Can The Earth Heal Us?

The environmental crisis offers us a unique opportunity
to transcend age-old conflicts

One of the articles in Earth & Spirit (IC#24)
Originally published in Late Winter 1990 on page 11
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

his issue is devoted to rediscovering the connection between spirituality and the earth. It is a wonderful, profound and delicious topic, as many of the articles that follow illustrate. Unfortunately, it is also a minefield. There is hardly any human interest as contentious as spirituality, and if we are not careful we could all too easily find that our attempts to heal the perceived gulf between earth and spirit could just add to the flames of long-standing conflicts.

I’m convinced it doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, properly approached, a "spirituality of the earth" could show us how to heal more than just our relationship to the earth. It could heal our relationship with each other.

But if history is any guide, we won’t get to this happy outcome by blindly stumbling into the minefield. We need to take a closer look at why spirituality is so contentious, and how we might avoid some age-old pitfalls.


As disappointing as it is, we really shouldn’t be so surprised that so much disagreement surrounds spirituality. If you peel away the particular concepts that various cultures and groups have about what is "spiritual" and look at the way the term is used around the world, what you find is that it universally describes two characteristics or qualities:

On the one hand, something spiritual is beyond the range of common perception. "Spiritual" is always the realm of the mysterious, of beliefs and experiences at the edge of our understanding. So spirituality is precisely that territory where we cannot use our normal senses to settle disputes.

At the same time, we humans want desperately to make sense of our world and our lives in a way that requires more than just what our normal senses tell us. We want to know why, we want to know the meaning of all that seems so unexplainable in our lives, and we want a way to relate to the mysteriousness that always surpasses our best efforts at understanding. So we attempt to push the limits of our understanding, and in the process we create and/or discover (depending on your point of view) what we call spiritual meaning.

Thus mystery and meaning are the twin dimensions we associate with "spirit." It is a powerful but difficult marriage. For example, given the origin of "spiritual meaning" on the frontiers of our understanding, is it any surprise that different people and different traditions disagree? Given that these meanings are so central to our lives and yet so hard to "prove," is it any surprise that the frustration and fear aroused by disagreements often lead to conflict and violence?

Equally important, mystery and meaning often pull us in different directions, even appealing to different personalities. There are those for whom the mysteriousness of spirit is an invitation to explore and experience, who want to go beyond the limits of the conventional and discover for themselves all that the realm of spirit has to offer. Let me call these the explorers.

On the other hand, there are those whose strong desire is for order and meaning and who want that order blessed by a suprahuman power. They are awed by the mystery of spirit and grateful that the powers of the spiritual realms have sent messengers to translate the laws of spirit into forms that mortals can understand. They want to show their gratitude by upholding these laws. Let me call these people the moralists.

I have, of course, painted extremes, but in varying mixtures there is some of both in each of us. It is easy for me to believe that both tendencies can make a positive contribution to the richness of our spirituality. Indeed, most spiritual traditions would insist that deep and genuine spiritual experience requires a profound morality, and likewise that a genuine morality can only grow out of deep spiritual experience.

Unfortunately, this integration has been more often preached than practiced – and more often condemned than anything. Historically, there have been frequent mistrust and conflict between explorers and moralists. The explorers, who want the freedom to chart their own path, chafe at the restrictions imposed on them by the moralists. The moralists, in spite of their appreciation of the results of past explorations, are nervous about what present-day explorers might bring back.


In this struggle, both sides cite the behavior of extreme representatives of the other side to justify their caution, mistrust, and all too often their own extremism. Consider, for example, what happens when morality is cut off from its roots in genuine spiritual exper-ience, when it denies itself the freedom to discover the freshness of these roots first hand. Instead of springing naturally from within, it hardens into an imposed set of rules. Cut off from the richness of experience, it loses subtlety and flexibility. In its attempt to maintain order, it centralizes power in the hands of a "trustworthy" few. In its attempt to shield itself from disquieting experience, it does all it can to suppress feedback within its realm, thus providing fertile soil for the misuse of the power it has centralized.

The Soviet Bloc provides an instructive example. You may not think of Communism as a "spiritual" movement, but Marxism-Leninism, with its radical view of equality and sharing, springs directly out of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition (even though both parent and child usually deny the lineage). The ideal that Marxism-Leninism claimed to be striving towards was a remade humanity that would be concerned only about the good of the whole, that would have completely transcended the "sins" of selfishness and individualism. To reach this goal Soviet leaders felt they had to completely control the thinking, and especially the morality, within the society. Their attacks on both religion and independent thinking were an attempt to maintain an unchallenged moral authority.

Today we are all getting to see the results. Not only has it simply not worked, but the immorality bred by what began as a moral crusade is mind-boggling, ranging from the dramatic horror of the millions killed in Stalin’s purges to the quiet degradation of a whole society trapped in a life of lies.

Are these problems unique to Communism? Hardly. From today’s Iranian fundamentalism and TV evangelist Jim Bakker to scores of historical examples, morality that attempts to suppress the freedom of exploration has uniformly led to evil results.

But what about the other side? What happens when exploration becomes divorced from morality? Morality, at its base, rests on a sense of connection, a sense that others have an importance comparable to your own. Folklore is full of stories about what happens when the urge to explore, to experience, breaks free of human connection. At its more innocent it leads to narcissism; in its darker modes it leads to bad bargains with the devil.

