“The Relation between Religions in the Light of the Environmental Crisis.”
Presenter: Prof Seyyed Hossein Nasr, of The George Washington University, USA.
This was the inaugural Autumn Lecture given on Thursday 27, October 1994 at Manchester College, Oxford.
When I was invited to come to Oxford to deliver a lecture for this very important new International Interfaith Centre, I accepted with pleasure because for much of my life I have worked in a humble way to try to achieve a better understanding among religions. For that very reason I chose a subject for today’s discourse which combines this concern, about which I have spoken and debated at Oxford several times, with another concern which I believe is central to nearly all issues which will confront us now and in the future: the environment.
Let me assert categorically that this is a challenge which no serious person can avoid simply by delaying to confront it with the hope of facing it later. There is no greater catastrophe than the lack of political will of nations, whether they be leftist or rightist, democracies or dictatorships, republics or monarchies, as well as individuals, to face this question. At any point within the spectrum of political institutions throughout the globe one sees the lack of will power to deal with issues which are absolutely crucial and which must be faced now. This is precisely the point where the role of religion must enter with its God-given intuitive grasp of truth, an intuitative power which includes but is not limited to mere analysis of events.
For the Rockefeller Lectures in 1966 in Chicago, I gave a series of lectures predicting the environmental crisis, lectures which came out later as the book Man and Nature, and which was avidly discussed at the time. My thesis was that the environmental crisis is not simply the result of bad engineering or bad planning, but is in reality a spiritual and religious crisis. This crisis will not disappear simply through debate, such as the one you all read in the London Times this morning concerning more roads or fewer roads. The subject of such debates are symptoms of something much more profound. At the time of the Rockefeller Lectures and later the publication of Man and Nature, my thesis was strongly opposed by certain Christian theologians and writers on religion in England, some of whom were writing very serious material on science and religion themselves. I think there were two reasons for this: first, they may have thought, “Who is this brash young man from the Middle East asking about these things?” And second, “Why hold religion responsible?” I did not myself hold religion responsible, but at that time others did, such as Lynn White and Arnold Toynbee, the famous British historian who, as you know, blamed Christianity directly for the fact that it had rejected pantheism, which in turn resulted in the desecration of nature and therefore in the environmental crisis. Now, although I disagreed with the views of Toynbee, and also with White in his seminal essay, ‘The historical roots of our ecological crisis’, which repeated many of the points I had mentioned in Chicago- with the difference that he tried
to put the blame on Christianity, which I never did – I do share with them the view of the significance of the role of religion in the environmental crisis no matter how differently we interpret that role.
The last thirty years have shown to many of those in the western world most concerned with the religious dimension of human life, with the world of faith, how significant is their mission in the environmental crisis. A plethora of works by Christian and gradually by Jewish theologians on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in the United States, are coming out on what is sometimes called eco-theology, creation spirituality, earth theology, and all kinds of other names that have been given to such questions lately. However, very little attention has been paid so far to the significance of the role of religion in interfaith and global setting regarding the environmental crisis.
As far as I know, no one has seriously dealt on the deeper theological and philosophical level until now with this issue although it is a extremely serious matter. Why? First of all, because the majority of the peoples of the world still live within a religiously bound universe. That includes a billion Chinese. One should not be fooled by the fact that they are ruled outwardly by Marxism. Their attitude toward mountains and trees, for example, is still very much that of Confucian China. We have seen what happened after the death of the former President of North Korea, the most Marxist state in Asia – people went to a sacred mountain to pray for him. The attitude toward nature in most areas of the world is still dominated by the question of religion. In the western world only a small minority, so called the ‘intelligentsia’, along with a number of people in large urban areas have divorced themselves totally from the religious understanding of nature. This group now generalizes its attitude for the whole of the globe as if the African, the Asian, the South American, and so on, and even many less secularized Westerners, have the same philosophical and spiritual attitudes toward nature as the cynical young philosophy or psychology student in a Western university, or as an engineer in a big factory for whom the earth and in fact the whole world are nothing but a big machine to be analyzed and manipulated.
