Chapter 5: Spiritual Anthropologies and Sustainability

5.1 From Epistemology to Anthropology

We move now from our discussion of relativism, truth, and how we know things in science and religion, to examine anthropologies that express different spiritual or theological understandings of the human person. This move might be somewhat atypical. I’ve noticed that for whatever reason, often when people think of religion and the environment, they seem to want to jump immediately to finding sacred instructions (or scriptures) about taking care of the planet. It’s almost as if the first impulse for some might be to scour the Bible to see if Jesus ever said “thou shalt recycle.” Indeed, we can examine ethical imperative statements that we can interpret from religious traditions including the Bible – a lot of “eco-theology” has directly done so, and some of the religious climate change statements (see chapter 9) and the material we covered in chapter 2 are examples of this. But too narrow an approach to eco-theology can fall into some of the traps of the science-religion confusion we’ve tried to get beyond over the last few chapters.

Not to be misunderstood, it’s not unreasonable to search for religious authority encouraging humans to “take care of the planet” and then consider how such moral imperatives and obligations influence people’s behavior. Indeed, religion and morality sometimes work this way – moral imperatives from legitimate cultural authorities are influential, and for good reasons. But there is also a somewhat tricky and potentially unhelpful tendency in American religious and political discourse for adversaries to throw “proof texts” at each other from opposite sides of an issue. So, faith community environmental statements might quote Genesis to claim that Christians are called to care for creation and reduce carbon emissions to address climate change, while a special interest think tank opposed to environmental legislation might likewise draw on Genesis to claim that reducing carbon emissions will create injustice, and suddenly it seems that we are at an impasse. Almost all social issues are deeper than this, though, and so are the religious and spiritual dimensions of these issues. Treating moral claims like they are scientific facts to be proof-tested against rival moral facts creates the impression that if there is disagreement, then no particular action is justified, as though legislative action could only be taken where scientific certainty is assured.[1]

We don’t want to start out in that direction. We want to start, instead, by paying close attention to the basic orientation we’d expect of a person of faith in different religions – what’s the basic frame of reference that’s understood here? How does that frame understand who and what people are? How might that frame influence how we think of what we should be doing and what really matters in the grand scheme? What’s our total story of the human being, including the spiritual dynamics that different faiths believe to be true?[2] Before examining spiritual anthropologies, some larger perspective is useful.

The question is not just: “How can religion influence environmental policies and behaviors?” That is a question content to keep all the same power dynamics of the status quo in place; rather, “How might a better understanding of religious/spiritual communities and beliefs empower faith communities to play their own native roles in cultural and spiritual transformation?” Another way to think about this: some might say that despite the large influence of religion in America (and in the world, to be sure), we nonetheless live in a culture where secular forms of power and control hold sway. For instance, public schools exclude religion, and religion is separated from state functions. And yet it might be that some religious insights, traditions, and ways of being operate based on fundamentally different models of how power and influence should work. Rather than seeing how religion can just be a tool of the state or of secular environmental interest groups, the more interesting question is to explore the extent to which religious communities in America are contributing and can contribute more generally to environmental solutions and sustainability.[3]

This turn to spiritual and theological beliefs, and taking them seriously, is a key part of our examination of religion and the environment. If Wood’s critique of relativism pushes us to take others’ views of truth seriously, then we are left with the challenging task of wrestling with different ideas and maybe even of challenging paradigms. Recall that there have been major shifts in thinking about physical facts. Some ideas were extremely challenging (and fraught with danger for the thinkers!) in their day: geocentric to heliocentric, flat earth to sphere – perhaps in similar ways, the environmental movement has promoted shifting from anthropocentric to biocentric views and values. The verdict is still out on these value orientations and preferences (it’s not clear that biocentrists are living any less impactfully on earth than others). We must recognize here that the question of whether we should be anthropocentric or biocentric, or which perspective is better for the environment, is a question of how we should believe or think in order to build a culture that will live as we should, which is assumed to be “sustainably.” But a key point arises: that is a different sort of thing to KNOW (to know how we should live) than just a physical fact. We will need different methods than scientific ones of testing observables if we’re claiming to know that one of these value orientations is demonstrably “better,” which is also a value judgement.

It is also important to acknowledge that semantic slippage can occur – to be a scientist and KNOW via physical evidence that the solar system revolves around the sun, or that the planet is spherical, is one kind of thing to know. This is expertise in knowing that isn’t the same as expertise in ethics – in knowing how we should live — and in sociology, of knowing what influences people to live as they do. We can get confused translating from science to ethics if we ignore the difference.

For instance, these questions relate to our earlier conversation about definitions of environment and nature. Gordon Kaufman was important to religion and ecology primarily because he was a professor of the first wave of environmental theologians who sparked the ecotheology movement in the 1960s. H. Paul Santmire was a student of Kaufman and wrote the first dissertation on the subject and first book length treatment (published from his dissertation); Ian Barbour, the religion and science thinker whom we’ve studied already, was a fellow student; Dick Baer – first to teach an environmental ethics course in the US (an Earlham College seminar on environmental ethics) – was another of their contemporaries. Kaufman’s paradigm-challenging ideas on cosmos versus wilderness helped spark the emergence of significant attention to eco-theology.

