Religious Naturalism Resources - Response Pieces

Index of Original Excerpts | Responses | Key to Authors

Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., This Sacred Earth
(from here).

Introduction

This is a collection of colorful and thoughtful responses to literary excerpts bearing on religion, nature, and the environment. Unless otherwise mentioned, excerpts are compiled in Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, second edition (New York: Routledge, 2003), and page numbers refer to that book.

Index of Original Excerpts, to which Responses Appear Below

Paula Gunn Allen, "The Woman I Love is a Planet; the Planet I Love is a Tree"

Matsuo Basho, Haibun

Thomas Berry, “Into the Future”

Lea Bill (Rippling Water Woman), “Learning to Connect Spirit, Mind, Body, and Heart to the Environment: A Healer’s Perspective”

Black Elk, “Wiwanyag Wachipi: The Sun Dance”

Brooke Medicine Eagle, "The Rainbow Bridge"

Rachel Carson, "The Sense of Wonder"

John B. Cobb, Jr., “Protestant Theology and Deep Ecology”

Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk"

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

Ray Fadden, “The Creation”

Warwick Fox, "Transpersonal ecology and the varieties of identification"

Arthur Greene, "Vegetarianism: A Kashrut For Our Age"

Robert Pogue Harrison, “Forests: The Shadow of Civilization”

Pope John Paul II, “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility”

Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, “Early Buddhist Views on Nature”

Gary A. Kowalski, “Somebody, Not Something: Do Animals Have Souls?”

Lao Tzu, “The Tao Te Ching”

Joanna Macy, “Faith, Power, and Ecology”

Mary John Mananzan, "Globalization and the Perennial Question of Justice"

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The Fawn”

John Muir, "Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf"

National Council of Churches, “Worship Resources, Earth Day Sunday”

Shamara Shantu Riley, "Ecology is a Sistah’s Issue Too: The Politics of Emergent Afrocentric Ecowomanism"

Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Ecofeminism: Symbolic and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature”

Carl Sagan, "Contact," a novel adapted for the big screen

John Seed and Joanna Macy, “Gaia Meditations”

Paul Shepard, “The Others: How Animals Made us Human”

Dee Smith, “Dance to Heal the Earth”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

Tu Weiming “Beyond the Enlightenment Mentality”

Seth Zuckerman, "Redwood Rabbis"

Responses, arranged by author of original excerpt

Paula Gunn Allen
(from here)

Paula Gunn Allen, "The Woman I Love is a Planet; the Planet I Love is a Tree"

Response by IC:

Allen navigates a sense of embodied being that embraces the entirety of our humanness, from the most base to the most divine. Not quite satisfied, she pushes this embodiment even further, unfurling a comprehensive genealogy that leaves no stone unturned as it sweeps across the cosmos to delineate our extended family. Far from naively idyllic, Allen admits to the existence of much tension, discomfort, maladaptation, and evil; for her, life is full of messiness and fragility. But these elements are neutralized, brought into the fold of acceptance by an encompassing ethos that encourages us to accept without prejudice all aspects of reality. Stories full of strife and conflict, negatively construed, are positively recast to signify the advent of great change and transformative renewal. Thus, the ecological crisis of earth bespeaks its glorious transition into a bright, new age of cosmic wisdom and its entrance into the next, more sublime stage of evolutionary development. Closer to home though in much the same vein, maladies of the flesh such as exhaustion, pain, or illness remind us to honor our bodies as the venerable extensions of celestial activity that they are; we must respect ourselves not only for our infinite potentiality but also for our corporeal limitation.

There can be no doubt that this essay inspires. With Allen at the helm (apparently, she brings up a lot of seafaring issues for me), our entire universe pulses with a heavenly glow of vitality. I find myself utterly lost, however, right around the point where the ecological crisis suddenly becomes a manifestation of earth’s transformation into some higher vibrational frequency, some new level of spiritual existence. That is, “we do not recognize that the reason for her state is that she is entering upon a great initiation—she is becoming someone else…She is giving birth to her new consciousness of herself and her relationship to other vast intelligences, other holy beings in her universe.” At worst, such sentiments seem dangerously irresponsible, trading the viability of our planet’s health on underdetermined assurances about the future and potentially leading others to apathy in the face of foretold destiny. One may interpret her to mean that change is everywhere, always, and fundamental to the very fabric of reality; accordingly, each moment in time is worthy of divine ascriptions and of being cast in such celebratory language. But try as I might to glean this message, Allen offers absolutely no evidence to justify my attempt. Rather, she truly does appear to be speaking of some actual event, specific to this particular era and this particular planet. If this be the case, unfortunately, I cannot honestly claim to understand why she believes earth is standing on the brink of transition into a higher spiritual plane (in fact, I’m not even really sure that I can make sense of what that would mean).

Matsuo Basho
from here

Matsuo Basho, "Haibun"

Response by KSM:

These three Japanese poems describe beautiful natural scenes in Japan: Mt. Fuji, Matsushima, and the tower of Mino. All Haibun are imagistic. The first poem, “On Mt. Fuji,” describes Mt. Fuji’s appearance as magnificent and majestic. The second poem, “Matsushima,” pictures splendidly shaped islands. The third, “An Account of Eighteen View Tower,” Describes a beautiful tower view.

Haibun is a traditional Japanese poem whose most important characteristic is implication. This is because Haibun consists of 3-4 lines and 17 syllables, forcing poets to restrict the number of words. This formal limitation requires the reader to imagine hidden meanings and connotations, yielding multiple interpretations. Many poems from East Asian cultures describe nature. Poets use few words in such poems because nature can’t be confined to a poem and brevity sets nature free in the empty spaces. This approach is superior to describing nature thoroughly. I think that many paintings in the East Asian cultures emphasize an empty space (Yeo-Back in Korean). Such paintings’ subjects often do not fill the whole canvas (Han-Ji). The point is that human being is not a subject of the world but a being co-existing with nature. In these respects, poetic and artistic expressions of nature in East Asian cultures are often highly ecologically attuned.

Thomas Berry
(from here)

Thomas Berry, “Into the Future”

Response by DR:

In these five pages, Thomas Berry summarizes his urgent prophetic message.  With pathological arrogance and autistic unawareness, modern human beings have engaged in a near systematic destruction of our life-giving planet.  Obsessed with our technological power and deceived by anthropocentric religions, we have hewn away at the ecological roots that sustain us.  The only solution to this problem is a radical transformation of perspective, marking the transition from the Cenozoic Age of Mammals to the Ecozoic Age of Human Ecological Awareness.  Absolutely essential to this transition is the elevation of the story of the universe to the level of sacred narrative, which will be rehearsed and ritually celebrated by all peoples.  Once human beings recognize themselves as profoundly dependent upon their fertile planet, they can begin to celebrate “the larger liturgy of the universe” (495) rather than destructive human-centered liturgies.

First of all, let me say that I am overall very sympathetic to Berry’s vision.  I think we desperately need to counter anthropocentric views of reality with more ecologically and geologically realistic perspectives of our cosmic place.  I also think that the scientific narrative of the universe’s evolution into living organisms and eventually human beings is at least as inspiring as religious mythologies, and I long to celebrate that story in a ritual context.  Nevertheless, Berry’s extreme rhetoric isolates those he most needs to convince.  Unlike Berry, I do not find it difficult to understand why human beings sought power over an often hostile natural world.  Nor do I blame human beings for not foreseeing the ecological consequences of industrialization.  In deep ignorance we have constructed civilizations to temporarily withstand the pounding waves of chaos, waves that will in time engulf our species like every other.  Fifty years ago, it was simply inconceivable that we were exhausting Earth’s seemingly unlimited resources.  Now we know and can act accordingly.  Whether or not humans successfully navigate this perilous moment, I do not think a divinely inspired guilt-trip is necessary or helpful.

Lea Bill
(Rippling Water Woman)

Lea Bill (Rippling Water Woman), “Learning to Connect Spirit, Mind, Body, and Heart to the Environment: A Healer’s Perspective”

Response by SR:

Lea Bill-Rippling Water Woman articulates two specific lessons she had to learn in order to become an efficacious Cree healer. The first lesson was how to situate herself within the context of her environment. Understanding herself as a spiritual essence, and then putting that essence in open communication with the environment through prayers to the Sacred Father and Mother “opened a world of understanding and knowledge that cannot be received through books or lectures.” Without this depth of familiarity and understanding, she would not be able to discern and communicate with the world around her. Secondly, Bill-Rippling Water Woman acquired a sense for the spiritual essence inherent to all living matter. She uses the example of water: water has unique “clearing” and “resurrecting” powers that she utilizes in healing ceremonies. Bill-Rippling Water Woman closes her essay by explicating the power these lessons bring to Cree healing: nature and humanity each hang in delicate balance with their own maintenance systems. Imbalances in one can be redressed by the attentive presence and corrective relationship of the other: “humanity and the environment,” she writes, “are stewards of each other.”

Some might read Lea Bill-Rippling Water Woman’s practice as a Creed healer as a quack tradition that misses the point of modern medicine entirely, radically endangering lives. On at least some level, I agree. On the other hand, however, I find that Cree healing has significant practical value. As modern medicine doggedly refuses to view the human body as anything other than a machine that inevitably rusts out old parts and requires fixing—or, failing that, mere symptom-management--it misses two of the most important aspects of healing. Cree healing appears to hit these missing pieces on the head: peace and belief. Psychological literature has shown time and time again that positive mental states are conducive to healing whereas negative mental states are actively antagonistic. Being in nature has immense soothing powers for many people, especially those who seek out practitioners such as Bill-Rippling Water Woman. Score one for the Cree. Medical professionals might also benefit from the degree of coaching and attention given to clients in the Cree model, since it creates a profound feeling of love and care in the patient. Score two. And finally, belief plays a powerful role: placebos appear to have somewhat magical powers to the Western eye, healing people without pharmaceuticals in study after study. This explains why Voo Doo appears to work, and why Cree healing does also. Score three. The mind is a powerful determinant of healing, and it’s my guess that Bill-Rippling Water Woman has fairly high success rates with her clients, probably without modern medicine’s debilitating monetary cost or deadly side effects.

Black Elk
(from here)

Black Elk, “Wiwanyag Wachipi: The Sun Dance”

Response by AT:

In the selection, “Wiwanyag Wachipi: The Sun Dance,” the narrator, Black Elk, tells the story of how his people came to practice the Sun Dance, which is a holy rite that is held each year during the month of June or July. The story begins with a meeting of the elders and a vision bestowed upon the tribe’s head priest, Kablaya, by the divine, Wakan-Tanka. The vision was concerning one of the seven new ways to pray. Black Elk goes into great detail about the four days of preparation for the Sun Dance. There are many sacred themes throughout his description of the preparation, including references to the number four, the interconnection of all creation, the symbolic importance of circles, chanting, dancing, offering of pipes, and wildlife. Kablaya makes several statements about the reality of Wakan-Tanka and nature’s role in the ritual, the most important being “for all are really one.” Nature takes on a large role during the preparation and the actual ritual. There are several steps to include blessing for the winged people, the four-legged people, and the buffalo people. Symbols of death and rebirth, such as the waxing and waning moon are also important. The passage ends with the affirmation that everything comes and returns to Wakan-Tanka.

