Readers of this 2022 Version of this essay will realize that I am a believer, though neither a theologian nor a reverend, or a right-wing conservative or a fundamentalist. Others more qualified about matters spiritual, however, have critiqued this essay.
Marilyn Yurjevich (a garden snail variety lay Catholic passionately concerned about Planet Earth)
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Spirituality is not necessarily about religious belief but is about having a positive impact on, and acting positively for, others and the earth. It involves an ethos of care, or loving-kindness. People of all religious persuasions need to heed the calls of their leaders to implement changes in both their personal and professional lives in order to heal Planet Earth. Those with no religious beliefs also need to heed the calls of leaders around the world for the same reasons.
SPIRITUALITY’S RELEVANCE TO SUSTAINABILITY
In exploring links between spirituality and sustainability this essay traverses the nature of spirituality and non-spirituality, whether it is the preserve of believers in God or not, and its effects on people. It briefly reviews major religions’ views about the importance of living sustainably while lamenting the ecological degradation wrought by modern society, the influence of the political right, the effects of our pluralistic (which some in the west call post-Christian) society coinciding with neo-liberalism’s fetish of economic growth, and the evolution of the understandings of the first biblical texts that led to the current state of planetary despoliation. God’s unity with ecology and nature is illustrated, along with the imperative towards social justice in order for the entire world’s interconnected systems to be in a state of wellbeing. To live sustainably, in a way consistent with humanity’s will to thrive, is possible and is a real hope for a future fit for every person, creature and nature.
Spirituality is strongly tied to sustainability through its effect of increasing both self-awareness and the sense that there is something greater in and beyond this world that is worth cherishing. It acknowledges evolution, recognises that humanity’s knowledge is limited, that what lies beyond is not always knowable, respecting that science is the process of discovery of what can be discovered about what exists. It incorporates an ethos of caring for what we know and have. Believers in God have the hope that healing and restoration will become a reality and expect they will know more about what lies beyond once they pass to the next life. Non-believers who are spiritually inclined stand in awe of the complexity and interconnectedness of what exists and make efforts to care for it.
Spirituality, its definition still evolving, can be described as a personal quality that moves or animates people deeply and positively towards integrating their lives; transcending or bettering themselves in growing in the values they ultimately aspire to. It is not a physical or material concept but involves conscious experience, expending effort towards self-development. Traditionally it was understood as a process of re-formation towards becoming more like God, later incorporating mental aspects of life. Today it also includes values by which people live, often separate from organized religion, but requiring effort in personal growth. Being spiritual has constructive effects, with an awareness of a greater reality within and beyond the material world, giving people’s inner lives deeper meaning, leading to virtuousness, for example being wise, compassionate, empathic, loving and kind, having a sense of wonder, being grateful, appreciating beauty, among other attributes. It may even result in considering oneself as part of the universe.
All religions, with their beliefs in a loving, living, unseen spirit energizing the cosmos, contain organized beliefs shared by the group while instilling reverence towards it. Indigenous cultures, living so closely with nature, also believe in the spiritual realm with an afterlife. However, individuals not affiliated to any religion can also be spiritual. They do possess self-awareness, having made the effort to develop their inner lives, so that they can express their full human potential that will contribute to making the world a better place. For such people, having a sense of purpose and positively affecting the world is not seen as needing to acknowledge a loving intelligent Primordial Energy Who intentionally formed the universe. Ironically some who admit to religious affiliations may not always appreciate the depths their religious faith beckons them towards, rather enjoying the comfort of a promise of salvation through belief without analysing or acting on social or environmental teachings.
Being non-spiritual is usually understood as outwardly seeking personal satisfaction, concerned with looking after oneself before someone else gains first advantage. It afflicts many, including the successful in the world, evidenced by their feeling unfulfilled and unhappy despite their apparent success. Some work on their mental and emotional lives, which Fromm, Frankl, Ketchell and Pickett for example, have so wisely articulated. Constantly striving to acquire more or to be more does not lead to satisfaction because inner peace, being concerned about issues affecting others and sensing that there is “something more”, requires stillness to perceive other realities, which cannot always be fathomed. Humble self-knowledge through a journey of personal growth in overcoming human frailty leads to fulfilment and healing of personal scars. Conversely, holding grudges, being angry, aggressive, condescending or careless towards others and the world, along with other destructive attitudes or practises, are obstacles to genuine peace and spirituality.
