The Constancy of Spirituality by Jan Engels-Smith
“Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received—only what you have given.”
St. Francis of Assisi
Reason and spirituality may seem at times to be in conflict and either of the two might see the world in different terms. However, spirituality anchors itself in the deeper rhythms of our existence and, although we may misinterpret it and act with selfish intent, the truth of spirituality and its greatest gift to us is its constancy. How might we know that this constancy is real? Our recognition of climate change and the contribution of humans to the deterioration of the environment offer an interesting perspective for understanding this constancy.
First, let us put aside the issue of religion. Spirituality does not equate with religion. When spirituality and religion are in alignment, religious people will act with selfless compassion and strive to make the world a better place. People of all religious beliefs are capable of such actions and there are people of all faiths who in their spirituality contribute to the benefit of the human race and to the environment in which we live, but we all know of the abuses of religious doctrine that motivate wars, promote intolerance, and justify evil acts. Spirituality does not harbor such inconsistencies.
In the early Agrarian Age of the human race, humankind began to see itself in competition with the natural world and the effort to produce sustenance from the environment led to much destruction of the physical ecosystem. Much could be justified rationally, as the needs of the ever-expanding human race required more crop production and the expansion of protein production in the domestication and processing of animals for food. In its early stages, the agrarian revolution’s impact was limited by the size of the population. The early rationale for wholesale destruction of the environment began to fray as the numbers increased in a planet that has finite resources.
The coming of the Industrial Revolution drove more and more of the population into crowded urban areas with poor sanitation and the burning of carbon-based fuels for energy for the industries and homes. Many of these cities grew up along rivers that served as easy dumping grounds for waste from homes and factories. In London, the river Thames became so polluted that Parliament could not meet in the Parliament Building because the stench was so great that politicians were forced to evacuate the premises. At that point, when their personal comfort was compromised, they acted to clean up the river and improve the city sanitation system. As late as the 1950s when the burning of soft coal in London led to the deaths of hundreds of people from respiratory failure, the members of parliament acted again to eliminate coal burning and restore breathable air. Initially, the use of polluting fuels and the contamination of water sources were rational acts that met the needs of the people in this new expanding economy. Reason promoted progress when progress was seen as the immediate solution to human needs for food, for jobs, and for housing. Reason changed when people’s needs for healthy conditions became essential for survival. Therein lies the inconstancy of reason.
It is natural for human beings to find rationales for their acts while failing to see the larger context for their actions. Even today, in spite of all the scientific evidence, climate-change deniers still contend that creating changes that will make for better living conditions and enduring sustainability of the environment will be too expensive, too unrealistic, and too long-term in its realization. This is the reasoning of tunnel vision, short sightedness, and immediate gratification. It is also the product of the inconstancy of reason in an age when progress is measured in unbounded growth, depletion of natural resources, and profit.
But consider the contrast of spirituality. Indigenous peoples from ancient times have maintained a spiritual view of human existence that does not see the human race as in competition with the elements but as existing in a spiritual unity with the universe—a mutually beneficial perspective that imagines that there are no competitions among the spiritual entities, of which man is one, but instead envisions alliances of humans and spiritual helpers that insure that whatever happens to any one facet of existence happens to all entities in the Cosmos. Every flawed action of man is an act against the Cosmos and represents a failure to sustain a spiritual unity that recognizes the oneness of all of existence.
Some native-American nations speak of considering what impact any decision will have seven generations from the time of the decision. This simple perspective would alter many of our contemporary choices by placing all of us in the mode of acting for the distant future instead of the immediate present.
Religions evolve from a core of spirituality, often framed in concepts of love, respect, and mutual identity with others. In Buddhist philosophy, all life is sacred and interdependent. Aristotle contended that all living things have souls in that they are alive and possess an animating force. When he is entreating his followers to care for their fellow man, Christ is purported to have said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” The spiritual base of religions is inclusiveness. It is the practice of religion that sometimes leads to exclusivity and the need to assert one’s moral superiority, much in the same way that humankind has chosen to assert its dominion over the earth.
The modern world has drifted away from the realization and acceptance of its spiritual nature. We have lost much of that understanding of the symbiotic condition of all beings in the universe—the understanding that all of existence is a unified being that we perceive as fragments but exists, in truth, as a single entity. To clear-cut a forest is to scar ourselves, to pollute our water and air is to poison ourselves, and to lose respect for the perfection of our universe is to disrespect ourselves. Much seems wrong with our world but that sense of failure lies within us not in the spiritual realm. That which is unified and that which is perfect remains so—such is the constancy of the spiritual and therein lies our belief in possibility.
I believe that humanity can reestablish itself as spiritual beings. The simple act of saying hello to nature when you venture outside creates the feeling of relationship, friendship and possibly kindred sameness. The gentleness of talking to your plants or flowers, gazing into the sky and saying I care puts the heart into alignment of oneness. Regaining our spiritual awareness does not need to be difficult. Small acts of kindness to nature can produce enormously positive results in the environment. I beseech you to try these small steps for a month. Notice how it feels inside of yourself. You may actually feel more healthy and nourished from the action. Possibly your friends, family or neighbors will notice and they too will start expanding their spiritual awareness.