Kenneth "Harry" Oldmeadow
BA Hons (ANU), Dip Ed (Syd), MA Hons (Syd), PhD (La Trobe)
is Coordinator of Philosophy and Religious Studies at La Trobe
University Bendigo, Australia. He is the author of Traditionalism:
Religion in the light of the Perennial Philosophy and is currently
working on a book about Western encounters with the religious
traditions of the East. He is a frequent contributor to the
traditionalist journal Sacred Web and has published widely on a variety
of religious and spiritual themes, including the mythological heritage
of the Australian Aborigines, the Vedanta and the Vajyarana branch of
See also his web page
The Firmament Sheweth His Handiwork
Re-awakening a Religious Sense of the Natural Order
essay is a revised and expanded version on an article which appeared in
Sacred Web 2, December 1998, under the title "The Translucence of
Thou art the fire,
Thou art the sun,
Thou art the air,
Thou art the moon,
Thou art the starry firmament,
Thou art Brahman Supreme:
Thou art the waters,
The creator of all!
Thou art woman, thou art man,
Thou art the youth, thou art the maiden,
thou art the old man tottering with his staff;
Thou facest everywhere.
Thou art the dark butterfly,
thou art the green parrot with red eyes,
Thou art the thunder cloud, the seasons, the seas.
Without beginning art thou, beyond time, beyond space.
Thou art he from whom sprang the three worlds.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.
Crazy Horse dreamed and went out into the world where there is nothing
but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind
this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from
For the sage each flower is metaphysically a proof of the Infinite.
modern mentality characteristically looks for solutions to our most
urgent problems in the wrong places; more often than not the proposed
remedies aggravate the malady. Various responses to the so-called
environmental crisis are of this type. Hardly anyone is now foolish
enough to deny that there is something fundamentally wrong with our way
of "being in the world". The evidence is too overwhelming for even the
most sanguine apostles of "Progress" to ignore. Much of the debate
about the "environment" (itself a rather problematical term) continues
to be conducted in terms derived from the
secular-scientific-rationalist-humanist world-view bequeathed to us by
that series of upheavals which subverted the medieval outlook—the
Renaissance and Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the
Enlightenment. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr has observed,
most Western intellectuals think about environmental issues as if
everyone were an agnostic following a secular philosophy cultivated at
Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard and so they seek to develop a rationalist,
environmental ethics based upon agnosticism, as if this would have any
major effect whatsoever upon the environmental crisis...the very strong
prejudice against religious ethics…is itself one the greatest
impediments to the solution of the environmental crisis..
My purpose here is to turn our attention to some general principles
which informed traditional religious understandings of the natural
order and of the human place in it. No "solution" to the environmental
crisis is proposed. However, it is perfectly evident to those with
"eyes to see and ears to hear" that the desecration (one uses the word
advisedly) of nature cannot be remedied without recourse to the
principles which governed traditional understandings of the natural
order. These might offer some hope where modern scientism (the ideology
of modern science) has so spectacularly failed.
first question which might present itself in any inquiry into religious
perspectives on nature is this: how does this or that religion in
particular, or how do religions in general, envisage the origin, the
source of the universe? Generally speaking the different traditions,
from both East and West, and from both primal and literate cultures,
account for the beginnings of the universe through a mythological
account, a cosmogony. In the Judeo-Christian tradition we find it in
the Genesis story. While the narrative details vary, this is not
essentially different from, let us say, the mythical accounts of the
Vedas, or of the Aboriginal Dreaming.
These days "myth" is often a
pejorative term meaning either a naive and childish fabrication or
simply a story which is untrue. This kind of view is probably
rooted in the 19th century where many scholars and theorists
(anthropologists, folklorists, sociologists and the like) took this
condescending and disabling view of mythology. Thus, Andrew Lang, for
instance, took it that "primitive" mythologies were "a product of the
childhood of the human race, arising out of the minds of a creature
that has not yet learned to think in terms of strict cause and
effect". Myths were thus to be understood as a kind of fumbling
We must return to earlier outlooks if we are to understand religious
myths (from wherever they come) aright—as allegorical or symbolic
narratives which articulate, in dramatic form, a world-view whose
elements will necessarily include a metaphysic (an account of the Real;
the metacosmic), a cosmology (an account of the visible world, in the
heavens and here on earth; the macrocosmic) and an anthropology (an
account of the human situation; the microcosmic). In combating the
impertinent reductionisms of the anthropologists Ananda Coomaraswamy
eloquently reminds us that,
is the penultimate truth, of which all experience is the temporal
reflection. The mythical narrative is of timeless and placeless
validity, true nowhere and everywhere ... Myth embodies the nearest
approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words ...
Cosmogonies can be located on a spectrum one end of which might be
labelled creationist/theistic and the other emanationist/monistic: the
former type envisages the universe as a creation of a divine power or
deity while the latter conceives of the universe as a spatio-temporal
manifestation of an ultimate, spiritual reality. The Abrahamic
monotheisms are of the former type, while Platonism and some forms of
Hinduism represent the latter. In the Mundaka Upanishad , for instance,
we are told that,
a spider sends forth and draws in its threads, as herbs grow on the
earth, as hair grows on the head and the body of a living person, so
from the Imperishable arises here the universe.
