Natural Resources and Spirituality

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Like all human beings, you have a 'worldview'-- an overall way of perceiving the world around you, how it works, and where you fit into it. Many things influence the development of your worldview, including knowledge you have absorbed from your family, perspectives you have adopted from the culture you live in, and your own unique personal experiences.

Though your worldview shapes how you think and act, you may not be completely aware of it. In fact, on an average day it probably never comes to your explicit attention. Nevertheless, it is always there, framing how you approach the world. Without it, you would be incapable of getting through the day. From waking up in the morning to going to bed at night, every experience would be strange and unfamiliar to you without the routine interpretations provided by your worldview.

A person typically becomes more conscious of her worldview when something shocking happens to her--when an event or experience disrupts daily routines. Changes in life’s routines can happen in many ways: you could graduate from school and move away from home; you could become seriously ill, or a person close to you could die; you could be betrayed by a friend, or fall in love; you could fail at something very important, or accomplish something you have long worked on. Emotionally powerful life events like these typically cause people to ponder fundamental questions about themselves and the world around them, questions such as:

  • What am I doing with my life?
  • What are my goals?
  • How do I tell the difference between right and wrong?
  • Are human beings basically good or evil?
  • Why do bad things happen to people?
  • Is there any purpose to my life on Earth?
  • Is there anything beyond the Earth and the universe in which I live?
  • Does a God, Gods, or spiritual powers exist?

By considering questions like these, we become more aware of the assumptions we hold about life. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on our worldview, question it, and decide to change it or consciously affirm it.

Healing Earth and Worldviews

Worldviews are closely related to the first way Healing Earth describes 'spirituality'; that is, the core convictions that express your ‘inner spirit’. Exploring your worldview puts you in close touch with the deep beliefs that constitute your spirituality. It is important to know these beliefs when you study environmental science because they influence your outlook on the natural world--the meaning you actually assign to the Earth in your everyday life and the degree of care that you give to it.

Looking Back:

You may want to return to the Healing Earth Introduction and review the discussion of spirituality.

As you recall from the Healing Earth Introduction, spirituality also touches on two other ways human beings think about the natural world. One of these is the experience some people have of a 'sacred' quality in nature. Exploring what it means to experience nature as sacred is an important aspect of the relationship between spirituality and the natural world.

Closer Look

For statistics on membership and other information about the world’s religions, consult the Pew Research Center website.

Healing Earth also discusses how the spiritual beliefs and rituals of the world's religions relate to nature. Although not everyone belongs to a religion, most people do. It is estimated that 85% of the people in the world identify as members of a religion. With this kind of widespread influence, it is important to learn about how the religions of the world regard the natural world.

These, then, are the three foci of spirituality in Healing Earth: the meaning you give to nature within your worldview, or inner spirit; the experience of nature as sacred; and the way the world's religions treat nature in beliefs and rituals. In this section, we return to the questions posed in the Chapter’s opening case study:

  • Do you sense a relationship between your own inner spirit and Earth’s natural resources?
  • What do people mean when they say that they experience natural resources as 'sacred'?
  • What value do different religions of the world place on Earth’s natural resources?

Natural Resources and Worldview

People assume different things about the meaning and value of Earth's natural resources. One way to briefly explore these different assumptions is to ask two questions: 1) what purpose do natural resources serve and 2) for whom is nature a resource?

What Purpose Do Natural Resources Serve?

If you think about what natural resources mean to you, many thoughts may come to your mind. You may value these resources primarily as things to use and consume. Or, you may value Earth’s resources as things of beauty, or as the critical materials that support all forms of life. You may even hold the view that, before anything else, natural resources are a matter for research and study. If you ponder the question at greater length, or observe how you routinely act in relation to natural resources, you may find that one assumption about natural resources is stronger than the others.