The religious dimension of the environmental crisis is much too serious to neglect, especially since the crisis is a global one. I will not go here into the factors which have caused it, although I believe that it was the creation of a particular science based upon the reduction of nature to a mere material object, to a simple ‘it’. This attitude was then applied to a technology aimed at gaining power and domination over nature, with the loss of the sacral or sacred understanding of nature. Today, the crisis is not confined to the West, although you all know that every child born in the so-called highly industrial societies uses something between fifteen to thirty times as much of the earth’s resources until he or she grows up as a child who is born and brought up elsewhere. But in the destruction of the globe everyone is sharing together, from Muslims to Hindus to Buddhists to followers of the primal religions in the Polynesian Islands or Africa, to Christians, Protestants, Catholics, to agnostics and atheists. It is one of the very few things in which the whole of the globe is sharing. The difference is that followers of most religions still possess a religious attitude toward nature, although now eclipsed by other factors, while secularized men possess a thoroughly secularized view which is directly responsible for the rape and destruction of nature by modern technology today.
In any case, it is one of the great paradoxes that we fight about everything else, but we are agreed upon how to go about destroying the globe. Dissenting voices belong to a very small number of people and what they say is usually taken as a noisy nuisance and when action is taken, it is mostly cosmetic. We therefore have a great paradox consisting in the fact that this problem, which is of the most vital concern to the whole of us, is one that we share but agree only not to solve. Instead, we are only accentuating it from day to day and leading ourselves to the point where it will become finally insoluble.
It is into this situation that the religions of the world, not wanting to fall behind one another, have come now forward to join hands with each other and also with secularist forces in making statements about the environmental crisis. We have already had the Assisi Declaration named indirectly after St. Francis of Assisi, among the best known of Christian saints, who spoke so often about the importance of nature. At the conference in Assisi, representatives of all of the religions came together to make an ethical declaration about the protection of the earth, a declaration which has unfortunately done practically nothing to change either the views of the World Bank or of the various countries selling arms or of factories bellowing smoke into the atmosphere. It just made people feel better for a while. We must consider why this is the case, and why we must face in all honesty so much apathy in these matters. This problem is not like a discourse about whether or not Homer wrote The Iliad. Rather, it is one which has grown so rapidly and so far that we have very little time left to seriously discuss the issue. We must be honest about the acuteness of the crisis and its urgency.
It is interesting to note that except for some of the primal religions such as the North American Indian or the Australian Aborigine, there has been a peculiar reversal in the position of many of the followers of non-western religions during the past few decades when they have in a sense become even more impervious to the significance of the environment than they were before. They have followed the call of rapid industrialization in order not to be left behind. I am a Muslim and speak as a Muslim. How many people in the Islamic world have been interested in the religious significance of the environment recently? We could count those who have spoken seriously on this crucial issue on the fingers of our two hands. In fact, for a long time I was about the only person in the Islamic world who spoke about it openly challenging the prevalent complacency. The same is true of Hindus in India, of Buddhists in Burma and, of course, of Japan which has one of the most negative environmental records in the world. The non-Christian religions of the world, which had previously preserved their own views of nature much better than had Christianity, have themselves fallen asleep, or did so until quite recently, as far as this issue is concerned, and to this day they are for the most part only trying to tag along in the effort to bring about a global awareness of the relation between religions and their unified impact upon the environment and the environmental crisis. It is precisely due to these factors that we are now faced with a new situation.
During the last century all of the discussions about interreligious understanding – interfaith groups, the World Congress of Religions, the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, etc., involved for the most part two central elements: first, the understanding of the Divine, which of course is central for it is what religion is all about; and second, the nature of humanity, human life, salvation, society, ethics and so on. The third grand reality of human existence, namely the cosmos or nature, has been hardly ever considered in an interreligious context. The great expositors of comparative religion, from those who were purely historicists to those who were phenomenologists, from those who tried to have a purely psychological understanding of religion sometimes with some insights as in the case of William James, to these expositors of the traditional doctrine of the truth of religions, the great masters of metaphysics and cosmology, all paid most of their attention to the question of the nature of Divine and human realities. They focused their discussions on the issue of Ultimate Reality which determines both us and the world of nature on the one hand and on man – by which I mean anthropos, man and woman, the human state – on the other. Little was said about this issue in comparative religion which considers how the meaning of nature and man’s relation to it should be studied across religious frontiers.