Traditional cosmogonies necessarily deal with the relationship of
spiritual and material realities, a relationship which lies at the
heart of all religious understandings of nature. Philosophically
speaking, religions posit the existence of two "worlds", one spiritual,
immutable and absolute, the other material, mutable and relative,
usually with an intermediary realm (which might variously be referred
to as ethereal, subtle, astral and the like). Cosmogonies affirm
the primacy of the spiritual: the material world derives from a divine
creativity, or, at least, from a divine plenitude. In the religious
context it is axiomatic that the material world did not and could not
create itself; it is suspended, so to speak, within a reality which is
immaterial and which is beyond time and space; the material world has
no independent or autonomous existence. Consider a few quotes (one
could easily assemble hundreds of such passages from all over the
There is something obscure which is complete
before heaven and earth arose;
tranquil, quiet, standing alone without change,
moving around without peril.
It could be the Mother of everything.
I don't know its name,
and call it Tao.
The Imperishable is the Real. As sparks fly upward from a blazing fire,
so from the depths of the Imperishable arise all things. To the depths
of the Imperishable they again descend. Self-luminous is that Being,
and formless. He dwells within all and without all...From him are born
breath, mind, the organs of sense, ether, air, fire, water and the
earth, and he binds all these together.
This world, with all its stars, elements, and creatures, is come out of
the invisible world; it has not the smallest thing or the smallest
quality of anything but what is come forth from thence.
tell of the coming into being of the cosmos, a living, organic unity
displaying beauty, harmony, meaning, and intelligibility as against the
chaotic and meaningless universe of modern science. ("Kosmos", in its
original Greek and in archaic times meant Great Man as well as "world":
in the light of various cosmogonies, particularly the Greek and the
Indian, this is not without significance. In the Vedas we have but one
of many accounts of the universe being created out of Purusa, a cosmic
man, Primordial Man, a Divine Archetypal figure.) One of the most
beautiful expressions of the idea of an underlying harmony in the
universe is to be found in the Taoist tradition and in the symbol of
the Tao itself wherein we see the forces of yin and yang intertwined,
these being the two fundamental forces or principles or energies out of
which the fabric of the material universe is woven. In Hinduism the
harmony, order and intelligibility of the universe is signalled by the
Vedic term rta which we find in the earliest Scriptures. The beneficent
influences on humankind of the natural order, and the attunement of the
sage to natural rhythms, are particularly strong leitmotifs in Taoism
but are to be found in many Eastern Scriptures. By the same token,
humans are enjoined to play their part in the maintenance of the cosmic
order, largely through their ritual life. This idea, everywhere to be
found in the archaic worlds, makes no sense from a materialistic point
of view which now determines the prevailing outlook—one completely
impervious to the fact that, in Nasr's memorable phrase, "nature is
hungry for our prayers".
Religious doctrines (which might be
expressed in any number of forms, not necessarily verbal) about the
relationship of the spiritual and material worlds necessarily deal with
the transcendence and immanence of the Absolute (whether this be
envisaged in theistic, monistic, panentheistic or apophatic terms—God,
Allah, Brahman, Tao, Wakan-Tanka, nirvana, or whatever): the
"interplay" of these two "dimensions" varies from religion to religion
but both are always present. Whatever accent a particular spiritual
economy might place on these aspects of the Real the underlying
principle is always the same. Itmight best be summed up by an old
Rabbinic dictum: "The universe is not the dwelling place of God; God is
the dwelling place of the universe." In the light of such
formulations we can also dispense with the sharp dualistic separation
of the "two worlds": the world of phenomena is held together by a
numinous spiritual presence—indeed, without it the world of "matter"
would vanish instantly and completely. Eternity is ever-present within
(so to speak) the phenomenal world. The mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck
referred to this inner reality as "beyond Time; that is, without before
or after, in an Eternal Now…the home and beginning of all life and all
becoming. And so all creatures are therein, beyond themselves,
one being and one Life…as in their eternal origin."
A misunderstanding which bedevils many discussions of the beliefs of
non-literate peoples is signalled by the term "pantheism", i.e., the
worship of the natural order as co-terminous with "God". This, we are
sometimes told (usually by anthropologists) was the practice of such
and such a "primitive" people. In reality, pantheism, if ever it
existed as anything other than an anthropological fiction, could never
have been more than a degenerate form of what is properly called
"panentheism", which is to say a belief in the overwhelming presence of
the spiritual within the natural world—a quite different matter from
the "pantheistic" fallacy that the natural world is somehow identical
to (and thus exhausts) "God". Black Elk, the revered holy man of the
Oglala Sioux, clearly articulated the panentheistic principle:
should understand that all things are the work of the Great Spirit. We
should know that He is within all things; the trees, the grasses, the
rivers, the mountains, all the four-legged animals and the winged
peoples; and even more important we should understand that He is also
above all these things and peoples.
are those who seek to develop an "eco-spirituality" which actually
amounts to no more than a kind of secular pantheism, if one may allowed
such a term—a view of the natural order which retains some sort of
"religiosity", surrendering to the view that it is possible to have an
immanent "sacred" while dispensing with the transcendent, as if night
and day can indeed be sundered from the sun, or as if there could be a
circle with no center. Equally absurd is the notion of a "secular
scientific spirituality" which has recently been proposed. Like all
such concoctions this kind of naturism is a sentimental form of
idolatry. As Philip Sherrard has so plainly put it, "an agnostic and
materialistic science of nature is a contradiction in terms…its
findings will necessarily correspond to the living reality of nature as
little as a corpse corresponds to the living reality of a human
The Sacred and the Profane
category without which we cannot proceed very far in the study of
religion is the sacred. There are many ways of defining it. Here is one
from a discussion of Sacred Books by the sovereign metaphysician of our
own time, Frithjof Schuon:
sacred which in the first place is attached to the transcendent order,
secondly possesses the character of absolute certainty, and thirdly,
eludes the comprehension of the ordinary human mind ... The sacred is
the presence of the centre in the periphery ... The sacred introduces a
quality of the absolute into relativities and confers on perishable
things a texture of eternity.
