Biodiversity and Spirituality

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Larry Gibson was an exceptionally courageous and spirited defender of the Earth. He was not alone. Courageous individuals and groups throughout the world are preserving Earth’s biodiversity today in the face of powerful challenges. When they do so, they are drawing on their inner strengths and convictions.

Inspired People

Maatthai [photo]

Maatthai [photo]

Dr. Wangari Maathai was an activist for biodiversity and justice in her native Kenya and throughout Africa. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to combat deforestation. Since then, the movement has inspired the planting of over 51 million trees in Africa. Dr. Maathi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She died in 2011.1

People like Larry Gibson and Wangari Maathai (see Inspired People box) invite you to look into your own convictions, the things you truly believe in, the things that make you who you are. These core beliefs express your inner spirit, or spirituality.

Closer Look

Read the Jesuit document Healing a Broken World.

If biodiversity fails to feel like something important and valuable to us, then no amount of scientific information or ethical argument will likely inspire us to act. This is why it is so important that more and more people experience a 'change of heart' in their relationship to the natural world. As the Jesuit report on ecology (Healing a Broken World), says: “. . .to overcome the part we play in [Earth’s] widespread destruction” it is not enough to intellectually recognize the integrity of creation."1 More is needed. That 'more' is a 'change of heart'.

Attention to our heart, or 'inner spirit' helps us identify our true attitudes. If our hearts are indifferent to Earth’s array of life and we would like to change that, it can be instructive to look at how other people honor Earth’s natural diversity. Often this honoring is connected to spiritual traditions within the world’s religions. We now turn to this subject, recalling two questions posed in the case study that opened this chapter:

  • How have humans approached the nature and meaning of biodiversity from a spiritual perspective?

Biodiversity and Sacred Space

With its unfathomable variety of microscopic organisms, blossoming plants, towering trees, crawling insects, slithering amphibians, darting fish, soaring birds, and stunning mammals, Earth is a place of teeming diversity. From time immemorial, many people have felt a sense of awe in the presence of this spectacular variety of life. Biologist E.O. Wilson has even put a name to this feeling: biophilia. Wilson believes all of us have a deep-down sense of connection toward the natural world. 2 Some people experience this connection as something ‘awesome’. Being in awe of a beautiful mountain, river, or even a leaf can feel like a spiritual experience, a feeling St. Augustine tried to explain as “more inward than my inmost depths” (interior ultimo meo) and “beyond my utmost heights” (superior summo meo).

A Lascaux cave painting circa. 18,000 BCE-10,000 BCE. 1

Closer Look

Take a tour of the Lascaux cave and learn more about the relationship between the cave paintings of animals and spirituality.

To share this awesome, spiritual experience of nature, humans often turn to art, music, literature, or ritual. In fact, the earliest forms of human artistic expression are precisely that: paintings that connect the diversity of nature with spiritual power. The Lascaux cave paintings in France, for example, reflect both the wonder held by human beings in prehistoric times for the diversity of animal life and the spiritual power they associated with it (Figure 41). Though much is still unknown about these incredible works of art, a common interpretation is that they were part of a spiritual ritual, possibly an initiation rite for young hunters.

Sharing this spirit, Indigenous People of various tribal heritages around the world have long identified areas of lush diversity as sacred places. Like the Mirrar people of Australia introduced in this chapter's opening case study, the Mijikenda people of coastal Kenya conduct their religious ceremonies in the Kaya Forests. These forests contain over 187 plant species, 48 bird species, 45 butterfly species, and 19 small animal species. For thousands of years, the Mijikenda have used this forest diversity for sacred ceremonies that include

  • rituals for the sick
  • prayers for good harvest
  • prayers for protection by ancestral spirits
  • rites of passage
  • anointing of new elders
  • rituals of atonement for offenses against nature

The Chipko Movement began in 1974 when Indian women protected trees from lumbermen. 1

The protection of sacred groves and gardens is also a common practice in Hinduism. In the ancient texts and epics of the Hinduism, many natural sites possess sacred power. Anthropologists and historians have surveyed over 40,000 groves of this kind in India.

In 1974, 27 Indian women in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand joined hands around ash trees to prevent lumbermen from cutting them down for producing tennis rackets. This act of “hugging” trees generated the Chipko Movement, a group activity which seeks environmental conservation and social justice. Tree hugging was not just a way to protect a resource, it was also a way for the people to express their respect for the sacred status of trees. The Chipko movement is alive and strong today, currently protesting a proposal to cut down trees in central Delhi.

A central concept of Islam is tawheed or ‘the unity of God’. Allah is unity, a oneness reflected in the unity of humanity and nature. The Qur'an reads: “There is not an animal (that lives) on the Earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you.” In this spirit, the prophet Mohammad established himas, or protected areas of land and water, for the common welfare.

Despite its pressing political challenges, the Middle East is witnessing a resurgence of the Muslim hima tradition. In Lebanon, this spiritual tradition has returned through the work of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPLN). The SPLN supports a system of protected habitats containing plant diversity and endangered wildlife.
As you learned in the Biodiversity and Ethics section, several international organizations are working to protect Earth’s biodiversity. They are doing this by, among other things, identifying sacred natural sites honored by Indigenous People, Hindus, Muslims, and other religious groups around the world. As the authors of Beyond Belief: Linking Faiths and Protected Areas to Support Biodiversity Conservation state:

Sacred areas are probably the oldest form of habitat protection on the planet and still form a large and mainly unrecognized network of sanctuaries around the world.3

Questions to Consider

  • Have you ever been in nature and felt a sense of awe over its magnificent diversity? Did you ever express your experience to others? If so, how? By a story? A photograph? A sketch? A poem? A song?
  • If the diversity of the natural world has ever struck you with a sense of awe, would you identify this as a ‘spiritual’ experience? Why or why not?

