Ecology and Religion
May 04, 2003
The heavens are telling the glory of God,
And the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard;
Yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
Which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
And like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
And its circuit to the end of them;
And nothing is hid from its heat.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came and tested Jesus by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times." (Matthew 16:1-3)
Reading from Swedenborg
The pattern of creation shows that there is a chain of connections from beginning to end so complete that all creation taken together forms a single whole. What comes before cannot be separated from what comes after, just as causes cannot be separated from their effects. This means that the spiritual world cannot be separated from the material world, or vice versa. (The Last Judgment #9)
Each year at Earth Day we hear concerns about health issues, pollution, the sustainability of our natural resources, and even justice issues, as toxic dumping is traced to economically deprived and racially defined communities. We hear talk of stewardship, responsibility, caring, planning for the future, and our interdependence with the earth.
To be sure, there is something right and good about maintaining the health and integrity of the planet--the natural world. But without a larger context for our efforts, confusion and competition continue to reign, and real change and renewal will tarry. Without a spiritual context in which to ground our concerns about nature, real progress is not made. For example, many people continue to tolerate high levels of toxic pollution as long as it is "not in my backyard." Some people advocate a rejection of all technology as dangerous and harmful, while others embrace it as our salvation. Until we have a better understanding of the role of nature in the context of our lives as spiritual beings, the confrontation and debate--and the pollution--will continue.
Nature is used in the Bible differently than in a scientific or purely ecological sense. The word "nature" as we know it (the realm of time and space, of material, non-mental being) cannot be found in the Old or New Testament. For these pre-scientific people, life was ultimately one experience, within which the dynamic activity of body-spirit took place. There was nothing that was unrelated to or independent from God, the Creator. All things came out of and returned to this source.
It was precisely this unity that allowed for the development of scripture, or the Word. The language of correspondences was not an ingenious device or invention, but an intuitive, spontaneous response to human experience. It involved seeing all things as spiritual experiences first and foremost, and relating all things to that experience. Nature was the language of the spirit--the outward appearance that revealed the qualities of the inward reality. Always, nature was used to point to a higher, spiritual dimension. Clouds were not categorized as nimbus or cirrus, reported on and then filed away; clouds were spokespersons for God! In the same way, the references to dominating and subduing nature have nothing to do with control of the external environment, and everything to do with the growth and development of our internal environment; with integrating and ordering spiritual forces and qualities; with growing our souls.
What is the value of the earth, of nature, of the body for us? Is it imprisoning and evil? Is it merely fading and temporal? Is it ultimate reality, the source of our happiness and fulfillment? Is it simply "there," like all matter, needing no explanation, containing no deeper meaning? Is it merely the object of our care? Or is there something more to it? How should we regard it?
As always, we look for the value of anything in its use, in the way it functions within the larger context in which it exists. This larger context is God's creation, the ultimate purpose of which is to form a heaven from the human race--a dynamic, living environment in which love and truth are shared and cultivated. It is within this larger, spiritual context that nature--the earth--performs two distinct but related functions or uses.
The first is to serve as an image or model for our own inner, psycho-spiritual growth, reflecting the qualities of spirit in the mirror of nature. This achieves its highest expression in the Word, which throughout uses nature as a metaphor for the spirit.
The second function or use of nature is to provide a plane on which our intentions and beliefs are expressed--where they are made concrete and actual. Here, nature provides the environment in which reformation and regeneration can occur; where we can act in freedom and according to reason, exercising compassion and caring--or, if we choose, greed and carelessness. In either case, the motives we act on help to shape and form our inner identity, which is our spiritual character that will endure after the body ceases to function. Nature is thus our ladder back to God--the means of our ascent. As Goethe said:
God did not retire to rest after the well known six days of creation, but on the contrary is constantly active as at first. It would have been for him a poor occupation to compose this heavy world out of simple elements, and to keep it rolling in the sunbeams from year to year, if he had not had the plan of founding a nursery of spirits.
Swedenborg is very clear on this use of nature. He describes a great chain of being in which all things have their beginning and end in God: "The uses of all created things ascend by degrees from the lowest things to humanity, and through humanity to God the Creator, from whom they are" (Divine Love and Wisdom #65). Later in the same book he writes:
The purpose of creation takes form in the lowest things. This purpose is that all things may return to the Creator, and that there may be a union. . . .
The universal purpose, or the purpose of all creation, is that there may be an eternal union of the Creator with the created universe. This is not possible unless there are "subjects" in which his divinity can dwell and abide as though it were in itself. In order for these subjects to be his dwelling places and mansions, they must be seemingly independent recipients of his love and wisdom. They must be able to raise themselves to the Creator as if by themselves, and unite themselves with him. Without this element of mutuality, no union is possible. These ""subjects"" are human beings, who are able to elevate and unite themselves apparently on their own. . . .