Environmentalists often lean towards being spiritual, having been disillusioned by the theory of economic growth that exploits the earth for its resources, imperilling nature and humanity by releasing toxins into the environment, and directly impoverishing many while failing to deliver illusory promises for the lucky. Others are disillusioned with organised religion, judging it to be hypocritical in its lack of compassion towards some others, yet they sense there is “something more”. The “spiritual void” is now openly discussed; it is obvious to many that humanity has broken relationships with Planet Earth, neighbours of all types, and God (Roewe, 6 Nov 20). People now yearn for ethics. Science cannot mobilize authenticity, wisdom and meaning, which is becoming more pressing for more people the more the planet manifests more drastically its anthropogenically-generated extremes.
Striving for greater self-awareness, an aspect of spirituality, sensitizes people to their neighbours, nature and the realization that everything is interdependent; that people are actually part of nature in a relationship that must be symbiotic for life to thrive. It requires transcending earlier programming in order to achieve self-mastery, live more humbly, act more justly and understand what loving-kindness entails, an imperative concisely articulated in Micah 6:8 of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). As it is, Planet Earth is more polluted, forests and food sources are shrinking, and our planet is less liveable for both humanity and nature through changing climate, biodiversity loss, profligate waste, pollution, viruses escaping their natural boundaries having nowhere else to go, and other negative consequences. This is the antithesis of a healthy symbiotic relationship.
Major religions of the world have become concerned about planetary degradation.
- Judaism teaches extensively about eco-Judaism. R. Fred Scherlinder Dobb and Jacobs, M. provide comprehensive bibliographies compiled for the Hebrew year 5777 Global Day of Jewish Learning (the ‘Reconstructionist hour’) and the public respectively.
- Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ imploring humanity to live sustainably and mindfully and practising forgiveness describes in effect an ecology of the whole world.
- Statements by Greek Orthodox Patriarchs reinforcing that message declare that respect for the environment is an “act of doxology of God’s name” (Bartholomew, Patriarch, 1997).
- Protestants through the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation make similarly strong statements against exploitation of the environment and people (WCC Report of the Greed Line, 2014).
- Muslims believe that the destruction of creation is an offense against the Creator (Bilal, 2017). Islam’s eco-theology promoting responsibility for creation through principles of stewardship, moderation, celebrating the unity of humanity and nature, among other virtues (Bakar, 2012) also testifies to the unity of thinking about ecology and the environment as physical signs of a sacred creator.
All make powerful messages urging humanity to change course.
A spirituality of nature has developed, especially since scientists raised awareness of human-induced environmental degradation in the 1960s. Pope Francis is particularly concerned about the environment and his encyclical Laudato Si’ has been instrumental in inspiring many, believers and non-believers alike, to work more urgently for the planet. The so-called “end times narratives” of the Gospels (Matt. 24:6-8; Mk. 13;8; Lk. 21:9-11) and other religions enables us to reflect on what is happening today, that is, they can be applied to the problems the world is currently experiencing, for example, climate change and social unrest, among other things, before evolving into something new. “End times” does not mean the end of the world, but probably the end of the unjust and unsustainable world that we know, which implies transitioning towards something better and, some believe, the reign of God on Earth. Knowing how to live respectfully and sustainably will be an essential attribute for whatever the future holds.
