Wednesday, July 02, 2003

There's an interesting and ambitious long essay in the July issue of Harper's by Jack Hitt, a contributing editor of that magazine. Perhaps I'm projecting (or on the other hand perhaps it's always been true) but it seems that more and more of the magazine reads as if written by Lewis Lapham, its editor. This is not the most exact example, though it does have the Lapham tone.

Called "A Gospel According to the Earth," it is clever and learned, has many provocative things to say about religion in history and the contemporary world, and there are passages of great insight and elegance. But I find I can't agree with his apparent conclusion, that the spiritual realm once claimed by established religions is now being displaced into such endeavors as environmentalism but without real spiritual content. Or at least that's what I take as the meaning of one of his concluding strophes, "We live in end time, all right. But it's not the end of the world that's coming; it's the declining power of the sacred word to reach our hearts as something other than shibboleth."

I might agree that traditional religious forms, such as Christianity, are perched on the edge of irrelevance. But Hitt ignores the the nature-based religions that flourished in Europe well before the Greeks, and in Asia and other parts of the world, particularly evident in the last indigenous cultures of Africa, Australia and the Americas. (His references to pagan religions are more learned than I could manage but still historically limited.) The Native traditions I know something about provide a spiritual context for contemporary ecology. The survival of these cultures, and their sacred places, is closely linked to the survival of natural environments. But beyond this, there is a spiritual quality to quite a bit of ecological consciousness and just plain tree-hugging. There is more to the environmental movement than rationalism, and displaced guilt and pale projections of resurrection. The whole concept of resurrection comes not from Christianity but from the natural world, from the cycles of plants, the mysteries of gestation and birth and death in childbirth, and the emergence of the bear from a winter's deadness.

I don't think that spirituality depends on belief in a superhuman creator and guardian figure, or a priesthood of authorities, their angels and their saints. Spirituality to me can simply be acknowledging greater mysteries, and the sacredness of what we are given, what sustains us in our life, which is our planet and our universe and its life and mysteries. We are not limited by our understanding of it all, yet we must be responsible to what we do understand, which right now has led us to realize the effects we are having on the fabric of our planet's life, as well as the violence we do to each other, often from a great distance and without direct knowledge. We must be responsible as well to our best understanding of ourselves, and what we do to each other and why.

Perhaps as Hitt cleverly suggests the act of recycling is our equivalent of an act of contrition. But I don't believe that recycling as a form of prayer is necessarily empty, and I think that in their hearts people know it is not empty, and that it is a prayer.

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