We too are Nature

by Laura Deacon

from Signs of the Times, No. 17 - Apr 2005

In a recent article George Monbiot wrote 'The way we see ourselves must begin to shift. We will succeed in tackling climate change only when we accept that we belong to the natural world'.[1]

The dualism between mind and matter - already deeply embedded in the Christian tradition through Greek metaphysics - was reforged in the seventeenth century when Descartes reduced his identity to one who merely thinks. Asked of what he could be absolutely certain, Descartes gave himself the famous answer 'I think, therefore I am' and thus laid the foundations for a 'me' centred cosmos, and intensified the dualistic cleavage of inner from outer, spirit from matter, mind from body, human from nature, subject from object, reason from feeling, knower from known, masculine from feminine, black from white, gay from straight, and so forth, that characterises our modern consciousness and thereby informs our actions.

Our dualistic thought patterns emerged within a particular social and historical context. Descartes died well over three hundred years ago, yet it may well be that most westerners are still Cartesians, with all the blind-spots that this conceptual framework provides. It is difficult for us to escape a dualistic mind/body analysis since it provides so much of the framework within which we continue to construct our thoughts about 'self' and 'world'.

Yet the Cartesian model has overrun its 'sell-by' date. It is time to move on. Cartesian dualism is not simply an abstract thought pattern, but one that has profoundly damaging effects upon men, women and the planet. The modern, western self is individualistic, egoistic, consumerist: in a word, ecologically immature, and if we read the signs of the times, we see that modern society is in an extreme, pathological state of rupture from the reality of the natural world, as is indicated on a daily basis by the ecological crisis. There is, however, little public recognition that this crisis is a psychological/spiritual one.

Although from our so-called postmodern vantage we can look back on modern philosophy and survey its shortcomings, the problem of dualism has by no means been solved. The Cartesian mechanisation of the body and disembodying of the soul still informs the dominant, scientific model of the body as a physiological system with no significant relations to the world: a material container for the mind. The human or social sciences (such as psychology) depict a world largely devoid of nature, while the natural sciences (such as ecology) depict a world largely devoid of humans. Ecological problems are effectively dichotomised into individual (inner) problems, and environmental (outer) problems and any possible relationship between the two remains unexplored.

Likewise, much Christian theology teaches that God cares for the salvation of humans only, and that our human calling is to exploit the Earth for our ends alone. In this picture the natural world is reduced either to scenic backdrop for the working out of human salvation, or to repository of infinite 'resources', a collection of voiceless objects, designed to be managed solely for the well being of humans (or simply conceived as a realm of mere scientific objects). Either way, the gulf between culture and nature, humans and the Earth, remains unbridged. 'Dualism is a device lurking in the midst of an incarnational religion', writes Lisa Isherwood. 'It has weighed heavily on women, men and the planet since it acts as a deadener, a delayer, a tricky device to make us believe in the sanctity of the absent, the corruption of the present, the promise of tomorrow and the inadequacy of today.'[2] The consequence of such split thinking is the androcentric repression and exploitation of both women (regarded as natural) and the natural world (regarded as feminine).

There are few theoretical frameworks that do not suffer from dualistic biases. The split between humans and nature - as well as the related splits listed above - runs through most of modern philosophy, science and art. Such a bifurcation of reality reflects the withdrawal of reality into the head of the modern western individual, and a corresponding estrangement from the 'external' social and ecological world. If there is to be a paradigm shift in the way we see ourselves - as belonging to, rather than separate from, the natural world - we need to find a framework for thinking and acting that straddles the human/nature divide, that asserts that humans belong to the natural order, are claimed by it, limited by it, and feel its demands within our own bodily experience. From out of this disturbing philosophical and theological tradition, our task now is to reclaim bodies that walk within, and are nourished by, the living Earth.

