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Legacy of Transcendentalism: Religion and Philosophy

Heaven on Earth: Is the Legacy of 19th Century Transcendentalism an Ecumenical Philosophy of Nature?

Meg Brulatour, Virginia Commonwealth University, 1999

Introduction  +19th Century Transcendentalism Native American Tradition Judaism
Overview Christianity Buddhism Bibliography

The Christian Perception of Environmental Responsibility

Christians believe that both the world and the individual soul must be made fit for divinity. But how to complete the task? Or even, how to completely define the task? Is it a matter of preparation or one of reparation? Semantics are part of the problem: what is the difference between a "creation spirituality" and a "redemption spirituality"?  The numerous branches, sects, or types of Christianity make sweeping generalizations about possible solutions most difficult, especially when nearly Christianity takes seriously the authority of the individual's conscience and, to some degree, personal interpretation of Scripture.

Many Christians perceive a mandate to return to Eden insofar as it is humanly possible. Some Christians view this in a quite literal sense: they believe that the New Testament clearly states that there will be a Second Coming of Christ, such that our world and our souls will be the actual hosts of a visible God. As Peter Gomes relates their vision, the main message of the Old Testament is that God has agreed to "dwell among and bless his people, but only if they [follow] his commandments and [respect] his demands." He further explains that:

. . the notion of a Messiah, one who would come in glory to reign in equity forever, was increasingly dependent upon the moral and spiritual perfection of the people to whom he was to come. The Messiah would come when the world was fit to receive him.The delay in his coming was therefore not an arbitrary capriciousness, but a sign that the work of human improvement…still remained to be done.  (71)

Other sects interpret the commanded preparation for the Second Coming as metaphor: it speaks to the personal preparation one undergoes in order to be withstand the powerful spiritual impact of God coming into one's heart.

Regardless of Biblical interpretation as literal or liberal, the task is unaltered: our best efforts are required to visualize the original divine intent and follow, as closely as our limited understanding permits, the guidelines of the initial "blueprint." It is not expected that our efforts will restore the work of God; it is sinfully proud to even think so, but since humans are responsible for spoiling the original plan with our original sin, God expects an attempt at reparation.

Until recently, the concept of reparation--and preparation--has been confined to the idea of cultivation and rendering Nature "useful." The surge of Christian environmental awareness over the last few decades--for which Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was catalyst--cast "preparation" in a new light: Perhaps the world is, as was the Garden, already "prepared" for divinity--but for the damage we have done. As Emerson says: "Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. Nature is the symbol of the spirit" (Nature). The spiritual perfection Gomes cites as necessary for the Christian soul's salvation will be reflected in the state of the natural world. How very like Hochfield's lowercase "native American vision" to then conclude that visible reparation of the physical world should have a direct effect on spiritual health! It is the same conclusion that occurs to most of us each April on Earth Day. In order to fulfill the possibilities of new theological thinking, though, Sally McFague says we will need to take this somewhat elastic logic to heart; replacing the Christian "redemption spirituality" with a "creation spirituality" will not be enough by itself, but it is the starting point. She believes that in concentrating on redemption, in which each soul ultimately fends for itself, and constantly looks toward another world, we have neglected the wonders of creation--all souls sprung from a single source, all recipients of one wonderful gift, our earth. Thus our surprise when we recognize the beautiful goodness already in Nature: it is as it should be, except, again, for the pain we humans have inflicted (43).

As the editors of Spirit and Nature note in their introduction, "[a] theology can obstruct development of a respect for nature or foster it."(3) Up until the middle of this century, Christianity could fairly be accused of obstruction. In early America there were two lines of thought concerning Nature. The extreme of each is presented below. We can assume the early colonists and later settlers followed both lines to some degree, and individual personality dictated whether the lines ran parallel or converged. The first way of thinking saw Nature—the wilderness, more accurately—as an alien, fearful entity that must be dealt with by taming it. It is not uncommon for the wilderness to be referred to as a "desert" in early American writing. We must remember the writers were most often speaking of the lush green wildness of the mid-Atlantic and New England states when they used this term! Nature was unpredictable, irrational, vaguely feminine and bad. Not only is the main purpose of Nature how it may serve mankind, but the Puritans (especially, others as well) had a moral obligation to tame it. Wild nature is where we found ourselves after we were dismissed from the Garden; its chaotic state reflected our sin. It had not just little value but even a negative quality when left by itself in a "natural" state. To leave it as is would be akin to neglecting the religious education of your children.

