Exactly fifty years ago the report of the Club of Rome “Limits to growth” was published. Now, Karen Armstrong wonders in her latest book The holy nature whether there is a chance in religion and spirituality to avert the climate crisis – as far as still possible.
Armstrong makes it clear that we, Western people, as the cultural group of several philosophies and religions, have lost the connection between the divine and the natural, the inter-relation of the holy in nature.
This is caused by making the Christian God, unlike in other, non-western religions, into a stature, instead of a force.
‘Originally’, she writes, ‘the Christian people, similar to the people of the Middle-East, India and China, saw the holy as an omnipresent power that saturated the natural world.
God was not limited to a super-natural heaven, but present everywhere and in everything. In the heart of all things the divine essence was living’. Influenced by science and theology, people started to consider God in western Christianity as a specific being, superiorly elevated above everything, far off in heavenly regions.
God was detached from the world, and nature was experienced as mechanical, predictable, with its own laws, a source of raw materials that could be used for one’s own benefit. Did God not make mankind as can be read in Genesis, rulers over the natural world? It was time to let go of the gentile habit of worshipping nature. Nature was no longer a manifestation of the divine; it had become merchandise that needed to be exploited.
Armstrong is convinced of the fact that today we can learn a lot from the insights and habits of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, the monotheism in Israël and the rationalism in Greece. They knew better how to preserve the holy – and in her book she describes how.
She establishes that a large part of the environmental discussion in the West is of a scientific nature. Essential information, however, that knowledge alone will not restore our connection with nature. It merely is a matter of the head. Armstrong proposes to focus the attention on mythos, next to the rational way of thinking, and to step away from the misconception that myths are untrue. They are true on a different level than the one known to us and they connect us with the origin, with the ultimate value of being human.
We need good myths that help us to identify ourselves with our fellow human beings (..), that help us to see the importance of compassion (…) and we definitely need good myths that help us worship the earth as holy again, for if there will not be a spiritual revolution that questions the destructive nature of our technological ingenuity, we will not save our planet.
Armstong looks for the myths within the above mentioned philosophies and religions and how they experience nature.
She mentions similarities and specific characteristics of each separate tradition.
The most connective element she discovers is ‘the holy’, the energy that fills all life and is known in every spiritual tradition, albeit under different names. It is the original power qi, considered by the Chinese people to be unknowable, unspeakable, as
the dim and cohering layers of mysteries.
It is Dao, the source of being, as Lao Zsu writes:
The Dao gave birth to the one. The one to the Two. The Two gave birth to the three. The three as creatures.
It is rta, the mysterious, omnipresent power in old hinduism texts, the Veda’s.
Rta is best understood as an ‘active, creative truth’ or ‘the true being of things. Just as qi and dao, rta was not divine, but a holy, impersonal inspiring force.
Armstrong is careful about giving ‘the holy’ names. She prefers to join with the poets William Wordsworth and Coleridge, who bring the holy presence so much closer through describing their experience in the natural world. Wordsworth carefully uses the word ‘something’, a vague reference for a reality that he does not want – and cannot – define.
I also experienced a state of unity that confused me with the joy of an exalted thinking; the high awareness of something that mingled itself much more profoundly, and abides in the light of the setting sun, the round ocean, the trembling wind, the blue sky and human mind; a whirling and a spirit, the pulse of everything we can possibly think of and is ever thought, flowing through everything.
Do not those poetic lines, she asks, remind us more of Rta, Atman, Brahman, Qi and Dao than of the modern, western God? If we would be able to see the holy within nature again and allow it to enter into our lives, it would nourish our soul and might become a fundamental ingredient to ‘rise above the world crisis’.
She therefore closes each chapter with the words ‘on the way ahead’, thus providing similar thoughts and advice based on every spiritual current. Thus every chapter offers
a building stone’ that will help us to allow a new attitude towards the natural world to bloom open within us or to re-discover it, thus deepening our spiritual dedication to the environment.
What matters is, she writes, that those insights and habits are integrated into our life, so that they also effectuate a change in our heart and in our mind.
How could we retain a more concrete vision of a holy nature?
Firstly, according to Armstrong, by changing our perception of ‘God’. Instead of seeing ‘Him’ as limited to the distant heaven, we should look at the old – and still widely spread – concept of the divine as an unspeakable but dynamic inner presence, flowing through all things.
Subsequently we need to practice what the Chinese call ‘sitting still’, and learn to notice the ordinary life and become aware of the way everything coheres with everything. How birds and leaves, clouds and wind join together, in harmony.
We should develop a mentality that ‘observes and so gets educated’. In doing so, we need to learn to be silent and in it experience the magnificence of an unspeakable presence of ‘something’. We need to develop compassion for the other and for the earth.
Because compassion liberates us from the prison of our ego, we can reach an experience of the state of being different – the holyness – of what we call God.
Armstrong investigates what the Greek call kenosis, the ‘emptying’ of oneself, she points at the practice of anata, ‘selfless-ness’, that was favoured by the Buddha, at islam, which in essence means ‘surrender’, at the non-violence from the Indian traditions, which prohibits any form of damaging others or the self.
She refers to Job, who overcomes his despair.
‘Mankind may think it is the centre of the universe’, as God states, ‘but the animals have much nobler values than the people who exploit them’.
God reveals a cosmic order to Job of dazzling beauty. It forces Job to face the inadequacy of his vision.
In Philippi, Paul points out self-renunciation to his followers.
We must, concludes Armstrong, commit ourselves to a profound partnership, a tri-unity of heaven, earth and humanity. In this way, and only in this way, the holy that flows through everything, with which everything is imbued, can be found again.
