Friday, September 05, 2008

Nasr, continued.

The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Religion and the Environmental Crisis
part two of two

In the deepest mystical sense, nature is hungry for our prayers, in the sense that we are like a window of the house of nature through which the light and air of the spiritual world penetrate into the natural world. Once that window becomes opaque, the house of nature becomes dark. That is exactly what we are experiencing today. Once we have shut our hearts to God, darkness spreads over the whole of the world. This, of course, is something very difficult to explain to an agnostic mentality. But from a practical, expedient point of view at least, it should be taken into consideration even by those who do not take rites seriously, seeing what has happened to nature at the hands of those sectors of humanity who no longer perform traditional rites.

All religious people who believe in the efficacy of rites and perform them have a way of looking at the natural world and their place in it which is very different from the secularist way that has itself led us to the environmental crisis. You have all read or heard about examples of various religious rituals and their relation to nature, even in lesser known religions. Perhaps the best known, as far as displaying the direct relation between rituals and the natural world is concerned, is the rain-dance of the Native Americans, about which skeptics make jokes. But some people take it very seriously and to go Native American medicine men, the shamans, to try to get help from them to bring rain. Of course, such a thing is laughed at by official science, but that does not matter, for such a science neglects the sympathaeia which exists between man and cosmic realities.

[In Judaism, of course, we do it somewhat differently - when a drought strikes an area, we are to call for a community-wide public fast and rites of mourning and repentance. Secular people do not understand how such acts can affect the weather, which they believe to be an impersonal natural force which pays no heed to mankind whatsoever. In neglecting Hashem who controls the weather, they neglect higher levels of reality and higher levels of truth.]

We have similar rituals all over the Islamic world, the Hindu world, the Buddhist world, and in the traditional Christian world. But in the modern Western world t his has not become more or less eclipsed, although it has not disappeared completely. In Greece, once you go out of big cities, you still see it, and in Italy, in the villages, when there is news of an earthquake, people recite the beginning of the Gospel of John in Latin, which many still know by heart. The faithful recite it in a ritual sense to help recreate balance and harmony with the natural world by calling upon Divine Mercy. I can hardly overemphasize the significance of this aspect of religion, because it is impossible for a human collectivity to live in harmony with nature without this ritualized relationship with the natural world and harmony with God and the higher levels of cosmic hierarchy. If we do not have this relationship, nature is reduced to an "it," to a pure fact, to a material lump, not in itself, but for us, and we must bear all the consequences which such a view entails.

Along with providing a sound basis for ethics, perhaps the most important role of religion in the understanding of the roots of the environmental crisis (and here I would include especially the spiritual element of religion, because it is the spiritual, metaphysical, and esoteric dimension of religion which emphasizes this element), is that religion possesses an extensive doctrine about the nature of the world in which we live. That is, religion, when it was integral and not truncated as it has become today in the West, provided not only a doctrine about God, not only a doctrine about the human state, but also a doctrine about the world of nature. And here, by doctrine, I mean knowledge (dicta, [da'at]), not only opinion, but authentic knowledge which is not in any way negated by the scientific knowledge of the world. Every religion provides not only teachings pertaining to the emotional and sentimental realm, not only principles for ethical action, but also knowledge, knowledge in the deepest sense of the term, of God, of the human state, and also of nature. There is no major religion whose integral tradition does not provide such a knowledge. Some religions emphasize one element, some religions another. Certain religions, such as Confucianism, do not speak about cosmogony and eschatology, but they have a vast cosmology. Of other religions, the reverse is true. Bur these three types of knowledge, that is, knowledge of God or the Ultimate Principle, of the human state, and of nature, have to exist in all integral religions.

Now, one does not need to look very far to see what has happened in the modern world. Gradually, from the 17th century onwards, first in the West, then spreading in recent decades to other parts of the world, the legitimacy of the religious knowledge of nature has been rejected. Most people who study the views of an Erigena or a St. Thomas Aquinas on nature do so as historians. But their views are not accepted by the mainstream of modern Western society as legitimate knowledge of the world. What has been lost is a way of studying nature religiously, not simply as "poetry," as this term is used today in a trivializing sense and not of course in a positive one. True poetry possesses a great message as far as nature is concerned, a message which itself is usually religious. In any case modern society has disassociated knowledge of nature from religion as well as sapiential poetry itself, and relegates the religious attitude and knowledge of nature to sentiment or "simply" to poetic sensibility.

