Viewed entirely through secular eyes the world becomes a collection of individual pieces that move and operate according to “scientific” laws. The Scientific Revolution (heralded in by the publication of Nicolas Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the heavens, in 1543) placed human beings largely as observers of a mechanistic, linear, objective world.
The Age of Discovery (alluded to in Part 1) and the subsequent tidal wave of colonisation of almost all parts of the globe by Europeans brought to the entire globe this highly secularised way of perceiving the world.
The Industrial Revolution (beginning - also in Europe - in the 18th century) did nothing to impede this world-as-object view. Indeed, this revolution took this view and ran with it. If the world is nothing more than a collection of disparate objects, then using those objects for the benefit of humans is the proper thing to do.
Cracks in this mechanistic view began to appear within science itself with the emergence of quantum mechanics and relativity theory only a little over 100 years ago. With respect to the purposes of this blogpiece the major importance of these scientific fields was the dismantling of the notion of the independent observer. A corollary of this was the recognition that the world, including us humans, was not a disconnected place.
One of the foremost of these scientists, Albert Einstein, recognised this when he stated that:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He (sic) experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Later in the 20th century, other scientific branches (e.g., biology, meteorology, ecology) would begin to come to similar perceptions. Although such recognitions were being made within the scientific community, the world as a whole continued to consider the world as secular.
The inventions of the Industrial Revolution and the technologies it spawned saw a rapid rise in material wealth and well-being (although many were excluded.) However, this has come at the enormous expense of the ecosystems of the world.
Although there had been many precedents, it was not until the mid-20th century that a widespread global environmental awareness began to infiltrate this secular world-view. Many consider the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in 1962 to be the book that heralded this movement. Early environmentalism was still trapped within the secular model and tended to think of the environment as something out there. The environment was seen as needing protection, needing to be saved, or conserved. There was little sign that a return to a sacred view of the world was on offer.
Arne Næss, the Norwegian philosopher, published a paper in 1973 in which he coined the term deep ecology to mean a view that was more spiritual and intuitive than that of the mainstream environmental movement of the time. He claimed “that you feel, when you are working in favour of free nature, you are working for something within your self, that ... demands changes. So you are motivated from what I call ‘deeper premises’”
Deep Ecology took awhile to make an impact, and today it still struggles to sway mainstream environmentalism, especially as the climate change movement (with its tinge of anthropocentrism) has become almost synonymous with environmentalism.
Are there any other signs of a re-sacralising of the Earth?
Yes. The emergence of eco-psychology, especially since the 1990s, has had an important role in recognising that the human psyche is fundamentally shaped by our participation in, and partnership with, the more-than-human world.
Eco-spirituality (in many forms) has also been growing in recent years. Within the Christian faith the recent rise of Green Christianity has emphasised the concept of stewardship rather than ownership (or dominion) in Genesis 1.
Indigenous societies around the world have been offering a potent critique of secular Eurocentric world-views for decades. Notwithstanding the near total genocide that many of these cultures endured through colonisation, many have retained a strong connection with their strong nature-based values and insights. Some of us from within the European tradition are starting to wake up and to listen and learn.
In Europe there has recently been keen interest in re-discovering and re-kindling some of its pagan heritage. Much of this paganism had a strong sense of the sacredness of life and the Earth.
Nature Deficit Disorder is a term coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods. In this book, and other writings, Louv lucidly outlines the intimate connection between our well-being and the amount of time we spend in nature. This, and the Japanese practice of Shinrin yoku (Forest Bathing) clearly bring to mind and body our deep need for a sacred connection with nature.
So, yes, there are indications that there may be the beginning of returning to our sacred roots, and our place in the wholeness (holy-ness) of nature.
Addendum: Nothing in either Part 1 or Part 2 of this blogpiece should be read as directing culpability at any particular institution or person. It is futile pointing the finger of blame at Christianity or the scientists of the 16th and 17th century. Nor does it make sense to mete out judgement upon the inventors of new technologies in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This blogpiece simply suggests an arc by which there has been a shift from a sacred view of the Earth towards a mechanistic perspective. Sadly, that arc has brought us to a position where the fate of humanity and the more-than-human world is at the mercy of humans.Blaming and shaming serves only to further entrench the schisms between us. Polarisation can never allow us to heal ourselves. And, if we cannot heal the divisions between us, what chance do we have of finding wholeness (holy-ness) in the world?