Saturday, September 5, 2009

#54. We Take Care of What We Value

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The main point of my previous post is that neither scientific reasoning about how things work nor our religious interpretations of scientific facts can provide us with what we need for dealing with the global environmental crisis.

There's something else-- a third thing-- that's needed: our personal experience of the intelligible patterns of nature.

In that previous post (#53. Bridging the Gap), I described the understanding of Dr. Jakob Wolf, Lutheran pastor and professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen, who calls our personal experience "the phenomenological apprehension of nature's intelligent design."

It's important to note that he's using "intelligent design" in the European sense, not with meaning given to it by Christian fundamentalists in the United States. He says it would be a tragedy if we were to lose the idea of intelligent design. Why? Because we treat things in accordance with how we value them. It's from our personal experience of nature's intelligible patterns that we get the "ethics" we need to help in healing of the Earth.


The best thing I know that deals with the question of how we value and treat the natural world is an essay which appeared in 2004 in a French-English journal, Sciences Pastorales, by Dr. Heather Eaton of Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. It's called "This Sacred Earth: At the Nexus of Religion, Ecology and Politics."

I saw a reference to her essay in a footnote to an article about attitudes toward nature which I'd been reading; I wanted to read her essay, but I couldn't locate the journal anywhere. So I contacted Dr. Eaton and she graciously sent me a copy.

This post is about some of the main ideas in Dr. Eaton's essay. As she describes it, her primary aim is to "clarify, and suggest, frameworks for the inter-connections between religion, ecology and politics," with the hope that "religion will be a greater force for social change and ecological sustainability."


Dr. Eaton begins by describing the four principal attitudes to our environmental problems found among religious people, and offers practical examples of how each "approach," as she calls them, deals with the issue of climate change.

She names the four approaches stewardship, eco-justice, the eco-feminine and cosmology and describes each in the order of how challenging they are to contemporary society.

Stewardship, she says, is the least challenging. Here, the ecological crisis is understood mostly in terms of its physical manifestations: things like pollution, global warming, changing weather patterns and species extinction.

In religious terms, stewardship means caring for God’s creation. But, she says, the idea of stewardship "offers little challenge to the fundamental precepts and orientation of Christianity or mainstream society." It is an "anthropocentric" view which does not give any intrinsic value to the natural world.

Eco-justice is a more challenging approach. Here, the focus is that of political and liberation theology. It "addresses the issues of equitable access to and distribution of the earth’s resources." But this eco-justice approach also "remains an anthropocentric view" in that it, too, "sees little innate value attached to the world of nature."

Eco-feminism, the third approach, is even more challenging: it joins significant feminist perspectives with ecological concerns. It's challenging to mainstream society because of what Dr. Eaton calls the "disturbing historical connection between women and nature, and their associated oppression." She adds that it's "the religious traditions themselves that are most limiting" due to "their historically embedded misogynist orientations."

I've described this "misogynist orientation"-- the alienation of the masculine from the feminine-- in several previous posts: #35 (Aspects of the Immense Transition, Parts 1 & 2), #41 (The Four-fold Mind), and especially #50 (The End of Patriarchy). As readers with a Jungian background know, it comes from patriarchal culture's fear of the feminine which is due to the unconscious identification of women with the world of matter.


Cosmology is the fourth approach to the environmental crisis named by Dr. Eaton. The word refers both to a culture's understanding of the material universe and to the human community's understanding of "our place in the scheme of things."

She is, of course, referring to the perspectives of the New Cosmology," which were given to us by 20th-century research scientists in areas such as astrophysics, quantum theory and molecular biology, and by pioneering religious thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry and Ewert Cousins. This new story of humanity and its place in the physical universe is now available to everyone in the world.

Dr. Eaton's main point in describing these four approaches to ecology is that neither stewardship, eco-justice nor the eco-feminine perspectives are adequate for the task of saving the Earth in this time of global environmental crisis. Only the cosmological approach is sufficient because, as she says, only the new cosmology brings together humanity's age-old religious consciousness with the evolutionary world view of modern science.

In Dr. Eaton's words, "Only the history of the universe, understood as the primary religious story, is suitable to prepare us to face the order of magnitude of the transition."

It's important that we hear what she's saying: that if we are to heal the Earth, we need to bring together our religious understanding and our scientific understanding. The very practical issues involved in dealing with the present environmental crisis depend on our understanding of the convergence of science and religion.

(You can see why I like Dr. Eaton's paper!)


I've talked about the Immense Transition in a number of posts, especially the two (#35 and #36) called "Aspects of the Immense Transition." But the focus of this entire blog, from its start in late 2006, has been to share my thoughts with anyone interested about the convergence of science and religion.

Dr. Eaton takes it one more step.

We are not just in a transition from a static to a dynamic worldview thanks to 20th-century science. She says it's also a time of great turning for the world's religions themselves. She describes the times we live in as nothing less than a "new religious moment" in the history of the world.