Through this union, the Lord is present in every work he has created; for everything has been created for humanity as its goal. Therefore the uses of all created things ascend step by step from the lowest things to human beings, and through human beings to God the Creator, from whom are all things.
Creation progresses continually toward this final goal. (Divine Love and Wisdom #167, 170, 171)
In simple terms: What is it all for? Creation was originally an emanation from God outward; a process in which his infinity was rendered more and more finite, discrete, and particular. From this initial limiting act, nature then evolved into higher and higher forms--from mineral to plant to animal life. In each case, in all created things, what is lower serves what is higher. Minerals nourish plants, which in turn nourish animals. With this, the first step of creation is complete, and nature exists. It is a perfect image of its Creator, but asleep to his presence, and unaware that it is alive.
With the emergence of human beings, though, nature takes on an entirely new use beyond the mechanical routines of instinct and self-preservation. Nature is seen as an appearance, an image containing deeper meaning, and with a tale to tell. The perception of the spiritual within nature, of the divine within the human, of the path of regeneration, marks the next step in this process of forming a heaven from the human race. In nature we find not only a reflection of our own natural being, but an image of our inner, spiritual being. The three levels of nature--mineral, vegetable, and animal--correspond to the three levels of our minds: the natural, spiritual, and celestial. Nature offers us a dim reflection of the wholeness and diversity that exists potentially within us. The Lord is indeed present in every work created by him, unconsciously reflected in the world of nature, and freely apprehended in human experience.
As creation is an emanation proceeding out of God, so our regeneration marks a return to God, the re-creation of humanity in God's image, the fulfillment of providence, and unity with the Divine. This is only accomplished as we engage the outer world as spiritual beings, and not mere natural beings. Liberated from instinct, we are both free and responsible. We must engage the outer world, including the environment, with maturity and integrity, compassion and insight, care and commitment. Should we fail to do so, the pollution of our environment, like the corruption of our institutions, will be but a pale reflection of the inner contamination of our spiritual environment, from which there is no escape. This is why the church is wise to see environmental degradation in terms of justice issues, in terms of its impact on the neighbor--for the two are inseparably linked.
"Everything has been created for humanity as its goal." Nature's use is to aid in the process of regeneration. It does this in two ways, as we have said: by providing an external image or reflection of this process, and by being the context or plane in which this process is carried out. These two uses or functions are inseparable. Each leads back to the other in a cycle of wholeness. The Word reminds us of our spiritual identity and task in the world; and nature itself, with its beauty and order and selfless endurance, suggests to us the potential for such qualities within us. If we could but read the signs of the times!
How can we account for both nature and spirit; for science and faith; for calculation and hope; for our experience of finitude and our intimations of immortality? How can we account for the fact that this world is and is not our home?
True religion involves a tension--a tension born of uniting our dual nature into one life. Real religion saves us from metaphysical speculation, from pie in the sky theology that sees nature as illusory, unreal, and merely temporal. Such thinking leads to an apathetic and neglectful attitude toward the environment. Religion also saves us from a simplistic materialism, which sees nature as the "be all and end all" of our existence, and which turns to the premise of technology, social engineering, and the quantification of human need. Such thinking leads inevitably to the domination and abuse of nature--much of which we are living with now. We cannot heal the earth without healing ourselves, and vice versa.
Ecology and religion have never been separate concerns. Rather, it is we who are dichotomized, finding our identity now in the world, and now in God. It is we who are confused by the apparent differences, unable to the see the vital, organic unity between nature and spirit. It is we who must overcome this division within ourselves. Only then will effective action begin to flow outward, benefiting our neighbors as well as the earth on which we live.
"O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (Psalm 8:1). That is to say, how mystical, how alive is this world when seen from with the spiritual eyes of our understanding; when God is revealed as the source and goal of all things, the beginning and the end; when we see all things embedded in the flow of God's providence, wholeness, self-giving, and eternal being; when we see more deeply what it means to say that sacrifice and rebirth is the way of life.
When we see the world in this way, we gain a new understanding of nature, its use, and our relationship with it. We find that nature is neither ultimate reality nor an irrelevant illusion. Our stewardship of nature is a necessary but insufficient step in our regeneration. It is not "saving" in itself, but it is part of the journey of salvation; part of responding to God's call to wholeness.
Eternal Creator, as we look around this world in which you have placed us, and survey our own relationship with it, we find that we have put ourselves in opposition to the laws of nature just as we have put ourselves in opposition to the laws of spiritual life. Expand our minds, we pray, to see your divine purposes in all of creation. Guide us in understanding and abiding by all of your laws, so that both we and our world may be made whole. Amen.
Rev. Robert McCluskey