RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS of the WORLD:
Engagement with the Natural World
Religious traditions provide insight about how peoples and cultures have regarded the natural world and how they have engaged with it (or not) as part of their pursuit of spiritual experiences.
The world’s great and now global religions all originated as part of the urbanization of human life. These religions provided a retreat from small group life within and close to nature, as the people lived off of nature’s bounty. These religions provide both moral and doctrinal definitions of the world and how to live in it. This “Great Transformation” has altered human life and now all life on earth as the population of our species approaches 9 billion by 2050.
The world’s hunting and gathering peoples followed countless indigenous traditions related to their homelands, kin and its tribe(s). Many such groups survive into the present day, though none remain unaffected by the dominant civilizations that surround them. These indigenous groups could not and did not readily separate themselves from nature. The hunter-gatherer life in small group living defined the lives of our species for most of our evolutionary history. Humans were just another animal surviving on the earth and did so sparsely.
We can learn from what indigenous peoples have done as religious beings, with patterns of belief and practice that persist among all their human descendants. For example, humans make connections with the unseen power(s) by going to prominent places in nature: mountains and especially mountain peaks for power and inspiration; trees also came to occupy prominent places for finding linkages with the world beyond ours. Likewise, with certain caves, lakes, rivers, waterfalls; many of these are still recognized as sacred places by the major world religions, sources of blessing, purification, healing.
The world’s religions continued to have devotees regard these places as key sacred centers in their lives, focusing on mountains and trees as axis mundi, “pillars of the world.” They, too, still highlight having practitioners resort to caves, springs, rivers, and wilderness as places to go for spiritual blessings.
But there is also a divide among the world’s major religions: some world posited the ultimate reality as existing wholly other and separate from the natural world. They implicitly or explicitly came to see the natural world as mere background to human life, or even a profane entity to exploit at will. Discussed below are these traditions (the Abrahamic faiths, schools of Hinduism and Buddhism) that rejected the natural world as sacred.
But first are a few examples of traditions still extant among the indigenous religions. Then we consider world religions with beliefs and practices that place nature in a central place in peoples’ religious lives.
“I am trying to save the knowledge that the forest and this planet are alive,
to give it back to you who have lost this understanding.”
– Paiakan, Amazon Kayapo leader
Native American Spirit Quest
As part of the male passage to adulthood, the Lakota and other Native American peoples had men retreat alone to the wilderness to make first contact with and communicate with spirit allies. Some fast and undergo sweat lodge ceremonies as preparation, receiving guidance for their elder teacher/mentor. The place of solitary refuge is usually where the supernatural powers and spirits are thought to be readily contacted. Some are mountainous areas, others strange landforms such as the Badlands in South Dakota.
Alone in the wilderness for two or more days, the initiate prays and calls out to the spirits to come and help in his journey. He may have visions or dreams dense with natural symbolism (animals, clouds, rainbows, lightening, etc.) that require later interpretation by the spiritual elders. Some have described contacts and communications with animals, seeing them as manifestations of guardian spirits or deities of place.
Some initiates who return ready to be spiritual leaders in their community, and seek further training and experiences. Most come back having conceptualized their purpose in life, their role in a community, and how they may best serve the people. In these ways, dependent on the natural world, tribal peoples organized their society and their individual lives. The outdoors under the great sky above was an essential refuge.
Whole Earth Reflection from Kiowa Tribal Leader
Once in his life a person ought to concentrate the mind upon the remembered earth.
One ought to give oneself up to a particular landscape in one’s experience;
To look at it from as many angles as possible, to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it.
One ought to imagine that one touches it with one’s hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it.
He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the moon, and the colors of the dawn and dusk.
– N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa tribe, Oklahoma (1976)
Shamans in Nature to find Spirit Guide/deity
The shaman was probably humanity’s first religious specialist, depicted on the Neolithic caves across the world. This practitioner was found commonly among the peoples and cultures everywhere from the arctic to the tropical rain forests. Shamans still exist today, as people need individuals with connections to the unseen spirit world to communicate with gods of places or souls of deceased ancestors.
Shamans for their initiations work with established practitioners, but eventually must prove their ability to attract the spirits and endure possession by them to communicate on behalf of their communities. In most societies, the shaman stages séances, outdoors, summoning the gods/spirits and then allowing them to speak through their voices.
