What is Eco-Spirituality?
Eco-spirituality is an approach to faith that celebrates humanity’s connection to the natural world. Eco-spirituality can manifest in any world religion, and usually seeks to link the tenets of a specific belief system to the sacredness of the earth.
Those who practice eco-spirituality are compelled by their faith to care for other living things, respect the earth and its resources, consider their own role in the wider universe, and connect ecological issues to issues of faith. Much like St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, people who hold eco-spiritual beliefs see evidence of the Divine creator in the material world and understand their responsibility to celebrate creation in all its forms.
Principles of Eco-Spirituality
Eco-spirituality promotes the following beliefs:
- Humans are not separate from nature.
- Humans do not own nature exclusively for our own gain.
- Humans must act as wise stewards of the natural world.
- We must demonstrate a love of creation through caring acts.
- The Divine is the source of creation and an ongoing part of it.
- We can interact with the Divine daily through the natural world.
Science and cosmology each have a place in eco-spirituality, as those who hold space for both science and faith explore each to understand our reason for being. Scholars who study the relationship between religion and the natural world propose that many ecological issues stem from the human notion that we are greater than nature, and that widespread acceptance of our role in nature will help us preserve our planet. The melding of religion and ecology has led to a growing spiritually motivated environmental movement.
To achieve a closer relationship with earthly immanence, some practitioners of eco-spirituality will give up many of their worldly possessions. Members of some religious orders take vows of poverty to prioritize spiritual reflection over material gain.
History of Eco-Spirituality
Spirituality grounded in the wonder of creation has existed since the beginning of human civilization. Indigenous peoples the world over have always included the natural world in their spiritual practices, and elements of eco-spirituality can be found in most world religions today.
Even without a strong affinity for the natural world, people throughout history have connected with God through physical means — through working their fields, making things with their hands, or harvesting the bounty of the earth, sea, and sky. An increasing awareness of the earth’s fragility has inspired many faith organizations to promote green energy, sustainable practices, climate advocacy, and an obligation to protect our natural resources.
Leading twentieth-century eco-theologian (or “geologian”) and Passionist priest Thomas Berry wrote and lectured extensively on the connection between humanity and our planet. In his book The Sacred Universe (Columbia University Press, 2009), Berry writes that “[at] its core, even our spirituality is Earth derived. The human and the Earth are totally implicated, each in the other.” He suggests that today’s ecological crises have a spiritual element, and clarifies that indigenous peoples have known this for millennia.
Berry’s thoughts on eco-spirituality live on in the many projects inspired by his work, including the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at the University of Toronto; the Thomas Berry Award, presented by the Center for Respect of Life and Environment to individuals who model dedication to ecology through teaching, writing, or public service; and the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.
What is Catholic Eco-Spirituality?
At the root of Catholic eco-spirituality is a duty to stewardship of the earth. Reverend Joseph A. Tetlow, SJ, writes that eco-conscious Catholics might even reassess what is written in Genesis: that humankind has “dominion over … all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26 KJV). Catholics who approach their faith from an ecological perspective might consider how they can instead be collaborators with God the Creator, caring for and finding wonder in His creation, rather than simple beneficiaries.
Laudato si’, Pope Francis’ second encyclical, is often hailed as the “ecological encyclical,” since it addresses climate change and environmental sustainability directly with practical recommendations. More than a primer in “green action,” though, Pope Francis emphasizes that the success of green initiatives relies on humankind’s ability to work together. Laudato si’ introduces the term “integral ecology,” which Franciscan Friar Dr. Keith Douglass Warner says “conveys ancient Franciscan wisdom.” “It was direct contact with America’s poor — and the conviction that we have enough resources but need to share them differently — that moved me to become a Friar,” Dr. Warner says. “Integral ecology encompasses a passion for justice.”
