Huw Spanner explores the role of sacred thinking in spurring respect for the natural world.
The idea of the sacred is nowadays quite alien to the secular West. Some of us still lower our voices if we go into a church, without being entirely sure why, and we all pay lip service to ‘the sanctity of human life’; but that seems to be it. Nature itself has been thoroughly desacralised by our culture – which is perhaps why, almost everywhere, the natural world is being desecrated.
Christian theologian Michael Northcott argues that without a spiritual account of nature “as a place where the divine is revealed”, it will be difficult to come back from the brink of its destruction. It’s unlikely that conservation science will be able to change minds enough to have a real impact on damaging behaviour, he holds – because it colludes with what is at the heart of the problem: that is, the worldview that there are no limits, because nothing is sacred.
Are there, then, more limits when the world is considered to be sacred?
“In all of the Eastern traditions,” explains Satish Kumar, Editor of Resurgence, “God is in everything and everything is divine. We receive the fruit of the Earth as a gift, with gratitude and humility – which is essentially what worship means. And generosity, too, is essential: because we receive so much, we ourselves have to give. And there is one more thing: restraint. Only in restraint is there real freedom – and at the moment Western society has forgotten restraint completely.”
For some, these principles of gratitude, generosity and restraint are just as absent from religious communities in the West as they are from secular ones. Often it isn’t a lack of religion, but the Abrahamic religions themselves that are held to blame for the anthropocentrism that devalues the non-human world.
In these religions, explains the influential German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, “humanity stands between the divine and the earthly: as the image of God, humanity is appointed ruler of the earth”.
But this is not entirely fair, says Lufti Radwan, who runs an organic farm with his wife Ruby, near Oxford.
“In Islam there is a concept of the unity of all creation. So, while we have a particular role in nature, there is no separation between us and nature. Islam does not teach that the world was made for us – in fact, the emphasis goes the other way: we are khalifa, custodians or guardians. We have responsibility.”
Radwan says these Qur’anic principles underpin everything he does as a farmer. Beyond its organic status, he wants the land he farms to be a “haven for wildlife” – a vibrant ecosystem sustaining a wide variety of plants and animals.
“The Soil Association handbook reads like an Islamic testimony on how one should behave”
“The Soil Association handbook reads like an Islamic testimony on how one should behave”, he explains, “only without any references to the Creator. The principles are essentially the same, based on an understanding of how to create balance and harmony.”
And what of Christianity? Andrew Linzey, Professor of Theology at Oxford University and Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, argues that the ‘dominion’ God gives mankind in the book of Genesis has been misinterpreted. As he sees it, the role of mankind on earth has to be understood in the light of the example set by the Lord Jesus, who said, “I am among you as one who serves.” So in other words, just as Jesus serves mankind, humans are called to be the ‘servant species’ in this world.
Many charitable organisations are founded on Christian principles of servitude – such as the animal welfare charity now known as the RSPCA, first set up by Anglican clergymen in 1824. In a similar vein, the conservation charity A Rocha characterises its work as ‘a response to God’s love for his whole creation, revealed in the Bible and personally in Jesus Christ’.
But it would be a stretch to argue that these principles underpin much of what goes on in economies where Christianity is (historically or currently) the dominant faith.
“The fact is”, argues Professor Northcott, “John Stuart Mill is a much more influential philosopher in our culture than Jesus, and even Christians now think in utilitarian terms about what will maximise human happiness. The new ‘sacred’ in our culture is monetary value, and the supposed connection between that and human wellbeing.”
Mary Colwell, environmental adviser to the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, looks to religion to challenge the culture of market economies. “The most important thing religions can do is bring about a change of heart”, she says, “even if it’s getting the next generation to think that the planet is sacred.”
From a Christian faith perspective, she explains: “If you view the tree in front of you as something wonderful, a great holy manifestation of the sacred god – if you don’t just think it’s a potential cardboard box – then you’re likely to treat it differently. Just as if you see someone as a whole person, beyond their role, you’re likely to treat them differently.”
Applying this logic to the need for action in response to climate change, Colwell argues that if you change your behaviour because it’s the right thing to do – and not just in response to a crisis – then this change is more likely to last.
“All faiths have a sense of the long term – of revelation over a journey”, she says. “It’s very different to a campaigning mindset which says, for instance, ‘We have 18 months to eradicate world poverty’.”
David Shreeve, Director of the Conservation Foundation, and also environmental adviser to the Archbishops’ Council, hopes this long-term vision will become more apparent in the actions of the Church.
“Certainly”, he says, “the message from the Church of England’s leaders is [increasingly] that concern for the environment should be fundamental for Christians. Seven or eight years ago, we had one bishop who spoke on environmental issues in the House of Lords. Now, 26 of them want to.”
Huw Spanner is a former editor of the Christian magazine Third Way. Additional material by Anna Simpson.