A second kind of shamanism entails spirit flight: while the shaman lies inert in trance after preliminary rituals involving singing and playing a drum (their distinctive, near universal tool), his soul travels outside and to where the gods/ancestors are thought reside: in the natural world. This can also ental visiting the underworld accessed through a spring/waterfall; on a sacred mountain; or beyond this world into afterlife realms beyond it.
Australian Aborigines (Walkabout)
Walkabout is a rite of passage in many Australian Aboriginal societies. During a walkabout, a male member of the society, usually between the ages 10 and 16, sets forth on his journey to manhood. The Walkabout is done in the wilderness, in areas associated with one’s group’s totemic animal (e.g. kangaroo, bird, snake) in search of blessings and life’s powers. Aboriginal groups look to the world’s creation, or Dreamtime, when they were identical with their group’s totemic animals. Certain songs must be learned that express this and describe the group’s own landform; these places are visited for becoming a full, adult member who sustains their primal land-based identity. A Walkabout can take up to six months to complete. It must be done alone.
To even be allowed to go on the Walkabout, the Elders of the community must decide an individual is ready after years of preparation. Part of the preparations includes elders passing down of knowledge about their ancient slice of the world. Traditional Walkabout clothing includes only a loincloth.
The journey can travel over a thousand miles. Obviously, every participant must be able to build a shelter, hunt game, and gather food and water. They can gain guidance by asking the ancestral spirits for it and by singing their group’s “songlines” which act as a spoken map. The Walkabout is about self-reflection as well as being a process in which one learns one’s distinct totemic identity and one’s natural relationship with the world.
The Outdoors in the World Religions
The rise of world religions is associated with settled agriculture and urbanism, when communities formed that were composed of different indigenous groups. In the period of these religions arising, called the “Axial Age” (500 BCE-600 CE), prophets and sages across the ancient world articulated new theories of reality and defined new moral teachings based on universal principles (such as monotheism, ethics, universal love, compassion, or harmony). Since this ancient era, increasing numbers of people came to live in cities and found these universal religions compelling, up until the present day.
What is interesting in this rise of new urban religions is how sages and prophets drew on extended periods out in nature (forests, mountains, deserts, caves) to receive their revelations or make their spiritual discoveries. The Hindu sages, the Buddha, and other ancient wanderers in India went to the jungles to meditate undisturbed for extended periods; Daoist masters found nature and being outdoors essential for their own search for harmonizing with the primal energy of the universe. Likewise, the Jewish prophets, Mohammed and teachers such as Jesus went to the mountains and deserts for their dramatic meetings with the one God.
Asian religions find the presence and blessings of their gods more imminent in the natural world. Hindu traditions direct devotees to go on pilgrimages to the Himalayan mountains, where many teachers have established retreats (ashrams) so their disciples can practice yoga and meditation close to landforms regarded as permeated with divine presence and grace. Likewise, sacred are the rivers of South Asia: from their origins in the mountains all along their course to the seas, are found natural places where karmic blessings and divine presence are strong. The confluences where a stream flows into a river (called tīrthas) have especially concentrated spiritual benefits.
Buddhism also has a strong connection to the natural world.Its founder was enlightened in the jungle while sheltering under a tree located close to a river; he also touches the earth to bear witness to his imminent enlightenment. A tradition of “forest monasteries” dedicated to meditation in wilderness retreats endures until the present day.
Specific practices are addressed to Buddhists assuming their connection to nature. For example, a practice of meditation focusing on the cultivation of maitri/metta (“loving kindness”) has the practitioner repeat verses seeking peace with all creatures of the forest:
I have love for the footless,
for the bipeds too I have love;
I have love for those with four feet,
for the many-footed I have love.
(Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.67)
In East Asia, the Daoist traditions celebrate the natural world as an unfailing place of inspiration: their search for uniting with the Dao and training their lives to flow with its primal energy leads them to abide in remote retreats and monasteries among mountains and flowing waters. Wild herbs are essential nourishment. If one can immerse oneself in the forces present in mountains and allow the energies of free-flowing mountain streams to pervade one’s consciousness, harmony and immortality are possible. There is no tradition more at home with outdoor spirituality than Daoism!
Nature Spirituality in Daoism
“You have only to rest in inaction and things will transform themselves. Smash your form and body, spit out hearing and eyesight, forget you are a thing among other things, and you may join in great unity with the deep and boundless.”
