A Review of Sacred Nature by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong, Sacred Nature: How We Can Recover Our Bond with the Natural World (London, UK: Bodley Head, 2022).

The British author Karen Armstrong has a knack for connecting with the concerns of society, and this book, Sacred Nature, is no exception, as it engages our troubled relationship with nature and how that relationship is leading to the current climate crisis. Armstrong argues that we must change our relationship to the natural world in both practical and religious ways. To that end, she searches the world’s major religious and philosophical traditions for starting points to cultivate a more respectful religious bonding with nature.

Armstrong indicates that nearly all religions have a word to signify the “essence of all things,” the divine manifestation of all that lives, or the connection of all beings with the cosmic order—qi, Dao, Brahman, jiva (222). In Eastern traditions especially, but also in the West, there are certain words to describe concepts that are difficult to express, such as the animation of all living beings and the sacrality of the sea, mountains, stones, and other unanimated objects. Armstrong writes that “this underlying sense of nature’s inherent sacrality relies on the dynamic vitalism of the qi, the substance of life, which others have called the Dao, the Brahman, God or the sacred” (222). These words and concepts express a shared sense of deep wonder about the world in which we live.

However, in Armstrong’s eagerness to unify all religious traditions through their common care for the earth, she makes some false equivocations. Similar to her book Compassion, Armstrong tends to flatten critical differences between major religions when she concludes that all religious traditions are essentially similar in their concerns and beliefs. And given her attempt to show continuity between major religions, it is not surprising that Armstrong struggles with the Jewish-Christian tradition and its relationship to nature.

Armstrong rightly notes that Israel searched for the sacred in history rather than in nature. Moreover, the Hebrew Bible does not depict God as immanent or discernable through nature but rather “as a distant reality” (83). Considering the biblical-Hebrew approach to history, nature, and God, Armstrong comes to the somewhat disappointing conclusion that for Israel, the human being is the crown of creation, and subsequently, YHWH rules the natural world for the benefit of the human being.[1] But Armstrong also discerns dissenting voices in the Bible that she sees as contradictory to the dominant voices against nature and in favor of humanity. She points, for example, to the book of Job and the wisdom literature and claims that these texts in particular stress the futility of the human being as well as the limits of human knowledge regarding the wonders of nature. With this reading of the Hebrew Bible, Armstrong demonstrates her limited understanding of the book of Job by contrasting it with a reading of Genesis 1. She rightfully senses that in Genesis 1, God’s divine activity in calling forth the light, separating the waters, and letting the dry land appear is not a straight-forward tribute to the sacrality or omnipresence of nature. Genesis 1 is not a song of praise for the natural world. On the contrary, Genesis 1 conveys the many threatening aspects of nature—such as water and darkness—that are tossed aside by God to create a livable habitat for humanity. But Armstrong does not mention that it is precisely this saving, divine activity in Genesis 1 that is echoed again in the book of Job, in which YHWH proclaims: “Where were you when I founded the earth? . . . Who shut the sea within doors when it gushed forth from the womb? . . . I prescribed my limit for it, and set up a bar and doors.”[2] That is, in Job, YHWH confirms that the creation story is not a harmonious homage to nature but a story of deep conflict and battle against the life-threatening aspects of the natural world.

In my view, the books of Genesis and Job should not be read against each other. Armstrong’s attempt to do so reveals a lack of understanding regarding the Hebrew suspicion of and hesitancy to sacralize nature, to which both texts testify. This profound hesitance is linked to the view of nature as part of the status quo and the existing order—things and living beings as they are. The Dutch theologian Kornelis H. Miskotte discerned this very point as the central characteristic of human “religion” in general, which is what he called the human propensity to sacralize existing reality.[3] Therefore, Miskotte characterized the Bible—the Hebrew Bible but in its wake also the New Testament—as an “anti-religious” testimony in its resistance to the sacralization of nature insofar as that veneration makes humanity captive to the status quo. Therefore, a greater understanding of the deeply emancipatory nature of the Hebrew Bible would have been helpful for Armstrong, even if it does not support her argument.

Ironically, Armstrong’s definitions of the terms sacredness and holiness are mainly derived from the Hebrew Scriptures: she stresses that the sacred should be equated with “otherness” (74). The profound otherness of animals, plants, and the natural world around us is something that humanity should continually remember and embrace, which Armstrong believes will cultivate human empathy for nature. Empathy, in her view, is the only way humanity can change our course and save the planet.

And although Armstrong may be right about the critical role of human empathy for preserving the planet, one could ask whether it is really helpful to posit the natural world within such a religious framing. Do we need a religion of nature to save the planet and deal wisely with natural resources?

