Review of Karen Armstrong’s Sacred Nature: Bringing nature into our collective consciousness

Karen Armstrong suggests a completely new worldview, a belief in the natural world’s innate power to redeem itself

September 29, 2023 09:02 am | Updated 09:02 am IST

The impact of mindless development has come knocking on our doors. Floods, heat waves, and wildfires have made the summer of 2023 with some of the most extreme events on record. Nature has shown to be fierce and awe-inspiring, mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery that both repels and attracts). What is clear now is that given the fearful reality of the climate crisis, homo sapiens will have to change not only their lifestyle but the entire belief system too.

Once a nun, and now an accomplished commentator on transcultural understanding, Karen Armstrong has written a timely treatise, Sacred Nature, on reconnecting with nature to rekindle our sense of the sacred. As a child we do have a silent receptiveness of the natural world but with age a sense of superiority takes over. “Our all-absorbing technological living has alienated us from nature,” laments Armstrong. “Even in a place of extreme natural beauty we talk on our mobiles or scroll through social media: we are present, yet fundamentally absent.” Unless nature finds an intimate place in our minds and hearts, humans will continue to remain isolated from it.

Through the reading of ancient texts and scriptures, Armstrong reminds us that myths introduced our forbearers to deeper truths by directing their attention to the eternal and universal. It is, however, another matter that with the astonishing success in science and technology during the 18th century, myths were discounted as false and primitive.

Gandhi’s ideals

Sacred Nature explores religious practices and philosophical ideas that were fundamental to the way people experienced nature in the past, and how myths, rituals, poetry, and music had a profound effect on their mental life. With nature coming full throttle to assert its immense power in recent times, there is an urgent need to return to the spiritual traditions of treating nature with reverence which gave birth to Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, as well as rationalism in Greece. The classic expression of the Greeks called kenosis, personified by Gandhi as ‘emptying of the self,’ helps liberate us from egotism. It opens up a new understanding of ourselves and a fresh perception of the world around us. Needless to say, application of such thoughts, perceptions and practices have much to offer.

Even for those who may not like hymns of devotion, Armstrong’s subtle exploration of the sacredness of nature can push them into thinking about reconnecting with nature. In a world where nature is rapidly receding from everyday life, there is a need to bring nature back into our collective consciousness.

Armstrong suggests a completely new worldview, a belief in nature’s innate power to redeem itself. Unless we develop an aesthetic appreciation of nature and devise an ethical programme to guide our thoughts and behaviour, we will soon run out of time for ourselves. The threats are indeed looming large, and are quite often irreversible. There is a need to evoke the romanticism of Wordsworth and Keats to incorporate into human lives insights and practices that will help in meeting today’s serious challenges because nature’s processes are dynamic, ephemeral, and their origins are hidden from view.

Pulling central themes from the world’s religious traditions – from gratitude to compassion, non-violence to sacrifice – Armstrong offers practical steps to develop a new mindset to rekindle the sense of the sacred. Reflective and insightful, the book is a primer on how environmental science need to be redesigned as a subject. In such times of climate change when icecaps are melting, wildfires are raging and floods are rampant, there is no time for partying anymore.

Sacred Nature; Karen Armstrong, Bodley Head/PRH, ₹999.

The independent writer is a researcher and academic.

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