People need to economically make use of the world of nature by hunting for fish, growing crops, felling trees, and quarrying and mining for minerals etc. Humanity cannot survive unless food is eaten and shelter is built. Yet, in recent decades we have come to realise the insidious damage to ecosystems due to industrialisation, extraction of raw materials and modern transportation.
Natural habitat has been changed endangering some species of plant and animal: deforestation and desertification have taken place: waterways and land have been chemically polluted and there has been a rise in greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. There has been a failure to consciously consider the environmental impact of our industrial lifestyle on the children of future generations as well as on the people of the non-developed world.
The effect on nature of excessive consumption
The priority of most politicians of the richer countries seems to be on economic growth even though 20% of the world’s population consume 80% of the world’s resources. Reliance on ever expanding technology and material comfort continues as if happiness were to come from a life of excessive consumption. Once the initial thrill of purchasing something is over, we feel empty again. Materialistic aspiration also seems to be due to unnecessarily seeking social status by trying to show by one’s possessions one’s own importance and success in the eyes of oneself and others.
Environmentalists have assumed that scientific support for their viewpoint would lead to fundamental political change. However some of them are now saying that the underlying environmental problem is one of selfishness, greed and apathy and that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.
Here are some spiritual ideas that can help us face this eco-spiritual crisis
The sacred in nature
In the industrialised world we find ourselves more and more enclosed in artificial buildings surrounded by fascinating technology and are separated from the world of nature. It is thought that we need to do something about this in order to be more in touch with the natural rhythm of life: to feel naturally grounded rather than alienated from meaningful reality.
One emphasis for many people is on seeing the sacred in nature. It is argued that a richer experience of the natural world can help us find a sense of identity relating us to a larger design. In other words mankind is part of nature and will find wisdom and well-being only in harmony with nature’s mysterious powers.
According to religious philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, nature can be seen as a theatre expressing in a symbolic way all that is deeply good and true. He claims that in ancient times people could see something spiritual in everything belonging to the natural order. There was a respect for God’s creation. Something of this can be seen in the way indigenous tribal peoples even today take for granted the existence of souls or spirits in animals, plants and rocks they encounter in daily life.
Nature reflecting the spiritual
However, there has been an unfortunate error found in religion. By focusing on human spiritual well-being, religion has often placed human beings at the centre of the universe and at the head of a hierarchy of living creatures. Many Christians have supposed that when the book of Genesis states that mankind is to have dominion over the creatures of nature that this statement is to be taken as literally true. On the other hand, there has also been the view that the Genesis story is a myth with an illuminating message rather than a textbook on history, law or science.
According to Swedenborg the creation story in Genesis is about the re-creation of a person as fit for heaven — in other words it is all about spiritual transformation of the individual rather than any prioritising of people over animals and plants. For Swedenborg, mankind symbolises what he regards as the Divine Humane Spirit operating within the spiritually growing individual. He maintains it is this spiritual source that can come to dominate the way such a heavenly person naturally thinks and feels: the fish, birds and animals correspond to our ideas — illuminated or not, our understanding — enlightened or not, and our intentions — unselfish or not. All these can be symbols of spiritual and natural consciousness rather than things of nature to be exploited. And so reference to humanity having dominion over nature is really about what is divinely good and right in our higher mind ruling our natural ways of thinking and intending.
Bringing heaven into the world of nature
Bishop James Jones has pointed out that unfortunately within religion there has also been those who say our destiny is to escape the world and find a place in heaven or the equivalent. For them what is natural is even sinful and to be avoided. An alternative Christian view is that humanity is “a part of creation” and not “apart from creation”: that in acting as stewards of the earth serving and conserving God’s creation, salvation is about bringing down heaven on to earth.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Lord’s Prayer)
The Quran talks about the Creator embracing creation and that the animals that swim, fly and crawl are creatures like us we have to respect.
I would conclude by suggesting that valuing nature means using and enjoying natural things but doing this by neither abusing nor exploiting them: whether they be animals we rear, the wild side of nature we can respect and try to live in harmony with, or the nature of our own bodily needs.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems