Posted by: environmentspirituality | September 10, 2009

Second Interview

My second interview for this research project was with a theologian and academic from a local university’s Divinity School. Sue, as I’ll call her, is now retired, but worked to bring some programs and classes looking at ecology and theology together during her duration at the university. She also does volunteer work in the religious environmental arena.

When I asked her about her personal connection to the world of environment and spirituality, she responded,* “All creation is sacramental, a revelation of the God. The here and the now… The universe is alive. There is no such thing as ‘secular.’ I believe in one divine spirit which gives life and spirit to everything. To trees, to rocks, to us… We are all embodied spirits. It is sacrilegious, sinful, to act otherwise. We are part of one integrated divine revelation.”

Chapel

Chapel

It is this conviction in myself, that everything is sacred, that everything is part of the divine (however you may define that, even if the definition is strictly non-religious and much more scientific or ecological), that started me on this research project. Sue and I have different religious backgrounds, but we certainly agree on this point. And it is a point that I am seeing again and again in my reading as well.

I asked Sue what role she saw for the religious environmental movement in helping bring about transformation or social change that would move the world in a more sustainable direction. She replied, “The role of any church is to facilitate and enhance our relationship with the divine. It is to create the environment for this to happen. Each age, each era has its call or purpose. The Great Work of our generation, as Thomas Berry said, is to turn this around, to move from a era of domination to an ecological age. The Great Work of the church is the same – to teach the ecological age, to model it. Our well-being and our souls are connected to this work.”

Further, she went on, “Religion does not provide the answers about what needs to be done; it grounds us to be able to make the changes we need to make.  It provides incentive, reason, and command to do the hard work of making the world a better place.”

I remarked that during this quarter, as I read about environmental degradation, pollution, climate change, the terrible challenges that face us – and yes, possible ways to address these issues – in my Environmental Science class, I found myself deflated and sliding into hopelessness. But when I turned to my reading for this course of study, I found my hope and my faith in our ability to create change returning. My reading on eco-spirituality made me feel better, and hopeful, every time. I have been reflecting that this grounding and foundation may be one of the real values of incorporating spirituality into environmental work.

Sue agreed. “Jesus taught us that resurrection, newness, and change is always possible. That is one of his core teachings. Losing hope is losing faith.” Additionally, “God works through us. We have to do the work for God’s work to be able to come through.”

Like my first interview, I went away inspired, and with several more books for my reading list.

* My quotations are not word-for-word what Sue said, but do capture the direction and main points of our conversation.

Posted by: environmentspirituality | September 5, 2009

Lessons Learned

I had a second small group discussion organized today, this one with a group of local Quakers. I prepared more or less the same introduction and the same questions as I had used on my earlier small group discussion held at a Pagan gathering. I was interested to see what were the similarities and differences in the overall responses or themes arising from the two groups.

Empty Meetinghouse

Inside a Quaker Meeting House

However, no one showed up for my small group discussion. I suspect there are several lessons for me to learn in this. Perhaps the largest is that I need to meet the schedule and needs of my audience, not myself. (Given time constraints since I work and go to school, both full time, I fit this in where I could make it.) I also did not reach out to specific individuals asking them to come, which I had thought about doing, because I just ran out of time. And I scheduled the conversation for 11:00 on a Saturday morning, when the room was available, but people would have to make a special trip to meet with me.

I spoke with several people at the Meeting in order to organize a time to hold the discussion and advertise that it was happening, but I did not ask for assistance or work with them to encourage people to attend. One way to encourage participation in such discussion groups would be to work within the committee structure of the Meeting body. In scheduling this event, I spoke with the Clerk of Worship & Ministry Committee, who was quite in support of the talk but was out of town today. Since I continue to plan to develop this inquiry into a thesis, and I’d like to talk to some Quakers along the way, I think my next step is to engage further with the committee and see where that takes me.

The good news is that I was able to schedule three interviews, instead of the two I had planned for the class, so I will be able to balance out this missed opportunity.

