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JEE article

Haluza-DeLay, R.B. (2000). Green fire and religious spirit. Journal of Experiential Education, 23 (3), 143-149.

It happened again. Someone told me the other day that "You can't be an environmentalist and go to church." Dang! Better recheck my life baggage and figure out which piece won't fit in the overhead compartment. The peculiar aspect of this encounter was the person's insistence - learned in an environmental studies course in university - that a person cannot be religiously oriented and concerned about the environment. Unfortunately, this encounter has not been an isolated one.

A challenge for environmental educators, in my opinion, is to encourage idealism strong enough to result in sustained, ecologically-sensitive lifestyles, or what Raffan (1990) called "fire in their eyes" (p.47). In this paper I wish to suggest spirituality/religion as a powerful ally in this quest . As Naess (1989) writes, "The religious background for such an [ecological] awareness is an irreplaceable plus" (p. 188).

The argument of this paper is that spirituality is central to human experience and therefore for experiential education. The paper addresses the resources of spiritual traditions for social change, especially environmental change. This task requires addressing the idea recounted above and asserted most definitively in a paper by mediaeval historian Lynn White Jr.(1967) that the Christian religion is particularly anti-ecological. It also means querying what is meant by "religious experience" and to argue for a "critical experientialism" around the subject of spirituality.

A primary focus will be the Christian tradition for several reasons. It is the tradition of which I am a member; I do not feel justified in speaking for other faith traditions. Furthermore, with a subject such at this, to talk in generalities is to obscure dialogue - it is in the particular what' and so what' of spiritual experience that we begin to understand the deeper meanings such experiences have for each other. Although the anti-ecological criticism of Christianity has been disputed from historical, biblical, theological, geographical and cross-cultural studies, it remains a solid and oft-repeated belief (Whitney, 1993). Therefore, if Christianity can be shown to have the means to generate personal, environmental and social change, finding such resources in other spiritual traditions might also be a tenable task for those in that tradition. Finally, the Journal of Experiential Education is read most widely in regions where Christianity has been, and continues to be, a significant societal and cultural force.


The circumstances for a discussion of religion, spirituality and the environment has never been more interesting but problematic. On the one hand, there seems to be a rising interest in environmental interests within many traditional religious and alternative spiritual communities, which is mirrored by some commentators given to discussing environmental concerns (Oelschlaeger, 1996). But the discussion is also a challenge as many religions make claims about truth.

There is a difficult tension between desiring to remain open to all people's religious beliefs and expressions of their spiritual experience, and a tendency to make judgments based on one's own beliefs and experiences. I will certainly betray an uneasy attention to both sides of this tension. I find compelling the argument that we live in a postmodern culture that has disavowed the legitimacy of "grand narratives" and normative claims.[Footnote 1.] While this approach has been beneficial in acknowledging the plurality of perspectives and positions from which people live, observe and speak, the flip side of the coin is a tendency toward relativism in discourse about values and experience. Furthermore, such a tendency accelerates the growth of individualism, a condition often apparent in discussion of forms of spirituality in contemporary society, and often implicated in both environmental degradation and dissolution of a sense of the "common good" (Harvey, 1996; Naess, 1989).

Spirituality/religion is also challenging to discuss because there is no uniform approach to these notions, nor acclamation of their importance. For some it is an essential foundation while for others it is anathema. In this paper I have made little attempt to separate the notions of spirituality and religion. I believe they are artificial distinctions that depend on one's own connotations and past experiences. For example, Booth (1999) says spirituality has been looked down upon while religion is accepted. Seager (1998) takes the opposite view in describing undergraduate students he teaches, "Many made a blunt distinction between religion, for which they felt disdain, and spirituality, which they considered the royal road to authenticity, freedom and creativity" (p. 248).

Religion is a complex phenomenon, typically seen as encompassing a number of integrated dimensions such as sacred narrative, ethics, ritual, experience, doctrine and social institutions (Paccione, 1999). In the ideal, these dimensions are emotionally engaging and oriented towards capturing the imagination to generate the energy to live as a believer. For most scholars in religious studies, a decline in organized religion is not necessarily a decline in religiosity or spirituality. Still, from this perspective, belief or emotion does not indicate spirituality; one must have enacted meaning systems, practices such as prayer, meditation, doing good deeds, or even mystic experiences. The key is that these practices are meaningful to the participant; through them the individual (and faith community) constructs knowledge and growth. In sum, there is an experiential component to spirituality, whether or not one allows the validity of supernatural or divine interaction.