Of course, the category can apply to all manner of things: events,
texts, buildings, images, rituals. In the context of our present
concerns we might isolate two applications of this category or
principle: to space and time, and to life itself. The traditional mind,
especially in primal, non-literate societies, perceives and experiences
space and time as "sacred" and "profane", which is to say that
they are not uniform and homogeneous as they are for the modern
scientific mind, but are qualitatively differentiated. A good deal of
ceremonial life is concerned with entry into or, better, participation
in sacred time and space. Through ritual one enters into sacred
time, into real time, the "once upon a time", illo tempore, a time
radically different from a "horizontal" duration. Likewise with sacred
places, remembering that a natural site can be made sacred through
various rituals and practices, or it can be recognized as sacred—a
place where the membrane, so to speak, between the worlds of matter and
of spirit are especially permeable. Rivers, mountains, particular types
of trees and places related to the mythological events are sites of
this sort. The sacrality of Mt Kailas or Uluru, for instance, is not
conferred but apprehended.
The sanctity of life itself is expressed in different ways in the
various religious vocabularies. In the Judeo-Christian tradition this
principle or theme begins in the affirmation in Genesis that man is
made in the image of God, that the human being carries an indelible
imprint of the Divine. Thence we have what might be called the
principle of the spiritual equality of all human beings no matter what
their station in life or their natural attributes and shortcomings—"all
equal before God", as the Christian formula has it. The Judeo-Christian
tradition has primarily affirmed the sanctity of human life, sometimes
to the neglect or abuse of other life forms. One of the lessons of the
great Eastern and primal religions is the principle of the moral
solidarity, if one may so express it, of all living forms: in Hinduism,
Buddhism and Jainism this is embodied in the traditional Indian value
of ahimsa (non-injuriousness). Here is what Gandhi had to say about the
central fact of Hinduism ... is 'Cow Protection'. Cow Protection to me
is one of the most wonderful phenomena in all human evolution; for it
takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the
entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his
identity with all that lives ... Hindus will be judged not by their
correct chanting of sacred texts, not by their pilgrimages, not by
their most punctilious observance of Caste rules, but by their ability
to protect the cow ... "Cow protection' is the gift of Hinduism to the
world; and Hinduism will live so long as there are Hindus to protect
"Man's identity with all that
lives"—this is the key phrase to what appears at first sight to be a
rather startling claim from the Mahatma. William Blake affirmed the
same notion: "all that lives is holy".
The Human Situation
principle of the sanctity of life, and the "moral solidarity" of living
forms should not blind us to the fact that all traditional wisdoms
affirm, in their different ways, that the human being is especially
privileged. The human is an axial or amphibious being who lives
in both the material and spiritual worlds in a way which is not quite
true of other living beings, and is thus a bridge between them. Seyyed
Hossein Nasr reminds us that
central position in the world is not due to his cleverness or inventive
genius but because of the possibility of attaining sanctity and
becoming a channel of grace for the world around him ... the very
grandeur of the human condition is precisely that he has the
possibility of reaching a state "higher than the angels" and at the
same time of denying God.
understanding is, of course, quite incompatible with the notion that
man is simply another biological organism. By the same measure, it is
utterly at odds with that most seductive and elegant (and certainly one
of the most pernicious) of scientistic hypotheses, Darwinian
evolutionism. As Blake so well understood, "Man is either the ark of
God or a phantom of the earth and of the water". As "the ark of God"
man is the guardian and custodian of the natural order, the pontifex,
the caliph, "the viceregent of God on earth" in Qur'anic terms.
The peculiar position of the human being can also illuminated by
recourse to the traditional cosmological principle of the
microcosm/macrocosm, expressed most succinctly perhaps in the Hermetic
maxim, "as above, so below". In brief, man is not only in the universe
but the universe is in man: "there is nothing in heaven or earth that
is not also in man" (Paracelsus). The Buddha put it this way: "In
truth I say to you that within this fathom-high body ... lies the world
and the rising of the world and the ceasing of the world." Others
have rendered the same truth poetically. Recall the beautiful lines of
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea
itself floweth in your veins, till you are
clothed with the heavens, and crowned with
the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole
heir of the whole world, and more than so,
because men are in it who are every one sole
heirs as well as you.
Similarly, from Blake:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
One of the keys to this principle resides in the traditional
understanding of consciousness as being infinite, as surpassing the
temporal and spatial limits of the material world—which, in fact, is
nothing other than a tissue of fugitive relativities, a world of
appearances, a fabric of illusions, Maya in the Hindu lexicon. At
the same time we need to remember that while Maya is indeed "cosmic
is also divine play. She is the great theophany, the unveiling of God
"In Himself and by Himself" as the Sufis would say. Maya may be likened
to a magic fabric woven from a warp that veils and a weft that unveils;
she is the quasi-incomprehensible intermediary between the finite and
the Infinite—at least from our point of view as creatures—and as such
she has all the multi-coloured ambiguity appropriate to her
part-cosmic, part-divine nature.
term maya combines the meanings of "productive power" and "universal
illusion"; it is the inexhaustible play of manifestations, deployments,
combinations and reverberations, a play with which Atma clothes itself
even as the ocean clothes itself with a mantle of foam ever renewed and
never the same.
passages should immunize us to the preposterous but widely held view
that the Eastern traditions are "negative", "pessimistic",
"life-denying" and the like.
