Heaven on earth: to stop climate change, revere nature
Over many years, we have become increasingly aware of the damage we are inflicting on the natural environment—and the potentially drastic impact on human life. The Earth’s climate has continually altered over the millennia; but this has always been a slow process and we are now seeing rapid changes. Global temperatures and sea levels are rising at an alarming rate, entirely due to human activity. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it is trapped and causes the Earth’s temperature to rise. Unless this is checked, human life will be imperilled. Water shortages will make it increasingly hard to produce food. Some regions will become dangerously hot, while rising sea levels will make others uninhabitable. Already, polar ice and glaciers are melting fast. Scientists have set a temperature increase of 1.5°C as the “safe” limit for global warming. If the temperature goes any higher, human life as we know it will be impossible.
Climate change is no longer an alarming possibility; it has become a fearful reality, as soaring temperatures in India and flooding in the US last summer attest. Disaster can be averted only if we change the way we live. This crisis has been caused by our modern way of life, which, despite its considerable achievements, is fatally flawed. We are beginning to realise that the way we live now, for all its benefits, not only inhibits human flourishing but threatens the survival of our species. We must change not only our lifestyle but our belief system. We have ransacked nature, treating it as a mere resource, because over the last 500 years we have cultivated a worldview that is very different from that of our forebears.
When the 12th-century Crusaders and pilgrims finally arrived in what they called the “holy land,” they fell on their knees, weeping aloud and kissing the ground. Local Christians were astonished: “What are they doing?” they asked. “Don’t these foreigners understand that all land is holy!” The Confucian literati were equally baffled in the 17th century when the Jesuits brought European science to China. They were fascinated by the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, but could not accept the strange western idea of a god boxed into a remote heaven on the outskirts of the cosmos that he had supposedly created. The west, they concluded, was proficient in “material investigation” but did not understand what the Chinese called qi.
Qi is not a god; it is neither spiritual nor physical. Instead, qi is a vital force that pervades and vivifies the world, linking plants, animals and humans in a sacred whole that enables them to fulfil their potential. For the Chinese there was no creator as such, and no gulf between the human and divine or heaven and earth: rather, heaven, earth and humanity formed a sacred triad that was organic, holistic and dynamic. This was not dissimilar to the Dao or “way” venerated by Chinese Daoists, a sacred force that unobtrusively makes everything what it is and what it ought to be. Indefinable, all-powerful, lying beyond the reach of the senses, it is constantly at work in the natural world.
Dao and qi are therefore very different from Yahweh, the personified god of the Hebrew Bible, who creates the world by issuing a series of commands. But they closely resemble the ancient Indian concept of Rta: a sacred, impersonal, animating force. Like qi, Rta flows ceaselessly and expansively into the natural world, bringing into being the tripartite universe consisting of earth, sky and heaven. The fact that for centuries people in different parts of the world developed such a remarkably similar conception of the ultimate reality suggests that it is perhaps an archetypal notion embedded in the human psyche.
Similar images have appeared in other religious traditions. In Jewish mysticism, for example, the Kabbalah depicts the natural world emanating stage by stage “out of God”: God is said to have created everything “out of nothing,” but this was not a blank emptiness because God was being itself; it was “nothing” only in human terms, because the innermost core of divinity remains forever unknowable, bearing no relation to anything in our human experience. Similarly, the 6th-century Greek theologian who called himself Denys the Areopagite (after St Paul’s first Athenian convert) depicted the creation as orgasmic, bursting from God like a volcanic eruption. But while lava hardens and cools the further it flows, each being remains in close contact with the divine.
In the west we have developed a worldview that separates the material from the psychological
Significantly, none of these notions were developed scientifically but were expressed in poetry, visionary experience and song. Religion is essentially an art form. Rta, the Indic root of the English “harmony” and “art,” can be translated as the “artfulness” of all being. Rta also brought forth the gods—the devas—who, as products of Rta, were artists who imagined the world into being, translating their ideas into physical clouds, grass, mountains and trees.
But after ordering the world, the devas did not retire to heaven. Instead, they took up residence in the natural phenomena they had created and dwelt permanently within them. So every bird, animal or flower embodied a divinity; everything in our world had a sacred core. Later, the Aryans developed the poetic ideas of the rishis more philosophically, and renamed Rta as the Brahman, the “foundation” of reality. The Brahman was the Atman, the “Self,” of every thing and every person. This ultimate reality was also the sacred core of our own selves. Hence in India, people still greet each other by joining their hands and bowing to acknowledge this divine presence—the sacred “Self” that they share with nature.
This concept seems so deeply embedded in us that even a religion such as Buddhism—which had originally focused on enabling humans to liberate themselves from the inherent sorrow of life—eventually developed its own vision of sacred nature in China and Japan. Here the Buddhata or “Buddha-Nature”—the potential to achieve enlightenment—is the essence of the entire cosmos. It is a force that unites all beings—plants, animals, trees, mountains and humans. Every single being has the same sacred potential. Each in its own distinctive way is not only striving for enlightenment, but achieving it.