For the past one hundred years, the study of religious expereince has used the descriptive categories articulated by philosopher and psychologist William James (1902/1985). James stressed the priority of felt experience in religious experience. It is important to note that in James' work "feeling" is not equated with emotion (Barnard, 1997). Feeling is about experiencing, and is a mix of thought, emotion and bodily sensation. James described religious/mystical experiences as having the characteristics of ineffability (the experience cannot be adequately described in words), noetic quality ( providing insights into deeper truths or transcendent realities), transiency (the experience passes), and passivity (the sense of being carried along, that the experience is not the result of one's own effort, although it may have been provoked through meditation or other behaviours). Preferring to stick with description, James made no effort to define mysticism. However, Barnard (1997) suggested that James' writing implies that mystical experiences are "experiences of powerful, transformative, personally interpreted contacts with transnatural realities" (p. 17).

These aspects are important, as James (1902/1985) sought to distinguish between mystical experiences and other forms of altered consciousness. James emphasized the effect of the spiritual experience on a person's life. Only experiences that resulted in life transformations were part of his discussion of mystical/spiritual experiences. Nice feelings, a sense of gratitude to God, or a sense of well-being after prayer were not mystical experiences; experiences that catalysed profoundly significant life effects met James' test.

The other important aspect in James' view of spirituality was an emphasis on its experiential nature (Barnard, 1997; Jantzen, 1995). He spoke vehemently at times about theology as the mind trying to interpret these experiences. Theology, James felt, obfuscated the spiritual process (Barnard, 1997). For James, although not a particularly spiritual man by his own admission, religious experience showed the genuine presence of alternative transcendent realities or the divine. While reaffirming the experiential nature of spirituality, Jantzen (1995) argues that James' typification of religious experience is overly reliant on the subjective. She attributes this to "an attempt to circumvent Kantian strictures on epistemolgy, strictures that would make it an impossibility to know certainly that one has experienced God" (p. 7). Based on rationalistic and naturalistic presuppositions, academia has sometimes dismissed religious experience as unscientific and unknowable. Griffin (2000) refutes such epistemological claims. Griffin argues that there is no philosophical reason to privilege naturalistic claims. In other words, there may be a supernatural world or divine being, and people may be able to have experiences of it.

James' emphasis on the experiential nature of religion might be seen as a reaction to his era's tendency to overintellectualize (Barnard, 1997). Our own era may show a tendency to undertheorize so-called spiritual experiences. "Spirituality" is sometimes mentioned with relative flippancy. As experiential educators understand, experience without reflection is of limited usefulness to a person. But all reflection is not equally valuable. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, "The cat that sits on a hot stove lid will learn never to sit on a hot stove lid again. It will also learn never to sit on any stove lid, hot or cold or pleasantly warm." In our desire to allow room for spirituality in modern life it would be helpful to remember that reason does have a role. "This is what I mean by a "critical experientialism" when it comes to spirituality.[Footnote 2.]

One role of reason is to reflect on seemingly spiritual experiences. Another role is to correlate personalized meaning with the meanings drawn from the experiences of others. Another role is to weigh competing claims and apportion credibility, or even make decisions as to what one believes and how one might act. It is assumed by most religious traditions that not all "spiritual" experiences are beneficial or true. The person hearing the voice of the divine may be a saint or may be schizophrenic (Jantzen, 1995). Religions also allow that there may be "false prophets". Acknowledgment of the existence of truth would require us to seek better understanding of it. It also shows the value of a community of faith, in which to share experiences, assist understanding and constrain the range of possible interpretations. If held in tension with the recognition that our understanding may be fragmentary, partial or even wrong, this could also lead to a tolerance of new learning and interpretation of experience.

Such claims go against many voices in current society. But tolerance is founded upon more than uncritical acceptance of all views. Allowing diversity and recognizing the situatedness of all viewholders is not the same as uncritically accepting all views. Jantzen (1995) demonstrates how James' typification of religious experience was a product of his times. She argues that he did not take account of the full body of mystical writing, which is rich and evocative, rather than "ineffable." Furthermore, James ignored the context of mystic experiences, whereas Jantzen argues that mysticism is a social construction and has been constructed differently at different times. Finally, James also focused on the individual as subject, whereas Jantzen asserts that one cannot decouple the personal and the political, especially where female mystics are concerned.