To Armstrong’s credit, I must stress that her religious approach is not entirely uncritical—she does not necessarily embrace all forms of human religious experience. Moreover, Armstrong is very critical of the Western adaptation of yoga and mindfulness, which tends to focus on individual well-being. When adapted in this way, she describes how these kenotic traditions are used to boost the ego instead of breaking it down, which is in direct opposition to their original purpose. Indeed, the term kenosis literally means “emptying,” and it is used in biblical literature to indicate Jesus’s emptying of his divinity to take on the mortality and vulnerability of human flesh. Armstrong highlights the notion of kenotic sacrifice present in several religious traditions, and she encourages her readers to embrace this view—if we want to learn how to engage the natural world with respect and religious awe, we must be willing to make sacrifices. The chapters entitled “Sacrifice” and “Kenosis” stress the importance of surrendering status and ego. Jesus receives a prominent role in these chapters such that the reader comes away with the impression that Christianity can be helpfully incorporated into Armstrong’s overarching narrative. By doing so, Armstrong places Christianity in contrast with Judaism, which remains, implicitly, the odd one out.

Even though Armstrong’s points about kenosis resonate with me, biblically and theologically I can’t drop the sense that it is in service to the wrong approach to nature. That is, should humanity return to a “sacred nature” to save the planet? Should humanity really return to the situation before the “radical break” (82) that Israel achieved in religious thinking by desacralizing nature? Even if that were possible, would such a regression be a desirable outcome? Israel executes its anti-religious revolution for a reason: the biblical stories clearly show that humanity is inclined, again and again, to sacralize the existing order, and especially nature, at the expense of humanity’s flourishing.

I believe that Israel was rightly apprehensive of such sacralizing. As soon as the phrase natural order is used, we should perk up and pay close attention. The idea that something is natural or exists according to the natural order can be quite dangerous. The dangers of the so-called natural have been witnessed most recently during the pandemic, as we have seen many educated women caught up in the algorithmic trap of extreme online right-wing conspiracy theories about vaccines and living naturally. Their suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry and their desire to live the natural way have led them, via online rabbit holes, to be influenced by the patriarchal ideologies of alt-right groups in which the primary role of women is to give birth and raise children. Calling upon nature or what is natural should instead be received with a healthy amount of suspicion, as it has often been used to legitimize the powers that be in their attempt to remain in power. And so, before one knows it, the call upon nature can lock up half of humanity in their homes, behind the kitchen counter—as a hint, it will not be the men—or in the blink of an eye, it will be declared no longer natural when two people of different skin color marry and have children. The way things (usually) take place in the natural world can easily become prescriptive if nature gets a sacred status.   

It is important to emphasize the potential consequences of Armstrong’s vision of resacralizing nature, but to be fair, this seems to be the opposite of what Armstrong advocates. Perhaps she did not intend to make her point so religiously loaded; after all, the subtitle of her book—How We Can Recover Our Bond with the Natural World—may indicate a different objective. The subtitle hints toward a relationship to nature instead of the veneration of nature, and this approach would give her project a completely different orientation. Framing humanity’s dealings with the planet in terms of a relationship seems much more helpful for Armstrong’s end goal of environmental preservation.

Moreover, the Jewish tradition could offer Armstrong a great deal of resources for thinking through such a relationship given the centrality of covenant and relationship in Jewish scriptures and philosophy. When we approach the problem of humanity and nature as a relationship, it would, in my opinion, be best characterized as a relationship in which one partner has abused, beaten, and exploited the other. At the same time, unlike abusive human relationships, the two partners are forced to stay together and work out a way to do so. This is hard, if not impossible, but there is no other way. Indeed, a new balance should be found, but not through sacralizing the other partner to atone for all the abuse in the past. Nature is not sacred. On the contrary, the coronavirus, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes—these are all parts of nature that need to be combated instead of sacralized to protect vulnerable human beings. Humanity is not meant to bow down in worship to the natural world, but rather, the human person has been created to act in ways that are responsible and caring.

In addition, Armstrong’s argument does not address the fact that there is not a single thing in the world that could be called pure nature. Everything on the planet has already been touched and impacted—for good and bad—by human beings. The two, humanity and nature, are completely interwoven. Thus, instead of sacralizing the natural world, a better biblical image could be located in the concept of the garden: how can humanity cultivate the planet into a garden in which every living being can flourish? This is indeed how the Bible speaks of a livable place, not only for human beings but also for animals, plants, the seas, and mountains—the garden is ordered nature, a tamed nature, and it is a place where all living creatures can meet each other and live in peace.

Despite the religious awe for nature that Armstrong finds in almost all religious traditions, no exemplary societies exist that perfectly model how we should handle the environment—not in the East, nor in the West. In all societies, exploitation and exhaustion of the earth are rampant. Let us, therefore, remain both practical and full of wonder in our engagement with people, animals, plants, and things without sacralizing them.

[1] It is worth noting that the terms nature and creation seem to be used interchangeably throughout Sacred Nature.

[2] Jan P. Fokkelman, The Book of Job in Form: A Literary Translation with Commentary (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012), 175, translations of Job 38:4 and 34:8–10.

[3] See for instance Miskotte, When the Gods Are Silent, trans. John W. Doberstein(London, UK: Collins, 1967), 423: “We were on our way to understanding what paganism really is, namely, the religious veneration of Nature, the primeval powers, and Life itself; and it has just dawned upon us that paganism is the innate religion of human nature, always and everywhere.”