Thursday, October 1, 2009

#56. A Saner Approach to Nature


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In Latin, "sane" means healthy. So, this post is about a more healthy approach to nature-- more healthy, physically and mentally, than those negative attitudes toward the natural world which were the norm for centuries in western religion and culture and which, in our day, have resulted in the environmental crisis.



The thoughts I'm sharing in this post are based on an essay, "Shaping a New Ecological Consciousness: Insights from the Spirituality of Interreligious Dialogue," by Dr. Fabrice Blée, a Professor on the Faculty of Theology at the University of Saint Paul, Ottawa.

My thoughts here extend the ideas expressed in the three previous posts about a better understanding of the natural world, so needed in this time of ecological crisis. Dr. Blée is a colleague of Dr. Heather Eaton; his views complement both hers and those of Jakob Wolf which I described in post #53 (Bridging the Gap).

It was a footnote in Dr. Blée''s article that first lead me to Dr. Eaton's work. I mentioned her work in post #52 and shared some of her very significant ideas in my two most recent posts: #54 (We Take Care of What We Value) and #55 ("All we have to do...").

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I originally saw Dr. Blée's article in the July 2009 issue of the Bulletin of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, published online. Since "monastic interreligious dialogue" is hardly an familiar phrase, I need to say a few words about it.

When I first heard of it, I thought "monastic interreligious dialogue" referred to Catholic monks getting together to talk about things like how long their monastic robes should be or how early they got up for their morning services. Not too interesting!

Turns out it's something completely different: Christian monks and nuns talking with Asian monks and nuns (primarily Hindu and Buddhist). And what they're talking about is nothing less than their understanding of how to best go about being fully human beings.

Even more surprising is that these monastic individuals of East and West have been at it for a half-century and that they have been learning a lot from one another.

It seems monastic people have a great deal in common, no matter what their cultural background and religious beliefs. Their basic orientation to life-- and even much of their monastic practice-- is surprisingly similar. 

It seems "monasticism" isn't-- as I'd thought-- an intensified way of being religious so much as an intensified way of being human.
While the origin of the word "monk" isn't clear, it probably comes from "monos" (meaning "one," as in "monotone"), and for that reason monks and nuns are sometimes described as persons who live alone-- or, more generally, "go it alone."

But a much better understanding is that they are simply people who are working hard at being integrated within themselves, at being whole-- "together," fully human-- persons. "Single hearted" or "undivided," as the nuns of Green Mountain Monastery, where Thomas Berry was buried, say on their website. (Do see their website for some beautiful photos of Thomas Berry's funeral.)

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The focus of Fabrice Blée's academic work is the dialogue between Asian and western 'monastics' (as they are being called nowadays to include both men and women). But in this essay he is specifically addressing Christian monks and nuns and specifically with regard to their need for a "New Ecological Consciousness."

I'm aware that this sounds like odd stuff. If you're thinking that Blée's claim to offer a new slant on the natural world based on "insights from the spirituality of inter-religious dialogue" seems a bit of a stretch, I agree. I had my doubts.

But I read his essay anyway because I was interested in seeing where he was coming from and what he was going to come up with. And as it turns out, I was not disappointed.

I think it's precisely because Dr. Blée is speaking from a context in which most of us may not be comfortable that what he has to say can be of value to all of us. It wasn't so long ago that Eastern spiritual practices like tai chi and yoga were considered "odd stuff."

So today maybe we can also learn from the experience of western monks-- especially if it has to do with the ecological crisis and acquiring a "more healthy attitude toward nature."

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For me, anything that offers a new slant on things is something to look at. The more perspectives we have-- about anything-- the more meaningful they become. And in this case, the religious perspectives being offered here can help us to see our own personal attitudes in the broadest context-- as part of global humanity's cultural development.

To some, it's extremely challenging to accept the fact that our religious perspectives have a history, since it means that we may very well be "faced with the task," as Dr. Eaton says in her essay, "of allowing [our] theological understanding to be transformed."

But that kind of transformation is a big part of the Immense Transition we're experiencing It's why I think, as I said in post #52, that we do indeed live in "Exciting Times."

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But can we really say that the changing views of monks are "exciting"?

In this case, I think we can. If even western monks are moving away from Christianity's long-held negative views of the natural world-- which, as Dr. Eaton says, "belittled the Earth as a spiritual reality"-- then what Dr. Blée has to say may in fact be of great value.

