Respect for nature

February 24 2007

Primitive man had no difficulty in feeling respect for nature. Indeed, he stood in awe of nature, because he was at nature’s mercy. Non-human nature was the first medium through which our ancestors, after they had awoken to consciousness, got into touch with the spiritual presence that is behind both non-human nature and human nature. Nature-worship was thus the earliest form of man’s religion. The so-called nature gods are not just embodiments of nature; they are embodiments of what lies beyond nature, behind the universe; but man saw this ultimate reality through the nature at whose mercy he was.

In most parts of the World for some time past, the worship of the presence behind the universe in the form of non-human nature has been replaced either by a higher religion or by the worship of collective human power. Both these later forms of religion tend, though in different ways, to diminish man’s reverence for non-human nature. They both tend to empty nature of the divine presence that really does shine through nature, though it does not originate in nature. The worship of collective human power falsely deifies man. Higher religion, at any rate in its Judaic form, its Jewish-Christian-Muslim form, pictures ultimate spiritual reality in an anthropomorphic way, in the likeness of a divine person, God; and this tempts man to think of non-human nature as having been created by God for man’s use, and to feel that he is licensed to exploit nature in whatever way he may choose.

In the religious history of the Ancient Greeks, divinities that had originally stood for ultimate spiritual reality as seen through non-human nature were transformed into symbols of collective human power. For instance, the Greek goddess Athena, who had originally symbolized the cultivation of the olive-tree and the art of needlework, came to symbolize the political power of the two super-powers of the Ancient Greek world, Athens and Sparta. It is ironical that the same Athena was the city-state goddess of Athens and also the city-state goddess of Sparta – the same goddess for two rival powers. Of course, there had been nothing incongruous in their having the same goddess of olive-cultivation and art in the days before Athena had been “politicized”.

I believe that, in Japan, Shinto, which is the worship of the ultimate reality through non-human nature, was politicized in the same way, temporarily, after the Meiji Revolution in 1868. But, since the end of the Second World War, Shinto has been purged – if I have got the facts right – of this political perversion and has been given back its original function of putting man into touch with ultimate spiritual reality through non-human nature. If I am correctly informed about this, Japan is fortunate in still possessing in Shinto the worship of ultimate reality through non-human nature in the original form of this religion.

In our time, man has been violating and desecrating non-human nature all over the World. In Japan, it is my impression that the obliteration of man’s original natural environment by an artificial, man-made environment has now been carried to further extremes than anywhere else so far. Shinto is surely a precious antidote to this. In those parts of the World in which the Judaic conception of the character of ultimate reality has prevailed, the equivalents of Shinto, which were once living realities there too, have long ago been extinguished.

However, even in the theistic-minded and technological-minded Western world, there have been a few religious and poetic geniuses who have retained or who have revived primitive man’s reverence for nature as a manifestation of the spiritual presence behind the universe. I have already quoted a poem of St. Francis of Assisi’s in praise of God as the creator of inanimate nature and of all living things. I think there is a message for the present-day Western world, indeed for the whole present generation of mankind, in St. Francis’s hymn, and in the poem of the Pantheistic English poet Wordsworth which he called “Intimations of Immortality”. I do not know whether Wordsworth was consciously aware of the quest for Nirvana, but, as I see it, it is the Buddhist’s conception of Nirvana, not the Christian’s conception of immortality, that Wordsworth is describing and that he is seeking to recapture in this poem.

When I visit the sacred precinct at Ise in Japan, the central shrine of Shinto, I feel that here the form of religion which St. Francis and Wordsworth were trying to bring back to life is still fully alive. The spirit with which the visitor to Ise finds himself in contact is a spirit that the present generation throughout the world needs to cultivate in order to dissuade nature from taking her revenge for the impious violence that modern man has done to her.

In India, respect for non-human nature has been carried even further than in Japan, though here it takes the form of respect for non-human living creatures rather than of an emotional relation with inanimate nature.

This is from a transcript of a conversation: Jainism may be about a relationship with animate nature, but Shinto is not only about a relation with inanimate nature.

The “spirit” which Wordsworth was describing may have had homes under the surface of the natural world in Japan, but the Romantic relationship with nature is different from the relationship of the adherents of Shinto. It is passionate and subjective. The Shinto relationship (though this sounds like a cliché) is calm and contemplative. In the West, art and nature were felt to be different. In Shinto, nature is art. A tree or rock is venerated for its beauty and carried for hundreds of miles to take its place in a shrine. The spirituality of Shinto survived the industrialisation of Japan better than Christian spirituality survived the industrialisation of England; and Shinto itself has been a cultural preservative.

Birds and animals are not frightened of human beings in India. Hawks and kites will come within a few feet of you. Cows will lie down in the road in front of your car and will feel sure that they will not be run over. And one Indian sect, the Jain sect, […] excels in its reverence and considerateness for non-human life. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, was a contemporary of the Buddha, but Jainism has stayed in India, whereas Buddhism has spread all over the world. The Jains carry their respect for life to such lengths that they will not kill even mosquitoes, and they put cloths over their mouths in order to avoid swallowing insects by accident. [Some will not take antibiotics.] This may seem to Westerners to be going too far; but there is beauty and value in it, and I think the modern world would do well to learn something from the Jain religion of India as well as from the Shinto religion of Japan.

Surviving the Future, OUP, 1971

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