Friday, May 11, 2007

Religion as an Alternative

Curtis White has a fantastic two-part essay on "the idols of environments" and the "ecology of work" ([1] & [2]) in Orion Magazine, which by the way is a fairly new online magazine that is well-worth looking through if you're interested in eco-issues. Both parts really hit hard on an issue that is increasingly important to me: religiously re-animating our passion and our relationship with the earth & existence.

White first captured my interest a couple of years ago with his book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think For Themselves. Since then, he wrote an underappreciated little book called The Spirit of Disobedience [see summary version from last April's Harper's]. I've never blogged about this last book, but it has proven really influential to me in terms of offering me a new grammar to conceptualize the kind of research & work I'd like next to do.

Judging by his essay in Orion, it has also set White's current course. In the second part, he does, I think, have an error. He asserts that humanity is naturally inclined to live in harmony with itself and its environment. I think he is fundamentally wrong here. The history of human civilisation has found it not simply a witness but a cause of an ecosystem's collapse. This is no radical claim either -- just read Jared Diamond's Collapse. Now, this isn't to call humanity a virus, or something dramatic like that. It's an observation, not a moral judgment, that we consistently tame nature to its submission, and in many cases our own demise.

What is a moral judgment is the hope for an alternative. To call for a different & religious way to approach and live within our ecosystems, as White does, should not be framed in some kind of nostalgic or idealistic plea for 'the way things used to be'. It is far less practical than that: its focus is about the way things might be. This was basically the point of my long, likely-ignored post last week about marketable religion. Only when we have figured out a way to think something different (note: not think something differently, which just assumes we see that "something" in a different light), and thus to breach the defining confines of practicality and productivity, is it possible to proceed "religiously". The aim of religion, in this perspective, isn't simply to project imaginative fantasies, but somehow to inspire and organize us to proceed from these fantasies imaginatively.