His article first appeared in the April 2008 issue of a French-language review published by the Faculty of Theology of the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Parts of it sound as if it may have originally been given as a lecture. If so, what we have is an online translation of a transcript of a talk originally given in French to a monastic audience-- which may explain why some of it is difficult to follow. But it's valuable.
It's filled with profoundly significant thoughts for those seeking to promote care of the Earth in the context of both the Judeo-Christian tradition and the New Cosmology.

While we may not be interested in inter-religious monastic dialogue in itself, what the Christian monks and nuns of western civilization are learning with regard to the environmental crisis may, in fact, be quite valuable for all of us.

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Dr. Blée begins by noting that, with few exceptions, Christian participants in the monastic East-West dialogue hadn't given much attention to the ecological crisis. As he says, "It took them 30 years to get around to it."

The basic point of his essay is that the new attitudes which are emerging in the monastic world are in fact inherent in the principles of inter-religious dialogue and that they have something of great significance to contribute with regard to healing the Earth.

It's important to keep in mind that he's talking here to a Christian audience. While he never uses the word "dualism," his use of terms like "new consciousness" and "new approach to nature" refer precisely a post-dualistic Christian perspective on the material world.

His goal, as he says, is nothing less than "to describe a way of establishing a relationship with nature that can give support to informed [ecological] action."

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Dr. Blée focuses on one of the most central practices of Christian monastic life: hospitality. In his early Rule for Monasteries, "the father of monks" Saint Benedict of Nursia notes that "guests are never lacking in a monastery" and that they "are to be received as Christ."

Dr. Blée says that the monastic emphasis on hospitality is the very essence of the perspectives which have emerged from the inter-religious dialogue. Hospitality requires participants to welcome the stranger, "the one in whom we cannot immediately recognize ourselves and who [we see] as a threat to everything we stand for."

He adds that "nothing else is so difficult as entering into someone else’s world and receiving that person into our own, regardless of what we think about the individual and his or her beliefs."

The main point of Fabrice Blée's "saner approach to nature" is that just as monks are to welcome guests "even without having any positive perspectives on their views," so this same welcoming attitude needs to be extended to nature itself.

Needless to say-- given the pervasiveness of religious dualism in Christianity for the last 1,000 years-- this is a radical view.

But welcoming the natural world-- and welcoming it precisely "in its very otherness," as Dr. Blée stresses-- is the needed perspective which he says will enable Christians to "incorporate a saner approach to nature in their life of faith."

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Welcoming others means having respect for their "otherness." Just as we "must allow ourselves to be questioned and challenged by our guests," says Dr. Blée, in the same way "we must allow ourselves to be affected by the cosmic process."

Hospitality and respect for "otherness," when applied to the natural world, means "taking the cosmic process on its own." The heart and soul of the environmental issue isn't just biological survival, Dr. Blée says, but nothing less than "communion with nature."

This is, indeed, a totally new and different perspective for western Christianity.

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Dr. Blée makes an especially good point when he observes that Christians engaged in inter-religious dialogue never encounter Islam or Buddhism in an abstract sense. We always meet specific persons, followers of specific religious traditions.

In the same way, he says, we never encounter nature in the abstract. We always meet the cosmic process in terms of "the disparate elements that constitute it."

His heavy academic language here can get in the way, but his point is clear enough: "evolution" is no more of an abstraction than are individuals who practice Buddhism or Islam. In the same way that we encounter specific persons, we also encounter specific aspects of the natural world. And in neither case may we write them off as insignificant.

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Dr. Blée makes a very profound point about hospitality toward nature when he says that we need to welcome the cosmic process even though we may be afraid of it. Otherwise, we miss something important about ourselves, our "capacity for wonder."

If you have been asking yourself why I think these views of Fabrice Blée's are so important, I hope you will see here how they relate completely to the thoughts of Heather Eaton and Jakob Wolf which I described in my three previous posts.

Dr. Eaton stresses awe and wonder, Pastor Wolf stresses our "apprehension" of nature's intelligibility, and Dr. Blée stresses welcoming the cosmic process even when we experience the threatening aspects of its "disparate elements." All three offer different slants on what's needed if we are to heal the Earth.

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Dr. Blée, however, emphasizes one important point the others don't. It concerns what he calls "liberation of the body." He says that the ecological crisis is forcing Christians to deal with their many-centuries-long "negation of the body."

