Writing in The Guardian on the Gulf spill as a "hole in the world," Naomi Klein says: "Virtually all indigenous cultures have myths about gods and spirits living in the natural world. ... Calling the Earth ‘sacred' is another way of expressing humility in the face of forces we do not fully comprehend. When something is sacred, it demands that we proceed with caution." I'd like to extend this intriguing thought beyond smallish surviving cultures to most of the history of thought about the nature of the world and our place in it.
When I studied religion as a student, it was widely felt that almost all cultures had seen a continuity between the divine realm and the natural one (which included people). So, if they talked cosmogony -- or origins -- the gods might have emerged from primal chaos, then the Earth emerged in turn from their navel, and the like. In ongoing terms, the gods interacted with humans and the world, had children with them, who might become gods, etc. This kind of divine-natural continuum was true from Greek myth and philosophy through the Mideast, Asia, Africa. Everywhere.
But the Hebrew Bible took a different turn. It posited a God apart, who created all the world by fiat, from nothing. (This is in part a later elaboration based on more ambiguous original texts, but it mainly holds.) Nature and the divine were starkly separated. As for humans, He created them, giving them "dominion" over other creatures. It was a neat and unique twist, authorially speaking, on the universal plot -- no small achievement. And it carried over into early Judaism's militant, proselytizing, Christian and Muslim offshoots.
It's been argued that this biblical counterview had serious effects, lasting till now. For instance, it may have imbedded a sense of human power that played usefully into the rise of modern science and technology -- largely a good thing. But it might also have led to an arrogance about dominating nature that implies drilling ruinous holes in the earth. On the other other hand, it could yet engender a redeeming sense of ecological "stewardship."
But it would be wrong to overstress the importance of such heritages. Non-biblical cultures, such as India or China, are also capable of technological manias. And indigenous cultures can mess up the environment. Having a few revered myths in mind may act as a partial brake or caution. That's about it.
Fortunately, in my opinion, a lot of what we think and do springs from the normal equipment that comes with being human. I once heard kids in preschool debate the existence of god. "If there's no god," said one, perhaps echoing something heard at home, "then who made the world?" "Nobody made the world," said another, definitely not echoing anything from home, "the world made itself." These are the traditional positions on the topic, but I think most people with a decent mind can arrive at them on their own.
I also think of my late philosophy teacher, Hans Jonas. He grew up as a German Jew, studied with the brilliant existentialist and repugnant Nazi, Martin Heidegger, escaped Hitler for Palestine, fought all through the Second World War in the British army, then in Israel's war in 1948, migrated to Canada and wound up in the U.S. He fashioned a profound philosophy of life -- in the technical sense of organic life -- which was rare for someone from his milieu. It made him an inspiration to environmentalists, but he explained its source rather simply: "To me, even though terrible things happen of course, the world has never been a hostile place." He had a great mind and had read all the books but, at bottom, it was about who he came out of the womb and into the world, as. That's an encouraging thought. The world is ours as we are the world's, to make or unmake, full stop. Happy Canada Day weekend.
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