Here are a few assumptions people have about the purpose of natural resources. There is a dominant assumption that the purpose of Earth's water, land, minerals, vegetation, and animal life is to serve human beings as economic commodities--as objects for use and consumption. Some people say that this is, by definition, the only purpose of natural resources.

However, not everyone looks at the resources of nature this way. Some people see Earth's resources as cultural treasures. Natural resources serve some people as a concrete expression of their own self-understanding and cultural identity.

The nation of South Africa considers its natural
resources a cultural treasure. With help from
the World Heritage Committee of the United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO), South Africa has
been able to create parks--such as
uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park--to preserve
and protect some of the resources that help
people understand and express their
cultural identity.1

For example, the self-understanding of Arctic Inuit people is directly related to the land and resources on which they have depended for thousands of years. An individual Inuit person may leave the Arctic and survive in a bustling city, but if all Inuit people left the Arctic and lived in the city, the traditional Inuit way of life would cease to exist. The people would be separated from the land and natural resources that gave them their cultural identity in the first place.

It may be difficult for urban dwellers to appreciate the impact that land and resources can have on a people’s cultural identity. People who find the meaning of their lives in the land have a different worldview than people who view nature as something to simply be used and consumed.

From yet another perspective, many cultures of Indigenous People around the world consider the resources of the natural world as relatives. From this point of view, the first purpose of Earth’s resources is not to serve as objects of human consumption or even cultural identity, but to participate as relatives in a kinship relation with the people.

The Black Hills of South Dakota are the sacred
land of the Lakota Sioux. For the Sioux, the land
is not a commodity to be bought and sold, but a
relative of the people. Take a look at this video
to hear a young Lakota Sioux girl talk about
the Black Hills.

A contemporary example of this perspective can be seen in the experience of the Lakota Sioux People of North America. In 1979, the United States Court of Claims awarded the Lakota Sioux $105 million dollars in compensation for the government’s 1889 theft of the peoples’ sacred land, the Paha Sapa (or, Black Hills). In the settlement, the US government kept the land, but offered money as reparation. Today, despite the severe poverty of the Lakota People on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the $105 million dollars remains with the US government. Why? The traditional Lakota Sioux do not want money, they wanted the return of their relative, Paha Sapa.

Economic commodities, cultural treasures, and tribal relatives--these are just some of the assumptions people have about the purpose and meaning of Earth's natural resources. These and other worldviews consciously and unconsciously shape a person’s spiritual relationship to the Earth and, in turn, how a person acts in nature.

For Whom Is Nature a Resource?

It is also instructive to investigate assumptions regarding the second question posed above: for whom is nature a resource? Some people might consider the answer to this question obvious. How can nature be resource for anyone or anything other than for humans?

Leafcutter Ants have been using leaves to
cultivate and consume fungi for 50 million
years, long before human beings became
agriculturalists. Check out this short video
on Leafcutter Ant agriculture.1

But what about the other living creatures on our planet? Is Earth not also a resource for animals, fish, and insects? Do they not also need Earth’s resources for food, water, space, and cover from predators? Some insects, fish, and animals even ‘farm’ their own natural resources. Damselfish, for example, cultivate algae on coral reefs by nibbling off what they do not like so that more nutritious plants can flourish. Some ants grow fungus (their primary food source) from leaves that they have chewed into a pulp and fertilized with their own feces.

Shinto Tree Blessing Ceremony.1

Another assumption some people hold is that Earth’s resources do not exist primarily for the benefit of human or non-humans, but for the satisfaction of a higher power. Participants in certain religions of the world believe that Earth's natural resources are from and for god, gods, or spiritual powers. This does not mean that the people in these religions never use natural resources; it means that before using Earth’s resources, the people typically make some form of ritual offering to the divinity.

For example, in 2012 the US Naval Air Facility in Atsugi, Japan was preparing to cut down a stand of large trees for a golf course. According to traditional belief in the Shinto religion, old trees first belong to the gods. As a result, a Shinto priest was called to the site to perform a ritual blessing before the trees were cut down.

