A Religious Dimension to Environmentalism? Nothing Ridiculous About It

     The piece below was written by my husband Andy Schmookler.  It has appeared in The Baltimore Sun and on Andy’s website www.NoneSoBlind.org. –April Moore

People often speak dismissively of the spiritual aspect of environmentalism. “Environmentalism is a religion,” they say, as if the ridiculousness of such an attitude were patently obvious. But they never look further to examine, let alone evaluate, what the environmental vision is and what is the moral/spiritual ethic behind this supposed religion.

A close and honest look would show there’s nothing ridiculous about it.

Environmentalism is about the relationship between humankind and the natural world—the natural world in which we are embedded and on which we depend for our very lives.

Environmentalism calls for that relationship to be one of care and harmony rather than reckless destruction.

Environmentalism sees in the living systems of the earth something worthy of respect and even reverence. Something sacred.

There’s nothing unusual about people having religious feelings about the natural order. Indeed, in the context of the many human cultures throughout the ages, what is strange is the failure to see anything sacred in nature.

As an ethic for honoring the sacred, environmentalism seems as legitimate as other religious ethics.

“Live in harmony with the earth,” as we are all too slowly beginning to learn, is ultimately as essential to Wholeness in the human system as “Love Thy Neighbor.” Indeed, it is a form of the same ethic.

“Give us this day our daily bread” is a request that will be granted only so long as we maintain our soils and waters and a stable climate with which to grow the staff of our lives.

Like the Biblical commandments, “Live in Harmony with Nature” entails a kind of obedience to an authority bigger, and more important, than our own desires.

With the environmental ethic, as with the Biblical commandments, there is also –in this obedience to commandment– an indissoluble element of self-interest: obey or else.

In the case of the Bible, one of the motivating factors behind obedience is to avoid God’s wrath. With environmentalism, the punishment for misbehavior is a form of “natural consequences.” It is simply a natural property of the system that if it goes down we go with it: a moral order not of wrath expressing itself from above but of karmic justice.

Destroy your home and you will be homeless.

But the environmental ethic –also like the Biblical teachings—is not just about self-denial or self-protection. It is also about love, and appreciation, and reverence. Only a person incapable of awe can go very far into knowledge of the mind-boggling complexities, the dynamic harmonies, of the living systems of the earth without being struck by their beauty and wholeness.

In both the environmental and Biblical ethics, some desires must be suppressed, some pleasures must be denied, because there are more important values at stake.

The spiritual dimensions of environmentalism are not necessarily alternatives to our civilization’s religious traditions, but can be a legitimate aspect of those traditional religions.

Many evangelical Christians recognize this: with the ethic of being Good Stewards of God’s creation, they honor the Creator of this marvelous natural order. (And Judaism, too, has its environmentally focused communities of belief, who see in the fostering of reverence for nature, and a harmonious relationship with it, a profound connection with traditional Jewish ethics.)

For those who see nature less in terms of the role of the Creator in fashioning the profound beauty of the natural world, but who focus instead on what science has shown about the development and workings of this amazing order, another mind-boggling and spiritually numinous vision can open up.

In contemplating the miracle of life’s rise on this planet over the past almost-four billion years, one can experience the sacred. Over this vast stretch of time, there has grown up on the surface of this planet an order of almost inconceivable intricacy– from the molecular level within the cell to the essential flows of matter and energy at the global scale. Overcoming planetary traumas that have occasionally assaulted the earth from outside the biosphere, the increasingly integrated systems of life have created a self-sustaining foundation supporting all earth’s creatures.

As with other religious visions, this understanding leads us to see ourselves in a larger context. This living order deserves our reverence for many reasons, not least because it is out of that order that we came into existence, and not least because we still depend on that order for every breath we take and every bite of food we eat.

That dependence engenders another reason –one besides awe and gratitude, one based in prudence—why we are called upon to give the living system of the earth deep respect. We are the creatures who NEED to be inspired by such reverence.

That’s because, of all the creatures this system has produced, we humans are the ones who have innovated and stumbled our way into a situation where we, as a species, now wield power sufficient to disrupt and destroy the biosphere’s life-sustaining wholeness.

Our beautiful earth now reels under our wanton exploitation: the species are going extinct, the reefs are dying, the fisheries disappearing, the climate undergoing changes too swift for life to adapt.

We need to transform ourselves from acting like weak creatures eking out survival any way we can, as we were when we emerged onto the scene, to conducting ourselves like the mighty creatures we have become and who –out of a sense of the sacred values at stake– align our powers with the needs and the structure of our planet’s natural order.

Thus it is at this point in human history –where our impact has become so great, but where we so clearly have developed collectively neither the wisdom nor the moral discipline to exert our powers in a harmonious and sustainable way—that the religious dimension of the environmental ethic becomes not only justified but essential.

Throughout history, it is when people contact that deep place where spiritual meanings come alive in their hearts that they find the motivational strength to overcome the destructive forces around them, and within themselves as well. It is from a rightly constituted sense of the sacred that people and cultures have been able to transform themselves.

In the face of this rapidly developing emergency, therefore, we need those passions of reverence and awe and love and loyalty, that the sacred inspires, to give us the strength of will and character to make a profound and life-serving change in ourselves and in how we act on our planet.

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