Energy and Spirituality

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You learned about solar power projects in this chapter's science section. Here is an example from Abengoa Solar Company in Andalusia, Spain.This solar power tower receives concentrated rays of the sun from 624 mirrors pointed toward it on the ground.The 115 meter (377 ft.) tower uses this energy to drive a steam turbine.The turbine, in turn, moves a generator which produces electricity.1

You learned in the science section that energy is the ability to do work. Another word related to energy is ‘power’. In physics, power is measured in terms of the rate at which work is done. This rate is determined by how much energy is consumed by a certain amount of work over a given period of time. Solar power, for example, is the ‘work’ that can be done by the sun’s energy after it is converted into electricity.

In the English language, the word ‘power’ is also frequently used as a descriptive adjective. People speak of a powerful emotion, a powerful work of art, or a powerful army. These uses of the word draw on the basic idea that something is powerful when it is strong and full of energy, when it ‘works’.

In this section we briefly explore how people have related natural energy and spiritual energy both literally and figuratively in various religious traditions of the world. We begin with the questions posed at the end of this chapter’s case study:

  • What examples in the world’s religions show a link between spiritual energy and the energies of nature?
  • What are some of the ‘inner’ energies that human beings experience as spiritually powerful in their lives? 
  • How are these energies related to the energies of the natural world?
  • Do you sense any relationship between your inner human energy and the energy of the natural world?

Nature, Energy, and Spirituality

Many North American Plains Indian tribes consider South Dakota's Bear Butte a sacred site--a place where spiritual energy flows through nature.1

Throughout the history of different cultures, people have often used the words ‘energy’ and ‘power’ to describe their experience of god, gods, or other spiritual forces. Some ancient, as well as contemporary cultures identify god’s being with natural energy itself, such as the sun, wind, lightning, or volcanic eruptions. In the upcoming Water Chapter, for example, you will see how some Indigenous People believe that flowing water is a form of spiritual energy.
 

For millions of people around the world, spiritual energy comes through an inner experience of the mind, heart, and body.1

Other cultures understand natural energies as expressions of god, rather than as god’s being itself. For example, in cultures influenced by Christianity, god is considered the creator of natural forces and thus is in a ‘superior’ (or, 'supernatural') relationship with nature. Other religions see natural energies as instruments that god, gods, or other spiritual forces use to communicate with human and non-human life.

Individuals also experience a relationship between natural energy and spirituality in personal ways. Some people feel a spiritual energy within their own passions, motivations, conscience--or even their dreams—which guides them in their life. In the Biodiversity chapter, for example, the Mirrar People of Australia identify their dreams and waking visions as inner sources of spiritual energy. Many religions of the world call the source of this embodied, spiritual energy a ‘soul’.

Natural and Spiritual Energy in World Religions

Depiction of the Egyptian sun god Ra, with a sun-disk resting on top of a falcon head, in the  tomb of Nefertari (1298-1235BCE).1

The sun is an essential source of energy for the life-giving processes of our planet. From time immemorial, human beings have recognized this connection between the sun and life. Therefore, it is not surprising that sun worship has been a common feature of spiritual life in many human cultures. Ancient Egyptians honored a sun god named Ra. Egyptian temples were built with openings at the top so that the sacred rays of the sun could beam down upon the ritual altar and provide spiritual energy for the prayers and sacrifices performed there.
 

The Greek sun god Helios in his chariot. From Athena's Temple (4th century BCE).1

The Ancient Greeks also honored a sun god, called Helios. In his poetry, Homer (8th century BCE) described how Helios began and ended each day by driving a chariot of four winged stallions across the sky.

Closer Look

Watch this dramatization of the Plains Indian Sun Dance and learn more about its meaning at this Sun Dance website.

For many Indigenous People in the Northern Hemisphere, rituals related to sun worship traditionally occur in June, at the time of the summer solstice (the longest day of the year). The Iroquois and Sioux Native Americans, in particular, recognize the sun as a life-giving force. Each year members of these nations perform the Sun Dance which reestablishes the bond between themselves, the Earth, the sun, and the energies of the new growing season.

Some of the rituals of the four-day Chhath Puja festival are quite rigorous. They include fasting and standing in water for long periods of time while offering prayers to the setting sun.1

Today, many Hindu people continue the ancient practice of worshipping the setting sun. At the annual Chhath Puja festival, Hindus pray to the sun, asking for healing, progress, and prosperity in their lives.

Possibly the most elaborate connection between energy and spirituality is presented in Chinese Taoism, a religious tradition you first encountered in the Biodiversity chapter. Taoists believe that spiritual energy, or Qi, flows through all of nature. There are two ways in which Qi is expressed: the Yin mode which stores Qi, and the Yang mode which releases Qi.

This is the ancient Taoist symbol of Yin and Yang. The symbol exhibits a rotating pattern of opposite, yet balanced and intermingled forces that constitute the universal energy Qi.1

Proper balance between Yin’s 'negative' storing force and Yang’s 'positive' releasing force ensures that a healthy Qi energy is flowing through everything from an organ of the human body to the snow on a mountaintop. For Taoists, the energy of nature neither moves in a sequence of cause and effect (as understood in modern science), nor exists apart from spiritual energy. Rather, all energy is simultaneously natural and spiritual and flows in a circular pattern modulated by the interplay of Yin and Yang. 

