Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World
Edited by Karen Armstrong
Publisher: New York: Knopf, 2022.
In Sacred Nature, Karen Armstrong, a well-known historian of religion, explores the relationship between the divine, the human, and the natural world as it has been understood throughout human history. She highlights the ways that a reverence for the natural world, as well as an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, have been central to spiritual life in many human cultures. She argues that the current imbalances and destructive behaviours that are causing the climate crisis reflect our disconnection from the roots of human spirituality.
Armstrong finds the historical record of human spirituality as it relates to nature and the world around us mostly in the sphere of myth:
For most of human history there were two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge about the world: mythos and logos. Both were essential for comprehending reality; they were not in opposition to one another, but complementary modes of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence.
Logos, meaning rational, logical thought, “corresponds to objective facts” and is “wholly pragmatic.” Mythos deals with the timeless and is concerned with meaning.
Humans are meaning-seeking creatures. If our lives lack significance, we fall very easily into despair, and it was mythos that introduced people to deeper truths, making sense of their moribund and precarious lives by directing their attention to the eternal and universal.
Today, we tend to dismiss myths as mere stories. To say “it’s just a myth” means that it is not true. Armstrong explains that a myth is not about an event that took place sometime, but about something that is occurring all the time. Its insights are intuitive, like art and poetry. It was mythic understanding that led the sixth-century Confucian sage Zhang Zai to write:
Heaven is my father and earth is my mother
and even such a small creature as I finds
an intimate place in their midst.
Therefore that which fills the universe
I regard as my body
and that which directs the universe
I consider as my nature.
All people are my brothers and sisters, and
all the things in nature are my companions.
It was mythos that led the ancient Greek philosophers to see the cosmos as a living being whose soul gave life and consciousness to all beings. Since the physical cosmos was the “body” of the cosmic soul, all living beings are like limbs of one body. Armstrong points out that the power of myth is realized only when it is put into action. When enacted, it affects us emotionally and aesthetically, forcefully instigating us to change our behaviour. Spiritual practices turn an intuitive mythic understanding into a lived reality. Armstrong notes:
In Japan, Zen Buddhists believe that a single Buddha-Nature exists in the things of nature and that it is inseparable from the human self. The aim of Zen is to cultivate awareness of its existence, making it a reality within oneself.
Zen practice leads to a perception that does not depend on authoritative texts but on one’s own experience – a perception of “the Buddha-Nature in both the natural world and in human beings.”
Armstrong claims that nearly every religious tradition shares “this strong sense of the inherent sacrality” of the natural world and offers ways to engender a realization of this truth among its followers. She begins the book describing tribal cultures stretching back to prehistoric times, highlighting practices that show an awareness of and reverence for a divine presence or force that interpenetrates and enlivens the natural world. The thought processes in these indigenous cultures follow what anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl called “participation” logic, as they “experience not just humans and animals but apparently ‘inanimate’ objects, such as stones and plants, as having a life of their own, each participating in the same mode of existence and influencing each other.”
Taking up religious and philosophical traditions, Armstrong explains that the rishis who composed the earliest Vedas perceived a “mysterious omnipresent power” underlying all that is, which they called “Rta.”
Rta is best understood as “active, creative truth” or “the way things truly are.” Like qi or the Dao, Rta was not a god, but a sacred, impersonal, animating force. It was impossible to describe or define Rta, but it could be experienced as the subtle whole, which flowed from itself expansively, bringing about the cosmos, humans, and the gods themselves. The fact that from most of history people in different parts of the world developed such a remarkably similar conception of this sacred reality suggests that it may be an archetypal notion embedded in the human psyche.
Moving to the Axial Age (roughly 900 BCE to 200 BCE), Armstrong considers elements of beliefs and practices in Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, ancient Greek philosophy, and pagan religion. She notes that this period is called “axial” because “it was pivotal to the spiritual and intellectual development of our species.” Despite their vastly different conceptual structures and modes of expression, many of these traditions share common elements in the way they view the relationship between the divine, the human, and the natural world.
In Islam, somewhat later, Armstrong notes how the Qur’an describes nature as revealing God:
Each verse of the Qur’an is called an ayah, a “sign” of God; but so is every phenomenon of nature. “Do you not see?” the Qur’an asks insistently, almost incredulously. “Have you not considered the extraordinary bounty of nature?”
The Qur’an urges Muslims, Armstrong says, “to make themselves aware of the extraordinary ‘signs’ of God’s concern and compassion that are in evidence every day.”
In chapters on Sacrifice, Kenosis (emptying the self), Gratitude, Ahimsa (non-violence), and the Golden Rule, Armstrong considers human attitudes vital to spiritual development that also shape our relationship with the natural world. In each chapter she explores various religions’ attitudes toward nature through myth, ritual, and scripture. In the chapter on Gratitude, Armstrong cites the well-known prayer of St. Francis:
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my Lord, Brother Sun,
who brings the day and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
As this prayer goes on to praise the Lord through his creatures – the moon, the wind, the water – Armstrong calls it “a beautiful meditation on the natural world.” Armstrong notes: “We may take the ‘Lord’ addressed throughout to be the transcendent force that imbues the whole natural order, which some traditions call ‘God’ but others know as the Dao, the Brahman, or Rta.”
A final chapter, “Concentric Circles,” discusses widening the “circle” of who and what is included in the “others” who, according to the Golden Rule, should be treated as we ourselves would like to be treated. In this chapter she tells how once the Buddha met with the Kalamans, a group who found his teaching difficult intellectually. So he taught them a simple meditative practice. They were to “empty their minds of ill will and envy” and then “direct feelings of loving kindness in all four directions.”
Imbued with “abundant, exalted, measureless loving kindness,” they would break through the barriers that confined them to a limited, self-bound worldview and – even if just for a moment – experience an ekstasis that took them out of themselves.
Even apart from spiritual growth, Armstrong argues, the goal of averting climate disaster demands a change in the way we think and feel about nature. “Recycling and political protests are not enough… It is crucial that we behave differently not just when we feel like it, but all the time.” We need to answer questions like – How do we understand nature? Is it a resource to be exploited? Is it a large, interdependent community in which humans only participate? Is it a living being?
We must revive the reverence for the natural world that has always been essential to human nature. It is not a question of believing religious doctrines; it is about incorporating into our lives insights and practices that will not only help us to meet today’s serious challenges but change our hearts and minds.