This section was not only beautifully written, but intellectually intriguing. I found myself getting lost in the detail of the preparation for this ritual. On the surface, it seems to be a very simple passage about the lore behind the Sun Dance ritual. But very early on the reader is overwhelmed with symbolic imagery and the sheer number of ritual steps. It seems like every aspect of the ritual, from the way the people dressed, to what they sang, to how the space was constructed and set up was important to the ritual. Reflecting on more mainstream religious rituals, the Sun Dance seemed more intentional, especially in its connection to nature, than any religious ritual I have been a part of. Thinking back on the most important ritual in my life so far, my wedding, there were choices similar to that of the Sun Dance about dress, flowers, colors, songs, food, place, space, and who was involved, but none of these choices were as deeply rooted in the spirituality and symbolism of the natural world as the Sun Dance’s practices. Most of the practices surrounding the rituals in which I have participated are important for demonstrating belonging in a religious community, but they do not hold much meaning for our relation to nature or the wider world. I suppose this hints at our religious practices and beliefs being less closely entwined with the natural world. I chose colors because I liked them, not because it represented the waxing and waning moon, which reminds us all we will eventually pass away from this earth. That was not one of the images I had hoped to convey in my wedding. Perhaps we should have intentionally thrown bird seed upon our exit from the church, so the winged people could have joined us in our celebration.

Brooke Medicine Eagle
(from here)

Brooke Medicine Eagle, "The Rainbow Bridge"

Response by IC:

After recounting her experience of a vision quest, Medicine Eagle relates its central message concerning the earth’s plight and what remedial measures are necessary to restore its order. Restoration depends upon a return to the primordial balance that has been upset by a modern overemphasis of the masculine energy. For her, this means that the “thrusting, aggressive, analytical, intellectual, building, making-it-happen” side of humanity is no longer sufficiently offset by its other nature: “receptive, allowing, surrendering.” Equating each side to a culture—European and Indian, respectively—Medicine Eagle assures us that each is equally vital but both must come together in formulating a new, balanced orientation. In spite of her reflection upon history and the evidence for our stubborn need to tear all harmonies apart, she maintains that a redressing of energetic equality offers the only viable path towards healing the planet. Before humanity can ever be ready to approach this task, however, we must again become surrendering and receptive enough to be truly present in the experience of our earthly existence.

I admit to not even being halfway through the phrase “when the white man came” before I was already well into packing the bags for my guilt trip. But refreshingly, Medicine Eagle unleashed neither torrent of castigation nor scathing onslaught; rather, that alarming phrase came and went quietly, leaving little more than a ripple to disturb the remaining narrative’s flow. All of the panicked running about, the high-pitched screaming, the disheveling of an entire wardrobe shoved violently into an undersized suitcase…for nothing—no matter, I probably would have forgotten my toothbrush, anyway. In perfect accord with the overarching message being delivered, Medicine Eagle actually travels in the diametrically opposite direction from that expected by devoting the remainder of her essay to exhortations for balance and acceptance. Having said that, however, the gender and cultural profiling that occupies much of this excerpt paints quite a stark contrast and made me a little uncomfortable. Women are passive, receptive, and care for little sparrows found injured on the sidewalk; men are tumultuous, aggressive, and they build heavy things. The white man is intellectual, analytic, and he trips over his own feet; the Indian is full of feeling, is intimate with the earth, and his heart beats to the rhythm of a buffalo. Also, I don’t think it’s very fair that “Indian” is the only denomination apparently worthy of capitalization.

Rachel Carson
(from here)

Rachel Carson, "The Sense of Wonder"

Response by KC:

In this selection, Carson recalls evenings spent with her nephew encountering the majesty of the ocean both in a storm and at peace. She focuses specifically on the guileless wonder of a child at the beauties of nature, and while she labels her own fascination with the natural world as “philosophical,” she differentiates her experience of nature, moving though it may be, from her nephews childish excitement about the nakedness of the natural world as it is, without any philosophic overtones superimposed upon its phenomena. To this end, she laments that most children outgrow their sense of wonder—their innate instinct toward what is profound and beautiful in the world—by the time they reach adulthood. She holds hope, however, for the capacity of grown adults who “dwell...among the beauties and mysteries of the earth” to cultivate a sense of inner peace and contentment by becoming attuned to the natural world. Carson points to the healing power of nature’s cyclical harmonies—day from night, spring from winter—as meaningful and fortifying when applied to human experience, promising continuation, complementarity, and newness even within the patterns’ repetitions.

As a tea connoisseur, I love watching tea brew. I love the way that the oils infuse from the tea leaves into the hot water, the colors spiraling and mingling, the molecules diffusing. While I’ve always found the molecular activity of chemical solutions fascinating, there’s something beautiful, something sentimental about watching the laws of nature simply functioning, as they do, to make my morning (or my midday, or my afternoon, or my evening, or my late night) cup of tea. The only other tea-lover in my family is my cousin, who is eleven years younger than me. While he’s now a teenager and understands the mechanics of brewing a tea bag fairly well, I remember sitting with him at the table one Christmas Eve watching my cup of Earl Grey turn from clear to brown, tendril by tendril. Not older than four, he told me that the magic of tea was how it warmed everything up and made it come together. The molecules didn’t matter, nor did the temperature, the magic, the “hows” or the “whys.” For both the wonder-struck child and the (comparatively) world-weary adolescent, the synthesis was what mattered, the give and take between concentrated solutions was a relational interplay at which to marvel. This, in my estimation, is Carson’s cultivation of peace, the reclaiming of wonder by searching for its source: the “what,” the incredible experience of simplicity as nature does what it does, regardless of the mechanics underlying the display.

John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., “Protestant Theology and Deep Ecology”

Response by DR:

Cobb’s essay begins with a long confession. He describes how he was educated into a post-Kantian Protestant theology that focused entirely on the human soul and God to the exclusion of any concern for the natural world. He describes how Protestants have begun reinterpreting their scriptures and revising their theologies so as to include centrally the ecology upon which human life depends. The majority of the essay involves a contrast between Cobb’s process-based Protestantism and the perspectives of deep ecologists. Specifically, the two environmentally concerned perspectives differ on five points: (1) While deep ecologists often ignore issues of human suffering and injustice, Protestants continue to think that love and concern for the human neighbor comes before concern for the environment, though the two concerns are often deeply interconnected; (2) In their reaction against anthropocentrism deep ecologists often deny any unique role for human beings, while Protestants continue to affirm that humans play a special role within creation and that genuine responsibility requires acknowledging the extent of human power to determine the Earth’s future; (3) Deep ecologists speak of nature as sacred, but Protestants, wary of idolatry, reserve that designation for God alone; (4) While deep ecologists refuse to acknowledge any gradation of value among living organisms, process Protestants attempt to discern a value hierarchy based upon criteria like the “richness of experience” of an organism and the ecological role it plays in an ecology; (5) Lastly, both deep ecologists and environmentally concerned Christians typically focus on the health of the global environment to the neglect of concerns about injustice and suffering of individual animals, but Cobb believes humane treatment of animals is important in addition to more encompassing ecological concerns.

There is a huge gap between utterly anthropocentric, salvation-obsessed Christian theology that Cobb repents of in the introduction of this essay and the Creation-centered, ecologically concerned theology he advocates in the article’s main body. For that development, he and other like-minded Protestant theologians ought to be commended. Nevertheless, the size of this gap opens other questions about the flexibility of religious traditions and the actual significance of individual theologians’ constructions. Even within Cobb’s progressive theology there are hints of a deeper conflict between ecological concerns and the orientation of Christian thought. Early in the essay Cobb recognizes that the otherworldly orientation of Christianity in the past contained ominous ecological implications. Nevertheless, he objects to deep ecologists’ description of nature as sacred because ultimate value belongs to God alone. Indeed, the suffering of animals and the destruction of ecosystems is a problem, to a large degree, because it causes God to suffer. Here Cobb exemplifies the root logic of Christian thought that so worries deep ecologists: value is not finally rooted here, but in the divine other. To the extent that traditional Christian soteriology and eschatology is affirmed in Cobb’s scheme, his system, though reconfigured, retains the same otherworldly orientation that makes this world’s value derivative from the encompassing drama of human redemption.

Annie Dillard
from here

Annie Dillard, "Teaching a Stone to Talk"

Response by KC:

For all her rich prose and deft storytelling, Dillard’s “Teaching A Stone To Talk” is ultimately an ode to silence. She crafts a narrative of silence as the concurrent hallmark of human life and the natural world in both its presence and its absence, stating that much of humanity’s interaction with nature is an ongoing plea for the return of a sense of divinity that was once asked to leave—a God whose voice was scorned in the Hebrew Bible for being too terrifying, too loud. The modern world seems bereft of holiness, of sacramentality, and in teaching chimpanzees to sign, listening for words in the wind, and waiting on a stone to talk, we are seeking out some remnant of sacrality, some correspondence and significance in relationship with something divine, or else, something that is fundamentally unlike ourselves. In light of this, Dillard asserts that the purpose of human life is not so much to coax communication, but to bear witness in relationship to a silence that is not empty and does not require filling with human words. Dillard praises silence as “all there is”: the core of being, the self and the other, beginning and end. Thus, to teach a stone to talk is not an exercise in making it use human language with a tongue and a mouth, but instead a way of bearing witness to the silent majesty of all that speaks without words.

I spent most of my formative years avoiding silence. I don’t think it was intentional, but I did everything alongside some kind of noise. I didn’t particularly enjoy being around large groups of people, but my headphones were a permanent installation, and I played music almost constantly. It wasn’t until I encountered a Quaker professor in my undergraduate program that I learned to not only sit with, but to embrace and revel in the fullness of silence, the generative creativity of quiet. Recently, I’ve noticed specifically the role of silence in nature as serving a two-fold function in my life: something majestic to bear witness to, as Dillard suggests, but also a spur, a catalyst for reflection and recollection, for wonderment and renewal. When I look out at the lake behind my childhood home, when I watch the sunset, when I see the blue heron come to stalk the pines each year, I hear nothing, no words, but there is a fullness of memory. The silence holds echoes from the feeding of fish and the wrinkles in my grandfather’s hand where he held my own. It holds the imprints of chasing toads through the mud and jumping away from bullfrogs, screaming at the tabby that tried to swim, the texture of my dog’s fur at the neck. There are layers of myself in the silence, but perhaps more significantly, there is the majesty of this nature, this setting—this place where things happened, have always happened and will happen again, never quite the same, not always as they are, ever-changing—saying nothing, but pregnant with meaning, and that, I think, is exactly what Dillard claims. The infinite silence is truly “all there is.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson
from here

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

Response by TD:

Emerson talks here about the feeling of kinship between man and nature.  For him, this experience arises in times of deep solitude, where one is alone in the sense of separation from other humans and their concerns, yet still kept company by a sense of “the Universal Being.”  The sensation is not just one of delight, but can also come in the form of melancholy, sorrow, anger, or anything else.  “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit,” seeming to sympathize with the whole gamut of human emotions. To be sure, not everyone connects with nature in this way; the whole experience is part of a two-way process that one must participate in actively, and nature does not simply bestow it for free. But the right kind of openness can reveal a whole web of meaningful relationships, a vast natural family in which we belong as brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters of the wilderness. Thanks to this connection, Emerson is able to understand not just how dependent we humans are on the natural world, but how nature reflects our own most beautiful aspects back at us.