This world of maya is
"illusory", but not in the sense that it is a mirage or a fantasy, but
in that its "reality" is only relative: it has no independence, no
autonomy, no existence outside the Divine Principle Itself. The sages
of both East and West have never been seduced by the idea that the
material universe is a self-existing entity, which is to say that they
have ever understood that there is no such thing as "pure matter".
Their understanding of the cosmos derives from all the sources of
knowledge—mystical intuition and the revealed Scriptures as well as the
instruments of the mind and the senses. On the other hand, a profane,
quantitative science (from whence the modern West derives its
understanding of the universe), is
a totalitarian rationalism that eliminates both Revelation and
Intellect, and at the same time a totalitarian materialism that ignores
the metaphysical relativity—and therewith the impermanence—of matter
and the world. It does not know that the supra-sensible, situated
as it is beyond space and time, is the concrete principle of the world,
and consequently that it is also at the origin of that contingent and
changeable coagulation we call "matter". A science that is called
"exact" is in fact an "intelligence without wisdom", just as
post-scholastic philosophy is inversely a "wisdom without intelligence".
The Symbolism of Natural Forms and the Cosmological Sciences
In "Frost at Midnight" Coleridge, addresses these lines to his baby son:
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou se and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
The idea of the natural order as not only sacred but as a symbolic
language strikes the modern mind as somewhat strange, perhaps as
"poetic fancy". In reality it is the modern outlook which is
idiosyncratic. Mircea Eliade, has noted how, for homo religiosus,
everything in nature is capable of revealing itself as a "cosmic
sacrality", as a hierophany. He also observes that for our secular
age the cosmos has become "opaque, inert, mute; it transmits no
message, it holds no cipher". The traditional mind perceives the
natural world as a hierophany, a theophany, a revelation—in short, as a
teaching about the Divine Order. It is so by way of its analogical
participation in the Divine qualities, which is to say that natural
phenomena are themselves symbols of higher realities. A symbol,
properly defined, is a reality of a lower order which participates
analogically in a reality of a higher order of being. Therefore, a
properly constituted symbolism rests on the inherent and objective
qualities of phenomena and their relation to spiritual realities. The
science of symbolism proceeds through a discernment of the qualitative
significances of substances, colors, forms, spatial relationships and
so on. As Schuon has observed,
are not here dealing with subjective appreciations, for the cosmic
qualities are ordered both in relation to being and according to a
hierarchy which is more real than the individual; they are, then,
independent of our tastes...
This kind of
symbolism is an altogether different matter from arbitrary sign systems
and artificial representational vocabularies. Only when we understand
the revelatory aspect of natural phenomena, their metaphysical
transparency, can we fully appreciate the import of a claim such as
Nature is at one with holy poverty and also with spiritual
childlikeness; she is an open book containing an inexhaustible teaching
of truth and beauty. It is in the midst of his own artifices that man
most easily becomes corrupted, it is they who make him covetous and
impious; close to virgin Nature, who knows neither agitation nor
falsehood, he had the hope of remaining contemplative like Nature
Or this, from the great 13th century Zen sage, Dogen:
passed eons living alone in the mountains and forests; only then did
they unite with the Way and use mountains and rivers for words, raise
the wind and rain for a tongue, and explain the great void.
Here are a few other formulations which signal the principle of the metaphysical transparency of the natural order:
The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly
seen, being understood by the things that are made.
we look at the world...with the eyes of the spirit we shall discover
that the simplest material object...is a symbol, a glyph of a higher
reality and a deeper relationship of universal and individual forces...
Stones, plants, animals, the earth, the sky, the stars, the elements,
in fact everything in the universe reveals to us the knowledge, power
and the will of its Originator
The creatures are, as it were, traces of God's passing, wherein he reveals his might, power, wisdom and other divine qualities.
The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God's saints.
There is no other like him. He is alone in his own character; nothing
else in the world ever did or ever will imitate God in quite the same
way. That is his sanctity.
Nature, then, is a teaching, a primordial Scripture. To "read" this
Scripture, to take it to heart, is "to see God everywhere", to be aware
of the transcendent dimension which is present in every cosmic
situation, to see "the translucence of the Eternal through and in the
temporal" (Coleridge). The great Hindu saint and sage, Ramakrishna,
who could fall into ecstasy at the sight of a lion, a bird, a dancing
girl, exemplified this gift though in his case, Schuon adds, it was not
a matter of deciphering the symbolism but of "tasting the
It is in the primal cultures (so often dismissed or patronized as
"primitive" and "pre-literate"), such as those of the Australian
Aborigines, the African Bushmen, or the American Indians, that we find
the most highly developed sense of the transparency of natural
phenomena and the most profound understanding of the "eternal
language". As Joseph Epes Brown has remarked of the Lakota experience,
"each form in the world around them bears such a host of precise values
and meanings that taken all together they constitute what one would
call their 'doctrine'."
In the traditional world the natural order was never understood or
studied as an autonomous and independent reality; on the contrary, the
natural order was only be understood within a larger context, drawing
on theology and metaphysics as well as the cosmological sciences
themselves. The material world was (and is) only intelligible through
recourse to first principles which could not, and can not, be derived
from empirical inquiry but from revelation, esoteric knowledge, gnosis,
knowledge of the whole universe does not lie within the competence of
science but of metaphysics. Moreover, the principles of metaphysics
remain independent of the sciences and cannot in any way be disproved
No one has stated the crucial
principle here better than the great Vedantin sage Sankara who taught
that the world of maya (i.e., the world of appearances, of time-space
relativities) is not inexplicable, it is only not self-explanatory.