If we want to stop the environmental crisis, first of all, we need to search for a silent receptiveness for the natural world – like Coleridge – by bringing it bit by bit into our life, day by day. (…)
Submersed in nature you will see and hear: the sweet forms and sounds, fathomable in your God’s eternal language, which already is expressing itself in everything, and all things in themselves.
What happens in this book is incredibly beautiful. Armstrong, searching for the holy, unearths the core, the soul of every religious and wisdom tradition, therewith maybe unnoticeably showing what connects them and the importance of religion: connection with what is larger than yourself. She is an investigator of religions, however, she does not hesitate to take the poetic language of Wordsworth and Coleridge as a guiding thread throughout the book. She chooses to address the heart. A magnificent choice, for within the centre of our life system, in our heart, resides – still hidden – the holy. There the inner, holy nature waits and knocks. It is special how she acknowledges the place for the Chinese religious tradition, Daoism, even though it does not have a Genesis story like other religions.
Particularly because of that and because Daoism emanates from ‘the one’, the unspeakable and unknowable source of being, it is very close to the simple state of the holy. Just as the poets, Lao Zu had caught a glimpse, as Armstrong writes, of a dynamic power in the heart of every day’s existence.
She points at what is beyond the words, beyond what usually is called religion, at the holy, which can be experienced in stillness. But she does more. When she writes that
Heaven and earth – the cosmos that encompasses our material world – and the ten-thousand things,
are stages in the evolution of Dao itself, she beholds a magnificent and vast perspective. The earth is not stand-alone. It participates in the development within the cosmos, in eternity, and the development of Dao itself. Everything in that development waits for the earth and all its inhabitants, until they too will recognize the holy nature in everything, acknowledge it and take their places on the Holy Earth, which already exists.
Armstrong zooms in on the same perspective in the conversation between Job and God. While Job experiences darkness and death and is locked in his human self-centredness, God shows him a cosmos and a nature of gigantic grandiosity, bubbling with energy, beauty and life, and then God asks:
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Job does not speak, is still and experiences a presence far beyond his understanding. ‘Where were you?’ Is this not a question that still touches everyone of us? What is your place in that magnificence?
I can imagine that for someone who is reading the book, the question might arise whether ‘those tiny practices proposed by Armstrong would be sufficient to turn the current climate crisis’.
When reading the book, comparable words of the sage Hermes Trismegistos came to my mind, like
everything is full of soul
nature is anchored in God.
Hermes too sees how the divine expresses itself in nature.
Would you say now: God is invisible? Who reveals himself more than God? For he has created everything so that you will know him through all of his creations.
‘Knowing God?’ This makes my heart leap, I wonder what it means ‘knowing God’. According to me this follows the lines of Armstrong’s writing but into which she does not go deeper :
in this process we will develop new habits of spirit and heart.
Yes, the heart knows. In the heart, gnosis speaks, the wisdom and the love of the soul, of the centre of the microcosm that I inhabit. And I experience, while my soul, my inspiration, liberates itself from material thinking, feeling and acting, it renews itself step by step through other thoughts, a new spirit, flowing in.
Spirit is all-encompassing, all-saving, liberating and healing,
says Hermes. How true! With this spiritual development I place my foot on the evolutionary bow in the cosmos. And with Hermes I speak to the holy, the divine:
Your man wants to be holy with you, whereto you have given him all the power.
And with Lao Zu:
I wish to live according to your great and wise example, knowing that I am linked to the divine plan of creation.
That is more than just a reconciliation with nature. The liberated spiritual light radiates over the modest that I do. Before my consciousness, that light lifts up the earth and its people from confusion and darkness of the time. That is healing!
A rich and fascinating book with an inspiring message, founded in a broad knowledge of religion. The discovery of the holy in nature leads to the liberation of the holy depth within yourself, to a meaningful spiritual path. I would like to read more.
Once there was a time when meadow, forest and stream, the earth, and all that appears to us, seemed to be clothed in heavenly light, the lustre and purity of a dream. It is no longer as it was before; whereto I turn, at night or during the day, what I have seen then, I do not see it anymore today.
Oh, the one life within us and outside of us, that affects all movement and becomes her soul, a light in sound, a power force in light, rhythm, in every thought, full of joy, everywhere.
It is of the utmost importance that hearts and minds will change if we are to once more learn to revere our beautiful and fragile planet, which, contrary to human tribulation, does not harm others.
Karen Armstrong (‘Sacred Nature’)
About the author:
Karen Armstrong (1944, Wildmoor, Worcestershire) is a British author and one of the most prominent and most often read authors in the area of religion. She is especially known among scientists who study religion and related studies, but also known by those who with an interest in religion and spirituality read her books.
Her work has been translated into forty languages and includes several bestsellers. She has specialized in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Characteristic of her work is her liberal view on the phenomenon religion.
From 1969 to 1972 she was a nun in the English order ‘The community of the Holy Child Jesus’. Already during this period she started to study English literature at the University of Oxford. After having left the convent she finished her study. Since that time she has been a writer. In the foreword of the book ‘A History of God’ she writes:
Religion never was a spiritual attitude that was bound to an originally secular human nature by manipulating rulers and priests, but it was already part of man as from creation.
In 1999 the Islamic Centre of Southern California honourably awarded her for her work. In 2008 she received the ‘Four Freedoms Award’ for freedom of religion and in 2017 an honourable doctorate at the Free University of Amsterdam.
Among other books she wrote: ‘A History of God, the four-thousand year quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (1995)‘, ‘The Gospel according to Women’, (1997), ‘The battle for God (2000), ‘A short history of myth’ (2005). ‘Twelve steps to a compassionate life’ (2017).
Her most recent book is The sacred nature’ (2022). In this book she explores how we can restore the relationship with our natural environment.