In the modern west, however, we have developed an analytical worldview, which separates the material from the psychological and spiritual—and this has enabled us to achieve great things technologically. We do not, however, consider the natural world as sacred. Instead, we have used it primarily as a resource and we are beginning to count the cost. If we want to save the planet, we must learn to revere it rather than treating it as a commodity. This western attitude is partly due to monotheism, the belief that a single god—rather than a sacred force like qi—is the ultimate reality. Instead of regarding the sacred as a ubiquitous potency, Jews and Christians experienced the divine in specific historical events, such as the exodus from Egypt or the life of Christ. And at the very beginning of the Hebrew Bible, God gives the first humans dominion over our surroundings: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on Earth” (Genesis 1:28).
But not all monotheists have lorded it over the natural world. The sanctity of nature was deeply embedded in the Greek mind. Artemis, the goddess of the wilderness and wild animals, was worshipped throughout Greece and her temple in Ephesus was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Even after converting to Christianity, Greeks continued to sacralise nature. Socrates’ last words to his friends, before he drank the hemlock, was a paean in praise of the natural world.
In Islam, too, the natural world is a source of revelation that is equal to the Quran, which insists that nature is God’s prime miracle. Muslims are ordered to meditate on the “signs” (ayat) in the world of God’s concern for humankind that are evident every single day:
Let man consider the food he eats. We pour down abundant water and cause the soil to split open. We make grain grow, and vines, fresh vegetation, olive trees, date palms, luscious gardens, fruits and fodder—all for you and your livestock to enjoy (Quran, 80:24-32)
Muslims should revere the natural world: “It is God who splits the grain and the date-stone, brings forth the living. That then is God” (6:95). Muslims are far more impressed by the divinity inherent in the regular rhythms of nature than in the miracles that subvert the natural order in the Jewish and Christian traditions.
We can learn much from the way people cultivated their love of the natural world in the past
But the sense of nature’s inherent sacrality never took strong root in the west—Francis of Assisi being the great exception—and this indifference became acute in the early modern period. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) argued that if human beings could discover the laws that governed nature, they would be able to exploit the natural world for their own benefit. They could then control and subdue the earth as God had commanded. René Descartes (1596-1650) believed that because the material universe was lifeless, godless and inert, nature could tell us nothing about the divine. There was no awe in his philosophy; indeed, he believed that the role of science was to dispel wonder. In the future, he wrote, people would look at the clouds “in such a way that we will no longer have any occasion to wonder at anything.” The phenomena of nature simply resembled the new machines that were appearing in Europe—clocks, mills and fountains.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was deeply concerned about our increasing estrangement from our surroundings. In his poem “Tintern Abbey,” he tells us that he had “learned” or taught himself to look at the natural world differently. Like a prophet or seer, Wordsworth had come to experience a “presence,” which he would not call “God” because the west had too limited an understanding of the divine. Instead, he uses the word “something,” pointing to a reality that he will not, indeed cannot, define.
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns
And the round ocean and the living air
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought
And rolls through all things.
Nature has become a distant reality to many of us. Today we walk in a place of extreme beauty talking on our mobiles or scrolling through social media. Instead of sitting contemplatively beside a river or gazing in awe at a mountain range, we obsessively take one photograph of the view after another. Rather than allowing the landscape to find an intimate place in our minds and hearts, we are reducing our world to a simulated reality or a commodity that we can exploit.
But all is not lost because, despite our careless and destructive behaviour, we have not entirely lost our love of being outside. People flock to the sea on holiday and walk in the woods or in parks during the weekends—a return to the land that we find restorative. Even in our large, polluted cities, people cherish their garden, a little oasis of nature in the urban desert. Like Wordsworth, we must learn deliberately “to see into the life of things” with a heart that “watches and receives.”
If we want to save the world, recycling is not enough. We need to change the way we think, and we can learn much from the way people cultivated their love of the natural world in the past. The Chinese did this in a practice they called “quiet sitting” (jing zuo) in which you sit comfortably and open your mind and heart to the sights and sounds around you, developing a sense of compassion—of “feeling with” them. Perhaps we could sit in a garden or park for 10 minutes a day, turning our phones off, looking at the birds, flowers, clouds and trees and allowing them to impress themselves on our minds. We can—to an extent—emulate the Jains who carefully avoid inflicting an injury on any creature, however seemingly insignificant, walking cautiously lest they squash an insect. This would mean extending the Golden Rule to include species other than our own and becoming sensitive to the life forces that surround us. In the past, religions helped people to marvel at the intricate rhythms of nature.
If religion is essentially an art form, then in our more secular world some might find that poetry, music or painting will enable us, like Wordsworth, to see into the life of what the Chinese called the wanwu: the sacred “things” of nature.
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