Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World
by David Seidenberg
Cambridge University Press, 2015
David Seidenberg is a man on a mission. It is a good and needed mission. Indeed, it’s the primary mission of our time: to save Mother Earth from human rapacity, denial, ignorance, and selfishness, and to relearn in the process the beauty and grace of our humanity and the Earth we all share.
Ecology and eco-theology are about expanding our anthropocentric and essentially narcissistic worldviews to get to something vaster: something more real and more holy, but at the same time more intimate. Seidenberg thus seeks a basis within his religious tradition for a workable eco-theology. His book is a reminder that his religious tradition—and all our religious traditions—can slip into forgetfulness, an oblivion that obscures cosmic consciousness.
It is reassuring to hear Seidenberg’s prophetic voice warn of the perils of such a fall: twenty-six years ago, I wrote The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a New Renaissance to address this same deficiency in my own Christian tradition. The archetype of the Cosmic Christ will never be fully or clearly defined—no archetype can be, least of all a mystical archetype. Definition is an accomplishment of the left brain and mysticism an experience of the right. The best naming I know of regarding the Cosmic Christ comes from the poet Mary Oliver. In her poem, "At the River Clarion" Oliver talks about the "word" (Logos) of the river, the water, the rock, the moss beneath the water, all of which are saying, "I am part of holiness." That is the Cosmic Christ—the image of God, the Buddha Nature, the holiness or Shechinah in all things.
Christian Mysticism and the Cosmic Christ
Is the language of the Cosmic Christ more New Age reductionism and claptrap? Not at all. The earliest writer in the New Testament, Saint Paul, uses the concept frequently—so much so that one of today’s distinguished New Testament scholars, Bruce Chilton, says that for Saint Paul Christ is not only cosmic but “metacosmic.” Saint Paul derives much of his insight from the wisdom literature of Israel, where wisdom “holds everything together in heaven and on earth.” And he applies this to the Christ concept.
The “word” Oliver writes about, the Word of God, is not "words" but Logos, Dabhar (the word that creates), creative energy, the spirit of creativity, the Cosmic Wisdom. After all, the passage from John 1, “in the beginning was the Word,” is essentially plagiarized from the Wisdom texts, and it was Wisdom who was there at the creation of the world. (See also Proverbs 8.) This is why Cosmic Wisdom is another term for the Cosmic Christ. Eckhart writes that “every creature is a word of God” (Logos) and “is gladly doing its best to express God,” that is, a Cosmic Christ.
The rationalism of Western thought over the past three centuries has rendered us so mystically illiterate that most people think all mystical language is New Age. But Saint Paul was not New Age. Nor were Saint Hildegard, Meister Eckhart, Saint Thomas Aquinas, or others. (In my book on the Cosmic Christ I offer twenty-two definitions of mysticism, not one of which is or ever will be definitive). Mysticism is our “Yes” to life in all its wonder. Prophecy is its complement: prophecy is our standing up to say “No!” and to defend the beauty and integrity of the image and mirror we have beheld.
Prophecy takes strength and is born of the fire of moral outrage. Another word for it is “warriorhood.” The prophecy of the Cosmic Christ was present in the historical Jesus and came to a special expression there, as it did in other great souls, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Isaiah, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Howard Thurman, and many more.
I learned in exploring the archetype of the Cosmic Christ that without it we are mere despoilers of Mother Earth, as we remain willfully ignorant of what science is telling us about the awe of the planet we live on within the grandeur of this vast and expanding 13.8-billion-year-old universe that is our home. “Eco” after all means “home.” A private, salvation-oriented religion or a sectarian-driven notion of religion fails us, and fails the earth.
Seidenberg’s search is a quest for intimacy with Tselem, God’s image. He asks: is Tselem applicable only to humans, or does it pertain to all creation and all creatures? I have often been drawn to this powerful archetype of the image of God, and I deeply appreciate what Seidenberg has done to research this important theme in all its complexity and diversity within the rich Jewish tradition. He journeys through the deep and varied layers of Jewish theology, from the prophets and wisdom literature to the Midrash, Kaballah, and Talmud.
Not being a Jewish scholar as such, I leave the details of his textual arguments to others. But coming from my tradition of creation spirituality and the Cosmic Christ, I rejoice at his findings. For years I have been speaking of how the Eastern concept of “the Buddha Nature” is an exact parallel to that of the “Cosmic Christ” in the West. Now, thanks to Seidenberg’s substantive study, we can speak of “the image of God” as another solid basis for an eco-theology, one that carries us beyond moral injunctions to be “good stewards.” This stewardship mentality only replicates a dualistic, landowner/lessee model—and we need to shake this renter’s mentality if we’re going to heal the world.
Seidenberg takes us into the realm of earth mysticism, of creation spiritualty, of the “Pattern that Connects” (another term for the Cosmic Christ derived from Cosmic Wisdom)—what I describe as the Christ in all things, the Buddha in all things, the image of God in all things, and the Shechinah in all things—and he finds all this in his Jewish roots and metaphors.
