Keeping Faith With Life: A Response to Joel Kovel

Ron Engel


There is so much of importance, and with which I agree, in this penetrating and provocative paper that I would like to begin by simply lifting up Kovel's chief points, in the order of their presentation, adding a few comments of my own along the way, in order to inscribe his argument more deeply on our common memory. I will then turn to some questions I have about what he says, and make a few constructive suggestions of my own.


I agree with Kovel's basic assessment of our environmental situation: it is dire and quickly worsening. It is not something that will be bad sometime in the future. It is very bad right now. The problem is our seeming inability to see it, to focus on it, to truly acknowedge it. And apocalyptic thinking seldom helps—although I cannot help but observe that Kovel's own description sounds fairly apocalyptic! There are some very good things happening, as we know, and we need to remember this if we are to keep our sanity and our spirits up. I find the movement for prairie and savannah restoration here in the midwest, involving several thousand volunteers, and led by Bill Jordan at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and Steve Packard at the Chicago Nature Conservancy, an especially promising phenomenon. But I am amazed every time I hear someone like Thomas Berry announce that we are entering a "new ecological age"—what he calls the "ecozoic." I very much wish we were, but I see very little evidence for it. Americans, I find, at least compared to people in many other parts of the world, are especially ignorant of the realities of the situation.

I agree with just about everything Kovel says about what we might call the "dominant development paradigm" and the seemingly inexorable movement to industrialize nature and people throughout the globe. Like Kovel, I do not much like our present form of advanced industrial capitalism but, again, I would want to remind us that industrial communism has an even worse record of environmental degradation. The "dominant development paradigm" is more than capitalism: it is an amalgam of spiritual, cultural, technological, and economic factors, with the expectation of unlimited growth and consumption, and the ever greater commodification of human experience, at the center of it. Whatever name and analysis we use to try and get our hands on this paradigm—feminists would emphasize its "patriarchal" aspects, a liberation theologian such as Cornel West its racist aspects, critics from the global South often simply call it "the American or Western way of life"—it is our common plight; and it defines the contemporary global human condition, North, South, East, and West, which is one reason why Kovel's project to get at the spiritual center of the paradigm is so important to us.

I agree with Kovel that spirituality must be part of answer, but not "spirituality" per se. There are different kinds of spirituality, and some are bad. The question is to discern authentic from inauthentic, true from false Earth-centered or, as I prefer, Earth-based spirituality. This is the heart of the theological and ethical task. At the same time, I want, with Kovel, to acknowledge the fact that the contemporary hunger for spirituality (spirituality interpreted as a search for a different kind of life, an alternative way of living, one that "creates a workplace that is humane, provides community, that promotes a sense of higher purpose" and "a sense of connection to a larger universe," as Jay Conger, in his recent book Spirit at Work: Discovering the Spirituality in Leadership, describes it), because these things are missing from our present industrial technological way of life, and are, perhaps, the single most promising indications we have that we might yet turn the dominant development paradigm around, and save both the planet and our own souls.

I agree with Kovel that discerning authentic from inauthentic, a true from false spirituality, "requires reflection into the historical ground from which a spirituality springs and the political project it serves."

I also agree with Kovel that Emersonian spirituality, which is an ever-popular candidate for earth-based spirituality in America, stands in special need of such a critique because in certain respects it is the problem, not the answer. To adopt unreconstructed Emersonianism would be to pour gasoline on the fires of ecological destruction.

Here let us pause for a minute and acknowledge that Kovel has come to the right place to make such a critique—right into the citadel of Emersonian spirituality—Unitarian Universalism. For better or worse, we are all Emersonians. I will never forget the first time I read Emerson as a high school student—yes, it was in an open meadow near my home (since transformed into a subdivision); I was overwhelmed; I couldn't wait to join the Unitarian church because it alone among religions seemed to celebrate this man's ideas!

