The Inner, Imaginal ‘Postmodern Ecological Landscape’

FACED WITH AN ECOLOGICAL CRISIS, the landscape which now confronts us is postmodern and ecological in focus. The Technological/Materialist Landscape is now frequently being questioned and even rejected for what could be termed a new, inner and imaginal Postmodern Ecological Landscape.

      This Postmodern Ecological Landscape is concurrent with a revision in epistemology. As has been shown, the modernist domination, objectification and externalisation of nature, built into concepts of science and modernist epistemology, has been increasingly criticised.[i]

With the Postmodern Ecological Landscape we seem to have returned to the primal animist sacred Nature/Earth Landscape imagination and vision. The difference is that perhaps we are more self-consciously and deliberately aware of the imagination in creating landscapes.

It could be argued that it is the inner archetypal landscapes of the psyche, from which the imagination springs, that creates the outer landscapes of our being in the world. Indeed, as shall be shown in the final chapter, this is what was argued by Henry Corbin in his translations and interpretations of the writings of the ancient Persian pre-Islamic mystics and the Shi’ite, Mazdean and Sufi mystics in respect to their ‘visionary geography’.

If this inner landscape of the psyche – or as cultural historian William Irwin Thompson terms it, “imaginary landscape of the “middle way of the mind”, in which “we humans come to know our world”[ii] – is accepted, then we would seem to have arrived at, or spiraled into, old understandings, feelings and rememberings of our spiritual embeddedness in the natural world.

American environmentalist and academic Lynn Ross-Bryant argues that Barry Lopez is one of a number of contemporary writers of ecological literature who offers a postmodern and holistic view of humans, nature and spirit. Most of these writers share a sense that “in allowing the mysterious otherness of nature to present itself, the ultimate dimension of life, the sacred, is revealed”.[iii]

For Lopez, imagination is the key to the relations and interactions between the natural world and human beings. These relations are mediated by the imagination and creations of the imagination. Thus Lopez asks: “How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in? How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it? How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?”[iv]

Lopez argues that we must approach the land with an “uncalculating mind” and with an attitude of regard, because whatever evaluation we finally make will be inadequate: “To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know that the land knows you are there”.[v]

Imagination, mystery, wisdom, the sacred within the mundane and the reciprocity of I-Thou relation are all characteristics of the Postmodern Ecological Landscape. Lopez speaks of a relationship with the arctic landscape which is mystical, emotional, lyrical and reverent:

“I came to believe that people’s desires and aspirations were as much a part of the land as the wind, solitary animals, and the bright fields of stone and tundra. And, too, that the land itself existed quite apart from these.”[vi]

This is a very different imagination and ‘focus of perception’ from the secular I-It world of the modernist Technological/Materialist Landscape, in which the sacred has been critically and rationally excised from the landscape.

Oil workers in the arctic told Lopez “the Arctic was really a great wasteland ‘with a few stupid birds’, too vast to be hurt. Whatever strong men could accomplish against the elements in such a place, they insisted was inherently right.” A drilling supervisor said “Technology is inevitable. People just got to get that through their heads”.[vii]

Lopez like other recent writers of ecological literature, who could be described as postmodernist, share not only an extensive knowledge of the land but also an unabashed I-Thou relation with the Nature/Earth Landscape. They are not restricted by the I-It objectivist epistemology of science, technology and materialism. Rather they are willing and unafraid to use poetic language and acknowledge imagination and metaphor as a means of exploring and describing other ways of knowing. There is an emphasis on wholeness and relationship with the natural world. In Lynn Ross-Bryant’s words:

“Their intent is to know humans better by knowing them as part of the natural order, and, insofar as possible, through metaphor and imagination, to know the land better as well. Through this use of the imagination they come to an awareness of the whole process of which humans are an interrelated part which leads them to a double emphasis, first on human responsibility to the whole and all its parts and second on human spirituality as it is rooted in this experience of the whole.”[viii]

Unlike The Judaic-Christian Anthropocentric Landscape where the sacred is transcendent, and the Technological/Materialist Landscape where the sacred is leached from the landscape and men would objectify and manipulate the land to their own materialist ‘progressive’ ends, there is a revisioning in landscape perception by these environmentalist writers towards a Postmodern Ecological Landscape.

These writers “share a love for and extensive knowledge of the land emphasizing nature as nature rather than nature as a springboard to transcendent reflections on humans”.[ix] Ross-Bryant argues that for Lopez there is an interaction between humans and nature:

“imagination and desire encounter the landscape and the living things in it: knowledge is gained – not simply of one’s imagination, nor purely of the land, but of the mysterious process in which land and humans – all living things – are involved.”[x]

This is in essence a description of the mystical I-Thou relation.