“When a man does not dwell in self, then things will of themselves reveal their forms to him. His movement is like that of water, his stillness like that of a mirror, his responses like those of an echo.”
Do not struggle. Go with the flow of things, and you will find yourself at one with the mysterious unity of the Universe.
By exhaustively examining one’s own mind, one may understand nature.
One who understands nature understands Heaven.
If you really want to find out something about immortality, you have to live in the mountain forests for 30 years.
If you succeed in perfecting your eyes and ears there, if you harmonize the heart and the will so that your mind becomes clear and pure and free of all that is evil, you will be able to discuss the matter.
– Wang Yangming
But doctrines in the world’s religions also find the world of nature unimportant or irrelevant to their ideals. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have scriptures that predict an inevitable end of the world as we know it. The appearance of the messiah, the return of Jesus, or the arrival of the Mahdi (respectively) will utterly transform life on earth under divine authority. For those who believe this end time is near, any serious concern with nature spirituality or the fate of the planet is irrelevant. To the extent that there is primary focus on the afterlife (eternity in heaven or hell), followers of the mainstream Abrahamic traditions see the next world as what is ultimately important, not this one; these traditions – as compared to the Asian religions – have long resisted seeing nature as sacred. The earth is simply a testing place or temporary waiting room for future life in eternity. Millions of Christians and Muslims have conceptualized life in these terms for centuries.
Some Hindu and Buddhist philosophers have come to the same conclusion. Hindu sages in the Vedanta school have taught that “this worldly life is impermanent and so simply a theater of maya, “illusion;” the natural world is not a sacred living refuge but merely a “play” to be transcended. Mahayana Buddhist teachers have also taught to similar effect: seekers ought to focus on impermanence, the emptiness of all phenomena, and purifying one’s consciousness, not the natural world.
Of course, all the great world religions have evolved and exhibit diverse, often contrasting interpretations of their texts and doctrines. For example, at the beginning of the Hebrew bible, Genesis provides two contradictory views about human beings and nature: Christians and Jews can adopt a theology that emphasizes the passages counseling humanity to “subdue nature” and regard the natural world as profane; however, Genesis also repeatedly has God pronounce that his creation is good and that humans should be caretakers of it.
Religious traditions do speak with many voices. Christians such as Saint Francis of Assisi, a Catholic monk, emphasized finding God in nature. Mystics in Judaism and Islam who taught that “God is in all things” took refuge in nature.
But over the last 500 years, Protestant Christianity became an extraordinarily powerful voice on nature and the outdoors since it spread globally through colonialism. Its dominant exponents adopted the “subdue nature” theology and supported those seeking to exploit the land. Combined with the expectation that this world would end in the near future, Christian capitalists saw no problem with factories exploiting the air, land, and water. This exploitation increased exponentially since the beginning of the industrial revolution as capitalists pursued profits, ignoring religious teachings urging the caretaking of the earth. For them, nature offered no spiritual benefits, but instead was profane, the domain of the devil, a realm to be exploited without limitation for human purposes.
Fortunately, this is not the full story of nature and the worlds religions. Leaders of all faiths have recently been active in harnessing the “cultural resources” – the wisdom and wise practices in religious traditions – relating to nature. All religious traditions have texts and teachers who have seen nature and human connection to it as a positive blessing in spiritual life. Some began thinking in new ways to meet the crisis. New theologies, interpretations of scripture, and prophetic voices have emerged across the world’s religions trying to change minds and re-engage with the experiences of nature. For example, a broad-based climate activism has emerged among evangelical Christians: leaders have argued that since God created our world, and deemed it in the Bible as “good,” humans should be caretakers of creation and that God’s grace can be found in the natural world. In Christian theology, other innovative developments have emerged: Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew (b. 1940) and Pope Francis proclaimed that to contaminate the earth’s waters, its lands, and life… are sins; theologians of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have revisited an ancient monotheistic belief in “the two revelations”, that scripture is one holy source, and nature is the other; Protestant theologian Sallie McFague, has defined earth as “God’s body” and being in nature and protecting it as a spiritual practice. “Engaged Buddhism” movements have initiated environmental projects across the world and Hindu teaching led movements to restore the sacred purity of South Asian rivers.
A powerful source of Interfaith connection has been focused on environmental activism and responding to global climate change.