First, Seidenberg concludes that the image of God is found everywhere in Jewish thinking, and it applies not just to individual beings but to the universe as a whole. He writes,
The motif of the world being in God’s image is woven throughout the history of Jewish thought and Kabbalah…. It is completely consonant with the rabbinic tradition and Kabbalah to regard both the whole universe and the Earth as being created in God’s image.
This echoes Aquinas’s teaching in the thirteenth century that the most excellent thing in the universe is not the human but the universe itself.
Seidenberg teaches that every being carries the divine spark (in my language, the Cosmic Christ): “For Kabbalah, there are sparks of the dimension of divinity in all things, whether inanimate or living, whether wholly of nature or human-made. All things in this sense have some intrinsic value. [We need to] recognize divine sparks everywhere.” These sparks depict the divine presence, the intrinsic holiness and sacredness of all beings—and therefore the “intrinsic value” deep within all things. Is this not Shechinah, the divine light in all things? In the Christian tradition, some of the earliest texts of the Gospels celebrate this same Shechinah as present in Jesus and the wisdom that accompanies him: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them,” Jesus says (Matthew 18:20).
From this recognition of the divine light or image in all things derive our actions. As Seidenberg explains,
If we equate the idea of God’s image with imitating God, as later rabbinic and philosophical texts did, then we know what we must do. We can only fulfill the potential in us represented by God’s image by acting and seeing with compassion, by honoring the intrinsic value of all lives and species, by beholding the image in each one and saying, this is good. Tselem, the image of God, is both what we are and what we behold, when the lenses that focus our mind’s eye are the lenses of awe and love.
These insights are not confined to theologians. The late scientist Gregory Bateson wrestled the last ten years of his life with this most pressing question: “What is the pattern that connects?” For example, what connects the Crab Nebula in the sky with the genes of a crawfish on earth or in our bodies? Seidenberg proposes a similar pattern to the universe as a whole and to humans, a micro/macrocosmic psychology. He writes, “God’s creative pattern, as big as the universe, is expressed in all its detail within the human frame, is a kind of miracle…This pattern is the divine image.” If this very pattern is the “divine image,” then in my tradition it refers to the Cosmic Christ (or Cosmic Wisdom) that is “as big as the universe” and “holds all things in unity” (Colossians 1.15-20). Our task, according to Seidenberg, is to bring Shechinah and the divine light alive—this is what right action is. He writes, “[We are to] complete the process of ‘bringing the Shechinah down,’ through concrete ecological action and through theological and spiritual insight.”
For Seidenberg, “[Perhaps] what it means to be in God’s image is that we see the image in all creatures.” Here he is invoking the ancient teaching of speculative mysticism—which is not about speculation but about mirroring. (The Latin word for mirror is speculum.) Every creature is a mirror of God, a face of God. This is the tradition that Seidenberg evokes anew as he asks us to move beyond anthropocentric religious narcissism.
Nicolas of Cusa, the great fifteenth-century scientist and mystic, wrote that within the face of every creature is the one Face of the Divine. We look into a creature deeply and we see something of God’s beauty and wisdom and delight. Seidenberg reiterates Nicholas of Cusa’s basic thesis in very direct language when he says:
Tselem [God’s image] according to the rabbis is not limited to human beings…. Later rabbinic texts equated the idea of God’s image with imitating God, another important ground for a deep eco-theology. [It means we act] with compassion towards the other creatures and [see] the image of God in them. These larger conclusions reframe tradition and scripture and open new paths of understanding.
Recognizing the image of God in ourselves and in others is not about mere gazing, but about action, divine action, that is to say, compassion. Nouns are not enough; verbs matter. Right action matters. Compassion is the true imitation of God. As Aquinas said, “compassion is the fire that Jesus came to set on this earth.”
Seidenberg is correct: here is the starting point for a profound eco-theology. It leads to action, including the action of letting go. Letting go of self-centered and anthropocentric thinking—“we are the only images of God”—will help us reconnect to our authentic mystical roots as lovers of all beings (and of God in all beings and beyond all beings). These roots remind us that every being is a Cosmic Christ (a Buddha Nature, a Tselem) and instruct us to let go of the tired notion that only we are “the people of God.”
Understood in the context of Tselem, every creature is a person of God, and the communities they form are the People of God. It is time we act accordingly to honor this intuition of holiness, which Heschel loved to call the “grandeur” of existence, the grandeur of creation. To act on behalf of this grandeur is to act God-like.
Ideologies and programs that reinforce anthropocentrism or sectarianism—from consumer capitalism to imperial militarism, from corporate idolatry to religious fundamentalism—are agents of crucifixion, killing soul and planet, killing the Cosmic Christ and Buddha Nature and Tselem all over again in the empire’s name and in the name of the reptilian brain. We can do better than that. We can act from a level of being one with the holy.
Seidenberg’s substantive study is a welcome addition to this profound shift of consciousness that our species so needs and our planet is crying out to hear.