Biodiversity in Spiritual Life

The world’s religions have not confined their celebration of biodiversity to the designation of sacred sites. Some religions hold that Earth’s natural variety teaches something about the spiritual character of human beings and of God.

Biodiversity and the Spiritual Nature of Humanity

Closer Look

Watch this video to learn more about the Sioux Vision Quest.

Some Indigenous People believe that a sacred kinship exists between themselves and various elements of the Earth. The Sioux Indians of North America say “Mitakuye Oyasin”, meaning “we are all related”. The 'we' in this relationship includes humans, animals, trees, mountains, rocks, and rivers. In traditional Sioux practice, a young person finds their identify through a vision quest. The young person goes into nature to receive a guardian spirit from an element of the Earth or from a member of the insect or animal world. If the vision quest is successful, the guardian spirit will remain with the person for life, protecting and guiding them according to its unique power.

Some Jain monks wear face masks to prevent swallowing insects. Jains believe injury to any living thing negatively affects the migration of the soul. 1

Jainism is one of the oldest living religions. Jains believe that all parts of nature have a soul, or Jiva. After either a specified time (as with water or rocks) or at physical death (as with plants, insects, or animals), the soul migrates from one form of nature to another. In this way, a human being’s soul can reflect the spiritual diversity within all of nature.
Similarly, in Chinese Taoism all the spiritual forces of nature are believed to interpenetrate the human body. Balance between these spiritual forces is the path, or “Tao of harmony". As Lao Tzu, the 6th century father of Taoism, wrote:

In harmony with Tao
The sky is clear and spacious
The earth is solid and full
All creatures flourish together
Content with the way they are
Endlessly repeating themselves
Endlessly renewed.

When humanity interferes with Tao
The sky becomes filthy
The earth becomes depleted
The equilibrium crumbles
Creatures become extinct.4

It is astonishing how Lao Tzu’s insights from fifteen centuries ago apply to today’s environmental issues.

The ancient religion of Buddhism teaches that all aspects of existence, including the human mind and physical body, the natural world, and societal structures, are intricately interconnected. As a result of this interconnectedness, the way in which humans interact with each other and all other lifeforms has a significant impact on the well-being of the planet and all its inhabitants. Therefore, one of the most important aspects of Buddhism is the cultivation of a spirituality of reverence and compassion for all life.

Traditional Buddhist teaching encourages individuals to limit their resource consumption to only that which is needed to satisfy the four basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare. This teaching is consonant with the call from environmentalists to adopt behaviors that take seriously the fact that some natural resources are limited and non-renewable.

Biodiversity and the Attributes of God

In the spiritual traditions of Judaism and Christianity, the diversity of the natural world teaches humanity something about the nature of God. In one of the most well-known passages from the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament, God created the earth, seas, plants, animals, and humans, and “looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (Genesis 3:11).

Brueghel [photo]

17th century Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Younger depicted God’s delight in creation.1

Later Christian theologians considered the diversity of nature to be a mirror of God’s unfathomable goodness. The 13th century theologian, Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologiciae that

...because God’s goodness could not be adequately represented by any single creature, God produced many and diverse creatures, that what one lacked in representing divine goodness might be supplied by another.5

Great Chain of Being [photo]

A drawing of the Great Chain of Being by Diego Valades (1579). Working with ancient philosophical concepts, medieval Christian theologians developed the idea of God as the grand architect of a hierarchical structure that linked everything from trees to angels in a “great chain of being”.1

In another of his writings, Aquinas said, “it is clear that nature is nothing but a certain kind of art, i.e., the divine art.”6

Moving into the modern world, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States wrote in their 1991 pastoral statement Renewing the Earth, that Earth’s natural diversity manifests a “sacramental universe,” a world disclosing “the Creator’s presence by visible and tangible signs.”7

Recalling the thought of Aquinas, the pastoral letter of the bishops of the Philippines says diversity in nature teaches us something about the artistry of God. Forests and seas, write the bishops, “are God's masterpieces, through which he displays his power, ingenuity and love for his creation.”8

Closer Look

Read What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land, the Philippine Bishops’ pastoral letter on Ecology.

When the bishops of the Philippines analyzed the destruction of their country’s biodiversity, they concluded: “We will not be successful in our efforts to develop a new attitude towards the natural world unless we are sustained and nourished by a new vision.”8 To be true to the needs of God’s creation, this vision must emerge from a sincere spirit of gratitude for biodiversity and courage to protect it.

Noah and Rainbow [photo]

God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign. From the 6th century Vienna Genesis, the oldest illustrated biblical manuscript known to exist.1

One inspiring biblical story of vision and gratitude is the rainbow God sends to Noah after the great flood. The rainbow represents the new covenant between God, humans, and the entire Earth. According to the bishops of the Philippines, Christians are descendants of this covenant and “called to protect endangered ecosystems.” They go on to say,

...more and more we must recognize that the commitment to work for justice and to preserve the integrity of creation are two inseparable dimensions of our Christian vocation to work for the coming kingdom of God.9

Questions to Consider

  • Indigenous people, Jains, Taoists, and others sense a spiritual connection between human life and the diversity of the natural world. Can you imagine what they might identify as a threat to this connection? Explain.
  • If someone asked you to draw the relationship between biodiversity and spirituality, what would your drawing look like?

On the basis of our scientific knowledge, ethical norms, and spiritual commitment, how might we act to preserve and protect Earth’s biodiversity? This question moves us to our section on Biodiversity and Action.