Lopez wants to change the way we imagine the world. He shows the different ways in which Eskimos, explorers, painters and oil workers have imagined the arctic landscape and the consequences of their imagination. Ross-Bryant says of Lopez’s spirituality and what he identifies as sacred is an encounter with wholeness and mystery in the encounter with the earth:

“The experience of wholeness and mystery that he everywhere encounters in the things and people of the earth is the heart of his spirituality and his connection with what he identifies as the sacred.”[xi]

THE IMAGINATION HAS A ROLE IN EVOLUTION and one might add a spiritual revolution. Lopez states “The continuous work of the imagination…(is)…to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed is an expression of human evolution”.[xii]

It could also be argued that it is the continuous work of the imagination to bring what is actual together with what is dreamed of, that is reflected at the collective level in historical changes in landscape ‘focus of perception’. In this regard, it is worth noting Bishop’s argument that:

“Postmodernism marks not so much the end of history, as the end of history as concrete reality … Indeed, it marks the beginning of history (the past memory) as a metaphorical reality. By identifying the possible plurality of histories, HISTORY can be deliteralised. Like all the old literal power-words – Progress, Duty, Heritage, God – ‘History’ now becomes an imagistic truth.”[xiii]

For cultural historian William Thompson the orthodox religion of our era is “scientific materialism,”[xiv] but at the same time “Gaia [the Earth] is a new landscape” and the new mentality is a “planetary culture” or “postmodernism”.[xv] While he uses different terms, Thompson’s arguments accord with the perspective of the postmodern ecological landscape.

Thompson critiques modernism and argues for the return of the imagination as a mode of participatory perception – a way of being in the world and knowing.

“[T]he value of the imagination returns to challenge the reductionist mentality of modernism that ruled during the period of the mechanization of the world picture.”[xvi]

Thompson points out that in the straightforward linear world that Whitehead called “scientific materialism”, “it is precisely simile and metaphor that the materialist is trying to eliminate in reductionism” and that:

“this naïve philosophy, cultural constructs like “space” and “objects” are taken to be independent of the mind that frames them through its own threshold of possible perceptions, and by a strange inversion that amounts to a perversion, “mind” and “culture” are reduced to accidental collisions of these imaginary “real” objects in “real” space.”[xvii]

We are at one of “those exciting times when the creative imagination of an entire civilization is undergoing a transformation of its basic mentality”.[xviii] The dynamic mentality of modernism, the mentality of Galileo, Newton and Descartes with its linear equations is moving into a postmodernist science of which Chaos Dynamics is one important expression.[xix]

The Gaia hypothesis has stimulated a new way of knowing the planet and it is “as large and imaginatively provocative for our era as Darwinian evolution was for our great-grand parents time”.[xx] It gives “a new way of appreciating how the part participates in the whole” .[xxi]

Again there is great emphasis on the imagination. Thompson maintains that the imagistic mode that we call the Imagination is an ancient faculty which seems to involve a prelinguistic form of mind in which “thought is developed through correspondences, homologies, and participations of identity”.[xxii]

The imagination “is like a transformer” and metaphors are by their very nature transformers.[xxiii] Thompson argues that it is the “metaphorical process through which the Imagination takes in knowledge and steps it down into the conventional imagery of the sensory world with which we are all familiar… the Imagination is an intermediate realm, the realm of the artist, scientist, or prophet who renders the Intelligible into the Sensible”.[xxiv] The fundamentalist is not able to follow the symbolic utterance and takes image literally.[xxv] Thompson concludes that:

“Between the heights of the macrocosm of the Gaian atmosphere and the elemental depths of the microcosm of the bacterial earth lies the middle way of the Mind and it is in this imaginary landscape of the middle way, whether we call it the Madhyamika of Buddhism or the Christ of Steiner or the Da’at of the Kabbalah, that we humans take our life and come to know our world as the dark horizon that illuminates our hidden center.”[xxvi]

In Thompson’s view, landscape is inextricably tied to the interior mind and the imagination; and this is a postmodern view of landscape.

LANDSCAPES ARE BOTH IMAGINAL AND VISIONARY. Landscapes are sourced in the personal and collective imagination of the psyche. That our landscapes derive from personal and collective imagination has long been recognized by geographers wrestling with the concept of landscape. The prime role of the imagination in creating landscape is inherent in postmodern geography. It is however in the consideration of spiritual landscapes that the role of the imagination becomes most apparent.

At the collective level, particularly in the West, there have been discernable historical changes in spiritual imaginal-visionary landscapes: the primal sacred Nature/Earth Landscape; the Judeao-Christian revelatory Anthropocentric Landscape; the modernist ‘secular’ Technological/Materialist Landscape; and the imaginal Postmodern Ecological Landscape which allows for an Inner Landscape from which our outer landscapes are a manifestation and materialization.

