Earth Spirituality


  1. An Earth Spirituality for the Anthropocene

This talk begins with a discussion of spirituality. What do we mean when we used the word “spirituality?” From there we go on to An Earth spirituality and the challenge it presents to faith groups. Next I’ll talk about how we come to an Earth Spirituality. It happens in different ways for different people. Few of us get knocked off a horse like St. Paul. For most of us it is a gradual process. I think of it as a personal pilgrimage. So I will tell you some stories about people I knew or heard about who journeyed to an Earth Spirituality. I’ll conclude with a few words about how an Earth Spirituality can reinvigorate faith groups.


December 3, 2014

We need to move from a spirituality of alienation from the Natural world to a spirituality of intimacy with it, from a spirituality of the divine as revealed in verbal revelation to a spirituality of the divine revealed in the visible world around us, from a spirituality concerned with justice simply to humans to a justice that includes the larger Earth community

Thomas Berry

Thanks you for coming this evening.  This is the third session in this course. My Subject is “An Earth Spirituality for the Anthropocene.  A bit of context

In the first session we discussed the climate change era, now called The Anthropocene.  Unlike previous eras it is man-made—as the name suggests (from anthro-“man” and “cene”  meaning “new—the new age made by man). It is changing the chemistry of our earth.  It is indeed changing all life on earth as we have known it.

In the second session we talked about the New Cosmology.  Traditional cosmology talks about the creation of planets, the stars, the constellations and Earth.  The New Cosmology adds to the traditional cosmology the development of Earth, our human story and that of the other species. The human story and the universe story is one story. The bottom line:  we are earthlings.  The Earth is our greater self and that awareness carries with it all kinds of implications and responsibilities.

In the previous sessions we also talked about story and reframing.  Story provides the essential historical context.  It helps us understand what happened, how it happened and why it happened.   Frames are the psychological contexts within our minds and emotions. We must learn to reframe to enable us earthlings to face the changes that are coming upon us.

Before giving you the road map for this evening…a few clarifications.

First, as you are undoubtedly aware, there is a distinction between spirituality and religion.  You don’t have to be a “church-goer” or even believe in God to have a deep spirituality and live a spiritual life. I believe that spirituality transcends all religions including our so-called organized religions. Long before there were any organized religions there were and still are earth-based spiritual practices that go back to shamanic times, centuries before organized religions.

Second, I shall refer to religions as “faith-groups.”   Though most faith groups may promote a particular type or types of spirituality, I believe an Earth Spirituality is consistent with the teachings of all faith groups and, in many cases, is imbedded in their religious cultures.

Third, I am a Christian.  I come out of a Roman Catholic tradition, spent a dozen years with a monastic community and worked for a few years as a priest.  I have been strongly influenced by Thomas Berry who many consider as the Father of the New Cosmology.  He was a friend and mentor.  I’m currently practicing my Christian Faith within a Unitarian fellowship. But I am not promoting a particular religion.

Fourth, since the word “God “ is somewhat loaded—I usually avoid using this term and refer instead to the Divine, or the divine presence.

Finally, as is my custom, I’ll tell you some stories from my personal experiences and introduce you to some people you might not have heard of.


First, I’ll talk about the relationship between faith groups and spirituality.  As we shall see the Anthropocene presents a special challenge to the traditional spiritualties of faith groups.

Second, I will talk about the nature of spirituality, particularly an Earth Spirituality.   What is it? What does it look like?  How does it relate to traditional spiritualties? How can it help us deal with the Anthropocene?

Finally, I’ll talk about the way forward and the challenge for faith groups



In recent centuries, whenever there was a societal crisis, particularly a crisis in terms of social justice, people turned to their churches for guidance.  The faith groups were leaders in the fight against slavery, racial discrimination, prison reform, health care and hospitals, the fight for jobs and labour unions, care for the poor.

In our times it has become increasingly clear that climate change will have profound moral and ethical implications, especially for the poor and disadvantaged. Why then, with few exceptions, have the faith groups been so silent in dealing with climate change?

