Religion's role in restoring the earth’s ecological balance
21st January, 2009
Laura Sevier meets the man trying to broker a better relationship between God, man, science and the natural world.
A long, low drone fills the air. We are all chanting the same sound: OOOOOOOHHHHHHHH. Whistling overtones start to ring out above the group sound and then a lone female voice sings out:
Where I sit is holy
Holy is the ground
Forest mountain river listen to my sound
Great spirit circling all around.
The voice then invites everyone to join in and we sing this verse seven or eight times. Then there is silence.
It’s not often you attend a talk given by an eminent scientist that begins with a session of Mongolian overtone chanting followed by a Native American Indian song about the holiness of the earth. It’s especially surreal given that we’re sitting on neat little rows of chairs in a Unitarian Church in Hampstead, in London.
I was there to listen to renowned English biologist Rupert Sheldrake talk about how the world’s religions can learn to live with ecological integrity. The chanting, it appears, is the warm-up act, led by Sheldrake’s wife, Jill Purce, a music healer.
So far so extraordinary, but then Sheldrake is no ordinary man. A respected scientist from a largely conventional educational background, he’s devoted much of the past 17 years of his life to studying the sort of phenomena that most ‘serious’ scientists dismiss out of hand, such as telepathy, our ‘seventh sense’. But religion? Given the current trend for militant atheism within science, I’m amazed. Besides, isn’t religion incompatible with science? Not according to Sheldrake, an Anglican Christian. ‘One of my main concerns is the opening up of science. Another is exploring the connections between science and spirituality,’ he says.
His take on religion – and science – is refreshingly unorthodox precisely because it factors in a crucial new element: nature. ‘The thrust of my work is trying to break out of the mechanistic view of nature as inanimate, dead and machine-like.’ In fact his 1991 book The Rebirth of Nature: the Greening of Science and God (Inner Traditions Bear & Company, £11.99) was devoted to showing ‘how we can once again think of nature as alive’ – and sacred.
The sacred earth
Our culture seems to have lost touch with any idea of the land as being alive and sacred and anyone who considers it to be so is often branded a tree-hugging hippie and treated with ridicule or suspicion. Land is mostly valued purely in economic terms. Yet no value is attributed to the irreplaceable benefits derived from the normal functioning of the natural world, which assures the stability of our climate, the fertility of our soil, the replenishment of our water.
Religion has, until recently, remained pretty quiet on the issue.
As Edward Goldsmith wrote in the Ecologist in 2000, mainstream religions have become increasingly ‘otherworldly’. They have ‘scarcely any interest’ in the natural world at all. Traditionally, religion used to play an integral role in linking people to the natural world, imbuing people with the knowledge and values that make caring for it a priority. ‘Mainstream religion’ Goldsmith wrote ‘has failed the earth. It has lost its way, and needs to return to its roots.’
So if the world’s religions are to play a part in saving what remains of the natural world, they not only need to return to their roots but also to confront the threat and scale of the global ecological crisis we now face. This means being open to a dialogue with science. ‘No religions, when they were growing up, had to deal with our present situation and ecological crisis,’ says Sheldrake. ‘People thought they could take the earth more or less for granted. Certainly the idea that human beings could transform the climate through their actions was unheard of. This is a new situation for everybody, for religious people and scientists, for traditional cultures and modern scientific ones. We’re all in this together.’
Environmental sin ‘Religion and Ecology’ is now a subject of serious academic study. The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, for example, recently explored the ecological dimension of all the major world religions. The ongoing environmental crisis has sparked a ‘bringing together’ of the world’s religions in a series of interreligious meetings and conferences around the world on the theme of ‘Religion, Science and the Environment’, exploring the response that religious communities can make. These brought together scientists, bishops, rabbis, marine biologists and philosophers in a way that, according to Sheldrake, ‘really worked’.
Within many religions, including all branches of Christianity, there’s an attempt to recover that sense of connection with nature. ‘There’s a lot going on,’ says Sheldrake, ‘even within the group seen as lagging the furthest behind – the American Evangelicals, who are somewhat retrogressive in relation to the environment.’
Some evangelicals who believe in the Rapture and think the world is soon to end have expressed the view that there’s no point in attempting to save the environment because it’s all going to be discarded like a used tissue.
