An Ecological Faith for the Global Era
Presented at the 1999 Sea of Faith (NZ) Conference, Christchurch, 27 November 1999
Soon we shall reach the year 2000. It formally marks 2000 years of the Christian era. Yet, ironically we are coming to the end of the Christian era. What was once called Christendom - the domain ruled by Christ - no longer exists. We are nearing the end of the global supremacy of the Christian west. We are even seeing the collapse of conventional Christianity. At the beginning of the 20th century Christian expansion was still enjoying triumphant success around the globe. At the end of this 20th century it is a very different story. We are suffering the loss of what we long took to be the Christian certainties. We are caught up in a process of cultural change more rapid, more deeply rooted and more widespread than ever before in human history.
We stand on the threshold of a new era in human history. We could call this new era secular, global and ecological.
It is secular because humankind is increasingly focusing on this-world (and that is what secular, derived from saeculum means). The other-world - the spiritual world of heaven, purgatory and hell - on which mediaeval Christianity fastened its attention and to which traditional Christians still look - has been slowly disappearing. The Protestant Reformers abolished Purgatory in the 16th century. Theologians in the 19th century began to reject Hell on moral grounds. This century the reality of heaven has been fading from reality. Even the Pope declared three months ago that "heaven is not a place". That leaves this-world - the vast space-time continuum - as the only real world. It leaves life in this-world as the only life we ever live.
The new era is global because the current process of globalization is causing humankind to move from a chiefly tribal form of existence to one which is chiefly global. Humans the world over are becoming increasingly interdependent - economically, culturally and religiously. What were once independent societies are being drawn into an embryonic global society. This serves to intensify inter-tribal animosity. During the 20th century human conflict has reached an intensity never before known - as witnessed in world wars, mass genocide and mass starvation of the poor while the affluent wastefully use up the world's resources. Humanity has now become its own worst enemy. As Carl Jung said, 'Man himself is the origin of all coming evil'. Global society will have cohesion only if it can develop some kind of global culture which provides an umbrella over the existing cultures. Only the rise and spread of a new global faith and accompanying culture can save us from ourselves. This global culture will rest on a shared view of the universe, a common story of human origins, a shared set of values and goals, and a very basic set of behavioural patterns to be practised in common.
The new era may be called ecological because during the course of this century we have come to understand, as never before, the delicate balances in the ecosphere (or envelope of life) surrounding this planet and of which we ourselves are a part. We are also coming to realise that we humans are not only at war with ourselves but we are at war with the planet. The global culture will evolve, if it evolves at all, out of the common awareness of the current human predicament. It will grow out of an appreciation of humanity's dependence on the natural elements and forces on the Earth from which it evolved, and a willingness to respond positively in joint action.
A common response to secularity, globalization and ecology constitutes the raw material of the spirituality of the coming global culture.
Can there be some global form of spirituality or religion which does for the global culture what the traditional religions did for their cultures? If so, it will not be based on any one ethnic tradition, as it was in the pre-Axial age. Nor will it emerge from some new divine revelation, as in the post-Axial age. To be consistent with the current secularity of our times, I suggest the coming spirituality must be naturalistic and humanistic in origin and form. It must possess its own inherent power to win conviction and appear to be self-evidently true to all humans irrespective of their cultural past. Yet such a spirituality will not start from scratch but must evolve out of the past traditions.
Since we are moving very rapidly toward one world, and a global consciousness is already beginning to enter into us, none of the religious traditions of the past can, in their traditional form, any longer meet the needs of our new cultural situation. As globalisation forces the human species to create a global culture or perish, it is for each of the cultures and traditions to find out how best to adapt or transform their basic concepts and symbols for use in the coming global culture. Just as important as this will be the cross-fertilisation of cultures which takes place in the globalising process. That has already been going on for some time, and is most likely to accelerate. Many in the 'Christian West' have been attracted to the non-theistic and more humanistic character of the Buddhist tradition, or to the deep mystical spirituality of the Hindu tradition; yet others have been attracted to the more physical practice of spirituality to be found in Chinese tradition.
