An update on the Reenchanted World: the Greening of Religions through Sacred Earth Theology

The paperback version of James William Gibson’s “A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature“, one of our favourite books, is out.

Here is some additional information:

– an excerpt at Reality Sandwich

– a radio interview on the theme of radical gardening here

Here’s an excerpt with a short history of the greening of religion:

James William Gibson:

“This movement is both a resurrection and a radical expansion of several that came before. In the mid-19th century, a literary subculture arose in New England to protest the rampant killing of wild animals and ecological devastation accompanying westward expansion. Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau challenged both the Protestant concept of a God who was indifferent or even hostile to nature’s creatures and the nation’s dominant frontier-capitalist mentality. For Emerson, nature offered continual revelations of a divine power. For Thoreau, animals and places had value in their own right, each with its own spirit or mystery. “Can he who has discovered the true use of the whale and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale?” he asks in an 1864 essay.

By the 1890s, the political and spiritual heirs to Emerson and Thoreau began to exert real pressure on national politics. John Muir and the newly formed Sierra Club successfully lobbied to make Yosemite a national park and expand its boundaries to nearly 1,200 square miles. Muir also became a highly influential writer, popularizing a kind of “hybrid” discourse that alternated lyrical descriptions of a landscape with scientific references to geology and ecology. This break with accepted conventions separating science and poetry buttressed the idea that nature was neither inert nor dead, but on the contrary alive and awe-inspiring – in a word, enchanted. Generations of nature-writers and landscape photographers (among them Aldo Leopold, Ansel Adams, and Rachel Carson) followed his lead.

After the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, a new generation discovered environmental activism. Native American spiritualism, with its emphasis on sacred places and symbolic or totemic relationships with wild animals, exerted another influence. But despite some significant victories, the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s remained a fringe, dissident formation.

The current movement of re-enchantment is not marginal at all. Today, enchantment takes place on a grand scale, and so many people are involved that it can no longer be dismissed as strange or extreme. Why then, hasn’t the change gotten more attention? In part, because it occurs in such diverse, fragmented ways. Political psychology comprises a second major kind of mental block. Much of the environmental movement remains shell-shocked by the ravages caused by the Bush administration, with its nonstop efforts from 2001 to 2008 to gut the nation’s anti-pollution laws, approve wholesale mountaintop removal in Appalachia, and open up the nation’s public lands in the Rocky Mountains for oil and gas drilling. The Obama administration’s modest environmental agenda, and its failure to rescind many Bush administrative rulings, have helped to sustain a sense of despair. And despair limits awareness.

The truth is, however, that major cultural progress has been made. Consider science and theology, two complex, sophisticated fields. Western science emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries with a call to make nature subordinate to man: “Nature must be ‘bound into service’ and made a ‘slave,’ ‘put in constraint,’ and ‘molded’ by the mechanical arts,” declared Francis Bacon. This paradigm informed science for centuries. By the 1990s, however, increasing numbers of scientists imagined the land and its creatures as equals to themselves in important ways, in the process calling for a new way to frame scientific research. In a typical story, for three years a team of Long Island researchers studying terrapin reproduction made counts of turtle hatchlings on regional beaches and noted how they died – boat propellers, beach sweepers, cars. By 2003, they had come to care so much for the creatures they could no longer remain detached. First the researchers, and later a whole corps of auxiliary helpers, began to move the turtle eggs, sometimes to better locations on the beach, other times to incubators in a laboratory. One leading team member explained: “I started as a scientist. Then I evolved.” Leading biologists came to stress humanity’s common kinship with other species. In E.O. Wilson’s words, “we are literally kin to other creatures,” implying humans have moral obligations to their extended family members.

During this same period, major religions shifted the way they saw God’s relation to the natural world. In 1967, historian Lynn White published “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” in the journal Science. White argued that monotheism developed a notion of God far removed from the world and discredited the animistic idea, long present in hunting and gathering societies, that every animal and place (like a mountain or river) was in some way spiritually alive. When Christianity rejected and repressed animism as demonic heresy, White argued, it “made it possible to exploit nature in a mode of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” White’s short essay provoked an intense, decades-long controversy within the Jewish and Christian communities. Religious scholars and theologians began to research their traditions. They found doctrines that supported White’s thesis, such as the notion that salvation is a personal fate, and takes place in a heaven distant from Earth, but also stories in Jewish and Christian literature that showed God more involved with the planet and its life. Ultimately, liberal theologians developed a doctrine stressing Earth as God’s sacred creation, and by the early 1990s it had won many adherents – including Al Gore. His 1992 book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, discusses the divinity of Earth at great length, and endorses a variety of spiritual traditions, such as Native American thought, under an ecumenical Christian umbrella.

This greening of religion terrified both the business establishment and conservative fundamentalist leaders, and soon sparked a sort of counterrevolution. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal decried beliefs that “the earth is sanctified,” noting with disdain that the idea originated with the Religious Left and was the product of “a secular, or even pagan, fanaticism that now worships such gods as nature and gender with a reverence formerly accorded real religions.” Pat Robertson agreed. “At the very minimum, in treating parts of the Earth as sacred, environmentalists committed the sin of idolatry, violating several important Biblical [sic] injunctions,” he wrote. Robertson also reported that God personally told him to stress man’s authority over the Earth – “He wants him to rule the way he was created to rule…. God gave man a sweeping and total mandate of dominion over this planet and everything in it.” Robertson and his conservative evangelical allies subsequently formed a close alliance with Republican politicians and backed the Bush campaign and presidency, mobilizing their considerable media resources to reach the roughly one-third of adult Americans – some 45 to 50 million people – who consider themselves to be “born again.”

But over time the Republican-Evangelical coalition frayed from internal disputes. Robertson discredited himself by calling for the assassination of Venezuelan president Victor Hugo so as to obtain oil, and declaring 2005’s Hurricane Katrina divine retribution for legalized abortion. A new theology among moderate and some conservative evangelicals called “creation care” emphasized that oceans and forests, fish and tigers, all reflected divine glory. No longer were the harsh concepts of dominion and apocalyptic visions of Earth’s destruction the only evangelical vision. In 2006, some 86 leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals – the most important evangelical organization – formed a new group, the Evangelical Climate Initiative, and issued a call to action for evangelicals to become more engaged in environmental protection. The accompanying report agreed with the scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is a threat, rejecting the Bush administration’s denials. Theologically, the evangelical leaders declared, “This is God’s world, and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself.”

By that time Reform Judaism, most Protestant denominations, and both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches had also embraced a version of sacred Earth and this theology permeated secular culture. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, also released in 2006, begins with photographs of Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts from 1968-1972, beautiful images of a sparkling blue and white planet – Eden – then tells a spiritual drama of how God’s sacred creation has been damaged by human recklessness or sin (paradise lost), and how good works can bring about renewal and salvation: paradise regained.”

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