I am almost certain that if we do not commit suicide by what we are doing to the environment and if we are still around for some time to come, this issue will become more and more important every way. In the same way that the grand masters of the comparative study of religions have fortunately expounded the metaphysics of religion on the level or that reality which we can identify as heaven, or the spiritual pole of reality, we must now develop and expound the complementary teachings for the earth. Unfortunately so many aberrations abound in this domain. It is interesting, for example, to note that many of the people in the West who are trying to talk about this subject, that is, the earth in a universal, religious context, end up in some cult or are marginalized or even expelled from their church. Many of them are not taken seriously by the mainstream of the Christian and Jewish understanding of religion in the West. The study of nature or the earth in a theological and spiritual context within a universal framework must be carried out in such a way as not to allow this marginalization and tendency toward the heterodox away from what remains of traditional orthodoxy to occur.
Let me now turn briefly to the various religions. If we are going to look at how to study the world of nature, we must first ask if it is possible in fact to bring an accord among various religions on this issue. There are those, like myself, who believe that there exists the profoundest accord on the most important plane, that is the plane of the Divinity, of the Real of Ultimate Reality. I have often repeated the doctrine that the doctrine of Unity, which is also the foundation of Islam, is itself unique (al-tawhid wahid). Not only is there one Ultimate Reality, but the doctrine of that one Reality is ultimately one. Therefore one cannot have religious truth which ends at the highest level of metaphysical knowledge in multiplicity and not unity. The idea that there is no universal Truth which is manifested in all authentic religions is absurd and its acceptance would create a monstrous view of God, the Source of all reality. This view has been discussed a great deal elsewhere and we need not deal with it here.
Let us now ask if it is also possible in the light of the inner or ‘transcendent unity of religions’, to use Schuon’s well-known formulation, to develop a harmonious doctrine of the cosmos, of the world of nature, of the environment, upon which the religions could then have some kind of accord, rather than simply expressing diplomatic niceties which have very little practical effect. Furthermore, it is necessary to look at the living religions, because it is the followers of the living religions who are now destroying the earth despite the persistence of the religious view of nature within their minds and souls. While the religions which are no longer living, such as the Egyptian and the Greek, are historically very important and significant for their contribution to Christian theology, they no longer have followers and therefore must be left aside at least here. We shall turn our attention to those religions with large numbers of followers who in fact are having the greatest impact upon the natural environment.
These various religions include between them approximately four main categories of perspectives on creation and on the natural environment: First, there are the primal religions, neglected until the last few decades and seen as remnants of the primitive view which would soon disappear and which had already been superseded by the so-called ‘great’ or ‘higher’ religions. These terms rooted in l9th century evolutionary thought reflect the myriad pejorative ways in which the primal peoples were treated until the last few decades since which matters have changed a good deal. There are still about three hundred million people who follow one form or another of the primal religions. Some of these religions have decayed and therefore their adherents have begun to follow other paths to God. One might say that the stream of grace has been cut from their world which is why there are a large number of conversions among the followers of these religions to both Islam and Christianity in many parts of the world, especially Africa. Yet, some of these primal religions still survive in a living form and have a view of nature which is of great significance for reasons which have been often discussed by Christian and Jewish theologians, as well as by philosophers of the environment, the eco-philosophers, who are now coming onto the scene.
These religions are characterized by several traits. It must be mentioned before anything else that they are not simply animistic – a term which does not really mean anything if analyzed seriously ln reference to them. They believe that the world is alive, that it is en-souled. St. Augustine also believed that the world was alive, but that does not make him animistic. These pejorative appellations do not in fact help us to understand anything in depth. Primal peoples believe that the phenomena of nature are not only symbols of higher realities, which a Muslim or Christian mystic would accept, but that the symbol is also ‘identified’ with the higher realities in an essential way, that is, the symbol and the symbolised are fused together in a concrete fashion in their mentality. They do not rationally separate the object from the archetype or idea of it which the object represents, and therefore they have a very concrete view of the world of nature as sacred. This view has, of course, very important consequences. It is the basis of their role as the great protectors of nature, for nature is their sanctuary and the destruction of their natural ambience also implies the destruction of their religion.
