Spiritual Understanding for an Ecologically Sustainable Society

Spiritual Understanding for an Ecologically Sustainable Society

A Paper by Ann Hallock, Managing director, Hope Consulting Institute, LLC, delivered at the 10th Rhodes Forum

“The wellbeing of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established”
Baha’u’llah, Gleanings

Humanity is at the very center of a vast growth process which is clearly approaching and demanding a tremendous transition. This process includes an evolving consciousness which draws on the emerging knowledge revealed in many areas but especially physics, philosophy, psychology, and ecology.

As this consciousness evolves, a mature co-operative relationship is slowly developing between humanity and the ecosphere that long ago gave humanity birth. An ecological consciousness is linked to basic principles: these principles are related to tenets for an ecological society. Central and implicit is the tenet of balance and cohesion of material and spiritual realities affecting every area of environmental policy, agriculture, health development and world peace.  Underlying all areas of human endeavor one notes an ever clearer understanding that every human endeavor is interrelated to every other endeavor. Not one thing can be done that does not have a corresponding effect on some other particle or become a part of something else; intended or unintended or both.

The great philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) greatly influenced Sigmund Freud, and he adds a compelling insight we would do well to reckon with:

“Spinoza questioned the human pretense to autonomy. Men believe themselves free, he said, merely because they are conscious of their volitions and appetites, but they are wholly determined. In fact, Spinoza claimed — to the horror of his contemporaries —that we are all just modes of one substance, “God or Nature” he called it, which is really the same thing. Individual actions are no such thing at all; they are expressions of another entity altogether, which acts through us unwittingly. To be human, according to Spinoza, is to be party to a confounding existential illusion — that human individuals are independent agents — which exacts a heavy emotional and political toll on us. It is the source of anxiety, envy, anger — all the passions that torment our psyche — and the violence that ensues. If we should come to see our nature as it truly is, if we should see that no “individuals” properly speaking exist at all, Spinoza maintained, it would greatly benefit humankind.

There is no such thing as a discrete individual, Spinoza points out. This is a fiction. The boundaries of ‘me’ are fluid and blurred. We are all profoundly linked in countless ways we can hardly perceive. One’s decisions, choices, and actions are inspired and motivated by others to no small extent. The passions, Spinoza argued, derive from seeing people as autonomous individuals responsible for all the objectionable actions that issue from them. Understanding the interrelated nature of everyone and everything is the key to diminishing the passions and the havoc they wreak.

 We’re all in this together. We are not the sole authors of our destiny, each of us; our destinies are entangled — messily, unpredictably. Our cultural demands of individualism are too extreme. They are constitutionally irrational, Spinoza and Freud tell us, and their potential consequences are disastrous.” (quote from Firmin DeBrabander, associate professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore and the author of “Spinoza and the Stoics”.)

In his time Spinoza taught that everything in the universe was one reality (or substance) and only one set of rules governed the whole of reality.  He saw God and Nature as the same reality, the physical and mental worlds as one and that there was no difference between body and mind: the unity of all that exists.  “Freedom is our capacity to know and to understand why.”  The infinitely complex whole he saw as limited only because of the limits of science to empirically take account of the whole sequence of the knowledge of God/Nature/Universe and the concept of unity.

Spinoza was raised in the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam. He developed what were then highly controversial ideas.  For all his insight and advanced consciousness the Jewish religious authorities issued a kind of expulsion or excommunication against him, effectively excluding him from Jewish society at the age of 23. His books were also later put on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books.

Spinoza lived quietly as a lens grinder, turning down rewards and honors throughout his life, including prestigious teaching positions, and gave his family inheritance to his sister. Spinoza's philosophical accomplishments and moral character prompted 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze to name him "the 'prince' of philosophers."

With the emerging sciences, mathematics and physics we are now truly able to prove concepts Spinoza could only dream of.  Our vision is extended far beyond the limits of his time and place. Yet, as a whole, we are still limited by the lack of education and vision of a majority of the common people of the world. It seems many of our world leaders and inheritors of wealth and power are also unable to visualize those concepts which would potentially threaten their position of control in the world. If they do envision them it seems they work to actively suppress these potentialities by withholding assets and education, or worse they distort the truth, in order to protect their positions.

Psychology and medicine agree that there is no true separation of mind and body; in this Spinoza was correct.  He may not have had the science to understand how intricate the connection is between mind and body and how powerful this connection is:  more recent evidence shows it is the body that dominates rather than the rational mind in spite of how much we might like to think our rational mind dominates (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion; Chapter 3, J. Haidt, Pantheon Books, NY, 2012).  

Compassionate justice is impossible in a world dominated by the ruthless and greedy, who are sadly supported by the needy and fearful who are kept in their place by lies (which they are too ignorant and naive to recognize) and propaganda (which they are too uneducated to fathom as deceit). There is no possibility for compassionate justice in a world that has, for the most part, not yet become conscious of the concept of unity.