It is considered by some that current society, starting with the philosopher Descartes then followed by Enlightenment thought, is an aberration in discarding a sense of an awe-inspiring, transcendent, unseen God who is the original source of the cosmos. Through religious spiritual eyes the cosmos is evidence of the first “written book”, the Book of Creation that sits together with the Book of Scriptures. This concept had been lost over time but is now, through the understandings of science, returning to prominence by the religiously inclined. Indigenous cultures also hold that a healthy relationship between God, land and people exists. Non-believers consider belief in God to be superstitious, especially after noting practises reflecting cultural and political distortions over-laying the original teachings, making Christian beliefs indeed look superficial and superstitious. However, without proof of God or not, and the difficulty of interpreting the layers of meaning in the Word, it rests on faith to believe or not. It cannot be ignored though that in this pluralistic age where no particular religion predominates, and which converges with the materialism of neoliberal capitalism’s doctrines, i.e. belief in unlimited economic growth that depends on continued extraction, consumption and waste, is also the age when the planet and society, with all their interdependent systems, are broken at a global scale. However, a transition towards a just society that heals people and the earth and which offers hope is also beginning to emerge. The Bibliography illustrates many budding shoots.
It is ironic that environmentalists and scientists often with no faith affiliations, rather than the churches, have been at the forefront of the growing awareness of environmental despoliation along with its consequences. Some fundamentalist churches even now deny climate change while often also preaching a gospel of wealth that is at root of current exploitative practices. Others do not seem to realise that the point of Christianity is to apply all its teachings to their lives. Their version of Christianity is more akin to a cosy salvation club for its members. Other churches again have their financial assets entwined in the world’s systems making it difficult to operate consistently by their beliefs. Conservative Christians fail to preach a gospel of love towards the planet, often because some liberals have a different view of pre-birth life or understanding of the social milieu that contributes to such decisions, preferring to look only through narrow lenses after being captured by the political right whose policies are leading to the destruction of nearly all planetary life.
The political right’s strategy of purporting to be pro-life, in order to collect support for their policies from right-wing conservative Christians, is a deception; their strategists are not concerned about Christian values towards life at any stage of development. It is inconsistent for those purporting to be pro-life to support right-wing policies that promote the sale of weapons of mass destruction to warring factions around the world, that support environmental destruction with no consideration of the consequent harm to people and their planetary home, while supporting the accumulation of massive wealth for this elite at the expense of impoverished others. Making no effort towards fair redistributive mechanisms has revealed their acquisitive mind-set. It has led to the massive social inequality afflicting society today. The Koch brothers and a clique of like-minded wealthy elite influencers were instrumental in this duplicity, outlined by Meyer in her book Dirty Money. Such a mind-set is the antithesis of both sustainability and the Judeo-Christian ethic. It is a stumbling block to many who judge churches as being hypocritical given that billions, not millions, of lives are imperilled by supporting right-wing policies, usually slowly and invisibly, by modern economic practises and addiction to energy-dense fossil fuel that was buried eons ago, enabling human life to emerge. However, since Western culture that is profligate, and the neoliberal financial model both predominate, nobody in this modern age is free from some degree of culpability in participating in unsustainable practises that may also be unjust.
Some of the earliest biblical texts pertaining to sustainable living and social justice are found in Exodus 22:21-27 and reinforced through time through many prophets, for example Psalm 112, Isaiah and others. The bible also acknowledges the source of the universe, which people of faith believe is God Who is everywhere and in everything in the cosmos. Most Hebrew Bible books are recognized by Jews, Christians and Muslims and much of what is written in them also reflects the ethics of other ancient religions. If the ethical precepts as set out were adhered to, a civilized, peaceful society existing in a thriving, natural world would result.
Believers have missed the environmental imperative. Mistranslation of Genesis 1:26 ” … Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over … “in the first few centuries CE resulted in a word that probably denoted a parent-child relationship between God and humanity being interpreted as having “dominion over”. It was a homely concept, but further thought development over time resulted in God eventually being seen as separate from nature. Francis of Assisi understood the interconnectedness of nature that included humanity, but his views did not gain traction until recently. Genesis 1:26 is probably better understood when read in conjunction with Genesis 2:15 “The Lord God took the man (humanity) and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”, which implies being more caring and respectful towards nature by serving and protecting it in partnership with God. It became more strongly slanted towards the exploitative concept of domination after about the time of Descartes and the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. The Protestant Reformation saw Earth in more mechanical terms, after which the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution permitted nature’s minerals and other resources to be exploited for their wealth potential, with no thought of respecting nature or considering that a primordial originator, who may be alive, may be involved. By then, for believers God was seen as either absent or as an absent landlord. While Christians laboured under the delusion that it was acceptable to exploit the planet for its resources, exploitation of humans has never been endorsed.