John Vucetich’s more recent ideas about what science is for is an example of re-evaluating our paradigm of science. Where Pollan said the wilderness ethic should be replaced with a Gardener’s Ethic, Vucetich said that science now needs to be more for communicating wonder than just being about controlling nature.[4] That may well be a compelling thought for many environmental scientists, while other scientists might resist an idea like that, especially if they perceive that this might threaten the “objective” foundations of science.

A sunflower from the community garden of Archbishop McNicholas High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, provided spiritual inspiration to Tony Losekamp, the photographer: “The sunflower was huge and the number of seeds it produced was incredible. I wanted to capture the detail in the perfectly organized seed arrangement in the flower that is one of infinite examples of an intelligent designer of creation.”

Scientists like George Washington Carver (the father of applied chemistry) fall into the category of being more open to mysticism and wonder – Carver claimed that his daily routine included going for a walk in the woods and “talking with flowers,” at which point he often received spiritual inspiration that guided his work in the lab.[5]  A counter-example might be E.O. Wilson, whose notion of “unifying” all knowledge (as outlined in his book Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge) seems to be an illustration of desiring rational, scientific knowledge to replace (and improve upon) social and intuitional forms of knowledge.[6]

Another example would be the key physicists of the 20th century who considered themselves mystics: Einstein, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington, Pauli, de Broglie, Jeans, and Plank (this makes an excellent starting point for term papers in ENR 3470, and in fact, a related sub-chapter found in the Appendix of this book was written by former student Natalie Pax, who developed her term paper on Einstein and mystery to contribute to this book). As Ken Wilbur says in his book Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Greatest Physicists, each of these physicists was surprisingly open to mystical understandings of the world, but they were careful to keep semantic and epistemological distinctions. Their physics didn’t commend mysticism, it just allowed for it – it didn’t contradict it.[7] But if we can’t just say (ala relativism) that “what’s true for you is true for you” and “what‘s true for me is true for me,” then we may have to think more seriously about views like this and admit (ala fallibilism) that our views (or socially dominant views) may be wrong. With that, we will look at the theological/spiritual anthropologies[8] of two traditions as expressed by Reinhold Niebuhr and David Loy.

  1. This is not to say that good or accurate scientific information shouldn’t be an essential part of the basis for various policies; the point is simply that if we narrow moral authority to the confines of scientific certainty claims, it becomes easier to oppose positive social change simply by generating rival “facts.” I also do not suppose that political debates can be avoided by the perspective shift I am suggesting; the point is simply that some of these dynamics have been influential in religion-science-policy debates, so it is worthwhile to attend to them and avoid their pitfalls. Avoiding the tendency to fall into these dead-end debates is precisely why we've focused on the philosophical and epistemological points of the last chapter.
  2. We’ll look at theological/spiritual anthropologies that come from within specific religious/spiritual traditions, because where secular anthropology will describe cultures and values, it tends not to do so from inside the perspectives of different belief systems. While we will focus on a Buddhist and mainline Protestant perspective as our points of dialogue, any number of religious anthropologies might be similarly explored.
  3. For Christians, it is instructive to remember that one of the transformative points of early Christianity was realizing that Jesus was not a “king” like the world would expect, to come wielding earthly power; rather, he modeled a power characterized by servant leadership, where the first became last and the last first, and where worldly power dynamics were turned upside down. Especially in a political environment where power struggles are constant (as in American politics), those hoping that religions can influence environmental policies might take note: it might be that we wouldn’t expect religion to play its best role by becoming a weapon in the oppositional power dynamics of contemporary politics. We might rather consider the ways that religions might help reorient our basic postures towards issues (and towards our “enemies”) to make different solutions possible. The Christian notion of loving one’s enemies is relevant here, and the Buddhist Renewal documentary segment raises a related potential by seeking not to create separation and duality between environmentalists and their perceived opponents .
  4. Vucetich, J. A. (2010). Wolves, ravens, and new purpose for science. In K. D. Moore, & M. P. Nelson (Eds.), Moral ground (pp. 337-337-342) Trinity University Press.
  5. A biography of Carver that details his spiritual approach to life and science is The Man Who Talks with the Flowers: The Intimate Life Story of Dr. George Washington Carver, by Glenn Clark (reprinted from the original 1939 edition).
  6. Wilson is one of the most respected scientists of his generation, and he has participated helpfully in dialogue between religion and science. His book The Creation: An Appeal To Save Life on Earth (2007) argues for respectful exchange between science and religion, and invites scientists to use the term “creation” in reference to nature as an offering of common ground between scientists and religion, honoring the belief of many humans that a creator, or God, plays a key role in how life works. Nonetheless, critics have noted that his respect for religious perspectives is more pragmatic than principled, believing that religious people will be needed to save the earth, so it is foolish to insult them.
  7. This might be similar to Vucetich’s view of how science allows for wonder, though Vucetich seems to be arguing that the more important purpose of science now should be to inculcate wonder.
  8. We will call them “theological” when from a “theo”-logical tradition that believes in God, “spiritual” when not, as with Buddhism.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.