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Gratitude, Connectedness, and Awe: The Spiritual Side of Sustainability

January 1, 2012

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By Jay McDaniel
Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism
January 2012

A sustainable community can be a household, village, city, bioregion, or nation.  It is a community that is creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind.  

Such a community will support three desirable goals: social well-being, environmental well-being, and economic viability.  

It can seem as if environmentalists focus on one of the three circles; that social workers and human rights focus on still another; and that economists focus on still another.  Relative to context, some circles will indeed take priority over others.  In the event of human rights violations, a focus on justice takes precedence over a viable economy and sometimes environmental concerns.  But we at JJB believe that the three circles are connected and that sustainability is an integration of the three.

A sustainable community is Martin Luther King's vision of beloved community, with ecology and humane treatment of animals added.

I say a "humane treatment of animals" because sometimes concerns for sustainability focus on environmental well-being and human well-being while neglecting the humane treatment of individual animals.  By individual animals we have in mind pets, farm animals, animals used in science, animals hunted and fished.  They deserve kindness.  A sustainable community is a humane, sustainable community.

Two Meanings of Sustainability

Of course, a sustainable community need not be called "sustainable" in order to be sustainable.  It can be called a good community or a flourishing community or, as is the case in East Asia, a harmonious community.  

Nevertheless, a sustainable community draws upon two important connotations of the word English word sustainable.  It can be sustained into the indefinite future, given the limits of the earth and local bioregions to supply resources and absorb pollution, and it provides spiritual and material nourishment -- sustenance -- for human beings and their kindred creatures on the planet.  Sustainability without sustenance is unsustainable.

There will not be and never has been a completely sustainable community.  Sustainability as we are describing it is an ideal to be approximated, not a utopia to be fully realized.  Even meaningful approximations cannot emerge once and for all or all at once.  But when meaningful approximations occur, there is a flourishing of life.  

The Environment as Context Not Issue

A flourishing of life is dependent on, and evolves within, a larger context: the web of life itself.  Understood as the web of life, "the environment" is not simply an issue among issues but rather a context for many of the most important issues faced by human beings today.  It is not a circle among three circles in a diagram offered above; it is a larger circle within which the three forms of well-being can develop.  

Many people who are committed to sustainability have a sense of this larger circle, this web.  They have a sense of two leading advisors to this website -- Catherine Keller and Jea Sophia Oh -- call planetarity.  Jea Sophia Oh has written about this in her recent book: A Postcolonial Theology of Life: Planetarity East and West (Upland: Sopher Press, 2011).  Drawing from Asian as well as Western sources, she shows how a sense of planetarity can help previously colonized peoples, and their colonizers as well, transcend the impulses of domination and develop creatively hybrid, life-centered forms of spirituality.

A Sense of Planetarity: The Earth Community as Extended Family

Jea Sophia Oh is right.  A feeling of planetarity is one of the most important parts of a healthy, sustainability-oriented spirituality, and it is available to people who identify with particular religious traditions and people who do not.  

"Spirituality" is a name the affective or emotional dimension of human life.  This side of life consists of what Whitehead calls subjective forms.  Subjective forms are felt evaluations of the world: feelings of approval and disapproval, attraction and repulsion.  

A sense of planetarity is a felt appreciation of the more-than-human world: plants and animals, hills and rivers, trees and birds, combined with a recognition that we humans are included within a wider community of life.  For some people the sense of planetarity may involve a sense of allegiance to the planet as a whole, but for most people it lies in a sense of felt kinship with other animals, or a sense of wonder in the presence of oceans, or mountains, or wetlands, or rivers, or deserts.  Amid this appreciation people realize that they belong to something wider than human life, namely the community of life on earth.  

People who have a sense of planetarity may or may not believe in a transcendent God, but they do indeed feel touched by something transcendent and beautiful.   They feel like they belong to something more.  

Indeed, for many people who believe in God (and I am among them) the sense of planetarity is a way into belief in God.  It is through a sense of kinship with other life and with all life that they feel connected to a deeper Life.

Small But Included In the Ten Thousand Things

The sense of planetarity can be deepened by a sense of cosmic awe or cosmic wonder.  People stare into the heavens on a dark and starry night and feel small but included in the Ten Thousand Things: that is, everything that exists.  This everything is not limited to the earth; it includes the heavens, too.
Combined with this sense of awe, there is an intuitive recognition that the various things -- the hills and rivers, the trees and stars, the spirits and ancestors - are interconnected.  Each grain of sand is part of the universe, but the universe is also present in each grain of sand.  The wildflower may be part of heaven, but heaven is in each wildflower.  

