Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Green Politics: The Spiritual Dimension

This lecture was subsequently published as The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics (1986).
In 2021, Mexico City-based publisher Lunaria Ediciones published a Spanish translation  under the title La promesa de una política Verde: Más allá del humanismo, el neoliberalismo y el patriarcado.

Coming of age in the modern era marks a passage into emptiness. At puberty we put aside the ways of childhood, not only the toys and stuffed animals but also our secret and magical sense of the world, our special relationship with the family pet, with the big tree in the backyard, with the old delivery man, and with our favorite grandparents. We had entered preschool shining forth with a very personal cosmology and a numinous sense of the world around us. This we had expressed in totemic finger paintings of smiling suns and lovable animals and later in stories of puppet shows our grade-school teachers encouraged us to create. All this we left behind as we moved anxiously into the adult world through gradual steps during adolescence. We began to pay some attention to the journals and magazines our parents subscribed to and to the news-analysis programs they watched on television. We ceased to tune out their discussions with other grown-ups, and we even tried to listen to the weekly sermons in church—until they became too abstract and boring to hold us. Everywhere we sought clues to the adult worldview that was to replace the childish one we had proudly outgrown.

We discovered that the adult world was brimming over with things to do, both work and diversions. After studying or returning from work, people drove fast cars, went to the movies, cheered at sporting events, watched sitcoms on television, visited amusement parks, and shopped and shopped and shopped. So endlessly varied and attractively marketed were the diversions that many of us moved unquestioningly into the modern world. Others of us gradually realized, with a low level of horror, that there is no inner life in a modern, technological society. We retreated with a disillusionment we could not articulate into private worlds of reading books or making art or, for some, futile acts of rebellion.

In my own life, I rationalized a way out: I would go to a church-oriented university because religion probably held the answer to counter the emptiness of modern society and I had simply missed it since my parents, although Catholic, had sent us to our local college-prep suburban public schools, which were quite good. I matriculated as an optimistic pilgrim at a Jesuit institution, St. Louis University. Any literary historian familiar with the biographies of numerous sensitive writers educated by the Jesuits could have predicted the outcome: I paid my money, received a good education, and lost my faith—in the Catholic Church in particular and Christianity at large. I was not embittered, merely disappointed at what seemed to me to be a spiritual emptiness.

I drifted for a couple of years as an agnostic skeptic, moving in and out of a highly ranked Ph.D. program at a prestigious university that seemed to me devoid of meaning, arriving eventually in India in late 1969. There I searched for spiritual teachings that illuminated the human experience but did not entail guru worship, ritual or other cultural baggage, or the subjugation of women. I found what I was looking for in Buddhist Vipassana (“insight”) meditation, which by the way turns out to be the same kind of meditation practiced by E. F. Schumacher and advocated in his book A Guide for the Perplexed (1977). Sometime later, when I was back in the United States, I became interested in feminist research into pre-Christian cultures in Europe, focusing in my own work on pre-Hellenic mythology. I learned new meanings of ritual by participating in feminist spirituality groups where Nature and the mysteries of creation, our bodies, our feelings, and our transformative powers were honored—in contrast to top-down rituals from some religious institution.

Although my own practice has remained Vipassana meditation, I also study Taoism and Native American spirituality, which turns out to be a bittersweet experience. To explore a philosophy of life as profoundly Nature-based as either of those paths is to realize how very far our society is from comprehending, let alone abiding by, the deepest levels of ecological wisdom. In Hopi Voices by Harold Courlander one encounters, for instance, the frustration of the Hopi man who had been asked too many times to explain how Hopi economics and culture relate to their intimate reverence for Nature: “Almost everything we do is a religious act, from the time we get up to the time we go to sleep. How can the white man ever understand that?”

The Promise of Green Politics

When I began learning about the Green Party of West Germany, I was intrigued by their slogan—“We are neither left nor right; we are in front”—and by their key principles of ecological wisdom, social responsibility, grassroots democracy, nonviolence, decentralization, and postpatriarchal consciousness. But I was most intrigued by the occasional mention in their publications of “the spiritual impoverishment of modern society” or of “an industrialized society.” I thought: “Ah! They have found an antidote—and they have integrated it with the new politics!” This was my main motivation for pushing aside other projects in my life; convincing Fritjof Capra, a holistic friend who is a native speaker of German, to join me; writing a book proposal; studying reams of Green publications; and flying to West Germany in June 1983.

My first interviews were with Green parliamentarians in the Bundestag. I asked questions on the entire range of Green politics, and then near the end I asked each one, “Is there a spiritual dimension to Green politics?” Nearly all of them answered in the affirmative, after which I asked: “How is it manifested? I don’t notice much attention to it.” At that point they would often look down or look out the window and finally explain that because the Nazis manipulated religion, especially a pre-Christian, Nature-based religion (the Nordic myths and “sacred” soil of Germany), it is practically verboten to bring religious impulses into German politics today. In addition, I was told that those German Greens who had come from a Marxist background squelched talk of spiritual values and the feelings of reverence for Nature, which had been prevalent in the Greens’ first campaign, the European Parliament election of June 1979. In short, I learned on my research trip that the spiritual dimension of Green politics is probably never going to come out of West Germany, even though it provides motivation for many German Greens.

While my spiritual quest drew a blank in West Germany, I did learn a great deal about Green politics, and I have since then learned still more through trying to establish Green politics in this country. The core concepts are sustainability and interrelatedness. In fact, one could say that human systems are sustainable to the extent that they reflect interrelatedness: the dynamics of Nature arching and stretching through the cycles of her permutations; the dynamics of humans interacting, deftly or brutally, with the rest of Nature; the dynamics of the person interacting with a system and that system with others. This is why the Greens have such slogans as “No investment without a future!” Enterprises that deplete resources in needless quantities when alternatives are feasible are not sustainable over time; neither are businesses that breed alienation and resentment among workers because all control and profit are far removed, whether in a highly centralized socialist government or a gargantuan corporation.

The Green principle of ecological wisdom always occupies the primary position because it means far more than mere environmentalism or saving what’s left. The Greens have in mind deep ecology. Deep ecology encompasses the study of Nature’s subtle web of interrelated processes and the application of that study to our interactions with Nature and among ourselves. Principles of deep ecology are that the well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have inherent value; richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves; and humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs. Human systems may take from Nature lessons concerning interdependence, diversity, openness to change within a system, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to new events or conditions outside our system.

