Green Spirituality: Horizontal Transcendence

by Michael C. Kalton

University of Washington, Tacoma

Published as a chapter of Paths of Integrity, Wisdom, and Transcendence: Spiritual Development in the Mature Self, Melvin Miller, ed.  London and NY: Routelege, 2000.

"To have an environmental education is to live alone in a world of wounds." Aldo Leopold

"The homing instinct of the heart is the path within every path." David Stendhal-Rast

Green Spirituality: Horizontal Transcendence. 1

Introduction. 1

Transcendence and Contingency: The Problem.. 2

Reevaluating Contingency. 3

Green Spiritualities. 4

Conclusion. 7

Bibliography. 7


Eyes accustomed to seeing the systemic interdependence of all forms of life observe the manicured green lawns of suburbia, or the endless acres of uniform crops on industrial farms, with a feeling of disquiet. Where others see enrichment, they see impoverishment. When Leopold wrote the words above, such eyes were rare: he was indeed alone. Now, nearly five decades later, their way of seeing is at the core of a growing national and international movement. Outwardly its missionaries fight on varied fronts, not for the salvation of souls, but of rainforests, of whales, of endangered creatures of every type. The media pick up readily on these outward causes, the more so because they often involve very real and dramatic conflict with the established order.

Less attention, however, has been directed to the inner revolution that for many has accompanied this new way of looking at the world. For the way we  see the world is in the end inseparable from the way we see ourselves. Thus environmental consciousness, a sense of connectedness with and obligation to the life of the earth, has penetrated and found a place within all of the great historical religious traditions. My academic background is in philosophy and comparative religion, with a specialization in the traditions of East Asia. But the broad interdisciplinary program in which I teach has given me ample scope to explore the complex intersection of contemporary social developments with the increasingly borderless world of world religious traditions. In my courses I frequently encounter students for whom a new sense of the environment inspires a new religious identification as well: It seems that Zen, various forms of neo-Paganism, and Native American traditions have a particular appeal to those who sense an insufficient earthiness in the more familiar Christian traditions. But there are also students who embrace emerging forms of green Christianity as well, students who are quick to introduce "stewardship" and argue that anthropocentric dominion is no fundamental nor genuine part of the Christian heritage.

But environmentalism also provides a central life orientation for many even without the benefit of traditional religious frameworks. When I teach Environmental Ethics, an entirely new contingent shows up in addition to the regulars, students who would not think of taking a religion course. For the "hard core" of these green students, the environment itself provides a framework within which they organize their values and map their life paths. They may even welcome the inconveniences of a greener lifestyle, the feeling for self-sacrifice in the name of ultimate values. Courses in environmental science and related subjects show up on the transcripts of these students with the frequency of religion on others--or one might say, in place of religion.

Yet this bio-centric movement is separated by a widening gap from traditional cultural and religious moorings. The common refrain of the movement is the vigorous assertion that "humans are parts of the system, and no part is better than any other." This expresses a fundamental awareness that comes with even a rudimentary understanding of ecosystemic interdependence. Its clear intent is to flatly contradict the perceived wrongness of anthropocentrism: we make a fundamental mistake, it says, if we regard ourselves as separate from the natural system of life, or prefer ourselves as uniquely valuable over other "parts" of the system. Anthropocentrism, long a fundamental assumption of our philosophic and religious heritage, thus now moves to center stage as an issue of urgent practical import.

Questioning and even undermining the assumption that humanity is the pinnacle of some hierarchy demands a profound theoretical shift for Western cultures. But while the reframing of theory adequate to the task lags, for many a fundamental reorientation of values has already taken place. The shift is evident if one considers the contemporary scene in comparison with the attitudes historically (and still, for many) associated with Darwin's theory of evolution.  The idea that we might be intrinsically related to "lower animals" was initially both threatening and demeaning; even to its adherents, evolution seemed more a matter of living by hard scientific truth than a matter for celebration. In contemporary writing the attack on human distinctness, far from the earlier overtones of a reluctant relinquishing of a prized but unavailable status, often seems to celebrate our status as members of the biosystem as a sort of homecoming. The tradition of human supremacy finds continued expression in certain forms of evolutionary theory that see the emergence of human abilities as some kind of culminating achievement or systemic warrant of a dominant and controlling role. But the unreformed anthropocentric implications of such theories now are highlighted and attacked by a growing constituency that finds itself far more comfortable with Leopold's land ethic that "changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it (Leopold 1949: 201).

Traditional religion undercut mundane greed and acquisitiveness with the observation, "We have no lasting home here." Now a trenchant critique of capitalist values is mounted from the seemingly opposite direction: "The earth is our home, and we must make it last." In both cases the appeal to "our true home" has the power to challenge our conduct through the presence of a dimension that might be called "transcendence." But if the new sense of home has some sort of functional transcendence, it is nonetheless virtually the antithesis of the supernatural transcendence common to Western religious tradition. Indeed, one of the best windows on the implications of this new sense of home is furnished by an inquiry into its contrast with its opposite in the philosophic and religious traditions of transcendence. 