Posted by: environmentspirituality | August 30, 2009

A Reenchanted World, Part II

Although it’s been several weeks now since I finished A Reenchanted World by James William Gibson, which I wrote about earlier, I did want to return to it before moving on to my other research.

In my previous post, I summarized the historical forces that helped develop or influence the culture of reenchantment. Gibson then describes some of the unintended consequences of this culture of enchantment. The increasing popularity and sense of connection to the environment and the land led to increased human interaction, which in turn led to environmental devastation and a diminishing of the sense of sacredness in those special places. Environmental degradation has come from tourism to places as diverse as National Parks and Caribbean resorts, from exurban development where homes are built in formerly wild land, and from outdoor motorized recreation (jet skis, snowmobiles, and off-road vehicles, which are terrible wasters of fuel and cause habitat destruction) and a related culture which views nature as “‘primeval chaos’” needing exploration (p. 153).

Off-Road Vehicles at Cape Hatteras Seashore

Off-Road Vehicles at Cape Hatteras Seashore

Further, an unintended consequence of the culture of enchantment’s aesthetic “favoring magnificent landscapes and large animals” is that it “inadvertently devalues and leaves vulnerable all that is smaller and plainer,” so that “efforts to save small, plain-looking creatures [is seen] as a giant waste, a ludicrous impediment to progress” (pp. 160-161). Of course, those plain creatures and landscapes are important ecosystems like wetlands and tall-grass prairie, or are important warning signs of greater environmental impact, like the spotted owl.

Additionally, “contradictions within the culture have weakened the movement” (p. 168). Contradictions cited include a debate over whether people and animals can live side-by-side, opinions on hunting, the business of zoos, animals theme parks, and black market trade in wild animals which call upon the culture of wildness but without actually letting animals remain wild, mariculture such as farmed fish, and the transformation of Native American culture by casinos and gambling.

Wetlands

Wetlands

On top of this, “the enchantment culture and environmental movement came under deliberate, organized attack from the Christian right, the Bush administration, and much of the business establishment” (p. 192). Under Bush, fossil fuels were prioritized, forest and wildlife areas were opened for extraction and road-building, environmental protections were gutted, and government staff and climate change scientists were discredited and silenced. The Christian right, with a focus on the Biblical message that God will destroy the Earth after the Rapture, do not see a need to save the environment. In fact, Gibson writes, they believe that “the Earth is Satan’s home, and all animals and plants are connected to his demons” (p. 201) and  that “working for conservation is not only unnecessary but an affront to the infinite power of God” (p. 202). Reading this section, I was struck by the sheer numbers of the American public open to these religious arguments – “a third of adult Americans … considered themselves to be ‘born-again’” (p. 197). I was also heartened by the rise in the evangelical environmental movement, which is a large, growing, and different perspective on the evangelical view of the environment – seeing the need for stewardship and care, and calling for action from the evangelical population (p. 227).

Gibson closes the book on a high note, describing a renewed interest in the “less dramatic” creatures and landscapes and biodiversity, conservation and restoration successes, and “significant environmental victories” in the past few years (note: the book was written before Obama was elected, so these predate the change in administrations) (quote from p. 228 and p. 221 respectively). Gibson sees the culture of enchantment in as unlikely a place as the scientific UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which calls for a restructuring of the economy in order to “‘recognize the true value of nature – both in terms of an economic sense and in the richness it provides in our lives in ways much more difficult to put numbers on’” (p. 246). (This report echoes many leading environmentalists, economists, and think tanks on the topic of environmental economics, an area I find exciting and interesting.)

Environmental Economics

Environmental Economics

The book ends with the following: “Despite periodic losses and setbacks, the momentum behind this cultural transformation continues to build, and it suggests that anyone who cares about the Earth should take heart… The spread of enchantment means that the environmental movement and its allies can now shift their strategy from defense to offense. Such an offensive strategy will require a strong proactive agenda for environmental reform… The reenchantment of nature – if coupled with political courage to act – offers a chance to remake the world” (pp. 251-252).