Questions to Consider

Consider how you view Earth’s natural resources. Do you see them as commodities, cultural treasures, relatives, or something else?

For whom or what do you think natural resources exist? Are the Earth’s resources for humans alone, or also for insects, fish, and animals? Are they for a god?

Your answers to these questions will give you both a sense of where nature fits into your worldview and what your spiritual relationship is to the natural world.

Natural Resources and the Sacred

As mentioned at the beginning of this section, some people experience Earth’s natural resources as sacred, as entities of such power and beauty that scientific explanations seem incomplete in describing them. One possible way to grasp what people are feeling here is to draw an analogy between their experience of the sacred and two forces in the universe: electricity and gravity.

When you hear the word 'electricity', what comes to mind? Maybe you think of an electric shock, or a shining light, or maybe a flaming spark, or a lightning bolt. Think of these associations and read God’s Grandeur by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

God’s Grandeur
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
   It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
   And all is seared with trade; bleared, sleared with toil;
   And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And all for this, nature is never spent;
   There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
   World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings

Inspired People

In Hopkins’ poem, the sacred quality of the natural world--God’s grandeur--comes across like electricity. It is a feeling of nature as “charged”, “bright”, and “shining like shook foil”. With such power, Hopkins wonders how so many people do not acknowledge (“reck”) God’s presence (“his rod”) in nature. In fact, many people do experience a sacred quality in nature and find in poetry a good way to describe it.

Think of the word ‘gravity’. Do you think of a strong force, a silent power, something that keeps you firmly on the ground? Think of these associations as you look at Ansel Adams’ photograph of Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.

Ansel Adams' 1942 photograph of Arizona's Canyon de Chelly. 1

Looking Back:

Return to the Introduction and see a photograph of Ansel Adams, one of Healing Earth's Inspired People. To see more of his nature photography, visit the Ansel Adams gallery.

Ansel Adams was an American photographer and environmentalist most famous for his black and white landscape photographs of the American West. He carefully arranged the natural objects in his photographs so that the vastness of space and the contrast between landscape and sky would stand out. He would wait for hours until the sun and clouds produced the natural lighting he wanted. In his photographic art, Adams captured the sacred ‘gravity’ that many people experience in Earth’s natural resources--their majestic power, timelessness, solidity, and noble silence. He once said, “Sometimes I get to places just when God is ready to have somebody click the shutter.”

Questions to Consider

What art forms do you most enjoy: music, film, poetry, novels, theatre, dance, painting, photography, or some other?

  • Look for a work in the art form you enjoy that focuses on a natural resource, such as a tree, an animal, a mountain, lake, or river.
  • Describe what and how your work of art communicates something about natural resources that goes beyond a purely scientific description.

Natural Resources and World Religions

Another way human beings communicate their spiritual relationship with Earth's natural resources is through religious rituals and beliefs. An awareness of how various religions honor nature teaches us about the rich diversity of human experience and creativity in the world.

This chapter began with a case study from the coltan mining region of Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The case study looked at natural resource extraction and its impact on African people. One group from the region of Kahuzi-Biega National Park not mentioned in the case study is the Batwa (or, Twa) people. The Batwa are a pygmy people thought to be the first and oldest inhabitants of the Congo. They have lived for thousands of years in the vast tropical forests of the central Congo that run through Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

A traditional dance of the Batwa.1

The ancient religion of the Batwa honors the forest as the source of all physical and spiritual life. As religious animists, the traditional Batwa make no distinction between the natural cycles of the forest and ritual cycles they recognize in the spiritual world. Nor do they make a distinction between the forest’s power and the power of god. To the Batwa, the forest is god.

Closer Look

Learn more about the Batwa People’s tragic story and recent attempts to help them recover their culture at the Batwa Experience website.

