Spiritual Ecology: A Review

December 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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The following review is longer than 500 words because I wrote it before I decided to slow down.  ( :   Previous versions of it appeared in two of the world-famous rags for which I write: Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. Ed. Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2013.  280 pp. 

Odd as it may sound in this era of “spiritual but not religious,” I am wary of the word “spiritual.” You might be, too, had you lived eleven years in Berkeley, California, the land of beautiful people chanting OM in two-hundred-dollar Lululemon outfits.

But I decided to read Spiritual Ecology anyway because the climate change work I’ve been doing makes my need for a stronger spiritual base painfully apparent. You can spend only so much time reading and writing about the pending end of the planet without needing a serious infusion of hope.

I began by reading three essays by Catholic environmentalists—Thomas Berry, Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis and Richard Rohr—and another by Thomas Berry students Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. I had read Berry’s early work in mimeographed form at Grailville in the 1970s and was glad to return to it here in his “The World of Wonder.” Berry, who died in 2009, drew on his mastery of world religions and Teilhard de Chardin to fashion a Universe Story in the service of planetary transformation. In “The World of Wonder” he challenges us to literally see the natural world as a sacred antidote to the imminent extinction of species brought on by individualism and the industrialism. Yet he manages to communicate this as a fundamentally numinous task, one that gives the reader hope.

The interview with Sister Miriam MacGillis highlights the central role of Berry’s Universe Story in hands-on farming and environmental education at Genesis Farm in northwest New Jersey. And the co-founders of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, Tucker and Grim, acknowledge Berry implicitly in “The Next Transition.” The culmination of the 13.4 billion year evolutionary process, we learn, is a “Great Transition” or “Turning” from hyper- individualism and environmental destruction to kinship and sustainability—a hopeful vision indeed.

Yet my favorite essay in this bunch is Franciscan Richard Rohr’s feisty “Creation as the Body of God.” Rohr begins with a refreshing acknowledgment of the big role that “very poor Christian theology” and its harmful notions of physicality and embodiment have played in our current environmental crisis. What about “our supposed belief that the Eternal Word of God became ‘flesh,’ ” he wonders. (235) He then uses Christian theology, from Paul and Augustine, Duns Scotus and Aquinas, to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Sally McFague, to argue that the world is indeed the body of God. It seems, Rohr suggests, that the only thing that will make us recognize our common oneness with all people and all creation is the common suffering that our planetary destruction promises. But God and God’s goodness will have the last word.

I was also deeply moved by the Native American selections in Spiritual Ecology–in large part because they embody the union of spirit and matter that “very poor Christian theology” tears apart. In “Listening to Natural Law,” Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, tells us that the spiritual side of nature is absolute, for which we must give constant thanks, but that we’d also better get off our lazy asses and make our leaders change their ways. Similarly, in her essay “In The Time of Sacred Places” indigenous activist Winona LaDuke details the indivisible connections between religious rituals, the people who celebrate them, the ancient land where they live, and the creatures that live with them. Examples include the relationship between the Winnemem Wintu of Northern California and the Nur salmon there, and between the Abnishanaabeg of Lake Michigan and the wolves and wild rice that sustain them. Similarly, the subcontinental Indian activist Vandana Shiva identifies food itself as the inextricable bond between creator and created.

Unfortunately, another batch of essays in Spiritual Ecology is a good deal less helpful than these memorable depictions of the oneness of all creation. Written by white male “spiritual teachers,” they draw primarily on exhortation and repetition to get the party line across: CREATION IS SACRED they tell us, again, and again, and again. One of the offenders in this regard is the editor of the collection, Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee. In his introduction and again in the final essay, Vaughn-Lee reinscribes repeatedly the either/or that underpins so much of modern culture—but this time it’s either separate, isolated, materialist lives or else virtuous ones lived in unity with nature. God forbid he acknowledge that many of us live lives that oscillate between the two. And Jungian analyst Jules Cashford reinscribes another noxious polarity by adulating Gaia, the “Earth Mother,” even as he quotes exclusively male scientists and environmentalists throughout his essay.

Fortunately, a number of other essays offset these spiritual-in-the-worst-sense efforts. Whatever concerns I have about Buddhism being otherworldly are swept away by Zen Roshi Susan Murphy’s history of a genetically patented hybrid tomato raised by Mexican farmers for $2.50 a day, fumigated with toxic chemicals whose wastes are then shipped to Alabama to poison the black community there while the tomatoes are sold on plastic foam trays in cardboard boxes made in Canada and shipped all over North America in refrigerated trucks whose coolants destroy the ozone layer. This is a juggernaut, Murphy reminds us, in which we all collude. For Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist bells of mindfulness some of us have had the pleasure of hearing have become less beautiful but no less essential: they’re the floods, droughts, melting sea ice, and hurricanes that signal global warming. Only if we become mindful of the damage we are doing to Mother Earth is enlightenment possible.

And for Buddhist eco-philosopher and spiritual activist Joanna Macy, the western individualist ego is being replaced by a wider construct, an “ecological self.” Rooted in our collective mourning for the imminent demise of the planet, we are coming to realize, for example, that we are not protecting the rainforest down there, but rather we are the rainforest protecting itself.

Spiritual Ecology is by no means the only volume that introduces westerners to the foundational oneness of nature and the spirit. For those who want to begin understanding that oneness, however, the essays I’ve discussed here, and others in Spiritual Ecology, are a pretty good place to start.

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