But a more environmentally friendly view is held by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), a group of individuals and organisations including World Vision, World Relief and the International Bible Society. An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation, its landmark credo published in 1991, begins: ‘We believe that biblical faith is essential to the solution of our ecological problems... Because we worship and honour the Creator we seek to cherish and care for the creation. Because we have sinned, we have failed our stewardship of creation. Therefore we repent of the way we have polluted, distorted or destroyed so much of the Creator’s work.’
It then commits to work for reconciliation of people and the healing of suffering creation.
The belief that environmental destruction is a sin isn’t a new concept. The spirituality of native American Indians, for instance, is a land-based one. In this culture, the world is animate, natural things are alive and everything is imbued with spirit.
In the words of John Mohawk, native American chief: ‘The natural world is our Bible. We don’t have chapters and verses; we have trees and fish and animals… The Indian sense of natural law is that nature informs us and it is our obligation to read nature as you would a book, to feel nature as you would a poem, to touch nature as you would yourself, to be part of that and step into its cycles as much as you can.’
Most importantly, environmental destruction is seen as a sin.
Loss of the sacred
The question is, how did we lose the sacred connection with the natural world? Where did religion and culture go wrong? According to Sheldrake, the break began in the 16th century. Until then there were pagan festivals, such as May Day, that celebrated the seasons and the fertility of the land; there were nature shrines, holy wells and sacred places.
But with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century there was an attempt by the reformers, who couldn’t find anything about these ‘pagan’ practices in the Bible, to stamp them out. In the 17th century the Puritans brought a further wave of suppression of these things – banning, for example, Maypole dancing (Maypoles being a symbol of male fertility). ‘There was a deliberate attempt to get rid of all the things that connected people to the sacredness of the land and it largely succeeded,’ says Sheldrake.
Another factor he believes severed our connection is the view of nature as a machine. ‘From the time of our remotest ancestors until the 17th century, it was taken for granted that the world of nature was alive, that the universe was alive and that all animals were not only alive but had souls – the word “animal” comes from the word “anima”, meaning soul. This was the standard view, even within the Church. Medieval Christianity was based on an animate form of nature – a kind of Christian animism.’
But this model of a living world was replaced by the idea of the universe as a machine, an idea that stems from the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Nature was no more than dead matter and everything was viewed as mechanical, governed by mathematical principles instead of animating souls.
‘This mechanistic view of nature,’ Sheldrake says, ‘is an extremely limiting and alienating one. It forces the whole of our understanding of nature into a machine metaphor – the universe as a machine, animals and plants as machines, you as a machine, the brain as a machine. It’s a very man-centred metaphor, as only people make machines. So looking at nature in this way projects one aspect of human activity onto the whole of nature.’
It is this view, he says, that led to our current crisis. ‘If you assume that nature is inanimate, then nothing natural has a life, purpose, or value. Natural resources are there to be developed, and the only value placed on them is by market forces and official planners. And if you assume that only humans are conscious, only humans have reason, and therefore only humans have true value, then it’s fine to have animals in factory farms and to exploit the world in whatever way you like, and if you do conserve any bit of the earth then you have to conserve it with human ends in mind. Everything is justified in human terms.’
The mechanistic theory has become a kind of religion that is built into the official orthodoxy of economic progress and, through technology’s successes, is now triumphant on a global scale. ‘So,’ says Sheldrake, ‘this combination of science, technology, secular humanism and rationalism – all these philosophies that dominate the modern age – open the way for untrammelled exploitation of the earth that is going on everywhere today.’
The living universe
It seems like a pretty bleak vision. But there is an alternative: to allow our own experience and intuition to help us see nature and the universe as alive. ‘Many people have emotional connections with particular places associated with their childhood, or feel an empathy with animals or plants, or are inspired by the beauty of nature, or experience a mystical sense of unity with the natural world,’ Sheldrake says. ‘Our private relationship with nature presupposes that nature is alive.’
In other words, we don’t need to be told by science, religion or anyone that it is alive, valuable and worthy of respect and reverence. Deep down, we can feel it for ourselves. Many people have urges to get ‘back to nature’ in some way, to escape the confines of concrete and head for the hills, the sea, a park or even a small patch of grass. These impulses are moving us in the right direction.