It is apparent that Emerson has had this kind of impact on religious liberals for well over a century. If you will permit me a moment's digression, my favorite firsthand account of Emerson's impact as a lecturer is found in a letter by Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King, written to his friend, Randolph Ryer, in 1849. King was a fervent admirer of Emerson, at one point declaring: "He belongs in the same cabinet of Nature's jewels with Plato...Plato the ruby, Emerson the white, cold, flashing diamond." King was also an eloquent spokesperson for the beauty of natural landscape, as his book The White Hills: Their Legends, Landscape and Poetry, well attests. But he also could be playful in his enthusiasm. I quote from King's letter to Ryer:

Emerson gave us last Monday evening the most brilliant lecture I ever listened to from any mortal. It was on the identity of the laws of the mind with the laws of nature. He proved conclusively that man is only a higher kind of corn, that he is a squirrel gone up onto the first class, that he is a liberated oyster fully educated, that he is a spiritualized pumpkin, a thinking squash, a graduated sun-flower, an inspired turnip...Such imagery, such wit, such quaint things said in a tone solemn and sublime! I have the most profound respect henceforth for every melon-vine as my ancestor (melancholic thought). I look upon every turtle as of kin. Tonight he lectures again. I fear I may lose it...Yours as ever, Starr.

I agree with Kovel that Emerson badly needs to be criticized for his anthropocentrism and his inability to deal with social relations—social power and social heirarchy—and hence with social injustice. Here we must compliment Kovel on the deftness with which he has established a Trojan horse in our midst. I confess I have tried to make just this critique myself with Unitarian Universalist seminarians and know how difficult it is to do. I once assigned Emerson's essay Nature to read, in the expectation the students would be surprised with what they found there, but they were so bound by what they assumed Emerson said about nature, that they could not read what was, in fact, in the text. It was only with great difficulty that I could get them to see that, in the end, Emerson's idea of human spiritual evolution was profoundly anti-matter and anti-ecological. For me the most telling sentences in Nature come immediately before the ones Kovel quotes about the "advancing spirit" creating "ornaments" along its path. Let me quote: "A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fact will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, mad-houses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen. The sordor and filths of nature, the sun shall dry up, and the wind exhale."

I agree with Kovel that in spite of these problems there are aspects of Emerson's thought worthy of retrieval. Kovel rightly notes, for example, that Emerson's battle is our battle—the "invasion of Nature by Trade with its Money, its Credit, its Steam, its Railroad"—the "mechanical idea." I believe it is possible to redeem more of Emerson than this, however, and I will speak to this issue in a minute.

I strongly agree with Kovel's appropriation of Melville's prophetic critique of Emerson, and of the mad human drive to obliterate the Otherness of existence and make the world over in our own image. Melville, like Thoreau, was supremely self-reflective; like Thoreau, he saw straight through the hypocrisies of his age, as in that devastating obersvation about the burning of whale oil in the lamps of pious Christians. We, of course, are vulnerable to similar criticisms by the Melvilles of our day.

Finally, I agree emphatically with Kovel's final judgment that "the only feasible way of overcoming the [environmental] crisis" is a reconstructed earth spirituality that undergirds a "radically democratic and socially transformative collective action"—a point he introduces early on and then returns to in the conclusion, as the upshot of his critical dialogue between Emerson and Melville. As someone who has spent a good part of his life trying to relate ecology and democracy, ecology and social justice, I cannot but say "amen!"


Now let me try to raise a few questions and make a few suggested additions to Kovel's argument.

First of all, while I heartily agree that the environmental crisis is serious and real, I believe it is important to draw a distinction between the situation we must remedy in the world at large, and our need for an authentic spiritual and moral relation to the planet on which we dwell. The fact that the environment is in trouble underscores our spiritual and moral failures, and hopefully instructs us on how we have lost our way, but we still would be engaged in a struggle for a healthy Earth-based spirituality even if our failures were not so great and the situation not so dire. We have been engaged in such a spiritual struggle since the beginnings of human history, and I am confident we will continue to be so engaged for the remainder of human history. To live well, with oneself, with others, and with other creatures, even under the most favorable conditions of life available on this planet—with all the pain as well as joy that those conditions inevitably entail—is spiritually and morally demanding in the extreme. The need to differentiate between authentic and inauthentic forms of spiritual response to our Earthly habitation, therefore, is a question in its own right. I would be surprised if Kovel disagreed with me here.

Second, let us go straight to the issue of the meaning of "spirit" and "spirituality." Here I have some problems, or think I have some problems, with some of the things I hear Kovel saying. Kovel provides us with several definitions of "spirit" in his paper:

Apocalyptic discourse is spiritual, by any coherent definition of the term, because it pertains to the transition from ordinary to extraordinary states of being. Spirit means a passage beyond the normally defined boundaries of the self into altered relations of being...

for it is the nature of spirit to step outside the given, and protest against it. It is in the nature of spirit also to be dialectical, that is, to move through negations; and the fuller this motion, the more adequate spirit becomes in the service of life.