I especially like that this short piece is not just another exaltation of the beauty of natural scenery.  It is an expression of gratitude and recognition of nature’s humanity, which is a very strange thing. It seems anthropocentric to claim that nature is human, or displays human characteristics, but I think that Emerson is actually recognizing the natural world, in us, and expressing it in terms of “us” in the natural world. So it’s not just that we feel melancholy and project that feeling onto the world. Instead, the world encompasses melancholy (along with everything else that contributes to the human experience), and that aspect rises to the fore when we become receptive to it. Emerson hints at the self-transformative potential of this receptivity: “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes.” Perhaps by learning to see ourselves as situated within the natural world, which is itself sort of human, we can learn to take it as a model of the humanity that we wish to embody in ourselves.

Ray Fadden
from here

Ray Fadden, “The Creation”

Response by KSM:

Fanetorens (Ray Fadden), who wrote this article, talks about a Creation myth related to a tribe named Akwesansne. According to the myth, the tribe members were the only living creatures in the beginning—water animals because the earth was covered by water and darkness. Then Rawennio, the Great Ruler in the Land of Happy Spirits, made a hole by pulling a giant apple tree that had been sunk deep into the ground. He commanded his daughter to go to the Lower World through this hole. When she descended to the world of darkness, the water animals helped her land on a dry place. Although at first the water creatures were afraid of her, they overcame their fear and helped her. Finally, she reached the ground and gave birth to twins: one the Good Spirit and the other the Evil Spirit. The Good Spirit was devoted to creating many things including human beings but the Evil Spirit disturbed the works of his brother. Later, the two Spirits fought for many days and the Good Spirit won. Although the Good Spirit banished his wicked brother to a dark cave, the Evil Spirit was able to control his wicked servants, allowing them to take the shape of any creature that the Evil Spirit desired them to take. The moral of the story is there is no perfect person and every individual has both good heart and bad heart.

“For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pains in their death, and their body is fat” (Psalm 73:3-4, NASB. Why does evil exist in the world? And how can we understand God as good given the evil around us? I think this story offers a fresh approach to the problem of theodicy (i.e. the challenge of justifying God’s goodness in light of the reality of evil). The Sky Woman gave birth to the Good Spirit and the Evil Spirit. I think that this birthing was an accident with no relevance to understanding the Good and the Evil. The gods created the world in their own way and the Good things and the Evil things are simply mixed up. However, according to the Bible, God created all good things including a man. A Christian theodicy is confined to the Good creation. Therefore, Christian theology can’t explain why the evil exists. Nor can Christian theology clearly explain the activity of Evil in the world. I think that this myth is based on a possibility that Christian tradition and Western philosophy tried to exclude. For example, the Great Spirit sent his daughter without any reasons in this myth and the birth of twins also had no cause. These possibilities suggest that the world was created by not a purpose but by accident. Although the Good Spirit won the fight, the myth illustrates that we still live in a world mixed up with the Good and the Evil, and that there may be no further explanation.

Warwick Fox
(from here).

Warwick Fox, "Transpersonal ecology and the varieties of identification"

Response by IC:

In this excerpt, Fox expounds a three-pronged orientation toward reality that underscores the fundamental relationality of existence. That is, an individual achieves the fullest appreciation for self when the self-concept is allowed to expand until it encompasses three forms of identification with the surrounding world: the personal, the ontological, and the cosmological. Personal identification is based upon those experiences of commonality that we share with entities directly encountered in our surroundings, entities that may include anything from friends, family, even enemies, to a moss-covered rock or the steady succession of waves crashing upon a seashore. Swelling this initial sense of self, ontological identification acknowledges the intrinsic value to be discovered in all extant phenomena simply by virtue of the fact that such things exist at all; that something, anything, is encountered upon our entry into the world stands in wonderfully stark contrast to an implicit recognition of the possibility for nothingness to have dominated in its stead. Equally comprehensive, cosmological identification expresses appreciation for a foundational unity that underlies the breathtakingly complex diversity observed throughout our universe. From beginning to end, Fox is careful to maintain that no single path is more or less appropriate for any one or another level of identification. Whether we journey toward such states of intimacy by way of art, religion, or science, the commonality of Fox’s intrinsically relational perspective inevitably leads to a morality of compassion and equality for all fellow travelers, living or otherwise.

My reading of this text actually prompted a rather unexpected reaction; indeed, what came swimming up from the mind’s inky black was nothing less than an onion-experience. But this onion-experience was unlike most others commonly experienced, wherein the imagery depicts a peeling back of superficial layers to reveal inner essence. Rather to my horror, where once I might have found such a delectable delight, I now confronted a monstrosity, some form of onion-as-black-hole-regurgitation that fell into itself even as it seemed to distend everywhere. Where once the onion took layers from its exterior to attain its interior, this veggie now extracted layers from within to pile them upon its surface. Though certainly not exhaustive of the meaning embodied by this imagery, the association undoubtedly has much to do with a correlation in this text between the depth to which one looks into the nature of reality (sometimes achieved through careful introspection, this peering deeper into reality can be equated with peering deeper into oneself) and the extent to which the boundaries delimiting one’s being expand. On a more serious note, I did find myself slightly deflated by the asymmetry of his argument in the end. Having established a rather charming interplay between the personal and cosmological identities, configuring their respective orientations to stand in reciprocal relationship with each other, I thought he might extend this geometrical association to include the one remaining identity, as well. Nay, I found myself wondering whatever happened to ontological identification in the end. It almost felt like an aside, a punctuation mark amidst the far more substantial attention given the others.

Arthur Greene
(from here).

Arthur Greene, "Vegetarianism: A Kashrut For Our Age"

Response by KC:

According to Green, vegetarianism in the modern age is the natural culmination of the traditional Jewish disinclination toward the consumption of meat. Anchoring the vegetarian roots of the Jewish faith in the plant-based diet of Eden, Green traces the evolution of Jewish dietary practices (kashrut) from forbidding the consumption of the flesh of still-living animals, to permitting the “secular” slaughter of animals for sacrifices when it became impractical to require the offering of sacrifices in Jerusalem alone. While this loosening of traditional taboos allowed for the proliferation of animal slaughter and consumption, Green emphasizes the practices of salting meat to remove the blood—a sign of selfhood—as well as the forbidding of any mixing of meat (associated with death) and milk (associated with life) as indicative of the Jewish community’s conviction that kashrut is indeed a mitzvah, and is thus in accordance with the “will of God.” Thus, Green argues that the Jewish community—having abhorred violence historically and having suffered mass slaughter directly within the last century—should naturally embrace an evolved, entirely vegetarian kashrut that “embraces the presence of God in all things” and eliminates the unnecessary destruction of life in all forms.

While I can appreciate the argument against eating meat that Green puts forth in this selection, it is important to note the limited scope of Green’s conceptualization of a morally-charged vegetarianism, given his (admittedly necessary) focus on the specific context of the Jewish community. Personally, I’ve always had a difficult time embracing vegetarianism for moral reasons without significant reservations, and part of my reticence undoubtedly stems from my lack of Green’s religiously-charged conviction against the eating of animal flesh. Green’s justifications for the Jewish community to avoid eating meat are reasonable given the history, experience, and faith claims of the Jewish tradition. However, both within and outside of Judaism, the idea that slaughtering animals can only ever be a heinous cruelty that is morally abhorrent seems too broad a claim to make. I grew up in a rural area, on a farm where slaughtering our livestock was a common part of life; when I lamented the loss of the pigs and cows to the butcher, my grandmother stated quite simply that “if you take care of the animals, they’ll take care of you.” It has thus been my experience that if an animal’s life is taken for the sake of sustenance, and if it is raised and slaughtered mindfully, respectfully, and humanely, it can in many instances be just as, if not more morally commendable to eat meat than it is to procure vegetarian options that may be economically prohibitive for certain demographics, or nutritionally insufficient for individuals with certain dietary needs. Green focuses on the cruel result of the action of animal slaughter, but the breadth of his argument is stunted in that the spirit and context of animal slaughter, particularly in the modern age, is given little consideration. For me, the intention with which an act, violent or not, is undertaken should be central to the evaluation of its morality; the way in which an act complements or disturbs the natural intersubjectivity of being is, in my estimation, a much clearer indication of whether it is in accordance with the “will” of some universal profundity than dichotomous laws of “yes” or “no,” “do” and “don’t.”

Robert Pogue Harrison
(from here).

Robert Pogue Harrison, “Forests: The Shadow of Civilization”

Response by DR:

In this short excerpt, Harrison interprets the Epic of Gilgamesh in terms of how nature is presented in the tale. To begin with, nature is the background against which civilization is defined. Gilgamesh is the “builder of the walls of Uruk”—walls that protect against the forces of nature even as they open a space for culture to develop abstracted from its natural roots. Secondly, nature is the ultimate source of human mortality, the central problem of the epic. Gilgamesh gives voice to the human predicament as only an ancient myth, steeped in ages of reflection and retelling, can:

In my city man dies, oppressed is the heart,
Man perishes, heavy is the heart,
I peered over the wall,
Saw the dead bodies . . . floating on the river;
As for me, I too will be served thus; verily ’tis so.

In Harrison’s words, Gilgamesh “has peered over the wall of history and seen the remorseless transcendence of nature” (70). Gilgamesh’s attempt to “set up his name” in civilization’s memory is a vain grasping for immortality; the incessant churning of time will destroy all names and memories even as it grinds into sand our grandest monuments. According to Harrison, a deep awareness of his mortal fate leads Gilgamesh to exact vengeance upon nature. Decapitating the forest demon Huwawa is a symbolic expression for aggressively logging the forest, the means by which Gilgamesh attempts to achieve his fame. Though he cannot prevent his own corpse from floating down the river, he can force a few trees to share his fate while he lives.

At least for me, the conclusion of Harrison’s essay is unhelpfully sentimental, speaking of trees as cadavers and logging as an expression of “childish furor” (72). Nevertheless, I resonated deeply with other aspects of the essay. To the extent that civilization understands itself as against or separate from nature, it is profoundly distorted and it distorts the hearts of those it rears from birth. I am no idealistic enemy of civilization, but I am also wary of a demonic tendency to deify human achievement. From the Tower of Babel to the technological soteriology of trans-humanists, we are prone to admire our limited power and wisdom far too highly. To my eyes, the logical perfection and nano-precision of a modern computer appears dull next to the complex wholeness and beauty of single living leaf. All too often we are awed by human creations but ignore the divine glory of Creation around us. I suspect that much modern spiritual alienation derives from the fact that our imaginations are shaped more by the work of our own hands than by the depths of nature that gave us birth. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I fear the waning vitality of any civilization so impressed with its electric lights that it fails to notice or mourn the stars darkening above.

