Seeing Our World

Visioning is an important determinator in all aspects of life. How one visions or sees the world and all of life deeply affects one’s attitudes and relationships.

Seeing, naming, and relating with is a cyclical process within individuals, cultures, nations, religious traditions, and so on. How one sees shapes and reflects how one names, and both shape and reflect how one relates with all of creation. “To walk gently on the earth” calls for ongoing reflection on how one is seeing our world.

Greek modes of thought — such as hierarchy, patriarchy, and dualism — greatly influenced Christianity, which in turn has significantly influenced and shaped how millions of people have related with the world. This is due to the Christian tradition of seeing human beings as the pinnacle of God’s creative efforts. Therefore, humans are to have “dominion over” the rest of creation.

This way of seeing our world as a thing to have control over has been questioned throughout the centuries by the experiences and writings of peoples from disparate cultural and religious backgrounds. Those who present a different vision of the world include saints, like St. Francis with his naming of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”; Native Americans; feminists; environmentalists; Buddhists; and theologians. They suggest that a paradigm shift is and needs to be happening in our global consciousness in order to walk gently and compassionately to bring healing and the fullness of life in our world.

The Ecological Self

One of these voices is the Buddhist and environmentalist, Joanna Macy, who wrote “The Ecological Self: Postmodern Ground for Right Action.” In her work as an educator and writer, Macy encounters individuals experiencing spiritual changes by moving from conventional notions of self and self-interest to an ecological sense of self: a sense of being connected, as one body, with all of creation. She identifies three major factors that are promoting such a shift in seeing our world:

  • Planetary peril: People are breaking through avoidance mechanisms and are facing a pivotal psychological reality: the loss of certainty about the future because of such dangers as the massive deployment and proliferation of nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, resource depletion, and overpopulation. There is a sense of “suffering with” the larger world.
  • Systems thinking: “The findings of twentieth-century science undermine the notion of a separate self, distinct from the world it observes and acts upon.” Systems thinking sees a web of relationships with no clearly defined lines separating “me” from “you” and “us” from “them.” This larger sense of identification does not eclipse “the distinctiveness of our individual experiences [but rather] integration and differentiation go hand in hand.”
  • Resurgence of non-dualistic spiritualities: Macy believes that Buddhism contributes dramatically to Western thought in this area. In Hua Yen Buddhism one sees a “radical and sustaining interdependence.” The “boundless heart” of an “awakening being” sustains life better than any self-righteous ideology. This ecological way of seeing, according to Macy, awakens new powers and a “joy of communion.”
    Another voice is one from the Christian tradition: the theologian and environmentalist, Jay McDaniel, author of “The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis.” McDaniel believes that there is an “urgent need today, within and outside Christianity, for a new vision — that is, for vision conducive to the emergence of societies throughout the world that are peaceful, just, and ecologically sustainable.” He names this new vision an “ecological perspective” and compares it with the “substantialist perspective,”

Substantialist Perspective

The roots of the substantialist way of seeing the world are Hellenistic and patriarchal. McDaniel outlines three main characteristics of substantialism:

  • Self-containment: God is seen as basically self-contained from human beings and the rest of creation. This view sanctions at least three basic dichotomies:
    • Between the soul and the world. This has brought self-imposed alienation from “the secular world” and social irresponsibility (as evidenced by oppression, poverty, subjugation of humans and of nature).
    • Between God and the world. God “is imaged either as an aloof observer of worldly events or as a manipulative agent whose methods are coercion and force” rather than God imaged as being in and with the world.
    • Between the spiritual and the material. The spiritual is seen as superior to the material, with the latter being used, abused, and/or subjugated.
  • Immutability: God is seen as utterly changeless, beyond time — thus leading to a view that the essence of Christianity as a tradition does not need to change within the movement and influences of scholarship, of Biblical research, of new modes of thought, and of social change. New ways of seeing and calls for reform are rejected as not viable.
  • Instrumentality: Entities within the world are discerned as lacking intrinsic value and instead are assigned value by the external observer. Instrumental value has supported notions that:
    • God is good and the world is evil
    • The non-human world is valuable in its usefulness to human beings rather than as a value in and of itself

In light of the above, substantialism “emerges as an obstacle to the global future.” McDaniel believes that “if Christianity is to be of service to the global future, it must transcend its substantialist past.”

Ecological Perspective

In his synthesis of various worldviews (liberation, feminist and process theologies), McDaniel offers an ecological way of seeing that emphasizes:

  • Self-inclusion: Identity is seen as inclusive rather than exclusive of relationships with others which means that:
    • “Solidarity with the world is a more appropriate attitude toward life than disengagement from the world”
    • “God is a nurturing self in whose ongoing life the world is included”
  • Process: Life is seen as an ongoing process of becoming which is creative and moving instead of static and settled. Christianity is an ongoing process. God is seen as intimately involved in the world’s process of becoming.
  • Intrinsic value: Value is not assigned outside of oneself on the merits of one’s usefulness. All of life has intrinsic value by its very nature. Ethical considerations are biocentric rather than anthropocentric. Diversity is encouraged rather than discouraged or controlled. God is seen as one who inspires from within. The call of God is toward “forms of value realization that are peaceful, just, and sustainable.”

One Body

Macy’s and McDaniels ecological ways of seeing offer a broader, inclusive understanding of “environment” and “environmental crisis” than has been predominant in Western culture. Their ways of seeing refocus the basic message of Christianity and of many other religious perspectives: all are members of one body.

When one part of the body is hurting, when one part of our environment is being harmed (through sexism, racism. domination, pollution — whether recognized or not), the whole body is hurting. When one part of our body is healed (relationships are loving, trees are planted, educational and work opportunities are available to all, toxic wastes are diminished and disposed of safely, resources are justly distributed) — the rest of the body is well.

An ecological way of seeing is at once challenging and liberating in striving to walk gently on the earth.