The goal for the common good is to determine what it will take to create a reasonably just society, especially one that takes the needs of all people and all creatures on the earth into account. With this goal in mind, uncritical acceptance of all views "not only obscures the need to address widespread and persistent problems of social injustice but undermines the possibility of even formulating an effective argument against particular injustices" (Paccione, 1999, p.119). Religion remains one of the social institutions that challenges the acceptability of individualistic self-indulgence (Grant, 1997; Harvey, 1996; Paccione, 1999).

Of course such belief systems need to be open to critical examination, and are embedded with elements of ideology. But in a globalized corporatist world, the church and other religious authorities are institutions still able to ask hard questions of those with power (Wallis, 1994). Religion can be a source of resistance (Grant, 1997). To dismiss religion, especially in favour of privatized spirituality, is to ignore a long history of church engagement in contemporary social issues, including hunger, poverty, homelessness, the covert U.S. war in Central America, apartheid, and environmental justice (Smith, 1996; Wallis, 1994).

In summary, religion has often been described in terms of institutions and practices. Spirituality is usually seen in more personal and experiential contexts. Because of the truth claims of religions each person has an encouragement to critically examine his or her own assumptions. Finally, spirituality/religion that does not lead to ethically better behaviour may be no true spirituality at all. In the next section, a critical experientialism of spirituality in the context of environmental awareness will be addressed.


In the pages of this journal, spirituality has often been associated with nature and wilderness. This is likely owing to the preponderance of experiential programs that utilize such settings. As a wilderness leader for many years, I have watched the amazing experiences of trip participants as they ventured in powerful, novel settings. Throughout the history of humankind, mountains, sacred groves and other locations have had great power in people's minds and actions. Jesus went into the wilderness to pray; Mark's gospel alone reports nine times. The Buddha reached enlightenment as he sat beneath a tree. Moses went up mountains and received messages. Mohammed listened to Allah while hiding in a cave. Aboriginal youth ventured away from their people for vision quests. On the other hand, Nash describes the American mentality of fearing wilderness, caging and dominating it, based in a Christian worldview. Bratton (1993) counters by presenting many examples of positive Christian approaches to nature through history.

There has been little academic study of the spiritual experience of wilderness or nature. This is surprising, given that writers in the popular press have long described wilderness encounters as sublime and spiritual. It is equally surprising given the emphasis on sacred places in some approaches to religious studies (Seager, 1998). In a recent text called Nature and the Human Spirit (Driver,, 1996), the authors seemed to have difficulty deciding what terms to use, settling on "hard-to-define values," "psychologically deep experiences," and, finally, "spiritual."

Stringer and McAvoy (1992) asked whether people define their wilderness-based adventure program experience(s) in terms of a spiritual experience. Stringer and McAvoy's conclusion was affirmative and listed a variety of aspects of such trips that participants described as "spiritual". Similarly, Fredrickson and Anderson (1999) also demonstrated that wilderness trips are described by participants as spiritual experiences. Both the social group and the natural environment were important elements of the spiritual experience. The authors of both studies made a point to say that research participants did not describe the experiences in terms of organized religion.

Such studies say little about the consequences of such experiences. Neither Stringer and McAvoy (1992) nor Fredrickson and Anderson (1999) incorporated a longitudinal aspect so the results of the experiences in participant life transformation is indeterminate. Nor did either study consider a cultural context.Spiritual experiences in both studies seem to have primarily consisted of pleasant emotional states. Whether these states were indeed "spiritual" is not for us to judge. Since personally interpreted meanings are also important - reflection after the experience - we can declare that high moments may be a small part of our lives but have enormous impact on how we think about ourselves and our world. Still, neither study assists in an understanding of spirituality in the service of environmental awareness.

The challenge in acquiring ethical guidelines from any experiences is the garbage in - garbage out principle. Partridge (1982) argued that if the society in which one dwells is fundamentally anti-ecological, the difficulty in forming and maintaining an ecological morality may be unsurmountable. Therefore, the experiences of a novel and dramatic environment, such as pristine nature, may provide an important breeding ground for alternative views (Turner, 1996).