I live in America now, a place in which one is always sad because of the tremendous power of this civilization to destroy nature. Once I was told by a wise man, a European of great depth, that in the twentieth century those who live in the Orient are always sad because every day some beautiful remnant of traditional or sacred art is destroyed. The West has destroyed practically everything it could destroy in this domain and now especially in America it is destroying virgin nature (a phenomena which is not limited to America, to say the least). When I am in America, I always awake knowing that a whole forest might have been removed by bulldozers overnight to achieve the goal summarised in that one magic word: development. Now, that destruction, that remarkable destruction of virgin nature in America, is possible today because for forty thousand years civilizations lived there for which nature was their cathedral, their house of worship, and thus they protected virgin nature providing modern Americans with the opportunity to destroy it now whereas in many other parts of the world much of virgin nature was destroyed long ago.
The national parks of the United States, the most beautiful parks of America such as the Yellowstone National Park, were centers of these ancient civilizations which preserved them so well for tens of thousands of years that now one can turn them into national parks and visit them. This is the great heritage which they have left as a result of their way of being able to live with nature as custodians of the earth. It is precisely this custodial ability which is corrupted by our habit of taking the sacred out of the context of nature and usurping that context, as we do in many forms of modern technology which violate and destroy nature. It is interesting to note in this context the vast interest in Shamanism in the United States today. The sacred rites and practices of the American Indians are taken from their authentic Shamanistic context by young and old Americans and sometimes ‘packaged’ as weekend Shamanistic retreats. In any bookstore one can find numerous journals devoted to ‘earth spirituality,’ based to a large extent upon ideas from the American Indians. This practice is seriously opposed by most Native Americans who feel that it contributes to the continuing destruction of the Native people – traditional Navajos are being threatened today almost as much as they were three hundred years ago. Although it is extremely important for the followers of other religions to understand this significant perspective of the sacredness of the earth, this understanding cannot be accomplished by abstracting random Shamanistic ideas from their authentic context. It can be accomplished, however, by improving relations and dialogue across religious boundaries. The second category of religious perspectives on nature and the environment includes the Far-Eastern religions. I have in mind especially Confucianism and Taoism, the two great traditions of China, which spill over into Korea and South Asia, and to some extent into Japan whose own religion, Shintoism, is much more closely aligned and related to the Shamanistic religions. These two great traditions – one of which, Confucianism, is seeing a remarkable revival today even within China – are based on a view of nature in which the laws of nature and the laws of human existence are really the same, a theme which is in fact also central to nearly all other traditional religious understandings of nature. The Tao of nature and the Tao of human life are the same. This is also true for Confucianism. The Chinese word li applies to nature as well as to man, and to be natural is to live virtuously. In these religions, the idea of virtue as human virtue, and naturalness go together.
These religions differ, however, from other religions, including some of the primal ones, in not ever speaking about the orgin of nature, and the idea of cosmic origination has little meaning for them. Confucianism never speaks about the creation of the world, unlike the myths of Africa and the American Indians or those of Hinduism, not to speak of the Abrahamic religions. These Far-Eastern traditions start with the world of nature as a given reality so that the idea of the createdness of creation, which is a very important theological category for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians and some Hindus, does not exist in the context of their thought. What does exist is the idea of the immutable cosmic, divine law which penetrates through the whole of the cosmos, which we must follow, and through whose following one can gain happiness. There is, in fact, no breach, no separation, between man and the world of nature. Both Taoism and Confucianism – Taoism more overtly, Confucianism in some of its later developments – always speak of a bi-unity of man and nature in which it would be inconceivable for the idea to arise of man dominating over nature, except in the sense of dominating over his own passions or over his own lower soul.
