Studies of religion ignore new upstart: ecospiritualism

Last semester I was fortunate to have attended a lecture at York Chapel in the Divinity School entitled "Religious Origins of the Environmental Crisis" by historian Thomas Berry. He is one of the leading ecospiritual writers of our time, and the lecture also would have been appropriate to have been given at the Nicholas School of the Environment. It is ironic, however, that at the foremost institution for interdisciplinary environmental research in the country there are no formal faculty affiliations with the Divinity School or the Department of Religion. I would like to suggest that this omission is a serious oversight and offer the following evidence in support of the development of such a relationship.

Last spring Thomas Berry's article, "The Future of the University" appeared in the faculty newsletter. In it he stated, "The university, as now functioning, prepares students for their role in extending human dominion over the natural world, not for intimate presence to the natural world... so awesome is the devastation that we are bringing about that we can only conclude that we are caught in a deep cultural pathology... sustained intellectually by the university, economically by the corporation, legally by the Constitution, religiously by the Church."

Berry traces the religious origins of this situation to 1347 when a third of the population of Europe died during the Great Plague. Without an understanding of microbial causes of disease it was assumed that God was punishing the world.

Religious emphasis was placed on separating from the sinful natural world through redemption by a transcendent God. "In this perspective the non-human world was seen only as a mechanism... that could be, and even must be, exploited for human benefit." In contrast, what is required now at the end of the millennium is best described by Thomas Moore in "The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life": "We use the earth and its materials to create a life full of materialistic wonders, but we have lost an appreciation for the earth as a source of our spiritual development and the life of our soul. Oddly, if we want an intensification of spirituality, it might be better to become more intimate with the things of the earth than to build a self in the sky."

An immanent God who exists throughout the whole of nature is necessary for the creation of a sustainable culture. Thanks to Disney's "Pocahontas," now every school child in the country sings "you think you own whatever land you land on. The earth is just a dead thing you can claim. But I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name." In Time Magazine's recent cover story "Jesus On-Line," the emerging Internet religions are noted to have a common pantheistic orientation. "This biophilic notion of a living planet-of Gaia-partly converges, oddly enough, with a kind of technophilia that is indigenous to the Internet. The central notion of technosophy-that life is a technology-has as its flip side the idea that technology is a form of life... if the idea is valid-if indeed fiber optics are living tissue-then it is easier to think of Earth in the Age of Internet as a coherent living system, a giant organism complete with a giant brain."

The Time article concluded by mentioning that "the image of a literal planetary nervous system was laid out a half-century ago as a kind of prophecy by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit mystic whose writings were banned by the Roman Catholic Church. Teilhard envisioned the technological evolution of a 'noosphere'-the thinking envelope of the Earth... 'a sort of etherized universal consciousness' that will lead us at last, to an era of brotherly love." Teilhard was also one of the most respected earth scientists of his day making significant academic contributions to geology and paleontology. He concluded in "The Future of Man" that "the idea, the hope of the planetization of life is very much more than a mere matter of biological speculation. It is more a necessity for our age than the discovery, which we so ardently pursue, of new sources of (physical) energy. It is this idea which can and must bring us the spiritual fire without which all material fires, so laboriously lighted, will presently die down on the surface of the thinking earth: The fire inspiring us with the joy of action and the zest for life."

Larry Burk is an associate professor of radiology.