Earlier this Spring, the Dutch magazine happinez, which profiles itself as ‘your guide in spirituality and happiness’, published an interview with author Karen Armstrong on her most recent book, entitled Sacred Nature (2022). Armstrong is not the first the best writer. She is one of the most famous scholars in religion today and has published numerous books that were translated in different languages, among them A History of God (1993), Islam: A Short History (2000) and Buddha (2000). She also received several honorary doctorates, among them from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (the Netherlands), where she held a public lecture on March 30, 2023 on the topic of her latest book. All this demonstrates that her work is well received in both spiritual and academic circles.
The reason why Armstrong wrote Sacred
Nature are the climate changes showing us that the world and the future of
the human species on this planet are in danger. Humanity itself is held responsible
for that situation. Our relationship with nature has changed in the course of
history. Our connectedness with the natural world around us has been replaced
by a more distant attitude. Nature has become objectified and submitted to our
control. According to Armstrong modern Western thought as it developed since
the Enlightenment is to blame. With their rational and pragmatic approaches,
science and technology have reduced nature to an object that they want to manipulate.
As a result, the connection between humanity and nature has been broken. “The
capacity that most traditional religions had to see nature as holy and to
cultivate the wonder that you can feel when you are standing face to face to
it, has been lost and may be fatal if we don’t pay attention,” Armstrong
observes in the happinez interview.[i]
In Sacred Nature Armstrong seeks to explain how we can restore our connection with nature. Not only do we need to change the way we act, but also our ways of thinking and looking. We need to cultivate our reverence for nature, and we can learn that by seeking inspiration in the great religious and philosophical traditions from the past. To look differently at nature is something we can learn from romantic poets such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850), who could still see the sacred in nature, a way of looking that maybe resembles “the way we perceived the world when humanity was in its infancy” (p. 6).[ii] In the epilogue of her book Armstrong also mentions Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), another poet and contemporary of Wordsworth. He too can serve as source of inspiration for us now: “If we want to halt the environmental crisis, we need first, like Coleridge, to seek a silent receptiveness to the natural world, bringing it into our lives little by little every day” (p. 189). In doing this, Armstrong argues, we can restore our relationship with sacred nature.
Armstrong’s aspirations have indeed a lot in common with the authors of the Romantic period. They were the ones who revolted against the Enlightenment in the first half of the nineteenth century. They countered the reigning scientific approach of nature with a much more idealized image of nature. Against the dominance of rationality, they highlighted the importance of emotions. The aesthetical experience of beauty and the sublime took central stage.[iii] The reactionary character of the Romantic movement however resulted in stressing the opposition between these two attitudes. That is also the case in Armstrong’s book. She notes that an aesthetic experience “is more effective in arousing an appreciation of suffering than a more objective, cognitive approach; it may, therefore, elicit an empathy with the pain of nature that more cerebral or scientific accounts of our environmental crisis cannot” (p. 84)
Most of all, Armstrong seeks inspiration in a more distant past for a different attitude towards nature, more specifically in the Axial Age (c. 900 to 200 BCE). “At that time, in four distinct regions of the world, the great religious and philosophical traditions arose that have nourished humanity ever since: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and rationalism in Greece” (pp. 19-20).
Her appreciation for these traditions, however, differs. As already noted, she does not think highly of rationalism, but also her attitude towards Jewish and Christian monotheism is rather ambivalent. It seems hardly accidental that precisely these traditions had a major influence on Western thought. Especially traditions from the East can count on her approval. This is the case for the traditions already mentioned from before the Christian Era, but also for Islam. According to Armstrong these traditions have preserved a different attitude towards nature, one in which nature is understood as permeated with a holy power. “This strong sense of inherent sacrality recurs in nearly every religious tradition. It seems to be more instinctive to the human mind than our modern habit of devitalising the natural world and transforming it into matter that can be manipulated for human purposes” (pp. 52-53).
Underlying this representation is however a problematic opposition between a materialistic West and spiritual East, which is the product of a Western orientalism that was intertwined with Romanticism. As Edward W. Said wrote in his groundbreaking book on Orientalism (1978), the regeneration of Europe by Asia was a very influential romantic idea. This interest in Asia was not so much an interest in Asia itself but in its usefulness for modern Europe.[iv] Not only does such a utilitarian approach ignore the power structures underlying this relationship, it also does not do justice to the inherent complexity of traditions that are more ambiguous than Armstrong suggests in her book. They are instead reduced to what is useful for the envisioned goal. This is even more striking because that is precisely the approach of nature that Armstrong rightly criticizes.
The derailments of modernity have indeed caused immense damage to nature and a reappraisal of our vital connection with nature to which we belong is crucial, but the opposition between an aesthetical and a scientific approach of nature is not fruitful. All human capacities, spiritual as well as rational, the power of imagination as well as future oriented thinking are necessary to address the problems that are related to climate change.
[i] “De heilige natuur volgens Karen Armstrong,” in happinez 2 (2023) 28-33, pp. 30-31.
[ii] Karen Armstrong, Sacred Nature (Random House. Kindle Edition).
[iv] Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Penguin, 1991) 115. See also the critique of Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’ (Abingdon: Routledge, 1999) and Wael B. Hallaq, Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge (New York: Colombia University Press, 2018).