Karen Armstrong: Sacred Nature

July 23, 2022

     In this latest book Karen Armstrong develops her idea that monotheism led people to view nature and their relationships with nature in a different way from other peoples; they came to see ‘God’ as separate from the world rather than an integral part of it. For her, then, the early modern, increasingly scientific and rationalistic world-view, particularly in the West, let to the idea of nature as a resource for human use and exploitation, rather than humans striving to live in harmony with creation which included ‘God’. God thus became something completely separate from the world, and other, the original holiness or sacredness of the world and nature was sidelined, and we have ended up in the current situation where the planet is rapidly being destroyed, in the sense of becoming unliveable for our species, at least.

Armstrong is building on and developing ideas that she has already expounded in recent books; through her knowledge and understanding of religion and history, she argues for a radically different relationship between human beings and the world we inhabit, which would involve, for us in the developed world at least, much sacrifice of what we currently have and enjoy, at the expense of the planet.

It was interesting to learn that apparently, the Chinese have no creation story in their myth or tradition. Her message develops from both Chinese and Indian philosophy, and to a lesser extent from Islam, and is about a world-picture that the West and Christianity has left behind at its cost. She extracts many important, if not vital, lessons from the wisdom of past ages, and yet sadly, she ultimately comes across in this book as disconnected from the chaos that is the contemporary world: I cannot see how, in practical terms, enough of us can begin to bridge the gap she describes, to make the transition she hopes for, and with which many thinking people will surely agree.

She emphasises the importance of quiet and solitude, two things which the modern consumerist world obviously despises and does its best to eliminate from our consciousness. Quiet people, who enjoy solitude, are not ideal consumers; noise, groups, gregariousness facilitate spending money and generate profits…

I enjoyed this book, and it slowed me down and made me think and reflect a good deal. I was particularly gripped by her thoughtful and innovative reading of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And, though I wish things might turn out differently, I do not see her book changing the world.

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