Reviving our Closeness toward Nature: Book Launching and Discussion of Karen Armstrong’s Sacred Nature

11 April 2023

Written by Athanasia Safitri

Challenges we face dealing with nature such as climate change and natural catastrophes have compelled us to reflect on ourselves and our position on Earth and toward nature. Karen Amstrong, a British author best known for her writings on comparative religion, has now invited us to take a moment to recognize nature's central position in our spiritual life and to rediscover the sacredness of nature in these modern times. Her translated book Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World was launched and discussed on March 15, 2023 by Mizan in collaboration with Universitas Gadjah Mada and Universitas Kristen Duta Wacana.

Rev. Robert Setio, PhD., Dean of Theology Faculty at UKDW, gave the welcoming speech to underline that the launching and discussion will hopefully be beneficial. Dr. Zainal Abidin Bagir, Director of ICRS UGM, and Rev. Prof. Emanuel Gerrit Singgih of UKDW shared their evaluations and comments on the book, followed by discussion with the participants attending. Both speakers agreed that Armstrong’s book would reopen insight into the spiritual intimacy between humans and nature. Later, they encouraged the participants to read it themselves since it might awaken a personal experience for people to be in deeper contact with nature.

Nature as seen in logos and mythos

Rev. Singgih began his reflection on the book by stating that some people see nature apart from the Almighty, while some others consider nature as a manifestation of God. We understand that the first statement places nature in the logos sense, which refers to logical and rational analysis of a particular topic. The latter explains nature in the concept of mythos which refers to a mythological belief system and narrative knowledge. These two different ways of thinking may lead to opposition related to human interaction with nature.

Singgih stated that Armstrong in her book concluded that nature is somehow sacred and considered close to divine power. However, there should not be any contradiction between the two views. Neither is considered superior to the other; they must complement each other so that in the modern world where logos play dominantly in human life, people should adapt and rethink nature in a mythos sense instead of just in a scientific manner. For example, we should bear in mind that natural disasters are not God’s wrath responding to irresponsible human actions toward nature. It is best to also see the grace of God in the eyes of the survivors. Armstrong also invites us to balance our actions and thinking in order to overcome problems regarding nature, such as climate change and catastrophes.

Bagir continued by pointing out that the goal for mythos is to make a transformation. A change of human attitude toward nature is highly required to obtain closeness to nature, rather than to exploit nature only. Modern science, like what Armstrong explains in her book, encourages us to believe again in mythos. As much as mythos or narratives in religion are important, so are those of nature. Bagir gave an example in the story of God’s creation in which the days of creation give a logos definition. On the other hand, the narrative or mythos behind creation provides us not only information but also shapes and transforms our belief in God’s creation. Bagir stated that method in logos can be important since it gives out concrete symbols but just like religion requires narrative, nature also demands what lies beneath so it can later change us. In the end, he revealed to our understanding that any religion mostly respects nature as a part of God himself.

The balance for a closer bond with nature

In her book, Armstrong encouraged us to see the beauty of nature and to be inspired to walk our way. Today we are intrigued to always head forward without a pause due to technology, evolution, and human order. People are tempted to constantly live accompanied by technology and driven by necessities that they are no longer free and alone. Armstrong once again draws our attention to be on one’s own completely to recognize ourselves and to find a balance with nature. Moreover, she also reminds us that different ways of living and seeing nature are similar to what the history of religion taught us. A pile of bricks symbolises different foundations of building something, and all religious teachings cannot be compared but they complement each other.

The following discussion emanated evidence that there are many tasks we need to carry out these days. The violation of natural resources by big companies with the support of government policy, and the collaboration with particular religious groups which harm natural preservation are among the environmental issues we need to fight. We can also mention the religious perception of receiving natural disasters as God’s punishment, the lack of green movements in our society, and the debate on pantheism. People need to familiarise themselves with the green way of life in favour of the environment on a daily basis. One of the ideas that has been established by the Catholic church through ‘Laudato Si’, the second encyclical of Pope Francis, on the care of the ecology in our common home, in which everyone is invited to protect our mother nature.

Both speakers later confirmed that all people of good will must work together to support every collaboration in restoring nature, along with religious institutions, stakeholders related with the environment, and the government. Religion’s active mobility can be beneficial to reduce environmental damage by marking nature as sacred in the same way as religion. This does not signify only seeking a deeper connection with nature but also with other humans. What we should start doing immediately to be in line with what Amstrong suggests is taking time to pause, giving ourselves and nature a rest so that we can recharge one another and reconnect with a stronger bond.