From Native American traditions to Eastern thought to mainstream Catholicism, spiritual teachings call on humanity to live in harmony with nature.
Science and policy are vital in building a more sustainable world, but they often don’t convey the values that engage and encourage people to participate in the process.
Spiritual traditions and ancient teachings, on the other hand, can guide along the path toward ecological harmony, based on the idea that humanity is a part of, and not apart from, the varieties of life shared on this planet.
Indigenous stories, holy scriptures, East Asian cosmologies, papal encyclicals and divine revelation all shed light on our duties and relationship to each other and to our common home. Native American beliefs like the seven generations principle stand in stark contrast to the destructive tendencies in current economic systems, which value short-term gains and efficiency over resiliency.
“We must think in terms of seven generations — what will happen seven generations from now if I do this,” says Joe Bruchac, a writer and storyteller of the Nulhegan Abenaki Nation. “And that goes way beyond ideas of investment, way beyond ideas of contemporary short-term politics; it becomes an investment in a future that is sustainable. That idea of seven generations is something central to my heart and to the hearts of most people who live a traditional, native way.”
People from other spiritual traditions make similar connections.
“The ecological crisis is not a crisis of the birds and the bees or the trees and the toads — it’s a crisis of how we live as spiritual beings in a physical reality."
“The ecological crisis is not a crisis of the birds and the bees or the trees and the toads — it’s a crisis of how we live as spiritual beings in a physical reality,” says Rabbi Yonatan Neril, who directs the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development in Jerusalem. “[A]ll sacred texts contain deep teachings about ecological sustainability. For one, the great spiritual masters of previous generations were living much closer to nature than the average human being is today.”
Many of today’s spiritual leaders are becoming more aware of that distance from nature, as well as the perils of the climate emergency. In 2015, Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si’, the encyclical on climate change, which is a call for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to undergo an ecological conversion and care for our common home.
“Our planet is a mother for all of us. We must hand it on to our children, cared for and improved, because it’s a loan they make to us.”
“Our planet is a mother for all of us,” he wrote. “We must hand it on to our children, cared for and improved, because it’s a loan they make to us.”
Related: ‘Connecting with God by caring for the environment’: Franciscan monk in Kenya shares Christmas message
Professor Fazlun Khalid, a theologian and founder-director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science, calls the Quran “an environmental manual.”
“Nearly almost every page, as in seven, eight times out of 10, you turn the Quran randomly and you will get a sentence of a verse or a reference to the clouds, the sky, the birds, the bees, the trees, and creation and so on,” Khalid says. “Allah says…‘I created the world in balance.’”
Related: Muslim environmentalists give their religion — and their mosques — a fresh coat of green
That idea of balance is also at the heart of some East Asian ways of thought.
“Confucianism has a very rich cosmology, of continuity of being, of interdependence, and it's very specific: of cosmos, earth, and human,” explains Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder and co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. “That’s their trinity, that’s their triad. We humans complete the triad of cosmos and earth, and we are co-creators with what they speak of as the transforming and nourishing powers of heaven and earth.”
According to this view, what individuals choose to do, or fail to do, affects the natural balance of Earth and everyone around us. Judaism has similar ideas, says Rabbi Neril.
A teaching from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived about 2,000 years ago in the north of Israel, relates the story of someone who goes onto a ship and starts drilling underneath their own seat, Rabbi Neril says. The other people on the ship say, “What are you doing? How can you drill underneath your own seat?” The person answers, “I'm doing whatever I want. Here’s my ticket and this is my seat and I can do whatever I want.” No, you can’t, the other passengers respond, because what you're doing affects us, too.
“I think that this teaching has relevance for the climate crisis,” Rabbi Neril says, “because each human being today — or most people, most of the 8 billion people alive today — are drilling underneath the collective ship of planet Earth. … But if we act with more spiritual awareness and engage in long-term thinking, and care about other people and creatures, then we will actually be able to have a ship that is sustainable and seaworthy and can continue for many generations.”
When Native American Joe Bruchac visited the jungles of the Mexican state of Chiapas, he heard a similar idea from Chon King Viejo, an elder of the Lacandon Mayan people.
"If we cut all the trees, a great darkness will come upon the world. And in that darkness, you will hear the growl of the jaguar and you will be afraid."
“He said, ‘First of all, every time you cut a great tree in the forest, a star falls from the sky,’” Bruchac relates. “So, before you cut a tree, you must ask the guardian of the tree [and] the guardian of the star if what you're doing is correct. And he said, ‘If we cut down all the trees of the forest, then the gods of diseases will come out of the forest and come among the people.’ He also said, ‘If we cut all the trees, a great darkness will come upon the world. And in that darkness, you will hear the growl of the jaguar and you will be afraid.’”
As the climate crisis continues to wreak havoc and the pandemic rages across the globe, some might say we are now hearing the “growl of the jaguar” and descending into darkness.
Others, like Mamphele Ramphele, a South African physician, activist and the widow of Steve Biko, see this period of approaching darkness as a time of great possibilities.
“We now have an opportunity to reimagine a world where we see ourselves as part of nature,” Ramphele says. “We are not saving nature; nature will save itself. We have to save ourselves from this existential crisis by changing fundamentally the way we live, how we relate to one another, and how we relate to the rest of life. And that's the opportunity we have.”
This article is based on an audio essay that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.
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