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Finding the Locus Between Faith and Ecology

Review of A Sacred Trust: Ecology & Spiritual Vision, based on a series of lectures organized by the Prince's Foundation and the Temenos Academy. Edited by David Cadman and John Carey The Temenos Academy & The Prince's Foundation, London

Thoughtful people have always understood the connection between nature and spirituality. But in terms of an explicit connection between organized religion and the conservation movement, an important milestone came in 1987, when the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) invited global religions to participate in an interfaith event at Assisi, Italy, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Fund.

The idea of involving the religions in conservation work stemmed from the realization that the great majority of the world's peoples, especially at the grassroots level, can perhaps best be motivated to embrace environmentalism if they see it as connected to their religious belief, which is for many the most important thing in their lives.

Since Assisi, there has been an ever enlarging body of thought on the intersection between faith and ecology. At first, the focus was on showing what the scriptures of each religion had to say about protecting the environment; later, there came more complex explorations of the locus between the two realms.

Into this latter realm of increasingly deep exploration falls the new book, A Sacred Trust: Ecology & Spiritual Vision, which was recently published by The Prince's Foundation - an organization established by Prince Charles, HRH the Prince of Wales, and the Temenos Academy, of which Prince Charles is patron.

Based on a series of lectures organized by the Foundation and the Academy, and introduced with a preface from Prince Charles himself, A Sacred Trust features essays by more than a dozen leading thinkers whose work has touched on the junction between faith and ecology.

Edited by David Cadman and John Carey, the book includes contributions by Wendell Berry, Suheil Bushrui, Edward Goldsmith, Brian Goodwin, Satish Kumar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Jeremy Nadler, Kathleen Raine, Philip Sherrard, and Vandana Shiva. Among them, they cover religious traditions or backgrounds that include the Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Jainism.

Although the contributors are quite diverse in their backgrounds, styles and approaches (Ms. Raine's offering is a poem), a unifying theme nevertheless emerges. As summarized by Mr. Cadman, the common theme is that "we must come to see the world as related, connected, and whole; that all that is is part of an intricate web of causation and dependency; and, indeed, that we should see ourselves as 'a part of' and not 'apart from.'"

This theme of interconnectedness goes beyond traditional ecological holism that stresses the interdependence of earthly life; rather, the essays in A Sacred Trust explore the deep connection between the "material world" and the spiritual one - and the implications that necessarily has for ecology.

The opening essay by the late Philip Sherrard, a founder of the review Temenos and a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, sets the stage by criticizing the dominant "techno-scientific" culture that would have modern man believe that only the day-to-day material world matters.

On the contrary, Mr. Sherrard writes, "[a]ll that is in the natural world, then, from its minutest particle to the constellations, the whole and each particular of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, is nothing but a kind of representational theatre of the spiritual world, where each thing exists in its true beauty and reality," writes Mr. Sherrard.

"The spiritual world is not another world set apart from the natural world," he adds. "It intermingles and co-exists with, and constitutes the invisible dimension of, the natural world."

Without this understanding, he writes, true knowledge of reality will always elude us and the environmental crisis will be impossible to solve.

Satish Kumar builds on this theme. He offers a Jain perspective on reverence for life and suggests that part of our current environmental crisis stems from an arrogance that fails to see that "the material and the spiritual" are "parts of a continuum." If, however, we look at the earth as a "sacred trust" that entails responsibility for all living beings and for future generations, we will be less likely to take the earth for granted.

Vandana Shiva draws on Hindu scriptural references and rituals that uphold the sacred and spiritual nature of food. Her essay advocates the rejection of global industrialized agriculture in favor of organic methods of food production. Industrial agriculture, she writes, with its emphasis on petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, not only poisons the soil but also the life forms - such as earth worms - upon which sustainable agriculture is dependent.

Seyyed Hosssein Nasr's essay makes perhaps the most bold assertion of the importance of religion and spirituality in resolving the environmental crisis, writing that "without the resuscitation" of the "religious and metaphysical view of nature, everything else we say about the environmental crisis is just cosmetics and politics."

He argues that the materialistic/scientific/modernist world-view has severed not only the relationship between God and man, but also between man and nature - and in this way has helped precipitate the environmental crisis.

"…the environmental crisis cannot be solved by good engineering (or better engineering), cannot solved by economic planning, cannot even be solved by cosmetic changes in our conception of development and change," he writes. "It requires a very radical transformation in our consciousness, and this means not discovering a completely new state of consciousness, but returning to the state of consciousness which traditional humanity always had. It means to rediscover the traditional way of looking at the world of nature as sacred presence."

The essay by Suheil Bushrui, holder of the Bahá'í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, in many ways ties together some of the common themes of the others, and, in essence, offers a plan of implementation. For it goes on to assert that that ultimate spiritual ideal for humanity today - and something that is equally necessary for the protection of the environment and a balancing of human needs - is the creation of a unified world commonwealth.

"A consciousness of the oneness of creation and of the mutuality of the material and spiritual elements of society, and the counterpart of such consciousness in action - its beneficent expression in our wise use and care of the environment - are dependent on humanity's unity," he writes.

And to create and reap the benefits of such unity, writes Dr. Bushrui, "[o]nly a 'world federal system' animated by concern for all the people of the world will enable mankind to arrange its economic, material and social life in a manner concomitant with justice for all peoples and the duty of reverence towards the earth…"

Such a system, he writes, tempered by spiritual principles and ethical ideals such as "the sense of belonging to one earth," would "generate new thinking about the mutuality of the physical and spiritual activities of which the planet is the joyous and holy site..."

A Sacred Trust is, then, a significant contribution to the growing literature that connects religion and ecology. Indeed, the range and depth of exploration found in the volume's essays offer a persuasive brief on the degree to which any successful approach to sustainable development in today's world must encompass the realms of spirituality and religious belief.

Reprinted from ONE COUNTRY, the newsletter of the Bahá'í International Community.© 1996 the Bahá'í International Community. ISSN 1018-9300

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