With the Postmodern Ecological Landscape we seem to have created a full circle return to the animist, sacred, Nature/Earth Landscape imagination and vision. The difference is that we are more consciously and deliberately aware of the imagination in creating landscape.

Paradoxically, it would seem that spiritual and imaginal-visionary landscapes have simultaneously undergone historical change and are timeless. There is a timelessness or historical transcendence in our understanding of and our potentiality to participate in different spiritual, imaginal-visionary landscapes, which could be called archetypal. This archetypal aspect of landscape, which is historically transcendent and centred in the individual’s psyche, is the subject for the next chapter.

[i] Cindy Katz and Andrew Kirby, ‘In the Nature of Things: The Environment and Everyday Life’, in: Transactions – Institute of British Geographers, v.16, no.3 (1991), 259-271.

[ii] William Irwin Thompson, Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1989),169.

[iii] Lynn Ross-Bryant, ‘Of Nature and Texts: Nature and Religion in American Ecological Literature’, Anglican Theological Review, v.73, no.1 (1991), 38.

[iv] Lopez, Arctic Dreams, xxvii.

[v] Ibid, 228.

[vi] Ibid, xxii.

[vii] Ibid, 398-399.

[viii] Lynn Ross-Bryant, ‘Of Nature and Texts: Nature and Religion in American Ecological Literature’, 39.

[ix] Ibid, 39.

[x] Ibid, 41.

[xi] Ibid, 49.

[xii] Lopez(1998) Arctic Dreams, 414.

[xiii] P. Bishop, ‘Rhetoric, Memory, and Power: Depth Psychology and Postmodern Geography’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space,  v.10, no.1 (1992), 17.

[xiv] William Irwin Thompson, Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science, 52.

[xv] Ibid, 130; see also 123.

[xvi] Ibid, 131.

[xvii] Ibid, 50-51.

[xviii] Ibid, xviii.

[xix] Ibid, xix.

[xx] Ibid, 130.

[xxi] Ibid, 84.

[xxii] Ibid, 80.

[xxiii] Ibid, 83.

[xxiv] Ibid, 84.

[xxv] Ibid, 83.

[xxvi] Ibid, 169.

Participatory, Poetic Landscapes

HUMANISTIC, EXISTENTIAL and postmodern geographers, who have questioned viewing the world through an objectivist epistemology, or theory of meaning – are supported by some Western philosophers, biologists, neurophysiologists, environmentalists; and East Asian philosophy, particularly Taoism and Buddhism.   Here very briefly, are the arguments of some others who advocate meaning or an epistemology based on an active and relational process of perception and cognition.

OBJECTIVISM AS A ‘GODS-EYE-VIEW’ of reality independent of human understanding is opposed by philosophers Mark Johnson and Hilary Putnam.    According to the Objectivist orientation, which is rooted deeply in the Western philosophical and cultural tradition, the world consists of objects that have properties which stand in relationships independent of human understanding. Human beings can have no significant bearing on the nature of meaning and rationality.[i] Johnson, like Putnam, argues for realism based on our mediated understanding of our experience. They argue that experience is an “organism-environment interaction”. The organism and its environment are not independent and unrelated entities.[ii] Johnson concludes that objectivity “does not require taking up God’s perspective, which is impossible; rather, it requires taking up appropriately shared human perspectives that are tied to reality through our embodied imaginative understanding”.[iii]

Biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela reach very similar conclusions to Mark Johnson’s “embodied understanding” by “offering a scientific study of cognition as a biological phenomenon” wherein “the extremes of representationalism (objectivism) and solipsism (idealism)” are eschewed.[iv] The act of cognition does not simply mirror an objective reality “out there” – rather it is rooted in our biological structure and is an active process in which we actually create our world of experience through the process of living itself. We are “continuously immersed in a network of interactions, the results of which depend on history”.[v]

Steve Odin observes that “the primacy accorded to relational ‘field’ over that of the ‘substantial objects’ implicit in the ecological world view is also at the heart of the organismic paradigm of nature in East Asian philosophy, especially Taoism and Buddhism”.[vi]

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), environmentalist, scientist, ecologist, forester and writer of the classic ‘A Sand Country Almanac’ (1949) is widely regarded as establishing environmental ethics as a distinct branch of philosophy. His ethics arise from a “metaphysical presupposition that things in nature are not separate, independent, or substantial objects, but relational fields… the land is a single living organism wherein each part affects every other part”.[vii]

J. Baird Callicott an American philosopher of environment and ethics, follows the insights of Leopold and argues that “object-ontology is inappropriate to an ecological description of the natural environment. Living natural objects should be regarded as ontologically subordinate to “events” and/or “flow patterns” and/or “field patterns”.[viii]

THE RELATIONAL FIELD idea of environment or landscape, has been promoted by ecologists and some significant philosophers, East and West. In the Western philosophic tradition, English philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was seminal with this view.

