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Mystical Realism and Hope for Creation

Why is it so hard to get meaningful action on climate change?

Why is it so hard to get meaningful action on climate change, even after droughts and storms hit us over the head with its real impacts? Many environmentalists now recognize that scientific knowledge is not enough to motivate the required changes. Humans can know what is needed without being motivated to do it. Changing the emotional and spiritual ways that humans relate to the non-human parts of creation is also essential. It seems we need to fall in love with creation, as God did, in order to care enough to change our planet-destroying ways.

Some turn to more mystical sources that emphasize spiritual connections with nature, situate humans within instead of above the rest of creation, or see the presence of God in all of nature. The hope is that these will inspire needed change more than the stewardship approaches that characterize much of Christian discourse on creation care.

Hope needs myth

Dr. Karen Armstrong, for example, asserts that mythos and logos are both essential and complementary, in a new book entitled Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World. Mythos captures imaginative, meaning-making, intuitive thinking, while logos is the logical side associated with science, technology and Western worldviews. Armstrong draws on ancient myths from all religions that revere and celebrate nature in rituals and ceremony to inspire hope and action. Turning to the mystical for hope is also seen in some Indigenous writing and in the work of Christian advocates who live close to the land, such as Wendell Berry, and new forms of worship, such as Wild Christianity.

Hope needs to be realistic

Other climate change leaders, such as Thomas Homer Dixon (Commanding Hope) and Katherine Hayhoe, a Christian (Saving Us), stress that hope needs to be very realistic, for the sake of the next generation. Honest assessment and intentional, strategic actions offer a more grounded hope. Sometimes it feels like a thin hope, in the face of stark realities. Then there is the popular scientist Bob McDonald, from the Quirks and Quarks radio program, who claims in a new book that we have the scientific knowledge and technology to do what is needed, but it is doubtful that humans will actually organize ourselves to do it (The Future Is Now).

Can we have both?

Reading Armstrong and others brings to mind the stern warnings about pantheism in my Christian education. I wonder why we did not learn about the equal threat of losing our alertness to God’s exuberant, reveling love of all creation in the human-centered, management approaches to dominion and stewardship. Can the two ways of thinking be combined?

Perhaps the world of art offers a clue. In his film First Reformed, filmmaker Paul Schrader uses a cinematic technique called magic realism to resolve a complicated dilemma that starts with a man’s spiritual despair over climate change. He weaves a transcendental experience into scenes of deep despair. Critics of the film find the mystical resolution much weaker than his realistic portrayal of the mess we have created. “Unrealistic” is a common response to appeals to the mystical.

We need both. We need a new form of mystical realism. Will we find our way in time?

Author

  • Kathy Vandergrift

    Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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