Spirituality and the Environment: A Spirited Understanding of Sustainability

It happened again this morning. As I sat at my computer, I watched gentle breeze make black plastic shopping bag dance across my front lawn. In time, it was snagged by the growth around a cherry tree. In any given week, I’ll pick up plastic bags, water bottles, candy wrappers, chip bags, drinking cups, and other assorted debris from my lawn. While I’ve witnessed far more littering in the South than in any other place I’ve lived, improper disposal of waste happens throughout the country.

Recently, Pope Francis issued an official letter of more than 200 pages discussing the environment and climate change as a moral issue. Many objectors have stated that the Pope should focus on matters of religion and belief (since when is morality not a matter of belief?) and leave the science to scientists. The latter argument falls critically short given that scientists around the world agree that the climate change is related to human activity. In addition, Pope Francis was educated in chemistry, i.e., he is a scientist! In actuality, Pope Francis said nothing different from other recent popes. But Pope Francis has the attention of many people around the world in a way prior pontiffs did not. His words draw attention far beyond Catholicism in a way the words of his predecessors did not.

Our day to day behavior and attitudes are shaped by our spiritual values and practice. If we believe that the world is nothing more than a realm we pass through to achieve some better life, then we probably don’t care much about what happens to the planet. While I do believe in life beyond what we know and experience on Earth, I also believe that every aspect of the cosmos is fundamentally good and is imbued with something of the Divine. I base my belief on the Judeo-Christian story of creation in which each aspect of creation was declared to be “good” by the creator. If one believes that something is fundamentally good, then one has a duty and responsibility to treat it with respect and assure that our actions don’t spoil it.

In the scope of global climate change, litter in my yard is surely a small matter. Yet, littering is symptomatic of how people view the environment. The casual choices to litter, to dump chemicals in our lawns, to root out native landscaping and replace it with non-native vegetation that suits our tastes, to plant invasive species in new habitats all are part of the value system that has resulted in climate change. We may want to point to oil companies and hydraulic fracking or coal companies and mountain top removal as among the most significant contributors to climate change. Yes, by scale, many corporations have done immeasurable damage to the Earth. But the difference is only a matter of scale. When we are comfortable with littering or dumping chemicals in the lawn, why should we be concerned when corporations do the same things?

In order for us to live in a sustainable way on Earth, our hearts and minds need to change in order to embrace a spiritual path rooted in sustainability. Just as a person with regular practice of meditation knows that it is the practice of meditation that sustains a healthy balance in life, so a sustainable spirituality roots us to living in a balanced way on Earth. A sustainable spirituality — being animated by a spirit of sustainability — will empower us to practice sustainability in all aspects of our lives.

Sustainable spirituality needs to begin with each of us. A sustainable spirituality recognizes that just as we need to integrate and respect the various aspects of ourselves for wholeness and healing, so we also need to live in an integrated and respectful way with people and the environment. Sustainable spirituality recognizes that the inner dimension of the spiritual life and the outer dimension of living on Earth are fundamentally connected. They are not different but are simply different aspects of the whole.

Perhaps we need something of the same zeal and enthusiasm common among Evangelicals in order to spread the good news of sustainable spirituality. Indeed, when we truly integrate the spiritual dimension of ourselves with the other dimensions of our lives, we also grow toward wholeness with our planet and cosmos.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Spirituality and the Environment: A Spirited Understanding of Sustainability

  1. Bill Percy says:

    This idea of a sustainable spirituality grounded in our relationship with the earth and the natural world is so important. It’s a fundamental moral imperative, from my perspective. I think this is a conversation is crucial. I need to explore just how does one actually implement such a perspective? What is the practice?

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