We shouldn’t, however, lull ourselves into thinking that this is only a trap for misguided sorcerers. Western, and especially American, consumerism is heavily weighted toward the Faustian idea that you can buy those tantalizing and meaning-giving experiences – love, success, health, adventure and even mystery – so seductively hinted at through the Mesphistopheles of advertising. The soothing voice assures you that you only need to be concerned about paying the price (and that’s easy – no down payment, no payments for 3 months…). Everything else will be taken care of for you. You are responsible for nothing. Never mind that (whether by design or accident) the growth of commercially driven consumerism has paralleled the decline of community, the decline of human connection, the decline of concern for children and the future, the decline of environmental quality – in short, the decline of morality.


Fortunately both East and West are awakening to the need to get their houses in order. Common to that awakening is the growing concern about the world’s natural environment – the realization that we can’t just take it for granted. And as we turn our attention back to the natural world, many are discovering that the earth with its fragile living skin is more than just a "resource." From the intricacies of the smallest bacteria to the dance of the drifting continental plates, it is awe inspiring. Indeed, for most people, encounters with the natural world are their most direct route to experiences that I would describe as spiritual.

At the same time, if our encounter with the environment is teaching us anything, it is teaching us about the interconnectedness of all things. It is teaching us lessons in practical morality.

Thus for most people, rediscovering the connections between earth and spirit provides a common ground in which mystery and meaning meet, and meet in mutual support rather than conflict. For it is through our sense of connection that we become open to experiencing the presence of the spirit in and through nature, and it is through experiencing that presence that the profundity of our connections become real to us.

We have the opportunity to learn much about this kind of relationship to the earth from indigenous peoples whose cultures are still connected to the earth and whose spirituality honors the integration of mystery and meaning. If we can further integrate their timeless human wisdom with the positive fruits of modern exploration – in the sciences and in individual consciousness – then this rediscovery could be a great blessing.


But we’re not out of the minefield yet. Rather than a great healing, our attempts to establish a fresh spiritual relationship with the earth could plunge us into a four-way conflict – a mad tangle of traditional moralist, individualistic consumer, eco-spirit explorer, and eco-moralist.

Old conflicts die hard. The western religious tradition fought for centuries to suppress the nature-based religions of tribal Europe. This battle left us a legacy of human-centered and anti-nature bias within the Christian tradition. Because of this, any attempt to experience the spiritual side of nature is quickly condemned by Christian traditionalists as pagan and evil. The tradition of St. Francis, who could sing to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, is forgotten or denied.

In reaction, some who are now most actively pursuing the experiential spirituality of the earth have sought to cut themselves off as much as possible from the western religious tradition, exacerbating the division into hostile spiritual camps, fulfilling the stereotypes of the traditional moralists, and making it that much more difficult to develop a common honoring of the earth.

Meanwhile, some pro-nature moralists, in their frustration with the destruction being wrought by individualistic consumers, have developed an anti-human bias – a kind of self-hatred that makes constructive action difficult and cooperation with other points of view almost impossible. Even among those who aren’t quite anti-human, it is fashionable to be at least anti-technology. Yet technology is simply "embodied human learning." Its misuse is a symptom of warped priorities. If, instead of dealing with those priorities at their spiritual base, an attempt is made at a blanket suppression of technological innovation, it would probably be as disastrous as the 70-year experiment with Communism.

All these camps have their loud proponents. Yet these battles are all just new variations on old themes. As long as we are stuck with no other choices we are likely to repeat the same old patterns of social and ecological disaster. The real challenge we face is not to decide which camp to join but rather to respond in a much more profoundly radical way.

My prayer then is that we will understand and embrace the wonderful opportunity that is before us. I pray that we will use our reawakening sense of the spirituality of the earth not for a four-way fight, but for a four-way healing – a reconciliation among explorer and moralist, human and nature. This issue is dedicated to such a reconciliation.

The Spiritual Culture Of Religion

by Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne

When we speak of religion, it is very important that we make a clear distinction between religion in its outer form and in its inner content. Most people attach themselves to the outer form of religion, with its traditions, customs, and practices. We may even call this outer form the material culture of religion. On the other hand, the inner content of religion consists of qualities such as respect for life, compassion, contentment, forgiveness, and peace. This inner content of religion may be called the spiritual culture of religion.

When followers of religion give more importance to their external form or the material culture, conflicts are bound to arise. Therefore the inner content loses its vitality and religion becomes another factor that divides human beings into conflicting groups. History abounds with instances of such conflicts, which have led to violence, misery, and destruction of human lives….

Religion devoid of its spiritual content is sometimes worse than any other materialistic ideology that divides human beings, leading to violence and destruction. It is not possible to bring about any worthwhile and sustainable unity and cooperation among religions unless the spiritual content of religions is given more importance. In other words, the most critical challenge of our times is the awakening of spirituality.

Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne is the founder of Sarvodaya Shramadana, the Sri Lankan people’s development movement. This selection is excerpted from Earth Conference One by Anuradha Vittachi. © 1989 by the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., PO Box 308, Boston, MA 02117.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!