Kovel is quite correctly reminding us, if I understand him right, that transcendence is inherent in spirit. But by defining spirit as a passage beyond the normally defined boundaries of the self into altered relations of being, he seems to be doing more than this; he seems to be equating spirit with transcendence through radical transformation.

For me, spirit is whatever creates, sustains, and redeems existence on this Earth and in this cosmos—where "existence" comprehends everything from atoms to ideas. This is not a new thought, of course: these are the three functions of God in traditional Christian theology. The point is that spirit is a many-splendored thing. There is no one way in which it works in our lives, or the lives of other creatures, or in the manifold kinds of relations between us. The spiritual dialectic of radical negation, of spirit stepping outside the given, moving us from ordinary to extraordinary states of being, is only one of the ways the spirit manifests itself in creating, sustaining, and redeeming the world. As Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva each reminds us—one from the perpective of the best of the American agrarian experience, the other from the perspective of the experience of Indian women—the spirit also works in quite ordinary ways, enabling ordinary peole to persevere in modest but vital life-sustaining tasks over long periods of time. When I teach my courses on eco-theology at Meadville/Lombard, I seek to explore, with my students, seven or eight different models by which the spirit works to empower just and sustainable ways of human living.

This leads me to suggest as my next point, that Kovel has three rather distinct forms of spiritual activity in play in this paper. One he finds in Emerson and doesn't much like. One he finds in Melville—obviously this is, in his judgment, and authentic manifestation of spirit. And one he alludes to but does not develop very far although I suspect, when all is said and done, it is the one he is most eager to nurture. Let me conclude my remarks by examining each of these three in turn.

The form of spirituality Kovel considers most critical for our present plight, the one so powerfully expressed by Melville in Moby Dick, is what I would call the "wilderness experience." In and through an encounter with spirit in nature at the margins of human "civilization," the hubris, the idolatries, the defenses, the sheer comfortableness and routines of ordinary life are shattered, and we are opened to a radically transformed consciousness, so that we see ourselves as part of the whole, dependent upon the whole, dependent upon the Other and all the others. In the Western religious tradition, the wilderness experience is paradigmatically expressed in the wilderness journey of the Exodus; it was through that encounter with the Spirit in the desert wilderness that the biblical propetic tradition first took shape. Melville was a latter day prophet and it is, therefore, not surprising, as Kovel well notes, that his message was not greeted with enthusiasm, and his books not purchased in large least initially. I agree with Kovel in the absolute centrality of the kind of transcendence found in the wilderness spiritual journey if there is to be any metanoia in our time, any turning back from our march toward Babylon. Our whole civilization, as it were, needs to be brought to the edge of the wilderness in order to discover how far we have overreached ourselves, how great is our pride and stupidity, how utterly dependent we are upon the "ground" of our Being.

The form of spirituality Kovel finds most oppressive is the form that he finds expressed in the life and work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and which he associates with the idea of human dominion. As I said before, I think there is good reason to be critical of Emerson's interpretation of the relations of spirit and nature. But I would be more affirmative of Emersonian spirituality than Kovel. I think Emerson has a hold of something that is inherently good and, moreover, essential to any lasting resolution of the environmental crisis of our time.

Emerson is an advocate, in many ways of classic exemplar, of what I would call the spirituality of "artistic process," which is very similar to what today is often called "creation spirituality," as popularized, for example, but Matthew Fox. Emerson articulated this form of spirituality at a time in American cultural history when it was cirtually impossible to escape the contamination of a deeply entrenched Western patriarchal mindset. But I believe that Emerson writing today would sound much like Matthew Fox, who has purged the artistic, or as it is sometimes called, co-creator, paradigm of its patriarchal baggage and any notion that the divinely ordained mission of the human mind is to subdue nature. (Although even Fox hasn't completely escaped the hierarchical problem, since he speaks freely of human "Kingship" and "Queenship" within creation).

