Sustainability and Faith

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Following a book talk I gave last week in New York, an audience member exclaimed to me that I was presenting a religious argument for sustainability. This was the third time someone had made a similar comment. Each time I struggled with a response. But after three times, I have been thinking more seriously about this. I found this Wikipedia definition helpful in reflecting: “A religion is a set of tenets and practices, often centered upon specific supernatural and moral claims about reality, the cosmos, and human nature, and often codified as prayer, ritual, or religious law.”

Then the law of synchronicity kicked in. I have been reading Stefan Zweig's book, Erasmus of Rotterdam, for a book club. Then this morning I clicked on the periodic column Stanley Fish writes for the NYTimes, and found it focused on the same questions that has underpinned my book. Fish was writing a critical review of a new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution, by Terry Eagleton, a British social critic. Fish quotes a key sentence from the book to start off, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” I presume some form of this question was behind the inquiries I had gotten.

The gist of Eagleton’s book is that the secular bases for modern culture that guide our collective behavior are failing to produce the “progress” that they promise, and that, failing to find an earthly salvation, people turn back to the supernatural. He calls the idea of progress “a superstition.” His evidence for failure is “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine.” (I have taken these quotes from Fish’s article.) In my book I lump all of these outcomes and others, particularly damages to the natural world, under the rubric of unsustainability as a measure of the lack of progress. I find the same cultural roots at fault as do those who Eagleton argues seek faith in a God.

Where Eagleton focuses on explanations for why faith in the form of religions and the existence of God are replacing this modernist secular creed, I take a more positive view and find alternates within the secular tradition. As did Erasmus, I have faith in the ability of humans to strive for perfection, but not through some transcendent vision. For me flourishing is enough of a vision to become a ingathering of the aspirations and caring that make us human. Some might say that caring for the world is a form of love and that it follows then, that I am only preaching a God-like message disguised is earthly clothes. That would be wrong. I follow the work of Humberto Maturana, a biologist, who claims that love is a biological consequence of our evolution as the species, Homo sapiens. Our cognitive abilities and the consequent consciousness we possess turns our attention to the world in a self-reflective way that leads us to care for what we perceive exists out there. Taking care means to act in some way that produces satisfactory outcomes and reflects whatever has appeared in the consciousness of the actor. It is, then, a simple matter to make a linguistic leap from this objective description of human activity to invoke “love” as some transcendent quality we possess.

I do have faith in our species to take care of ourselves and the world and so I have written a book that reminds us of our powers, and added some practices that can help us recover from the mess that the beliefs Eagleton criticizes have created. Is my story based on some article of faith at the bottom. I would have to say yes? I have chosen, however, to look at ourselves as the source of that faith, not to the heavens. If my questioners are asking about faith in some conventional religious sense, especially one that includes God, my answer would be no. If they are asking can I prove everything I say based on reality and reason, I would have to say no. But then I should ask them are they not also operating on faith at some foundational level. Erasmus saw faith in human beings as a source of the possibility that they should flourish, using words characteristic of his time and place on earth. What’s wrong with this? Is there ever another way?

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