With that model, one can easily guess that Green politics eschews human systems—whether economic, political, or social—that are rigidly constructed around an ideal of tightly centralized control. Instead, Green politics advocates decentralizing political and economic power so that decisions and regulations over money are placed at the smallest scale (the level closest to home) that is efficient and practical. In the area of economics, Green proposals are built on the ideas of E. F. Schumacher (who was often cited as a primary influence by the German Greens during my interviews) and others who advocate locally or regionally oriented enterprises that are employee-owned and operate with workplace democracy. As such, Green politics stands as a distinct alternative to state socialism.

Although Green political movements are taking root in many parts of the world—and not only in industrialized countries—several aspects of the Green vision for society are only in an embryonic stage. Still, enough work has been done at this point that one can speak not only of Green ideas for sustainable economy and sustainable democracy but also of a sustainable world order, sustainable modes of health maintenance, and sustainable education that would teach conflict resolution. It is when we turn to the issue of spiritual matters that we are faced with a huge hole in Green politics: What is sustainable religion?

Beyond Humanism, Modernity, and Patriarchy

Any delineation of spiritual values within the vision of Green politics must reflect three essential elements of the cultural direction in which the movement is growing. First, Green politics rejects the anthropocentric orientation of humanism, a philosophy which posits that humans have the ability to confront and solve the many problems we face by applying human reason and by rearranging the natural world and the interactions of men and women so that human life will prosper. We need only consider the proportions of the environmental crisis today to realize the dangerous self-deception contained in both religious and secular humanism. It is hubris to declare that humans are the central figures of life on earth and that we are in control. In the long run Nature is in control.

Commenting on the delusion of our anthropocentric self-aggrandizement, the biologist Lewis Thomas has written in Phenomenon of Change (a catalogue published by the Cooper-Union National Design Museum, 1984):

Except for us, the life of the planet conducts itself as though it were an immense, coherent body of connected life, an intricate system, an organism. Our deepest folly is the notion that we are in charge of the place, that we own it and can somehow run it. We are a living part of Earth’s life, owned and operated by the Earth, probably specialized for functions on its behalf that we have not yet glimpsed.

In rejecting humanism, Green politics separates itself from much of the “New Age” movement and from Teilhard de Chardin’s thesis that one of our purposes is to “humanize” Nature. Our goal is for human society to operate in a learning mode and to cultivate biocentric wisdom. Such wisdom entails a sophisticated understanding of how the natural world—including us—works.

I disagree with most critics of humanism when they declare that our problem has been too much reliance on “reason” and not enough on emotion. In fact, we have been employing merely a truncated version of reason used in mechanistic culture to focus attention on only the most obvious “figures” in a situation while ignoring the subtle, intricate field around them. In the area of human systems, emotions are always part of the field. If we valued a comprehensive grasp of the context, or gestalt, of various situations, we civilized humans would not have to stumble along ignoring most of the contextual data, arriving at inadequate conclusions, and congratulating ourselves on our powers of “reason.” In Germany I sometimes heard fears that any turn away from rationalist solutions is extremely dangerous because it could lead to the kind of mass manipulation the Nazis employed so successfully. The essential point is that holistic, or ecological, thinking is not a retreat from reason: it is an enlargement of it to more comprehensive and hence more efficient means of analysis.

Second, Green politics goes beyond not only the anthropocentric assumptions of humanism but also the broader constellation of values that constitute modernity. Modern culture is based on mechanistic analysis and control of human systems as well as of Nature, groundless cosmopolitanism, nationalistic chauvinism, sterile secularism, and monoculture shaped by mass media. Some critics of modernity have noted that it consists of revolt against traditional values even to the extent of being “an unyielding rage against the official order,” as Andrew Greely, in No Bigger than Necessary, approvingly cites Daniel Bell approvingly quoting Irving Howe. An enthusiast of modernity has little use for the traditional institutions that further human bonding—the family, the church, community groups, ethnic associations—championing instead an “individual-liberationist stance” (in the words of Harry Boyte and Sara Evans in “Strategies in Search of America: Cultural Radicalism, Populism, and Democratic Culture,” Socialist Review, No. 75/76, May-August 1984).

The values of modernity inform both socialist and capitalist nation-states. It is not surprising that citizens’ resistance networks in socialist countries often find a resonant home in the churches and that both liberal and conservative churches in capitalist countries are rethinking religion’s contemporary role as an inconsequential observer who is to make accommodations to the modern world and not interfere with “progress.”

Most critics of modernity, while unable to suggest a comprehensive alternative, conclude that the transformation of modern society is “going to have something to do with religion.” Whatever the particulars of postmodern culture, it will not signify an uncritical return to the values of the medieval world that immediately preceded the emergence of the modern era or to those of the “Gilded Age” preceding World War I and the aggressive burst of modernism that followed it. The pioneers of modernity were right to reject certain conventions and restrictions that were stultifying to the human spirit. But, with the impulses of a rebellious adolescent, they destroyed too much and embraced a radical disregard for limits, especially concerning the natural world. What we need now is the maturity to value freedom and tradition, the individual and the community, science and Nature, men and women.

The third cultural force that Green politics counters is patriarchal values. In a narrow sense these entail male domination and exploitation of women. But in a broader sense the term “patriarchal culture” in most feminist circles connotes not only injustice toward women but also the accompanying cultural traits: love of hierarchical structure and competition, love of dominance-or-submission modes of relating, alienation from Nature, suppression of empathy and other emotions, and haunting insecurity about all of those matters. These traits usually show up in anyone, male or female, who opts to play by the rules of patriarchal culture. Numerous cultural feminists (as opposed to materialist/socialist feminists) have analyzed the ills of patriarchal culture. One of the best resources is Green Paradise Lost by Elizabeth Dodson Gray.