Most Unitarian Universalists who read Matthew Fox's work, e.g. his classic, Original Blessing, feel very much as home. I don;t thknk there is any getting around the fact that the Transcendentalists were the original "creation spirituality" tribe. Emerson was seeking, as Matthew Fox is seeking, as most Unitarian Universalists seek, to assert the inherent worth of human creativity, which involves the creative, sustaining, and redemptive potential of our shaping and reshaping of the integrities of nature. This is the new meaning of "dominion," by the way, that is taking hold in certain Christian circles: the co-creative role of the human being as an "image of God."

Emerson at his best, for examplyin the earlier sections of the essay Nature, when he discusses the function of the poet, had a sense of our creative spiritual power to remake the world and form it into a work of art. Kovel is right on target, therefore, in his identification of the kind of landscape Emerson celebrated: the humanized, art-formed landscape of settled New England (Although, as Rene DuBois would remind us, the beauty and ecological viability of this kind of landscape is much more clearly manifest in Europe than in any part of America). The vocation of the artist is to recreate the world, and in process, to redeem the world, through color and texture and sound and design; and to no small degree all persons follow the artistic vocation, remaking their immediate environs, aiming toward some greater harmony. Cumulatively, humankind has humanized large tracks of nature, most often to the detriment of biodiversity and ecological integrity—but sometimes also to their benefit, evoking potentialities of nature it would not otherwise display and, in this sense, helping to realize or "spiritualize" nature. Today, thanks to the power of modern technology, we have the power to remake the workd by deliberate design. This is extremely dangerous, but it is also in some ways our hope. Purged of patriarchal domination, purged of spirit vs. matter dualism, purged of grandiose plans to achieve a final unity, all the things in Emerson we need to exorcise, we ust depend upon the human capacity for art if we are going to take hold and actually redirect our technology, rebuild our cities and farmlands, and restore our degreaded ecosystems. As Bill Jordan, at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, repeatedly tells us, prairie restoration is an art-form.

But of course, this is not enough. And so we turn, finally, to the third form of earth-based spirituality Kovel treats, the culmination, if my suspicions are correct, of his argument. Recall Kovel's last quotation from Emerson: "As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions...Only that good profits, which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all human beings."

In the biblical narrative, the wilderness experience is fulfilled in the giving of the covenant, which has as its goal the establishment of justice. In the Noahic covenant, it is the establishment of a covenant with all persons and with all creatures on the Earth. The covenant is the fulfillment, the realization, of the spiritual encounter in the wilderness and it is what the porphets continually come out of the wilderness to reassert when the Hebrews stray—which is most of the time, of course.

Liberal religious leaders in the new Christian eco-justice movement, such as Carol Robb and Carl Casebold in their book Covenant for a New Creation, and feminist writers such as Mary Daly, in her chapter on "Covenant as Cosmic Sisterhood" in Beyond God the Father, argue that the covenant idea, properly reinterpreted, can serve as a powerful politico-religious expression of the basic ecological understanding that all creatures are bound together in a planetary community of communities. It can also serve as the necessary moral and spiritual context for the proper exercise of human co-creativity. In no circumstances should human crativity violate the fundamental bonds of interdependence between person and peoples, and between people and the rest of creation, over the course of planetary evolution. This means that ecosystemic integrity, like the social common good, is to be served by art, not destroyed by it. Art (including human work and labor) is to take its place within the universal "laws" or "covenants" of the biospheric community; within the sustaining, recreative, unfolding evolutionary processes of the planet, not outside it.

It is this kind of spirituality, a democratic-covenantal ecological spirituality, if you will, that I believe is most needed today. We have our wilderness prophets, our Melvilles in the 19th century, and our scientists in the 20th century; even if we do not publicly acknowledge the we know, deep down, they are right, and we must turn from our ways. We have our celebrators of human co-creativity, our Emersons in the 19th century, and our Matthew Foxes in the 20th century; at their best they can give us a vision of what it might mean if human creativity were placed in service of restoring the landscape and adapting human living to it. But we do not yet know exactly what covenants to make and what covenants to renew. We are so impressed with the human capacity to break covenants, or to make oppressive covenants, that we are scared of covenants altogether, but this is, nonetheless, the kind of spirituality I hear Kovel calling for—the kind of spirituality that would enable us to keep faith with life, with ourselves, with one another, and with every other creature on this glorious planet.


This paper was first published in Religious Humanism, vol. 31, nos. 1 & 2, winter/spring 1997, p. 46-56. Copyright © 1997 by the HUUmanists, Inc.