Mystic Wisdom and Ecological Justice
Still, questions arise: If everything is a manifestation of the tselem elohim (the image of God), then why shouldn't we simply let nature unfold as it is unfolding, recognizing human behavior as part of nature, which will evolve however it will evolve, rather than trying to change wrong human behavior? After all, other species have destroyed themselves, and if that is part of being tselem elohim, why not let human beings do the same thing? Why treat it as a tragedy? And why think we have some special responsibility to save other species that are being extinguished, since that has been happening since the beginning of life on this planet, and who are we to say that it is wrong and should be stopped?
To this I respond as follows: Just because other species have had to be passive at times in the presence of dire natural catastrophes does not mean we need to be. Given our powerful intellects, imaginations, and creativity, we have a very good chance at survival, providing we can change our ways. Other species also resist their own demise—much of evolution is evidence of adaptation under the threat of extinction—but evolution takes time.
With our intelligence, we can hasten our own evolution—or our extinction. And it is precisely in the direction of greater wisdom, gratitude, and love of existence, the earth, and our future great-grandchildren that we can find motivation to transform our consciousness and move to a level of evolution that all great spiritual traditions teach: the level of compassion and justice toward self, other humans and cultures, and other beings with whom we share this planet.
One of the dire inheritances of modern consciousness is theism—the idea that God is “up there” or “out there” and we and creation are “here.” This is subject/object thinking; it is the opposite of mysticism. As Theodore Roszak put it, “the Enlightenment held up mysticism for ridicule as the worst offense against science and reason.” Mysticism urges not a theistic view of the world but a panentheistic view of the world and its relationship to the divine. Panentheism means God in all things and all things in God. This is the tselem elohim, the Cosmic Christ, the Buddha Nature.
This mystical approach to an ecological theology raises other concerns: If everything is part of tselem elohim, why should we feel specially commanded to do tikkun olam as we understand it or as we think we've heard it from God as elucidated in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament? Why isn't all that just human arrogance? Why should we feel some special need to fix the world in any way? Why not just be like Hindus, watching with fascination and enjoyment as the rivers flow past us with their combinations of death and life, without making judgments about good or bad, better paths or worse, without holding on to the notion that life is good and should be preserved and death is bad and should be prevented if possible (through medicine, political action, or revolution against capitalism)?
Given that the objection arises from an example of Hinduism’s live-and-let-live philosophy, let us consider what Gandhi, who was Hindu, said and did. Gandhi said, "I learned to say no from the West," meaning of course that it was Jesus and the Jewish prophets who bring the no to history, the prophetic "interference" that Heschel names so powerfully. Life is not just about yes; it is also about no. Hinduism by itself is sometimes interpreted as all yes, or as Gandhi's contemporaries said to him: don't worry about the Untouchables; they will do better next incarnation. Gandhi refused such passivity because of the Jewish and Christian teachings he absorbed through Leo Tolstoy. The East is pretty good on yes; the West is better on no. We need both, the serenity of the Buddha, his holy patience, and an affirmation of the wonder of existence as it is. But also we need the holy impatience of the prophets—including Jesus.
The Power of Creation
This can be one of the gifts to our species at this critical time in human and planetary history: East and West might come together and articulate a simultaneous yes (mysticism: affirming and loving life) and no (prophecy: standing up to contest life-threatening injustice). Both dynamics are necessary for individuals to be healthy and spiritually alive, but also for culture and its institutions to reach their evolutionary potential.
Heschel described sin as our refusal to become who we are. But who are we? Well, we are images of God, sons and daughters of God, the compassionate hands of God, other Buddhas, other Christs. Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy says that we should “have confidence in the Buddha Nature in all things.” So we ought to derive confidence and trust from the reality of the “image of God” in all things. It is not arrogance to be fully human, and a deep dimension of being human is choice and creativity. We alone bring evil into the world, because we possess a unique dimension of the image of God, one that includes creativity. With this creative power we can do evil as well as good.
The late Catholic monk and activist Thomas Merton said, "Every non-two-legged creature is a saint." Other species have it easier than us: they just have to be themselves to their best and fullest. As Aquinas says, "One human being can do more evil than all the other species put together." Of course, one evil is choosing to do nothing when doing something is morally required. So observing is not enough—if you believe in Jewish and Christian values of justice and compassion.
It is very likely the case that other beings are more adept than humans at being what they are, and therefore more fully express the image of God. We have to work harder at it—and we have far more choices that enable us to wander much further from the image. The notion of sin describes this wandering and missing of the mark. Our creativity and intelligence up the ante on both our good works and our works of evil, as Aquinas suggests. We alone bring moral evil into the world. We can talk about hurricanes or volcanoes as "evil," but that is physical evil not moral evil. I don't think this elevates us above the rest of nature. Instead, it renders us more dangerous than the rest of nature, and instructs us to be more humble, that is, closer to the earth (“humus” means “earth” in Latin) and to other creatures, who have so much to teach us—including how to be images of God.
For more on this book by David Seidenberg, and to read the book's introduction, visit: kabbalahandecology.com.