Response by AT:

In the short segment, “Forest: The Shadow of Civilization,” Robert Pogue Harrison uses the legendary tale of the real Sumerian king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, to look at the theme of environmental violence within human history. He speaks from the perspective of Gilgamesh, who is known as the “builder of the walls of Uruk,” and it is from behind these walls, witnessing a traditional funeral procession of dead bodies in the river, that he is first disturbed by the reality of human finitude (Gottleib 2004, 69). Gilgamesh decides that he must live on in historical memory by making a forest journey, which entails the deforestations of the cedar forests and the killing of the forest demon, Huwaya. Harrison describes this as an uncovering of the earth, in response to Gilgamesh’s lament that even the largest man cannot cover the earth. Gilgamesh plans to send the tress to the city down the river, reenacting the funeral procession he witnessed earlier. Harrison argues that this reenactment of violence against nature in response to the finitude of human life continues to play out in human history. Ultimately, Gilgamesh’s journey is in vain, because after he slays the demon, the gods punish him. Gilgamesh is only seen as truly wise once he comes to the conclusion that death is inescapable.

The theme of death’s inevitability plays an important role in Gottlieb’s collection of pieces; I found it surfacing again and again as a thematic device, but also as an answer to humanity’s ecological problems. In the story of Gilgamesh, it is obvious that the desire and search for eternal life, here symbolized through the historical memory, only leads to destruction of both the self and the environment. There are several things to take away from this. Not only is the destruction of the environment entangled in the destruction of humanity, but both are sparked by humanity’s consciously selfish desire to live eternally. I am left unsettled by this thought. I begin to think of all the unanticipated environmental side effects of states of consciousness prevalent within our societies and wonder how they might be tied with our culture's need to be immortalized. Our culture’s obsession with the afterlife certainly helps justify neglect of the environment and our own bodies. The mindset becomes “if everything in this life is vanishing, why care for it?” Many of the authors in this collection point to similar issues and argue that a worldview change may be necessary to keep humanity from destroying itself, as Gilgamesh did, through the destruction of the environment.

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II, “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility”

Response by DR:

In this 1990 address, the late pope articulates the Catholic Church’s perspective on the worsening environmental crisis. After introducing the problem, the pope insists that a Christian response is based on divine revelation. He then outlines the Christian redemptive story moving from creation to the fall and from redemption in Christ to the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Within this framework, the environmental crisis appears as one example of a larger moral and spiritual crisis: “If man is not at peace with God, then earth itself cannot be at peace” (203). Concerning the environmental crisis, this moral rupture is manifested through irresponsible use of powerful technologies, selfish and wasteful use of natural resources, and, most ominously, a willingness to employ genetic technologies. The solution to these problems requires inculcating a deeper respect for life and developing stronger international regulatory bodies to curb human selfishness. The ecological crisis is complicated by other pervasive social and economic factors like the increasing industrialization of the second world, the pervasive poverty that makes ecological responsibility unrealistic for the poor, and the wasteful consumerism of first world nations. All of these problems require a deeper solidarity across peoples and nations. The pope concludes by lifting up Saint Francis as a model that will inspire all people, including especially Christians, to fulfill their responsibility to care for the environment.

I had mixed feelings reading this papal address. On one hand, I’m very glad that the pope emphasized so clearly the importance of the environmental crisis and the need for immediate and internationally coordinated action. I also heartily support his condemnation of the greed, wastefulness, and technological irresponsibility that continues to deepen our ecological problems. On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that the very theological framework the pope used to interpret the ecological crisis is actually part of the problem. In this address, the ecological crisis is merely one more example of how fallen human beings disobey the will of their Creator. We have a duty before God to care for the Earth, but the ultimate significance of our duty is that it provides one more opportunity to obey or disobey God and thus to settle our eternal destiny in heaven or hell. In this utterly anthropocentric soteriology, plants, animals, and the earth are merely temporary props whose significance is restricted to their instrumental role in the larger drama of human redemption. What could make this more explicit than the pope’s affirmation of the eventual creation of a new heaven and a new earth? By interpreting the ecological crisis purely in moral terms, the pope obscures and distorts one of the most important aspects of our situation. Surely condemnable greed and selfishness are also at work, but to a very large degree the impact of human beings upon the environment has occurred unknowingly as human beings innocently fulfilled their most basic biological drives. We are simply too successful as a species and we have begun to overrun the earth like a thriving virus that kills its host organism. This rather obvious aspect of the ecological crisis simply cannot show up in the pope’s natural law framework. Thus, the Catholic Church urges its members to address the ecological crisis even as it condemns birth control as a refusal to be open to God’s will. So much goodwill and faith being squandered through ignorance strikes me as unspeakably tragic, a poignant image of the human condition.

Response by SRo:

The Pope begins his message with a reference to the creation stories found in Genesis 1-3: “And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). He then points out that when Adam and Eve went against the Creator’s plan, it not only alienated humanity but since humanity is connected to creation it also altered and provoked repercussions for the entire created order. He points out that the ecological crisis is a moral problem. The choices humans make in one area profoundly affect other areas because of human-world interconnectedness; thus the depletion of resources in one area can wipe out entire ecosystems that sustain life in another area of creation. Humanity needs to be cognizant of this interconnection with nature, and with the various systems of the world. The Pope suggests a respect for life that benefits all through our common heritage; the earth is for all people. He calls for action on an international level to address the crisis and ensure that all have a safe environment. Finally, he suggests using education to enliven ecological responsibility, which begins in the family and spreads out into larger systems (i.e., neighborhood, town, state, nationally, and globally).

I agree with the interconnectedness of human beings with one another and with the natural world. The choices we make can and do have profound consequences that affect large numbers of people. What we dispose of in the oceans or release into the air can affect large ecosystems that support or diminish life on a grand scale. Certainly the greenhouse gases have altered weather patterns, melting glaciers and changing ecosystems. How we dispose of toxic waste is another issue, especially when we ship it to third-world countries or bury it among populations with few economic resources. Humanity has altered and continues to endanger our natural surroundings. The scriptural phrase to love your neighbor seems like an echo of words to which we don’t actually adhere. When we disregard one life to preserve another, that is indeed a moral issue.

Chatsumarn Kabilsingh
(from here)

Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, “Early Buddhist Views on Nature”

Response by AT:

In the selection “Early Buddhist Views on Nature,” Chatsumarn Kabilsingh outlines the important and integral role nature plays within Buddhism, focusing on the teachings of the Buddha. Overall, Kabilsingh argues that nature and humanity are fundamentally entangled, and that neglect of one affects the other. The Wild Life Fund of Thailand has made it a point to compile the relevant Buddhist texts that speak to this truth of the human-nature connection. Kabilsingh points to several Buddhist texts including the Jataka, the Sutta-Nipata, and the Anguttara Nikaya, all of which include the important role of nature in the life of the Buddha and to the Buddhist religion. Many of the religious practices and tenants within Buddhism focus on the sacredness of nature and the Karmic responsibility humanity has to nature. Kabilsingh’s final argument is that “if we can’t hand over a better world to future generations, it is only fair that they have at least as green a world to live in as we do” (133).

I am always impressed at how beautiful the writings and stories of Buddhism are. The story of the 108 snail martyrs, who sacrificed themselves to further the Buddha’s enlightenment, is one of my favorite stories involving Buddha and his connection to nature. The icon of the Buddha with his head covered in snails always makes me smile. Nature plays such an important role in Buddha’s enlightenment and seems to point to a deeper truth that nature holds a key to understanding our own reality. Kabilsingh’s point about leaving our children a better world is something I think is something that humanity has clearly struggled with. I worry that humanity is too selfish to complete even this simple task.

Gary A. Kowalski

Gary A. Kowalski, “Somebody, Not Something: Do Animals Have Souls?”

Response by TD:

Kowalski offers a defense of the dignity of animals based upon what he takes to be the evident depth of their interiority, the complexity of their biographies (as opposed to their mere biology). He finds evidence for this in the deep connections we are often able to form with animals at a level far beyond anything we ever have with objects, even highly favored ones. To be sure, we do not have direct access to the interior lives of animals, but neither do we have such access to the interiority of our fellow humans. Just as with people, we base (or we should base) our sense of our compatriots’ personhood on the quality of our interactions and relationships with them. Based on that criterion, the (nonhuman) personhood of animals seems apparent. Kowalski draws on the relationship that Martin Buber formed with a particular horse during his childhood as an example of such a relationship, and on the horse’s keen perception of the shift in the relationship when Buber began to think of it as an object, rather than as a companion. If we can develop our sensitivity to this relationship we have with animals, and to their inherent capacity to sustain such relationships with us on a meaningful level, Kowalski hopes that we can come to treat them with the dignity they deserve as our fellow beings upon the Earth.

As an animal lover myself (particularly a dog lover, but a lover of animals in general), I can think of little to add to Kowalski’s position, except perhaps what I might contribute anecdotally. Anyone who has ever come home after a long day at work to see a happy dog, waiting patiently for you to remove your coat and shoes, her tail wagging, her whole body vibrating with suppressed excitement, knows immediately that dogs don’t just exist in the same spaces as us. They participate actively in our lives, emotionally, spiritually, sometimes professionally. They are aware—not propositionally aware, perhaps, but aware nonetheless—that they are important to us, and they clearly feel dejected and betrayed if they sense that we no longer care for them as friends. They can communicate just as wide a variety of emotions as anyone; they just have to substitute ears and eyes and tails for words. I can distinctly identify my dog’s mood based on the articulation of her ears (which generally stand straight up), and she is clearly aware that I have that ability, as she actively uses her ears to signal her desires, moment to moment, but does not emote with them in the same way when she is unaware that she is being watched. But I digress. The more important point, which Kowalski has tried to get across, is that I love my dog, not because she is useful or comforting, but because she loves me back—because she is capable of love. If that capability isn’t enough to make her a “somebody,” I don’t know is.

Lao Tzu
(from here).

Lao Tzu, “The Tao Te Ching”

Response by SR:

The selections of passages one, four, five, six, ten, eleven, thirty-four, and seventy-two of the Tao Te Ching reveal a brand of religious naturalism rooted in a notion of ultimacy unfamiliar to the Western zeitgeist:  the Tao.  Instead of a God which might manifest creative powers, a will, a personal connection to individual humans, Taoism is oriented around the naturalistic Tao.  The Tao is articulated in this translation as “the subtle energy of the universe.”  It is simultaneously “omnipresence,” going “to the left or to the right,” “eternal,” and “wholeness.”  The Tao “harmonizes all things” and unites them “in an integral whole.”  In this way, the Tao is the underlying flow of the cosmos which has order and harmony.  But this notion may confuse the unfamiliar mind: Is the philosophical Tao of the Tao Te Ching (later Daoist thought became much more explicitly religious and deity-oriented) then truly religious?  Does it provide a fulfilling spiritual orientation?  It is, and it does.  The Tao is not a personal God, but it is ultimacy.  It is the ultimate source, and the ineffable depth around which a Taoist orients her life.  This provides her with a symbol of the ultimate depth of reality.  The orientation towards it, then, is a religious practice: Taoists regularly contemplate the Tao, live by Tao-orienting principles such as wu-wei (non-action), and physically cultivate of energy in practices such as Taiqi.  In this way, Taoism provides a spiritually-rich but naturalistic cosmos around which those interested in religious naturalism can orient their lives.