In recent months I have been reading all the critiques of modernity I could find. Most of those that made it into print are by men, and I must note that “postmodern” seems to be edging out “postpatriarchal” as the blanket term for our evolving stage of transformation. I do not object to that, as it will probably play better in Peoria. I believe those male authors are sincere in including and valuing the feminist critique of contemporary society—and I even came across a male Catholic theologian, Joe Holland, who declared in The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Culture that we live in a “hypermasculinized modern culture.” Imagine my surprise. I must also note, however, that these well intentioned men never seem to notice, while rhapsodizing over the need to return the “feminine symbol” to our notion of deity, that no flesh-and-blood females have been invited to speak on their panels, at their conferences, or in their journals.

It is not when postmodern critics examine the present or the future that feminist insights are missing but, rather, when they analyze the historical roots of modern society. Nearly always they lay blame at the door of the Enlightenment, which bequeathed upon us the mechanistic worldview of Descartes, Bacon, and Newton. This, they maintain, was the beginning of modern perception, before which there was the era of classical or traditional religion (Christian, Jewish, Roman, and Greek), and before that was the tribal era. They are forgetting a little detail: the Neolithic era! We did not leap from the tribal stage into Classical Greek Society. For several thousands of years our Neolithic ancestors lived in agricultural settlements. The archaeology of such settlements in Old Europe has revealed sophisticated art and religious symbols indicating reverence for Mother Earth, the elements, and animals; egalitarian graves; and no fortifications or evidence of warfare before the invasions of the barbarian Indo-European tribes from the Eurasian steppes.

Picture yourself as a witness of that decisive moment in history, that is, as a resident of the peaceful, artful, Goddess-oriented culture in Old Europe. (Don’t think “matriarchy”! It may have been, but no one knows, and that is not the point.) It is 4500 B.C. You are walking along a high ridge, looking out across the plains to the east. In the distance you see a massive wave of horsemen galloping toward your world on strange powerful animals. (The European ancestor of the horse had become extinct.) They brought few women, a chieftain system, and only a primitive stamping technique to impress their two symbols, the sun and a pine tree. They moved in waves first into southeastern Europe, later down into Greece, across all of Europe, also into the Middle and Near East, North Africa and India. They brought a sky god, a warrior cult, and a patriarchal social order.And that is where we live today—in an Indo-European culture, albeit one that is very technologically advanced. I am not suggesting that the pre-Indo-European Neolithic era was perfect, nor that we should attempt to return to it; however, their art and artifacts demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of or interrelatedness with Nature and her cycles. Their honoring of those contextual processes holds lessons for us in sustainability.

Once reverence for the mysteries of the life force was removed from Nature and placed in a remote, judgmental sky god—first Zeus, then Yahweh—it was only a matter of time before the “Great Chain of Being” would place the sky god at the top of the “natural order” and nature at the bottom (trailing just behind white women, white children, people of color, and animals). True, that medieval schema was rather organically conceived, but was it really such a radical break for the superstars of the Age of Enlightenment to look at the bottom of the chain and declare that Nature was actually an inert mechanism much like a clockworks, fully suitable for firm and systematic management by man? There is absolutely no doubt that the Enlightenment altered the course of human culture a great deal, but regarding it as the only source of our contemporary crisis reveals a shallow sense of history. Gary Snyder, who is a deep ecologist and a historian of culture as well as a poet, has expressed the matter quite succinctly in “Anarchism, Buddhism, and Political Economy,” a lecture given in San Francisco on February 27, 1984: “Our troubles began with the invention of male deities located off the planet.”

The spiritual dimension of Green politics, then, will have to be compatible with the cultural direction of Green thought: posthumanist, postmodern, and postpatriarchal. That direction will probably come to bear the inclusive label “postmodern”—unless that tag has already been ruined almost before we have begun. Ever alert for the word of the moment, designers and advertisers have seized upon it to the extent that I now receive circulars in the mail urging me to purchase postmodern furniture, postmodern clothing, postmodern jewelry, postmodern haircuts, and so forth. Not only has the term been trivialized but these products lack any harmony, grace, or organic beauty—being, in fact, terminally modern, punky, disjointed, and ugly.

Green Criteria for an Answer

In exploring the spiritual dimension of Green politics, we can consider the matter from two directions. First, what is spiritual about Green politics itself? Second, what can Green principles contribute to the contemporary evolution of postmodern religion?

In addition to being true to the cultural direction of Green thinking, any aspect of the Green vision for society must acknowledge the facts of realpolitik as well as Green principles and process. A primary consideration is that a delineation of the spiritual dimension of Green politics must honor the religious pluralism in our society. (According to the Encyclopedia of American Religion by J. Gordon Melton there are 1200 kinds of “primary religious bodies” in the United States!) Second, it should resonate with people who are members of churches, synagogues, temples, etc. (69% of the U.S. population above age 18) and with unaffiliated people who hold spiritual beliefs. (Ninety-four percent of the U.S. population above age 18 believes in God or “a universal spirit.”) Third, it should resonate with people who are members of the Green political movement and with supportive nonmembers. The latter constitute the essential base of support for Green parties in many countries. For example, Green party membership in West Germany was only 30,000 during the 1983 Bundestag election, but two million people voted Green. Fourth, the Green vision should inspire people to do their own thinking about the matter rather than having a “package” pushed at them. Last, it should integrate or be in harmony with the key principles of Green politics: ecological wisdom; social responsibility (personal, local, national, and global); grassroots democracy; nonviolence; decentralization of political and economic power; and postpatriarchal consciousness.

Our Green organization, the Committees of Correspondence (which was the name of grassroots political networks in the American Revolutionary era and several times since then), is not a third party but rather a regionally based movement working in various areas to advance ecological populism and the Green values stated above. Our organization has been endorsed by many nationally known religious and community leaders who are committed to a postmodern vision for society that goes beyond what either the left or the right has to offer. I wish to emphasize that all proposals in this lecture are my own and are merely a beginning. They have not been presented to the Green organization and are not official positions of that group.

My own response to the need to define the spiritual dimension of Green politics has been shaped by my experiences during the past two years. Studying at close range a political party in West Germany and then co-founding a Green political organization in this country has changed me. I now pay more attention to what israther than concentrating solely on theories of what might be. We cannot hope to achieve broad-based social change by working only within circles of alternative religion. I am still attracted to the realm of ideas and visionary possibilities but only insofar as they address getting to there from here. I have become interested in “spirituality at the precinct level” and in cutting across dividing lines in our pluralistic culture. To be successful, the expression of the spiritual dimension of Green politics must present some rather complex ideas in very simple and common-sense terms without watering down the power inherent in spiritual impulses. (Frankly, I never expected my personal development to gravitate toward the mentality of a Chicago ward boss but, alas, here I am.)