The modern secular world cannot be properly understood without acknowledging all it owes to the culture of western Christendom, which, however unintentionally, was chiefly instrumental in bringing the modern world into existence. Much of the Christian past lives on in the secularised modern world. The modern world is definitely not Christian in any traditional sense, but neither is it anti-Christian, as many traditional Christians assert. Someone has observed that the first Christians went out preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God but what actually arrived was the Church. Similarly we may say that in modern times Christians went out to bring the nations of the world into a global Christendom but what has actually arrived is the global secular world.
The traditional ways of expressing Christian faith are suffering from a deep malaise. Since the beginning, the Christian message has been boldly presented as the Gospel - 'good news'. Today it is no longer widely heard as any sort of news at all, good or bad. The Christian churches on the whole are intent on trying to revive the past rather than looking into the future with faith. They have been reluctant to follow the lead of even their own liberal scholars. John Cobb has gone so far as to say: 'The church has lost the ability to think. Unless it recognises that its healthy survival depends on the recovery and exercise of that ability and acts on that recognition, talk of renewal or transformation is idle.' During the twentieth century the mainline churches have become the oldline churches and now find themselves to be the sidelined churches (to use John Cobb's words).
We are coming to the end of orthodox or conventional Christianity - that is, the Christianity which is Bible-based, and which affirms God as a divine personal being and Jesus Christ as the only Saviour of the world. But the cultural stream, which was for a period called Christianity, still goes on even though it is changing. Traditional Christians view all change with caution and even with horror. They speak of the danger of 'throwing out the baby with the bath water'. The metaphor is misleading.
This is well illustrated by the debate between two forms of Christian liberalism at the beginning of the 20th century. The Protestant Liberal, Adolf Harnack, looked for the permanent essence of Christianity. He was criticised by the Catholic Modernist Loisy who argued that Christianity has no permanent and absolute essence. There is no 'baby'; there is only the bath water, or what I prefer to regard as the on-going Judeo-Christian cultural stream. (Christianity is quite a modern term anyway).
So instead of focusing on Christianity as a thing with an unchangeable essence which is to be preserved at all cost, we should try to understand the more extensive and complex Judeo-Christian cultural stream. This cultural stream is continuous in its flow but ever changing, with new elements entering and others falling out of sight. It is free to go where the cultural context leads it. Over many centuries, particularly from the fifth to the nineteenth centuries of the Christian era, there have crystallized within this stream various rigid doctrinal and institutional forms. But they do not constitute the whole stream.
The history and culture of ancient Israel was the chief source from which this stream issued. But there were many other tributaries flowing into it, such as Persian Zoroastrianism and Hellenistic philosophy. At the beginning of the Christian era it was in a particularly fluid state and divided into two parallel streams - the Jewish stream which remained ethnic and the Judeo-Christian stream which became multi-ethnic. Into the Judeo-Christian stream there flowed tributaries from the Greek and Roman cultural streams. Through the centuries there have been added to this stream the thoughts, feelings and personal experiences of countless generations of people who were both shaped by the stream and contributed to it. As we look back we can now discern various stages in the life of the stream - the mediaeval synthesis, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Evangelical Revival, and now modern secularisation.
This ongoing Judeo-Christian cultural stream is once again in a fluid state. It has broadened considerably, and is changing quite radically in character. Along with all the other major cultural streams from the past it is flowing into a global sea. This new global sea of faith cannot help but be continuous with the Christian past, as it is also with the other great cultural traditions. The term 'sea of faith', apart altogether from its presence in Matthew Arnold's poem, is a particularly apt description of today's multi-cultural situation world-wide.
However much the Christian West may be held responsible for bringing the modern world into being the Christian stream is not the only one flowing into the Sea of Faith. All of these streams will have a contribution to make to the spirituality of the future. Thus there will not be 'only one way' of being religious (as Christian exclusivists love to assert) but a great variety of ways. There will not be one exclusive religious organisation operating globally, but rather a whole host of relatively small and somewhat diverse social groups, in which the members are bonded to one another on a purely personal basis.
But if spirituality is to flourish in the global era, these groups must learn to be inclusive; they must be ready to welcome anyone wishing to join them and, even in their diversity, will need to acknowledge a very broad set of common goals and values, such as concern for the Earth's future. Exclusivity, whether religious or ethnic, will be injurious to the future of the human race.
