Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2010
Spirituality in a Time of Crisis
by Mark Hathaway
Reading Paul Wapner's article, I found myself sympathizing with those environmentalists who believe that we need to do something now—whatever might be possible—to avert catastrophic climate change. Yet, like Paul, I am convinced that technology alone can never get to the roots of the crisis nor provide a lasting solution unless we also fundamentally realign our lives and values.
Like Ken Conca, I agree that we need to go well beyond a kind of naturalism that creates a false dichotomy between "protecting the environment" and satisfying authentic human needs. We are called to address both the ecological crisis and the huge injustices that perpetuate poverty and inequality in our world. Indeed, both crises share the same root: the exercise of power as domination and exploitation that destroys living ecosystems and oppresses human beings to accumulate wealth for a privileged few. To create genuine alternatives, we need to find ways to empower people to create and nurture authentically sustainable communities.
What role might spirituality play in overcoming the ecological crisis and in mobilizing communities to work for change? How might it help us to realign our lives and our values? And how can the wisdom of our religious traditions—along with new insights from science—guide us as we seek both inspiration and practical solutions?
An Opportunity for Awakening
In The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation, Leonardo Boff and I endeavor to answer those questions. We come to the conclusion that the current challenges we face—poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, and the continued threat of militarism—are the reflection of a deeper spiritual and ethical crisis. Together, these crises have the potential to destroy not only a specific culture or a particular region of the world, but also the complex diversity of our planet's web of life. Not only present—but also future generations—of the Earth community are threatened.
Yet, despite the gravity of our situation, there is also very real room for hope. It is not as though a giant asteroid were hurtling toward our planet and we were powerless to stop it. The very fact that these crises are of our own making means that it is possible for us to address them in a meaningful and effective way—at least if we act in a timely manner with sufficient energy and wisdom.
We cannot rely on technology alone to solve the crises we face, although certainly technology—especially innovative approaches that mimic natural systems—will have an important role to play. Even with vast improvements in energy and resource efficiency, there is simply no way for six billion people to live at the levels of consumption typical in North America and Europe. We will need to radically change the way we live on this planet if we are to create truly just and sustainable communities in harmony with the greater community of life.
We will not be successful if we try to motivate people to change by instilling guilt or fear. While we need to acknowledge the gravity of the crises we face, playing on fears may drive us to despair, while guilt can move us to denial. We may also seek to escape from the painful reality we face through addictions, be they to work, sex, drugs, or consumerism. All these dynamics deaden our souls and limit the possibility for transformative action.
Yet, our pain for the world, when shared with others, can help us to reawaken to compassion and reconnect us to the living Earth community. We suffer because—at a deep level—we care. At the same time, by becoming more attentive to the beauty of our planet and our love for those around us, we can overcome the deadening effects of denial, despair, and addiction and find a potent source of energy to renew and sustain us. In doing so, we discover a spirituality that goes beyond an abstract "connection to nature" to one that becomes a source of motivation and creativity for transformative action.
We can frame the spiritual challenge of our time—not primarily in terms of renunciation or self-denial—but rather as a journey toward liberation. Liberation calls us to move toward enlightenment or self-realization, breaking through the nets of delusion that deaden our souls and ensnare us. At the same time, liberation invites us to work together to free ourselves from an economic, cultural, and political (dis)order that perpetuates social inequalities and impoverishes the life-sustaining community of our planet.
Ultimately, we need to understand liberation as the process of moving toward a world where all humans can live with dignity in harmony with the greater community of life, a journey calling us to repair the terrible damage we have inflicted—or tikkun. To do this, we will need to reinvent ourselves as a species so that we transform from being a destructive force endangering the web of life to instead become increasingly conscious participants in the great, unfolding story of creation and evolution itself in its movement toward ever-greater communion, differentiation, and creativity.