What is Spirituality?

My own working definition of spirituality is that it is the aspect of human existence that explores the subtle forces of energy in and around us and reveals to us profound interconnectedness. A materialist explanation of life works somewhat well at the gross levels of perception, much as Newtonian physics can explain the behavior of matter in a certain middle range. At the subatomic and astrophysical levels, however, Newtonian explanations are inadequate. Similarly, our perceptions at the gross levels—that we are all separate from Nature and from each other—are revealed as illusion once we employ the subtle, suprarational reaches of mind, which can reveal the true nature of being: all is One, all forms of existence are comprised of one continuous dance of matter/energy arising and falling away, arising and falling away. The experience of union with the One has been called God consciousness, cosmic consciousness, knowing the One mind, and so forth. It is the core experience common to the sages of all the great religions and has been expressed in the rapture of Christian saints as well as the simple words of a haiku poem. It is not a one-time realization but, rather, a level of understanding that deepens as one continues spiritual practice. To live with a deep awareness of the elemental Oneness of all creation is to partake of “God consciousness.” Such experiential, rather than merely intellectual, awareness of this profound connectedness is what I hold to be the true meaning of being in “a state of grace.”

Back to Basics

Green politics is about values in our daily lives, how we live and love and work and play. Core values are informed by deep thinking and existential explorations, which are spiritual perceptions. I would like to consider our core values by exploring three basic questions: Who are we (or What is our nature)? How shall we relate to our context (the environment)? How shall we relate to others?

1.) Who are we? What is our nature? Moving from where we are now, we can draw some negative lessons from the modern answers to this pair of questions: we are not mechanistic cogs in the “machinery” of society, neither indistinguishable blobs in “the masses” nor isolated competitive units. We are not alienated creatures who have a need to seek “freedom” from Nature and traditional modes of human bonding. The societal systems of a modern culture often inflict what the Greens call “structural violence” to the individual because of their dehumanizing assumptions and expectations. Apathy, numbness, and resentment are the results. Hence, such an interpretation of our nature is not humane and is not sustainable over time.

We discover our true nature not by absorbing cultural projections but by cultivating self-awareness and self-knowledge. Schumacher filled several pages of A Guide for the Perplexed with injunctions from the great religions that one must pursue the inner journey. He asserted that the traditional function of religion has been to teach the basic truth that “at the human Level of Being, the invisibilia are of infinitely greater power and significance than the visibilia.” It is because Western civilization has abandoned religion and lost its teaching, Schumacher felt, that our society has become incapable of “dealing with the real problems of life at the human Level of Being.” In order to seek “knowledge for wisdom” rather than settle for the much narrower “knowledge for manipulation,” Schumacher personally chose the practice of Buddhist Vipassana meditation, in which one meticulously observes the workings of one’s own mind and experientially grasps the profound truth of Oneness and eternal flux, even to the level of the most minute vibrations ever rippling in and around us. However, Schumacher’s personal choice, which is also my own, is not useful for us here, as it is extremely unlikely that most Americans will ever practice Buddhist meditation. (I know this from family reunions in Ohio!) I am not suggesting that we overlook the scores of thousands of ethnic Buddhists who are recent immigrants to the United States from Southeast Asia nor the many American-born Buddhist meditators. I mean only that their numbers will probably always be comparatively small.

A more practical way for postmodern religion to counter the emptiness of modern life would be to investigate, elevate, and promote the teachings and practices, inherent in every religious tradition, that further inner growth leading to wisdom. With Christianity and Judaism this may require some digging, as their “mystical” traditions have been shunted off to the sidelines. In fact, so peripheral a role do they play in the twentieth century that Freud insisted the Judeo-Christian tradition “keeps people stupid” because it hands them everything and denies, even forbids, them the individual quest that results in true growth and wisdom.

I disagree with Freud that Western religion is devoid of such possibilities, although one does find mostly hierarchically dictated rituals (services) with minimal personal involvement and some prescribed individual spiritual practices that are merely devotional in nature. These observances have a soothing effect and periodically serve to block out the harshness of the modern world—and as such they should certainly not be banned—but religion should be more than a playpen. I emphatically take issue with those critics of modern society who charge that liberal theology has become “too personal” or “too privatized.” I do agree that modern religion has largely receded to an inconsequential sphere of influence.

What would the life of the person be like if we had postmodern religion in a Green society? First of all, every person would be encouraged to have a daily spiritual practice, which might be a period of reflection, or reading the Bible for a half-hour, or meditating, or performing various spiritual exercises of contemplation. (The Wisdom Series [New Directions] offers such useful volumes as The Wisdom of the English Mystics, The Wisdom of the Jewish Mystics, The Wisdom of the Spanish Mystics, The Wisdom of the Desert [Fathers].) The purpose of the practice would be to cultivate wisdom, loving kindness, compassion for all living things, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (a calm and balanced mind that does not react blindly to the words and deeds of others). Can you imagine going to work and encountering people all day long who were trying to apply the lessons and inspiration from their morning spiritual practice? In this vision most people would also meet once a month or even once a week with a small group of peers to discuss their spiritual practice and ways to put spiritual goals such as compassion and loving kindness into action in their community. In addition, it would be commonplace for people to make a spiritual retreat once a year, to spend approximately a week mostly in silence and contemplation with other members of one’s church or a nonsectarian organization. Lectures, group discussions, and one-to-one interviews could provide spiritual guidance, but most of the time would be quiet space, away from daily responsibilities, with time to nurture the inner life.

Spiritual experience would not be limited to the morning practice or weekly church service or group meeting. We would increase our awareness of “spiritual moments” in the most ordinary human experiences. I agree, for instance, with most critics of modern religion who surmise that postmodern religion will have “more to do with the body.” I believe we need only pay attention to our body wisdom rather than seeking transcendence “above” the body in realms of the sky god. Music, dance, and ritual are recognized ways to move one’s consciousness beyond the mundane perceptions of the illusion that all beings are separate, mechanistic entities to the consciousness of Oneness. But we have not yet recognized the teachings I call “body parables,” which are inherent in our sexuality. (I will give examples here from women’s sexuality since that is my own experience, but I do not feel that body parables occur only in women.)