The third category of views on nature comes from the vast world of India which has produced, first of all, certain acosmic and so called other-worldly philosophies which are not interested in the cosmos, and for which the world of nature does not seem to be relevant. These include certain schools of Buddhism and, of course, the great metaphysical school of Sankara, non-dualistc Vedanta. Yet, if one delves more deeply one will see that even in the school of Sankara there is always the idea of the world, maya being a term which means the cosmos, not only as illusion also the creativity of the Divine Principle, and not just illusion – but also as a reality possessing divine origination, although this philosophy does emphasize the non-duality of reality. Furthermore, there are many other schools of Hinduism, and even Buddhism, which deal very extensively with the world of nature and which do so in a very different way from the Abrahamic, or the primal religions or Confucianism. Indeed, India preserves a kind of museum of various religious perspectives and possibilities ranging all the way from the non-dualistic perspective to the Samkhya philosophy.
Some people have already written about how crucially important lt is to understand that the present industrialization of the villages of India is, from the point of view of the environment, one of the greatest tragedies facing the earth right now, a tragedy whose future consequences will multiply beyond the ken of imagination. This is already beginning now with the pouring of billions of dollars into India precipitating an environmental crisis just around the corner. What will happen if all the dung, just the dung, in the villages of India is not recycled? We will have a situation like that in Delhi all over India. If you have visited Delhi in the last few years, you know what has happened. Despite this environmental crisis and the much greater crisis to come, within Hinduism there is still a great significance in the fact that the understanding of nature as sacred still survives. In traditional Hinduism there is no form of nature which does not participate in the sacredness of life. It is a great paradox that the religlon which was alwavs criticized by foreigners, missionaries and the like, as being one of nature-worship, pantheism, cow worship, etc., has turned against the very spirit of its religion for which it was castigated and criticized for such a long time by its opponents.
Also, as far as the treatment of nature is concerned since independence, India has turned its back against a main aspect of the teachings of the person who brought about its independence, that is Mahatma Gandhi, namely, his doctrine of ahimsa, cottage industries, and his total opposition to the industrialization of India. Nearly everyone has talked about Gandhi while following policies one hundred and eighty degrees opposed to his teachings, all in the name of the betterment of the life of the Indian people. Whether that betterment has actually occurred in India or elsewhere is a question for another day. The point we wish to make here is that even in India where Hinduism has still preserved the sacred view of nature to some degree, the environment is being destroyed. There are, of course, attempts to resist this onslaught by appealing even to Jainism, a very interesting case of an extreme form of environmentalism, for Jains believe that one should not even protect nature. One should just leave nature as it is. In any case, Jainism must be considered along with Hinduism and Buddhism ln the rich tradition concerning nature to be added to those of the Far-Eastern and elemental or primal religions.
Finally we come to the Abrahamic world, the religions which probably are, or were, followed by most people in this room. In the Abrahamic world of Judaism, Christianity and Islam there are again, as in the case of Indian and the Far-East, many perspectives. There is not one Jewish or one Islamic perspective on nature or the environment. Within my own tradition, which is Islam, these views would range all the way from that of the Ash’arites, who did not think that nature even existed -what appears as nature is the result of Divine Will, there is no law and nothing possesses a nature of its own – all the way to those, such as certain Sufis, who talk about nature as theophany and as performing a basic function within the divine economy. The same situation can be observed mutatis mutandis in Christianity as far as the existence of different schools of thought about nature is concerned. These schools were, however, mostly eclipsed, a fact to which I shall turn in a moment.
By and large the three Abrahamic religions have had historical and theological views concerning nature which bear certain similarities to each other. First of all, for them nature is not the ultimate reality. It is itself created without being unconnected to the Source. It follows the laws which have been given by God concern us as well as the world of nature. It is interesting to note that in the pre-modern period members of the Abrahamic family of religions would have understood each other perfectly well and would also have been in total accord with the Confucian and Taoist view that the laws governing over human beings and the laws governing over nature are interrelated, and not separated. In Arabic the word al-Shariah, the Divine Law, is not only used for human beings, but bees also have their own shariah. In this context, the Arabic word namus, which means law, originally from the Greek nomos, is interesting since when it was Arabized it became equated with the Quranic term al-Shariah. It is not only used as laws brougnt by the different proprhets but is also emploved to mean the laws of nature. The namus, or the law of the world of nature, is related to the namus brought by various prophets, a view strongly emphasized by Quranic teachings. Also in Christianity, the very development of the concept of natural law, which received such a great elaboration in the Middle Ages in the hands of Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic theologians, relates the law of human beings to the law of nature.