To describe the futility of a purely materialistic science (such as we
now have in the West), Sankara compares it to an attempt to explain
night and day without reference to the Sun. In other words, the study
of the natural world is not primarily an empirical business, although
it does, of course, have an empirical dimension: matter does not exist
independently and its nature cannot be understood in purely material
terms. This is the great dividing line between the sacred sciences of
the traditional worlds and the Promethean science of our own time.
Beauty: Divine Rays
few words on Beauty which we find everywhere in the natural order as
well as in the human form itself, and in sacred art. Firstly, there is
the intimate nexus between Truth, Goodness and Beauty. The
inter-relationships of the three are more or less inexhaustible and
there is no end to what might be said on this subject. Here we
shall establish only a few general points, taking the nature of Beauty
as our point of departure. Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance
Platonist, defined beauty as "that ray which parting from the visage of
God, penetrates into all things". Beauty, in most traditional
canons, has this divine quality. Beauty is a manifestation of the
Infinite on a finite plane and so introduces something of the Absolute
into the world of relativities. Its sacred character "confers on
perishable things a texture of eternity". Schuon:
archetype of Beauty, or its Divine model, is the superabundance and
equilibrium of the Divine qualities, and at the same time the
overflowing of the existential potentialities in pure Being... Thus
beauty always manifests a reality of love, of deployment, of
illimitation, of equilibrium, of beatitude, of generosity.
It is distinct but not separate from Truth and Virtue. As Aquinas
affirmed, Beauty relates to the cognitive faculty and is thus connected
with wisdom. The rapport between Beauty and Virtue allows one
to say that they are but two faces of the one reality: "goodness
is internal beauty, and beauty is external goodness" or, similarly,
"virtue is the beauty of the soul as beauty is the virtue of
forms". To put it another way, Oscar Wilde notwithstanding, there
are no beautiful vices just as there are no ugly virtues. The
inter-relationships of Beauty, Truth and Goodness explain why, in the
Oriental traditions, every avatara embodies a perfection of
Beauty. It is said of the Buddhas they save not only by their
doctrine but by their superhuman Beauty.
Schuon gathers together some of these principles in the following passage:
earthly function of beauty is to actualise in the intelligent creature
the Platonic recollection of the archetypes... there is a distinguo to
make, in the sensing of the beautiful, between the aesthetic sensation
and the corresponding beauty of soul, namely such and such a
virtue. Beyond every question of "sensible consolation" the
message of beauty is both intellectual and moral: intellectual
because it communicates to us, in the world of accidentality, aspects
of Substance, without for all that having to address itself to abstract
thought; and moral, because it reminds us of what we must love, and
Beauty, whether natural or
man-made, can be either an open or a closed door: when it is
identified only with its earthly support it leaves man vulnerable to
idolatry and to mere aestheticism; it brings us closer to God when
"we perceive in it the vibrations of Beatitude and Infinity, which
emanate from Divine Beauty".
The Western Desacralisation of Nature
attitudes to nature, before the onslaughts of a materialistic
scientism, had been influenced by archaic pagan ideas (derived
principally from Greece and from Northern Europe), Platonism and Islam,
and, pre-eminently, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Many contemporary
environmentalists point the finger at the so-called "dominion ethic"
apparently sanctioned by the Genesis account. There is no gainsaying
the fact that Christian institutions have for centuries been
accomplices in an appalling environmental vandalism; one readily
understands the reasons why many environmentalists resort to a clutch
of clichés about the destructive influence of Christianity. Like most
clichés, those bandied about by anti-religious propagandists in the
environmental debate have some truth in them. However, if we look a
little more closely we will find that the story is rather more
complicated than is often supposed. Here I can do no more than
offer a few fragmentary remarks.
Like all cosmogonies, the Genesis
myth deals with the relationship of the spiritual and material. The
natural world is affirmed as God's handiwork. Throughout both
Testaments of the Bible we are reminded that "All things were made by
him; and without him was not anything made that was made."
Furthermore, we are to understand the Creation itself as both a psalm
of praise to its Creator and as a revelation of the divine qualities.
As one contemporary Christian put it, "Creation is nothing less than a
manifestation of God's hidden Being." In the Psalms we have
many affirmations of this kind: "The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament sheweth his handiwork." We find many similar passages
in The Qur'an: "The seven heavens, and the earth, and all that is
therein, magnify Him, and there is naught but magnifieth his praise;
only ye understand not their worship"; and "All that is in the
heavens and the earth glorifieth Allah". In fact we can find like
passages in many of the great Scriptures from around the globe: thus in
the Bhagavad Gita, to choose one example, the universe is celebrated as
the raiment of Krishna who contains within himself all the worlds of
time and space.
the Genesis account, the world of nature is not man's to do with as he
pleases but rather a gift from God, one saturated with divine
qualities, to be used for those purposes which sustain life and which
give human life in particular, dignity, purpose and meaning. That this
stewardship ethic could degenerate into a sanction for wholesale
exploitation and criminal ruination is actually a betrayal of the
lessons of Genesis. How did this come about? The cooperative factors at
work in the Western desacralisation of nature are complex but we may
here mention a few of the more salient: Christianity's emergence in a
world of decadent pagan idolatry which necessitated a somewhat
imbalanced emphasis on God's transcendence and on "other-worldliness";
the consequent neglect of those sacred sciences which might later have
formed a bulwark against the ravages of a materialistic scientism; the
unholy alliance of an anti-traditional Protestantism with the emergent
ideologies of a new and profane world-view.
Various other ideas
about and understandings of nature have circulated through the
post-medieval world: nature as chaos, disorder, wild-ness, in contrast
to "civilisation", a threatening space which lay "outside" the social
order (this motif has some pagan antecedents, especially in the
Teutonic-Scandinavian religions rather than the Mediterranean and
classical); nature as matter and as a mechanistic system governed by
various "physical laws" amenable to investigation by a materialistic
science (the legacy of the Scientific Revolution, of Newton, Bacon,
Locke, Copernicus, Galileo, et al.); as raw material, an inexhaustible
quarry to be plundered and, simultaneously, as "enemy" to be subdued,
"tamed" or, even more ludicrously, "conquered" (industrialism, which
provided a new field of applications for the "discoveries" of science);
as an Edenic paradise peopled by "noble savages" (the romantic naturism
of Rousseau and his many epigones); as uplifting spectacle
(Wordsworth); as the Darwinian jungle, "red in tooth and claw"; as an
amenity, a "resource" to be "managed" and protected for human
recreation, tourism and the like; as Gaia, a single living
organism ("deep ecology"); and as "Wilderness" (a
pseudo-religious secularism, if one might so put it, which absolutizes
"Nature" under a certain guise and thus becomes a form of
idolatry—which is nothing other than the mistaking of the symbol
for its higher referent).
None of the post-medieval understandings in themselves offer any very
real hope of providing a way out of our predicament. Clearly some
contemporary developments and movements ("deep ecology",
"eco-feminism", the new physics) yield some insights and can be helpful
in dismantling the modern mind-set which has brought us to the current
situation. But too often these well-intentioned gropings towards a more
holistic understanding are bereft of any properly-constituted
metaphysical and cosmological framework. This is evident, for instance,
in the fact that for all their radical aspirations the proponents of "a
new ecological awareness" often fall prey to the materialistic and
evolutionist assumptions which are at the root of the problem which
they are trying to address. It must also be said that those who are
properly sceptical about the pretensions of scientism are also often
vulnerable to a kind of sentimental and warmed-over pantheism—sometimes
on display in the effusions of the "New Age" enthusiasts. No, what is
required is a reanimation of the principles and understandings which
governed traditional understandings. The key, perhaps, is to be found
in the word "sacramental"—and the catechistic formula is altogether
precise and apposite: "an outward and visible sign of an inner and
One might schematize the contrast between traditional and modern
world-views, and their respective "attitudes" to nature this way:
Like all such schemas, this vastly oversimplifies the case—but it can
perhaps serve as a signpost to those modes of understanding and of
"being in the world" which we need to reawaken in the modern
West. Before any such a healing process can proceed (a healing of
ourselves, of the earth, of our "relationship" with the whole cosmos
and with what lies beyond it) we must accept that, at root, the
"environmental crisis" is actually the symptom of a spiritual malaise.
To return to health we must get to the seat of the disease rather that
merely palliating the symptoms. As a contemporary Sufi, Abu Bakr Siraj
Ed-Din, has so well expressed it:
state of the outer world does not merely correspond to the general
state of men's souls; it also in a sense depends on that state, since
man himself is the pontiff of the outer world. Thus the corruption of
man must necessarily affect the whole...
Similarly, Seyyed Hossein Nasr:
Earth is bleeding from wounds inflicted upon it by a humanity no longer
in harmony with Heaven and therefore in constant strife with the
In this context we
might also feel the force of Emerson's claim that, "the views of nature
held by any people determine all their institutions."
We are not able here to detail the ways in which we might escape the
tyrannical grip of a profane scientism and its various accomplices
(industrialism, consumerism, "development", "economic growth" and other
such shibboleths) and so begin to free ourselves and our world from the
catastrophic consequences of a collective blindness and a quite
monstrous hubris (the two, of course, being intimately related). We
must relinquish our Luciferian ideas about "conquering" nature, and
allow Mother Nature not only to heal herself but to heal us. As Kenneth
Cragg has so properly observed,
is the first ground and constant test of the authentically religious
temper–the temper which does not sacralize things in themselves nor
desecrate them in soul-less using and consuming. Between the pagan and
the secular, with their contrasted bondage and arrogance, lies the
reverent ground of a right hallowing where things are well seen as
being for men under God, seen for their poetry, mystery, order and
serviceability in the cognizance of man, and for their quality in the
glory of God.
The way forward must also be
a way back. Suffice it to say that all those concerned about the
current "ecological crisis" would do well to ponder the implications of
the following passage from Schuon:
dethronement of Nature, or this scission between man and the earth—a
reflection of the scission between man and God— has borne such bitter
fruits that it should not be difficult to admit that, in these days,
the timeless message of Nature constitutes a spiritual viaticum of the
first importance. ...It is not a matter of projecting a supersaturated
and disillusioned individualism into a desecrated Nature—this would be
a worldliness like any other—but, on the contrary, of rediscovering in
Nature, on the basis of the traditional outlook, the divine substance
which is inherent in it; in other words, to "see God everywhere"...
Here is the same truth expressed by Black Elk in the inimitable idiom of the Lakota Indians:
within the souls of men when they realize their relationship, their
oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize
that at the center of the Universe dwells Wakan-Tanka [the Great
Spirit] and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of
(a) Traditionalist Writers
Joseph Epes Brown, The Sacred Pipe Baltimore: Penguin, 1971.
—The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indians New York: Crossroad, 1982.
— Animals of the Soul Rockport: Element, 1997.
Titus Burckhardt, Mirror of the Intellect ed. Wm. Stoddart, Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1987.
Ananda Coomaraswamy, Time and Eternity New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1993.
Jean Cooper , Taoism, the Way of the Mystic Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1972.
— Symbolism, the Universal Language Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1982.
René Guénon, Fundamental Symbols Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1995.
— The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times Baltimore: Penguin, 1972.
Martin Lings, Ancient Beliefs and Modern Superstitions London: Allen & Unwin, 1980.
Barry McDonald (ed), Every Branch in Me Bloomington: World Wisdom Books, 2002.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man London: Allen & Unwin, 1976.
— Knowledge and the Sacred New York: Crossroad, 1981.
— Religion and the Order of Nature Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
— The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of the Environmental Crisis London: Temenos Academy, 1999.
— & Katherine O'Brien (eds), In Quest of the Sacred: The Modern World in the Light of Tradition Oakton: Foundation for Traditional Studies, 1994.
Whitall Perry, The Widening Breach: Evolutionism in the Light of Cosmology Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1995.
Frithjof Schuon, Light on the Ancient Worlds London: Perennial Books, 1965.
— Gnosis: Divine Wisdom London: Perennial Books, 1979.
— The Feathered Sun Bloomington: World Wisdom Books, 1990.
Philip Sherrard, The Rape of Nature Colombo: Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 1987.
Huston Smith , Forgotten Truth New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence La Salle: Sherwood Sugden & Co, 1984.
(b) Other Recommended Sources
Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community New York: Pantheon, 1993.
— Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition Washington DC: Counterpoint
Walter H. Capps (ed), Seeing with a Native Eye New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
James Cowan, Mysteries of the Dreaming Bridport: Prism, 1989.
Kenneth Cragg, The Mind of the Qur'an London: Allen & Unwin, 1973.
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1959.
John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks London: Abacus, 1974.
Kathleen Raine, Defending Ancient Springs Cambridge: Golgonooza, 1985.
Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends New York: Doubleday, 1972.
Roger Sworder, Mining, Metallurgy and the Meaning of Life Sydney: Quaker Hill, 1995.
 Svetasvatara Upanishad, IV.2-4.
 Psalms, XIX.1
 Black Elk in John Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, London, 1974, p67.
 Frithjof Schuon, Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, London, 1969, p10.
 S.H. Nasr, The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of
the Environmental Crisis, London, 1999, pp7 & 9.
 Eric Sharpe, Comparative Religion, London, 1975, p61.
 Ananda Coomaraswamy, Hinduism and Buddhism, New Delhi, 1996, p6 & p33, n21.
 Mundaka Upanishad I.i.7. Of the major religious
traditions the one which has least to say about the origins of the
universe is Buddhism which is generally suspicious of metaphysical
speculation and eschews what the Buddha called the Indeterminate
Questions, which is to say questions which are either unanswerable, at
least in terms accessible to the ordinary human mentality, or which are
distractions from the business at hand. Sometimes it is said by
Buddhists that the universe "always was"; this, perhaps, is to be
understood as being upaya—a kind of sufficient expedient, so to speak.
However, as the Prajna-Paramita states, "the belief in the unity or
eternity of matter is incomprehensible..."; quoted in Whitall Perry,
The Widening Breach: Evolutionism in the Mirror of Cosmology,
Cambridge, 1995, p44.
 Tao Te Ching, XXV.
 Mundaka Upanishad, II.i.1-4.
 Selected Mystical Writings, quoted in Whitall Perry, A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, p26.
 S.H. Nasr, The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of the Environmental Crisis, p13.
 Quoted in Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Selected Writings
on Philosophy, Religion and Culture, New York, 1970, p146.
 Quoted in P. Sherrard, Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, Brookline (Mass.), 1998, p208.
 Joseph Epes Brown, The Sacred Pipe, Baltimore, 1971, pxx (my italics) .
 For a specimen see N. Hettinger, "Ecospirituality: First
Thoughts", Dialogue & Alliance, 9:2, Fall-Winter 1995, pp81-98.
 See, for example, Holmes Ralston III, "Secular Scientific
Spirituality" in P.H. Van Ness (ed), Spirituality and the Secular
Quest, New York, 1996, pp387-413.
 Philip Sherrard, Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition, p19.
 Frithjof Schuon, Understanding Islam, London, 1976, p48.
 One of the most useful expositions of archaic
understandings of sacred and profane time and space is to be found in
Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, New York,1959.
 Gandhi, quoted in Eric Sharpe, "To Hinduism through
Gandhi" in Arthur Basham et al., Wisdom of the East, Sydney, 1979,
 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam, London, 1966, pp24-25.
 See Jean-Louis Michon, "The Vocation of Man According
to the Koran" in Fragments of Infinity: Essays in Religion and
Philosophy ed. Arvind Sharma, Bridport, 1991, pp135-152. See also
Kenneth Cragg, The Mind of the Qur'an: Chapters in Reflection, London,
Allen & Unwin, 1973.
 Quoted in T.C. McLuhan Cathedrals of the Spirit: The Message of Sacred Places, Toronto, 1996, p270.
 Quoted in Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, New York, 1976, p60.
 Centuries of Meditations, 1.29.
 "Auguries of Innocence".
 Furthermore, as Lama Anagarika Govinda reminds us, "If
the structure of our consciousness did not correspond to that of the
universe and its laws, we should not be aware either of the universe or
the laws that govern it. "Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional
Consciousness, Wheaton, 1976, p162.
 Frithjof Schuon, Light on the Ancient World, London,
1966, p89. See also Ali Lakhani, "What Thirst is For", Sacred Web, 4,
December 1999, pp13-14.
 Frithjof Schuon, Logic and Transcendence, New York, 1975, p89n.
 Without pursuing the matter here we can note that the
charge of "world-denial" directed against Buddhism rests on a very
partial understanding of samsara to the neglect of its complement,
dharma, by which is meant not simply the teachings of the Awakened One
(its most familiar sense, at least to Westerners) but a pre-existent
and eternal order to which these teachings testified and of which they
are one expression. On this crucial point See Philip Novak,
"Universal Theology and the Idea of Universal Order", Dialogue &
Alliance, 6:1, Spring 1992, pp82-92, 87-88)
 Frithjof Schuon, Light on the Ancient World, p117.
 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, pp12-13 & 178.
 Frithjof Schuon, Gnosis: Divine Wisdom, London, 1979,
p110. The most magisterial explication of the science of symbolism in
recent times is to be found in René Guénon's Fundamental Symbols,
Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1995. For a brief but incisive discussion
of symbolism-proper and its relation to intellectuality, see Ananda
Coomaraswamy: "Primitive Mentality" in Coomaraswamy 1: Selected Papers,
Traditional Art and Symbolism ed. Roger Lipsey, Princeton, 1977,
pp286-307. See also Adrian Snodgrass, The Symbolism of the Stupa,
Delhi, 1992, pp1-10.
 Frithjof Schuon, Light on the Ancient Worlds, p84.
 From Dogen's Shobogenzo, quoted in Dharma Gaia:
A Harvest of Essays on Buddhism and Ecology, ed. Alan H. Badiner,
Berkeley, 1990, pxiii.
 Romans I.20.
 Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness, Wheaton, 1976, p102.
 Al-Ghazzali quoted in Cathedrals of the Spirit, p107.
For a study of the symbolism of animals within one particular spiritual
economy see Joseph Epes Brown, Animals of the Soul: Sacred Animals of
the Oglala Sioux, Rockport, 1997.
 The Spiritual Canticle, V.iii, quoted in Elizabeth
Hamilton, The Voice of the Spirit: The Spirituality of St John of the
Cross, London,1976, p89. Compare with the well-known hadith qudsi: (in
which God Himself speaks): "I was a hidden treasure, I wanted to be
known and I created the creatures"; or with St. Thomas Aquinas: "Each
creature is a witness to God's power and omnipotence; and its beauty is
a witness to the divine wisdom ... Every creature participates in some
way in the likeness of the Divine Essence." Aquinas quoted in Matthew
Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Melbourne, 1989, p75.
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York, 1961, p31.
 Coleridge quoted in Kathleen Raine, Defending Ancient Springs, Cambridge, 1985, p109.
 Frithjof Schuon, "Foundations of an Integral
Aesthetics", Studies in Comparative Religion, 10:3, 1976, 135n. See
also Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Calcutta,
 Joseph Epes Brown The Spiritual Legacy of the American
Indians, New York, 1982, p37. Two works, comparatively free of the
evolutionist and modernistic prejudices which colour much of the
"anthropological" literature, might be recommended as introductions to
the Aboriginal and Bushmen cultures: James Cowan Mysteries of the
Dreaming Bridport,1989, and Laurens van der Post, The Heart of
the Hunter, Harmondsworth, 1965.
 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, London, 1976, p35.
 See my article, "Sankara's Doctrine of Maya" in Asian Philosophy, 2:2, 1992, pp131-146.
 Quoted in R.J. Clements, Michelangelo's Theory of Art, New York,1971, p5.
 Frithjof Schuon, Understanding Islam, p48.
 Frithjof Schuon, Logic and Transcendence, p241.
 See A.K. Coomaraswamy, "The Mediaeval Theory of
Beauty" in Selected Papers 1: Traditional Art and Symbolism, pp211-20,
and two essays, "Beauty and Truth" and "Why Exhibit Works of Art?" in
Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, New York, 1956, pp7-22 (esp.
16-18) & pp102-109.
 Frithjof Schuon, Logic and Transcendence, pp245-246.
See also Frithjof Schuon, Esoterism as Principle and as Way, London,
 As Schuon notes, the name "Shunyamurti" -
manifestation of the void - applied to a Buddha, is full of
significance; Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, London, 1967,
p25n. See also Frithjof Schuon, In the Tracks of Buddhism, London,
 Frithjof Schuon, "Foundations of an Integral Aesthetics", pp131-132.
 Frithjof Schuon, "Foundations of an Integral Aesthetics", p135.
 See Wendell Berry's essay "Christianity and the
Survival of Creation" in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, New
 John, I.3.
 Philip Sherrard, Human Image: World Image, Cambridge, 1992, p152.
 The Qur'an, XVII.44.
 The Qur'an, LVII.2.
 Goethe had something of the sort in mind when he
wrote, "Nature is the living, visible garment of God."; quoted in
Victor Gollancz From Darkness to Light London, 1964, p246.
 The most authoritative analysis of this process is to be found in Nasr's Man and Nature.
 Abu Bakr Siraj Ed-Din, The Book of Certainty, New York, 1974, p33.
 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature, New York, 1996, 3.
 Quoted in Cathedrals of the Spirit, p223.
 Kenneth Cragg, The Mind of the Qur'an, p148.
 Frithjof Schuon, The Feathered Sun, Bloomington, 1990, p13.
 Joseph Epes Brown, The Sacred Pipe, p115.