God was perceived to be residing in nature from the earliest times, with God and humanity being in a sort of partnership in a sacred world imbued with its own life force. In attempting to understand the original Hebrew meaning, recent scholars have used the word “stewardship” but that, too, is problematic as it still connotes an anthropocentric orientation and is often used as a “green wash” term by big business. Jesus and His early followers reserved use of the term for financial matters. However, now that awareness has surfaced about the destruction of finite Planet Earth the concept of ecological sin against God and the environment has emerged in Judaism, Christianity and Muslimism in particular (see section on World Faith Communities’ statements). Religious leaders of all major faiths are united in their concern for Planet Earth caused by human activity and wastefulness and are calling it out as sin against God Who fashioned and abides in everything. The logic is that if the world belongs to the Originator Who also abides in it then destroying it is sin, because sin means to hurt of offend God. Ecological sin is also viewed as social sin due to the abuse of resources using cheap labour feeding selfishness and profligate consumption. Failing to see the earth as sacred, a sacrament of its originator, shifts awareness towards self-centeredness with no self-restraint. Calls for a degree of asceticism pulls believers and non-believers who appreciate the stretched times in which we live, back towards gratitude and appreciation so that resources can be preserved for future generations.
Books in both the Hebrew and New Testaments abound with teachings about social justice, which when carried out is deemed as proof of living what adherents believe. It means living in a sustainable society, for example, Proverbs 21:3 “To do righteousness and justice is more desirable to the Lord than sacrifice” or Isaiah 10:1-2 “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless”. Other Hebrew Bible books similarly strongly condemn injustices towards the less fortunate. Jesus condemned such practices so strongly that He was crucified for claiming as God’s human son that upholding such unjust laws was hypocritical. Such teachings are particularly relevant under neoliberalism’s unsustainable economic doctrine practised by large corporations and political conservatives and which, like ancient Israel, is leading to the collapse of nature as well as society.
The history of Israel illustrates the cyclical nature of human progress in its growth, then arrogance in its unsustainable practises, before failure and that the ancient Israelites were a representative sample of humanity rather than the reviled race that crucified the Christ (as was prescribed by the law for those claiming to be God, which Jesus knew). Now the gentiles (whose officials carried out the crucifixion millennia ago, thus pointing to both Jews and gentiles being culpable), the unspiritual, the apathetic, the greedy and the unaware, are crucifying the whole planet, another type of God’s offspring! Arrogance and greed blind people to the effects of their behaviour. With the effects of gross exploitation now being global, there is no further opportunity to change direction without widespread adversity, or perhaps without a(nother) divine visit to save us from our own folly.
The ray of hope lies in the death-resurrection cycle leading to awareness that nature and spirit are one and are constantly renewed. For believers in God, nature is not independent but reflects God’s ownership, presence and care (Lev. 25:23; Matt. 5:45) enlivening, sustaining and caring for all nature of which humanity is a part (Matt 6:26,30; Luke 12:6). Jesus identified so closely with elements of nature that He called bread and wine His body and blood (Mt. 26:26–27, Mk. 14:12–26, Lk. 19-20) and the temple as his body (Jn 2:19), signifying that God is present in both matter and space-time. The bread and wine, which are elements of the earth, are infused with the primordial Divine Spirit at Mass. Acknowledged as “fruit of the vine and work of human hands”, the divine energy in the blessed bread and wine sustains not only communicants but also reverberates beyond to embrace the whole earth in unending love.
