages: and those lineages, sometimes like whispers in the wind, sing a sweet song that I want to partake in.

Everything in nature is alive and speaking. Our spiritual practice is about opening our eyes, ears and hearts to hear, understand, and communicate back. The elements, the Ancestors and the spirit beings that surround us want us to communicate with them. They want to work with us to heal the Earth, but they need our invitation.” (Starhawk)

To do so, I had to shake up a few definitions of categories and blur some definitions. Especially the long-standing, centuries-old categorical divide between Christian/non-Christian (aka Pagan). Afterall, I had a deep love for the teachings of Jesus and the Presence of the Holy Spirit. I don’t want to and do not feel called to give that up. I do not think the beckoning of the Divine (Earth) Mother is a rejection of (one of) Her Son.

When I started teaching on the historical and theological connections between climate change and colonization, it was clear that to go down these historical pathways was to illicit profound spiritual questions. Profound questions emerge: questions that evoke mystery, ethics, and deep inquiry. The nature of good/evil; why do people do terrible things; who am I and who are my people and what spiritual practices can most support me. These are classic spiritual questions, and students’ repeated asking of them showed me that the aspects of decolonization which entail unlearning and relearning different histories, origin stories, and ‘how did we get here’ questions almost inherently entails and requires a spiritual journey.

Over time, that broad recognition became more nuanced. People want to connect with ancestral lineages and practices that are not only Christian — even if they want to stay Christian.

A particular set of questions keeps arising:

  • Who were my ancestors before they were colonizers? What does it mean to heal the colonizer’s soul?
  • Can Christianity/Catholicism be saved of its own sin of Empire/colonization? (This includes traditions which, like Quakerism, were also embedded in colonial activities such as running Indian Boarding Schools, as well as other traditions associated with liberation theologies.)
  • What were my people’s spiritual/religious traditions, including Traditional Ecological Knowledge, prior to colonization/christianization?
  • What were the myths, stories, rituals, songs, and traditions of traditional European indigenous peoples? Can I reclaim them? How/Do they fit into where I am now?

People are asking these questions at a time when there is something of an animist resurgence, from many different directions, with various levels of groundedness and insight. There is witchy-ness and neo-paganism and womens circles; there is a wide growth of mythopoetics and manifestation groups. Eco-spirituality finds resonances in scientific ‘discoveries’ about mycellium networks and shooting spores and vegetation gods. Plant medicine, from microdosing to adventurous journeys, from deeply honoring to outright thieving from indigenous traditions, abounds.

So perhaps the result is unsurprising.

Animism rises.

Sometimes with a lot of technological, as well as mythological, evidence.

Afterall: the world is not linear. Space curves.

As do we.

A natural path?

I sometimes wonder:

Is witchy-ness/animism/re-enchantment a necessary part of decolonization and, with that, possibilities of real sustainability/regeneration?

Is it part of the process of re-connecting us with that which sustains?

Certainly my research and experimentations to date suggests it is an important part (and only one part).

Which is not, in and of itself, necessarily anti-Christian.

I keep mentioning this because the anti-pagan/witchy sentiment in society remains very strong. As if it is wrong or bad or anti-Christian. Given the centuries of this message being perpetuated, that’s not too surprising. And there are many cultures and traditions who associate “witch” with “evil”, and it is important to recognize that there is a “there there” that such cultures are pointing to. There is a character, found across multiple cultures, who wishes harm and ill intent and uses their magical powers to do so. but that is not what I’m referring to here.

This famous painting by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, called Witches Sabbath, is but one of many depictions of an animist tradition that has been deeply scorned and ridiculed.

Keeping that in mind, I suggest that there is an opportunity for some re-categorization.

Eco-spiritualities can be deeply Christian… or any other kind of Abrahamic faith or other ‘global religious tradition’ (which is often contrasted to the local, land-based, indigenous, or pagan tradition). The strict distinction between paganism (defined as non-Christian) and Christianity is of far greater concern to Christianity in the middle ages than it was to ‘pagans’. Indeed, I prefer not to call myself a pagan because of how much I also attend to the teachings of Jesus and the gracious spirit of Christ.

And both Judaism and Christianity have significant animism within them (see, for example the work of the scholar Prof Mark Wallace — I interviewed him about his book, When God was a Bird, for my podcast several years ago.)

