Sacred Space (4)

Sustainability requires us to revision the Earth not just as common ground, but as sacred space. It is at least as much a spiritual struggle as it is a material one.

Mention the word “spirituality” in public these days and eyebrows are immediately raised. Mention it in an academic context and credibility vanishes faster than smoke.

“Religion” is tolerated somewhat more, because religious practices are amenable to research and dissection. Talk about “religion” in the context of one’s own beliefs or experience, however, and (once again) credibility disappears.

It is a conundrum of a supposedly tolerant society that there is so little public discussion of religious beliefs. Nor is there much discussion of how spirituality informs people’s lives and shapes social and cultural development today as it has always done.

Instead, bring up the subject and (outside of the self-approving circles of religious communities) you will likely be greeted by suspicion, disdain or simple hostility.

Religious beliefs – or to extend the boundaries, spiritual beliefs and practices – may be a private solace but they tend to be viewed as a public menace. In supposedly “secular” society, religion is a private affair, and so the effects of personal religious beliefs are excluded from public discussion or debate.

This is absurd. What we choose reflects what we believe. What we choose in public (or for the public, in the case of politicians) reflects what we believe in private. We just aren’t supposed to talk about it. So we hide behind the veil of secularity, immune from critique, shielded from challenge or even conversation.

The myriad of decisions disguised as economic or material choices which are in fact driven by beliefs and values makes impossible a public dialogue toward a sustainable future. It’s not that all these decisions are religious in nature. But the language of religion and spirituality has always been the means by which humans have made sense of the universe of values and how those values relate to our lives. Without that language, we can’t think out loud together about where we are going and why.

In the metrical universe, of course, the language of values does not apply. Unless values can be quantified and commodified in order to be manipulated – the number of people who live in X who believe Y and therefore would buy product Z – they are irrelevant, at least in terms of public discourse.

And yet, without public discourse about our values, including those values that emerge from religious and spiritual beliefs, we persist as a global society in making decisions that are not only unsustainable but which are presented as being without alternative.

These are our options, this is the choice we have to make, so the story goes…like some bizarre Shakespearian Midsummer’s Night Nightmare in which no one seems to know who is who or what is going on except the audience, which is not allowed to speak.

What is missing is engagement, on all sides, about the issues at stake for the planet as a whole. The fault for excluding religious discourse from the public square needs to be shared. It is not only “the captains of industry” and “the pillars of government” – those social elites who manipulate the metrics of our world – which are to blame for leaving out the most important dimension of creating a future world in which life is sustainable. It is also those religious organizations, those whose role it is to gather and focus communities of their people, which remain silent and complicit in the devastation of the planet and everything in it.

Let’s go back to the idea that technology is in our heads, not in our hands, that it is a product of the choices people make, for the reasons they have, and those reasons reflect their values – what they consider to be important. If spiritual or religious organizations do not actually do things that lead toward sustainability for people and the planet, these values are not as important as other ones they also hold. Period. If people who claim to hold religious or spiritual values instead make decisions based on other values, those other values are more important, too. Period.

The dilemma, of course, is that while we don’t want to hear this home-truth about who we are and what we do, we also don’t want to be seen as wielding some version of religious power to get our own way.

Bertrand Russell once said that personal religion can survive in the most scientific of ages – as long as it remains your own view of the universe, and doesn’t translate into an attempt to convince someone else of the truth of what you believe. At that point, he said, it becomes an exercise of power, instead, and should be viewed the same as any other effort to manipulate other people.

But there is quite literally a world of difference between viewing religion in terms of responsibility and service instead of in terms of power and control. Every religious tradition has within it – as evidence these are all human institutions – aspects of both. If we choose to use religious or spiritual beliefs as a hammer, they can be violent and destructive; if we choose to use them to nuture and develop the lives of people around us, they can be creative and life-giving. Like our technology, the key element is our choices, our decisions, and the reasons and values that lie behind them.

If we do not understand that the struggle for sustainability is not only for the soul of the planet, but for our own souls; if we do not realize we cannot preserve either one without the other, then whatever the future holds, it will not be one in which people, who are human, will want to live.

Ecology is not just about ecosystems, but about the relations of all living things on the earth, those we can see and those we can’t. It is about a dimension to existence of which we can only catch a glimmer, like the movement we can see sometimes out of the corner of our eye, or sense is there, but when we look, it is gone.

That part of life, the mystery that is both beginning and ending, is not metrical. It can’t be counted and measured, but it is there, nonetheless. We ignore it at our own peril and at the peril of the planet itself.

What we can’t count and measure, however, we can still describe in story, as humans have always done, weaving meaning in our lives that matches what we find in a universe of values. Religious and spirituality gives us the language we need, the tools to do the weaving, whatever the pattern we choose or whatever picture emerges for ourselves that is different from what other people create.

There is no one pattern — which is why efforts to claim such exclusivity for our own work are based upon power and not upon wisdom. There is also no one conclusion of which we, as humans, can claim foreknowledge. We are neither gods, nor God — just dancers, in a creation not of our own design.

Thomas Berry often used the language of celebration to describe this weaving, the dance that is life. In that dance, all life participates, in the sacred space that is the Earth.

We need to talk about this — together, not just in small groups or by ourselves.

And we need to do it in public, where this conversation belongs and where everyone can participate.