City of the Good

Nature, Religion, and the Ancient Search for What is Right

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Michael Mayerfield Bell
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , February
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In City of the Good: Nature, Religion and the Ancient Search for What is Right Michael M. Bell begins with a basic question: Why is humanity unable to agree on what constitutes “the good,” particularly in environmental terms? Bell then initiates a sweeping examination of how religions have evolved from barely distinguishing the human from the natural and supernatural, to the transcendent deities and anti-material mysticism infusing today’s most populous faiths. The core thesis is urbanizing societies need a “foundation for justice apart from human desires” (9). Fueled by the rise of empires, cities manifested both vertical class stratification and strife, and, as they drew riches from the countryside, generated horizontal conflict with the rural. Correcting Karl Jasper’s neglect of the ecological in framing Axial theory, Bell terms urbanites bourgeois and the disparaged farmers and wood cutters pagan. For urbanizing societies, associating the pagan and nature with “moral backwardness” justified exploitation, inequality and ethical “disdain for ecological questions” (9). 

Utilizing mythic and literary sources, including the Mayan Popul Vuh and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Bell establishes a historic sequence of religions beginning with “nature-before-nature” where humans and gods are “entangled” with their milieu and often battle with each other. Emphasizing the growing ethical awareness of social stratification by wealth, he continues to the Classical Greeks who define nature as physis yet also idealize the Arcadian. Taking an even more radical ethical trajectory, the Dao De Jing moves beyond the supernatural, political, and sexual struggles of nature-before-nature into freedom from the urban morass of “desire, manipulation, ambition, and inequality” (69). Bell proposes that, from Horace to Henry David Thoreau, urbanizing societies have discovered “a natural conscience, a basis for moral thinking we believe to be free of society and all its politics and constant play of interests and ambitions” (72). For Bell, ancient Hebrew religion is transitional “pagan monotheism”—still acknowledging the majority dependence on agricultural, while defending an urban elite and a centralized kingship. The unified masculine deity bans other gods from his temple, and unlike the Greek pantheon, has no need for sex. Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism matured as faiths “heavily weighted toward bourgeois concerns,” whereas Hinduism and Islam emerged as what Bell terms “electrum faiths that have forged alloys of bourgeois gold with varying amounts of pagan silver” (182). 

The analysis incorporates thought-provoking interpretations, such as identifying Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus of Nazareth as articulating apparently nonpolitical teachings resulting in inherently political stances like resisting Roman rule. After examining Hellenism and the formative period for Islam, however, Bell halts much of this quest for the religious “good” and limits examination of the Reformation to three pages. The volume thus provides minimal commentary on Protestantism, industrialization, and the roots of the contemporary global middle and business classes, or their contributions to 21st century environmental dilemmas.

As the dust-jacket endorsement by David Lowenthal summarizes, Bell has assembled “an innovative and empathetic depiction of the world’s great faiths as authoritative fairy tales.” This begs the question of how the greater environmental good can emerge from such diversity. Pointing to the myriad of opposing views among today’s religions in claiming moral superiority, Michael Bell proposes turning to the “awesome coolness” of the Great Mystery and being “forever open to further experiences of the world and to further experiences of each other” (238). The final chapter borrows the idea of “the jewel of the truth” from Mahayana Buddhism’s jewel net of Indra as a metaphor for “the contextualized, ever-changing, connecting up of difference.” This requires acceptance of “grounded knowledge … that recognizes its grounding in local contexts but also recognizes that it ultimately connects to all other knowledge” (265). The book closes by returning to the original thesis that today’s major religions are bourgeois and leave their ancient pagan roots “disguised, feared, or unacknowledged” (270). Citing Bron Taylor’s campaign for dark rather than pale green religions, Bell proposes greening world religions by creating a new electrum via an infusion of the pagan to balance the bourgeois. Rather than being embarrassed, Christianity could, for example, rejoice in the celebration of Christ’s birth at the winter solstice. Communion could revive the ancient recognition that wine celebrates the “fruit of the earth” (273). Although religious environmental projects from multiple faiths are recovering neglected green traditions or installing earth-aware rituals and symbols, City of the Good does not evaluate actual examples of a new electrum or document any beneficial outcomes. 

The writing style is suited to a college educated audience looking for an engaging environmental read. Bell brackets chapters and sections with vignettes from his own experiences, like a visit to a South African gold mine. To elucidate cross-cultural perspectives, the author utilizes brief fictional scenarios—a Greek couple attend a play by Aristophanes, for example. City of the Good provides basic overviews of historic events and key texts such as the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama and the meaning of dharma in the Bhagavad Gita, making them accessible to non-specialists.

For the professional comparative religions scholar, the vignettes reduce coverage of relevant contemporary religious theory. Notable gaps include such hot topics as the development of pro-social religions, the intellectual history of “nature” as idea, and technology’s feedbacks with human self-concept. While far better documented, Bell’s attempt to construct a universal model explaining the religious roots of environmental indifference is reminiscent of Lynn White Jr’s. invocation of divine transcendence and poses similar issues concerning scholarly methodology. The sweeping application of bourgeois to an eclectic assemblage of governance structures over five millennia prompts historiographic questions, such as whether the temporal jump from irrigation-driven Mesopotamia to the Greek polisrepresents sequential phases of urbanization. Students of contemporary religious environmentalism will find the discussion of greening faiths constrained to a few concluding pages. City of the Good is about where religion’s environmental deficiencies have come from, rather than offering a detailed recipe for fixing failures. Michael Bell has, however, opened multiple historic and religious gateways for further exploration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Susan Power Bratton is Professor of Environmental Science at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Mayerfeld Bell is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is also a faculty associate in religious studies, environmental studies, and agroecology. His many books include the award-winning Childerley: Nature and Morality in a Country Village and, Farming for Us All: Practical Agriculture and the Cultivation of Sustainability.


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