How much or how little of the traditional religious symbols, myths and ritual and terminology is retained and transformed in the new religious forms we cannot predict. That will depend on those who are practising them and how ready they are to respond to the new religious parameters and reshape their spiritual inheritance to that end. In the coming global era new terms and concepts will be created, along with new rituals and patterns of social behaviour. As Don Cupitt quite rightly says, 'We do not yet have any global religious vocabulary'. This does not mean that there will be just one uniform and 'religiously correct' language for use in the global era. Because of the diversity and richness of our past cultures, we should not expect a completely uniform set of symbols and concepts. Each culture must be free to draw from its own past tradition, but always in such a way as to direct it towards the needs of an ecologically sensitive global society. In this way some of the concepts and terminology of the past may well be adapted and redirected. There is no religious symbol or concept of the past which it is essential to use to express the religious dimension of the global society. All languages and all symbols are humanly created. They have no permanence. They come and go and are continually changing. So it is with concepts and the religious symbols of the past.
Since most of us have been shaped by the Christian stream it is for us to ask how this stream can help the emerging global society create a global spirituality which will give global society an identity and cohesion. It will require a radical re-appraisal of the traditional symbols. Let us start sith the most basic symbol - God - which we share with the Jews and Muslims.
If the term 'God' continues to be used, it can no longer be taken as the name of an objective spiritual being. But it may remain an important religious symbol. As the theologian Gordon Kaufman has pointed out, this symbolic word 'God' serves a very useful purpose as 'an ultimate point of reference'. It enables us to unify and order our experience of reality in the mental world we construct for ourselves. This leads him to say in In Face of Mystery, 'To believe in God is to commit oneself to a particular way of ordering one's life and action. It is to devote oneself to working towards a fully humane world within the ecological restraints here on planet Earth, while standing in piety and awe before the profound mysteries of existence.'
That is why it is possible for the word God to continue for at least some time in the spirituality of the future. It will symbolise the values we find compelling, the goals to which we aspire to find fulfilment, and the meaning we are seeking in human existence. From the New Testament itself we have learned to say that 'God is love'. All that is of lasting worth to us is, in fact, our God. That is why we can readily speak of the 'God within us', just as much as the 'God in our neighbour' and the 'God in the mystery of the universe'. The God-symbol refers to the sum-total of all that concerns us most; it can call forth from us the same gamut of emotions of awe, wonder, gratitude and obligation as it did in the past when our forebears had a very different view of reality.
To worship God in the global era would mean, among other things:
- to stand in awe of this self-evolving universe of which we are a part;
- to marvel at the living eco-sphere of this planet;
- to value life, both in our ourselves and all other creatures;
- to value what it means to be human - our capacity to feel, to love and be loved, to show compassion and selfless sacrifice, our capacity to think and to be engaged in the quest for what is true and meaningful;
- to be grateful to the successive generations of our human ancestors who have slowly created the various forms of human culture which have enabled us to become the kind of human beings we are;
- to accept in a responsible and self-sacrificing fashion the burden of responsibility now being laid upon us for the future of our species and for the protection of all planetary life.
Whether the word Christ has a future is another matter. Already by the end of the first century Christians had radically changed the meaning of this word. It originally meant Messiah - the one anointed to rule over the Jews as the divinely appointed successor to King David. The Gentile Christians had no use for that meaning and turned 'Christ' into a proper name - the name of a supernatural being, the second person of the Holy Trinity and the exclusive Saviour of the world. The word Christ even often displaced the word Jesus with which it was originally linked.
The word Christ is unlikely to play any role in the spirituality of the future. It has become too identified with supernatural power and exclusivity. But the man Jesus may certainly have something to offer. Already for some time Christian scholars have been engaged in the process of deconstructing the glorified figure of Christ and returning to the man Jesus, the Galilean Jew, whose words, deeds and continuing influence brought a new dimension to the Jewish cultural stream.
But it is not the Jesus who was elevated into a mythical heaven who is of relevance to us, but Jesus the fully human person. While traditional Christians have deplored the demise of the mythical Christ, the recovery of the human Jesus is actually turning out to be a great gain. It is he, and not the heavenly Christ, who shared the tensions, enigmas and uncertainties that we now experience concerning the present and the future.