Modernism and hence objectivism was systematically challenged by Alfred North Whitehead. Regarded as one of the earliest postmodernists, Whitehead whose contribution to philosophy, mathematics and logic as well as metaphysics is “considered by many to be one of the great intellectual achievements of all time”[ix] is known in particular for his relational field view of reality. A.N. Whitehead gave the field concept of nature implied by ecology its fullest systematic expression in his process metaphysics and philosophy of organism.

As Odin points out, Whitehead “elaborates a panpsychic vision of nature as a creative and aesthetic continuum of living field events arising through their causal relations to every other event in the continuum”.[x] Odin argues that nature, in terms of the Gaia hypothesis, is “a synergistic ecosystem of symbiotic relationships” and this is the relational view of reality of many ecologists as well as much philosophy of East Asia based on Taoism and Buddhism.[xi]

Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski is another one who argues for a new epistemology based on a “participatory concept of truth” wherein ‘objectivity’ “has become a myth which is pernicious and which we need to transcend”.[xii] He holds that there is “a close and inevitable relationship between the view of the cosmos of a given people (cosmology) and the system of knowledge of a given people (epistemology). One recapitulates the other, and is in the image of the other. Thus the outer walls of the cosmos are the inner walls of the mind.”[xiii]   In other words, there is a close and inevitable relationship between the landscape ‘focus of perception’ of a given people and the system of meaning or knowledge (epistemology) of a given people.

For example, Lopez argues that the rational, scientific approach to land loses something profound; rather the land is like poetry. For instance:

A Lakota woman named Elaine Jahner once wrote that what lies at the heart of the religion of hunting peoples is the notion that a spiritual landscape exists within the physical landscape. To put it another way, occasionally one sees something fleeting in the land, a moment when line, color, and movement intensify and something sacred is revealed, leading one to believe that there is another realm of reality corresponding to the physical one but different.

In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.[xiv]

[i] Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind – The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (University of Chicago Press, 1987),  x.
[ii] Ibid, 207.
[iii] Ibid, 212.
[iv] Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge –The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (New Science Library, Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1987), 214.
[v] Ibid, 241.
[vi] Steve Odin, ‘The Japanese Concept of Nature in Relation to the Environmental Ethics and Conservation Aesthetics of Aldo Leopold’, Environmental Ethics, v.13, no. 4 (1991), 350.
[vii] Ibid, 346; see also Aldo Leopold, A Sand CountryAlmanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River (N.Y: Ballantine Books, 1966).[viii] J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames (eds.) Nature in Asian Traditions ofThought – Essays in Environmental Philosophy (State University of New York, 1989), 58.
[ix] Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford University Press, 1995), 909-910.
[x] Steve Odin, ‘The Japanese Concept of Nature in Relation to the Environmental Ethics and Conservation Aesthetics of Aldo Leopold’, 350.
[xi] Ibid, 360.
[xii] Henryk Skolimowski, The Participatory Mind – A New Theory of Knowledge and of the Universe (Arkana, Penguin Group, 1994), xviii-xix.
[xiii] Ibid, xvii.[xiv] Lopez (1998)  Arctic Dreams, 274.

 

Spiritual Revolutionaries

THE FEMINIST REVOLUTION in the latter half of the twentieth century has embraced the new wave of secular spirituality. This has involved a challenge to, and a rebellion against, traditional patriarchal religions and of necessity a re-definition of what is essential in religion for women – a reconsideration of spirituality.

The roll-call perhaps begins with the coolly observant French academic and writer Simone de Beauvoir who, although not professing to be a feminist at the time of writing The Second Sex in the 1940s, has had a pioneering role in the challenge by feminist philosophy to the prevailing patriarchal ideologies of the twentieth century[i]. Then there was Merlin Stone who examined and dissected the archaeological evidence for the Goddess and the patriarchal Judeo-Christian cultures’ suppression of women and their matriarchal religions[ii]. Stone was closely followed by Naomi Goldenberg, a psychologist of religion and feminist theologian who maintained that “When feminists succeed in changing the position of women in Christianity and Judaism, they will shake these religions at their roots.” [iii]