Another way forward is through new revolutionary insights within science. ‘Science itself is leading us away from this view of nature as a machine towards a much more organic view of living in the world,’ says Sheldrake. ‘The changes are happening in independent parts of science for different reasons, but all of them are pointing in the same direction: the view of a very organic, creative world.’
The big bang theory gives a new model of the universe that is more like a developing organism, growing spontaneously and forming totally new structures within it. The concept of quantum physics has broken open many of our ideas of the mechanistic universe. The old idea of determinism has given way to indeterminism and chaos theory. The old idea of the earth as dead has given way to Gaia, the living earth. The old idea of the universe as uncreative has given way to the new idea of creative evolution, first in the realm of living things, through Darwin, and now we see that the whole cosmos is in creative evolution. So, if the whole universe is alive, if the universe is like a great organism, then everything within it is best understood as alive.
This has opened up new possibilities for a dialogue between science and religion. ‘These changing frontiers of science are making it much easier to see that we’re all part of, and dependent on, a living earth; and for those of us who follow a religion, to see the living God as the living world,’ says Sheldrake. Such insights breathe new meaning into traditional religions, their practices and seasonal festivals.
For example, all religions provide opportunities for giving thanks, both through simple everyday rituals, like saying grace, and also in collective acts of thanksgiving. These expressions of gratitude can help to remind us that we have much to be thankful for. But as Sheldrake points out, ‘It’s hard to feel a sense of gratitude for an inanimate, mechanical world.’
Helping people see the land as sacred again Sheldrake maintains, is one of the major roles of religion. ‘They all point towards a larger whole: the wholeness of creation and a larger story than our own individual story. All religions tell stories about our place in the world, our relation to other people and to the world in which we live. In that sense all religions relate us to the earth and the heavens.’
Sheldrake thinks we need stories: ‘It’s part of our nature. Science gives us stories, too – the universe story. So does TV, fiction, books.’ And these stories, in his view, unify us in a way that, for instance, some New Age practices (such as personal shrines) don’t. While those things have personal value, they don’t have the unifying function that a traditional religion does. ‘When you go to a Hindu festival or pilgrimage, you see thousands of people coming together, the whole community united by a common story or a celebration of a sacred place.’
The fascinating thing about Rupert Sheldrake is his ability to assimilate ideas from an array of different subjects that are normally kept separate, draw new connections and conclusions and open up new dialogues. He’s certainly not afraid to explore new territory or use new metaphors. Thus the big bang is like ‘the primal orgasm’ or like ‘the breaking open of the cosmic egg’.
When talking about the discovery that 95 per cent of the universe is ‘dark matter’ or unknown, he says, ‘it is as if science has discovered the cosmic unconscious’. He embraces the idea of ‘Mother Nature’ – in fact he believes the old intuition of nature as Mother still affects our personal responses to it and conditions our response to the ecological crisis. ‘We feel uncomfortable when we recognise that we are polluting our own Mother; it is easier to rephrase the problem in terms of “inadequate waste management”.’ He sees the green movement as one aspect of ‘Mother Nature reasserting herself, whether we like it or not.’
One of the most significant implications of Sheldrake’s worldview is that it connects people to the natural world and ‘if people feel more connected to the world around them, they might be less likely to accept its destruction,’ he says. Reframing our view to encompass a world that is alive also, effectively, puts humans back in our proper place in the scheme of things.
Sheldrake’s scientific and philosophical investigation is fuelled by a passionate concern for all of life, and his vision of life expands to the cosmos. If the earth is alive, if the universe is alive, if solar systems are alive, if galaxies are alive, if planets are alive, then causing harm to any of these systems really is a sin; one that we have committed all too willingly for far too long.
• The Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures) describe how the creator god Vishnu made the universe so that every element is interlinked. A disturbance in one part will upset the balance and impact all the other elements.
• Three important principles of Hindu environmentalism are yajna (sacrifice), dhana (giving) and tapas (penance).
• Yajna entails that you should sacrifice your needs for the sake of others, for nature, the poor or future generations.
• Dhana entails that whatever you consume you must give back.