Everything is connected by energy in never-ending lifecycles and webs of interdependence. The spiritual see nature as the hiding place of the Primordial Energy, whom believers call God, who is living, the source of love, wisdom and justice. Each atomic particle through to each creature and cosmic element is imbued with this Energy generated about 15 billion years ago, connecting everything in an ecological symphony vibrating throughout the universe. Conversely, pollution and environmental destruction breaking ecological webs, unleashing pandemics and other pestilences, all remind us how disconnected we are from God and Nature. Planet Earth, being also one of God’s “children” like the cosmos, is now asking humanity to pause for reflection to change its ways before our planetary home loses its ability to sustain life, including humanity. Transforming our ways is achievable through practising principles of social and ecological justice, and appreciating that we are all part of nature united with the Divine Energy in a still-evolving cosmos.
A sound appreciation of what sustainability means for us personally requires a profound ecological conversion towards a comprehensive and vibrant inner life (O’Leary, 2017) whether people are religious or not. For believers God, or the Primordial Energy, encompasses the whole universe with living completeness akin to the perfect marriage (Isa. 62:5; Rev. 19:7). Such yearning for unity and a “something more” is beautifully expressed in the book Song of Solomon. The restlessness people feel is nature’s invitation to connect with the Great Spirit, directing us away from external novelty, egoism and materialism that afflict the modern world, towards gratitude, service and responsibility. The Integral Ecology that Pope Francis teaches in Laudato Si’ would, if practised, harmonise nature, society and the cosmos through uniting with the one energy field. This energy field perceived by the spiritually inclined, including Buddhists who seek to attain deep insights into the nature of life, and Hindus who seek to reach ultimate unity with everything, is perceived as imbuing wholeness and harmony, leading to love and reverence for the whole cosmos and all life.
Both believers and non-believers can be spiritual, the difference being that believers see the whole cosmos as alive with the spirit of the Primordial Energy as well as the spirits of other beings. Living by an ethic that acknowledges some greater reality, not all of which is known, and regardless of belief, is indeed the only sustainable option for both society and the planet because since we do not know everything, widespread disturbance of nature can have unforeseen negative consequences in the incompletely understood ecological webs as they unravel, with the potential to destroy humanity. Sustainability is ultimately about practising an all-embracing love, awe, reverence and wisdom towards people, creatures and the earth, along with other constructive behaviours allowing life to flourish by living more simply and less profligately. If we love nature and our fellow creatures by making way for them to thrive, nature and our fellow creatures will love us in return by providing clean water, air, soil and all the ingredients for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing in a healthy planetary home. Wisdom, with its evolving insights and appreciation of the complex ecology of the multiple interconnected facets of nature’s systems, not all which are known or understood, is necessary to manage the multiple environmental and social elements working together synergistically. Unless we become more spiritual our full potential and the potential of the planet runs the risk of not being fully realized.
 The root word for ecology is the ancient Greek word “oikos”, which means home. Planet Earth is our home. Oikos is also the root word for economics and ecumenism. So the meaning of oikos relates to the home and its interactions with the wider environment / ecosystem, both natural and social.
 The word “nature” is a term Christians use for creation, which is the formation and development, or evolution, of the whole cosmos and everything in it.
 6 You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.
 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.
 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” 10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
 21 “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. 22 “You must not exploit a widow or an orphan. 23 If you exploit them in any way and they cry out to me, then I will certainly hear their cry. 24 My anger will blaze against you, and I will kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows and your children fatherless. 25 “If you lend money to any of my people who are in need, do not charge interest as a money lender would. 26 If you take your neighbour’s cloak as security for a loan, you must return it before sunset. 27 This coat may be the only blanket your neighbour has. How can a person sleep without it? If you do not return it and your neighbour cries out to me for help, then I will hear, for I am merciful.
 The outward sign of an invisible reality
 The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.
 For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.
 26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread. He said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take it, and eat it; this is my body.” 27 Then he took the cup, said the blessing, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this all of you. For this is my blood of the covenant, shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.
 22 As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take it, for this is my body.” 23And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice for many.
 19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’
 As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
 Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.