The pursuit of greed at the cost of destroyed ecosystems is not worth it. This is the simple truth global society has had to face since at least the 1970s when Limits to Growth was published. The ecological news captured the imagination of the world in that decade that saw the first Earth Day, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the rise of the environmental non-profits. Last week we looked at David Bowie’s song Five Years to get a sense of the emotional reaction that went along with the “terrible news.”
It is important to acknowledge the emotional factors inseparably linked to the ecological data. Since the 70s the trickle of terrible news has become a torrent. It has played a role in the social developments we have seen since that is hard to underestimate; we have been running away, terrified. The United States recoiled from Jimmy Carter’s sweater message from the Oval Office that it had an oil problem straight into Ronald Regan’s Great America. We then fascinated ourselves with the virtual reality of our high tech, frittering away precious years of opportunity, only to come around full circle and be talking in this election about making America great again.
Now, of course, it is late in the day. Another bit of evidence that this is true, to add to the mountain of it already gathered, came out last week from the United Nations. The State of Food and Agriculture 2016 Report studied the probable food crisis heading our way due to climate change and the need to reform our agricultural sector. Same reforms we knew we needed half a century ago.
The psychological price we pay for denying the ecological facts is a war on our children; taking their land is also taking their hearts. This is something that the Native American’s understood but was lost. Another bit of evidence that this is true, to add to the mountain of it already gathered, is Amanda Ripley’s How America Outlawed Adolescence report in November’s Atlantic. Remember the 16 year old girl thrown from her desk by the school police officer on the video that went viral? Amanda investigated. She found that 22 states have now passed laws that make predictable adolescent behavior illegal.
Running away we have run into a wall. Ecology is the black death of our times, tearing away our hope for the future and replacing it with a dark shroud. It is also like the Lisbon earthquake in that it has made us question our worth, our god, the power of evil and the power of good. These are religious questions.
Socially, it sometimes seems to me, there are two faces to religion. One face is the positive one in which the stories and symbolism nurture what is best in us and aid us in our difficult journey to maturity. Religion increases our compassion for one another. Western religious tradition, particularly in its Evangelical form, has earned a reputation for being there when a personal conversion experience takes place. More than a century ago William James wrote about these powerful, life changing psychological-spiritual encounters with conscience in The Varieties of Religious Experience. Group hysteria aside, the sacred has helped many, many people through very troubling times and brought true peace of mind and healing to some who were suffering in the deepest, darkest nights of the human soul. The angry atheists, in my opinion, do not give this aspect of religious life sufficient weight when they rightly condemn its dark side.
On the other hand, it is remarkable to me that the Evangelical population of the United States has thrown in with Donald Trump this election. They reason because the Supreme Court appointments are up for grabs and because he takes the pro-life stance, they have to vote for him. It is hard to imagine a less Christ-like character than the one portrayed throughout the many years The Apprentice was on the air. In my opinion this is a sign of seriously confused religious impulses.
This dark side is the second face religion shows a society. Then it is little more than a dangerous patriarchy, that thinks it owns women and children, writ large. The gods become little more than the final, ultimate stick by which to bully people. It is not called the bully pulpit for nothing. Threats of hell are the ultimate threats. What else could strike fear into the heart more than the idea that you will suffer physical and emotional torture for eternity? The very concept of hell is the most cruel invention the cognitive mind has ever conceived. As such it is the best barometer of someone’s compassion; who do they assign to hell? Hell is used to persuade people that the preacher’s bill of goods must be purchased, that the preacher’s intellectual philosophy must be adopted, that the preacher’s set of social and ethical opinions must be accepted as the final truth. Or else.
People acting from a place of fear do not make the best judgments.
Hell is also the image that captures the horror and pain of our suffering. Suffering seems to go on forever, that is one of its characteristics. The Buddhists have hells too. Each is described in graphic detail, providing plenty of images by which the emotions encountered along the contemplative path might be given flesh. Each and every life in these Buddhists hells is said to go on for eons, or multiples of. This is one of those mythic areas that seem so odd to Western sensibilities that are used to the island-earth universe only 4,000 years old. The point of the Eastern teachings, I think, is the same one about impermanence that is always the Buddhist observation. Each of those hell realm lives do come to an end; there is no eternal damnation. I think that defuses the stick the unscrupulous are using in their bully pulpits.
We are making a hell on earth. It is right in front of our eyes but we cannot see it because our fear shrouds our perceptions. It is not fear that is the problem, that is a survival signal. It is that we fear the wrong things. We fear images of the mythological imagination divorced from their intellectual and emotional moorings. Re-rooted the images can train fear and strengthen reason, but that requires the courage to walk into the hell our imaginations have conjured up. Don’t fear to face the gods acting like scarecrows. We gain this courage by trusting that whatever reality lies behind our hellish images, it is a reality we cannot ever be truly separated from. We fear ghosts. We do not fear poisoning our ground water. We are very confused.
Churches mark the coming and going of the stages of life. This is their role in our society. This remains true even today when most people are married and buried. Traditionally churches kept the village records of just such things. Why? Because this is where the reality of human lives takes place and this is the referent for all those sacred stories. The church graveyard teaches the human animal as much as the church altar. The stories are not there to point us to some far away place over the rainbow where things are more real and true than they are right here and now. No, the meaning of the stories is what counts. The meaning is carved into our flesh.
This being the case, when a culture’s stories fail them, when they are no longer able to capture the truth of the lives being lived, people are without guidance. A search for meaning becomes desperate as a sickness of soul spreads. As this process progresses the society’s stabilizing features weaken until a collapse of business as usual takes place. One could say that the search for a new story is taking place but, at least for me, that minimizes the experience. The way we experience this is by dissecting the previous story intellectually. It is exactly what we are doing right here. The fact that I find it easy to do this type of analysis of the Christian tradition’s cultural effects is itself a sign that the story is no longer speaking effectively to the needs of our time.
You have a chance to work directly with these stories that are morphing into something new in our times. It is not helpful to simply allow them to absorb your individuality; dehumanization through cult membership is not the goal. It is not helpful to simply ignore them as impractical concerns in a world of hard nosed business; they hold necessary ingredients of your individuality if it is to resist dehumanization through persuaders pushing fear buttons. To join the work of dreaming these stories forward you will need to engage them in whatever fashion you can in order for them to speak meaningfully in your own life.
Engaging the search for the very best understanding of ourselves in a time of ecological crisis cannot ignore what we have learned about the role of reason and mythology in the workings of the human soul. This is a time of science. Neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology are profoundly relevant to the crisis we find ourselves in. The apocalyptic symbols are constellated in the collective mind just now because what we are involved in while wrestling with our ecological crisis is also a spiritual crisis.
A spiritual crisis is one in which the inversion of our mythological tales overcomes their upright meanings, as it were. Put plainly – we are sorely tempted to write ourselves into the role of the villain. We are sorely tempted to blame our rabid exploitation of fossil fuel’s highly concentrated energy source on our moral nature having an irredeemable flaw, instead of accepting it as an inevitable outcome for an animal as clever and curious as ourselves. Yeast overshoot given the chance. Humans do to. The question is to what degree will we be able to incorporate this new knowledge about ourselves? Will it make us wiser or will it destroy us? The moral position is a non-starter: judge and jury has passed sentence as soon as the premises are accepted. A natural position grounded in ecology holds out the hope that we might retain our compassion under pressure.