American academic Mary Daly is perhaps the most damning, challenging, radical and creative of the recent feminist theologians and philosophers. A former nun and a Professor of Theology at Boston College, her critique of the detrimental effects of patriarchal religion is chilling[iv]. More recently Muslim feminists, for example Irshad Manji (2003), have risked their lives by taking on fundamentalist patriarchal Islam.[v]

Feminist philosophers and theologians have confronted the authority of the dominant patriarchal monotheistic Western religious traditions and establishments head-on. They have realised that women’s spirituality and dignity have been plundered and defiled along with the natural world. Based on this they have searched out and created alternatives. For example, the association of postmodern theology with process theology, the ecological movement and the feminization of the divine, is pivotal in the work of ecofeminist theologian Carol P. Christ[vi] Postmodernist arguments are frequently used by feminists. For example, Ellen Leonard argues that no theology can claim universality and all theologies are political:

“Traditional Western theology is now seen as determined by dominant world powers and groups. The critique of this theology comes from the “new theologies” which argue that Western theology is culture-bound, church-centred, male-dominated, age-dominated, procapitalist, anticommunist, nonrevolutionary and overly theoretical.”[vii]

These feminist revolutionaries reject dualistic and hierarchical thinking which devalues women, body and nature.[viii] They demand a re-visioning of the divine and a new theology in the light of contemporary experience – especially woman’s experience.

For religious archetypes, icons and myths, feminists have harkened back to a pre-patriarchial era when the Goddess or Goddesses and polytheistic Gods were worshipped.[ix] Feminist theologians have gone inwards into the imagination to focus on the symbolic meaning of the Goddess, Goddesses and other Gods, allowing them to explore new patterns of spirituality.[x]

Like their foremothers of the matriarchial ‘pagan’ religions, feminist theologians have turned to Mother Earth and tried to formulate a spiritual search which is nature and earth-centred. Ecofeminists are at the forefront of the ecology and ecospirituality movements. They have challenged traditional philosophy and theology by advocating a holistic understanding and epistemology with recognition of the spiritual interconnectedness of all of creation and co-responsibility for our world.[xi] Ecofeminists have combined a critique of the destructiveness of patriarchal attitudes to nature and women, with an affirmation of a spiritual search which is nature-earth centred rather than anthropocentric. Ecotheologian and Catholic Priest, Thomas Berry argues that:

“The greatest support for the feminist, anti-patriarchal movement can be found in the ecological movement…What has become progressively clear is the association of the feminine issue with the ecological issue.”[xii]

 Ariel Salleh maintains that:

“Ecofeminism confronts not only social institutions and practices, but the language and logics by which Western patriarchy constructs its relation to nature. In doing so, it has already travelled a long way down the very same road that deep ecological opponents of anthropocentricism are looking for.”[xiii]

Ecospirituality

ECOSPIRITUALITY HAS BEEN ARGUED to be more important as a movement than any one of the great world religions. Ecospirituality is the experience of the Divine Presence or Divine Reality in the natural world.

This yearning for and returning to humankind’s first religious awakening is a recent re-recognition of a timeless truth – and on these terms it is a recent development in the history of spirituality. Ecospirituality, Gaia spirituality, Nature-earth spirituality or Nature-mysticism are all new terms for this recent development.

Wayne Teasdale is one who maintains that ecospirituality and the Green Movement have emerged out of the negative results of modern industrial society. The destruction of the natural world has reawakened a passion for wilderness consciousness and nature-mysticism which is really a sort of spiritual or inner illumination. “It is the ability to perceive the Presence of the Divine immanent in the natural world”; and this is, as Evelyn Underhill tells us, “an overpowering apprehension”.[xiv]

Teasdale concludes that ecospirituality is the most important development of the twentieth century, ranking it in significance to the discovery of the printing press and the Copernican Revolution. It brings a shift in paradigm, which brings with it a revolution in human consciousness. Teasdale maintains:

“Eco-spirituality is singularly more significant, as a movement, than any one of the great world religions, when regarded from the larger perspective of the earth process.”[xv]

 


[i] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: New English Library, 1970), 352.

[ii] Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

[iii] See Changing of the Gods – Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions (Boston:Beacon Press, 1979), 5.

[iv] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father –Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973);  Gyn/Ecology – The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978); Pure Lust – Elemental Feminist Philosophy (London: The Women’s Press, 1984).

[v] Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (Canada: Random House,  2003).

[vi] Carol P. Christ, She Who Changes – Re-imagining the Divine in the World (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003 ).

[vii] Ellen Leonard, ‘Experience as a source for theology: A Canadian and feminist perspective’, Studies in Religion v.19, no.2 (1990), 146.