I think Thomas Berry has given us a clue.  In an often quoted statement he said, “The traditional religions in themselves and out of their existing resources, cannot deal with the problems we have to deal with. Something new has been added, a new experience, a new context.” But we cannot deal with these problems without the traditional religions.”

The key word here is “context.”  When we look back at the leaders of the world’s major faiths—the Buddha, Abraham and Moses, Confucius, Jesus Christ and St. Paul, Mohammed and many others, they all lived in the same geological context, the Holocene.  It began with the receding ice fields about 11,000 years ago.  It introduced a time of stability.  It gave rise to the world’s cultures, to farming, to the creation of cities and so forth.

During the Holocene Era there were periodic apocalyptic predictions and there were natural disasters-—hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, droughts, famines—but these were natural occurrences and nature always seemed to bounce back.

When Jesus challenged his followers to learn from the flowers of the fields that neither work nor spin I doubt that he or any other great faith leader foresaw a time when there might not be flowers in the fields. When they woke up in the morning and went outside they experienced the same world they experienced the night before.  But when you and I go out in the morning, we think we are seeing the same world we saw the night before, but 97% of the world’s climate scientists are telling us that we are not seeing the same world.  We are experiencing a world in rapid transition and decline.  Our species has never experienced anything like this before—and neither have our faith groups.  So we are facing a major dilemma—and huge paradox.  And paradoxes are notoriously difficult to deal with.

The best paradoxical advice I know of for dealing with paradoxes comes from the eminent modern philosopher, Yogi Berra, former catcher of the New York Yankees. He said, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.”

On a more technical note, I think our current paradox was best expressed by the poet Robert Hass in regard to the environment.

“We are the only protectors, and we are the thing that needs to be protected,  and we are what it needs to be protected from.”


The word spirituality comes from the Latin “spiritus” which means “breath.” It is the sign of life.  It also is translated as a “wind”—the wind as a creative power.

In the first words of Genesis we read, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.  Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep with a divine wind sweeping over the waters.”(Gn 1.2)

In John’s gospel we have the same emphasis. “The wind blows were it pleases; you can hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.”(Jn 3.8) 

Spirituality is a creative force within us which enables us to wrestle with the great cosmological issues. Where did I come from? Where am I going in my life?  Do I have a purpose-and if so how do I know what it is? And how does my future relate to this beautiful planet we live on?—a critical question as we are witnessing the destruction of our planet’s life-support systems?

Spirituality helps us learn to dream, have visions, share in the dream of the earth and learn to express ourselves in meaningful ways—through our work, our play, our music, our writing, our art.

Spirituality gives full reign to our intellect and consciousness.  It drives us to seek answers, it helps us to recognize mystery and live comfortably with mystery—when there are no answers.

Spirituality expresses itself in prayer—a much ridiculed phenomenon in our modern world.  I take prayer seriously as an essential aspect of my spirituality and I smile whenever I think of the comedienne Lilly Tomlin’s wry observations about prayer and the scepticism it often confronts.  “Why is it,” she asks “that when we talk to God we call it prayer, but when God talks to us we call it schizophrenia?”

Spirituality manifests itself in some kind of practice that helps us renew our spirit.  For some, this might mean daily meditation. For others it might reflect an emphasis in their work.  For still others it may be a feeling they have at a meal with their families, as they look across the table into the eyes of their children or grand-children.  Many people seem to express their spirituality down on their knees in their gardens

Spirituality is a gift that takes the form of courage, strength and healing.   It strengthens us and helps us make the critical transitions in our life:  from sickness to health or from health to sickness; from a sense of community to the loneliness we experience with the loss of our loved ones; from loving relationships to the breakdown of relationships and the courage to face the pain of separation.

Spirituality fosters communion and a responsibility for our fellow humans who are sick, suffering, or facing discrimination.   Spirituality is what turns our sense of justice into a commitment to help change things.

Finally, spirituality is what we turn to within us to prepare for that day when our present personal story comes to an end and our new story begins as we return to the living earth and universe from which we have come. 