Taoism has been helpful for my own orientation to the cosmos, so I beg forgiveness in bias.  Yet I turned to Taoism in the first place because I found it to be a radically more intellectually honest conception of ultimacy than God.  I had searched my whole life for something around which I could orient my life, but I never found a theistic worldview that met my demands for logical coherence, and I never found nebulous, arm-waving notions of naturalistic spirituality particularly salvific, either.  Taoism, in my perspective, bridges that gap.  It is 100 percent natural, and it is 100 percent religious.  This is because the Tao is a concrete, ancient, broad, and deep symbol. It has the power to root me in a way that undefined and vacuous symbols have always failed to do so.  But it is also wholly naturalistic.  And even more pleasingly, it is completely stripped of anthropomorphism.  The Tao is not a God who is presumed to be Good or a cosmos that is presumed to be progressive.  Instead, it is only the Way.  It is a deep, rich, and powerful Way.  Orienting myself towards this natural depth has been profoundly salvific.  It provides centering and peace such that I have yet to encounter.  The simultaneous religious and scientific orientation of the Tao means that I have come to love this tradition deeply.  I could not recommend Taoism to religiously natural seekers more highly.

Joanna Macy
(from here).

Joanna Macy, “Faith, Power, and Ecology”

Response by KSM:

In this piece, Joanna Macy suggests that people who know the world and feel its pain acknowledge who they are and integrate with their neighbors in common faith and common hope. First, she argues that people discover what they know and feel. Although modern society is focused on keeping the illusion that we are happy, she insists that we know about and empathize with the suffering of other beings. Also, she point out that if we feel and know of compassion, we can discover what we are. She asserts that we are Boddhisattvas, a term of Buddhism, and that we exist in inter-connection, which she illustrates with the Jeweled Net of Indra. In this respect, she explains that we can find our beings in the inter-existence with other people. Lastly, she emphasizes that since we empathize with the suffering of beings we can get beyond our own individual power to experience the far greater power of being of “acted through” (444). This experience is the innovative grassroots of a power that allows people to break free from destructive hierarchical notions of power.

I think that this piece constructs a new paradigm of community. The writer organizes her writing in perceptual, ontological, and practical aspects. First, she questions what we know and feel at the level of perception. Although many people perceive themselves simply as individuals, she argues that this is superficial. In fact, we feel and know about the suffering of beings. This means we perceive ourselves as inextricably linked with otherness (Ganzandheit). Also, with regard to ontology, we exist in community, not just as individuals. We are all Boddhisattvas connected in the Jeweled Net of Indra. This means that our beings are beings of inter-existence. Lastly, the perceptual and ontological aspects of community lead to practical power and synergy. This power is not the power of an individual in isolation but the power of an interwoven community. When people share their lives and integrate themselves in common hope and common faith, this community supports and inspires their actions. I think these three steps of her thought are very helpful for building a profound understanding of an ecological community.

Response by SR:

Joanna Macy’s “Faith, Power, and Ecology” is Macy’s attempt to salvage faith from becoming a “questionable commodity” in today’s world. How can an individual have faith in a benevolent God when the world contains holocausts, nuclear bombs, and toxic contamination of the planet? One cannot, really. But Macy asserts that three “redeeming” discoveries can actually reignite faith in a new form, like a phoenix rising from ashes. First is what humans know and feel: openness to the depth of human emotion in the face of a terrifying world, argues Macy, reveals the great depth of compassion inherent to every individual. Second is what humans truly are, which Macy articulates as “experiencers of compassion.” With acknowledgement of how interdependent and natural the human being is arises a deep compassion for that to which all of humanity is connected. The third discovery is that of being “acted through.” Macy uses specific examples of protests and movements throughout the world to demonstrate her notion of grace here: “grace,” for Macy occurs through the magnified power of people working in groups. With compassion and camaraderie, “grace happens when we act with others on behalf of our world.” In this way, Macy recasts Christian religious language as a more universal facet of human experience. It is a salvific and transformative act, and for this reason it contains significant power to move individuals. Like the rest of her articulations of faith, Macy’s views of grace are unconventional, but still speak to universal and profound experiences. Macy concludes by positing that community and individual practice are the most important means by which to cultivate this three-fold faith. These activities may not be sufficient, however, to convince practitioners of standard Christian faith to use sacred language in new contexts.

Perhaps it is Macy’s aim to paint the transition to this new faith a simple one. If she can convince us it’s a no-brainer, then she has accomplished her task and everyone will adopt an ecological viewpoint post-haste. I cannot help, however, but blink in wide-eyed astonishment at the vast gaps she leaves in articulating what is human, and to think that these discrepancies are cause for serious doubt in the feasibility of her plans. For example, the “discovery” of “what we know and feel,” in Macy’s view leads to compassion. Perhaps this conclusion comes naturally for her, but without significant guidance I cannot imagine many other people getting to “compassion” from the question “what do I know and feel about my humanity?” Moreover, the discovery of “what we are” – another messy question Macy masquerades as self-evidently ecological, as though there are not myriads of options available – reveals the human as essentially “experiencers of compassion.” I applaud her sentiment, and I do agree with her position. But to follow her reasoning from 1) the human being as an evolved, natural being, to 2) a self-transcendent interdependent being, and to 3) a compassionate being leaves many points on the train ride off of which those not already friendly to or malleable enough for Macy’s views will gladly leap. In light of evolutionary theory, I see no empirical reason to follow Macy in labeling the human being “an experiencer of compassion.” To top it all off, moreover, Macy makes the egregious misstep of redefining grace as whatever power emerges from natural synergy. This is a far cry from the metaphysically, morally, and emotionally salvific forms of grace usually employed by popular culture. All of which is to say that these “discoveries” of Macy’s are not discoveries at all. They are constructions based on her own certain axioms and ecological worldview. To the average naturalist they are likely at least familiar. To any skeptic they are dubious at best.

Mary John Mananzan
(from here).

Mary John Mananzan, "Globalization and the Perennial Question of Justice"

Response by JC:

Mananzan discusses the importance of spirituality in an age of globalization. She takes a look at globalization’s impact on sovereign nations, including the destruction of their native cultural and religious practices and increased wealth disparity. To counter globalization, Mananzan argues we should turn to a Christian-based spirituality, which speaks out against the injustices created by globalization. It advocates for a simple lifestyle and empowering individuals to seek healing through engagement with others and the Earth. It is through this type of spiritual awakening that she hopes justice and harmony between human beings and the Earth will be established.

Mananzan does a very good job of describing the process of globalization and its negative impacts, especially the shifting of individual values toward economic gain at the expense of cultural and ecological justice. Her argument for a spiritual response could be strengthened by an emphasis on religious pluralism, however. Despite the fact that many of her spiritual characteristics could describe a variety of faiths, she makes them distinctly Christian by stating that a new spirituality must be an “Easter spirituality,” focusing on joy and enhancement of life. I take issue with her emphasis on this point for two reasons. The first is that it alienates individuals from other faith traditions. Despite globalization’s negative aspects, it does encourage pluralism in religious thought. By emphasizing Easter, Mananzan fails to acknowledge the potential of religious pluralism. Secondly, if we move past the suffering depicted by Good Friday and only focus on the joy and life-giving nature of Easter, then we lose perspective on the position of those who may still face suffering and their need for redemption. There must be a balance in seeking abundant life as well as recognizing abhorrent suffering in order for justice to prevail.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The Fawn”

Response by SRo:

This is a poem about a moment when a fawn was seen in the wild and the narrator was able to catch a glimpse into the eyes of the fawn as they considered one another.

The deep ecology perspective here concerns “loving our neighbor as ourselves,” referring to a moment when the narrator’s eyes met with the fawn’s eyes and a connection was made. I liked the poem. It seemed to describe a sacred exchange. Priceless.

 

 

John Muir
(from here).

John Muir, "Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf"

Response by SR:

In this excerpt from “Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” John Muir attacks the tendency of humankind to see itself as the center and purpose of the cosmos.  Most people conceive of everything in nature as serving a purpose for them according to Muir.  They believe, for example, that whales exist for the sake of lamp oil, or that plants are only good for human purposes such as rigging ships or hanging people from gallows.  They justify this act by clinging to a creator God who prizes humanity above the rest of creation.  But they are wrong to do so, says Muir.  This idea of God is all wrong.  Why would God go through the trouble of creating such an enormous cosmos for just one species?  And why would so much of that creation have feelings and will and life, only to be subjugated to humankind?   Instead of the word “God,” Muir prefers “Nature.”  And instead of human happiness as the ultimate purpose of the cosmos, Muir says “the happiness of each one [of animals and plants].”  With sharp and quick rhetoric, Muir cedes that humanity is special and contributes to the completeness of the cosmos.  But humankind is no more special than any of the rest of the Natural world, and how shortsighted has humankind been to fail to see that!  In just a few hundred words, Muir’s essay eviscerates the grand arrogance and willful denial of human history, and replaces it with an ecologically rich and interdependent world.

The criticism that Muir levels at an anthropocentric cosmos is dead on.  Muir is right to assert that human beings are no more special than any other natural being.  His critique however does not lead him as far from the tree as one (or even he) might expect. This is demonstrated in the fact that Muir maintains that there is a purpose to the cosmos.  It is not the happiness of humanity, but rather it is the “happiness” of all.  But what is Muir’s justification for the purpose of the universe?  God’s will?  Is the idea of a determinate creator not also an anthropomorphic one?  In championing some sort of happiness-based purpose to the cosmos, Muir champions an anthropomorphic and happiness-oriented God that is quite similar to his opponents.  In doing so, Muir entirely fails to account for the fact that species die.  Species even go extinct all of the time, God forbid.  In fact, 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct.  What of those?  Where is the special unity and “completeness” of the cosmos for them?  Where is God?  Muir’s essay would be much more powerful if he had an answer for the happy-go-lucky myopia of his cosmos, the same way he demands that anthropocentric theists account for theirs.

Review by DR:

In this very short excerpt Muir ridicules his contemporaries’ anthropocentric view of nature and their cozy view of the Creator.  Muir joking characterizes the common view of God as “a civilized, law-abiding gentleman in favor of either a republican form of government or of a limited monarchy” (34).  For Muir, such views would be laughable if people didn’t take them so seriously.  In reality, people who imagine God to be exactly like themselves also tend to think that God’s creation revolves around their wants and needs: lambs exist so we can have wool sweaters, whales are lamp-oil carriers, and lead was made so we could invent bullets and increase the deadliness of war.  Of course, this simple-minded view fails to acknowledge the many aspects of nature that appear hostile to human beings, like lions, mosquitoes, floods, and poison.  Rather than blaming the Devil for these inconveniences, it makes far more sense to conclude that human beings are not the sole purpose of creation and that God takes delight in all God’s creatures.