[viii] See Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Women, New Earth (New York: Seabury, 1975) and ‘Ecology and Human Liberation: A Conflict between the Theology of History and the Theology of Nature?’ in To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 57-70. See also Marsha Hewitt, ‘Women, Nature and Power; Emancipatory Themes in Critical Theory and Feminist Theology’, Studies in Religion v.20, no.3 (1991), 271.

[ix] See Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (1976); William G. Dever, ‘Women’s popular religion, suppressed in the Bible, now revealed by archaeology’, Biblical Archaeology Review, v.17, no.2 ( 1991), 64-65; Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974); – Myths, Legends and Cult Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); Charlene Spretnak, ed., The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power Within the Feminist Movement (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1982).

[x] Marsha Hewitt (1991) ‘Women, Nature and Power; Emancipatory Themes in Critical Theory and Feminist Theology’, 157.

[xi] See Sally Mcfague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987); Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Women , New Earth (New York: Seabury, 1975); Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: the Roaring Inside Her (New York: Harper & Row, 1978); Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980); Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics (Santa Fe: N.M. Bear & Co, 1986); Carol P. Christ, She Who Changes – Re-Imagining the Divine in the World (2003).

[xii]  See Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988) ,160-161.

[xiii] Ariel Salleh, ‘The Ecofeminism/Deep Ecology Debate: A Reply to Patriarchal Reason’, Environmental Ethics v.14, no.3 (1992), 215.

[xiv] Wayne Teasdale, ‘Nature-Mysticism as the Basis of Eco-Spirituality’, Studies in Formative Spirituality, v.12, no.2 (1991), 218-219. Note: Teasdale refers to Evelyn Underhill’s   Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (New York: Dutton, 1961), 234.

[xv] Ibid, 230.

A ‘Nonsense Concept’

WHILE MANY WESTERN THEOLOGIANS during the twentieth century had become uncomfortable with the concept of spirit and spirituality, Western theology was itself under increasing philosophical attack and siege. Spirituality, metaphysics and theology became ‘nonsense concepts’ with the advent of logical positivism, the philosophical school based on linguistic analysis in the 1920s and 1930s. Logical positivism rejected metaphysical speculation and held that the only meaningful statements are those that are analytic or can be tested empirically. Based on linguistic analysis (to clarify the meanings of statements and questions) and on demands for criteria and procedures of empirical verification (for establishing at least in-principle truth or falsity of statements, by observation or experiment), logical positivism was essentially a systematic attack on metaphysics by demanding observations for conferring meaning. Metaphysics was rejected as nonsense.

In the modern world of the twentieth century it often seemed that ‘spirituality’ was on very tenuous ground as regards meaning. Evans (1993) has argued that the skeptical contemporary world-view regarding spirituality is to some extent in all of us: “It is part of the largely unconscious mind-set of our culture”.[i]

‘Secular’ Postmodern Spirituality

HOWEVER, UNEXPECTEDLY spirituality has returned in a ‘secular’ postmodern age. While ‘spirituality’ cannot be proved as such, the concepts of ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ have not been disproved, nor have they been successfully rendered nonsense concepts.

In the postmodern era, the positivists and the sceptics brandishing scientism, have themselves come in for criticism. The Enlightenment model and modernist science with its off-shoot, technology, has been discredited as contributing to the degradation of the environment and threatening the planet. There is a new scepticism which questions whether scientism and its philosophical axioms are the best epistemological route forward, let alone the planet’s saviour. The public is increasingly turning against a purist science and technology without debate on values, for example unease over biogenetic engineering. In the late twentieth and the early twenty-first century, positivism and scientism have been found wanting by many.

One can not live by positivism and scientism – at best they are tools for clarifying meaning, but are not the meaning itself. Spirituality, it would seem, has escaped and we are still searching for meaning. New Zealand botanist and ecologist, Philip Simpson illustrates this with James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which he argues:

“…provides an ethical or spiritual dimension to human life that is ecocentric rather than egocentric. Some see the living Earth concept in mystical terms. There is no doubt that a competitive model of Earth is damaging to our relationship to nature, and science is strangely lacking in providing meaning.”[ii]

Spiritual reality is being recognised, despite a lack of proof; while science is found to be lacking in meaning, even by some scientists. However the question of what ‘spirituality’ is, or how one defines it, remains.