Gibson’s description of what the culture of enchantment is (see my previous post, third paragraph) is exactly what I want to explore in my inquiry. While Gibson did discuss spiritual and religious movements that are part of this culture – my specific area of focus – the book, and the culture he describes, turned out to be much broader than I originally imagined. There is value in this for me, as my focus on the spiritual (which comes out of a desire to look for the inspiration and meaning behind beliefs and action) could keep me out of the practical, which is very important too. So I found this book to be very good for setting the framework of the “culture of enchantment” and the environmental movement. However, following my original intent, the next pieces of literature I will talk about are focused more on the spiritual and religious.

Posted by: environmentspirituality | August 25, 2009

An Interview

As part of my inquiry, I interviewed someone who has worked in the environmental sector for twenty years, including some work specifically with the religious environmental community. One of her areas of expertise is coalition-building, especially among religious and environmental organizations. As I did not ask permission to publicly use her name in this blog, I am just going to call her Jane (not her real name). We had a lovely talk, and if this research turns into a thesis like I think it might, I hope to interview her again.

Part of the interview was Jane recommending authors, organizations, and people working in the religious environmental arena that she thought would be good resources for me. Many of her suggestions have made it into my list of “Resources” to the right. A good part of the interview was a rambling conversation about the topics of environment, spirituality, and the environmental movement. Below are some of her insights and some highlights of the directions our conversation took.

Step It Up Seattle

Step It Up Seattle

Early on, Jane stated, “The environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis. It is a movement away from oneness, connection.” I began this quarter writing in my syllabus, “It is my belief that this sense of human disconnection from nature is at the root of our current environmental crisis,” so Jane and I were in agreement from the start.

Without separation, she explained to me, we don’t have the experience of coming back together, of union. That longing for union is a driving need. Our separation, and not just from nature, leaves us with a longing to be filled. This longing has found many different outlets in modern society – for example, our materialism, in a world where many don’t have adequate access to the basic materials needed for life. This observation let Jane to say that it was the loss of balance, more so than loss of connection, which is the real crisis. Balance in nature is dynamic and changing and often cyclical, and that is true also in terms of the type of balance we need. It’s not about going back to the Stone Age – it’s about coming back to right relationship here and now.

People want and seek a direct relationship with nature. And yet, we also want to keep their spirituality compartmentalized – something above it all. Yes, those times of that spiritual connection are important. Yet, Jane argued, we also need to reconnect our spiritual life with our “real” life. We have an incredible opportunity at this point in time to reconnect our spirituality and the environment, to reawaken our consciousness, to strive for balance and right relationship.

We spoke about the power of language. “God,” for example, means many things to many people. (Jane’s definition was that it is a symbolic term for whatever we want to be in relationship with. Personally, I like the word “Mystery” to describe what others might call God.) Additionally, religion, spirituality, mysticism, and activism – all are different, but have intersections, and the places where overlap occurs is powerful. Jane notes that Washington State has a large population of unaffiliated religious people – folks who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” (It also has a lot of outdoorsy people.  Jane wondered if there was a connection between the two.)

People are attached to their language because it reflects their experience, and it ties them to community. If you can hear beyond the language, to let go of your own prejudices and assumptions, you will be able to find similarities, and be more able to hear what is really being said. As we explored the topic of connection between humans and nature, we acknowledged that our language and our world have shaped those topics into separate ideas even as we tried to describe them as one.

Church Folk for Climate Action

Church Folk for Climate Action

We also talked quite a bit about the environmental and religious environmental movements – and how they have been very separate from each other. The religious environmental movement came about at the same time, but separate from, the environmental movement – because the environmentalists wanted no part in the religious movement, and they generally have not been open to the spiritual aspects of environmental work. And yet, environmentalists use the same language to describe nature as mystics as other religious people do.