Yet, the foundations for the concept of unity and oneness are deeply rooted in human history in the inspirations for the religious and cultural traditions that have provided meaning for the billions of people who share the planet. Unity will be easily re-discovered and applied in the development of broader understanding and in the acceptance of the diversity in the human family, also in nature and in the fostering of the basic principles that sustain a healthy environment, and in interpersonal relations as people develop and tap into the extraordinary reservoir of spiritual potential available to each illumined soul.

Greed, selfishness, lies and theft are terrible crimes that are committed against the majority of people populating the earth. These crimes are representative of the immaturity of our societies and the lack of laws and standards that protect the common people.  The pernicious attitudes of those exploiting so many others, whose injustice is tolerated with indifference, and whose disproportionate gains are regarded as the emblem of success are formidable obstacles to altering the prevailing standards by which relationships and the ecologies of this world are governed and managed.

Many well intentioned people are working to improve the circumstances in society and in the world around us. The obstacles they face sometimes seem insurmountable due to erroneous assumptions about human nature.  These assumptions are so enmeshed in the structures and traditions of present day life that they have attained the status of established fact and are accepted as justification for humanities’ failings.  Every day this reinforces a common sense of despair.  Again, these assumptions appear to make no allowance for the extraordinary reservoir of spiritual potential available to any illumined soul who draws upon it.  This thick veil of false premises obscures a fundamental truth:  the state of the world reflects a distortion of the human spirit, not its essential nature.  We can translate faith in the spiritual dimension of human nature into confidence in humanities’ capacity to transcend material conditions.

When the distortion of the human spirit lifts and human beings begin to see their own potential, they will not just “make adjustments” to the present order of the world.  Once the consciousness of the human spirit recognizes the true meaning of the oneness of humankind, the results of that recognition, the spontaneous insight and clarity which includes the spiritual force, will result in a tremendous transformation and the human world will adapt itself to a new social form.  This transformative spiritual power is available to all human beings regardless of belief. Our true station is as spiritual beings, innately good, longing for unity and peace, and living in a unified world as one people: unity in all its diversity.

What keeps this enlightened knowledge from being accepted?  It seems the quest for material supremacy and power, greed and the baser instincts of the animal nature of humans:  fear, prejudice, malice and selfishness to name a few.  Basically we have each individual self acting willfully and perversely (selfish, greedy, power hungry), and at odds with the best impulses (generosity, concern for others, unity of all humankind, kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice) of this day.

The Baha’i’ view is that darkness of spirit (or evil), while real in its effect, is not the presence of something bad but is the absence of something good (for instance: the quickening light of inspiration that humanizes a soul with insight, compassion and character). In short: selfishness is the absence of generosity, greed is the absence of concern for others, and hunger for power is the absence of understanding of the unity of all humankind and the interconnectedness of all life on earth. Focusing on the use and growth of these and other virtues helps to bring the light of understanding to human relationships while replacing the darkness of spiritual emptiness.

Evidence of this transformative new beginning can be seen all around us. In America the evolution of human rights, beginning with the ending of slavery, increasing with the acknowledgement of women’s rights and suffrage, and the addition of the civil rights movement has made dramatic changes in a very short time.  The evidence of change is not complete because the consciousness of the oneness of humanity is still not fully understood or accepted. However, the recognition of unity (oneness) is growing all the time.

The implications for unity are great and varied.   Not only does the human race need to recognize the oneness of mankind, but also the oneness of all creation and the implications of how that unity (oneness) affects everything we do. All people are one people:  the family of man. Anything that happens to one affects all. Once enlightened individuals begin to grasp the meaning of true oneness, the decisions about what to do to protect the environment will become self evident.

In the future, everyday interactions will be shaped by the consciousness of the oneness of humankind. Relationships imbued with this consciousness will be cultivated in villages and neighborhoods across the world. Most likely this consciousness will develop slowly and spontaneously and grow exponentially. Thoughtful consultation devoted to the common good will be responsibly practiced.  This consultation is now taking place all over the world by those who understand and appreciate the blessing of diversity and the necessity for accepting the oneness of humankind.  There is respect for the relatedness of everything we do in this world.  There is respect for all beliefs because the fundamental oneness of religion is understood as part of the overall primary value of unity.

“The relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one. The transformation now required must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. It is in the opportunities afforded by this two-fold process of change that a strategy of global development will find its purpose. At this crucial stage of history, that purpose must be to establish enduring foundations on which planetary civilization can gradually take shape”. (Adapted from, “The Prosperity of Humankind”,1995)

In conclusion: individual and collective greed harms mankind and keeps humankind  from collective prosperity.   Greed leads to war, misery, and poverty and war leads to misery, poverty and greed: the money that has gone into war and destruction could be used to educate and change the world in a just way for all people. Agriculture currently produces enough food to feed the world; greed keeps that food from being distributed in a compassionate and just manner. Unity (the concept of the oneness) leads to prosperity, peace and justice and is the only way to fairly achieve this for the world. The Baha’i’ Faith continues to inspire people to understand oneness and unity in a way that starts with the person in his community being an active part of the changes needed in the world. In this age, each individual can create unity in his or her own life, share this vision with family, neighbors and community and thus contribute to the advancement of humanity and the world.

“So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth”