MYTHOS and logos are complementary ways of perceiving the world: mythos — concerned primarily with meaning and significance — and logos — concerned with “objective facts” and rationality. Until the 18th century, both were important in the lives of Europeans, but, as the age of enlightenment proceeded, scientific rationality and the logos way of perceiving the world gained in prominence at the expense of the traditional mythos way of thinking.
Thus, Karen Armstrong contends, a real connection with the natural world requires a rediscovery of some of the mythical thinking of the past and a letting go of destructive myths that emerged in the 20th century and led to genocide. She also argues that it is only through these older myths that we can engage with the sacrality of nature and recover our bond with the natural world.
The chapters explore ideas, attitudes, and practices that different faiths, cultures, and traditions have employed, to help them to connect with one another and the Creator through their engagement with the natural world.
“Sacred Nature” is explored through Confucian philosophy, Daoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. We learn that at the centre of these traditions is a concept more akin to what St Thomas Aquinas called “Being itself” than the Western concept of God. That concept is intrinsic to, rather than apart from, the natural world. The overall message is that we need to alter our perception of God to be more like the spiritual entities encountered in the Eastern traditions.
“The Holiness of Nature” is explored through what Rudolf Otto described as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, awesome and irresistible at the same time. This is largely through the Hebrew Scriptures, where it is suggested that logos starts to take precedence over mythos, although the Book of Job runs counter to this trend.
“Our Broken World” takes us back to creation myths. We meet Hinduism and Islam and an offshoot of Judaism in the thought of Isaac Luria, who told a very different creation myth from that found in Genesis. Armstrong argues that myths that portray the world as being born out of pain and struggle are more helpful in connecting with our world.
“Sacrifice” is explored through Hinduism, to emphasise the importance of ritual, and that ritual needs to involve hard work if it is to effect change in us. “Kenosis” is discussed, primarily through Christianity, as a corrective to Western culture, in which achievement, assertiveness, and opinion are highly valued at the expense of humility. “Gratitude” takes us to Islam and the Qur’an, to remind us that the natural order requires balance, so that we don’t irreparably damage our environment.
“The Golden Rule” was first enunciated by Confucius and so it is on zhong (dutifulness) and shu (consideration) that this discussion is centred. It is also argued that neo-Confucian ideas are a uniting theme for the ideas of this book as a whole. We dip brief into “Ahimsa” and Jainism as an approach to empathy in a world in pain at the damage that we do to the created world. Empathy is further explored through the Chinese imagery of “concentric circles”.
In concluding, Armstrong uses the great wrong done by the Ancient Mariner, of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, in killing the albatross, to reflect on what we are doing by our disregard for the sacrality of nature. She suggests that we need to learn from what he faces in his travails until, recognising the great wrong that he has done, he starts to atone for it.
This is an interesting book, but, for me, somewhat disjointed. Although each chapter ends with “The Way Forward”, it is more a collection of diverse ideas than a prospectus for better engagement with God and the natural world. It whets my appetite, but still leaves me hungry. Maybe that’s the point.
The Revd James Currall is an environmental scientist and Priest-in-Charge of the congregations of East Sutherland and Tain in the diocese of Moray, Ross & Caithness.
Read an extract here
Sacred Nature: How we can recover our bond with the natural world
The Bodley Head £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49