In undertaking this journey, we can find both wisdom and inspiration in the creative energy evident in the unfolding dynamics of the universe, and particularly the story of our living planet. We can understand this in terms of the ancient Chinese word Tao (or Dao), often translated as "the Way." The Tao is an embodied, "walking" wisdom leading us to harmony and right relationship. It is both the way the universe works and the flowing fabric of the cosmos that can never be fully described—only tasted. To the extent that we open and align ourselves with this innate potentiality for harmony and transformation present in all of creation, we are empowered to move toward authentic liberation.
A Fourfold Path
There are four basic kinds of spiritual practices or "paths" that form the foundation for a spirituality that can help realign our lives and values—and even reframe our perceptions—as we seek authentic liberation.
The first can be described as the path of invocation, the way of opening ourselves to the guiding energy of the Tao, of reconnecting to the Source and our communion with all beings, of celebrating and praising the goodness of creation. This path is closely related with finding our place and feeling at home in the cosmos—not as masters but as creative participants—as well as with sensing the sacredness of life.
It is perhaps easiest to do this by starting with experiences of beauty, awe, and reverence. These spontaneously lead us into greater mindfulness. On a collective level, work around "Earth literacy" can serve as a doorway to this kind of awareness, especially if the kind of learning involved transcends the realm of information to truly serve as an experiential awakening to the beauty and wisdom of our local ecosystems.
Further still, we can open ourselves to the great story of the cosmos itself, a story of ongoing creation and evolution more mysterious and wonderful than any we could have imagined. As we come to see the universe not as a giant machine but as a living being continually birthed into being, a deep sense of gratitude awakens within us. We also come to understand more clearly our own part in this great story and begin to consciously participate in it, seeking to broaden diversity, strengthen communion, and deepen our creative participation in the self-organizing dynamics of emergence.
Yet, we can never fully open ourselves to beauty and awe unless we also clear away the cobwebs of delusion and create space for the Sacred to dwell. We can describe this path in terms of letting go or embracing the void. On one level, this means becoming aware of the ways that despair, denial, and addictions have deadened our souls. In an attempt to block out pain, we build walls that also cut us off from the wellspring of energy that can motivate and inspire us as we work for change. Joanna Macy's "work that reconnects" provides excellent examples of the kind of collective practices that can help us to let go of delusion and begin to awaken anew to both interconnection and compassion.
Meditation practices are also ways of experiencing and embracing the void—a void that is not empty but is, as both mystical traditions and modern quantum physics suggest, a vast sea of energy, pregnant with possibility.
The third path, of creative empowerment, helps us to reconnect with the embodied energy of the Tao in a way that combines both intuition and compassion. Science teaches us that living systems can change in rapid and often surprising ways through the process of emergence. In this perspective, the key to effective action is not brute force but rather finding the right action for the right place and right time.
To the extent, then, that we can awaken our intuition—both as individuals and communities -- the potential exists for liberating change that goes well beyond what we might have first imagined. The importance of vision also comes into play here. As we expand our imaginations to conceive of new ways of living, we begin to invite new possibilities that go beyond our old habits and ways of being.
Finally, we need to be able to incarnate the vision, moving from the realm of vision to action. This is perhaps the most complex of all the paths, for it calls us to work together in new ways that are infused with the power of creative synergy that remains open to the possibilities and potentiality of each moment while at the same time renouncing the exercise of domination and manipulating control.
In walking all four of these intertwined paths, we find inspiration in the dynamic image of the Tao. To the extent that we can align ourselves with the deep energy and purpose evident in the unfolding evolution of the cosmos, we tap into a vast potentiality that can enkindle, guide, and sustain our work for meaningful change. In the words of Thomas Berry in The Great Work: "We are not lacking in the dynamic forces needed to create the future. We live immersed in a sea of energy beyond all comprehension. But this energy, in an ultimate sense, is ours not by domination but by invocation."
Mark Hathaway is an adult educator who facilitates events exploring the interconnections between ecology, justice, spirituality, and cosmology. He co-authored The Tao of Liberation (taoofliberation.com) published in late 2009.
Hathaway, Mark. 2010. Spirituality in a Time of Crisis. Tikkun 25(3): 40