Facts – even scary facts, about rising temperatures, extreme weather and a changing climate – tend not to move us emotionally.
For this reason, Karen Armstrong, British best-selling author, researcher, former nun and three-time guest of Talking Volumes, has taken a different approach, drawing from her extensive research on the history of religion and nature. She wants readers to change their beliefs – to take a new leap of faith.
In her latest book, Sacred Nature: Reclaiming Our Ancient Relationship to the Natural World, Armstrong sets out to show how the practices and teachings of past faith–from the ideas of Confucian philosophers to the poems of William Wordsworth, and from the Jains’ empathy for all sentient beings to the words of a Muslim mystic–may help today Rebuilding respect for and connection to the natural world and eliminating apathy and inaction. Armstrong urges readers to see God not as a god in heaven but as an “indescribable but dynamic inner presence that flows through all things.”
Armstrong, who will be at the Fitzgerald Theater on September 14, recently spoke about the golden rule, why “sacred nature” hasn’t turned into one of the “monster books” and why she likes to sit and watch a tree outside her study in London.
Q: Why this book now? Is climate change making it urgent for you?
A: Climate change was there, but I initially expected it to be one of my long, great, monsters and megabooks. I did a lot of research and then discussed this on Zoom with all the publishers.
Both my agents and publishers said, “Look, keep this short. Because people don’t need to be afraid of this book. People need to read it now. Climate change is getting worse every day. We’re heading toward catastrophe. This is a needed book nowadays.”
Then I sat down and wrote this much shorter, faster book. I might write a longer one later… [In researching] The history of religion and nature found an extraordinary consensus among them all. If you think of the way the Chinese and the Indians, at about the same time, are separated by thousands of miles without contact with each other, they both came up with a very similar idea of a god, and not a god in heaven, as we have in the West, [but] As a force, a sacred force that permeates nature, and keeps us going, constantly oscillates.
Q: How does this contrast with the West?
A: In both Judaism and Christianity, the focus was not on nature, but rather on events in history, such as the Great Exodus from Egypt, or the life of Jesus that was somehow separated from us. she was [Francis] Bacon, who says in the seventeenth century, it is now time for us in Europe, who have begun to subdue nature, to do what God commanded Adam to do in Genesis, where he says “Take the earth and subdue it.”
Q: In each chapter, you include a section called The Way Forward, which provides actionable suggestions for reflection or practice. Why was this important?
A: Our situation is very urgent. We hear about all these horrific things, but our language is very scientific. Don’t move us emotionally. And we’re still going, driving our cars and flying everywhere, even though we know it’s bad for the environment and we can’t afford to do these things. We have to change people’s opinions and teach them step by step, to look at nature in a different way, because we do not look at nature these days. You see people in a nice place just taking pictures or endlessly chatting on their phones. I also see it in the British Museum, where I am often involved. Instead of standing in front of something like the Rosetta Stone and saying, “Wow, that’s the Rosetta Stone,” you know, they take pictures of it and pass it along. So there is a distance. We prefer a virtual version of nature over nature itself.
Q: How can these small steps make a difference?
A: We can only do this through practice. We will not suddenly wake up one morning and see the world wonderful, because it is outside our way of thinking. We wouldn’t really be inspired to try to sacrifice some of the activities we take for granted unless we feel some intense affection for nature. We have to start from scratch. We can’t say, “Well, from this day forward, I’m going to appreciate nature.” Because we don’t work that way.
The idea was to incorporate simple day-to-day practices, like the Chinese [neo Confucianists] she did. They called it “quiet sitting”, where you just sit and watch nature. Turn off your phones. Sit for 10 minutes a day to get started and look at the birds and the activities going on.
In my studies, in front of me is a wonderful tree. Sometimes I just spend 10 minutes looking at that tree, because it’s constantly changing color. You see all creatures in and out of it. It clearly has a life of its own, and there is no relation or resemblance to our consciousness or our life, but it has a life of its own. It turns green in summer and slowly wilts in winter, and the sap sinks into the ground. The natural world outside of us is teeming with life that we ignore, but which we destroy day in and day out.
Q: I really enjoyed the section on the history of the Golden Rule. When my daughter’s kindergarten teacher taught this to her class, she came home talking about it, and it was easy for her to understand. How did it become part of so many religious traditions, and how can it guide us now?
A: It has evolved in every major world religion. Beginning with Confucius in China in the sixth century. And put it this way. He said: Do not impose on others what you do not want.
This requires you to transcend your selfishness and preoccupation with self, which we all have, to look into your heart, find out what is causing you pain, and then refuse under any circumstances to inflict that pain on anyone else. Do not impose on others what you do not want yourself.
Confucius said you don’t only do it when you feel like it. or sometimes. He says, every day and every day. Every day and every day. And this, I believe, is necessary for the health of human society.
Two hundred years after Confucius, the great Confucian Mencius said this must now also be applied to nature, for what he called wanwu, the “ten thousand things” found in nature. The myriad things that make up nature. They are our comrades. We must treat them as carefully as we treat each other.
Q: Have you found that some readers respond to the ideas in your book defensively?
A: Not yet. There may be a lot of Trump-like people who think all this is nonsense. And I have absolutely no intention of changing their behavior. The most urgent thing for the rest of us, who can see what’s going on, is to get people to change.
It’s the early days. Perhaps because Christianity, at least in America, is the main religion there and does not emphasize nature much, they may feel it is virtuous to ignore it. But it really isn’t. Even if I say that God created the world, it would be very ungrateful of us to screw it up.
Excerpt from “The Sacred Nature” by Karen Armstrong
While it is necessary to cut carbon emissions and heed the warnings of scientists, we need to learn not only how to act differently but also how to think differently about the natural world. We need to restore the veneration of nature that humans have carefully cultivated for thousands of years; If we fail to do so, our interest in the natural environment will remain superficial. But this does not have to be an insurmountable task, because despite our careless and destructive behaviour, we have not completely lost our love for nature. Our poets continue to extol the beauty and mystery of the natural world, and David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries continue to attract huge audiences. People flock to the sea for holidays, walk in the woods or in the parks on the weekends – a return to pleasant nature and renewal at the same time. Even in our big polluted cities, people cherish their garden, a little oasis of nature in the urban desert. We must consciously develop this remnant of our essential connection to nature in our struggle to save the planet. It is essential not only to our well-being but to our humanity.
This will require imagination and effort. It is critical that we act differently not only when we feel like it, but all the time. Here the religious practices and teachings of the past have a lot to offer. They can help us develop an aesthetic appreciation for nature and devise an ethical program that guides our behavior and thoughts. We must revive the veneration of the natural world that has always been essential to human nature but has become marginal.
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Talk folders It is a literary collaboration between the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio that brings prominent authors to the Twin Cities for a live interview, subsequently broadcast on MPR, accompanied by in-depth stories about the book in the Star Tribune. Get tickets here.
Upcoming authors Include: Celeste Ng, 7 p.m. Oct. 26. Danny Shapiro, 7 p.m. Oct. 28: Ross Jay, 7 p.m. Nov. 2.