Ecology and Spirituality:
Interviews with Scholars and Activists
Bloomington Independent; News, Views, and Culture of South Central Indiana
VII:35 (September 10, 1998): 6-7.
Connie Barlow: Author of From Gaia to Selfish Genes: Selected Writings in the Life Sciences
and Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science.
Ilana Berger: Ph.D. Candidate in the Recovery of the Indigenous Mind program at the California
Institute for Integral Studies and facilitator of Adolescent Rites of Passage.
Albert Fritsch, S.J.: Director of Appalachia Science in the Public Interest; author
of Down to Earth Spirituality, Renew the Face of the Earth, Theology of the Earth, and
99 ways to a Simple Lifestyle, etc.
Daniel Martin, Ph.D.: Founder and director of International Communities for the Renewal of
Scott Russell Sanders, Ph.D.: Professor of English, editor of Audubon Reader: The Best
Writings of John James Audubon, author of Hunting for Hope, Staying Put; Making a Home
in a Restless World, and Writing from the Center, etc
Danusha Goska: Many cite Biblical verses about
man's domination over the earth as a causative factor in destructive exploitation of the earth.
Can the Judeo-Christian tradition be understood as adjuring us to cherish the earth, and to live
in harmony with our fellow creatures?
Ilana Berger: "Vayidigu" has been translated "dominion," but it literally
means, "to humble yourself." Man was created last. The word Adam means "earth being."
God speaks to all that has already been created and says, "Let us create the earth
being in our image." All beings are in us. Each time we destroy a being, we destroy
a part of ourselves.
Al Fritsch: Lynn White Jr. first made the charge repeated in your question in Science
in 1967. I responded in my book, Renew the Face of the Earth. The Christian and Jewish
peasants and shepherds of centuries past took excellent care of their lands for generations. These
Christians and Jews did not act out a post-Christian waste-and-move-on philosophy. The call to
help steward and renew the Earth has been translated into an excuse to control others for one's
own greed and profit.
Daniel Martin: Truth is an unfolding process, shaped by context. It is not helpful to literalize
or dismiss the wisdom of another age. We correctly translate "dominion" as "caring
for." Domination was the interpretation of this verse through the lens of a human-centered,
hierarchical, mechanistic worldview.
Scott Russell Sanders: Certainly there are passages in the Bible that have been used to justify
despoiling the earth. There are other passages that urge us to love and care for Creation and
to regard it as holy.
Danusha Goska: Ecology is a hard science. Spirituality is often understood as what happens
between the four walls of a church, between 9:30 and 10:30 on Sunday morning. How are they connected?
Ilana Berger: In Hebrew the word for spirit is the same word as breath: "ruach."
God breathed life into the earth being. Air, Fire, Earth, and Water: all beings depend on these
four elements in order to exist on this phenomenal plane. Religion is only a tool for understanding
and naming the mystery. It is not the mystery. Spirituality is the mystery. Ecology tries to eliminate
the human from the environment. In fact, humans are a vital aspect of the ecology of our planet.
Do you know who the people are who first grew from the soil that your house sits upon? The people
who grew out of this land are holders of the spirit of that land, and hold the knowledge of it.
All over the planet, indigenous people have been removed. Thus the wisdom and consciousness of
the land has been eliminated. When a plant or animal goes extinct we rally the government and
hold protests, but when the people are eliminated, we move in and "protect" the land
as if it is somehow separate from the indigenous people who lived upon it.
Al Fritsch: A spirituality that is down to Earth will use all available tools, including ecology
and appropriate technology. An authentic spirituality does not make us feel good; it makes us
compassionate and aware of the devastated condition of our Earth. It gives us the spiritual energy
to combat the forces set on destroying this Earth.
Daniel Martin: Science and Religion are two sides of one coin: the intuitive and the empirical.