(Can anyone doubt that we live in "Exciting Times"?)

In our contemporary environmental crisis, it is neither science nor religion in themselves but their convergence-- the coming together of the new evolutionary cosmology and this new religious moment in the history of the world-- that is what we need if we are to heal the Earth.

For an excellent example of this convergence see "Quakers and the New Story-- Essays on Science & Spirituality" on the Quaker EarthCare Witness website. First find "Recent postings and special announcements," then look for "Download the booklet, Quakers and the New Story."


With regard to the New Cosmology, Dr. Eaton notes that it is "an enormous threat" to the contemporary and long-held static worldview. 

"The Christian tradition has not been able to deal effectively with evolution," she says.

With regard to the new religious moment in the history of the world, she notes that "what the religious traditions of the West are faced with is the task of allowing their theological understanding to be transformed."

The key insight for this transformation, she says, is that the earth is our home. And this, she adds, is "an enormous challenge to our ecologically dysfunctional patriarchal religious traditions."

While some effort has been made, via the stewardship approach, to say that God’s creation should be respected and cared for, there has been, as Dr. Eaton observes, "little analysis of how we got into such a mess."

She lists two major aspects of Christianity which contribute to the mess. They are the "anthropocentric orientation" of the Christian tradition and "the apathy it has induced in its members" for the task of taking care of the world.

She does not hesitate to say explicitly, "The Christian faith has belittled the earth as a religious reality," and that its "excessive concern for the redemptive process has concealed the realization that the disintegration of the natural world is also the destruction of the primordial manifestation of the divine."

For many who grew up in the 20th century, it probably comes as news that Christianity is concerned about anything other than the redemptive process.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, recently carried a story about a Catholic priest in Pacoima, California, one of the nation's hardest-hit towns in the foreclosure crisis, who is helping people to avoid foreclosure on their homes.

The article begins, "LOS ANGELES. A priest's typical mission is saving souls, but the Rev. John Lasseigne has a more down-to-earth goal: saving homes."

Note that it was considered newsworthy by the media that a Christian pastor was concerned with helping people save their homes. (And that he even "knew how to read contracts" because he had "graduated from law school before joining the seminary.")

Obviously, taking care of the world is not considered a typical part of the Christian mission; not, at least, by media journalists and newspaper editors.

Far less obvious-- and for all of western society-- is the fact that the disintegration of the natural world also is, in Dr. Eaton words, "the destruction of the primordial manifestation of the divine."

"Much rethinking and reformulating are needed," she concludes, with regard to the exploitation of the earth promoted by "our ecologically dysfunctional" religious traditions.


She also makes a point of great significance not just for western society but for the all humanity with regard to the world's religions. When we shift our framework to the insight that "the earth is our home," we see that "religious consciousness is itself an emerging process within the larger evolutionary processes of the earth."

She means that the evolution of the universe includes not just the emergence of planets or of life on Earth and the emergence of individual persons and human communities, but the emergence of religious awareness, too. The very existence of the world's religions is also part of the cosmic evolutionary process.

Personally, I do not know of any other theologian who makes this point as explicitly as Dr. Eaton does. (Did I mention that I really like what she has to say?)

For the healing of the Earth, the great significance of the fact that "religious consciousness arises from the universe processes itself" is that "the era of disparate and divided religious traditions needs to be over."

While each of the world religions has some distinct contributions to make, "common ground is necessary for the world to face such a global and intertwined crisis."


Dr. Eaton notes that our efforts "to appreciate each religious tradition as offering specific insights and teachings within a tapestry of revelations" has already begun. And that, with regard to ecological issues, several characteristics to the process are already becoming clear.

There is a shift, for example, away "from studying the histories, texts, doctrines" to a "calling forth the spiritual resources of the world’s religions;" this allows them to become "a political force for an ecological sustainable future."

Dr. Eaton also notes that there is "a resurgence of interest and research" into the nature of religion itself, "both as an anthropological constant and quest of the human spirit."

She says that while it is "deeply unsettling for some to understand each religion as part of a tapestry of revelations," what's required now is a "religious worldview in which the natural world is sacred and not secondary." "Anything less," she says bluntly, "will be inadequate."


In this new religious moment in the history of the world-- when "the era of disparate and divided religious traditions needs to be over" as we search for the "common ground" that's "necessary for the world to face such a global and intertwined crisis"-- we need to identify the "transformative and prophetic insights of each tradition."

The central task of this process is, as Dr. Eaton says, "to align religious efforts, and the spectrum of cosmologies, symbols, rituals, values and ethical orientations, within the rhythms and limits of the natural world."

It's that last sentence-- her description of "the central task" of the world's religions at this new moment in the world's religious history-- which was in the footnote that caught my attention and led me, as I mentioned above, to seek out Dr. Eaton's essay.

