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green spirituality and the limits to modernity

By: James Miller

In an online report on Religious Innovation for Sustainable Future (no longer available), Nina Witoszek (Oslo University) surveys a “pastoral renaissance” taking place across the globe.

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This renaissance, she declares, is “not just a tide of projects and conferences, but a new-old mindset which aspires to reclaiming nature, culture and spirituality, influencing green architecture and furthering alternative models of consumption.” The report continues with four essays based in China [note: I wrote the essay on China], India, Ghana and Norway, which explore the various ways in which this pastoral renaissance is taking place. The major aspect of this development is that discussion about the relationship between religion and ecology is not simply academic but actively shaping projects, cultures and mindsets in these very different areas of the world. While this in itself would be an important observation, Witoszek probes further into this phenomenon, and ends the opening section of her essay with this intriguing question:

Does this green spirituality signify a curious “premodern turn” in Western conceptions of human progress?

That is to say, is the pastoral renaissance in world religions and cultures a step back from modernity, a retreat into the past, an end to the project of modernity, of relentless and inexorable progress?

To understand the worldview of modernity, Witoszek produces an acute observation from Daniel Bell, writing in the 1970s:

The theme of Modernism was the word beyond: beyond nature, beyond culture, beyond tragedy—that was where the self-infinitizing spirit was driving the radical self. We are now groping for a new vocabulary whose key word seems to be limits: a limit to growth, a limit to spoliation of environment, a limit to arms, a limit to torture, a limit to hubris – can we extend the list?”

Witoszek’s conclusion is that the affinity between religion and sustainability lies in the way they both regard the question of limit as a central concern. Sustainability is about living within the ecological limits of the planet and not degrading our biosphere beyond its ability to sustain life. Religions are also oriented towards placing limits on people’s behaviour: don’t eat pork; don’t have sex with your neighbour’s wife; don’t harm living beings. Of course these religious limits have also been oriented towards supporting one group of people’s power over another group of people: for example, refusing to admit women as religious leaders. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that religion is one of the most powerful cultural forces that is oriented around not doing certain things.

From my point of view, it’s no surprise that as the world experiences the downside of industrial modernity, a healthy regard for limits should once again rise to the forefront of our cultural consciousness. In China, the quest for a sustainable future is mirrored in the “back to the future” rise of religions. For sure this is a complex phenomenon: people pray to the gods for wealth and happiness, not for a lower ecological footprint. But at the same time, Chinese religions send messages about reducing desire, non-violence to living beings, harmony with nature, and the value of balance and moderation. Is it any wonder that people should see a profound connection between religion and sustainability?

So to answer the original question, does the renewed interest in green religion signify a retreat to the past? Certainly, as Witoszek notes, the new “pastoral renaissance” can be allied with powerful nationalist forces and reactionary fundamentalist movements (see also my blog post on the rise of a Hindu nationalist ecological movement). At the same time, I remain hopeful that the new spirituality is part of an real and evolving consciousness centred on sustainability as a new form of “immanent transcendence,” one the capacity to root humanity deeply in the world.

Categories: Opinion, Questions

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