An npr story (To the Best of Our Knowledge) this morning that might interest environmentalists (in particular I have in mind Sandi, who posted on a kind of mystical environmentalism in the Avatar discussion on this blog). James William Gibson has written a book called “A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature” about the spiritual and “re-enchanting” quality of contemporary environmentalism. Click here to get the podcast, the relevant episode is called “Radical Gardening.”
“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.” —Max Weber.
Weber uses the term “disenchantment” instead of “secularization” for a reason – he is interested in the subjective experience of the modern scientific age. The world is being transformed into a causal mechanism and what is lost is the poetic, the “magical”. Any of my students who have read Heidegger with me know that he has lots to say about all of this (the error of technological thinking which treats all things as mere objects in a causal chain which are open for manipulation and the need to re-learn thinking which is poetically open to mystery).
What is telling about the new language of “sacred environmentalism” is not so much whether they get the sacred and transcendent right (they don’t). I am interested in something much more important and much deeper than “getting it right”, I am here interested in the lived human question. What is telling about the implicit and explicit language of the sacred and all of the other religious trappings in environmentalism is that it speaks to the radical impoverishment that human subjects experience in a world reduced to efficient cause. The problem is two-fold. As Weber himself noted, disenchantment results in a world with no objective grounds for conviction. “We know of no scientifically ascertainable ideals” is how he put it. The other impoverishment concerns the lived relationship between immanence and transcendence. The desire for transcendence is a natural desire in man (I don’t say this as a “nature” claim as much as a phenomenological description), and it is not surprising that people go looking for it in nature. To the offense of some of my conservative religious friends, I actually have considerable sympathy for those interested in finding locations of transcendence in the natural world. In a sense (to borrow a term from Levinas), I think animals, plants, and even landscapes or ecosystems have a “face”. This is why I remain deeply interested in natural theology, though I think of natural theology as more of a “mystical” exercise than a “rationalist” enterprise seeking to prove something. Natural theology does not seek to prove, it seeks the intimacy of personal understanding.
The error of deep ecology and other movements of spiritual environmentalism is that they misunderstand the sign. A sign is something that points. To have an authentic experience of transcendence the sign must be understood to point to a “Beyond”, a Beyond which informs and saturates the immanent phenomenon (I thinking of Marion here). Though, strangely, Marion points out that when the sign functions as an icon (Gibson uses the word “portal”), one does not so much experience the visible as pointing out to something “Beyond” as he experience a “Beyond” pointing at him through the visible. I think this goes a long way in explaining the mystical experiences people have in the natural world and the feeling that they are being drawn into, indeed “called” into, something greater. Many environmentalists speak in this way. The trouble, though, for spiritual environmentalism is that their language of transcendence is much too weak. Connecting up with a “larger world” (which is how spiritual environmentalists usually speak) is just more immanence since that language misreads the sign and fails to actually read the sign as having real transcendent significance. I actually think they are having the experience, but lack the language to articulate it.
But the natural world is capable of being such a icon. Marion’s work on idols and icons is particularly informative here. The difference between an icon and an idol is not really in the object, it is in the intentionality of the subject with respect to the image. One thinks again of Heidegger, the question for us now that is most thought-provoking is the question of thought – how do we and how should we think about things?
But the purpose of this post is not to dwell on where things go wrong (that mere environmentalism is bad theology). Rather my intent heres is to focus attention on the thirst, the deep desire for transcendence. I have repeatedly made the point on the SHAFT blog that scientific atheists don’t need argument, what they need is a “baptism of the imagination”. They need to read poetry. Hell, read Nz – who is an extremely “spiritual” atheist, if I might use that turn of phrase. Nz is not closed to human questions which only have poetic (and hence incomplete) answers that are shrouded in mystery. But what it really comes down to, though, is not reading but being. Gibson rightly speaks of needing to give sufficiently deep attention to the world. Go on a hike, hell go outside and look long and deep at a weed, and ask yourself if the rationalism of scientism really explains everything you are experiencing. Saying that it can or will makes the error that I finally have a great name for: “the science of the gaps” argument, an argument that simply (like god of the gaps args) fails to recognize the nature and limits of a discipline (mode of thinking).