Heaven, Earth, and Us
|by Richard Smoley|
Many wonderful things," wrote the poet Sophocles, "and none more wonderful than man" - lines that could also be translated, "Many terrible things, and none more terrible than man."(1)
The modern age proves the truth of these words. According to the current wisdom, our air conditioners are causing mutations in the antipodes, our taste for hamburgers is wiping out the rain forests, and our quest for Lebensraum is displacing hundreds of plant and animal species that never did us any harm. Ecologists have even usurped an old alchemical term - albedo or "whiteness" - to characterize the blanket of concrete and asphalt that is replacing greenery on the earth's surface.
With the vertiginous array of claims about environmental depredations churned out every day by organizations as diverse as UNESCO, the Sierra Club, and an outfit altruistically espousing "voluntary human extinction,"(2) it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that the relations between humanity and its home planet are somewhat strained. Spokesmen for various branches of spirituality have joined the crusade, warning us that we are doing nothing less heinous than committing an act of rape on Mother Earth.
And yet I find myself strangely ambivalent about the environmental question. On the one hand, the evidence seems palpable enough. If I don't want to believe facts and figures, it's hard to miss the foul air, the eroding hillsides, the disappearance of open space. On the other hand, the ecological movement often displays such sanctimoniousness, guilt-tripping, and negativity that I find myself more repelled than persuaded by its tactics. As ecopsychologist Theodore Roszak, author of The Voice of the Earth, said in a recent address, ecological activists "have shown little concern for the emotional toxic waste they have left behind."
"Emotional toxic waste" is not just a clever metaphor. It is an integral part of modern civilization, whose dominant characteristic is the undertone of anxiety - about the present, about the future, about nearly everything - that is felt at all levels of society. In part this arises out of rapid change, dislocation, and, yes, isolation from the earth and nature. But this anxiety isn't entirely accidental. It has been consciously cultivated by the magi of mass marketing, advertising, and public relations, which have long since discovered that people are more easily influenced if they're feeling anxious, disoriented, and insecure.
Sometimes this anxiety is used merely to sell products ("Aren't you glad you use Dial? Don't you wish everybody did?"). But it's used as a weapon of mass indoctrination as well. Politicians, interest groups, and other molders of public opinion operate on the assumption that you're going to give more support to their causes if you're terrified of something, whether it be immigrants, socialized medicine, or ecological Armageddon.
Certainly it's not surprising that this particular form of black magic operates to the degree that it does; fear has been the prime mover in human history for as far back as we can look.(3) And it is used for causes far more dubious than environmentalism. Nonetheless I find it peculiar that so many advocates of earth-centered causes, who claim to be working to raise the consciousness of humanity, are using tactics that can only lower it.
You might reply that mass indoctrination is merely part of contemporary political reality, and that environmental advocates are merely playing the game by the rules. You might add that the environmental crisis has reached such proportions that the only sane response is to sound the alarm as loud as possible.
I disagree. I believe the free-floating anxiety of the modern era - which has been displaced onto a thousand concerns, real and imaginary - is itself one of the underlying causes of our problems, and that no sane response to them is possible unless we somehow get past it. We should have learned by now that harsh rhetoric leads to factionalism, strife, and, as often as not, to war. Could such outcomes arise from the kind of rhetoric I'm speaking of here? It wouldn't be the first time in history that high-born intentions bore disastrous fruits.
Up to this point I've been discussing environmentalism principally in the political arena. But now I'd like to speak of it as a cultural and a spiritual phenomenon. Here too I have serious problems with the environmentalist discourse. Chief among these is what often appears to be a reflexive hatred for Western civilization. Ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinning, for example, in her recent book, "My Name Is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization," characterizes our civilization as "universally and continuously brutal."(4) If the West has produced anything good, she hasn't heard of it.
There are several problems with such a view. In the first place it's not such a simple matter to step back from one's civilization, even if you grant that it (like all others, of course) has committed huge numbers of unwholesome deeds. It may be joyful and refreshing to discover that one can communicate with Amazonian natives or Australian aborigines as human beings, and join them in celebration of the universal forces upon which all of us depend. But to imagine that this somehow frees one from the constraints of one's own civilization is as false as imagining that one can be separated from one's soul. Our civilization is our embodiment: our bodies, our ideas, our very sense of self are the result of the culture around us. We are Westerners; our heritage, like all heritages, is an ambiguous one, full of horror as well as grandeur; but hating it will cause the same problems as hating our bodies.