As I mentioned before, Earth Spirituality is not something totally new.  It is a “new” consciousness: “new” for us, but not for many indigenous peoples around the world. You don’t give up your current spirituality and adopt an Earth Spirituality. It is more like a refinement or adding a dimension to your current spirituality—the spirituality you received from your faith group or one that you have developed on your own. But it is a challenge and the journey can be a difficult one.

It may start with an awareness that something is going seriously wrong with Earth. As children in religious instruction classes we often heard the expression:  “God is in his heaven…and all’s right with the world.”  But you can see that all’s not right with the world. There are destructive forces that are changing the very nature of Earth and you feel that you should be doing something about this.  As you ponder all of this you come to an awareness that this it is not only something that is happening to Earth.  It is also happening to you, for you have come from Earth, you are part of Earth, it is Earth that that is sustaining your life.

You soon come to the sense that Earth is a living reality.  It is not just a collection of resources put there for your disposal.  It is something very special—even sacred.  Further, it is revelatory.  The living Earth is trying to tell you things that are important for your continued existence, for the existence of other species and for Earth itself.

If you have never thought about this before—that the Divine is speaking to you though his creation–you may have doubts.  But part of the Earth’s revelation is coming through science.  The message is overwhelming and disturbing. It is telling you about the destruction of Earth’s systems.  It is warning you that we may be on the slippery slope to the next great Extinction.

But then there is confusion.

Though the message is clear you may still have doubts.  Most people you know do not seem to hear what you hear or see what you see. They may even resent or attack you for your belief.  If you speak about these things they think of you as a “doomer” with a Chicken Little complex.   It is almost as if even thinking about what is happening is like a wasting disease, like a cancer.  The situation seems so hopeless that thinking about it can lead to serious mental health problems. So it is better to avoid this issue altogether.

Deep within you feel insecure, even vulnerable.  You sense that you must do something about this situation but you are not sure what. You don’t see a clear path forward, but you don’t expect one. You are groping your way and trying to develop a spirituality that can be resilient but also has an increasing tolerance for ambiguity, contradictions and complexity.  It is a trial and error process and there will be mistakes.

As you ponder all of this and look for some guidelines you may get the inkling that earth has its own laws–laws that have preceded human law since the beginning of time.  They are laws Earth has developed for its own survival. You want to find a return to those laws. But Earth’s laws seem so far away and most people don’t recognize or believe in them.

You try to turn to those you expect to help you.  Your faith group may seem to too pious thinking about a God up there somewhere, or even wrapped in a belief that God will step in and save the world. The corporations seem intent on nothing but profits. The governments are in cahoots with the corporations, developing international trade laws that hand over resources while ignoring their citizens and even threatening citizens with laws suits if they dare intervene. And the universities are locked up in their academic ivory towers, afraid to wander into uncharted outside their specific disciplines or confront governments or corporations that they depend upon for their grants.

Finally, we must be prepared for a long-term struggle. The reality was expressed so well in a simple statement by Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

We know what needs to be done (about climate change), and we know how it must be done.  Yet, despite the information at our disposal, unfortunately very little is done.  It is a long journey from head to heart; and it is an even longer journey from heart to hands.”

Whew! It seems that many of those who are committed to an Earth Spirituality are experiencing what the mystics called the Dark Night of the Soul. And they realize that things are going to get worse before they get better.


There are very few of us who come to an Earth Spirituality in a sudden moment—like St. Paul getting knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.  For most of us it is a journey, a pilgrimage if you will.

It does not mean adopting a totally new spirituality, one that is totally different from our traditional ones. It is more like reframing, rethinking the nature of our spirituality in light of the tremendous implications of the Anthropocene.  And it seems to come in stages. It is more like what Thomas Berry called “moments of grace”—moments of insight and inspiration.

When I got to Baffin Island and encountered the Inuit culture for the first time someone told me the story about a woman tourist who visited a small community and was interested in Inuit carvings.  It was summer time. As she was walking around the community she saw a man sitting on his front steps working on a carving. Behind him on a counter were some beautiful soapstone carvings: a mother and child, a muskox, a narwhale.  She was very impressed at the beauty of his work.  She watched him for few minutes and finally asked him what he was carving. He said, “A polar bear.” She then asked him how he put such strength and spirit into the stone. He said, “I don’t put it into the stone.  It is already in there. I just chip aware everything that does not look like a bear.”