The second line of thought, which often evolved from the first frightened outlook as time eased fear, is the attitude contained in words like "frontier" and "resource": something to be had for a price. It translates as opportunity: the frontier is a tabula rasa commodity, a blank slate available to anyone with the guts, willpower, and means to inscribe his name. Once owned, it is no longer "frontier" but merely "property." It is somewhat ironic that "frontier" also carries an almost sensual connotation of primal freedom; "wild" is our favorite modifier for the word. But it makes sense when we consider that the concept of the frontier grew as Puritanism waned. Perhaps it is not coincidence that certain changes in the Christian perception of environmental responsibility occurred around the same time that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Americans had stepped into the "final frontier" and discovered it was unlikely we would ever turn it into property. That the idea we might actually run out of room dawned upon us rather slowly made it no less a shocking realization.

Just two years before Apollo landed, Lynn White, Jr. published a severe criticism of the Judeo-Christian tradition, accusing it of manufacturing deep divisions between God and man and Nature while encouraging a disrespectful exploitation of Nature. Although in 1964, the National Council of Churches had created a Faith-Man-Nature study group to explore new theological understanding of this same triad relationship, it was "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" from White which galvanized theologians across the religious spectrum into examination of historical tradition (4). Carson's 1962 book had awakened the theologians to the need for such scrutiny; it is hard to tell whether it was White's time of publication that made his book a beacon, or if his work and others like it were what created such turbulent times: "eco-theology" was just one of a myriad of new social thought exploding in the late 1960s and early 70s.

Although the title of "A Square in the Quilt" immediately brings a rather homely (in the best sense) quality to Emerson's Oversoul, Sally McFague's essay does not contain much optimism, the hallmark of 19th century Transcendentalism. The first page declares there is little hope for much reparation of ecological damage; however, idleness is not acceptable, regardless of whether it stems from thoughtlessness or despair. McFague echoes both the Buddhist and Judaic perceptions in pinpointing a consumer culture as the main culprit in the situation. She cites Augustine's word "concupiscence" as "ecologically up-to-date" for describing the voracious appetite which drives us to want to "have it all" for singular self. This fits the Augustine definition of sin: "living in false relations to God and other beings" (43). McFague outlines two steps for remedy, which are reminiscent of the Dalai Lama's four avenues of thought. First, we must acknowledge "our complicity in the deterioration of our planet;" this conscious confession and repentance, McFague says, may be the "peculiarly theological or religious contribution to our planetary crisis," but the second step is a universal task: "to contribute constructively to the earth's well-being." McFague pinpoints the relationship between "peace, justice, and the integrity of creation" (44). She does not hesitate to remind the church that part of the environmental problem surely stems from the identification of Nature as "mother," as feminine, and therefore considered inferior; any love or respect is tainted with patronization. She notes the historical parallel between a culture's regard for Nature and woman's social status (45).

Like the 19th century Transcendentalists, and as do the other religious leaders who speak in these pages, McFague champions self-awareness first and then awareness of communal ties, and education is the key to this discovery; education also will encourage science, in the future (today! for McFague) to alleviate the environmental damage--rather than enable and exacerbate it, a role science has played in the past. McFague's stance is as bold as that of the early Transcendentalists who scorned "the corpse­cold Unitarianism of Harvard College and Brattle Street." If religion is to live in this world--and if this world is to survive, it must--then religion's utmost task is to redirect 

the planetary agenda to insist that the "world". . . in which to understand God and human beings, is the contemporary scientific picture. . .and our place in [the emergent]. . .cosmology, astrophysics, and biology. . . .[Not] the world of the Bible. . . Newtonian dualistic mechanism, nor of present-day creationism. . . .I am not suggesting that science dictate to theology nor that the two fields be integrated. . . .[But] contemporary theology. . . must make its understanding of the God/world relationship consonant with contemporary views of reality.

McFague echoes Emerson's description of changes wrought by Transcendentalism, as he lectured in the "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England:

. . .the paramount source of the religious revolution was Modern Science. . . showing mankind that the earth on which we live was not the centre of the Universe. . . . Astronomy taught us our insignificance in Nature; showed that our sacred as our profane history had been written in gross ignorance of the laws, which were far grander than we knew; and compelled a certain extension and uplifting of our views of the Deity and his Providence. This correction of our superstitions was confirmed . . . in every department. But we presently saw also that the religious nature in man was not affected by these errors in his understanding. The religious sentiment made nothing of bulk or size, or far or near; triumphed over time as well as space; and every lesson of humility, or justice, or charity. . . was still forever true.The age was moral. Every immorality is a departure from nature, and is punished by natural loss and deformity.

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