While I appreciate the humor with which Muir’s case is made, there is nothing particularly brilliant about his argument.  If God is the Creator of all that is, obviously that includes those parts of nature that frustrate and kill human beings.  Muir’s position isn’t exactly new either – the author of Job penned the definitive statement over 2000 years ago.  Nevertheless, what makes Muir’s reflection unique and compelling is his perspective.  Muir is no atheist evangelist reveling in theological deconstruction, and neither is he a theist crushed by a vision of God’s darker side.  Rather, John Muir argues on behalf of a beloved vision of a natural world vast beyond human comprehension and a Divine whose creativity is not limited to securing human comfort and convenience.  After knowing God through the ancient rock faces, sprawling valleys, and holy starlight of Yosemite, who could believe in or desire the humanly domesticated god?

Response by TD:

This short excerpt contains Muir’s attempt to show how ridiculous is the belief that nature exists only as a resource to be exploited by humankind. He claims outright that the “civilized, law-abiding gentleman” god of England is a fantasy, and that the facts of the natural world make it plain that the objects of nature were not explicitly placed for human use. He gives the examples of sheep, which seem to exist entirely to produce wool to clothe us, and whales, which act as great storehouses of oil for us. He mentions that iron and lead seem perfect for making tools and bullets, respectively. But what about lions, tigers, and alligators, creatures that would just as soon eat a person as lend him their hides? Clearly these are the results of the fall of mankind, or of the Devil’s work! Muir lets the silliness of this view speak for itself, offering his alternative: isn’t it possible that nature created all these things in order that they might pursue their own happiness, as opposed to just providing for ours? And isn’t it true that, although we humans are an important part of the universe, all of these other creatures are equally constitutive of the natural world as a whole?

I lived in San Francisco for about ten years, and during that time I made several visits to the national park that bears John Muir’s name. It is an old-growth redwood forest where one can walk among some of the tallest trees on Earth, the Sequoia sempervirens. Walking in the perpetual shade of these trees, one can see immediately what Muir is talking about.  Sure, from one point of view these trees are an enormous source of lumber. But if one allows the mind to work freely, while standing among these giants, that point of view comes more clearly into focus as a ludicrously myopic misunderstanding of our own place in this world. Next to the redwoods, an individual person becomes infinitesimally small. Some have described the sense of almost ineffable smallness that can be had when thinking about our scientific understanding of the scope of the cosmos, and the crises of meaninglessness that that smallness can engender. In the forest, that experience is available in a much more concrete way, where the trees seem like they could crush us like the tiny insects we are, if that were to their liking. Of course, the trees don’t crush us, and we are free to make use of them and refashion them as we please. But I am struck by a certain irony in realizing, in my smallness, beside the trees, that someday nature and time will conspire to crush me. Knowing this to be true, I stand with Muir: how can we presume to take up the mantle of lordship over the world?

Response by AT:

In this selection from John Muir’s book, Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, Muir muses on the nature of a specific “class of men,” who build their “god” up as a puppet for their political and moral beliefs (34). Muir argues that these people have such a narrow view of the divine that they naturally come to a distorted view of nature and its purpose as well. Nature becomes one big supply closet for humanity. To make his point, Muir sardonically refers to whales as “storehouses for oil,” along with several other examples of this anthropocentric utilitarianism. Muir plays the Devil’s advocate when he asks a number of questions about the reality of nature’s savageness towards humanity. Then again, playing the other role in mocking tone, he responds that these are realities rooted in the fall of humanity and the presence of the demonic on earth. He makes a final point, revealing his true feelings, that the universe is not complete without every aspect of creation (35).

It is incredible to me that this piece was written in 1916 and still resonates with current political views of the natural world. I imagine if this piece was read aloud in congress today; it would just as relevant as it was 100 years ago. Muir’s biting wit in this piece could just as easily be a part of a monologue on the Colbert Report. It is sad to note such little change in this country as regards to our cultural interaction with the environment. We seem to be doomed to deal inadequately with the same ecological disasters over and over again.

National Council of Churches
(from here).

National Council of Churches, “Worship Resources, Earth Day Sunday”

Response by SR:

This set of worship resources from the United Methodist Church consists of call and responses, hymns, and prayers for the sake of supporting the Earth. The overall tenor of the service focuses on the call to stewardship. This results in a service that highlights themes of penance, interdependence, and the future. One prime example of this is the call and response: it decries polluted land through Isaiah and Hosea, and in response confesses to the sins of denial, damaging the Earth, and the church’s failure to act. In the wake of this penance, the worship invokes the covenants of Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. This is a powerful move because it re-frames each of these covenants in terms of the mutual promise of care, but with specific emphasis on stewardship on the part of Jews and Christians. In these covenants, people of faith are called not just to love God, but to love, heal, and be proactive in healing God’s Creation. Walking away from this service, a Methodist might feel a divine connection to the rest of Creation, and be motivated to preserve it for God and for generations to come. The National Council of Churches succeeds as such in moving the Methodist church forward with this service: as they repent for participating in a negligent past, they take up the mantle of stewardship for a more ecological future.

Cheered as I am by the love and appreciation this service has for nature—even nodding its head at Chief Seattle!—and excited as I am by the prospect of environmental progress and mindfulness in Methodist communities, a closer look at the text forces me to furrow my brow in disillusioned skepticism. Sure, the service is about nature, and it wants to preserve the environment. But for whose gain?

With a sharper lens, we can see that the true motivations behind this service are not the inherent values of nature, but rather the resource availability and leisure of future generations of humankind. The service often prays for “the sake of future generations,” for example, and even at one point invokes healing for the Earth so that future generations “may enjoy the fruits of creation.” Moreover, the service sings the praises of interdependence, which one might on the surface interpret as a progressive idea that situates the human being within the whole of creation. In this service, however, interdependence is primarily important because humans need to care for the thing upon which they are dependent. Anthropocentrism at its finest, I’d assert. So who is nature for? Can it actually said to be for anyone? Does it not have its own value? This service subjugates whatever value Creation may have in and of itself to its utility to humankind. Instead of being a humbling service that attunes it’s parishioners to the overwhelming and precious scope and beauty of Creation, this is primarily a bid (if still a warranted one) for self-preservation.

 

Shamara Shantu Riley
(please send a photo
if you have one).

Shamara Shantu Riley, "Ecology is a Sistah’s Issue Too: The Politics of Emergent Afrocentric Ecowomanism"

Response by JC:

Riley draws attention to the emerging environmental movement among women in African and African-American communities in this article. She posits that dualistic perspectives of mind and body advanced in Western Christian thought led to the oppression of the Earth, people of color, and women. African-American and African women, therefore, must seek justice through engaging their communities to prevent environmental racism and remediate degradation which already exists. Instead of white males dominating environmental movements, women, and especially women of color, should lead the way in creating a healthy and just world. She critiques both ecofeminist and womanist theologies for failing to fully address environmental justice issues. Instead, Riley utilizes African cultural tradition as a motivating force to highlight the respect that both Earth and women deserve.

I think Riley’s perspective must be heard by all environmentalists, whether they are religious or not. Environmental issues are not purely scientific. We must consider not only the impacts that our actions cause to the Earth, but also how it will affect others within our global society. Justice crosses the boundaries we create through race, class, and gender. I appreciate her critique of ecofeminism in not recognizing the unique perspectives and experiences of women of color as well as her critique of womanism in failing to recognize that liberation of women of color must include seeking justice for the world in which we live. I am less sure of her advocacy that we must tap into ancient cultural traditions in order to see the inherent value of nature. Is it possible to observe nature’s worth without the aid of these traditions? Is environmental justice work any less meaningful if we do?

Rosemary Radford Ruether
(from here).

Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Ecofeminism: Symbolic and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature”

Response by TD:

Ruether explains that the historical domination of women in the patriarchal West has often been compared to the human species’ domination of the natural world. While the similarity is superficially obvious, a deep exploration of the truly significant similarities has not been carried out in full, but is only in its early stages. To complete such a project comprehensively will require many scholars with a broad range of expertise, but Ruether hopes to get the ball rolling by applying her own knowledge of the history of culture to the question of this relationship in Mediterranean and Western European culture. She traces this theme chronologically in the pre-Hebraic identification of women with nature; the inferiority of women to men in the Hebrew scriptures; the attachment of women to the visible (lower) world in Plato’s ontology; the exclusion of women from the world of Christian asceticism; and the literal demonizing of women during the Reformation, continuing right into the Scientific Revolution. She concludes by explaining that a new view of nature as the divine system on which we are utterly dependent will have to go hand-in-hand with a leveling-off of the cultural disparities between the status of men versus women. Thus, ecofeminism represents the most rational approach to two broad issues that are fundamentally intertwined.

I was surprised by the connections Ruether was able to draw out in her analysis. Exactly as she says, I found the superficial similarities between these two sorts of domination quite obvious, but to see them as not merely similar, but actually connected through history, was revelatory. My mind tends to jump always to the same question, given these kinds of analyses: how do we effect the necessary changes, now that we can see more clearly what is going on? Politically and socially speaking, how do we light a fire under people to get these repressive and destructive aspects of our deeply ingrained social worlds to begin to actually shift, especially given that large groups of people stand to benefit (or at least think they stand to benefit) from the maintenance of the status quo? As an historian, these questions lie purposefully outside the scope of Ruether’s essay, and they lie beyond the reach of my own expertise, as well. But I do think that, seeing clearly how these two problems link up—actually, we are dealing with far more than two distinct problems, here, but we’ll call it two for the sake of simplicity—should help us to massively narrow down the sorts of approaches that make sense for realistically tackling the environmental and patriarchal mess that we are currently in.

Response by AT:

In “Ecofeminism: Symbolic and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature,” Rosemary Radford Ruether analyzes the historical roots of the western world’s interaction with nature and how this is often paralleled by the treatment of women and other minorities. Ruether begins with a definition of “deep ecology,” which is a wide look at the culture of violence, its effects on the earth and humanity, and what must change in order for our culture to be a life-affirming one. Ruether is connecting feminism, the critical interpretation of the domination of women, and ecology, the critical interpretation of the domination of nature, through her definitions of ecofeminism, arguing that “feminism is the primary expression of deep ecology” (388). Ruether begins with pre-Hebraic roots, where women’s work is defined and connected to slaves’ work. Then she moves to the Hebraic world, where a male creator deity controls nature. The Greek world exhibits a pessimistic view of nature and the body, focusing instead on the perfection of non-bodied beings. Early to Medieval Christianity struggles with its Hebrew and Greek inheritance, arguing for the rejection of sexuality and viewing the body and its pleasures as sinful. The Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, while demystifying nature, ultimately views nature as an object, and exploitation becomes inevitable. Ruether paints a picture of the current ecological crisis, including growing population, food shortages, an ever-growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, and the militarization of the world to protect resources. The final section of this piece proposes an ecofeminist ethic that leaves the dualistic view of nature and humanity behind and holds humanity, as a conscious and self-aware creature, responsible for figuring out a way to live within creation mutually interdependent of each other and acknowledging our finitude.