The natural world is socially constructed, according to Tuan (1989), as a sort of moral authority. As such, wilderness has been defended upon spiritual grounds - as a needed refuge, a source of connection with the divine, and an alternative to the hub-bub and distractions of human-dominated environments. According to Tuan's cultural analysis of Western society, nature has a semblance of being higher,' particularly better than' the human world of sin, hubris and suffering. This notion has a long history in Western culture from biblical times through the desert hermits and into the writings of romantics, transcendentalists and New Age spiritualists - the retreat from society to something more elemental, closer to the core, nearer the Creator. Grant (1997), Clinebell (1996), and Moule (2000) are among those who describe methods of drawing awareness of environmental sensitive lifestyles from within experiences of nature constructed as spiritual.

An immediate challenge for an experiential program participant following experiences such as those described in the two studies or in other environmental writing, is how to build upon, or even merely sustain, such burgeoning new understandings of ecologically and socially sensitive lifestyles. If found (and founded) in nature, such understandings are likely to be snuffed out without a powerful force to sustain the candle in the wind of a dominating society. The experiences referred to above may be powerful initially; however, I am convinced the maintenance and development of environmentally sensitive lifestyles based on spirituality requires a stronger basis to create a sustaining green flame.


If there is to be any hope of experiences in the natural world being even a mildly formative influence on future moral judgements, such experiences must be recognized as meaningful. Therefore, experiential educators would be wise not to neglect participants' spiritual experiences, even if uncomfortable with the subject matter. McGowan (1997) insists that in the construction of knowledge from experiential programs, we should assist participants in developing moral and spiritual judgements using their own spiritual traditions, rather than alternative, unfamiliar ones. However, experiential educators holding to the idea that religious worldviews are inherently anti-ecological will be less likely to be able to fully support program participants and engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue.

In some ways, the churches' writings on ecotheology are one of its best kept secrets (O'Gorman, 1992). Not only have theologians been thinking about the human role in the world for centuries, and lately in more ecologically oriented ways, but religious affiliation and practice is a major source of values and motivation for change for many people. In few other settings do people voluntarily come together with the intention of considering their values and growth as persons and community. Without question, worship services and religious education could be operated more pedagogically and experientially effectively. And churches, like all other institutions, have failed to live up to their espoused values. However, much good has also been generated through involvement in organized religion.

Research on the relationship between Christian faith and environmental concerns has developed over the years. This research generally shows no clear relationship between various measures of religious involvement and an anti-environmental orientation (Greeley, 1993; Shaiko, 1987; Kanagy & Nelsen, 1995; 1997; Whitney, 1993; Wolkomir, et al., 1997). Naess (1989), founder of the deep ecology movement, describes some of the positive Biblical interpretations that might produce a Christian form of environmental wisdom. Naess conclude that this summary should "undermine the impression that our [human] role has been uniformly interpreted down through the ages, and that this interpretation has only expressed arrogance, utilitarian thinking, and blind dogmatic faith. A person's opinion about the ecological movement cannot be derived from the fact that he or she believes the Bible'" (p. 187).

The flame of Christian respect for the natural world has flickered and flared over the centuries. St. Francis of Assisi is well-known - his discipleship, which involved renewing the church and work for the poor as well as respect for all creatures, can serve as an example (Torchia, 1993; White, 1967). Old Testament figures, the desert Fathers, the Celtic Church and other examples of ecological concern exist through church history (Bratton, 1993). The United Methodist church in the United States has been involved in soil conservation and farm issues since the dustbowl of the 1930s. Most religious denominations have statements on environmental issues.[Footnote 3.]

Environmental activity among churches has exploded in the last fifteen years (Oelschlaeger, 1996; Shibley & Wiggins, 1997). The World Council of Churches, an ecumenical body representing the majority of Christian denominations throughout the planet, has had "justice, peace and the integrity of creation" as a key theme for over a decade. A variety of Sunday School curriculums have been produced to help all age groups understand the intersection of their faith tradition with environmental and related lifestyle and social justice concerns.[Footnote 4.] Writing in ecotheology is something of a growth industry with books and articles oriented for all audiences (e.g., Birch, Eakin & McDaniel, 1991; De Witt, 1994; Finger, 1997). A number of Christian environmental organizations have formed. One umbrella organization in the United States is the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) encompassing evangelical, Roman Catholic, Jewish and mainline protestant organizations ( [Footnote 5.] The World Wildlife Fund has been active for years in dialogue, projects and a series of conferences and dialogue with various world religions under the assumption that helping these religions articulate an environmentally sensitive perspective will influence adherents.[Footnote 6.]