That matters for some people… a lot.

And these categories don’t matter much for others, especially those who are not trying to prove themselves to be either one thing or another, and are more concerned with listening to Spirit, however she/they/he is moving. Mystics often pay less attention to religious categories than do others.

Which is what we need to attend to. If we hope to survive. To regenerate. Then we need to align with the that Spirit which does indeed regenerate. A wisdom, a way of being, that is very, very, very old.

In the rising of the moon

People are hearing the call of the Earth from all walks of life. It is inevitable. Many are not on a decolonial journey per se. Many don’t know or even wonder what that means.

I sometimes get impatient with this: superficial and expensive stuff that doesn’t mean much, doesn’t work, and takes a lot of time and energy away from the depths that are actually here, and actually moving. The work before us, of re-enchanting our world, takes courage. Truthfulness. Power.

Why bother with anything less?

I’m developing a workshop: If Quakers were Witches. Several strangers have reached out to me, excited to engage even if they can’t attend. It resonates with those people who are feeling the call of Earth, and who are wanting to go beyond (as well as deeper within) the faith tradition that they are attached to.

I don’t think I could offer this workshop without having been engaged with and guided others in the work of decolonization.

For me the two threads of decolonization and re-enchantment are intertwined.

For many, they are not. People often follow one thread, and not another. Often people want to focus on the re-enchantment. Without the work around decolonization, it risks replicating many of the contemporary variations of settler/colonial culture. And maybe a bit of that is inevitable. But much innovation and reclamation remains possible.

Be careful: spiritual innovation in this space practiced without some kind of decolonial lens greatly risks replicating old colonial patterns (however unintentionally).

A question that I keep close to me is, ‘how do I keep innovating without falling into variations of cultural appropriation, dangerous spiritual spaces, or replicating patterns of harm’?

These questions have invited me deeper into my relationship with spirit. And to the abundance of ways we can reclaim, reinvent, reschool, regenerate.

I’ve developed ancient/new processes using circular time. Rituals of honor and of grief. Rituals/ceremonies to mark and strengthen the cycles of our lives and the rhythms of our crafts, trades, and economic flows.

These include cycles of birth, death, pre-marriage/bridal showers, marriage, baby showers, house blessings, divorces/separations, coming of age, and birthing books for the many people listening to the animate murmurings of Earth. Participants crave that which draws from their Olde European heritage and is also of this place; rituals that often combine Abrahamic traditions with witchy sentiments.

In doing so, I’m engaging with a tremendous amount of spiritual and cultural innovation. Thankfully, I have a lot of training and support. I’m drawing from a deep understanding of Quakerism — the tradition I grew up in infuses these eco-spiritual rituals, but it would be easy, if you are looking at it from afar, to not see how one lead to the other. I’m working with Christianity. With knowledge/experience from Seminary. With my ongoing dialogues with practitioners who live in India, where I lived for a while. With co-conspirators from different ethnic backgrounds. And I participate in ceremonies led by friends and colleagues from multiple traditions.

I’m grateful for the articulation of the problems with so much of the borrowing/stealing/innovating spaces of yoga in America such as in the book, White Utopias.

Historical study, contemporary relationships, mystical experiences and ongoing inquiry (analytical as well as mythical) make it possible to walk on some narrow bridges of innovation without appropriation; of creativity without foolhardedness; of ritual without ritualization; of magic and realness. Of the economics of it all.

ReEnchantment is necessary. It is happening. It is beautiful. It can help us heal and create ancient-new cultures. It can exist within and between different traditions. It can support the process of cultural innovation, impacting nearly all spheres of life, from investment to entrepreneurship to deepening one’s sense of peace and well-being. At its best, it stems from and is informed by an awareness of the patterns of colonial histories and contemporary colonial trends.

And for those who are starting with the decolonial lens, it is very possible that you too will need to engage with historical and contemporary animism. Be assured there is much here that is still alive: the dance of the world continues; you can (keep) participate/ing.

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Sara Jolena Wolcott, M.Div.

ReMembering and ReEnchanting our world. Retelling Origin Stories and other myths and truths. Entrepreneur, legacy advisor, and unconventional minister. Healing.