One essay Jane recommended to me was the influential Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis by Lynn White, Jr. in 1967, which pointed a finger at Christianity and the Biblical interpretation that humans have dominion over nature. This essay was a factor in environmentalists being wary of religious groups. Further, Jane believes environmentalists were concerned that the religious groups would be out to convert them.

Jane’s opinion was that environmentalists don’t want to connect with moderate religious people because it’s too close to home. 45% of moderate religious people voted for Bush because he talked about values. “Values,” she told me, is a term that means something (it is code for spiritual relationship) to some people, but this was missed by groups for which is meant something different. The progressive left pushed a whole bunch of people away – people who shared their values but came to it from a place of religion. This reflects a lack of recognition from an environmentalist standpoint about what moves people.

My talk with Jane felt like opening many doors. My list of books to read grows longer. The direction my inquiry could take expands. I would love to help bridge the gap between environmentalists and religious environmentalists, and certainly feel called or led to do that in my own spiritual communities. The growth of the religious environmental movement among major religious faiths in this country has the potential to lead to profound change. And yet I worry about some of my own hang-ups about language and my own prejudices – there are some religious beliefs that are in such opposition to my own, could I really be as open-minded as I’d like to be?

I also worry that pursuing how to bridge the gap between these two movements would lead me away from the piece that drives me, my interest in the experience of connection with nature, and the spiritual and holy aspects of that connection. Hmm … or maybe that experience of connection with nature is actually the piece that would bring the two groups together?

Posted by: environmentspirituality | August 16, 2009

First Small Group Discussion

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

At the end of July, I led a small group discussion on the topic of environment and spirituality at a Pagan gathering (please check out the link if you are not familiar with what the term means to modern Pagans). The discussion was advertised to festival-goers as a workshop and described thusly: “Paganism is often described as a Nature Religion. What does this mean to you in your personal practice? What does your connection to nature look like?” About 15 people attended the workshop. We sat outdoors in the shade on a hot summer afternoon in a wooded area with other gathering attendees in the background.

I chose the small group discussion model out of what I learned in my Reflective Practicum coursework, that social change comes from people talking, looking at their lives, finding frustrations, and noticing gaps – and then people will want to change. I was hoping to plant some seeds that might lead to noticing gaps and help a movements towards social change in this area of environment and spirituality – but I was also really curious as to what a group of people attending a Pagan conference might have to say about their sense of connection to, or being part of, nature.

Rocks and Trees and Rivers

In addition to my understanding that Paganism is a nature religion, I know that Pagans also tend to believe that the Divine is immanent – i.e., right here, in us, in rocks and trees and rivers, in critters and clouds, here – as opposed to transcendent, or far away, distant, in heaven, in the sky, beyond the boundaries of the earth. In transcendence, the Divine is not part of the Earth; in immanence, the Divine is the Earth, and all that is on the Earth. I was curious to see if the current of immanence would mean that practicing Pagans had an understanding of humans and nature as being one and the same.

My first question to the group was whether they felt like they were part of nature or separate from it, and why. Now, in a group of 15 Pagans, you have at least 20 perspectives,* so I certainly did not get the same response from everyone. I did hear some people describe nature as something they looked for but did not find in their urban setting – that a dandelion growing through a crack in the sidewalk was a small glimmer of nature in an otherwise natureless-setting. This reflects an American cultural pattern of a clear separation between humans and nature (Stewart and Bennett, 1991, p. 115).

On the other hand, I also heard people who described themselves as “a wave, not a particle” and “absolutely part of nature – my life is part of the web of life.” One person relayed that a feeling of separateness from nature was a motivation for them to strive for something different. We spent some time musing on a plastic bottle – how it was made from parts of the earth, how it was a feat of human intelligence and design, how it was part of our cycle now. How, we wondered, did the “sacredness of crappy plastic” fit in to everything?