Ironically, even the notion that we can separate ourselves from our civilization is a profoundly Western one. Until the eighteenth century, the West had as little distance from itself as any other culture; it automatically assumed it was the best one, and if it encountered others, it destroyed them as heedlessly as, say, the Aztecs or Assyrians did. But after the Enlightenment, European man suddenly found himself unhappy with the world he had made. (Was this because, as Peter Lamborn Wilson's article in this issue suggests, our own Western concept of living nature, the anima mundi, had been discarded?) In its place the West glorified the noble savage in the guise of such figures as Fenimore Cooper's Chingachgook or Melville's South Sea islanders. The savage is free, said the Romantics; he is not stifled in neckties and suits or cooped up in offices or churches. He can be himself among the rocks and trees and grass.
For all our talk about postmodernity, this is still the spirit that is with us; it is present in a thousand books on aborigines, shamans and indigenous peoples, in hundreds of heartwarming calendars showing the shining, happy faces of the Family of Man. Is it a true picture? Certainly it is a sentimentalized one: the native is always joyous, harmonious, at one with his surroundings and nature (except when the dark shadow of civilization falls upon him). The fact that people can be brutal, stupid, or hateful in such conditions is never addressed and rarely contemplated. And few aficionados of native cultures seem to recognize that this romanticization often has harmful consequences for the natives themselves.(5)
The fact is, however, that people are people everywhere. Technology may have given the West an edge in devastating the environment, but we have no monopoly on the urge to do so: the desertification of Mesopotamia (once a breadbasket) and the deforestation of Easter Island are only two examples of ecological destruction that have taken place outside the pale of Western civilization; and today many indigenous peoples are joining the technological bandwagon as eagerly as any gadget-happy American (a point Sterling Bunnell makes in his interview). If it's true, as environmental writers often claim, that native cultures have much to teach us about living in harmony in the land, it would be well to remember that this harmony has not been a universal condition.
Finally, the rhetoric - much of it just plain abusive - that rails against humanity for its crimes against the earth paradoxically reinforces the perceived split between man and nature. If indeed we live in a world where (in the words of an old missionary song) "ev'ry prospect pleases, and only man is vile," what task is left to us? Should we lock ourselves in our houses so we don't "interfere" with nature? Should we exterminate ourselves and leave the planet to kudzu and cockroaches? These hardly seem like positive solutions.
I'm stating my views in sharp terms because it strikes me that many associated with alternative spirituality accept the negative aspects of the ecological movement automatically and unthinkingly. Nonetheless it's true that the movement encompasses many different types. If I can't go along with the guiltmongers who denounce Western culture wholesale (and still less with the ecoterrorists who spike trees and sabotage farms), it remains true that most people who are concerned about the environment are decent, honest individuals who plant trees, clean up trash, and practice recycling.
Furthermore the environmental movement says much that's unquestionably true. No one apart from a few vested interests could deny that pollution, deforestation, and the extermination of plant and animal species are rampant, or that measures like wilderness preservation and resource conservation are necessary. There are even areas where I could wish for more assertiveness, such as on the population question, since it seems to me that nearly all environmental pressures, in one way or another, arise from the population explosion. (According to Vice President Al Gore, "we are now adding the equivalent of one China's worth [of people] every ten years.")(6)
Unfortunately this remains a prickly issue, partly because of the opposition of the Catholic Church, which remains tremendously powerful worldwide, but also because no one wants to make sacrifices that someone else will take advantage of. Even in the United States people have argued for high immigration levels on the grounds that a dwindling population would leave us weaker than other nations. If everyone works by this logic, we may well find ourselves continuing our present course until various disasters, natural and unnatural, intervene.
These considerations suggest the need for a collective awakening of humanity, a recognition of our common interests as inhabitants of the same world. As many ecological thinkers have rightly stressed, we must collectively come to our senses. But I believe that this awakening has to begin with a recognition of the situation we are in now, not merely a vague wish that we could be Tasadays or Dine' or could return to the good old days of 8000 B.C. If there are things we can learn from indigenous cultures about respect for the earth, we also have to recognize that they often seem as dazed by modernity as we are. Nor can an awakening mean tossing our heritage in the wastebasket; nations that tried this (like Russia in 1917 or Cambodia in 1975) found that the result turned out to be even worse than what went before.