It is the Jesus who could look both appreciatively and also critically at his cultural past, who can inspire us as we in turn look back to a receding Christian past and forward to an unknown global future. It is Jesus the teller of stories which shocked people out of their traditional ways of thinking and behaving, who can free us from the mind-sets in which we become imprisoned. The Jesus most relevant to us is he who, far from providing ready-made answers, prompted people, by his tantalising stories, to work out their own most appropriate answers to the problems of life.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, struggling to understand what he called 'religionless Christianity', started to speak of Jesus as 'the man for others', we can now legitimately speak of Jesus as the 'man of wisdom'. Robert Funk has said, not only that 'Jesus is one of the great sages of history'(1) but that 'Jesus is also a secular sage. His parables and aphorisms all but obliterate the boundaries separating the sacred from the
It was Jesus the secular sage whose long-term influence did so much, even by an indirect route, to bring the modern secular world into being. The rediscovery of this secular sage can continue to shake us out of our complacency, as he did long ago. He can challenge us to think for ourselves, spur us to act in faith, and then to take full responsibility for our actions.
It was this man Jesus which the first Christians glorified and elevated into heaven. They tried to retain his humanity by the doctrine of the incarnation. Instead of abandoning this doctrine we need rather to extend it to its logical conclusion. This is exactly what Feuerbach did in his epoch-making book of 1843, The Essence of Christianity. With a tour de force, Feuerbach rediscovered in the coming of the modern secular world the culmination of the very essence of Christianity. The real meaning of the Incarnation, Feuerbach asserted, was that, in mythological terms, it reversed the ancient myth by which our human forbears had unconsciously projected all of their highest human values into a supernatural personal being they called God.
The reason why Christianity is true, Feuerbach claimed, is that it is able to restore human beings to wholeness, by reconciling them with their highest values. 'God', as love, could once again live within the human condition where God belonged. Thus the coming new world was rightly envisaged in Revelation 21:3, where it says 'the dwelling of god is within humanity'. This meant, of course, that the mythical throne of heaven was now left empty. Feuerbach took the crucifixion of Jesus to symbolise in dramatic form the 'death of God' and the end of theism.
The restriction of the incarnation to one human person, namely Jesus, was to miss its full significance. The incarnation of God applied to the whole of humankind. The essence of Christianity, as Feuerbach saw it, was to acknowledge that the human race should manifest the virtues of love, justice and compassion, so long regarded as the attributes only of God. It further meant that the human race is increasingly to play the role of God with regard to the sustaining of life on this planet.
Feuerbach was thus one of the first in the West to understand the absolute importance of religion even when understood in naturalistic terms and as a human creation. Further, he led us back to the primitive 'nature religions' as the base from which religion must start once again. Feuerbach asserted in his later book, The Essence of Religion (1848), 'that upon which human beings are fully dependent is originally, nothing other than Nature. Nature is the first, original object of religion'.
The most pressing concerns of our dependence upon nature are very basic. They are largely the same as those we share with the other animals: the need for air, drink, food, shelter, survival, and the regeneration of the species. Built into every species, including the human species, are the instincts to survive and to procreate. These basic needs and animal instincts were the starting-point from which our primitive human ancestors set out slowly and unconsciously to create human culture and all the various forms in which they expressed their devotion.
We too must go that far back. The need for pure air, clean water, healthy food, adequate shelter, the regeneration of the species and the overcoming of all threats to human survival have once again become the central issues to which we must 'devote' ourselves. They are genuinely 'religious' issues. In spite of all our modern sophistication, scientific knowledge, technological expertise, philosophical wisdom and traditional forms of spirituality, it is from these basic instincts for survival and regeneration that the new spirituality will arise.
Sallie McFague, in her recent book, Super,Natural Christians, (1997), sets out to reconnect the Christian tradition with the natural world. Thus the spirituality of the future will draw not only from the more ideological and intellectualised faiths of the Axial Period, such as Christianity and Islam, but from the nature religions which preceded them. Surprisingly remnants of them still survived in spite of frequent efforts to eliminate them. Interesting examples of this are to be found in the image of the 'green man' tucked away unobtrusively in so much of mediaeval church architecture.