First, it is difficult for women living in a patriarchal culture to acknowledge any positive aspects of menstruation since it is now called “the curse” rather than “the sacred blood,” which was represented by red ochre rubbed on sacred statues of the Goddess from at least as far back as 25,000 B.C. until the time of the Indo-European invasions into Europe around 4500 B.C. The first day of menses, however, is experienced by many women as a consciousness of “soft boundaries” of the self and of openness. The sense that boundaries or separations between beings are only illusory is even stronger in the experiences of pregnancy, natural childbirth, nursing, and motherhood, when the distinction between me and not me becomes “a little blurred to say the least,” as a friend of mine has put it. In modern psychology, of course, any sense of one’s own boundaries or delineations being softened is interpreted as unhealthy. In fact, it is an experiential contact with the deeper truth of life on Earth.

What is perhaps the primary body parable occurs in the postorgasmic state. It is true that both partners during the act of sexual union experience moments of oneness between themselves. It is after climax, however, if we focus our awareness instead of chattering or lighting up a cigarette, that women often experience a peaceful, expansive mindstate, an oceanic, free-floating sense of having no boundaries. This mindstate is similar to a particular experience people strive for in meditation, and it reveals a teaching about the nature of being: boundaries, as modern physics has agreed, are arbitrary and relative. Oneness and interrelatedness are the deep reality. Most males, on the other hand, describe their postorgasmic state as a somewhat unpleasant time when they feel vulnerable and even fearful. In France men call it “le petit mort” (the little death). Perhaps this response is merely a result of social conditioning in patriarchal culture. Perhaps in a postpatriarchal culture men would have fewer existential fears, would experience their postorgasmic state as positive, and would discover it to be a body parable.

This spiritual interpretation of the function of the orgasm, by the way, affords what I believe is the only answer to the question that has always baffled physiologists: “Just why does the female have a clitoris? It has no function in reproduction. It’s just there for sexual pleasure!” Indeed—and orgasmic pleasure can be a gateway to experiencing the profound Oneness, or knowing grace. (I do not expect a papal encyclical to be forthcoming on this spiritual experience, as the church fathers generally deny the existence of the clitoris altogether, insisting that God gave us our genitals strictly for purposes of procreation. Women merely smile at that—and perhaps God herself is chuckling.)


2.) How shall we relate to our context, the environment? In 1967 Lynn White, a professor of history at U.C.L.A., published in Science “The Historical Root of Our Ecological Crisis,” a critical analysis of the attitudes Western religion has encouraged toward our environment. Since then ecologists often point to the injunctions in Genesis that humans should attempt to “subdue” the Earth and have “dominion” over all the creatures of the Earth as being bad advice with disastrous results. In fact, Bill Devall, coauthor of Deep Ecology, spoke for many citizens when he declared in August 1984, “Unless major changes occur in the churches, ecologists and all those working in ecology movements will feel very uncomfortable sitting in the pews of most American churches.”

The disparity between Judeo-Christian religion and ecological wisdom is illustrated by the experience of a friend of mine who once lived in a seminary overlooking Lake Erie.  He spent two years contemplating the suffering of Christ without ever noticing that Lake Erie was dying. Even when Catholic clergy speak today of St. Francis of Assisi, whom Lynn White nominated as the patron saint of ecologists, they often take pains to insist he was not some “nature mystic,” which, of course, would taint him with “paganism.” (“Pagan” is from the Latin word for “country people,” pagani. It has nothing to do with Satan-worship.) Religion that sets itself in opposition to Nature and vehemently resists the resacralizing of the natural world on the grounds that it would be “pagan” to do so is not sustainable over time.

The cultural historian Thomas Berry has declared that we are entering a new era of human history, the Ecological, or Ecozoic, Age. How could our religion reflect ecological wisdom and aid the desperately needed transformation of culture?

First, I suggest that Judaism and Christianity should stop being ashamed of their “pagan” inheritance, which issubstantial, and should proudly proclaim their many inherent ties to Nature. How many of us realize that the church sets Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox and that most of the Jewish holy days are determined by a lunar calendar? Deliciously “pagan”—and there’s lots more. Numerous symbols, rituals, and names in Jewish and Christian holy days have roots directly in the Nature-revering Old Religion. The list is a long one and should be cause for self-congratulation and celebration among Christians and Jews.

Second, I hope the stewardship movement, which is gaining momentum in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish circles, will continue to deepen its analyses and its field of action. Its proponents are performing a valuable service by reinterpreting the overall Biblical teachings about the natural world and finding ecological wisdom that balances or outweighs the “dominance” message. Virtually all spokespersons for the stewardship movement emphasize that nature is to be honored as God’s creation. In fact, “creation-centered spirituality,” as the Catholic theologian Matthew Fox has labeled it, is the realization that Nature, including our own bodies, is God’s primary and fundamental revelation to us. The Protestant theologian, John Cobb, suggested similar perspectives in “process theology” in the early 1970s.

It is possible that those learned gentlemen and their followers may one day regard communion with God’s creation, Nature, as the kind of theologically sophisticated, elemental spiritual experience that Alice Walker expressed in her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Color Purple when one black woman in rural Georgia explains to another that God “ain’t a he or a she but a It”:

It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it. . . .  My first step away from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: the feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.

I am encouraged that a religion-based respect for Nature is showing up in numerous articles and books, especially books like The Spirit of the Earth (1984), in which John Hart urges study of and respect for Native American religious perspectives on Nature because that is the indigenous tradition of our land and suggests compatibility between their religion and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet why is it that attention to loving and caring for Nature rarely makes it into the liturgy today? I recently came across a newspaper article by Harold Gilliam in the San Francisco Chronicle describing a magnificent ecological service that spanned twenty-four hours, beginning at sunrise on the Autumnal Equinox, and took place in Grace Cathedral, the Gothic cathedral on Nob Hill in San Francisco. At the sound of a bell and a conch shell the Episcopal Bishop of California opened the service:

We are gathered here at sunrise to express our love and concern for the living waters of the Central Valley of California and for the burrowing owls, white-tailed kites, great blue herons, migratory waterfowl, willow trees, cord grass, water lilies, beaver, possum, striped bass, anchovies, and women, children, and men of the Great Family, who derive their life and spiritual sustenance from these waters. Today we offer our concerns and prayers for the ascending health and spirit of these phenomena of life and their interwoven habitats and rights . . . .

