Over the last few months I have been thinking about the relationships between sustainability and spirituality. I have almost completed the fourth module of my Exploring Sustainability course at Marlboro College Managing for Sustainability MBA program. At the same time, I am in the last stages of my fellowship at the Fowler Center, a part of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. And third, I recently gave a weekend long course on sustainability to a PhD program on Values-driven Leadership at Benedictine University, near Chicago.
In all of these I have been exploring the place of spirituality or transcendence in relation to sustainability. I have noticed two important differences between the way I currently think about spirituality and the way I wrote about it in my book. First, I now consider that care for the spirit or transcendent should be a separate and distinct category in the family of concerns. For those who are familiar with my book, I refer here to Figure 10.
In the book, I collected a number of practical domains of concern under three master categories: care about oneself, care about other human beings, and care about everything else. I chose these categories because they completely subscribe the material world available to our perception. I had included concerns about spirituality or transcendence in the category of self, but I was never very comfortable about this. As a result of thinking about spirituality in the programs I mentioned above, I now believe that this domain deserves an equal place alongside the three referring to the material world. I have added a revised diagram below.
Our language and culture includes references and practices directed toward a fourth domain: the transcendent. Even in the very earliest evidence of human settlements, there is evidence of awareness of not-in-the-world perceptions. These clearly played an important role in early cultures where there was virtually no positive knowledge that could explain what had been perceived. So it seems likely that a set of spiritual explanations and practices emerged. Over the course of time, religions evolved as institutions to take care of the spiritual domain. Even in this modern, disenchanted era, we find concern about the spiritual in many areas outside of formal religious practices. By giving it its own place in the taxonomy of care, spirituality can be seen as being as important as the other three domains. To flourish as a human being, individuals must consciously take care of all four main domains and their subsidiaries.
Spirituality has another important connection to sustainability. The very perception of transcendent objects or flows or power shows up as a connectedness to something beyond the material world. It is very important that human actors recover this sense of connectedness that has slowly been eroded since the beginning of the modern era. Both the idea of the separation of mind from body and world, and the reductionist methodology that we use to gain knowledge of the material world have created a gulf between the world and ourselves. I have argued that this separation is a major cause of unsustainability because we fail to see ourselves as part of the interconnected global system. We think about the world as a machine and usually focus only on the separate parts.
Max Weber characterized our modern era as one where the transcendent had largely disappeared. He wrote, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world’” He meant this as a critical view of the way today’s world works. In one sentence, he captured much of my explanation about the continuing growth of unsustainability.
For flourishing to emerge, awareness and concern for the transcendent at both the individual and cultural level is critical. For each one of us, incorporating concern for this domain can complete the full range of care that makes us human, and can create the context for flourishing to emerge. For society as a whole, care for the transcendent can raise consciousness of the interconnectedness of the planetary system, the web of life as many indigenous cultures spoke of this. Only when we become conscious of our place in the web of life can we incorporate practices that reflect that consciousness. This consciousness can rebuild the sense of responsibility that must underlie our actions toward each other and the world. In Weber’s world, we would turn toward technology and technical expertise to solve all of our problems. In a world where we become aware of our connects to and individual responsibilities for taking care of that world, we are more likely to take on that task ourselves.
A couple of posts ago, I wrote of the connection between sustainability and the sacred. This entry is related, but points to a different, but related, role for spirituality. On reflection, it is not surprising to me that this subject is rising to the top levels of thinking about sustainability. It is quite unusual to find a major school of business examining the place of spirituality in business’s efforts toward sustainability. In the last few weeks, I have noted quite a few ads for programs linking sustainability and spirituality.
One final note for this post; for those who might ignore this topic out of an alienation to organized religion or the idea of an almighty god, stop and listen carefully. The subject of spirituality lies beyond notion of god and scriptures; it is our heritage of humans grappling, during all of our species history, with a consciousness that there is more out there than we can recognize as tangible parts of the world. Spirituality can continue to remind us that we are merely a collection of nodes in the web of life.