- ISBN: 9781506473864
- Published By: Fortress Press
- Published: February 2022
Contemporary ways of living lack a rich sense of connection with the living world. Instead, our lives are shaped by technological distractions, economic forces, and a secular worldview that is deeply conditioned by the objectifying lens of mechanistic science and the limitations of English language usage. In Ecospirituality: An Introduction, Rachel Wheeler invites readers to reimagine the ecological potential of religious traditions, to reflect on their personal experiences in natural settings, and to develop spiritual practices that root them in their ecological contexts. Wheeler hopes her book will “promote actions and heart-dispositions that will contribute to the flourishing of the Earth community” (ix-x). Spirituality—“the way the sacred informs one’s way of being in the world” (1)—is an essential aspect of being human, which may or may not coincide with belonging to a particular religious or philosophical tradition. Ecospirituality—how one relates to the sacred within the ecological contexts—addresses our contemporary sense of dislocation. The sense of belonging cultivated by ecospiritual practices can begin to heal our separation from the natural world.
Wheeler’s project in the first half of the book is to help her readers imagine the possibilities for a rich relationship with the sacred in an ecological context. Chapters 1 through 4 survey natural imagery in the Christian tradition, beginning with the creation narratives of Genesis, then proceeding to the 4th century desert traditions, Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen, and Wendell Berry and Thomas Berry. Wheeler does not assume her readers are members of particular historical traditions. Rather, she intends for the material that is explicitly religious to be taken as “invitational for all readers to reflect on, whether they identify as belonging within these traditions or not” (9). In these first four chapters, Wheeler illustrates ways of thinking about the natural world, evident in the biblical text and Christian tradition, that might inspire fruitful practices, even for non-Christians. Her depictions of ecologically sensitive ideas are a helpful corrective to the dominant cultural narrative that Christianity is bad for the environment. The intended effect is to make space for new practices to develop that foster human and ecological flourishing.
Practice itself becomes the focus in chapters 5–8. While each chapter, including those in the first half, concludes with suggestions for ecospiritual practices, Wheeler pauses in chapter 5 to define spiritual practices as “anything that contributes to the formation of a person’s being and the sustenance of that person’s well-being” (98). By engaging intentionally in spiritual practices, we become better able to respond compassionately to challenges that arise around us—ecological and otherwise.
Chapter 5 continues by describing spiritual practices with ecological relevance in diverse religious traditions: darshan, ecological examen, eco-halal and eco-kosher, metta meditation, and the sabbath. Chapter 6 explores more innovative practices, less grounded in religious tradition. Here, Wheeler encourages readers to expand the scope of spiritual practice to include “things we do that contribute to the flourishing of members of the Earth community” (127). As examples of innovative ecospiritual practice, she describes adrienne maree brown’s emergent strategy of biomimicry as well as zero waste, forest therapy, and Joanna Macy and John Seed’s Council of All Beings ritual.
Chapter 7 draws primarily on Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed Editions, 2013) to illustrate ecospiritual practices informed by Indigenous traditions, including land acknowledgments, the Thanksgiving Address, honorable harvest, and language practices that recognize personhood and subjectivity beyond the human. In chapter 8, Wheeler offers ecological interpretations of faith, hope, and love as virtues that might help readers respond to pressing ecological challenges. This final chapter draws on ecojustice and ecofeminism to encourage the shift to a more socially engaged ecospirituality.
While this text will resonate strongly with the environmental sensibilities of progressive Christians, Wheeler’s definition of spirit as that which undergirds life itself unlinks her project from any particular historical tradition. “These ecospiritual practices offer opportunities,” she writes, “to restore attention to and to nurture something that we all have—regardless of tradition or lack of religious tradition—by virtue of being human: a relationship with the sacred or with that which gives and sustains life” (10). Her invitation to set a personal intention and engage in the practices distinguishes her text from books that include more personal memoir, such as Diana Butler Bass’s Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution (HarperOne, 2015). Wheeler’s sensitive and respectful treatment of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work distinguishes her book from texts that disparage Indigenous spiritualities as primitive expressions of a pre-Axial past, such as Karen Armstrong’s Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2022).
This text will provoke fruitful discussions of the ethical implications of ecospiritual practices. Instructors teaching this book will find that the end-of-chapter questions for reflection and discussion elicit responses that go beyond a mere regurgitation of content. The suggested readings at the end of each chapter point to core readings in the broader literatures of ecospirituality. While there is brief reference to animism and to deep ecology, I was surprised to find no references to paganism or to Bron Taylor’s deep green religion. A pleasant surprise, however, were the unexpected topics (such as ecosexuality) and references to texts from small presses that are less commonly carried by university and public libraries, counterbalancing the preponderance of white male voices in this genre.
Wheeler’s introduction to ecospirituality is an accessible and inviting guide to ways of relating to the sacred within our ecological contexts. I appreciate the author’s choice not to belabor the forces that pull us away from a sense of creaturely continuity with the living world. There is great wisdom in counseling the beginning whitewater kayaker to stop looking at the rocks and, instead, to focus on the path of moving water where they want their craft to go.
Nancy Menning is a courtesy research associate in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon.Nancy MenningDate Of Review:January 27, 2023