Just Say No To Transcendence

This essay attempts to answer Prince Charles’ query as to “…what it is about our society and its values that has led us to act with thoughtless destructiveness,” posed in his speech given when he received Harvard Medical School’s Health and the Global Environment Award. The text of the entire speech can be found at http://www.princeofwales.gov.uk/

Recently, Britain’s Prince Charles was given Harvard Medical School’s Health and the Global Environment Award. Luckily for me, C-Span covered the event and so I got to hear the Prince’s acceptance speech, which I thought was brilliant. In case you missed it, here are the paragraphs which I thought were the best, followed by my own thoughts on the topic of the root causes of environmental degradation and the perilous situation we find ourselves in.

But if the facts [surrounding the environmental crisis] are now so clear … it is surely the duty of each and every one of us to find out what we can do to make the situation better. However, if we are to do this, I think we need first to stop and ask how we could have allowed ourselves to reach this point in the first place? In my own attempts to draw attention to environmental issues, I have always tried to ask what it is about our society and its values that has led us to act with such thoughtless destructiveness. With all our knowledge, our resources and our capacity for sophisticated analysis of any and every problem known to man, how on earth did we arrive at this point? If we could answer that question, we could be more confident about our ability to look for and implement solutions before it really is too late.

The crux of the problem, I believe, is that we have come to see ourselves as being outside of Nature and free to manipulate and control her constituent parts, imagining somehow that the whole will not suffer and can take care of itself, and of us, whatever we do. I happen to think that this illusion of separateness conceals from us the degree to which we are still entirely dependent on those natural systems for our basic needs, notwithstanding our technological genius. Surely, if we are to find our way through to a wiser, more balanced future we must learn to see the world differently – and our role in it? To me, this is a ‘crisis of perception’ which we have to face up to. If we don’t, we will inevitably end up making all the same mistakes, all over again.

As the Prince says, how on earth did we arrive at this point? Where did we get this image of ourselves as being separate from and outside of nature? And why, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, do we continue to see ourselves that way?

I asked myself these same questions about ten years ago. For me it seemed to boil down to a question of values – why did we devalue nature and overvalue humanity? Since I have always associated values with religion, I thought religion would be the logical place to look for answers. In 1997, I entered Vanderbilt Divinity School to study Christianity’s role, if any, in influencing our attitudes toward Nature. In 2000, I graduated, convinced that I had identified the culprit. And, I would like to share my insights into this matter with you.

I believe that values arise from our understanding of reality and how to survive in it. We value those behaviors and ways of being in the world which create a successful, life-promoting, and life- affirming social structure – behaviors and ways of being in the world that promote survival on an individual and a social level. These values differ from region to region and from culture to culture, as they should – what promotes survival within an Eskimo, seal-hunting culture differs radically from what promotes survival within an African culture which depends on the blood of its cattle for life. Religions incorporate these beliefs into powerful symbols which represent the ultimate good (“the way, the truth, and the life”). These most powerful symbols are called gods. That is, the qualities a culture values the most – and which a culture understands as having the most power — are carried by the image of their god(s) or goddess (es). Religions flesh out these symbols with religious myth (such as Genesis), and in direct teachings (such as the Ten Commandments).

Those religions which have the “best take” on social and physical reality at a given time and place provide the underpinnings for the most successful societies. Once a religious value system proves successful and takes hold, it not only reflects reality, it creates reality – that is, it tells its adherents what reality is in terms of who they are, what their position in the world is, and how best to live and survive. Therefore, the term “creation story” has a double meaning: it tells the story of how a people at a particular time and place think reality was created; and it creates the collective psychological reality necessary in order for a society to survive and flourish.

As long as the perception of reality (social, cultural, physical) remains more or less the same as it was when the value system came into being, the religion remains true and provides sound advice and practical models for existence; but when reality as perceived by the ordinary person begins to differ significantly from the model of reality provided by the institution of religion, it is time for a re-evaluation. I believe that is where we are today. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Between 2000 and 3000 years ago in the Ancient Near East, the perception of reality went through a major shift – evolving from the monistic approach of nature-centered paganism, where nothing, not even gods and goddesses exist outside of nature, to a dualistic world view which split heaven from earth, man from nature, mind from body and god from creation. A significant characteristic of this dualistic worldview is that it overvalued one term of any given pair at the expense of the other. Christianity incorporated this worldview into its symbol for ultimate value – the transcendent God, with the result that Christians and Christian cultures value the transcendent over the immanent, the supernatural over the natural, the metaphysical over the physical. But what exactly does this mean in real life?

This dualistic world view arose at a time when the intellectual and religious movers and shakers were aflame with the exciting possibilities held out by the power of the human intellect. The confluence of Hellenic/Hebraic thought resulted in the philosophical movement which we know as humanism, glorifying man, and a transcendent patriarchal monotheism, glorifying a god made in man’s image. They were especially inspired and impressed by the power of the human intellect not only to understand the laws of nature, but also to use this understanding to create technologies which would give men power over nature and other men.

