Nature and Spirituality in Western Thought

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

While traditions of Eastern thought have found spirituality in both nature and man, major traditions of Western thought have treated spirituality as something that is separate from the physical world. Not only has man been made separate from all the other things in nature, man himself has been made into a being whose spirit is separate from his body. The clearest expression of this idea is found in the words of the Apostle Paul: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary to the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians, 5:17). This idea that spirit and body are separate entities would evolve into the main tenet of Judeo-Christian thought, although the Judeo-Christian tradition has had its share of mystics, like St. Francis of Assisi, who proclaimed the basic oneness of man and nature. It is indeed a somewhat vulgarized version of the Judeo-Christian tradition that has been responsible for transforming nature, as some historians such as Lynn White pointed out, into an entity that needs to be managed and controlled by human beings.1

The scientific tradition of the West, which began with Thales, has also perpetuated the dualistic view of mind and body found in the mainstream Judeo-Christian thought. The famous statement that is ascribed to him, “Everything is made up of water,” was Thales’ answer to the question: “What is the world made of?” While it is not clear what Thales exactly meant by “water”, Thales’ attempt was significant for at least two reasons: First, his was an attempt to develop a “material” explanation of the world, as opposed to a “spiritual” explanation which looks for some sort of animistic spirits behind material phenomena. His was also an attempt to understand the world by the power of human reasoning and not by divine inspiration. As such, it was a clear expression of the idea that the world is comprehensible to the human mind, that the world is an intelligent entity and not some kind of mysterious entity. It was Descartes who would reformulate this idea as the laws of scientific inquiry, thus becoming a pioneer in the development of modern science.

The fact that Paul the apostle and Descartes the scientist expressed similar ideas attests to the dominance of the mind-body duality in the West. As a matter of fact, the West had to wait until the eighteenth century before nature was turned into an object of spiritual experience in the hands of landscape painters and Romantic poets. The rise of worship of nature in the eighteenth century, as Kenneth Clark points out, had to do with the decline of the influence of Christianity: “For almost a thousand years the chief creative force in western civilisation was Christianity. Then, in about 1725, it suddenly declined and in intellectual society practically disappeared. People couldn’t get on without a belief in something outside themselves, and during the next hundred years they concocted a new belief which, however irrational it may seem to us, has added a great deal to our civilisation: a belief in the divinity of nature”.2

A belief in the divinity of nature was turned into a world view in the hands of Romantic painters and poets such as Gainsborough, Constable, Turner, Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth in England and Rousseau, Schiller and Goethe on the Continent. What these Romantic artists and thinkers realized was that nature—and everything in it—is spirituality itself. Wordsworth captures most beautifully the basic oneness of nature and everything in it in his “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, in which he speaks about a “presence”: Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,/ And the round ocean and the living air,/ And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

While Romantic artists and thinkers were developing a worship of nature, eighteenth-century scientists were increasingly turning their attention from stars and planets to plants and animals in the natural environment. One example of this heightened interest in nature was Linnaeus who coined the term “natural economy” to describe the natural world as a vast mechanism containing plants and animals performing their specific functions based on the principle of specialization which was not unlike Adam Smith’s “division of labor”. From this, it was only a matter of time before Darwin reduced man to a mere species that ekes out its existence in nature in its struggle for life along with all other species. It was only a natural progression of ideas that the science of “ecology” would come into being in the nineteenth century, the term introduced by Ernst Haeckel in 1866.

It was, however, in the 1960s that the scientific community in general started to embrace an ecological view of the world intuitively grasped by Romantic artists and thinkers, and intellectually expounded by these pioneering biologists and ecologists. It is easy to explain this general lack of interest in ecology until the 1960s because it was only then that people in the West were confronted with vivid evidence of the ecological degradation brought about by their pursuit of economic progress. Rachel Carson was arguably the first scientist who recognized the fundamental defect in the world view of Western science that had led to the degradation of the natural environment and explicitly stated the need for a paradigm shift in science: “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man”.3 Carson, with her pioneering insight, thus ushered in the age of ecological awareness not only by the scientific community but also by the general public.

In the meantime, the science of psychology, which saw its birth at the turn of the twentieth century, was responsible for bringing spirituality into the realm of scientific inquiry by probing the depth of the human psyche. Jung, in particular, clearly recognized that the traditional Western conception of self was the chief reason why nature and spirituality had been treated as separate entities, instead of treating them in what he termed “psychic reality”4.

The original oneness in psychic reality, which Jung points out, would later be taken up again by the proponents of the philosophy of Deep Ecology who developed the concept of the “ecological self”. Although mention should be made of the writings of Spinoza, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Alan Watts for their influence in the formation of the philosophy of Deep Ecology, it was Arne Naess who gave the clearest expression of Deep Ecology. In fact, Naess sees in the ecological self hope for a non-anthropocentric environmental ethic which is to be found in Eastern thought: “If reality is as it is experienced by the ecological self, our behavior naturally and beautifully follows strict norms of environmental ethics”5 With the emergence of Deep Ecology, with its explicit recognition of spirituality that we share with all other things in nature, the traditions of Eastern and Western thought finally began to converge, ushering in the age of environmental concern and movement that we observe in the world today.

  1. White, Lynn, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Science 155 (10), March 1967.
  2. Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation, New York: Anchor Books, 1969, p. 269.
  3. Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962, p. 297.
  4. See, for example, Jung, Carl G., Psychology and Religion, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
  5. Naess, in Sessions, Sessions, George (ed.), Deep Ecology for the 21st Century, Boston: Shambhala, 1995, p. 236.