'Climate crisis is not a future risk. It is today's reality,' said Myles Allen, a climate scientist at Oxford University, recently.[3] 'The danger zone is not something we are going to reach in the middle of this century. We are in it now' wrote Roger Highfield earlier this year.[4] 'The earth is finished,' concluded Michael McCarthy, the Environment Editor of the Independent, in a recent article.[5] What is lacking in our response to the crisis, then, is not expert advice. Sufficient data to assist the redirection of societies toward environmental harmony has existed for several decades. What is missing is not scientific data, but sensitivity to the intimate relationship that exists between ourselves and the Earth.

The changing climate and its consequences for life on Earth is the context in which we do theology today. If the ecological crisis is a crisis of perception , as indicated by George Monbiot, then the theological task is to find ways to talk about the human/nature relationship that do not set humans outside of nature, but rather clarify how it is that we relate to nature, while also being an embodied part of nature. By acknowledging the human/nature relationship as arelationship - mutual and reciprocal - we can begin to regard other-than-human-beings as ensouled 'others' in their own right, as fellow beings or kin. Indeed, if we share in a vision of the Kingdom of God and desire to become complicit in that Kingdom, it helps to drop the 'g' in Kingdom. Kin-dom implies an understanding of the interdependence of all aspects of the earthly biosphere, and affirms human existence as a network of relations into which we are born, become embedded, and into which our lives continuously unfold. Kin-dom allows us to recognise the natural world as a community of fellow subjects - rather than a collection of meaningless objects to be humanly exploited. Focusing upon the human relation to the non-human sphere also has a sobering effect, for when revealed as a relationship the human mistreatment of nature - the polluting, blasting, eliminating, excavating, bulldozing, slaughtering, - comes glaringly into view.

The Earth is the original field for all human experience, the ultimate source of, and necessary ground for, all psychological life and theological reflection. Once this is acknowledged, it becomes clear that no so-called 'inner experience' can ever be had, for our thoughts, images, emotions, and behaviour only arise in relation to a world. Put simply, all our feelings, thoughts, concepts; all our scriptures, theologies, and philosophies; all our art, music, and dance; all our structures and processes of living come from humankind's long and intimate association with the whole experience of life on Earth, and are dependent for their continuation upon a conversation between body and world. It is our immersion in this earthy world - with its specific gravity and atmosphere, its particular landscapes, its climatic cycles and biological rhythms, its myriad plants and animals - that informs and structures our languages and societies. The ecophilosopher, David Abram, writes 'By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere, freeing sentience to a property of the earth: we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths'.[6] In sum, the human psyche/spirit is itself internal to the natural world, that is, itself a phenomenon of nature.

So we are not exempt from membership of the natural world. It follows that our ultimate concerns - meaning, desire, death, suffering, freedom - are worked out within the context of our membership of the community of all life, the larger natural order. We delude ourselves if we think that we can ever be sane while alienated from our own earthiness, from the bodily ground we share with the twigs and mice. If we are to begin to come to terms not only with climate change, but also the dreadful social and ecological realities of our times, and create a life-celebrating society, it is not enough to acknowledge and repent of our ecological sins. It is not enough to lament the destruction of ecosystems and commit ourselves to walking a different path of social justice and ecological integrity. It is not enough to relate to the Earth as 'stewards' of God's Creation. Such prayers and actions are necessary, of course, but not sufficient.

Monbiot's call for us to accept that we too are part of the natural world demands an experiential approach to the natural world. By making experience the starting point for theological reflection, we move back to the immediacy of our bodies: sensual and earthy. Our experiencing is always a bodily phenomenon, and always an interaction with our surroundings. Such an approach is indispensable for the difficult philosophical task of articulating a non-dualistic psychology and theology. If it is the case that we can have no experience, perception, or self-knowledge without a world in which to bodily interact, to touch and be touched by, then it is imperative that we pay attention to the human-nature relationship. Fidelity to nature is gained through paying attention not only to our experience of nature, but also to the nature in our experience, and it is only as we learn to experience them together, that we will move away from dualism. The move away from dualism is the move towards experience, and the claims and limits of nature are discovered precisely through our experience of them.