This discovery of the power of the human intellect resulted in a revolutionary worldview which saw human life as wholly independent of nature, and dependent on man’s power over nature, dependent on powerful men. Intellect, the mind, thought, power etc. were separated out from and elevated above the physical world – abstracted and idealized — and human beings sought to identify with their transcendent minds, not their “animal” bodies. Thus, the chasm between spirit and matter, mind and body, human and nature was opened. Ever since, adherents of patriarchal monotheism and humanistic philosophers have focused on elevating Man at the expense of Nature. This new understanding of the survival equation (a disembodied human intellect acting on physical nature = life) became encoded in the JudeoChristian symbol of the transcendent God – who is often revealingly referred to in theological texts as Mind, Logos, and the Word. To make sure its followers got the message, Christianity taught – and teaches — that human beings are made in the image of this transcendent God and that all of nature exists to serve humanity. So, in answer to Prince Charles’s musings on what is it about our society which leads us to act with such thoughtless destructiveness, I would answer the very high value we place on the idea of transcendence – especially as symbolized by the Christian God.

Living in a Christian culture – a culture shaped by Christian values — we have deluded ourselves into believing that we truly are separate from – and outside – nature, that we are transcendent beings. These images of transcendence have invaded our psyches and infected our brains. The more money we have, the more power we have, the more knowledge we have, the more transcendent we are. We seek to rise ever higher with the most sought after offices at the tip top of the highest buildings, with the most miles spent in the air. If we are at earth-level, we seek to wall ourselves off by paving over every vestige of dirt, every blade of grass. Western culture has constructed a reality made up of Man and Nature – not humanity in nature.

Along with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we stand in awe of ourselves, exclaiming, “What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason….” Who wouldn’t want to believe they were members of a species so special –so set apart? Who wouldn’t be seduced by these images of transcendence – especially given the evidence of human power – enhanced as it is by technology? Therefore, to the Prince’s query: How on earth did we arrive at this point? I would answer: On the wings of a transcendent Christianity which lifted us out of nature and convinced us we were no longer subject to nature’s laws. (Which is why death comes as such a shock.)

Today, however, our reality, along with our climate, is changing, and we are learning to our sorrow that we cannot discount nature. But a worldview which has been in place for 2-3000 years does not go away overnight. I fear it will take the heat of global warming to melt the wax of our delusional wings in order to bring us crashing back to earth — and a truer perception of the reality we live in. Let’s hope it will not be too late and the whole human species does not share the fate of Icarus.

I think it is very inspiring, and I take it as a hopeful sign, that the Prince of Wales, arguably one of the most “set apart” beings on the planet… so transcendent that he is properly addressed as “Your High-ness”, could understand and articulate this, our current, human condition — and the problem of transcendence — so clearly. But considering the fact that he raised the issue and has devoted his life to environmental concerns, also consider how difficult it would be for him, the future head of the Anglican Church, to point the finger at Christianity. For that matter, consider how difficult it would be for his fellow award recipient, Al Gore, to publicly recognize the destructive influence of Christianity on the environment. Could any political leader in this country survive denouncing belief in a transcendent God?

And the problem goes deeper. Even if you are not a Christian, I am willing to bet that at a very deep psychological level your image of yourself and the rest of your fellow human travelers on this planet is one that assumes a separation from, superiority to, and control of nature. Transcendence is a word with overwhelmingly positive connotations in our culture. The liberal, counterculture, alternative term is spirituality – which also is generally understood in a positive light – except by Richard Dawkins, of course.

But we can break out of this transcendent world view – transcend transcendence. For example, I have become a fan of immanence. Like Alexander Pope, I look for the genius of the place – not outside the place. As I walk the shadowed paths of my farm, I feel privileged to be a part of something so beautiful, so powerful, so complex, so terrifying, so mysterious, so endlessly interesting and entertaining. I have fallen deeply in love with nature. And I ask myself, “Who in her right mind would want to transcend this farm, this planet, this galaxy, this universe?

Not so long ago, I, too, was a devotee of transcendence and spirituality. Listening to Mozart, looking at a Turner, was “a transcendent” experience. Then, for a while, I was no longer religious, but I was spiritual. I had great disdain for this physical world where, as we are taught, moth and dust doth corrupt. But one day I woke up with a start to the consequences of the logical playing out of this belief system: deforestation, filthy water, polluted air, the destruction of other species – and the ultimate extinction of the human life. Today, I find the idea of transcendence frightening and dangerous – and empty. It is like finding out that the pristine water you have been drinking on a daily basis is contaminated with a deadly bacteria.

Transcendence is nothing more than a snare and a delusion – a delusion which we must come to terms with if we are to survive. But given the pervasiveness and the power and the seductiveness of transcendence, can we give up this delusional image of ourselves and of our God to save our species? Can we climb down off our transcendent flagpoles and take our place in nature? Can we learn to see ourselves as another endangered species – but an endangered species which might have the ability to save itself and a number of other species in the process? Can we “just say no” to transcendence?

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