Learning Love from a Tiger

Religious Experiences with Nature

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Daniel Capper
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , April
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520290426.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Daniel Capper’s Learning Love from a Tiger: Religious Experiences with Nature is a fascinating stroll through six religious traditions. Capper demonstrates that each of the religions he studies entails a wide array of views on the spiritual status of nature. This leads, ultimately, to ambivalence. Humans simultaneously feel a kinship with nature along with a fear or desire to use it.

In the first case study of the text Capper explores Christianity, which has “two histories” of relating to animals. In one of these histories, animals are “deeply loved … friends of saints …[showing] spiritual insight” (35). This is evidenced, for example, by St. Assisi’s relationships with animals (51). In the other history, animals experience abundant “inferiority,” which is evidenced by the consistent obedience of St. Assisi’s animal friends. In some forms of Christianity animals are regarded with a more egalitarian attitude, such as in some communities in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe (67)—but even within these communities animals are relegated to a lower tier in the Great Chain of Being (38). Chapter 2 dives into Islam, which Capper describes as “building on attitudes developed by its Abrahamic cousin Christianity”—and Great Chain of Being cosmology—though retaining “some older ideas, like Egyptian reverence toward cats, as well as adding fresh approaches of its own” (67). One of the most important innovations of Islam, Capper argues, is the injunction that humans “care for natural beings precisely because they are less than human” (69).

Capper then explores what he calls the “ecocentrism” of Hinduism. “Ecocentrism” for Capper is distinct, importantly, from anthropocentrism (human-centerdness), zoacentrism (animal-centeredness), and biocentrism (life-centeredness). In ecocentrism, even water and rocks are considered sacred. Across Indian Hinduism, as well as with the Mississippi-based New Talavana Hindu community he studies, Capper writes that trees are “holy persons with their own sacred inner lives” (101). Trees have souls; rivers have souls; cows have souls (108-9). However, only humans can perform proper religious rites (110), therefore only humans can transmigrate to Heaven. In chapter 4, Capper touches on serpent worship (142-4), natural soul-companions (158), agricultural nature mysticism (171), and shamanic transformations (164) by touring the present-day Mayans in the highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala. The Mayan “universe,” writes Capper “may be fairly described as animist, in which individual natural beings are treated as persons” (144). In this ecocentric universe, all of creation is alive and active; nature is not full of objects but rather of subjects. People do not take from nature unless they “give to nature in return” (145).

Chapter 5 explores the Yetis of Tibetan Buddhism. In the West we may think of the Yetis as blood-thirsty monsters, though in the Himalayas they have both a human side and an animal side. Yetis can be both compassionate and ferocious. As hybrids between humans and animals, they are the beings most in touch with the sacred and have the most innate connection to divine beings. As such, it is their role in the world order to enforce it; through their connection with the divine, they moderate community order (200-03). In the sixth chapter, “Enlightened Buddhist Stones,” Capper tours Magnolia Grove, a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery in Mississippi. Here, the natural world is “inclusive” and “enlightened” (214). This is, in part, because of its leader Thich Naht Hanh, who has been “strongly influenced” by Western ecological thought, and who highlights the Buddhist concept of pratitya-samutpada—the interrelatedness of all things. Independence is illusory; all must rise or fall together. Just as humans possess inner Buddha nature, “so do all things in the natural world with which humans inter-are” (221). This includes trees and stones. Capper concludes that this is the most ecocentric of all the communities he studies.

Capper closes the chapter on Magnolia Grove by saying that “ecocentrism always seems to be compromised by some form of practical human concern, because humans’ material requirements eventually demand some form of anthropocentric response” (237). No matter how eco-centric or nature-loving a community may be—as in the case of Magnolia Grove—people will leverage their needs over nature. This is one of the primary themes of Learning Love from a Tiger: humans are anthropocentric, if only to varying degrees.

One thing Capper does not explore is the question of why. In the introduction he lists two “fundamental questions” that are “central” to this book: “Why are religious experiences with nature so diverse?” and “What does this diversity mean in terms of real-world outcomes for humans, animals, plants, minerals, and water?” (9). The latter question he addresses in depth, as he explores diverse religious communities and ethics around the globe. The former question, however, he addresses hardly at all. He does take a couple pages in the introduction to align himself with Steven Katz and other philosophers of religion (9-10) who argue that religions shape human experience, but he does not delve into why, or why that leads to such great diversity. For a book so centered on human relationships with biology and material, I would welcome a discussion on the biological and material—and all other—forces that compel humans to have ambivalent and diverse relationships with nature. This would add a theoretical component to this descriptive text. As it stands, Capper’s text is simply—though importantly—a thoughtful study of the multifaceted relationships different religions and communities have with nature. It is also, in the end, prescriptive. Capper closes the text by arguing that, should we better understand the variety of human-nature relationships in the world and deconstruct our own biases, we may “may find unforeseen, mutually beneficial ways in which we may respond to and live with our animal, plant, and mineral neighbors” (256).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stefani Ruper is a doctoral candidate of theology and religion at Oxford University.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Capper is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Southern Mississippi and the author of Guru Devotion and the American Buddhist Experience.

Comments

Daniel Capper

As the author I agree with some of Ms. Ruper’s review, although with a different context in mind.  I feel that I responded to the question about the diversity of experiences with nature more fully than she intimates, but she remains essentially correct when she portrays the book as more descriptive than theoretical.  My priority was to write a text that would be user-friendly within an undergraduate university classroom, and this meant keeping the work relatively short (it still runs 320 pages), as fat tomes sometimes intimidate students and their teachers alike.  Doing justice to the biological components, while desirable as Ms. Ruper indicates, would have made the text quite long.  The comparative study of religious experiences with nature remains in its relative infancy, so I did not try to answer all possible theoretical questions.  Instead I sought to contribute to some ongoing discussions in religion and ecology, start conversations in the wider world of religious studies scholarship, and speak to some of our leaders of the future, who will have difficult environmental problems to solve and could use religion as a resource.

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