This sense of deep interconnectedness finds vivid expression in the Buddhist image of Indra's Net.  Here we have the image of the universe as a vast network of jewels, each of which contains an infinite number of facets, each of which mirrors another jewel in the universe.  Many Buddhists add that the jewels do more than mirror one another; they are present in one another.  

Cosmic awe, then, is a sense of wonder at the vastness of the universe, combined with a sense that all things are interconnected.    

Delight in Multiplicity

For many people the sense of planetarity and cosmic awe are combined with a delight in multiplicity.  Among naturalists this delight comes from exposure to the sheer variety of forms of life on earth.  There is something beautiful in the variety itself, and the variety becomes a reminder that differences can be as beautiful as similarities.  Among others the delight can originate with an exposure to different cultures and different people, each with their distinctive forms of beauty.  And among still others the delight comes from feeling different themselves, and sometimes from being unaccepted or oppressed in their difference.  Out of the pain of "being different" comes the gift of taking delight in differences, of seeing beauty in difference.

Interestingly, this delight in multiplicity goes along with a sense that genuine harmony -- the kind of togetherness that is rightly prized in a sustainable community -- includes and requires multiplicity.  There is an intuitive sense that things can be together without being identical.  An appreciation for multiplicity leads advocates of sustainability to emphasize biological and cultural diversity.  Without diversity there can be no sustenance.    

Participating in a Cosmic Adventure
Nor can there be sustenance without a sense of adventure.  Whitehead's philosophy is noted for its presentation of the universe as a creative advance into novelty.  For Whitehead as for many East Asian traditions, there is a continuous creativity within the depths of matter such that, locally and globally, the present is never completely determined by the past.  This creativity is evident in quantum indeterminacy, in the surprising and experimental nature of biological evolution, and in the creative way in which human beings and other organisms adapt to new situations.  It leads Whiteheadians to believe that, if the unfolding universe happened to be returned to certain initial conditions, whatever they might be, it might unfold a very different way the second time around.  

Contemporary science offers a more specific narrative by which the creative advance into novelty can be appreciated.  Three companions in process thinking -- Thomas Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and Brian Swimme -- call it the Journey of the Universe.  The Journey includes a galactic phase in which the stars and galaxies are evolving; a geological phase in which planets such as Earth are evolving; a biological phase in which life on Earth (and perhaps other planets) is evolving; and a cultural phase in which human and animal cultures are evolving.  

The Journey of the Universe has a future as well as a past and we living beings on the planet Earth are small but included in this larger Journey.  You can find an entire story on their project, linking ideas concerning the Journey of the Universe with Process Theology, in JJB: Living in the Milky Way: (GO).

Berry, Tucker, and Swimme propose that the story of the universe as informed by the natural sciences offers, for the first time in human history, a transnational and metareligious creation story which can inspire people's hearts and minds all over the planet and provide a larger context for the practical work of creating sustainable communities.  

The story of the universe as told by the sciences can play an important role in the spiritual side of a sustainable community.  The story can elicit a sense of awe and wonder at the vastness and beauty of a continuously creative universe, and the very quest for sustainable communities on our planet can be understood as one way of advancing the adventure of the universe on earth.  In the very imagining of sustainable communities, in the very struggle to bring them into fruition, there is a creativity that participates in the larger adventure.

Gratitude for Beauty

Complementary to this adventure there is a gratitude for what already is.  In particular there is a what, in JJB, we call trust in beauty.  (GO)

The gratitude at issue may be conjoined with a sense that, beneath or beyond the beauty of the world, there is a Someone who is the source of beauty.  But a person can feel grateful for the beauty even if he or she does not have a sense of this Someone, and her gratitude is one of the ways in which we is inwardly sustained, so that she can work and study, helping to bring about sustainable beauty.  

The video by Louis Schwarzberg shows how this sense of beauty can be connected with time as well as space.  The second part of the video features an elderly man who points out that each day of a human life is unique and irreplaceable.  Today, he says, is the only time we will ever have Today.  This capacity to appreciate the uniqueness, the irreplaceability of each day is an essential dimension of sustainable spirituality.