Dr. Warner insists that meaningful progress will be made only when growers, scientists, agricultural organizations, and public agencies collaborate in furthering agroecological processes. In his book Agroecology in Action (MIT, 2007), Warner writes that agroecology — the scientific response to agriculture’s environmental crises — “helps us recognize that unintended environmental consequences of [farming technologies] are, from a systems perspective, entirely predictable.” Much as we look to ancient Scripture to inform our choices today, history often contains the clearest instructions for caring for our planet and our fellow man.
What is Franciscan Eco-Spirituality?
In his lifetime, St. Francis took a decidedly earthly approach to his spirituality, demonstrating a love of all creatures and a devotion to the natural world. Francis’ delight in God’s creation often manifested itself in tangible expressions of his faith.
For example, a directive from God to “repair My house, which … is falling into ruins,” inspired Francis’ years-long efforts to rebuild the chapel of San Damiano near Assisi, Italy. Francis chose to interpret this message literally, proving his devotion to God through physical actions — also apparent in his care for those afflicted with leprosy. While he focused primarily on the material world in his spiritual practice, he himself owned very few possessions. Asceticism is still a primary tenet of the Franciscan orders, wherein members largely renounce material belongings.
To the wider world, St. Francis of Assisi is best known as the patron saint of animals, as Franciscan lore recounts his multiple spiritual encounters with wildlife. Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis the patron saint of ecology in 1979.
Following in St. Francis’ footsteps, today’s Franciscan Catholics practice solidarity with the natural world, carrying their faith into climate advocacy, social justice work, and a respect for all living things. They acknowledge the cosmos as evidence of the Divine and recognize that all of our material wealth — food, clothes, shelter, natural resources — are derived from the Earth, which thus deserves our respect and protection.
Graduate programs can provide a practical avenue for Franciscans and other Catholics to put their concerns into action. In the Spirituality for Sustainability course at the Franciscan School of Theology, students can gain a deeper understanding of the intersection of social justice and eco-spirituality, developing their own strategic plan for social transformation. Final projects support the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, a growing initiative in socio-ecological change.
Careers Related to Eco-Spirituality
An ecological approach to spirituality can provide great support in the helping professions. Here are just a few of the careers that may benefit from a strong spiritual connection to the earth and all living things:
Holistic nursing: Holistic healthcare providers seek to treat the whole person — not just their physical body, but their social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual selves, however that spirituality may manifest.
Retreat leader: Many people seek clarity in nature, often participating in group or solo retreats that encourage quiet meditation. Both religious and secular retreat centers and organizations need leaders to facilitate programs and help participants get the most out of their experience.
Ecologist/conservationist: Those who work to protect our natural world have a fundamental love of all things earthly, serving as essential educators who connect humans to the environment.
Environmental or social justice activist: Environmental and social justice activists work to secure equitable treatment for all people, regardless of circumstance. Environmental justice work focuses primarily on the impact of the environment on a community’s wellbeing, such as access to clean water, air, or nutrition.
Science teacher: Eco-spirituality directly addresses the role of the cosmos in religious tradition, which can expand one’s perception of humanity’s place in the wider universe. While religion does not always have a place in secular education, it can provide science instructors with a foundation of passion for and dedication to their subject.
Even if professional aspirations are not tied to an embrace of eco-spirituality, it is our shared duty to consider ways we can support our planet’s continued health by supporting each other.
See overview: University of San Diego – Master of Theological Studies
“The occasion of the first papal encyclical dedicated to the environment invites all of us — Catholics, communities of faith, and persons opposed to religion — to take stock of our common humanity and deepen our understanding of our dependence upon the Earth’s life support systems,” Dr. Keith Warner writes. “The practical need to protect our planet’s climate system is very real, but so too is the moral outrage of billions of human beings denied access to the goods needed for a dignified life.”
No matter your profession or beliefs, you can care for creation wherever you are — at home, at work, in your community, or in the wider world. Programs like the online Master of Theological Studies – Franciscan Theology at the University of San Diego can help you cultivate a love for creation that connects to both your personal and professional life.