Our very earliest forebears stood in such awe of the forces of nature on which they depended, and on which we still depend, that they created concepts, symbols and a language by which to understand them. The concepts they created constituted the raw material not only of their religion but also of their 'science' (or knowledge). The basic realities they conceptualised to explain the natural phenomena they spoke of as gods and spirits.
We now understand the natural world very differently and we have developed a very different set of concepts. Where they talked about spirit, we talk about physical energy. Where they explained the phenomena in terms of gods and spirits, we do so in terms of electrons and quarks, gravity and nuclear forces, DNA and chromosomes, immune systems and amino acids, neurones and synapses. For us these are the basic components of reality which explain the nature of the world, the phenomenon of life within it, and even how we human organisms think through our brains.
While this new way of understanding the natural world has been emerging in the last two or three centuries, the traditional religious superstructure was still in place to provide religious meaning to the natural world. For many it still does. For others it led to an inner conflict about how to reconcile the competing claims of science and religion. Some chose to resolve the conflict by abandoning traditional religion altogether, only to find that the scientific knowledge of the natural world does not in itself provide us with answers to the meaning of life.
The ancients came to believe that the natural world operated with some degree of meaning and purpose because they unconsciously projected their own thoughts and feelings into the supposed gods of nature, including Mother Earth and the Sky Father. Our understanding of the natural world leads us to see it as completely lacking any ultimate purpose. It operates according to both change and necessity. The chief, and perhaps the only, area of the natural world in which we find evidence of purposeful behaviour is in human activity. In some respects the greatest mystery about the natural world is that within it there has evolved the human species, creatures who have the capacity not only to think but to ask questions, to look for meaning and to create the worlds of meaning in which they live. The chief mystery of nature is humankind itself.
There are now signs that we are beginning to recover some of the awe which the ancients felt towards the natural world. But there is a difference between us and them. We are recovering some of their sense of dependence on the forces of nature. But we also recognise ourselves as a part of nature in all its complexity. Moreover, we are a very important part of nature (so far as this planet is concerned), for it is in us and in our culture that meaning and purpose have become an explicit component of it. To use the term coined by Teilhard de Chardin, over and above the biosphere which surrounds this planet we humans have both created, and been shaped by, the noosphere - the invisible but very real sphere of human thought and self-critical reflection.
Many of the particular aspects of nature which ancient humans found awesome can be readily explained by us in quite mundane ways, but they have been replaced in our new picture of the universe by other aspects which are just as awe-inspiring. We know extremely little about what takes place in the rest of this universe. We have no idea, and we may never know, whether there is life anywhere else within it. Life on our planet has apparently evolved over some three billion years. Our human species emerged out of a myriad of evolving living species. It did so only very recently, relative to the story of the Earth, and more by accident than by any design. There is no obvious reason why we have evolved as we have, or even why there should be any life at all on this planet, since none of our planetary neighbours shows any signs of life. The origin and purpose of human existence is itself a mystery.
The modern study of ecology is also helping us to understand the awe-inspiring way in which all life on this planet forms a complex, interdependent whole. All living creatures are organisms or living systems, made up of components such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, which are lifeless. All living organisms not only constitute an internal living system but, along with their environment, form a larger living system, which could be called a 'life field'.
The continuing life of each species depends upon the preservation of a delicate balance between the organism and the environment which supports it. Each organism contains self-regulating mechanisms which help to preserve that balance. When one or more of those systems has its balance disturbed and can no longer function (as, say, in diabetes) our health or 'wholeness' suffers. We become ill and, if the balance cannot be restored, we die.
The earth has provided certain basic conditions which must be met by all earthly creatures if they are to survive as a species. Humans have evolved within those parameters. For humans to be healthy they must be able to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, eat adequate food, and live in an environment not too different from that in which they became human. The more the environment changes from that in which a species has evolved, the more the health and behaviour of that species will show maladjustment. Its health will deteriorate and then it will die. A full appreciation of the whole eco-system has led some to describe the earth itself in terms of an organism. The biosphere is living skin of the earth in the same way as bark is the living skin of the tree.
In learning more about the ecology of all planetary life, we have been discovering to our horror how much we are now upsetting the delicate balances in the living systems of the eco-sphere. Humanity has had no intention of 'wrecking the biosphere': the current damage to the eco-sphere is quite unintentional and occurs mostly out of ignorance. The eco-sphere is suffering chiefly through our sudden expansion in numbers and our rapidly growing technology - and the first of these is serving to exacerbate the second.