It is essential they be held together, in a creative tension. Ecology offers an understanding
of how things are inter-related, including humans. Spirituality offers a sense of the larger issues
that are not easily analyzed, including the sense of belonging in an ultimate way to the whole
process of cosmic unfolding. Together they challenge and enrich each other. Apart they fragment,
exaggerate and defend, while both claim ultimate truth.
Scott Russell Sanders: True spirituality is a full-time orientation of the mind and heart.
Science is a mode of knowledge, the greatest that we have; but it is not the only mode of knowledge,
and it cannot answer some of the most important questions that any person must ask. Science cannot
tell us, for example, how we should live, how we should treat other creatures, why we should care
about the future, whether we have a purpose, where the Creation comes from or what, if anything,
it means. To answer those more elusive questions, we need other sources of knowledge, and spirituality
is one of them.
Danusha Goska: What do you say to voices that protest: It is encoded in the genes to want
to be richer, fuller, safer. There have always been and will always be aggressive markets to feed
off of our greed. Billions are standing in line to buy their first toaster. How can we value any
gesture we make in the name of the planet in the face of that steamroller?
Connie Barlow: I respond, Is that how you feel? Is that how I feel? We are human, and if we
ourselves are moved by a sense of value and meaning other than what may be prompted by greed,
then that is a reasonable basis for thinking that other humans may also be so moved.
Ilana Berger: The Earth is an organism seeking to fully experience itself. The Earth continues
to learn to find balance. We can help find that balance or we can continue to hinder it. The earth's
being out of balance may end humanity, but it will not end earth. We must always remember this,
so that we retain our humility. Biblical rule was not the kind of hierarchy that we have come
to understand in this last millennium. "Malchut," kingdom was understood to be the womb
of humanity informed by the wisdom of the heart, entering the home of creation where the mother
and father were honored. This kind of rule is one of inspiration, respect and equality.
Al Fritsch: We must strive for a spirituality that learns from the Twelve Step Movement or
from those who throw a monkey wrench into the works and cause the greed machine to fail. I am
in the Ralph Nader tradition; as typified in our book, Tree Saver's Manual.
Daniel Martin: There have always been competing forces within us: to reach out and find meaning,
and to secure property and protect ourselves. They need to be held in balance in order to temper
one another. Today's efforts to understand and solve our problems with technology and money create
moral crises, for example, the rich get richer; and spiritual crises, for example, feelings of
meaninglessness and emptiness. This approach is based on an inadequate understanding of the human
that is drawn simply from economics. A larger picture would include economics, science, and religion.
Limited, exclusively economic understanding results in a loss of the sacredness of the human individual.
Scott Russell Sanders: First, one shouldn't decide how to act based on calculating how everyone
else might act, but rather in light of one's own deepest convictions about what is right. Secondly,
I don't think that humans are inevitably greedy or insatiable. Our deepest desire is not for more
things, but for more meaning. We'll never find meaning by shopping. Yet billions upon billions
of dollars are spent every year on advertising and public relations and promotions, all to urge
us to satisfy our longings and alleviate our worries by shopping. Children are not born craving
all the wares on sale at the mall; they must be taught that craving.
Danusha Goska: Can Americans talk about earth-sustaining practices to the Third World? Can
wealthy Americans talk about "voluntary simplicity" to poorer Americans? Is eco-spirituality
the cultural property of a tiny American elite? A trend?