He notes that it's precisely because we have cut ourselves off from nature in terms of our bodies that we in the west are so alienated from ourselves, and that "this alienation from self is precisely what characterizes modern society."

If we are to deal properly with the ecological crisis, we need to understand ourselves physically as part of "nature." We need to recognize that our own bodies are part of the cosmic evolutionary process.

In one especially good paragraph he notes that Christian monks in dialogue with the Asian contemplative traditions have "re-discovered"-- thanks to Asian practices such as zazen and yoga-- that the body has a part to play in the process of what Christian monks call “divinization."

"Divinization" (theosis, in Greek) is an ancient term for union with the divine. Blée says it "does not take place in spite of the body, but in its very depths, in a body that is totally accepted." Healing the Earth depends on our "total acceptance" of our own bodies!

There's a famous statement by the 10th-century eastern saint, Symeon the New Theologian, about total acceptance of the body. In his Hymns of Divine Love, he says that we are divinized even in our genitals-- and adds that thinking otherwise is blasphemous! (When Symeon's work was being translated into Latin back in the 1600s, the western translators deleted that passage.)

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Probably the most profound implication of this understanding of acceptance of the body as part of the evolutionary process is that it allows us, in Dr. Blée's words, "to be reconciled to two of nature’s characteristics: its impermanence and the irrationality of its power."

"Impermanence" doesn't mean that things don't last. It means, rather, that everything in nature-- the environment, our bodies and our very selves-- is always changing.

This understanding of the world as dynamic is a major aspect of the Immense Transition presently happening in human culture. I described it in posts #35 and #36. An especially important part of this tremendous change is the fact that, as Heather Eaton says in This Sacred Earth, we are at "new religious moment in the history of the world."

Today, we can see better than previous generations that each of the world's religions has distinct contributions to make and that we need to identify the "transformative and prophetic insights of each tradition." As we search for the "common ground" that's "necessary for the world to face such a global and intertwined [environmental] crisis," we need "to appreciate each religious tradition as offering specific insights and teachings within a tapestry of revelations."

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One especially strong example of a transformative insight that's found in the Buddhist tradition in a scripture, chanted regularly in the monasteries, which bluntly describes nature's irrational power. The text begins, "Thus we should frequently recollect..."

I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging.

I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness.

I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying.

All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.

I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma. Whatever kamma I shall do, for good or ill, of that I will be the heir.

We are told to "thus frequently recollect" these facts because most of us would prefer not to. But it is precisely this irrational power of the evolutionary process which we are called to welcome. As Dr. Blée says, we are to "allow ourselves to be challenged and transformed by it."

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"Transformation," like divinization or theosis, is not a conventional aspect of spirituality in western religion's dualistic view, however. The emphasis has been far more on morality and redemption (getting to heaven, escaping eternal punishment). The Earth has not been understood to be our home; any concern for healing the Earth was irrelevant.

But emphasis on transformation is, in fact, one of the basic insights of the Judeo-Christian Wisdom tradition. It was lost for a thousand years but, with its "transformative and prophetic insights," it is precisely this Wisdom tradition at the core of western religion that Christians needs to recover at this time of ecological crisis.

Dr. Blée expresses the Wisdom perspective well when he notes that the irrational power of nature, which appears as such a threat to us, "is the same divine power that Christian faith sees present and active at the heart of all creation."

It is this same dynamic energy (spiritus) which the book of Genesis describes as "hovering over the face of the deep" at the beginning of the world.

Karl Rahner expresses this Wisdom perspective more explicitly when he says that the divine spiritus present in the world is the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.

The Wisdom perspective has been preserved by Eastern Christians. Their understanding of the transformational power of nature is expressed most explicitly in their Easter hymn, sung repeatedly throughout the Pascha ("pass-over") season:

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling out death by death
and upon those in the tombs
bestowing life.

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At this new religious moment in the history of the world, welcoming nature-- confidently accepting its transformative power even in our bodies-- is the "saner approach to nature" we need if we are to heal the Earth.


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ARCHIVE TECHNICAL PROBLEM: Since I started this new series of posts, each time I publish one, an earlier one vanishes from my Archives list; they're still there, just not visible. Until tech support can deal with this, I'm putting links to those "missing" posts here.
#6. Tai Chi

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.