One thing is certain however, ‘spirituality’ has become secularised. Jon Alexander maintains that the trend to use the word spirituality in an experiential and generic sense appeals to our irenic age but it also presents some theological difficulties: “Today we encounter the word spirituality so frequently in our reading and conversation that it is surprising to learn that its use is a recent phenomenon.”[iii]

John Elias argues that the 1960s began with the announcement that God was dead and it seemed that the United States had finally become a secular society – but by the 1970s some scholars were already talking about the return of the sacred and others were maintaining that the sacred had never left, except among certain social scientists. Elias maintains certain words are now heard that had virtually passed from usage, even in religious circles:

“While the word religious remained in use, the words spiritual and spirituality were rarely uttered during the decades when the focus was on the secularization of society and its institutions. Today these words are used without apology in both religious and non-religious circles. Social scientists use the term spiritual or sacred as a category to explain understandings of selfhood and human striving. Religionists use the words to highlight the highly personal elements of one’s religious life.”[iv]

Whereas in earlier centuries spirituality had been equated with religion, now as Walter Principe points out, there were many aspects of religion which were less related to the spiritual ideal and some which were even opposed to it.[v] Van Ness argues that while Nietzsche was perhaps the most explicit in charting an irreligious spiritual path, spirituality born of radical scepticism is also found in the naturalistic and nondogmatic views of some Oriental sages.

A SPIRITUAL LIFE in a “world come of age” was notably also the argument of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis for his part in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was very impressed by his non-religious co-conspirators who were also executed and while he “characteristically identified spiritual life in theological terms, as life shaped by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, his last writings place an emphasis on wholeness and vitality”, which are the “hallmarks of a more general rendering of the spiritual dimension of human existence.”[vi]

Van Ness states that in Bonhoeffer’s last writings “The positive evaluation of the secular world begun in the Ethics was even more firmly stated in the idiom of “the world come of age”. Bonhoeffer argued that “God is increasingly being pushed out of a world that has come of age, out of the spheres of our knowledge and life, and that since Kant he has been relegated to a realm beyond the world of experience.” [vii]

If God was increasingly being pushed out of a world come of age as Bonhoeffer argued – Bonhoeffer’s relation to the philosophy of Nietzsche is complex. However in his prison theological deliberations he seemed to move beyond Barth’s dialectical appreciation of Nietzsche to a “closer embrace of a religionless or secular spirituality such as was championed by the author of Thus Spake Zarathustra”.[viii] Van Ness states that from “Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard and Barth also, Bonhoeffer learned that religion, including the Christian religion, was part of what an authentically spiritual life must criticize and move beyond.”[ix]

Given the many compromises of historical Christianity, some measure of worldliness and freedom to criticise was indispensable to a profound spiritual life. Both Nietzsche and Bonhoeffer opposed tyranny in both its secular and religious forms and both recognised the importance of spiritual discipline – for Nietzsche it was solitude and for Bonhoeffer it was silence. Both have a simplicity which confounds them being classified as specifically religious or irreligious.[x] Thus, the authentic spiritual life had to move beyond the dogma of monotheistic and often fundamentalist patriarchal religions in the West.

Spiritual Revolutionaries

THE FEMINIST REVOLUTION in the latter half of the twentieth century has embraced the new wave of secular spirituality. This has involved a challenge to, and a rebellion against, traditional patriarchal religions and of necessity a re-definition of what is essential in religion for women – a reconsideration of spirituality.

The roll-call perhaps begins with the coolly observant French academic and writer Simone de Beauvoir who, although not professing to be a feminist at the time of writing The Second Sex in the 1940s, has had a pioneering role in the challenge by feminist philosophy to the prevailing patriarchal ideologies of the twentieth century[xi]. Then there was Merlin Stone who examined and dissected the archaeological evidence for the Goddess and the patriarchal Judeo-Christian cultures’ suppression of women and their matriarchal religions[xii]. Stone was closely followed by Naomi Goldenberg, a psychologist of religion and feminist theologian who maintained that “When feminists succeed in changing the position of women in Christianity and Judaism, they will shake these religions at their roots.” [xiii]

American academic Mary Daly is perhaps the most damning, challenging, radical and creative of the recent feminist theologians and philosophers. A former nun and a Professor of Theology at Boston College, her critique of the detrimental effects of patriarchal religion is chilling[xiv]. More recently Muslim feminists, for example Irshad Manji (2003), have risked their lives by taking on fundamentalist patriarchal Islam.[xv]

Feminist philosophers and theologians have confronted the authority of the dominant patriarchal monotheistic Western religious traditions and establishments head-on. They have realised that women’s spirituality and dignity have been plundered and defiled along with the natural world. Based on this they have searched out and created alternatives. For example, the association of postmodern theology with process theology, the ecological movement and the feminization of the divine, is pivotal in the work of ecofeminist theologian Carol P. Christ[xvi] Postmodernist arguments are frequently used by feminists. For example, Ellen Leonard argues that no theology can claim universality and all theologies are political:

“Traditional Western theology is now seen as determined by dominant world powers and groups. The critique of this theology comes from the “new theologies” which argue that Western theology is culture-bound, church-centred, male-dominated, age-dominated, procapitalist, anticommunist, nonrevolutionary and overly theoretical.”[xvii]

These feminist revolutionaries reject dualistic and hierarchical thinking which devalues women, body and nature.[xviii] They demand a re-visioning of the divine and a new theology in the light of contemporary experience – especially woman’s experience.