So there are similarities in religious perspectives, as there are no doubt differences, including the question of origination or lack thereof, and the question of the Will of God governing the world of nature, between religions which have a non-personalistic view of the Divine Origin, such as Taoism or certain schools of Hinduism and Confucianism and those which harbor a theistic concept. There is also the question of the divinization of nature versus its sacralization. Many contemporary Muslims do not understand that Islam is not against the sacralization of nature, but against its divinization for theologically there is a very important distinction between the two.
There is no doubt that these and other differences and contending issues exist which we cannot gloss over if we are going to have a serious comparative study of the religious understanding of nature with the aim of creating real accord. Serious metaphysicians take differences in religious formulations in general into consideration without, however, believing them to be absolute, for only the Absolute is absolute. In the same way, the differences in various views of the world of nature are not to be glossed over. Nevertheless they represent a remarkable harmony in certain very important areas. Putting aside modern interpretations to which I shall turn in a moment – that is another world whereas here I am referring to the religious world not as yet secularized – nature is created by or originates from the same Source from which we originate. Therefore a link with nature is not only physical but also metaphysical, permeating all the other levels of reality going back to the Origin. This is a very important principle. Nature is not only an ‘it’ and our relation with nature is not only physical but has correspondences with all of the other levels of our being, the psychological, the intellectual, the spiritual and so forth. It is this truth which was expressed through the language of macrocosmic-microcosmic correspondences that dominated Western thought for so many centuries, and on which, in this very august University, so many treatises were written up to the Elizabethan period. This University was one of the great centers for the exposition of this cosmolog1cal doctrine in the English Renaissance. In any case, whether we use this traditional language or not, these correspondences are the first element which I think one would find to be nearly unanimous in all of the different families of religions so far as the understanding of nature in its relation to man is concerned.
Then there is the question of what we call moral law, the law according to which human beings should live, and the fact that it should not, and cannot, be totally divorced from the laws of nature. This view is of paramount importance and is a deeply rooted heritage even in the modern world where although in that world many people have ceased to believe in it, and it still survives everywhere in the world where religion is still strong. It is interesting to observe in this connection the differences in the responses to the earthquake in Los Angeles two years ago and to the earthquake in Cairo about the same time. One could make a serious sociological study about the differences in those responses. Even in Los Angeles, where supposedly no one entertains the existence of a nexus between an earthquake and how human beings live, a number of people went to churches to pray to God for protection and the expiation of their sins. The belief in the relation between human actions and natural events has not totally disappeared even in a place such as Los Angeles although in the older days such a belief was more widespread. In fact in the villages of Italy or Sicily to this day, as soon as there is tremor of an earthquake, everyone begins to recite the beginning of the Book of John in Latin. These people have not still caught up with those of Los Angeles, while the rest of Europe stands somewhere in between!
As for Cairo, almost the whole population, both Muslim and Christian, began to pray and the sound of the calls to pray adhan covered the whole city soon after the seismic shock. In any case, the idea that the laws that govern over the world of nature and the laws which govern over human society are interrelated is one of the universal elements of all of the different religions, expressed in many different languages. Dharma, rta, shariah, and namus are all key terms which express this interrelation. Also in African languages there are terms used for both laws of human beings and laws of nature, reminding us everywhere that the word ‘law’ continues in the minds of traditional people to mean the laws which we should follow morally as well as the laws which govern over nature.