The major structures of our society generally function by erasing our connection with the natural world, so that the human-nature relationship becomes a zone of reality that is hidden for most modern people. Yet our experience is always directing us toward some sort of contact with the world, and the world itself calls forth our experience. We have access to nature through a part of nature, namely, our bodies. This relational or interactive framework (so different from the individualistic and dualistic framework of our western tradition) has the potential to speak directly to how each of us experiences the ecological crisis, and how we carry the mistreatment of nature (human and non-human) in our bodies. Yet, the vital relation between ourselves and the natural world is severely attenuated in modern society, so much so, that re- awakening and deepening our experience of interacting with the natural world is the theological vocation for our times.

Rowan Williams has written that 'we are not consumers of what God has made, we are in communion with it.'[7] Communion implies an experience of the lived encounter between the natural world and ourselves. 'What is needed here,' wrote H A Williams over thirty years ago, 'is a resurrection of the mind whereby it is raised well above its calculating and controlling functions and is discovered to be, like the body, the living feeling person I am, the person made for involvement and communion with my world'. [8] For H A Williams, our home ground, the square miles of territory which provide our ecological context (our parish), can be known in such a way that it contributes to what we are. It is in our blood. People are created by where they live, and it is by means of the experience that each has of the other, whether the 'other' is a human person or a landscape or an animal, that the identity of each is enlarged and developed. 'In the end', says H A Williams, 'we know them by means of our communion with them, in terms of the common life we share together'. [9]

In similar manner Rowan Williams urges us to seek ways to effect a metanoia, a change of perception that will allow us to pay attention to what the world is communicating to us and to respond accordingly. The question is not whether the instinct for life can win out over the instinct for death, but whether we can find collective ways to bear our pain and suffering, and to strengthen ourselves, so that we can stop negating life and get back to it. What, then, to do? Rowan Williams calls for 'simple, accessible ways of learning again what it is to be part of the created order. Receive the world that God has given. Go for a walk. Get wet. Dig the earth'. [10]

The rewarding journey of recalling our intimate belonging to the community of subjects that is the Earth begins with the rich smell of wet earth, the sound of wind through the trees, the sight of circling rooks, the touch of hard rock, soft fur, the taste of the first ripe autumn apple. With the understanding that we too are part of nature, we can begin to respond to climate change.


  1. George Monbiot, Mocking Our Dreams, The Guardian Newspaper, 15th February, 2005 [back]
  2. Lisa Isherwood, The Embodiment of Feminist Liberation Theology: TheSpiralling of Incarnation in Embodying Feminist Liberation Theologies, Vol. 12.2 (ed. Beverley Clack) (Continuum, 2004) [back]
  3. Myles Allen, Physicist at Oxford University, and principal investigator of the ClimatePrediction.net Project, interview with Amy Goodman, 28th January 2005. www.democracynow.org [back]
  4. Roger Highfield, Screen Saver Weather trials predicts 10 degree rise in British Temperatures, Daily Telegraph, 31st January 2005 [back]
  5. Michael McCarthy, Slouching Towards Disaster, The Tablet, 12th February 2005 [back]
  6. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More Than Human World (New York, Pantheon, 1996) [back]
  7. Rowan Williams, Foreword to Sharing God's Planet: A Christian vision for a sustainable future (Church House Publishing, 2005) [back]
  8. H A Williams, True Resurrection (Mitchell Beazley Publishers Ltd, 1972) [back]
  9. H A Williams, True Resurrection p.83 [back]
  10. 10. Rowan Williams, Foreword to Sharing God's Planet [back]

Laura Deacon is Information Officer for Christian Ecology Link. She is actively involved in the Quaker Living Witness Project. She lives near to Silverdale/Arnside, in North Lancashire, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and spends time walking and exploring there.