Maple Canopy

Maple Canopy

My second question was how they defined themselves spiritually* and how that influenced their sense of connection to nature. Some felt it was their experience of nature, or being in nature (note: use of the word “in,” not “part of”), that drives their spirituality. One person commented that it was an eye-opener for them when they learned that the word “religion” in other parts of the world means how you live every day of your life, because that hadn’t been her experience of religion up to that point. Many agreed that a sense of awareness, seeing little details or “Goddess moments,” recognizing that in nature you never see function without beauty or beauty without function, fed their spirituality.

At the end of our hour together, I felt that we had had a very good discussion and raised some good points with areas to explore further, but I’m not sure (yet) that I planted seeds that will lead to social change. I hope the conversation will continue – perhaps on this blog?

Stewart, E. & M. Bennett (1991). American cultural patterns: A cross-cultural perspective. Boston: Intercultural Press.

* When I asked people to define their spiritual path, the answers I got included:

  • I deal in probabilities – a Pragmatic Pagan
  • I’m sending out feelers
  • Church of Freaky Bookstores, Orthodox
  • A feeling of being connected to it all
  • Pagan because of the nature connection
  • Exploring, as every religion has a bit of truth and none is the truest
  • Exploring Paganism and Zen Buddhism with no final identity
  • Pagan, Witch, and other
  • Every religion is a manifestation of people wanting to be spiritual
  • Tolerant Agnostic
  • Scientifically-based Church of Trees and Bees
  • Pantheist Pagan – universe is all holy
  • Pagan
  • Nothing in particular
Posted by: environmentspirituality | August 7, 2009

A Reenchanted World, Part I

A Reenchanted World

The first book I am reading for my study is A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature by James William Gibson. I found the book, or it found me, in a rather serendipitous way, and the book’s thesis is a perfect match for my inquiry, so it was a very happy serendipity.

Gibson begins with a brief description of modern thought, which views “nature as inert matter, void of spirit and consciousness” (p. 8).  Some of the contributions to this mode of thinking covered in the book include René Descartes and the scientific revolution, American frontierism, industrial capitalism, and the rise of technology. Not only was this mode of thought a break from “traditional unity between humans and the rest of creation typical of premodern societies” (p. 9), it was also never fully embraced, as exampled by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, to name just two.

In the last 40 years, a movement has arisen which reclaims the sacredness of and connection to nature. Gibson writes, “The ultimate goal of this sweeping change, which I call ‘the culture of enchantment,’ is nothing less than the reinvestment of nature with spirit. Flatly rejecting modernity’s reduction of animals, plants, places, and natural forces to either matter or utilitarian resource, the culture of enchantment attempts to make nature sacred once again… People respond to the culture of enchantment because it offers them something they need (and cannot find elsewhere in consumerist America): transcendence, a sense of mystery and meaning, glimpses of a numinous world beyond our own” (p. 11).

A Reenchanted World traces the history of this movement. The line of history that Gibson focuses on starts with the rise of Transcendentalism in the 1840s, through John Muir and the first National Parks, through Aldo Leopold and the establishment of modern ecology, and onto the post-WWII years where the use of synthetic chemicals and industry begin to change the environment in unprecedented ways, as described by Rachel Carson.  Native American culture was influential in the 1960s and 1970s, as were the first pictures of the Earth taken from space.

Creation Care

Creation Care

The 1970s saw the rise of the modern environmental movement including the first Earth Day, the creation of the EPA, and the passage of major laws including the Clean Water and Air Acts and the Endangered Species Act. Gibson notes that “environmental activism could … be seen as an expression of people’s new awareness of their connections to the planet, their nascent consciousness of being intrinsic part of the Earth” (p. 99). The 1970s also saw James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’ Gaia Hypothesis, feminist and earth-based spiritualities becoming more widespread, and the beginning of an emerging Judeo-Christian movement calling for stewardship of nature or Creation Care as biblically based and theologically driven. The greening of religion continues to gain strength, and spans across denominations and faiths. Per Gibson, “There cannot be any doubt that beliefs in the sacredness of creation of have radically increased since the culture of enchantment first emerged in the early 1970s” (p. 117).