Ilana Berger: Americans should be talking to Third World people about earth-sustaining practices
but to learn, not to teach. Many third world people are dying because of the gluttony of this
country. We have introduced monoculture into areas once abundant with diverse plant and animal
life. The introduction of this kind of farming has caused these peoples to become utterly dependent
on wealthy nations to care for them. The pesticides used to protect monoculture destroy the plant
life that once sustained these cultures. Eco-spirituality is a trendy word given to a lifeway
that was once practiced on this planet in abundance. Can we go back to those times? No, I don't
think so, but we can begin to embrace the theology from which our ancestors operated and that
theology is quite simple: Make no decisions that will harm the children for seven generations
into the future, and remember that all things come from woman. If governments honored women and
future generations, then, I feel, many of the decisions we grapple with would not be so difficult
Al Fritsch: As long as Americans can't curb their consumption, they can't tell others to curb
their populations. Our consumptive practices have a 20 to 50 times greater impact on the environment
than what the Third World folks do. We cannot solve the environmental crisis without radical economic
reform, and we cannot reason to this reform with addicts. The American consumption pattern is
addictive. It is just as easy for an American to talk about voluntary simplicity as to lecture
drunks in a distillery on the need to abstain. Each of us must come to our own powerlessness before
God, whether it be chemical addiction or consumer products addiction.
Daniel Martin: To combat elitism we must have consistency at every level. Inner work is essential
for consistency between personal and public domains. Commitment requires being part of a group.
We must educate ourselves and use the insights of anthropology, sociology, history, psychology,
and economics. Examples abound, including our International Communities for the Renewal of the
Earth. The goal of ICRE's Kenya project is to see Africa through the eyes of Africans. We bring
Americans to live in the villages.
Scott Russell Sanders: American scientists have discovered much of the most important information
regarding the ecological state of the planet. We certainly should be sharing that information.
Danusha Goska: Is it fuzzy headed New Age thinking to experience God in nature? Is it blasphemy?
Ilana Berger: God is nature.
Al Fritsch: I espouse a Catholic tradition of natural theology. Romans 1:20: says "seek
and find God in all things." The cathedral at Chartres was built over sacred springs of the
Celtic earth religions because this was truly holy ground and its sanctity needed to be preserved
and celebrated. Christianity affirms that God speaks through other religious expressions and that
the divine presence is manifested in all creation.
Daniel Martin: What we call 'God' was always experienced first and most immediately in nature.
The holy books are essentially reflections on a more primary experience. Even in the Christian
context, the early teachers saw two sources of revelation. The two shoes of Christ, one mystic
said, are nature and the bible. If you have one without the other, you limp. Scripture that is
not connected to life can be dangerous; witness the impact of literalist approaches to interpretations
of the bible.
Danusha Goska: How do you respond to voices that say: Science, of which ecology is a apart,
saved the world from the excesses of religion. Religion gave us dogmatism, witch burnings, religious
wars, superstition in the place of medicine. Science brought reason, order, progress. It's going
backward to mix science up with religion again.
Connie Barlow: Evolutionary psychologists now argue that a need for religious grounding--that
is, a sense of something of greater importance than one's own personal being--may be encoded in
our genes. This does not mean that one must necessarily adopt a supernatural perspective to fulfill
that yearning. "Religious naturalism," such as I portray in my books, is a sound alternative
that can equally fulfill those yearnings. This is a religious perspective in which we each construct
a sense of value, meaning and story far beyond the facts and theories science gives us.
Ilana Berger: Reb Yisroel Meir of Radun told this story: A man was traveling and he bedded
down in a small village. It was Friday night and he decided he must go to the local temple. When
he entered the synagogue, he noticed that there were two rows of seats: a right and left side.
He sat in the right row. As the service proceeded he noticed that people from the left side of
the room were the only ones being called up to the bimah for Sabbath honors. He watched this go
on throughout the service and finally out of indignation he turned to a man sitting next to him
and asked why the people on the left were the only ones being invited for Sabbath honors. The
man asked him if he were new to town. The stranger told him that he just got into town and was
only there for the weekend. The man told him that if he had been there the week before, he would
have seen that only people on the right side were chosen for Sabbath honors. He told him that
the Temple alternated each week from side to side. Rabbi Yisroel taught from this story that when
you wonder why the world seems unjust, that we should remember that "We just got here and
we're only here for the weekend."
