Ways of Seeing: The sacred may not be quantifiable

Recently, I was asked to sit on a dissertation committee for a scholar pursuing a doctoral degree in Pastoral Counseling. Among the many things that the author, Paul Deal, is probing is the paradox of doing pastoral counseling (in his case, in a Christian context) at this time when our future — in the face of climate change, species loss and other forms of ecological degradation — is perilous at best.

Of course, since the earliest emergence of Christianity, and down through the centuries, every given historical moment has been seen as perilous by those living in it. We might say, then, that the perils of our time are simply that: the crises that happen to belong to our present historical moment. At the same time, however, it’s not hard to recognize that altering the weather of our planet and contributing to species extinction is a moral overreach of tremendous proportions.

Whether understood scientifically only, or also in terms of a spiritual understanding of the human condition, we can see all around us the frightening results of human hubris. The Book of Genesis is replete with examples of humanity stepping out of line, trying to reach far beyond our human limitations and getting summarily knocked down in the process. Think expulsion from the Garden of Eden or the demise of the Tower of Babel. These punishments have nothing to do with sex or unreasonable architecture; rather, they are morality tales about needing to keep our place in the larger scheme of things. From an ecological perspective, the lessons are the same: We humans live in an ecological context much greater and more complex than a strictly human-centered perspective allows. We must pause and acknowledge something bigger, grander and worthy of awe and respect if we are to live sustainable lives: sustainable ecologically and also psychologically and spiritually.

So what does this have to do with pastoral counseling? Traditionally, people sought out their ministers or rabbis for guidance through personal crises or, more generally, in pursuit of spiritual growth. Today, many of us consult therapists instead. Still others do both. But few professionals in these fields are trained to guide the people they consult with beyond the real of “the personal” to the realm of “the ecological.” Yet many of us feel the pain and urgency of environmental threats as our own pain — not something external to our inner lives. As with other sources of pain, we can duck it or deny it, but that only gets us so far. As a recently “minted” Spiritual Director, I find it a hopeful prospect indeed that pastoral counseling might make room for those people who see both God and nature as sacred, as well as for those whose spiritual center is found more in the natural world than anywhere else.

I remember vividly a conversation I was once facilitating among academics in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences about people’s experiences of the sacred in the natural world. “Define the sacred,” a scientist demanded, with a tone of hostility in his voice. Now I can’t fault him for his professional training that requires that he present definitions, hypotheses, data and conclusions in that order. Nevertheless, what is sacred cannot — and should not — be defined first and then accepted, applied or dismissed afterward. The etymological roots of the term — from the Old English, Old French and Latin sacren — make no reference to a static noun, but refer to the verb “to make holy” or “to make whole.”

“Define the holy,” “Define whole,” I can hear the scientist insisting. But the point is that the sacred is made by us — which is different from saying that it is therefore fictional or merely “made up.” But what is sacred is shaped by our cultural contexts, our family histories, the geographies in which we live and the deepest challenges of our times. In this historical moment and in these times of ecological crisis many of us seek hope and healing in terms of our personal lives and our lives in an ecological context. Or to put a new riff on an old phrase: “the personal is the ecological.” Understanding the fluidity of “the sacred” goes a long way in our quest to be of service to others who need our sensitivity and care: our clients, our colleagues, our friends and the planet we call home.

Rebecca Kneale Gould is associate professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a “boutique shepherd” in Monkton. 

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