I would say that my interest in this topic, and my study itself, are part of the culture of enchantment Gibson is writing about.  As such, his conclusions make sense to me, but with a third of the book yet to read, I am not exactly sure what conclusions I will draw from the book for my inquiry.  The exploration continues.

Additionally, this book has helped me see just how vast the topic of “environment and spirituality” really is.  The notes/bibliography section of this book alone has provided me with a very long reading list, one I doubt I will ever find the end of.  I chose to read A Reenchanted World first because of its focus on the spiritual aspects of the human/nature connection, which is the area I am trying to focus on.  I am finding patterns I want to explore more – the impact of a sense of place, how food connects people to nature, and the role that photography has played in the culture of enchantment (such as Ansel Adams and Subhankar Banerjee). I also find myself wanting to broaden my study – I’m interested in learning more about the greening of religion both in specifics and in general, wanting to read more of the classics of nature writing…

As I said, the exploration continues.

Posted by: environmentspirituality | July 20, 2009

Earth from Space

Earthrise from Apollo 8

Earthrise from Apollo 8

Interesting, there is a nice synergy with today’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo II mission landing on the moon and the book that I am currently reading for my inquiry, A Reenchanted World by James William Gibson. Gibson remarks that the first pictures of Earth from space, in the late 1960s, had “immense power” (p. 93). The first vision of Earth as a pale blue dot, a singular whole where political boundaries were invisible and the vastness of our planet reduced to the tiny and fragile, had immense impact on the human psyche and galvanized the environmental movement.

As someone who was born after the lunar landing (as the majority of the world’s population is these days), and who grew up seeing images of Earth from space regularly, it is hard for me to fully understand the impact that this sight for the first time would have had. But I do know how humbling it is to think that all that surrounds me and that feels so vast – the Cascade mountains to my east, the Olympic mountain range to my west, and the Pacific Ocean spread out beyond them – is really such a tiny part of the whole planet.  And the planet is so tiny within the context of our solar system, our galaxy, our universe.

Therefore, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo II mission landing on the moon,  I’d like to share some quotes from astronauts who were transformed by their view of Earth from space.

And then it struck me that we are all children of the Earth. It does not matter what country you look at. We are all Earth’s children, and we should treat her as our Mother. Aleksandr Aleksandrov, USSR

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic. Aleksei Leonov, USSR

As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God. James Irwin, USA

Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth … home…. My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity…. There was suddenly a very deep gut feeling that something was different … a nonrational way of understanding…. I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious. Edgar Mitchell, USA

(Astronaut quotes are from The Home Planet by Kevin W. Kelley. I found them reprinted in A Reenchanted World and on solarviews.com).

Posted by: environmentspirituality | July 19, 2009

Ecology: A New Story

For one of the very first activities of my inquiry project, I attended a talk on July 10th given by cosmologist Brian Swimme as part of Seattle University’s Institute for Ecology, Theology, Spirituality and Justice. The title of his talk was Ecology: A New Story, and I’m pleased to report that it was recorded and is available as a download on the Seattle University website (look in the upper left) and as an online video.

Swimme opened by letting us know that he has been influenced by his mentor, Thomas Berry. Berry’s message that the environmental destruction around is happening because we have forgotten the sacred dimension of nature was a key part of the talk. Swimme, as a scientist, has explored how science has contributed to this forgetting. Rooted in 18th century thought, science sees the universe as a machine, and its parts as lifeless (mechanism). Religion was also affected by this form of thought, forgetting the presence of the divine throughout the natural world.

Swimme called this a tragedy, and I would certainly agree. “If the universe is just stuff, then it’s there for us to manipulate – a resource.” Viewing everything that makes up our planet – sparkling rivers running through a forest, salmon returning home, the skin of sea otters, trees older than human memory, a mountain created millions of years ago, the muscles and milk of herbivores, the labor of humans – as a “resource” belies its sacredness, its divine presence, its life. The use of the word “resource” shows how the universe is viewed – something Swimme suggested would amaze and disgust future generations – and he preferred to call it the “r-word.” Every time I have come across that word since his talk has given me a moment’s pause, and something to reflect on. Try this yourself, and see how pervasive it is.

Swimme mapped out the challenge that we now face:

  1. To awaken to the current unraveling, to re-evaluate what we are about. He noted that it is not easy to eliminate a species, and given how often that is happening, there is something deep and pervasive going on.
  2. To find a way to experience directly the immanent presence of the divine. The universe, Swimme argues, is permeated with divine light, that wants to create, to do something.
Spiral Galaxy M74 (Hubble)

Spiral Galaxy M74 (Hubble)

Swimme then showed us a slide show full of images from the universe, from cave paintings to a starry sky where each point of light was actually a galaxy, from the spiral galaxies looking like hurricanes to a monkey covered in red fur. Each image helped bring home his message that “we are living in a miracle. We are constantly interacting with the miraculous, the immanent presence of the divine.” He mentioned Stephen Hawking’s conclusion that the speed of the universe’s expansion is exactly as fast as it needed to be to create a universe this complex – any slower, and everything would have fallen into a black hole, any faster and gravity wouldn’t have been strong enough to form galaxies. Which to me rather epitomized the meaning of miracle. Per Swimme, “the expansion rate is sacred because the universe is sacred,” and he described this as “an amazing wisdom” of the universe.

Swimme’s talk resonated deeply with me. I have never trusted the idea that our planet can be easily reduced to a bunch of inanimate pieces that we can do with as we please. My experience of my place in ecology is that I am – we are all – part of a swirl of life and sacredness all around us. This awareness is not with me every day, not all the time. I too get caught up in the daily commute and life in little boxes, days filled with meetings and homework and not enough sleep. But, to me, rocks are alive. Soil is alive – it is teeming with life. Plants and animals (including those other than human) have consciousness. There has always been more there to me.

I have had experiences of the divine, but I know that not everyone has. So I will just say, if there is a God, if divinity exists, then it is everywhere. On the other hand, if divinity is just a creation of human mind to make sense of something that could not be otherwise understood, then the idea of divinity was created to explain how there is, in fact, something larger, bigger, something more. I will call it a Mystery, but the secret of the mystery to me is that the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. Swimme’s talk was a lovely exploration of this mystery in the universe.

Posted by: environmentspirituality | July 19, 2009

About this blog

My name is Laura and I am a graduate student in the Environment & Community program at Antioch University Seattle.  As the title of my blog reveals, I am embarking on an exploration of the connections between environment and spirituality.  I am doing this for a class where I developed my own syllabus, but I am also considering this as a master’s thesis topic.

The basis of my inquiry is my understanding that traditional cultures, in general, understood that humans are part of nature, and that, as we know from the scientific field of ecology, all life is connected in an intricate web of interdependence.  Traditional, indigenous religions reflected this understanding through nature spirits and place-based divinities, a moral and ethical code that stressed relationships to nature, and a sense of oneness with the universe that encompassed connection to nature.  Western and American cultural patterns, based in later Greek philosophy, Calvinism, and American frontierism and technicism, view nature and humans as belonging to separate, disconnected spheres.

Additionally, the modern American environmental movement is largely based in science and utilizes emotional appeals but tends to stay clear of spiritual ones – except for specifically religious environmental organizations.  It is my belief that this sense of human disconnection from nature is at the root of our current environmental crisis.  In my study, I plan to explore modern-day human connection to nature and what role religion or spirituality has in an experience of connection or lack thereof.

Through the course of the quarter, I will record what I am learning in interviews, talks and lectures, small group discussions, research, and texts that I am reading.  I will also explore my own connection with nature and reflect on that experience.  While I do have my own religious and spiritual perspectives, which I expect will be revealed in the weeks ahead, I am choosing not to declare them here – as it is my interest to look for commonalities and ways to bring people together, rather than to drive us further apart.

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