Science has been as horrendous for indigenous people as religion was for women and nature. There
is no going backwards, there is only today and now. Each day is a gift that we cannot take for
granted. When there is even one person suffering on the planet, then we are afforded the opportunity
to examine our part in the perpetuation of that person's suffering and pain
Al Fritsch: Only a self-abnegation rooted in seeing our own powerlessness before our Creator
can allow an atmosphere wherein peace will be established on Earth.
Danusha Goska: How do you respond to voices that say: Science is evil and scary. It gave us
thalidomide, the atom bomb, heartless experimentation. Spirit is entirely above the sinful physical.
Spirit is too pure for this world. We can't / shouldn't mix the spiritual with the physical.
Ilana Berger: Science is only evil when spirit is left out of it. If one prays and walks in
harmony with the ancestors then such evils as the atom bomb, thalidomide, and heartless experimentation
would never have taken place. When we separate ourselves from essential living and see ourselves
as separate from the earth, each other, the past and the future then we are capable of participating
in acts that are void of consciousness and ethics. It is my prayer that we once again connect,
and connect strongly with all beings of the planet and beyond, and see our brotherhood and sisterhood
with it all.
Scott Russell Sanders: Science has given us extraordinary powers for manipulating the earth
without giving us corresponding wisdom or ethical principles that might guide our use of that
power. There was nothing unscientific about the Nazi experiments on prisoners in the concentration
camps. Without some source of moral vision, science will not save us.
Danusha Goska: What do you personally do to live your life in a spiritually / ecologically
integrated and sound way?
Ilana Berger: I have come to understand that I only need enough, no more, no less. I teach
adolescents to honor the earth. I am open to the directions that Spirit guides me in and try not
to intellectualize too much. I call on my ancestors to help me each day and I remember to honor
Al Fritsch: I rise at 3:00 and pray and work for the remainder of the day to help save our
Daniel Martin: I attempt to live in the moment, to listen to what life is saying to me, in
my body, through others, in nature, in traditions. I respond accordingly.
Danusha Goska: How do you begin thinking and working around ecology and spirituality? did
you have a life changing epiphany, or have you been on this road all your life?
Connie Barlow: I have been an amateur naturalist since childhood and an environmentalist since
college days in the early seventies. I was deeply involved in the Alaskan environmental movement
in the late 1970's, when I lived in Juneau. In the mid 1980's I rediscovered my love of the natural
sciences, but it wasn't until I came in contact with Thomas Berry about five years ago that I
felt how the two connected.
Al Fritsch: I have always been committed to conserving the best values of our past, including
our threatened environment and the spiritual values of my ancestors. Since I have worked in public
interest science for 28 years after the post doctorate in chemistry, I regard environment an issue
that grew up around me. Thus I did not study ecology and then become environmentally concerned.
My love of the Earth comes from my agricultural experience and appropriate technology as a youth,
not from academic studies as such. In some ways this choice of work is counter to the culture
of most of my scientific peers who went either to universities or the chemical industry.
Daniel Martin: An ecological spirituality as we are describing it was always in my Celtic
blood. The years I spent years in Africa shaped the way I understood how we humans particularly
Westerners affect it. I came to this country in 1984 to explore a larger intellectual context
for this experience and wrote a Ph.D. on ecology and theology. While working for the UN. Environment
Program, I developed an Environmental Sabbath. Later I led a process to create an Earth Charter
from the religious perspective for the UN Earth Summit of 1992.
Scott Russell Sanders: I had the good luck to grow up in the country, in daily contact with
animals and dirt and trees and flowers. I have sensed the holiness of Creation for as long as
I can remember, and have needed no sudden jolt to reveal it to me. We need to begin with our children,
and to make sure they have the chance to come in contact with wildness, with things and places
that humans have not made. That means we need to save as much green space as possible; we need
to bring gardens and animals and parks to our schools; we need to turn off our televisions, stay
away from malls, take walks, live more simply, and learn to be quiet some of the time. There's
no quick path to ecological insight, but only a lot of small steps.
© Danusha V.