For religious archetypes, icons and myths, feminists have harkened back to a pre-patriarchial era when the Goddess or Goddesses and polytheistic Gods were worshipped.[xix] Feminist theologians have gone inwards into the imagination to focus on the symbolic meaning of the Goddess, Goddesses and other Gods, allowing them to explore new patterns of spirituality.[xx]

Like their foremothers of the matriarchial ‘pagan’ religions, feminist theologians have turned to Mother Earth and tried to formulate a spiritual search which is nature and earth-centred. Ecofeminists are at the forefront of the ecology and ecospirituality movements. They have challenged traditional philosophy and theology by advocating a holistic understanding and epistemology with recognition of the spiritual interconnectedness of all of creation and co-responsibility for our world.[xxi] Ecofeminists have combined a critique of the destructiveness of patriarchal attitudes to nature and women, with an affirmation of a spiritual search which is nature-earth centred rather than anthropocentric. Ecotheologian and Catholic Priest, Thomas Berry argues that:

“The greatest support for the feminist, anti-patriarchal movement can be found in the ecological movement…What has become progressively clear is the association of the feminine issue with the ecological issue.”[xxii]

Ariel Salleh maintains that:

“Ecofeminism confronts not only social institutions and practices, but the language and logics by which Western patriarchy constructs its relation to nature. In doing so, it has already travelled a long way down the very same road that deep ecological opponents of anthropocentricism are looking for.”[xxiii]

[i] Donald Evans (1993) Spirituality and Human Nature, 102.

[ii] Philip Simpson interview, ‘Exploring the Gaia Hypothesis’ in Nga Kaitiaki, no. 21. August/ September (1989), 10.

[iii] Jon Alexander (1980) ‘What Do Recent Writers Mean by Spirituality?’, 247.

[iv] John L. Elias (1991) ‘The Return of Spirituality: Contrasting Interpretations’, 457.

[v] Cf. Walter Principe (1983) ‘Toward Defining Spirituality’, 139.

[vi] Peter H. Van Ness (1991) ‘Bonhoeffer, Nietzsche and Secular Spirituality’, 331.

[vii] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginald Fuller et al, ed. Eberhard Bethge, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1972), 341. Note: Nevertheless,“God is the beyond in the midst of our life”, 282.

[viii] Ibid, 337.

[ix] Ibid, 338.

[x] Ibid, 339.

[xi] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: New English Library, 1970), 352.

[xii] Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

[xiii] See Changing of the Gods – Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions (Boston:Beacon Press, 1979), 5.

[xiv] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father –Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); Gyn/Ecology – The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978); Pure Lust – Elemental Feminist Philosophy (London: The Women’s Press, 1984).

[xv] Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (Canada: Random House, 2003).

[xvi] Carol P. Christ, She Who Changes – Re-imagining the Divine in the World (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003 ).

[xvii] Ellen Leonard, ‘Experience as a source for theology: A Canadian and feminist perspective’, Studies in Religion v.19, no.2 (1990), 146.

[xviii] See Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Women, New Earth (New York: Seabury, 1975) and ‘Ecology and Human Liberation: A Conflict between the Theology of History and the Theology of Nature?’ in To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 57-70. See also Marsha Hewitt, ‘Women, Nature and Power; Emancipatory Themes in Critical Theory and Feminist Theology’, Studies in Religion v.20, no.3 (1991), 271.

[xix] See Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (1976); William G. Dever, ‘Women’s popular religion, suppressed in the Bible, now revealed by archaeology’, Biblical Archaeology Review, v.17, no.2 ( 1991), 64-65; Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974); – Myths, Legends and Cult Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); Charlene Spretnak, ed., The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power Within the Feminist Movement (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1982).

[xx] Marsha Hewitt (1991) ‘Women, Nature and Power; Emancipatory Themes in Critical Theory and Feminist Theology’, 157.

[xxi] See Sally Mcfague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987); Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Women , New Earth (New York: Seabury, 1975); Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: the Roaring Inside Her (New York: Harper & Row, 1978); Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980); Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics (Santa Fe: N.M. Bear & Co, 1986); Carol P. Christ, She Who Changes – Re-Imagining the Divine in the World (2003).

[xxii] See Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988) ,160-161.

[xxiii] Ariel Salleh, ‘The Ecofeminism/Deep Ecology Debate: A Reply to Patriarchal Reason’, Environmental Ethics v.14, no.3 (1992), 215.