Another important point which the religions share in common is that we have responsibility towards nature. This responsibility is of a religious kind, no matter how we define the word religious. Ultimately, this responsibility involves us not only as earthly beings but in an ultimate and eschatological sense. Now, some religions do not have the same kind of eschatological outlook as others. Shintoism, for example, does not speak about eschatology whereas Buddhism does. In Japan there are those who have developed an elaborate eschatology which involves nature, while the Shintoists have not pursued such a task. In our own world there has been the development in recent years, particularly in Catholicism, of a kind of theology of the environment based on the eschatological participation of nature with us. Somehow in our final end nature plays a role and therefore religious people cannot simply destroy and desecrate nature.
There are many, many other points in the views of various religions toward nature to consider, and this lecture cannot but be an introduction to the issues involved. There is a great deal of work to be done to bring out the many other correspondences between religious beliefs in this domain. Although not participating in the pure unity which belongs to the Divine Principle Itself, these views of nature and natural phenomena do nevertheless participate in a very profound unity and display a bond of interrelatedness. Furthermore, these views can be the basis of an accord among religions for the protection of the environment. They alone can reverse the tide of the ‘accord’ between followers of various religions, as well as their opponents, concerning its destruction as we see before us today.
Another important element to which I want to turn is that of all the religions of the world, only one surrendered the cosmos completely to the non-religious way of looking at it, and that is Western Christianity, not Orthodox or Abyssinian Christianity, but Western Christianlty – first Catholicism and then Protestantism, which became ‘acosmic’ soon after Luther. For several centuries Western Christianity did not care what view was entertained about nature. Not only did it accept and even legitimize the existence of a science of nature for which the religious view of nature was irrelevant, but it even took great pride that such a science developed in its midst. This attitude has a profound consequence for the relation among religions today which I must mention to an audience such as this, despite its being very delicate. I do not wish to be impolite but above all I wish to be truthful. Since the nineteenth century there has been a great deal of Christian missionary activity throughout the rest of the world. Now missionary activity has taken place throughout history, including Buddhist missions to China. Muslims were not missionaries in the Western sense but nevertheless there is a Muslim dawah which took Islam to lands as far apart as the Ivory Coast and Indonesia. Since the last century, however, Christian missionary activity has not been concerned simply with the teachings of the Gospels and Christian charity, but also with modern medicine and technology, the offering of better treatment of one’s cow, for example, or means of growing more rice through the use of chemicals. It has often offered the riches of this world and a way of fitting more into a secular society rather than the exalted spiritual message of Christ as the means of propagating Christianity.
The consequences of this strange wedding for the environment, especially in Africa and Asia, are very great, and the reasons for this are as follows: A number of Asians have embraced Christianity in recent decades. If you ask why, many say it helps them to have a religion while being able to fit much more easily into the consumerist society, into the modern world than before, not because they want to become close to St. Francis of Assisi or St. Maximus the Confessor or to the poverty of Christ. The change has had much more with being able to fit more into a lifestyle which is environmentally destructive and which we have to be able to oppose from a religious point of view if we are to take the traditional view of religion seriously. Only religion can create the discipline necessary to stop the consumerism that is devouring us and that is destroying the world. No other force can control the passions of the soul. Only the Spirit can control the passions of the soul and nothing else. No external social engineering can achieve the task as the history of Marxist Russia with its frightful environmental and social consequences bears witness.
This way of interpreting Christianity, not as the great Christian tradition which shared with Islam and Judaism and all the other great religions a concern for the world of nature, which now many people are trying to resurrect and resuscitate, but as the religion which was able to successfully create modern science, modern technology, a science and a technology based on power over nature, still plays an important role in much of the non-Western world. There is, therefore, the great paradox that we observe in the United States and to some extent in Europe, theologians at the edge or frontier of theological discourse trying to rediscover the Christian view of the sanctity of nature, while other Christians as missionaries in other continents are trying to destroy what remains of the sacred view of nature among followers of other religions. There are now many books coming out about Celtic spirituality and selling so well in the United States. Why? Nobody was interested in Celtic spirituality just a generation ago. When I wrote ‘Man and Nature’, because I did not know Gaelic and other related languages, I had to search long and hard to find a few medieval poems of Celtic monks in English. Now you can find books containing such poems in any serious bookstore. All of this is due to the realization of the importance of the revival of the older Christian view of the sanctity of nature without which Christianity would lose many souls. How tragic that at the same time at the other end of the spectrum, there are people with a great amount of financial assets made from oil wells or from some form of modern technology trylng to propagate Christianity, not in the name of this older view, now being revived, but in the name of an interpretation of religion that can live at ease with consumerism, with the desecration of nature, and destruction of what remains of the natural environment. This type of religious propagation naturally poses a major problem for the creation of accord between religions so far as the world of nature and the environment are concerned.