Poets, spiritual teachers, musicians, and ecologists all participated in the service, which included whale and wolf calls emanating from various corners of the cathedral’s sound system, as well as the projection of Nature photography onto the walls and pillars. Gary Snyder and his family read his “Prayer for the Great Family” (from his Turtle Island), which is based on a Mohawk prayer. The celebrants poured water from all the rivers of California into the baptismal font. They committed themselves to changing our society and our environment into “a truly Great Family,” and they assigned to each U.S. Senator a totemic animal or plant from his or her region in order to accentuate the rights of our nonhuman Family members. I read the account with awe and then noticed with sadness that it was dated 17 October 1971. (No subsequent ecological services took place in that church because a few influential members of the congregation pronounced it paganism.) How many species have been lost since then, how many tons of topsoil washed away, how many aquifers polluted—while we have failed to include Nature in our religion?

Knowledge of Nature must precede respect and love for it. We could urge that ecological wisdom regarding God’s creation be incorporated in Sunday School as well as in sermons and prayer. (I will pass along my mother’s technique for getting the priest’s attention: she critiques his sermon on the back of the collection envelope before dropping it into the basket in church!) We could suggest practices such as the planting of trees on certain holy days. We could mention in the church bulletin ecological issues that are crucial to our community. There is no end to what we could do to focus spiritually based awareness and action on saving the Great Web of Life.


3.) How shall we relate to other people? This last basic question has two parts: distinction by gender and then by other groups.

Our lives are shaped to a great extent not by the differences between sexes but by the cultural response to those differences. There is no need to belabor the point that in patriarchal cultures the male is considered the norm and the female is considered “the Other.” For our purposes here, however, it is relevant to note that Judeo-Christian religion has played a central part in constructing the subordinate role for women in Western culture. Suffice it to say that the eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell once remarked that in all his decades of studying religious texts worldwide he had never encountered a more relentlessly misogynist book than the Old Testament. Numerous Christian saints and theologians have continued the tradition.

The results for traditional society of denying women education and opportunity have been an inestimable loss of talent, intelligence, and creativity. For women it has meant both structural and direct violence. Of the former, Virginia Woolf observed that women under patriarchy are uncomfortable with themselves because they know society holds them in low esteem. The structural violence of forced dependency sometimes provides the conditions for physical violence—that is, battering. Finally, patriarchal culture usurps control over a woman’s body from woman herself, often inflicting tortuous pain. In China women are forced to undergo abortion even in the third trimester under the government’s one-child-only policy. The women who must undergo forced abortion are those who have incurred shame and the wrath of their husbands and in-laws by previously giving birth to a girl and later try desperately to carry a boy child to term unnoticed by the government. Sometimes the women in that patriarchal culture simply drown themselves immediately after giving birth to a daughter.

People sometimes accuse the Greens of being hypocritical in calling themselves a “party of life” while adopting a “pro-choice” stance on abortion. Last spring the European Greens, a coalition of Green parties throughout Western Europe, after much debate endorsed a position against social and political sanctions that force birthing and for free choice. The quality of the debate in Green parties over abortion has more integrity than the polarized one currently underway in American politics precisely because all aspects of the issue are considered. Since this issue is germane to my topic today, I will briefly offer some of my own views on the aspect of violence.

In our country, church leaders of many varieties are demanding an end to all legal abortion. I suspect they can maintain a position calling for the criminalization of abortion only because they have never witnessed a woman going through pregnancy, labor, and delivery—or else they believe the biblical injunction that woman issupposed to suffer. Sometimes birth is text-book simple, but usually it is not. (I am not speaking from embittered experience, for I had a medically uncomplicated pregnancy and a brief, nearly painless delivery using Lamaze techniques plus meditation skills of concentrating the mind. Without those two advantages it would have been a different story.) Some men say they remember their wife’s screams for months. Many men say the birth experience made them pro-choice on the abortion issue because they would never want to force any woman to go through such an ordeal against her will.

There comes a time at the end of life when life is not viable without machinery, and most people say they would like the machinery turned off if it came to that. Similarly, there is a time at the beginning of life when a fertilized egg and then a fetus are not viable life unless the woman is willing to give over her body and accept the suffering. To force a woman either to give birth or to abort is violence against the person. Most men and women know this in their hearts. They also know that countless women do not have the financial and other resources for the twenty-year task of raising a child. That is why a Gallup poll in June 1983 found that only 19% of American Catholics and 16% of the total American population want abortion to be illegal in all circumstances. The Gallup organization is currently conducting a similar poll, and it will be interesting to see whether patriarchal religion’s campaign—”Save the embryo, damn the woman”—has changed people’s minds.

Men too suffer under patriarchal culture. Because woman is regarded as the denigrated “Other,” men are pressured to react and continually prove that they are very unlike the female. This dynamic results in what some men have called “the male machine.” It has also skewed much of our behavioral and cognitive science, as thousands of careers and volumes of commentary on “sex differences” have been funded, but no recognized field of “sex similarities” exists. That would be too unnerving. The most serious consequence of men under patriarchy needing to prove themselves different from women is their use of military combat as an initiation into true manhood and full citizenship. This deeply rooted belief surfaced as an unexpected element in the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Feminist lobbyists in state legislatures throughout the 1970s were repeatedly informed, “When you ladies are ready to fight in a war, we’ll be ready to discuss equal rights!” Such an orientation is not sustainable in the nuclear age.