In 1972, the then-government of Zaire created the national park system and evicted the Batwa from the forest area that became Kahuzi-Biega National Park. The effect of this eviction on the Batwa people was catastrophic. Living outside their traditional lands, the people fell into poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide. Today, 35 years after the eviction, the Batwa are still discriminated against and segregated from society in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a very different way, trees are also part of Jewish religious ritual. The Tu B'shvat festival, or New Year for Trees, is a tree-planting celebration that takes place of the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat. This is the day that Jewish tradition holds as the start of the new growing season, the day that the sap begins to rise in the fruit trees of Israel. Today, some Jewish communities have also adopted a Tu BiShvat seder in which specific fruits and wine are consumed while reciting blessings to bring humanity and nature into a better spiritual balance.

Closer Look

Visit the EcoSikh website to learn more about the importance of Earth’s resources to the Sikh religion.

Tree planting and forest recovery has also become an important dimension of the Sikh religion in India. Supported by their sacred texts, especially the Eak Bageecha (a compilation of shabads, or sacred songs of the Guru Granth Sahib, on the environment), Sikhs have been restoring the sacred forest surrounding their Pilgrim City of Amritsar. Since 2007, over a million trees have been planted each year so that the forest has now grown to over 16 sq. km. In Catholic Christianity, creation is believed to be a work and revelation of God. The natural resources that show forth this creation are regarded as manifestations and celebrations of God’s glory.

An excellent example of this religious perspective on natural resources was communicated by the Catholic Bishops of the Appalachian Region of the U.S. in two pastoral letters. In 1975, the bishops wrote a groundbreaking letter on environmental justice entitled This Land is Home to Me. Twenty years later, the bishops celebrated the anniversary of this document with the letter At Home in the Web of Life. One section of the 1995 letter reads:

To say that creation is revelation means that the splendor of the Appalachian mountains,

  • their valleys and coves,
  • their ridges and hollows,
  • their skies and forests,
  • their rocks and soils,
  • their rivers and streams and springs,
  • their plants and animals,

all show us God’s glory, all tell us of God’s beauteous presence.

In section 33 of his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reiterates this belief that Earth’s resources are a manifestation of God. To this, he adds a lament for the Earth’s declining capacity to celebrate God due to human over consumption of natural resources:

Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see . . . [b]ecause of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us.

To read two remarkable pastoral letters from the Bishops of Appalachia, go to the Catholic Committee of Appalachia website. 1

The beliefs and rituals of the world religions have not always been respectful of the natural world. In both Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, for example, demand for religious artifacts made from ivory once contributed to the decline of elephant populations in Africa. Now, leaders of both religions have agreed to ban the use of ivory objects. This and much more will need to occur for the world’s religions to fully align their practices with a heightened respect for Earth’s resources. At the same time, the commitment to heal the Earth is growing within religions worldwide.

The Parliament of World's Religions supports
dialogue between members of different religious
faiths. At its last meeting in 2015, over 9,000
people attended from 73 countries and 30
major religious traditions. A major concern
of all members of the Parliament is care for
the Earth. Visit the Parliament website for
more information.1

For St. Ignatius, spiritual reflection was a way to discern one's deepest desires and commitments. The same holds true today: in spiritual reflection we are challenged to look at what we truly value and what we are honestly committed to in our lives. Ignatius knew that without this kind of self-knowledge, the men he was sending on missions to unknown cultures in every corner of the world would not be able to hold on to their commitments.

Similarly, we will neither act effectively to heal the Earth, nor stay committed to our task, without the self-knowledge and knowledge of others that comes through attention to our inner spirits. Having said that, we turn now to action ideas related to the protection and preservation of Earth’s resources.

Questions to Consider

Do you participate in a religion? Has your education in that religion taught you anything about the meaning and value of Earth’s natural resources? Consider looking further into your religion and learning more about how its beliefs and rituals relate to the natural world.

If you do not participate in a religion, are you still open to the value of religion in the lives of others? If so, how would you describe that value? If not, what values do you feel are missing in religion, especially regarding care for the Earth?