It is my duty and responsibility to mention this to a responsible audience. What one can do about it, God knows. I understand perfectly well as a Muslim that every Christian has a right to be a witness to Christ. Christ said, “Go and preach unto the nations.” But did he say to do it with money earned from a technology and a secularized consumerist economy which are destroying God’s creation? This is an important moral issue, one about which every sincere Christian will certainly have to think. Furthermore, on a practical level it has a very important impact upon the possibilities of accord among the various religions as far as the world of nature is concerned. A11 of the non-Western religions of the world – I do not mean the small minorities living in the West, like Muslims or Jews living in America, I mean mainstream and major religions they are always on the receiving end. The innovations of technology in the world today come primarily, with Japan being the one exception, from those parts of the world in which the dominant religion is still Christianity. In most other parts of the world religions are usually forced politically to side with governments and other agencies which either want to or are forced to receive this technology without question and the religions do not have the power to resist. Therefore the role of Western Christianity in trying to make friends with other religions in order to create a common discourse about the world of nature so as to attract the followers of all religions not to destroy the natural world becomes very important indeed. It is a unique role in the present global situation.
From the other side, the other religions can offer somethingwhich Christianity needs greatly. In the Christian West, the idea of a sacred science has been destroyed. The very term is not used and seems to be a paradox according to the still dominating paradigm. I have been using it, in fact, on purpose for the last fifteen to twenty years, to seek to change the situation, and have spoken and written often about it. (As, for example, in the title of my book, ‘The Need for a Sacred Science’.) That is also why my Gifford Lectures were called ‘Knowledge and the Sacred. I believe it is absolutely essential to re-sacralize knowledge, not only on the highest level but also to resuscitate the sciences of nature, sacred sciences of nature which have been forgotten, relegated or thrown into the dustbin of occultism since John Dee and people like him were walking the streets of this city a few centuries ago.
The other religions are in a very different situation. What I have called the sacred sciences are alive in these other religions in a very different way as part of the tradition and not simply as occultism in the Western sense. By sacred science I mean not only the metaphysics which can be called the supreme sacred science, but the various sciences of the cosmos. A person in my own country, Persia, who knows these sciences is not an occultist because these sciences are sacred and still belong to the predominant religious world-view. The religions such as Islam in which these sacred sciences are alive can compensate for Christianity’s service to a world discourse on the views toward nature mentioned above by providing these sciences in a context which is neither demonic, related to devil worship, or socially marginal and which does not require us to become Druids running in the streets of London, but which belongs to the mainstream of religious life.
The challenges which I put before this audience today are, I believe, among the most important that must be confronted in future relations between religions because we cannot evade the following realities: First, there is a major environmental crisis. Second, the religious element in the environmental crisis is extremely important. Third, the vast majority of the peoples of the world are still religious, and if a mullah tells somebody in a mosque not to pollute the water, it will have a lot more effect than the government publishing an article about it in a newspaper in Cairo, Damascus or Tehran. The fact is that we all live on the globe within a web of life and an ecological system now being threatened with destruction through the manner in which we live. Therefore the question of interfaith dialogue and the relation between religions must also encompass this very important dimension, that is, this attitude toward God’s creation. Without consideration of this reality, there will never be concrete unity of life of human beings and other creatures or any kind of peaceful existence and we will in fact only have the negative unity of joining forces to destroy the earth together, leading to our own destruction.
Let us pray and hope that the positive unity of view and purpose to which we have alluded will prevail before the very opportunity to save that precious trust left by God in human hands, that is, His creation, is destroyed. But in this, as in all matters, God knows best.