In the spirituality of the coming global society the forces of nature, the process of evolution, the existence of life itself and the ecosphere which sustains it in all its diversity, will be the objects of respect and veneration. Some steps towards acknowledging the sacred character of the Earth have already begun. We no longer restrict the concept of 'sanctuary' to the church building or temple but are giving it back to the Earth, in bird sanctuaries, fish sanctuaries and so on. The eco-sphere itself is in the process of being resanctified.
The loving care of Mother Earth, and all which that involves, is to a large extent replacing the former sense of obedience to the Heavenly Father. In her book The Body of God, the theologian Sallie McFague goes further, suggesting that the mutual influence of postmodern science and Christian faith requires the construction of a new model in which we see the universe as the body of God.
The universe itself is so vast and mysterious that it is more than enough to induce in us that sense of awe and joyful gratitude which played such a role in past religious experience. The religious rituals of the future will celebrate the wonder of the universe and the mystery of life. They will revolve around the natural processes which have brought life into being and which continue to sustain it. It is salutary to remember that the great annual Christian festivals (most of which Christianity inherited from Judaism) all originated as festivals celebrating the changing seasons of nature. The Jewish festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread, which later became the Christian Easter, originated as early spring festivals celebrating the resurrection of nature to new life after the death of winter. The Feast of Pentecost originated as the early harvest festival. The Jewish Feast of Booths originated as the vintage festival. Christmas originated as a New Year festival celebrating the passing of the shortest day and the return of the sun. As humankind recovers full appreciation of how much our earthly life depends upon the conditions and processes of the Earth itself, it will re-create the appropriate nature festivals to celebrate it.
The new religious rituals will be based not only on our relationship to the natural world. They will also celebrate everything we have come to value in human existence, such as the importance of healthy human relationships, and the rich inheritance of human culture. This trend is already observable in the way Christians celebrate their chief ritual, known variously as Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist. For some time it has been interpreted less as the commemoration of a sacrifice offered on an altar to God and more as the sharing of a common meal round a table to celebrate the rich and sacred character of human fellowship. That indeed is how it actually began.
In a similar fashion Christmas, which is just as popular as ever, is already changing from being a commemoration of the birthday of the supposed Saviour of the world to a celebration of family life. Much to the chagrin of traditional Christian clergy, what still survives as the widespread celebration of Easter are the Easter eggs and the Easter bunnies which point back to the very ancient spring festival which long preceded the Jewish Passover and the Christian celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. our newly emerging practice of devoting a particular day of the year, whether nationally or internationally, to some special feature of human society which is thought to need extra attention, is already a sign of the coming trend for the creation of new and appropriate rituals.
The spirituality of the global era will motivate us:
- to celebrate the fact and mystery of life;
- to devote ourselves to maximising the future for all living creatures whose destiny is increasingly in our hands;
- to place the needs of the coming global society before those of our own immediate family, tribe or nation;
- to develop a lifestyle which is consistent with preserving the balance of the planetary eco-system on which all living creatures depend;
- to refrain from all activities which endanger the future of any species;
- to set a high value on the total cultural legacy we have received from the past and which enables us to develop our potential to become human;
- to value the importance of the human relationships which bind us together into social groups and which enable us to become fully human;
- to promote the virtues of love, goodwill and peacefulness.
These broad principles do no more than set the parameters of a global spirituality. To flesh these out with more specific detail each culture will need to draw upon its past and interpret that creatively. Such an approach both allows for the universality necessary in a global culture and the preservation of diversity which is desirable for the richness of human culture.
In today's sea of faith, with its complex pot-pourri of religious symbols and interchange of ideas, concepts and values, it will be all too easy for individual persons to feel lost and bewildered. The more personal values found in human relationships and in our own family and local setting will come to be appreciated all the more. Just as we depend for physical existence on the forces and process of the natural world, so, to find meaning and spiritual fulfilment in life, we depend on our cultural inheritance and on what we receive from one another and give back in return.
(1) Robert W. Funk. Honest To Jesus, a Polebridge Press Book, 1996, p302