What role could religion play in removing the cultural insistence on women as Other and men as God-like and hence inherently superior? How could religion further the Green principle of postpatriarchal consciousness? We know the answers: women must be welcomed into equal participation in ritual (as ministers, rabbis, and priests); language in sermons and translations must be inclusive; and the Godhead must be considered female as well as male—steps that are already being tried. Although these solutions are not new, neither are they very effective because so many people do not take either the need or the means seriously. Instead, they resent these efforts and feel silly and somewhat embarrassed with the notion of a female God. Being forced to say “God the Mother” once in a while is pointless if people have in mind Yahweh-with-a-skirt. We must first understand who She is: She is not in the sky; She is Earth. Here is her manifestation in the oldest creation story in Western culture:



Free of birth or destruction, of time or space, of form or condition, is the Void. From the eternal Void, Gaia danced forth and rolled Herself into a spinning ball. She molded mountains along Her spine, valleys in the hollows of Her flesh. A rhythm of hills and stretching plains followed Her contours. From Her warm moisture She bore a flow of gentle rain that fed Her surface and brought life. Wriggling creatures spawned in tidal pools, while tiny green shoots pushed upward through Her pores. She filled oceans and ponds and set rivers flowing through deep furrows. Gaia watched Her plants and animals grow. In time She brought forth from Her womb six women and six men

The mortals thrived but they were continually concerned with the future. At first Gaia felt this was an amusing eccentricity on their part. However, when She saw that their worry about the future nearly consumed some of Her children, She installed among them an oracle. In the hills at the place they call Delphi, Gaia sent up steaming vapors from her netherworld. They wafted up from a cleft in the rocks, surrounding a priestess. Gaia instructed Her priestess in the ways of entering a trance and in the interpretation of messages that arose from the darkness of Her Earthwomb. The mortals travelled long distances to consult the oracle: Will my child’s birth be auspicious? Will our harvest be bountiful? Will the hunt yield enough game? Will my mother survive her illness? Gaia was so moved by their stream of anxiety that She sent forth other portents of the future at Athens and Aegae.

Unceasingly the Earth-Mother manifested gifts on Her surface and accepted the dead body into her body. In return She was revered by all mortals. Offerings to Gaia of honey and barley cake were left in a small hole in the earth before plants were gathered. Many of Her temples were built near deep chasms where yearly the mortals offered sweet cakes into her womb. From within the darkness of Her secrets, Gaia received their gifts.
(Charlene Spretnak, Lost Goddesses of Early Greece)

Having addressed the self, Nature, and gender, we now come to the second half of the last basic question, How shall we relate to groups and other individuals? There are, of course, a multiplicity of groups in society at the levels of family, community, region, state, nation, and planet; I am speaking in general terms here because of the time constraint.

We must first analyze how our own mode of living affects others in the Great Family: Does the nature of our existence impose suffering on others—or does it support and assist those who are less privileged than we are? Here we can enjoy the convergence of spiritual growth and political responsibility in the spiritual practice of cultivating moment-to-moment awareness, being fully “awake” and focused on our actions, a simple-sounding yet demanding task. There is a story in Zen of a student who studied very hard to master certain religious texts and then went before his spiritual teacher to be questioned. The roshi asked simply, “On which side of the umbrella stand did you place your shoes?” The student was dismayed that he had lost awareness (or “spaced out,” as we might say). We can begin our day by focusing mindfulness on our every act. Turning on the water in the bathroom. Where does it come from? Is our town recklessly pumping water from the receding water table instead of calling for conservation measures? Where does our wastewater go when it leaves the sink? What happens after it is treated? Later we are in the kitchen making breakfast. Where does our coffee come from? A worker-owned cooperative in the Third World or an exploitative multi-national corporation? Obviously, it is exhausting to continue this practice very long unless one is adept. It is so difficult that a friend of mine has added an amendment to a popular spiritual, saying, “Be here now—or now and then.” But everyone can practicesome mindfulness.

If we analyze our own situation, we may discover that we are benefitting from the suffering of others and that we ourselves are uncomfortable with the structural systems in which we work. When one thinks of religious people working for economic and social change, the “liberation theology” movement probably comes to mind because of its size in Latin America and its coverage in the press lately. In that movement grassroots Catholic groups (base communities) meet frequently to discuss the teachings of the “social Gospel,” sometimes combined with Marxist analysis.

But there is another way: a religion-based movement for social change is beginning to flourish that is completely in keeping with Green principles of private ownership and cooperative economics, decentralization, grassroots democracy, nonviolence, social responsibility, global awareness—and with the spiritual truth of dynamic interrelatedness. This type of call for economic and social change is gaining momentum in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish communities. We see it, for example, in the statement issued by the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, This Land Is My Home: A Pastoral Letter on Powerlessness in Appalachia, which calls for worker-owned businesses and community-based economics. We see it in Strangers and Guests: Toward Community in the Heartland by the Catholic Bishops of the Heartland (Midwest) and in The Land: God’s Giving, Our Caring by the American Lutheran Church, a statement then echoed by the Presbyterian Church, both of which address ecological use of the land. Strangers and Guests calls for small-is-beautiful land reform as the only sustainable course for rural America. Developing the applications of such principles as “the land should be distributed equitably” and “the land’s workers should be able to become the land’s owners,” the Heartland bishops discuss elimination of capital-gains tax laws that favor “wealthy investors and speculators” and disfavor “small and low-income farm families”; taxation of agricultural land “according to its productive value instead of its speculative value”; taxing land progressively at a higher rate according to increases in the size and quality of holdings” (a proposal in the Jeffersonian tradition); and low-interest loans to aspiring farmers as well as tax incentives for farmers with large holdings to sell land to the former.

We see Green-oriented economic and social change now promoted in the Jewish periodical Menorah and by the Protestant multidenominational association Joint Strategy and Action Committee. The lead article in a recent issue of the JSAC newsletter began:

If you want to know what eco-justice is, read the Psalms. The dual theme of justice in the social order and integrity in the natural order is pervasive and prominent. The book is, in large part, a celebration of interrelationships, the interaction, the mutuality, the organic oneness and wholeness of it all that is, that is to say, the Creator and the creation, human and nonhuman.