And it was the following sentence-- where she describes another characteristic of the process which has already begun in humanity's effort "to appreciate the specific insights and teachings of each religious tradition with regard to ecological issues--which led me to link her views with those of Pastor Jakob Wolf described in the previous post.
Dr. Eaton says that the new religious consciousness is, first of all, a "calling forth of ethics rather than dogma." You may remember that Dr. Wolf also talks about the environmental situation in terms of ethics. Theories have practical consequences, he says; the fundamental connection between theory and ethics is that "we take care of what we value."

Both of these growing edge thinkers agree.


In this time of environmental crisis, it's our experience of nature that makes all the difference.

Dr. Wolf says that it would be a tragedy for us to lose the experience of nature's intelligibility.

Dr. Eaton says that "it is pressing for all religious traditions to rediscover their roots in the world of awe and wonder."

Whether we call it by more traditional names, such as "reverence," "contemplation" or "mysticism," or we give it Professor Wolf's philosophical name, "the phenomenological apprehension of intelligent design," the experience of awe and wonder, says Dr. Eaton, "is what we need to heal the Earth."


PS-1. Dr. Eaton's essay isn't readily available in print form, but she gave me an OK to share it with friends. If you would like a copy and are willing to "befriend" me (sounds like Facebook!), send me a note. (Address above.)


PS-2. I was asked by a reader if I would compose some questions about Dr. Eaton's article for a group discussion and to "give a definition of evolutionary cosmology in case someone does recognize the centrality of it but not by that name."

I'm passing on my response, for other groups and individuals who might like to make use of it.

As I see it, there’s really just one main question. Assuming the group is educated and concerned about the global environmental crisis, where do they see themselves and those around them with regard to Dr. Eaton’s four categories of concern: Stewardship, Eco-justice, Eco-feminism and Cosmology. (And, of course, “none of the above”).

Stewardship = taking care of God’s creation.

Eco-justice = making sure everyone has enough food, shelter, clean water, medical care, etc.

Eco-feminism =doing one or both of the above within the mental framework of moving beyond patriarchy.

Cosmology = doing any/all of the above within the mental framework of contemporary scientific information about humanity’s place in the physical universe.

Feedback welcome from groups and individuals!


PS-3. Added 10 Sept 09. When I sent a Sierra Club service trip leader a copy of Heather Eaton's essay, I added a note saying "I'd be interested in knowing where you think most of your Sierra Club contacts are on her list of four 'approaches'." Excerpts from the leader's response follow.

I think most people on the Sierra Club trips are in the Ecojustice mode. At first I thought most people operated in Stewardship mode, because people do talk about use of resources and many people, when asked why they came on the trip, say they want to “give back” because they have received so much from parks and from nature which fits the description of Stewardship.

However, I think everyone I have met on a trip would not see humans as the pinnacle of creation or say the world’s value is in relation to how people can use it, which seems to be the underlying characteristic of Stewardship. I think everyone I have met on the trips sees creation as having intrinsic value. Also most people see the ecological crisis as entangled with economics and globalization, which is in the Ecojustice mode, so that is where I would put most people.

I still have to think about whether anyone has been in the Ecofeminism mode.

I have not had a deep enough discussion with any participant to know if anyone falls into the Cosmology mode, seeing the history of the universe as the primary religious story. One of the leaders I have worked with and will again in 2010 is thinking through his belief system and we have had interesting talks. For all I know, many participants are in this mode-- I think we have a share of people identified with fairly standard churches and people who profess no religion at all. Still, this alone does not tell you what people really think.

It is interesting that the author specifically mentions the Sierra Club of Canada as connecting ecospiriutality with their events. I’d like to check into how they do this. The one time I even came close on a trip is when I read Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day on the rafting trip around the evening fire after the boatmen had guided us through a particularly big rapids. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.”

Several of the boatmen responded by reading from their journals. It was a magic moment.

Eaton talks about religions becoming a political force in order to create an ecologically sustainable future. I guess she means a political force in a large sense of attempting to change how people view their relationship to the earth-- from steward to cosmology.

Hmm, I have done a fair share of work in the political arena mostly to no avail-- maybe because many developers do see the earth as subservient to humans and to be used. I think it is almost hopeless to get the new laws required for a sustainable earth until more people can take on the new cosmology. This is a new insight for me from the article-- it is almost entirely impossible to get the changes in laws we need as long as people are in a stewardship mode, if they are even that far. I need to think of the implications of this for our political initiatives.

It surprised me a little that her call to action is only for political action and not for practical action steps-- like pulling out invasive species as we do on service trips. That is what feeds my thoughts to come to a more cosmology view and what gives me energy to keep on attempting larger change. Maybe the people doing this kind of thinking would like to get their hands dirty?

Thanks for sending Heather's article. It is fun to read and think about.


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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.