For most of us our spirituality is something very personal so it is hard to visualize.  But once in a while we see it in action.

Years ago I read the story of a woman in a book called Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.  I’ve never forgotten it.

Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who was sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.    The first part of the book tells about his horrifying experiences: about lining up naked in front of brutal guards who would decide on a whim whether you would go out on a work detail or go to the gas ovens; about prisoners with terrible wounds trying to convince the guards that they were still strong enough to work; about a camp life where cigarettes were the currency because one could use then to buy a potato or a bit of cabbage.   He told about returning from day-long work details and seeing fellow prisoners sitting on their bunks, smoking their stash of cigarettes, a sure sign that they had given up hope and decided to die.

In the midst of these pages of horror there is a single beautiful story.  Frankl was called to the side of a young woman who was dying.  He tells the story this way.

“It is a simple story.  There is little to tell and it may sound as if I had invented it: but to me it seems like a poem. This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days.  But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge.  “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me.  “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.”  Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me.  I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words.  Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations” Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes,” She said.  What did it say to her?   She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

(Victor E Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning, Washington Square Press, 1959) P.90.

Several years ago I got call in my office in Yellowknife. A fellow from Dublin read an article I wrote on Community Development and the Ecology of Spirit.  He asked me

if I would be willing to come over and do  some workshops on community development. I said “Yes “ and a few weeks later I found myself in the slums of downtown Dublin—in an area known as the canal communities.

The people in this community were being replaced by an urban development project. The organizer showed me the tenement building where most of the people still lived.  We climbed a cement staircase that went up six stories. The landings used to have windows but they were broken and the corridors were open to the weather. I’ve worked in tenements in Spanish Harlem and in other urban ghettoes, but I never saw anything like this. The corridors were filthy: the walls were covered with graffiti; dank pools of water were in the corners; garbage, broken liquor bottles and needles from the heroin trade were everywhere. The apartments had huge steel vault-like doors.  Many were scarred from various attempts to kick them in. The nights were often filled with screaming and fights in the corridors.

Then the organizers took me around to see their pride and joy—a row of new small row houses they had developed.  They introduced me to some of the residents.

We knocked on one door and elderly woman invited us in.  She gave us a tour and afterwards I said to her, “Mary, what do you like most about your new house?” I thought she would tell me about the safety she now felt, or the lack of drunken screaming all night long, or people trying to kick her door down.  But she didn’t.  She motioned to us, led us back out onto the porch and looked down over the railing on her porch.   I looked down and saw a small strip of earth between the sidewalk and the edge of the house, no wider than the aisle of this church, about ten feet long.  And there growing in the earth were a few geraniums and pansies.  And she smiled at me, her eyes glistening with tears and pride. She said, “I now have a garden.” 

A Final example. Several years ago a close friend of mine, a consultant and colleague, was dying and in the final stages of her cancer.  Her husband called me from the hospital.  He said to me, “The doctors have agreed to let Ann go home on the condition that she find a spiritual counsellor.  We told them we had one.”  I asked him who it was. He said to me, “You.”  And I said to myself, “I’d better get down there.”

Ann and her husband lived in a beautiful house, in a rural area of southern Alberta.   The house was perched on the edge of a ridge and had spectacular view of the trees on the hillside below and the fields beyond.

When I got to the house the husband took me aside.  “I’m worried,” he said to me.  “I thought Ann believed what I believe, what we were taught as kids growing up” —he was the son of a minister—“but she doesn’t believe in any of those things.”

When I went in to the living room to see Ann she was sitting on a sofa looking out through their large picture window.  After she welcomed me she said, “Did you talk to my husband?” I nodded.  “He’s worried about me.  I said, “I know.”  She said, “Mike, I don’t know about any of those things we learned about growing up.  But when I look out that window, and see the beauty of what surrounds us, that’s what tells me there is a God.  Please tell my husband not to worry.  I’m ready.”