In addressing changing conditions such as environmental degradation, modern theologians are emphasizing both the transcendent and immanent characteristics of the divine. Finger (1997), insisting that God is both separate from and present in creation, emphasizes that "the Christian God is distinct, but by no means distant" (italics in original) (p.12). Finally, Christian thinkers have articulated how "finding the self and healing the earth may be interconnected and that both may be shaped by current socioeconomic forces" (Finger, 1997, p.9). A core practice of Clinebell's (1996) brand of pastoral counselling is that "awakening people to the social and environmental causes of individual or family pain may contribute to their growth and healing" (p. 65). The analysis of violence engendered by the "powers and principalities" of social structures resonates as theological precursors and contemporaries of critical social theory (Boff, 1995; Grant, 1997).

In her analysis of the growth of Christian environmentalism in the United States in the 1980s and mid 1990s, Kearns (1997) delineated three broadly defined stances in Christian environmental theology and activism: stewardship, eco-justice and creation spirituality. All three approaches have many variations, but can be broadly summarized. Stewardship is rooted in a Biblical message to take care of the earth, and ha been the predominant style of environmental activism in churches and society (Shibley & Wiggins, 1997; DeWitt, 1994).[Footnote 7.] Eco-justice links environmental concerns with other social concerns, which churches have been quicker to address (Boff, ; Finger, 1997). Creation spirituality, represented by figures such as Matthew Fox and Thomas Berry, involves a reorienting of worldviews, seeing the sacred in nature, even viewing God in a pantheistic manner, and often draws on Eastern, aboriginal and New Age perspectives. Kearns (1997) shows how evangelical environmental activists were instrumental in saving the Endangered Species Act in the mid-1990s.

This activity is almost ignored by environmentalists although peace, hunger, civil rights and other activists have used religious congregations as bases in the recent past. A recent article on ecological spirituality does not mention ecotheology, church or religious perspectives on the environment (Booth,1999). Instead, the author focused on feminist spirituality, deep ecology and bioregionalism, which I would argue are less influential spiritual perspectives throughout the broader society. Similarly, in a paper on environmental education research, Disinger and Tomsen (1995) discussed worldviews as the foundation for environmentally sensitive lifestyles and ecological change. Early in the paper the authors acknowledged that worldviews are often associated with religion. Spirituality and religion are ignored for the remainder of the paper, although eight different environmental philosophies present in the environmental movement are noted. Such a situation may reflect secularization in academia, or even hostility towards organized religion.

O'Gorman (1992) states that it is up to the churches to bridge the gap between themselves and environmentalists. She concludes that many of the problems in understanding come from miscommunications rather than fundamentally different understandings, at least on the level of action and lifestyle. Environmental issues are not only about facts and reasons; inevitably they include judgements about values. As this brief discussion indicates, there is a rich literature in ecotheology.


The environmental crisis, violence around the planet, and the social alienation that is caused by and that leads to racism and prejudice are, at least in part, spiritual crises. In my view, spirituality involves an experiential component in the practices of its disciplines and in its compassionate action toward others, self and the earth. Experiential educators who ignore the spiritual side miss essential avenues for personal and social change. More importantly, a holism is lacking that has significant consequences for our society:

Insisting that the relationship between spirituality and religion, morality, and ethics be downplayed or ignored during programs serves to perpetuate convenient assumptions that dichotomize the sacred and the secular into watertight compartments (McGowan, 1997).

Our lives can be magical, full of adventure and service. Modernist thought strips the mystery from the mundane and desacralizes the ordinary.

In a religious worldview, the universe glows with the immanence of the divine. All space becomes sacred, not just faraway mountains and pristine lakes. All matter, every place, is indwelt with a presence that is not limited to space and time. This holds true for even the concrete, steel and plastic that dominate the spaces in which most of us live. Seeing the sacred in the city may be the most crucial element in energizing the green fire of environmental and social awareness in the human-dominated spaces within which most of us live.

I stand by the contention that spirituality should conscientize persons to the world and lead to greater involvement, not otherworldliness. The major spiritual traditions of the world have the resources to challenge the secular gospels of individualism, materialism and national pride promulgated by civic religion and corporate interests. Spirituality can lead to health and wholeness, compassion, cooperation and a desire to persevere in the face of adversity, essential characteristics to create lasting social and environmental change.

Finally, life lived in any age is a challenge. Our human task is to live life well. In the words of the farmer-poet Wendell Berry (1979):

"To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this lovingly, knowingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it greedily, clumsily, ignorantly, it is a desecration. By such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness" (p. 188).