That old-fashioned notion of spirituality, which commended itself to the primitive minds of our ancestors, has been dealt, it seems, the coup de grâce by Fr Denis Edwards, a prominent Australian theologian who holds academic appointments at Adelaide College of Divinity and Flinders University and has published extensively, specialising in ecological theology.
In an article published in Compass: A Review of Topical Theology, titled, "Planetary spirituality: exploring a Christian ecological approach" (Summer 2010) he invites us by argument to adopt a planetary spirituality. What is his argument? What qualifies it to be a kind of spirituality?
Fr Edwards recites facts about the physical universe. For example, it began about 13.7 billion years ago. It is vast in extent. Planet Earth is extraordinary in containing the conditions for the existence of living things. Today many people believe we should not destroy species of living things and degrade non-living things such as rivers and seas. We wrong humans by allowing this to happen.
Yes, but what has this to do with spirituality? "A sense of wonder" is the answer. In wondering "we are taken beyond ourselves into mystery and awe. All of this, I think, is part of an ecological and planetary spirituality." Apparently wondering, being amazed, is a kind of spirituality.
But is wondering sufficient? Suppose I am filled with amazement (wonder) on contemplating the vast capacity of a computer. Is that wondering constitutive of a spirituality? Does it even promote the adoption of any spirituality? Perhaps computer spirituality is coming into vogue. How about my admiration for a swimmer in the Olympic Games, the precision and force of his strokes, his timing, his grace in execution, have we here a spirituality for the sporting man?
In addition to experiencing wonderment, continues Fr Edwards, we now believe we are connected with all other creatures, galaxies, forests, flowers. I love the word "connected" - it is so deliciously vague.
Does he mean we occupy a position in space and every other physical object also has a position in space, so that we are connected by spacial relations? Fr Edwards keeps repeating that planetary spirituality is something new, yet it is difficult to find anything new in our believing that we humans have various connections with other things.
Humans have always known, for example, that they are connected to the Sun by seeing it and by thinking about it. But supposing we are connected in multiple ways with other things, what bearing has this on spirituality?
There is a problem in calling some human activity "spirituality": it is hard to define in such a way as to receive widespread agreement. So my sympathy is with Edwards in his leaving vague the concept.
However, I find it difficult to conceive of my engaging in spirituality unless there are at least two spirits, mine and some other. If anything is a spirit it is a mind - something that is conscious of me and can take an interest in me. Now with what other mind am I engaging when practising planetary spirituality?
The collection of physical objects which constitute planet Earth lacks a mind: "They have mouths, but do not speak". The only things on the surface of Earth that have minds are humans and animals, so it seems a planetary spirituality would involve some sort of reverential engagement with those minds. Also I cannot conceive of a spirituality in which a mind to which I pay attention is not worthy of worship, of which humans and animals are certainly not worthy. So I cannot see that planet Earth can be the focus of any spirituality.
Referring only to living things, Edwards suddenly becomes traditional: "Life ... is a gift given by a generous and bountiful God." Here we have an epiphany.
For a second our gaze is lifted from Earth, indeed from the whole cosmos, to the Creator of it, a being with mental and personal properties, so that we can engage with it, something maximally worthy of the spiritual activity of worship. "How great is your name , O Lord our God, through all the earth ... When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars which you arranged". From Earth and the Heavens up to the source of their excellence, Creator God, "for he commanded and they were made".
The epiphany is a temporary lapse on Edwards' part, for he relentlessly returns to Earth, commending aboriginal spirituality for its understanding of the natural world as "sacred". Really? Of course, Fr Edwards is not really a pantheist, seeing that the "pantheist's God does nothing, demands nothing" (C.S. Lewis).
What he is trying to do, of course, is engage us in the movement to save the environment from degradation by enlisting the support of adherents of all religions. Seeing he is writing for Christian readers, he sets about employing Christian theology to engage their support. In this endeavour he demonstrates mastery of the non sequitur (it does not follow).
Apparently the doctrine of the Trinity makes credible support for the environmental movement. How so? Edwards answers that the Trinity brought about the cosmos. True. Moreover, one Person of the three became human, became matter. "And this constitutes an unbreakable divine promise not just to human beings but to the whole cosmos."
Where, I ask, lies the promise? In Romans 8:21. In this passage St Paul offers a mythic account of a future transformation of the cosmos. It is difficult to work out what Paul is asserting but, whatever the transformation will be, it will be brought about by God, not by our keeping rivers clean, and so on. Nothing follows with regard to protecting the environment from the fact that the Creator is a Trinity. Non sequitur.
God became a human in the person of Jesus, says Edwards. "In Jesus of Nazareth, God has embraced ... the whole emergent world of biological life." Quite an embrace. There is no evidence that Jesus gave a thought to the totality of living things, billions of which go out of existence every minute. From the fact that Jesus is human it is a non sequitur that he cares about every microbe and mosquito. And even if he loves them, as Edwards asserts, that provides no prohibition on our destroying them, seeing that God loves humans and allows us to kill them under certain conditions.
Attempting to strengthen his Christian credentials, Edwards has recourse to a favourite of Christian environmentalists, the figure of Wisdom as found in the Old Testament. Wisdom is a mythical figure personifying a property of God, namely, his being wise. The Wisdom books contain hardly any assertions of facts, so make no claims on our beliefs. Yes, God was wise in creating but nothing follows regarding how we ought to treat parts of Earth's surface.
Jesus exemplified this Wisdom in acting like a sophos (wise man), says Edwards. I remark that Jesus taught in ways similar to a sophos but this fact has nothing to do with the Old Testament figure of Wisdom. Even if there is a connection, nothing follows regarding our conversion "to an ecological way of feeling". But God loves all creatures, says Edwards, so we should see that "what matters is the basic necessities of food ... loving relationships ... time spent with friends". Here we see the non sequitur out of control.
Fr Edwards now reaches higher: ecological spirituality involves no less than a mysticism which includes an "eternal" commitment to the good of Earth. Some mysticism which demands an eternal commitment to an Earth which eventually will go out of existence!
Fr Edwards could have kept to the simple argument which he mentions in support of action to preserve some parts of Earth's surface. He could say that loving one's neighbour involves reducing harm to him caused by degradation of parts of the environment, such as oceans, whose pollution results in loss of food for humans. This would require no appeal to a strenuously-fabricated spirituality but only to a requirement of his disciples imposed by the Lord Jesus.