By Jim Harding
In Part 1 I chronicled lessons from my work with the inter-faith group Kairos. I explained that on my reflective walk up the coulee on our land I again realized how important it is to continually work to build community. Here I want to return to that walk to explore a better understanding of faith, hope and environmental activism.
THIRD MEDITATION: OF THE LAND
A major realization that surfaced with such clarity on this walk was how much my basic makeup and what I will call my spirituality depends upon having an ongoing, open relationship with the land.
This has profound implications for our “human” identity. We are after all a land-based creature living on a mostly ocean-covered planet that supports and shapes most of earth’s life forms, which are water-based. In this sense we are sort of a “minority group” species that has arrogantly acted as though we can run the whole show. We are rediscovering how we are also a water-based creature that has learned to survive on the land and in the atmosphere.
I am always more in touch with my deeper “self” when I am right on the land, which is likely why I have always tried to live on the land rather than on a “lot”. Even when we lived on an urban lot I tried to understand the land upon which the settlement was constructed.
This likely started with powerful bonding experiences with the land during childhood. Indigenous and settler communities share different versions of being attached to the land. The shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture, especially industrial farming, has clearly further separated people from “the land” which can then come to be seen as a commodity. The resource extraction industries go even further in this regard.
Meanwhile people living in urban environments are realizing that they also live on the land and on watersheds and that the city is actually in the country. This is all good for we now know that such bonding with natural systems and other creatures is a critical stage in healthy human development. However, we are also beginning to see that at least in the short-term the new temptations of our digital age may actually stunt this level of development.
The deepening self-awareness that comes with the connection to the land is not only about where we are and what we are doing, but about “who” is doing it. As I walked the coulee trail I was highly conscious of being a two-legged being, realizing that my thoughts about “environment”, “faith” and “hope” all occurred from this footing. We highly cerebral humans are very inclined to over-generalize and even to try to universalize our views. Yet our interpretations and worldviews are actually being shaped by our evolved makeup. We carry within our nature and our mode of consciousness our heritage as a bipedal mammal and primate.
If we don’t clearly see ourselves and act in terms of this shared nature and capacity, with a certain amount of humility towards other creatures and overall “creation”, we can clearly really mess things up. Our big brain neuro-plasticity, our far-reaching technologies and our collective prowess can undermine the conditions of our own security and hope. In just a few generations the cumulative impacts from human colonization, militarization and industrialization of the planet have begun to undermine our own faith in the future. In just the last 40 years, less than one-half of my life time, half of the world’s wildlife has disappeared through a combination of forces that continue to degrade the life-bearing habitats of this planet.
HUMANITY GONE “WILD”
Is this humanity “gone wild”? I don’t mean wild in the sense of recognizing ourselves as straddling the wilderness in our evolved makeup, but wild in the sense of us thinking we can establish dominion over all nature. It’s not simply a postulation that we are inherently interconnected with the biosphere which maintains the conditions of our survival and wellbeing. It is biologically and ecologically true. This interconnection is far more basic than the connections through the globalization of communications we are presently so enamored by.
We carry about 3 pounds of microbes throughout our bodies that help with metabolism and other necessary biological functions. In this sense we are an environment within environments. A few of these microbes can be dangerous to our health, which is why we need to see and treat our health in terms of maintaining balances with our environment. Chinese medicine is more prone to approach “sickness” in this manner. We can help throw that balance off course with aggressive, toxic military and industrial activities. We are still quite ignorant about all our impacts on our environmental home, but ultimately our human health depends upon us protecting environmental health.
The attempt at dominion over the earth may, at the deepest level be the source of our collective dis-ease. And we are now being challenged to start to unravel this mess and to try to find our way through our dysfunctional institutions, communities and even families. We are challenged to find our way through destructive market fixations and dead-ends, and through mesmerizing technological toys which can be viewed as “false gods”. We are challenged to find our way through all the monotheistic quarrels about church and state, about theism and creation, about theocracy and secular democracy which have historically piled up on us. To do this we need to better ground ourselves with each other as neighbours in common action but also to better ground ourselves with the land itself.
There seems to be no short-cut. We’ve built up a lot of baggage, including from our particular cultural-ethnic-religious heritages that may continue to make us feel special or unique. Colonization has left us in an historical quagmire that challenges us to reunite humanity as one diverse creature that acts with respect towards all other creatures. This journey may at first seem overwhelming. Is there any other choice if we wish to make peace with each other and with the natural world?
FOURTH MEDITATION: MORPHIC COMMUNITY
This presents a most basic challenge in terms of undertaking environmental action with newfound faith and hope. We now know, through integrated science, that we share a basic elemental nature with all life in the earth’s biosphere. In particular we share a common genetic and functional heritage with the primates, of which we are the one that apparently has run amuck. There should be no surprises at the popularity of the film series Planet of the Apes.
But we also now know that we do not have any monopoly on sentience and that we experience sympathy and compassion with many other species, not only primates and canines but mammals and birds of all shapes and forms. Our common co-evolution and what can be seen as a common “brain” has created “morphic” fields of emotion and communications. It is possible to experience ourselves as interconnected, open, loving energy, rather than as separate, lonely observer-strangers on this planet.
However, we can’t continue to see ourselves as “god’s special creatures”. Simply put, we are not a righteous or a privileged species. Seeing ourselves as fallen may be helpful as a metaphor, but I think there is more hope and more grounded faith forthcoming if we learn to “stand tall” without shame. Let’s look at what’s around us with an open heart. If anything, sentience seems to pervade the biosphere. We might even say that “mind” is something that exists more between us than within us. This can be a very hopeful reframing of ourselves and our relationships on this planet.
Does this shift require us re-exploring what we mean by creation, faith, hope and by “god” itself? Does it perhaps also mean that inherited notions of both “theism” and “a-theism” are also up for re-crafting? We don’t all have to undertake this important spiritual re-clarifying work to be able to take action with grounded faith and reliable hope. But this work will continue to be done as part of the present quest for sustainability. And dare I say, for our salvation.
Part 3 will come next.