Another important part of the final part of the video is that it vividly displays human beings: their faces, their laughter, their uniqueness, their beauty.  A spirituality of sustainability includes a sense of wonder, amazement, at the unique beauty of invidual people as shown in the video, and an impulse to respect and care for people.  To treat them as persons and not things.  To let them be themselves.  To listen to their voices.  To care for them.  To live justly.  Sustainability is about human well-being and environmental well-being.  And about economic viability, too, which we deal with in a forthcoming article by John Cobb: Can the Planet be Saved?   But to close this article, let's consider another question: Can religion be saved?  We think it can.

The Role of Religion In Sustainability

Fresh food, a clean sky, with no hand raised except in greeting.  This is how a poet Robin Morgan describes a sustainable community.  

Her images remind us of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples.  He taught them to pray for the coming of a basilea theou, a state of affairs in which the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven.  He said the will of God is that we love each other.

What would this look like?  It would look like fresh bread, a clean sky, and no hand raised except in greeting.  It would look like a sustainable community.

Should we follow the advice of Jesus and other religious teachers?  Should we pray for sustainability?  Is there something in the universe which is on the side of life and love and which can receive our prayers?   Or is prayer a waste of time compared to what is truly needed is study, hard work, moral courage, lifestyle changes, education, and fresh public policy.    

Perhaps prayer is irrelevant.  Perhaps meaningful approximations of sustainability can emerge through study and hard work alone.   Perhaps what is needed in the world today is not a willing cooperation with the winds of the spirit, but rather a willful engineering of a more sustainable planet.  

Winds of the Spirit

Most of us in the JJB community doubt it.  The JJB is a growing network of people, from fifty countries, who read this website on a fairly regular basis.  Perhaps you are in the community, too.

Some of us are Christian, some Jewish, some Muslim, some Buddhist, some Bahai, some Hindu.  Some of us are religiously unaffiliated or spiritual but not religious.  But most of us believe that there is something in the universe on the side of life and love: a spirit of goodness and wisdom and beauty with which we can cooperate.

We have different names for this something more: the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Goodness, the Tao, the Pattern that Connects, the Holy Spirit.  Some of us conceive the spirit as a Something and some as a Someone.  But we want to be in touch with the winds of this spirit and orient our lives around them, however understood.  We want to live in willing cooperation with it and be healers in a broken world.  

We worry when the spiritual side of life is neglected.  We know many well-intentioned people who grow cynical or who burn out when they lose touch with the spirit of goodness and wisdom and beauty.  A one-sided emphasis on human agency -- on sheer will -- easily devolves into cynicism or despair, because the world never quite conforms to willful aims.  Or it devolves into an attempt to engineer the world in the image of one's own ego, all in the name of goodness.   It helps to have trust in the availability of fresh possibilities for hope, even when things seem hopeless.  It helps to have faith in the winds of the spirit.

Perhaps we rightly sense that prayer is one way -- not the only way -- of being in touch with the winds of spirit.  The sensibilities mentioned above are additional ways: sense of planetarity, cosmic awe, delight in multiplicity, a sense of adventure, trust in beauty, gratitude for each day.  In their own ways they are prayer, too.  To have a sense of kinship with other animals, to feel small but included in a galactic whole, to be grateful for each day, is to make contact with something more in an intuitive and affective way.  It is to pray.

Accordingly, at JJB we find ourselves wanting to talk about spirituality and sustainability. And also about religion.  

On the one hand, we are interested in spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation which might help us be available to the winds of the spirit, and also in spiritual attitudes -- emotions and motivations -- which connected with the winds of the spirit and with the palpable presence of life on earth.  For us these practices and attitudes are not substitutes for study and hard work, but rather underpinnings for study and hard work.

Those of us who are religously affiliated find ourselves turning how the religious traditions with which we are affiliated might help animate environmental consciousness and concerns for sustainability.  Increasingly we turn to the The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University: (  Its coordinators are Mary Evelyn Tucker (mentioned above) and John Grim of Yale University, who are interviewed in the video.   Along with them, we believe that we are at a time in history when a new environmental ethic can emerge with help from the world's religions.

After all, the religions, too, are part of the journey of the universe as it unfolds on our small planet.  They, too, are evolving over time.  Our hope is that we can play a role in the religious traditions to which we belong and, in dialogue with science and art, help create sustainable communities.  We trust that each religion, and every religion, has a constructive role to play.  There is a wisdom in religion just as there is a wisdom in science.  There is wisdom in animals, too.  When it comes to finding wisdom for building sustainability, we can be grateful for wisdom wherever it is found.  Seeking wisdom, too, is a form of prayer.

Gratitude, Connectedness, and Awe: The Spiritual Side of Sustainability

January 1, 2012

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