Ruether’s jaunt through western history is impressive and helpful. However, I wonder if her picking and choosing of philosophies is a little biased. Religious naturalism stretches at least as far back as mainstream philosophy does. I understand Ruether is trying to show how philosophy and religion have led to the current problem of both sexism and ecological disasters in a very short segment, but I would imagine the issues to be much more complex. There are a number of philosophers in each of the areas she pulls from that would argue differently than the monochrome picture she is presenting. For example, while the medieval Church was certainly often anti-body and anti-worldly, there were several mystics, such as St. Francis of Assisi, who sought the holy in nature and the body. I really enjoyed her conclusion, which again posits that the key to cultural change lies in the acknowledgment of human finitude. I also appreciated the way she holds humanity responsible for nature. There is a give and take; with the great gift that is conscious thought comes the responsibility of learning to live within nature.

Response by SRo:

Ruether believes ecofeminism expresses the union of deep ecology and feminism, each being complex and layered movements of their own. She traces the connections between domination of women and domination of nature and uses these connections to explore alternative ethical and cultural paradigms to overcome “patterns of domination and destructive violence to women and the natural world” (389). Ruether connects the domination of women and the domination of the natural world through the idea of their role as reproducers and nurturing sustainers yet, despite this life-giving role, both are ultimately dominated by male privilege. She explores the Hebrew scriptures in which God is imaged after the patriarchal ruling class; Plato’s creation myth, which presents a descending hierarchy of male, female, animal; and early ascetic Christianity in which women’s freedom was based on women rejecting their sexuality and reproductive role and becoming symbolically male whereas male freedom involved the rejection of material underpinnings represented by women and nature. Ultimately women were understood by the ascetic male as the very “essence of sin, corruptibility, and death” (393). Ruether points out that the Calvinist Reformation maintained and reinforced the idea of a demonic universe, especially regarding physical nature, and the idea that women were the gateway of the devil. The author suggests that humans need to realize we are late comers to the planet. The natural world existed well before we came on the scene. Humans are parasitic, consuming more of the earth’s resources than can maintain and support us. We are dependent on the earth. She expresses our need to harmonize our needs with the natural systems around us. In ecofeminism, cultural and ethical mutual dependency replaces hierarchies of domination.

I certainly understand the view and concepts that Ruether is pointing out, but I find myself hesitant to fully agree. First I think that nature itself has a hierarchy. There is domination in nature; it is part of the processes of nature. The mother bird and the lioness both instinctively leave behind or push out of the nest the weaker of their young. Men and women are not the same; we are built different, genetically and physically. We have roles in the process of nature that reflect our differences and complement one other. I certainly think there should be mutual respect, understanding, and care but we are different. The lion dominates and eats the gazelle. Hierarchies of domination are part of nature. Perhaps instead of the word “domination” the word “exploitation” might be used. We need a culture and ethic of mutually interdependency that replaces the exploitation and depletion of neighbor and of the natural systems around us. Yet to live is to use and to be used.

Carl Sagan
from here

Carl Sagan, "Contact," a novel adapted for the big screen

Response by SR:

This 1997 adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact to the big screen wrestles with perhaps the single cornerstone question of the religion and science dialogue: what constraints does science pose on belief?  Ambitious SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) scientist Dr. Ellie Arroway personifies the scientific worldview, and famous theologian Reverend Palmer Joss is her faith-oriented foil.  In a predictable if touching on-going romantic repartee between these characters, Dr. Arroway throws premises such as Ockham’s razor at Reverend Joss.  He responds with assertions about the reality of human ideals and emotions such as love.  In the end, as Dr. Arroway has just returned from visiting a civilization 70 lightyears away, but with no proof for the international public, she is forced to concede that she nonetheless stands by the truth of her experience.  A true scientist, married to ideals of empirical data, repeatability, and the burden of proof, Dr. Arroway is convincingly overwhelmed by what she perceives as the grand beauty of the cosmic story—making her a religious naturalist with ineffable experiences.  While some critics may deride the simplicity of Dr. Arroway and Reverend Joss’s story, actors Judie Foster and Matthew McConnaughey perform their roles with real human commitment, anguish, ambiguity, and passion.  The existential depth of their problems become vividly alive, and any human being oriented around a spiritually rich but scientifically consistent world will be hard pressed to walk away from this film empty handed.

Growing up as a young girl married to scientific rigor by the age of 10, when I discovered Dr. Ellie Arroway I knew I had met one of my heroes.  That feeling was magnified by the depth to which both Dr. Arroway and I both struggled.  Much as I believed in the scientific method, I always yearned for a spiritually deep and meaningful cosmos.  How would I find it?  Would science be the key?   Dr. Arroway pursued signal transduction in physics at MIT so she could scan the skies for extra-terrestrial company; I followed my heart to Dartmouth to study the potential for microbial life to exist on extra-terrestrial planets.  It was not enough, though.  I needed more richness in the cosmos, more than a microscope.  But I got stuck: I could not find it in anything outside of scientific knowledge without breaking the code of my intellectual honesty.  And therein lay the true beauty and genius of Sagan’s work: Dr. Arroway’s journey never leaves the bounds of science.  While she never empirical data that proves her journey to other worlds, the journey is nonetheless 100 percent scientifically coherent.  The signals are electromagnetic; she travels through a wormhole in space-time; while she meets her deceased father in the other world, he is actually just a trick of alien technology.  Dr. Arroway is therefore overwhelmed by the enormity, beauty, richness, and grand mystery of the cosmos, but never with supernatural intervention.  She finds the natural depth for which I have always searched, and for that I could not thank or love Carl Sagan more.  I literally need media such as Contact in my life.  This movie is one of the few resources that reminds me of how vast and ineffable the cosmos is, all the while staying true to my love of science.  Two thumbs up for a balm to my scientifically-constrained and yearning soul.

 

John Seed and Joanna Macy

John Seed and Joanna Macy, “Gaia Meditations”

Response by SR:

“Gaia Meditations” by John Seed and Joanna Macy is an answer to the question: “What are you?” In Seed and Macy’s eyes, the human being is matter. But it is not the cold matter of nihilism. It is, instead, a matter full of poetry, fire, and life. Water for them flows in “endless riverways of gut and vein and capillary” in the body; earth is fuel and the structure of cells; fire is energy, heat, and lightning. These elements sync up in the human being as a result of 13.8 billion years of an evolving cosmos and three billion of evolving life forms. Seed and Macy articulate this as a beautiful fact of the universe to which we should all surrender. We were all present in some form during the big bang and throughout several supernovas; we should be at peace with giving our bodies back to the soil of the earth. This is a comforting fact, not one that should be resisted. “Love the plump worms you will become,” they invite us. The capstone point of Seed and Macy’s poetic invitation, however, arrives in the final two sentences: the facts of human materiality and interconnectivity bear inherent wisdom, they assert, and we can draw courage and power from them. In this way our spiritual materiality is a tool for awakening each other “in this time of peril.”

“Gaia Meditations” reads well. It’s poetic. And it’s moving, if you can buy into it. I do love that my being was present in the big bang. I like being the granddaughter of supernovas. But I struggle with “Gaia Meditations.” I can’t shake the feeling that the meditations are trying too hard. “Gaia” for me invokes images of 60’s and 70’s hippy scientists immersed in radical love movements and fantasizing about the earth as a single breathing organism. Seed and Macy’s endeavor feels similarly fantastical. Much as I’d like to find meaning in my material existence, I also know this just means point blank that I am composed of nothing save for CO2 and water and a few other bits and pieces. How far can I stretch this? How much poetic value does it really have? Is my failure to buy into the message of “Gaia Meditations” a failure of the meditations, of religious naturalism as a whole, or of my own creativity? This sense of disenchantment I feel is exacerbated by the way Seed and Macy end the meditations. Seemingly out of nowhere and without an ounce of explanation as to how or why we should do so, Seed and Macy tell us to “take courage” and “power” from materiality. How am I supposed to do that? What about being an interdependent physical being is supposed to make me courageous? I have no idea. I think I need Sartre for that.

Paul Shepard
from here

Paul Shepard, “The Others: How Animals Made us Human”

Response by SR:

In this brief excerpt, Paul Shepard argues that the subordination of animals finds its history in the development of human minds and culture. As cultures developed over time, says Shepard, the definition of “human” required posing it against something that was not human -- the animals. In doing so, ancestral humans put themselves in a position of importance over the Other, with this Other always defined in relation to the human. It could be as a pet, a food source, a pest, or a predator, but the animal Other was never defined in its own right. This has led to permission for ignorance, permission for neglect, and permission to completely forego the question of inherent value in the natural world. Given this predicament, however, Shepard still is uncertain of the best path forward. The most ideal solution is the “right to be let be” – which requires everyone to figure out how to live as human beings without imposing their existence, needs, or ever-expanding resource depletion on the animals. This would be ideal. But it is obviously complicated. How is a human being to define herself, without drawing distinctions between herself and the world around her? And how might people be convinced to move beyond in-group out-group characterizations as they apply to such—at least on the surface—radically different creatures? It requires, in Shepard’s words, “ongoing participation,” and will likely take several decades if not centuries of thought and care.

Thought-provoking as Shepard’s essay is, it only briefly touches on one of the most crucial questions for the debate: Why should people care about animal rights at all? And how do we motivate them to change? Ignorance is the core issue. People who advocate using animals as domesticated species or as an object with which humans can bond—something Shepard derides as a “Disneyish dream”—do not understand the inherent complexity, intelligence, and even holiness of animal life. Without knowledge of it, people will never appreciate, have sympathy for, or have empathy for the animal life. Shepard acknowledges this point. But how? Where is Shepard’s plan for education? I find that this is an element lacking in many of the essays in this volume on religious naturalism. Over and over again we hear calls to spirituality and to appreciating the inherent value in ecological thinking—but we will never be able to do so if we do not get out of our internal dialogs and instead go out and educate people on evolution, on biology, and on the true position of human beings in the grand web of the history of life. It’s incredibly difficult to awaken a human being. Hopefully it takes less than apocalypse, and the efforts of religious naturalism are not arriving too late.

Response by TD:

Paul Shepard’s tone in this excerpt is angry. He is responding to some commonplace ethical views on how humans should relate to animals, and these various positions seem to primarily provoke outrage on his part. His critique goes right to the core of the contemporary ethical landscape by tracing its roots back to ancient Greek and biblical moralities. Since then (if not earlier), humanity has been utterly unable to cope with our position as beings situated within the web of nature. Even the modern ethical viewpoints that attempt to establish a more respectful stance toward animals are doomed to fail, because they distance “us” from “them” in a radically unrealistic way. Within those frameworks, we must either see nature as something to be viewed in galleries and at a distance, or as something to be protected and left alone. Shepard sees both approaches as wrongheaded, since they try to artificially freeze nature in place while removing human beings from the picture entirely, thus denying our ongoing participation in its processes. He doesn’t believe that we can make progress toward a workable model of human-animal coexistence until we have a realistic view of the role that we play as members of the animal world ourselves.