The Jewish Torah and Christian Bible contain many stories of God appearing to human beings in various forms of energy. For example, when the innocent man, Job, questions why God has allowed him to suffer, God answers him “out of a whirlwind” (Job 38:1). When God calls Moses to lead the Jewish people out of slavery, God speaks to him through "flames of fire from within a bush" (Exodus 3:1-6). Fifty days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostles were

. . . all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit . . . (Acts 2:1-4)

In his 1732 painting ‘Pentecost’, Jean II Restout depicted God in the driving wind and in the tongues of fire.1

In all these cases, god is not identical with the energies of nature, but uses these energies as a way of communicating with human beings.

Today, many Christians still find signs of god in the patterns and processes of nature. Recall the legends of the El Hierro islanders from this chapter’s opening case study. The islanders believe their beloved portrait of the Virgen de los Reyes came to El Hierro when sailors were taken to the island’s shores by a miraculous wind.

Inspired People

Other powerful contemporary examples of seeing god in the energy of nature come from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope Francis. In the darkest days of racial violence in America, Dr. King retained his faith that a relationship of love and justice would eventually triumph between the races. This faith was rooted in his belief that the creator God implanted an energy of love and justice in the very structure of the universe. This energy, said King, reveals to us

. . . something basic about the universe. It tells us something about the core and heartbeat of the cosmos. It reminds us that the universe is on the side of justice.1

Similarly, Pope Francis looks at the universe and sees an "order of love". In his encyclical letter Laudato Si, Francis says "God's love is the fundamental moving force in all created things."2

Questions to Consider

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that the energy we devote to improving the world corresponds to the energy of the universe.

On the contrary, the famous philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) believed that the energy of the universe is indifferent to the hopes and dreams which energize human life. He cited the Greek Myth of Sisyphus to make his point. In the myth, Sisyphus is punished for his continual deceitfulness by the gods, who condemn him to repeat forever the meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it always roll down again. According to Camus, Sisyphus’ task reflects the experience of human life: a succession of efforts to which we devote our life energy, but which are meaningless from the perspective of the universe.

  • Do you see a relationship between the meaning of your life and the processes of the natural world? Is your view similar to the philosophy of Camus? King? Some other thinker?
  • How do the conflicting perspectives of Camus and King effect the way you think about the relationship of human beings to the universe? Do you think that it makes a difference whether a person agrees with Camus or King? If so, how? If not, why not?

Go here to read a summary version of Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus and explore the interesting questions at the end.

Human Life, Energy, and Spirituality

Ronald Rohlheiser, a Catholic priest in the order of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, describes spirituality this way: “spirituality concerns what we do with our desire . . . with the fire inside of us.” Therefore, says Rohlheiser, “the opposite of being spiritual is not a person who rejects the idea of God”; rather, “the opposite of being spiritual is to have no energy . . . to have lost all zest for living.3

When we feel that our lives have a meaning, that we can contribute positively to the world, and that we can build something true and lasting—then we are experiencing spiritual energy the way that Rohlheiser describes it. It is this energy that motivates the authors of Healing Earth. It is a kind of energy that is not detectable by a voltmeter, but it is as real as the natural energy of the sun. It is the energy of the human spirit.

Like Solar power, human power directed toward the good of human beings and the Earth must be nurtured and guided. This is why the great spiritual masters of the world’s religions have always provided instructions--such as St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises--for the growth of our inner spirit. As Rohlheiser states:

. . . if we do things which keep us energized and integrated . . . we have a healthy spirituality . . . if our yearning drives us into actions which harden our insides or cause us to fall apart . . . then we have an unhealthy spirituality.4

Inspired People

We saw an example of this healthy spirituality in the El Hierro case study. Thousands of people joined together to bring about their dream of an island free of dependence on non-renewable energy. Through persistence and hard work, their dream was realized. The great Hindu activist and spiritual master Mohandas Gandhi called this kind of positive group energy ‘soul force’. With it, he led the Indian people to independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state of Israel and its first Prime Minister once said:

The energy contained in nature--in the Earth and its waters, in the atom, in sunshine--will not avail us if we fail to activate the most precious vital energy, the moral-spiritual energy inherent in the inner recess of our being; in the mysterious, uncompromising, unfathomable, and divinely inspired soul.5

Depictions of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit sitting on a 'Throne of Grace' are common in Christian art. In this 18th century  fresco by Luca Rossetti, the Holy Trinity is set within an aura of divine energy. God the Father is bequeathing that energizing grace to the  person with open arms on the bottom left.1

As mentioned previously in this section, many religious traditions refer to the invisible spiritual energy within human beings as the ‘soul’. Each religion has a distinct way of speaking about the soul, such as the Jewish nefesh, the Hindu atman, or the Muslim ruh. In the Christian tradition, the soul can receive God's 'grace', a spiritual energy that aids human beings in actions of love and justice.  

Rohlheiser tells us that it is our spirituality which gives shape to our actions. What kind of actions for available and clean energy can an environmental spirituality support? In the next section of this chapter, we look at energy actions being taken around the world and invite you to think about actions you can take in your own home, school, and community.

Questions to Consider

When you hear the phrase "human spirit" what comes to your mind? How does your idea compare with Ronald Rohlheiser's idea about spirituality as "what we do with our desire"?

Have you ever met someone that you would describe as having a positive human spirit? If so, how did that person's positive human spirit show itself? Would you say that this person's positive spirit is a kind of energy? If so, how would you compare this spiritual energy to energy in the natural world?

 

  • 1.

    1. Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1992), p. 23.

  • 2.
  • 3.

    3. Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 11.

  • 4.

    4. Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 14.

  • 5.

    5. Nathan Levy, Sharing Eden (Markfield, England: Kube Publishing, 2013), p. 40.