There is an increasingly widespread conviction that the environmental crisis through which we are living is not just a formidable set of technical problems, but fundamentally a crisis in how we see ourselves – a wake-up call to the imagination. “Recycling and political protests are not enough”, as Karen Armstrong puts it in her new book. If by some extraordinary feat of scientific ingenuity we could guarantee that we could stave off some of the worst effects of climate change, we could be pretty sure that we should be back with the same problems in a generation’s time unless we tackle the mindset that has helped to create the state of emergency in the first place. From a bleaker point of view, even if the rate of environmental degeneration has already reached a point of no return, a new imaginative or spiritual perspective would allow us to see that it is worth working to find a style and rhythm of human life more in tune with the reality of which we are a part.
What do the world’s religious traditions have to offer in all this? A good many environmentalists have castigated religion – or at least the kind of religion they are most familiar with – on the grounds that it teaches us to despise the material world and to regard humanity as essentially separate from it. Since at least the 1970s, Judaeo-Christian rhetoric of “domination” over nature has been accused of legitimising exploitation of natural resource, encouraging indifference to the fate of non-human creatures and fostering a bland complacency about the assurances of a future life.
Armstrong’s new book sets out to rebalance this picture by providing an accessible account of how a wider religious perspective might contribute to humans’ adopting a more solicitous attitude to nature. Turning to Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian and Muslim texts to offset some of the distortions identified in the more familiar “Western” forms of faith, Armstrong extracts a series of ecological lessons: to see the natural world as “holy”; to approach it with thankfulness; to accept the need for sacrifice, in the sense of transcending instant gratification for the sake of more sustainable relations with the natural world. Most basic of all, we are exhorted to develop a deeper awareness of the general suffering around us: by liberating us “from the prison of our ego”, compassion allows us to transcend the frame of mind in which we are always obsessively calculating the returns on our investments and the privileges that are due to us.
These insights are illustrated with a broad selection of texts from all the major faiths, including the older expression of Judaeo-Christian religion, before the “domination of nature” rhetoric became common – as opposed to the destructive alliance between some aspects of Christianity and the individualistic pressures of “rational” modernity. Armstrong quotes, for example, from the unknown 5th- or 6th-century Christian sage who wrote under the name of “Dionysius the Areopagite” about how the infinite or divine energy on which the world depends paradoxically both remains transcendent and inhabits the universe at every level. As Armstrong does not quite get around to saying, the whole scheme of sacramental theology as it developed in the Middle Ages in both Eastern and Western Christianity begins from this conviction of divine agency and communication in and through the material world. St Francis’s Canticle of the Sun is quoted at length as an example of a largely lost pre-modern Christian vision – though there is not much to suggest that St Francis was anything other than an isolated voice. And there is strangely no reference to Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato si’ (inspired by the Canticle), probably the most widely read statement on environmental ethics from any religious leader.
[See also: Remaking the Anthropocene]
One of the most original aspects of Armstrong’s book is its creative and sympathetic use of Quranic material, emphasising the importance in Islamic thought of the notion of “the Balance” in all things and of the belief that the stability of the natural world is the condition of human well-being. But Armstrong is perhaps most consistently drawn to sources from east Asia – texts from Confucian, Daoist and Zen traditions in which there are no creation myths to lure us into unhelpful dualisms between holy and profane, temporal and eternal, divine and worldly. The focus in these texts is on the fundamental energy within and perhaps beyond the universe – the qi of the Confucian classics, the unnameable Dao (“way”), the sheer fact of how all living motion finds its way back into stillness through the immeasurable diversity of the universe’s process.
It is probably inevitable that a short book whose purpose is to introduce us to a wide range of spiritual resources should lack a connected argument. Nevertheless, this absence means there is a fair amount of repetition in the sections of summary and comment which frame the quotations – and also a certain flatness in the passages recommending how we might appropriate the wisdom summarised. “We can train ourselves in what the Chinese called ‘quiet sitting’ and note the common life that flows through all things”. “We may not be ready for the radical extirpation of egotism in yoga” but “perhaps we in the West need to create rituals of our own to help us honour the stranger and the foreigner.” Well and good, but there is a risk of these gentle suggestions becoming no more than an encouragement to think better thoughts. Even the chapter on sacrifice, which very properly tells us that “we can no longer board aeroplanes, drive our cars, or burn coal with our former insouciance”, leaves us with a rather vague idea of the costly changes the climate crisis demands of us.
In other words, missing here is some more precise linking of spiritual resources with practical activities. Read this alongside Isabel Losada’s 2020 book, The Joyful Environmentalist, and you may see better what such linking looks like. Losada manages to combine a high level of urgency and campaigning energy with a humane, realistic spiritual perspective, anchored in direct personal experiment – the actual experience of “sacred nature” on a rewilding project in West Sussex, for example. Rather than furnishing methods for intensifying mindfulness, Losada considers what it actually means to leave nature alone, to stop the relentless bullying of natural processes inherent in modern farming methods. She is not starry-eyed about the difficult choices involved and is impressively willing to think through unpalatable alternatives rather than resorting to generalities or unattainable ideals. It is both an exhilarating and a very grown-up book.
Armstrong’s goal is very different. Nevertheless, after a lot of exhortations to “train ourselves” or “create rituals”, I felt an acute need for specificity, and for some tougher analysis of the systems of human power that generate and perpetuate our suicidal abuse of the material order. Campaigns are, after all, necessary because the crisis is not just the result of a huge build-up of bad habits but of an immensely wealthy and ingenious culture of profit-making, which must be constantly challenged.
Armstrong – who has done sterling work over the years in dismantling some of the worst Western stereotypes of Islam – is at her most sympathetic in showing how various Quranic passages transcend the anthropocentric limitations associated with “Western” religion. But she also gives a strangely two-dimensional view of biblical Judaism, repeating the once-popular but highly questionable notion that the God of Hebrew Scripture is encountered through history – in the linear record of Israel’s story – rather than in the recurrent patterns of the natural world. This view completely ignores both the Hebrew “Wisdom” tradition, which is all about the pervasive presence of God in the world, and the connection of divine presence and benevolence with the regular rhythms of growth and harvest in the land of promise – not to mention the unique idea of the “Jubilee” or shemitta, the sabbatical year that signifies the acknowledgment by the people that the land is not their absolute possession. Armstrong rightly singles out the Book of Job for its extravagant celebration of nature in all its incomprehensible diversity, but this is not nearly so much of an outlier in Hebrew scripture as one would conclude from her discussion.
There is, however, no doubt of the relevance of these texts for us. Writer after writer in recent years has insisted on the need to dismantle the acquisitive, would-be self-sufficient ego of modernity and to recover a more deeply participatory vision of how humans belong in and to the material world. An authentic religious sensibility will always point in this direction – despite all the fantastic distortions of religion through its various alliances with coercive power across the entire cultural map. “What is required is unrestricted goodwill,” Armstrong writes. “This cannot be just a vague, pious wish.” Exactly – but for it to be more than that, we need a degree of energetic attentiveness and particularity that does not quite come through here.
Sacred Nature: How We Can Recover our Bond with the Natural World
Bodley Head, 256pp, £14.99
[See also: Can we save the Amazon rainforest?]