I am personally unsure how to feel about Shepard’s point. As someone who believes in the rights of animals, but owns pets, I am tempted to take up a defensive posture. But really, he’s right: by keeping my dog as a pet, what have I done to her? I have taken her from her mother and siblings, I have removed her from the environment for which she is evolved, and I have essentially declared that I know better than nature what my dog deserves out of life. So I am guilty. And this essay makes me feel guilty. Should I feel that way? Yes, I think I should. “But,” the defensive voice inside me wants to argue, “it’s not like American Eskimo dogs evolved apart from humans—they exist because humans bred them for certain traits, over long stretches of time. And I didn’t snatch my dog from her mother’s teat, nor did I buy her from a puppy mill; I adopted her from a rescue. See? I’m a responsible pet owner!” I think my defensive voice is at least partially correct: we can only spend so much time focused on how badly we have ruined the Earth. Would giving my dog up to the wild, or having not adopted her in the first place, do anything to help repair the woefully bastardized relationship between human beings and other animals? I’m not certain, but I don’t really think so. While Shepard is right to be angry that it has gotten to this point, it is important to remember that all forward progress toward a better state must issue forth from this point. So I don’t think I can agree that “Human political rights are meaningless as interspecies relationships,” simply because the only alternative to human political rights for animals is no rights for animals, which amounts to the continued, indiscriminate domination of all other species before the brute force of human expansion.

Dancing Feet
from here

Dee Smith, “Dance to Heal the Earth”

Response by SR:

Dee Smith, in “Dance to Heal the Earth” calls us to dance. What does she mean by this, however? Does she really want us to dance? The answer is both yes and no. It is yes because Smith is inviting us to participate in the concrete communion of dance. Dance contains in it elements of sacrament, of community and of prayer that have the power to transform our individual lives and the lives of those around us. It has the power to move us and to move through us, and in this way it lightens our burdens while simultaneously being a sign of solidarity between us and the Earth. It is, in its simplest, a radical form of prayer. The answer is also no, however, because what Smith values most is the attitude of the dance. Smith’s injunction to us rings of power, of defiance, of sacrament, and of prayer. She conceives of dance as something joyful, defiant, human, and moving, and she asks us to walk through the world with those values constantly thrumming in our strides. When we live our daily lives with the dancing values of fervor, prayer, joy, and healing, then we are actively empowered—and actively empowering others—to genuinely heal the Earth.

I am a dancer. Smith’s invitation calls to me. It resonates in my bones. It pulls at my heartstrings, and it stirs everything that simmers all the way from the bottom to the top of my soul. Smith is right. But I think she glosses over one of the most important points: what is actually so powerful about dance is the way it cultivates joy. If we have the courage to give ourselves over to the dance, and to truly let go, then it becomes a prayer that captures the whole of our spirits. Immersed in the dance, we exalt. We laugh. We heal. Dance spins us up in ecstatic flow, and stirs in us an exploding joy that profoundly aids in self-transcendence and love. This is something that the Earth desperately needs. As individuals and as communities, we spend a lot of time thinking about what makes us happy. We often contrast this with what the world needs, and we worry about reconciling the two. But what if they are in fact one and the same? What if joy is in fact the true salve and true need of the world? Then what? Then the invitation to physically dance becomes an imperative. If dance cultivates joy, then dance is one of the surest ways to heal the Earth. This may be the most powerful aspect of Smith’s message. Yes, we need to pray. Yes, we need to affirm life and to live every day with strength and healing. But perhaps the greatest healing of all comes from living in and spreading joy.

Henry David Thoreau
(from here).

Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”

Response by TD:

This piece represents a concise argument for the simple but sweeping proposition that, “In short, all good things are wild and free.” To be precise, there is not a strictly logical, syllogistic argument, but rather a visceral and emotional one, an appeal to the reader’s sense of wonder in the face of untamed nature. Thoreau embraces the feeling of being alive, as experienced by the animal side of the human being and in our relationships to aspects of nature that remain undomesticated and wild. He speaks of uncultivated meadows, people who eat the raw marrow of the koodoo, beautiful swamps that dot otherwise nondescript farmlands, and nature as our “vast, savage, howling mother.” The tone is poetic, expressing a sort of reverence for nature, not as a result of its grandeur, but of its oft-veiled ferocity. It is not that this wild, sublime side of the natural world impresses us into submission; rather, we recognize this untamed element deep within ourselves, experiencing a strange sense of belonging, alongside a sort of existential dread before it that makes us simultaneously afraid and more alive.

These sentiments resonate with my own sense that modern civilized life does not often make room for a holistic human experience. What I mean is that, similar to Plato’s idea of the tripartite soul, I feel that human beings are complex. We are creatures possessed of a myriad of aspects, some of them rational or tame, many of them not. And, in a way that I conceive as somewhat Nietzschean, I believe that every philosophy and worldview should be life affirming, in a this-worldly way. Taking these two points in combination, the healthiest and most meaningful way to live is one in which all the various parts of our human selfhood are able to have some kind of expression. If we are unable to explore all the forces and feelings within that make us who we are, internally, and give those aspects some kind of space to stretch their legs and explore the world in their unique ways, externally, we are setting ourselves up for inauthenticity and alienation, at best. To see that side of nature and to allow it to resonate with our own humanity, not just for its beauty (which is important, of course, but also a bit clichéd and well-trodden, philosophically), but for its ferocity and wildness, is to affirm that human beings are not just existing in an environment, but alive in a world. And while there is a deep feeling here also of respect for the natural world, completely apart from any instrumentality in terms of having these life-affirming effects for us, it is through those effects that we can derive the sort of gut-seated, dispositional knowledge of our place in the world that is absolutely necessary if we are to learn, as a species, to occupy that place with dignity and grace. Thus, the ecological significance of Thoreau’s piece is inextricable from its spiritual significance.

Response by AT:

In this excerpt from “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau embraces the wild and puts forth the argument that without the wild humanity could not succeed. Vigor and wildness are key for humanity and, as much as culture and society may try to weed out this wildness of human nature, humanity must draw its strength from nature. Thoreau draws on the literal strengthening of humanity by nature through the consumption of food, but also on the more figurative strengthening of humanity in the form of the gift of particular moments of wild beauty. Thoreau argues that humanity’s hope comes from the wild, the free, and the uncivilized, not from a domesticated farm or manicured lawn. Thoreau uses images of innocence and young fervor such as the suckling babies, Romulus and Remus, and young adults who sew their wild oats, asserting that “all good things are wild and free” (30). In his final section, Thoreau reminisces on a specific sunset in November, painting a primeval landscape, untouched by human civilization.

I appreciate Thoreau’s love for nature in this piece. His writing is infused with the beautiful imagery of dark dank woods and wilderness to such an extent that I want to go camping immediately. Thoreau’s writings come from an interesting time period. Writings and poetry on nature are very different today. Thoreau’s language and imagery is at times violent and male-centric, hazards of the time, I imagine. Images, such as breaking in wild animals and tanning skins, might not show up in modern ecological writings. The few times he uses feminine imagery it is to describe nature as a “savage, howling, mother” (31). I found myself, as a woman, being left out of the story. Am I being called to embrace the wild and shirk my civilized side? I can’t tell. The last section on the sunset is the most refreshing, especially for a cold January evening as I write this. There is a mystical, apophatic tone to this section that I enjoy. Thoreau is hinting at something sacred in these moments he experienced and shares it beautifully with the reader.

Tu Weiming
(from here).

Tu Weiming “Beyond the Enlightenment Mentality”

Response by DR:

According Tu Weiming, the values of the Enlightenment are inextricably embedded in the marrow of modernity.  Much of the Enlightenment heritage should be prized today; hard-won realities of freedom of expression and religion, equality before the law, and human rights deserve ongoing protection.  However, the Enlightenment mindset also carries within it the seeds of ecological devastation: a confidence in the constructive power of unbridled self-interest, a conception of nature as a resource for human projects, and an insatiable desire for greater technological power without the patience to ensure the wise use of that power.  Sadly, these destructive values have been exported to many non-Western cultures through the increasing globalization of human civilization.  During this dramatic transition period, it is crucially important to draw deeply from religious wisdom traditions, including the Abrahamic faiths, the axial age traditions of South and East Asia, and those primal traditions whose voices have not been completely lost.  With a sense of the human person as deeply embedded within and responsible to the larger webs of family, community, nature, and the transcendent, the Confucian tradition offers a particularly fruitful contrast to the Enlightenment’s shortcomings.

In 1450 the idea that a loosely unified religious movement could challenge and eventually overthrow the Catholic Church’s authority would have seemed preposterous to any thinking European.  However, Guttenberg’s printing press was developed that same year and the rest, as they say, is history.  Today, twenty years after the launch of the internet, probably no human generation has looked into a more open future.  While most people who are paying any attention agree that our present trajectory as a global civilization spells ecological disaster, that must be received as a warning, not a certainty.  In the Confucian spirit that Tu Weiming recommends, we must begin where we can – by cultivating ecological responsibility in ourselves, our families and friends, and our local communities.  Only through determined local efforts can anything like a sustainable future for the human presence on Earth be established. 

Seth Zuckerman
(from here).

Seth Zuckerman, "Redwood Rabbis"

Response by JC:

Zuckerman retells the story of 250 Jewish activists participating in civil disobedience by planting redwood seedlings on privately owned land in Northern California as a statement against old-growth logging. The article emphasizes the importance of Jewish tradition and spiritual principles in protection and care for the Earth.  By highlighting the holy days of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for one’s actions, as well as Tu B’shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, the activists put pressure on a logging company headed by a devout Jewish man. They hoped that by linking his work to his beliefs, they would cause him to have a change of heart. While they succeeded in engaging the CEO and replanting some of the trees, the article ends without complete resolution – will he continue logging in the future?

Zuckerman’s article gets at the root of religiously-inspired environmental action.  By focusing their attention on the devout religious participation of the CEO of the lumber company, they point out how the actions of his company disagree with Jewish thought. Unfortunately, the brevity and incompleteness of the article left me wanting. The article closes with a statement from the Rabbi leading the Jewish activists: they must look at the big picture instead of individual achievements. But individuals need to have a sense of accomplishment in order to want to continue with their quest. Religious belief can continue the motivation for action, but maintaining long-term commitment is often a challenge in cases of social and ecological justice when immediate results are not achieved.

Key to Abbreviations of Review Authors

[AT] Ashley Theuring, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Seminar at Boston University

[DR] David Rohr, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Seminar at Boston University

[IC] Ian Cooley, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Seminar at Boston University

[KC] Katelynn Carver, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Seminar at Boston University

[KSM] Kim Shin Myoung, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Seminar at Boston University

[SR] Stefani Ruper, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Seminar at Boston University

[SRo] Sieglinda Rogers, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Seminar at Boston University

[TD] Troy Dujardin, member of the 2013 Religious Naturalism Seminar at Boston University