We have wonderful examples of nature poetry in the great poetry produced in 19th century England. The Romantic poets produced beautiful poetry about nature. But what effect did it have on the physics department of the universities? Absolutely none, precisely because the science that developed in the 17th century, through very complicated processes which I cannot go into now, began to exclude from its world view the possibility of a religious or metaphysical form of knowledge of nature. This science even excluded the poetic view of nature in so far as it claimed any intellectual legitimacy and sought to be more than what some would call "mere poetry." Modern science has clung to that monopoly very hard, even in this pluralistic age of ours, in which everything other than science is relativized. Post-modernists usually deconstruct everything except modern science because, if this were to be done, the whole world view of modernism along with post-modernism would collapse. So you have a kind of scientific exclusivity and monopoly which has been created and accepted by most although not all people in the modern world. Goethe, the supreme German poet as well as a scientist, rebelled very strongly against this monopolistic claim of modern science. There were also certain scientists, such as Oswald who was a reputable chemist, who rejected scientific mechanism, and one can name others. But these are exceptions to the rule. The rule became that there is no knowledge of nature except what is called scientific knowledge. And if someone claims that there is a religious knowledge of nature, then it is usually claimed that it is based on sentiment, on emotions, or, in other words, on subjective factors. If, for example, you see a dove flying and you think of the Holy Spirit, that is simply a subjective correlation between your perception of the dove and your own sentiments. There is no objectivity accorded to the reality of nature as perceived thorough religious knowledge. That is why even symbolism has become subjectivized - it is claimed to be "merely" phychological, a la Jung. The symbols which traditional man saw in the world of nature as being objective and as being part of the ontological reality of nature have been all cast aside by this type of mentality, which no longer takes the religious knowledge of nature seriously.

During the last 30 years, when the thirst for a more holistic approach of nature made itself felt, something even worse occurred because neither mainstream religion nor modern science showed any interest whatsoever in the religious and symbolic knowledge of nature and the holistic approach to it. The water sought for in this thirst seeped under the structures of Western Culture and came out in the form of New Age movements, nearly all of which are very much interested in the science of the cosmos. But what they claim as science is really a New Age pseudo-science of the cosmos. It is not an authentic traditional science, because a traditional science of the cosmos always has to be related to a traditional religious structure. In this New Age climate the word "cosmic" has gained a great deal of currency precisely because of the dearth of an authentic religious knowledge of the cosmos in the present day world. Somehow the thirst had to be satisfied. So we have had both excavation of the earlier Western esoteric teachings about nature - usually presented in distorted fashion - or borrowings from Oriental religions and their teachings about nature, often distorted. Even the famous and influential book of Fritjob Capra, The Tao of Physica, does not really speak of Hindu cosmology or Chinese physics, but only mentions certain comparisons between modern physics and Hindu and Taoist metaphysical ideas.

To be sure there are many profound correlations and concordances to be found between certain aspects of biology, astronomy, and quantum mechanics on the one hand and Oriental doctrines of nature, of the cosmos, on the the other. I would be the last person do doubt that truth. But what has occurred for the most part is not the kind of profound comparison we have in mind, but its parody, a kind of popularized version of a religious knowledge of nature, usually involving some kind of occultism or even some kind of an existing cult. The great interest shown today in Shamanism in America, int he whole phenomenon of the Native American tradition (which is one of the treat and beautiful primal traditions that still survives to some extent), with weekend Shamanic sessions, is precisely because such teachings appeal to a kind of mentality that seeks some sort of knowledge of nature of a spiritual and holistic character other than what modern science provides. This phenomenon is one of the paradoxes of our day and has not helped the environmental crisis in any appreciable way. Indeed, it has created a certain confusion in the domain of religion and created a breach between the mainstream religious organizations which still survive in the West - whether they be Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox - and these pseudo-movements and the New Age phenomenon, which they rightly oppose. The fact that these pseudo-religious movements are very pro-environmental, yet in an ineffectual manner, has caused many people in the mainstream to take a stand against the very positions which they should be defending. So we have the paradoxical situation in America today where the most conservative Christian groups are those which are least interested in the environment. This phenomenon was not originally cause by the rise of the New Age religions but it certainly related to it and strengthened by it.

And finally, the concluding paragraphs of "In the Beginning was Consciousness" to conclude Nasr's link between lack of religious faith and environmental destruction:

...the weakening of belief in [religious truth] also has a direct consequence on how we live in this world and more particularly upon the destruction of the natural environment. If life on this earth is the only life we have, then we should do everything possible to live a worldly life as fully as possible. For most people such a life means hedonism and consumerism to the extent possible. A few agnostics might be satisfied with "the life of the mind," but for most people the loss of the fear of infernal states and the hope for paradise results in giving full vent to sensual passions and their gratification, which result in ever greater expectation of material "benefits" from their environment, with catastrophic consequences for the natural world as well as for the human agent within that world.

The consequences of the loss of the vision of the Sacred Origin of the cosmos and denial of the primacy of consciousness are so many and so multifarious that they cannot all be mentioned here. And yet, opposition to this view is so strong within the citadel of the modern scientistic paradigm that even scientific arguments for intelligent design of the universe, which implies of course the primacy of intelligence or consciousness, are brushed aside in dogmatic fashion by many high priests of the pseudo-religion of scientism. Despite this negative situation, the truth of the primacy of consciousness must be asserted wherever and whenever possible. And there are signs that more and more perspicacious peopel are awakening from their "dogmatic slumber" and realizing the truth...

[A few are, but most aren't - and that is very sad indeed, because it will require the cooperation of the entire community to do an end-run around the tragedy of the commons and bring self-sufficiecy and sustainability to our communities.]

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