To ask the inevitable question: what is to be done? On the level of political and social engagement, individuals will come to their own conclusions. (We've often emphasized in the pages of GNOSIS that spiritual truth can't be equated with one particular political viewpoint.) Dealing with this question on a spiritual level, however, raises the issue of where humankind stands in relation to the earth. As Erik Davis's article indicates, there are two primary impulses in spirituality: one that stresses a transcendence of the earth and another that stresses engagement with it. Although Erik discusses his own view of how to reconcile these two aspects, I'd like to suggest another. For it seems to me that religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Gnosticism are right in saying the earthly plane is a level that must be transcended, just as Pagan and indigenous religions are right in saying we are children of the earth and must serve its purposes.
For me, the reconciliation of these two opposites lies in the fact that we are the only beings we know of who can make contact both with the material world and the subtle worlds of the psyche and spirit. While I believe there is a point at which we will, individually or collectively, transcend the earthly level (as Rudolf Steiner's teaching, discussed by Gary Lachman in this issue, indicates), I also believe that while we're here, we serve as the critical link between "above" and "below," between the unseen realms and the physical world.
This idea is hardly new; indeed it can be found across the world. In Chinese cosmology, the sacred triad consists of heaven, earth, and man, with man as the link between the two. Certain strains of the medieval Western tradition expressed the same sacred ternary as Deus, Homo, Natura: God, man, and nature.(7) The Kabbalah pictures this interchange of forces as Jacob's ladder, with "angels ascending and descending upon it" (Gen. 28:12).
The means for forming this link between subtler and denser worlds are as diverse as human experience itself. The practitioner of tai chi literally feels the energy circulating between the earth underneath and the heavens overhead; the Christian priest makes God manifest in the bread of the Eucharist; the Wiccan invokes deities into a sacred circle. This issue offers a number of perspectives on this matter, ranging from Arthur Waskow's discussion of the sacred cycles of the Jewish year to Gail Thomas's reminder that the living spirit needs to be embodied in urban design. On the most basic level, it may simply entail living one's life as fully and consciously as possible. As the ancient Chinese proverb says, "The greatest virtue of heaven and earth is to live."
Will such uniting of heaven and earth solve our ecological problems? We can't be naive: magical practices may not furnish magical solutions to our woes. But they may go further than we think. It seems at least possible that much of today's ecological wreckage may result, not only from pollution and overpopulation, but from our failure to provide nourishment to the planet on a subtle level.
Even aside from this, however, it's obvious that much of the pointless consumer consumption fueling the ecological crisis - as well as the political hysteria that generates discord and war - is fed by a deep inner emptiness. And I think this emptiness arises largely from our forgetting of our function. It is not simply that we've lost contact with the earth, but that we've lost contact with our role as the link between earth and heaven. If we take up this task, we may find that we're less entranced by the wasteful fads of consumer society - or by the mass movements, whether green, red, or some other fashionable color, that begin with high ideals and end up enmeshed in their own fervor.
No matter what paths we choose, I believe we will serve God, the earth, and ourselves best if we recognize that we are neither disembodied wraiths nor squalling, rutting beasts that can be goaded with mass-produced phrases, but beings with a purpose of linking the highest, most rarefied worlds with those below. Nice work if you can get it.
1. Sophocles, Antigone, 332-33, my translation.
2. Donna Kossy, Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief (Portland, Ore.: Feral House, 1994), pp. 141-44.
3. For a discussion of the interrelation between magic and mass indoctrination, see Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 89-95.
4. Chellis Glendinning, "My Name Is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization" (Boston: Shambhala, 1994), p. 12.
5. See my article "A Non-Indian's Guide to Native American Spirituality," Yoga Journal, Jan.-Feb. 1992, pp. 82ff. For a superb treatment of the interactions between developed and primitive cultures, see Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John and Doreen Weightman (New York: Atheneum, 1974).
6. Quoted in Margaret L. Usdansky, "Population Growing at a Furious Rate," USA Today, July 18, 1994, pp. 1A-2A.
7. Rene Guenon, The Sacred Triad, trans. Peter Kingsley (Cambridge, England: Quinta Essentia, 1991; reviewed in GNOSIS #24), esp. pp. 129-34; also Hellmut Wilhelm, Heaven, Earth, and Man in the Book of Changes (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 1977).
(c) copyright 1994 by Richard Smoley