The Green-oriented Jewish and Protestant leaders seek to locate justice and ecological wisdom in the Old Testament. Green-oriented Catholics usually turn to the papal encyclicals, especially Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno (Forty Years After), a commemoration and expansion of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum  (On the New Situation of the Working Class), which established three cardinal principles: personalism (the goal of society is to develop and enrich the individual human person); subsidiarity(no organization should be bigger than necessary and nothing should be done by a larger and high social unit than can be done effectively by a lower and smaller unit); and pluralism (a healthy society is characterized by a wide variety of intermediate groups freely flourishing between the individual and the state.) Sounds like a lot of Green party platforms I’ve read recently! Andrew Greeley argues in No Bigger Than Necessary that Catholic social theory is firmly rooted in the communitarian, decentralist tradition and that Catholics who drifted into Marxism in recent decades are simply unaware that their own tradition contains a better solution. Joe Holland, however, a Catholic theologian with the Center of Concern in Washington, D.C., argues in The Postmodern Paradigm Implicit in the Church’s Shift to the Left that left-oriented Catholics have never embraced “scientific Marxism” with its model of a machine-like centralized government and economy. They are attracted, rather, by communitarian ideals and are uncomfortable with the anti-nature, anti-religion modernity of many socialist assumptions. Hence, we may assume, and I believe Joe Holland would agree, that many of these lukewarm leftists in Catholic circles would readily become Green.

The possibilities for locating and working with Green-oriented activists in mainline religions have never been better. Within our own Green political organizations, however, the question remains of how much religious content is proper in pluralistic meetings and publications. I myself am uncertain about how much overt spirituality “the market will bear” in Green conferences and statements, and I am often dissatisfied afterward because I and other Greens have held back too much on spirituality so as not to exclude any materialists in the group. I am not sure what the solutions may be, but I am certain I shall be influenced by learning recently of a Gallup statistic that only 6% of Americans do not believe in God “or a universal spirit.” What a vocal minority! Perhaps I should simply avoid Manhattan and university towns…

Surely no Green, whatever his or her spiritual orientation, if any, could object to our structuring our groups according to the deep-ecology principles of diversity, interdependence, openness, and adaptability—as well as to the spiritual principles of cultivating wisdom and compassion. These can be our guidelines as we evolve the ever changing forms of Green politics.

Four Key Points

I believe the criteria I mentioned earlier for Green spirituality are satisfied by the four key points I have delineated. Sustainable religion in the Green vision for society calls for the 1200 “primary religious bodies” in our country to place emphasis on four areas that are already contained in their traditions: spiritual development through inner growth, ecological wisdom, gender equality, and social responsibility. If we would simply beserious about these four areas, can you imagine the transformation of American religion that would result? It is important that all four of these Green-oriented goals are already in our religious traditions (although many aspects have been neutralized or hidden). We do not have to invent something new and try to get people to tack it onto their own ways; instead, we need to encourage a shift, which will not be a small one or an easy one, toward sustainability and toward deeply meaningful religion that does not separate itself from Nature, from our bodies, and from women.

We should realize that the movement toward postmodern religion will continue with or without Green participation. My own hope, though, is that many American Greens will become involved, for I believe that the deepest sources of Green principles are spiritual in nature and that we can make positive contributions to the process. I am concerned, for instance, that Harvey Cox’s recent, and in many ways excellent, study of harbingers of postmodern religion, Religion in the Secular City, does not mention ecological wisdom as a necessary core component.

I am also concerned that religion-based activism in the service of Green goals may be hindered by our differences. Deep ecologists and feminists may be thinking to themselves: “Strangers and Guests! The Heartland bishops chose that phrase from Leviticus 25:23 (“The land belongs to me, and to me you are strangers and guests”) for their title and everyone thinks it’s just fine? They just don’t get it! That’s exactly what’s wrong with patriarchal religion: it alienates us from the Earth!” But the deep ecologists and feminists should realize that the Jews and Christians are probably thinking about them: “They just don’t get it! The Lord created Nature and that’s why we should treat it well.” And they should both be thinking, “It doesn’t matter as long as we can work together to prevent ecocide and nuclear holocaust and to improve conditions for all our sisters and brothers in the Great Family.” In times like these, to cling to our differences and ideological purity rather than mutual respect may be the most heinous of sins.

We have a model for interfaith, religion-based social-change activism in the Sarvodaya movement, which operates successful self-help projects in 8000 villages in Sri Lanka. It combines the Gandhian model of a small-scale, community-based economy with spiritually informed ethics, mostly Buddhist but also Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. As I was finishing writing this lecture, the founder of Sarvodaya, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne, passed through San Francisco, and I attended a reception for him. I asked whether he felt that a spiritually based social-change movement could flourish in a country with 1200 kinds of religious orientations. He explained that Sarvodaya works with greater religious and ethnic diversity than I had thought. Then he smiled and said: “First you build a spiritual infrastructure for the community, based on everyone’s having a personal practice. Then everyone will come to you.”

I don’t know whether “everyone” will ever come to Green politics, but I do believe that a “spiritual infrastructure” is essential for a successful transformation of our society in postmodern and Green directions. A spiritual grounding would not only answer a deep hunger in the modern experience, it would also be harmonious with various Green tendrils that have already begun to sprout: the bioregional movement, which teaches us to “live in place,” to know and appreciate the heritage and ecological character of our area; the evolving philosophy of deep ecology; the emergence of community-based ecological populism; the Green-oriented activism in mainline religion; the work of cultural/holistic feminists; the spiritual dimension appearing in discussions of global responsibility; and the worldwide network of Green parties and organizations. I do not mean to imply in a facile way that the transformation has already happened or that the postmodern paradigm is in place or that there are not serious holes, problems, and paradoxes. The scope of the task is enormous, it is true, but what else shall we do? Continue walking numbly toward high-tech ecocide and species suicide, propelling a system that in many respects seems wildly out of control? No. There is just cause to celebrate the frail but stubborn budding of a new vision, one that is based on the oldest wisdom we possess. If we nurture that vision with the lifeblood of our ideas and our efforts, we—and our children—may be rewarded with a future worth living.


Publication By

Charlene Spretnak

Charlene Spretnak is the author of eight books, several of which have proposed an eco-social analysis and vision in the areas of social criticism (including feminism), cultural history, religion, and spirituality. Since the mid-1980s her books have examined the multiple crises of modernity and have furthered the corrective efforts that are arising. Her book Green Politics (1984) … Continued

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