Ann died a few weeks later.  We held the funeral in a little church out in the midst of the farmers’ fields on a beautiful, sunny, August morning.  In the eulogy I quoted the words of the great Blackfoot chief, Crowfoot who, a century earlier, was reflecting on his own death in a place not very far away from where we were holding the service.  He said, “What is life?  It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.  It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”


I’ve talked about the challenges for faith groups and the need to adapt their spirituality in order to face the Anthropocene. Then came a discussion about spirituality and specifically an Earth Spirituality. As we saw, it is not an easy transition and it is not free of pain and suffering.  Then I gave some examples of what an earth spirituality might look like in practice.

Finally a few words about the way forward and a possible new mission for faith groups.


Early on I mentioned Thomas Berry’s statement that the traditional religions do not have in their traditions or resources the ability to deal with today’s problems—but we cannot deal with these problems without them.  What did he mean by that last part?

Obviously he was referring to an Earth Spirituality.  But I think he was also thinking of other things that faith groups might offer.

  • For many people climate change is something they cannot see.  Faith groups believe in a reality they cannot see.
  • Those who decide to deal with climate change often report having a personal revelation or awareness.  Faith group members are used to the idea of having personal revelations.
  • A willingness to deal with climate change requires a sort of personal conversion or transition that brings a new awareness and a commitment.  Faith groups are built around conversion and commitment.
  • Climate change involvement requires recruiting large numbers of citizens to the cause. Faith groups are experienced in recruiting people to a cause.
  • Climate change has significant moral and ethical implications affecting the poor countries and individuals everywhere living in poverty. Faith groups have strong moral and ethical values and have had a long history of concern for the poor.
  • Climate change requires individuals who are willing to witness to their beliefs, often in the face of hostility and ridicule. Faith groups expect their members to witness to their beliefs. (The word “witness” comes from the Latin “martyr” meaning martyr.)
  • The battle against climate change often requires civil disobedience. Many faith groups have a history of civil disobedience.
  • Climate Change involvement acknowledges that we are all responsible for the problem and the need for forgiveness and compassion for our failings. Faith groups believe in forgiveness and compassion.

I’m not saying that all faith groups are willing to commit to the struggle for climate justice.  I’m only indicating that there are numerous things within the history and culture of faith groups that enable them to do so. But if it is to happen I suspect that it will not come about within faith groups by hierarchical edict.  It will come about through the influence and pressure of the people in the pews who have embraced an Earth Spirituality and are demanding that their faith groups deal with climate change.

And there may be a strong reason for them to do so.

In the Western World the membership for the mainline denominations is declining significantly. It is becoming increasingly older and they are losing the young. One of major complaints that young people have about churches is that they are no longer relevant in terms of the world’s problems. But no world problem is larger and more relevant than climate change. This is becoming increasingly obvious.

Climate change justice needs a champion. The churches need a relevant issue. Perhaps the churches, with an Earth Spirituality, can become that champion.


I think the new mission of faith groups is about hope.  We may be aware that in countries all around the world there are people and organizations fighting for climate justice.  But on an individual basis we may only sense anger, bitterness, frustration, helplessness, defeat and a profound loss of hope. This is the challenge for a relevant spirituality, especially since we are destroying the very thing upon which we are basing our spirituality.

St. Augustine of Hippo, commenting on hope, captured both the angst and challenge we are facing.  He said “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” 

I leave with you the words about hope from the priest/ sociologist Andrew Greely: hope for ourselves and hope for our world. 

“We see death all around us.  Plants, animals, friends, family all die. We know, too, that we will die; but as we witness the glorious rebirth of nature in springtime, we inevitably ask ourselves, is death the ultimate and final end; does it have the last word to say about life?…We may rationally reject the hope and confidence at the core of our being; it may well be a deception of a vindictive, cruel and arbitrary universe.  But the decisive religious question, perhaps the only religious question that really matters, is whether that hope which is at the centre of our personality is a cruel deception or whether it is—a hint of an explanation, a rumor of angels, the best insight we have into what human life is all about.”


Thank you.


Comments are closed.