• Tapas commends self-restraint in your lifestyle.
• Mother Earth is personified in the Vedas as the goddess Bhumi, or Prithvi.
• Hindu businessman Balbir Mathur, inspired by his faith, founded Trees for Life, a non-profit movement that plants fruit trees in developing countries, to provide sustainable and environmentally-friendly livelihoods.
• Allah has appointed humankind khalifah (steward) over the created world.
• This responsibility is called al-amanah (the trust) and Man will be held accountable to it at the Day of Judgment.
• The Qur’an warns against disturbing God’s natural balance: ‘Do no mischief on the earth after it hath been set in order’ (7:56).
• Shari’ah (Islamic law) designates haram zones, used to contain urban development in protection of natural resources, and hima, specific conservation areas.
• The Islamic foundation for ecology and environmental sciences publishes a newsletter called Eco Islam and organised an organic iftar (the evening meal during Ramadan) in 2006.
• In 2000, IFEES led an Islamic educational programme on the Muslim-majority island of Misali, in response to the destruction to the aquatic ecosystem by over-fishing and the use of dynamite in coral reefs. The environmental message based on the Qur’an initiated sustainable fishing practices.
• The Torah prohibits harming God’s earth: ‘Do not cut down trees even to prevent ambush, do not foul waters, or burn crops even to cause an enemy’s submission’ (Devarim 20:19)
• It teaches humility in the face of nature: ‘Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth and it will teach you; the fish of the sea, they will inform you’ (Job 12:7-9)
• The Talmudic law bal tashchit (do not destroy) was developed by Jewish scholars into a series of specific prohibitions against wasteful actions.
• The Noah Project (www. noahproject.org.uk) is a UK-based Jewish environmental organisation, engaged in hands-on conservation work, and promoting environmental responsibility by emphasising the environmental dimensions of Jewish holidays such as Tu B’Shevat (New Year of the Trees).
• Genesis gives a picture of God creating the heavens and earth – and when it was all finished, ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’ (1:31) Having made man, he ‘put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’ (2:15).
• Romans 8:19-22 has been interpreted as a message of redemption for the environment, calling on Christians to work towards the time when ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay’.
• At the UN Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the World Council of Churches formed a working group on climate change. Their manifesto expresses a concern for justice towards developing countries, who are disproportionately affected by climate change, to future generations and to the world.
• www.christian-ecology.org.uk represents Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. It includes links and a daily prayer guide with references both to the Bible and to scientific and news data. Operation Noah is the climate change campaign.
• Buddhist religious ecology is based on three principles: nature as teacher, as a spiritual force, and as a way of life.
• Buddhists believe that nature can teach us about the interdependence and impermanence of life, and that living near to and in tune with nature gives us spiritual strength.
• Buddha commended frugality, avoiding waste, and non-violence.
• Buddhists believe that man should be in harmonious interaction with nature, not a position of authority.
• Philosopher Dr Simon James, based at Durham University,has studied the Buddhist basis of environmentalism and virtue ethics. A spiritually enlightened individual shows compassion, equanimity and humility – qualities that are intrinsic to an environmentally friendly lifestyle.
• The Zen Environmental Studies Institute (www.mro.org/zesi) in New York runs programmes in nature study and environmental advocacy, informed by Zen Buddhist meditation.
• Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Baha'i faith and regarded as a messenger from God, stated ‘nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world’ (the Tablets of Baha’u’llah).
• Baha’is believe that the world reflects God’s qualities and attributes and therefore must be cherished.
• The Baha’i Office of the Environment states: ‘Baha’u’llah’s promise that civilisation will exist on this planet for a minimum of 5,000 centuries makes it unconscionable to ignore the long-term impact of decisions made today. The world community must, therefore, learn to make use of the earth’s natural resources… in a manner that ensures sustainability into the distant reaches of time.’
• The Barli Rural Development Institute in India was inspired by Baha’i social activism. It has trained hundreds of rural women in conservation strategies such as rainwater harvesting and solar cooking.
• www.onecountry.org is the newsletter of the Bahai international community.
• Rupert Sheldrake
• Forum on Religion and Ecology – the ecological dimension of various religions
• The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC)
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007
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