Transcendence and Contingency: The Problem

The classical discourse regarding transcendence is inseparable from the problem of time, change, and meaning. In proportion as Greek art and literature idealized youth and beauty as the natural accompaniments of nobility and goodness, their culture wrestled with the question of impermanence and change. The Greeks, above all, impressed these categories indelibly on Western thought. The problem of finding meaning in the world of flux overshadowed the celebration of youth and beauty in Greek art and literature and found a brilliant crystallization in the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, NeoPlatonism, and the Christian world that succeeded them.

In the Platonic Dialogues the quest for knowledge moved to the center of human life. The problem of change moved beyond the transience of youth and beauty to encompass the realm of true knowledge, which Plato contrasted with the changing world of opinion and common sense. In his dialogues Socrates (Plato's voice) questions his companions and shows how their seemingly obvious answers fit one situation but turn problematic or contradictory when applied to others and hence are inadequate. The quest for universality versus particularity, or necessity versus contingency, is inherent in this method: the questions cannot end until the world of contingent, flowing time is grounded in a transcendent, unchanging realm of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness.

Aristotle brought the Platonic forms back to earth with his doctrines of substantial forms and teleology. But his identification of real knowledge with the apprehension of necessary causes simply moved the flight from contingency to a new arena. His teleology finds change itself is necessarily a matter of limit and imperfection. The entire universe of contingent motion must be grounded securely in the ultimate Unmoved Mover.  Christian thinkers picked up both versions of the Greek problematique by identifying their God with Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the Eternal and Unchanging Creator of all contingent being. 

From this easy synergy of Greek and Christian thought emerged the paired dichotomies fundamental to the history of Western philosophy and theology: finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, contingent and necessary categorically structured the poles of existence for both thought and spirituality. Within this conceptual scheme "transcendence" both described a metaphysical structure grounding the contingent in the Absolute, and a practical spiritual quest of rising above changing worldly affairs to ultimate union with the Eternal. For this thought-world it is self-evident that the finite, temporal, and contingent cannot stand alone without meaninglessness and absurdity, for then our basic questions (as posed by Plato) would have no answer, and our existence no direction or purpose.

In this form, the question of transcendence and contingency are clearly historical and the product of a particular sort of culture and world view. But minds nurtured in this tradition find it an almost irresistible way of understanding how meaning becomes Meaning as the deeds of daily life are subsumed under some sort of (transcendent) paradigm or norm. Eliade brilliantly adapted this structure to elucidate the religious meaning of myth and ritual in The Sacred and the Profane. In planting his yams or repairing his canoe in the manner the gods originally performed these tasks, the tribesman is able to live in a space of Ultimate Meaning as he goes through motions that otherwise would fall into the realm of mere contingency and only evanescent meaningfulness (Eliade 1957: 87). In a similar vein the diminished role of myth in our secular society has been persuasively explicated by commentators such as Joseph Campbell, as a source of social ills.

For the heirs of this tradition of transcendence, losing one's grip on the Absolute and falling into unredeemed time is the recipe for absurdity, an option explored at some length in both the literature and philosophy of the 20th century. In spite of heroic attempts to turn absurdity itself into a spirituality, absurdity has remained trivial and unredeemed. The emerging biocentered life orientation has little patience for self-engrossed musings on absurdity, but it also locates its center of value, meaning, and purpose squarely within the realm of the contingent. Indeed, contingency itself is a central element of its salvific message. The problem is rather the people who cannot recognize and live by the implications of contingency, which environmental advocates perceive as bearing the most important meaning of all.

Reevaluating Contingency

Science now offers us an unprecedented perspective on the earth and its history that is taken seriously by many. Human beings, it appears, are rather late-comers in the earth's 3.8 billion year bio-history: over 99.9 percent of the history of life on this planet has not included us. In the evolution of life, 100 million years is a respectable span for a species; dinosaurs survived about 165 million. Humans and proto-humans have been around, by best estimates, about 3.5 million years, and the entire history of our civilized way of life--urban living supported by agriculture--is no more than ten thousand years old. And so the human species belongs to only the last one-tenth of one percent of the history of life, and 99.7 percent of human history has preceded the rise of civilization.

In evolutionary time human civilization has more the status of a brief experiment than an established fact. Studies of the overall evolutionary record of species do little to reassure us that the experiment will be successful. Estimates vary considerably, but there is a wide consensus that of the many millions of species that have arisen, less than 1 percent still exist. And long-term survivors seem to be simple life forms such as blue green algae, rather than complex organisms such as dinosaurs or humans. The message is clear: we have not always been here, need not be here, and almost certainly will not be here to witness the final solar conflagration.

What we make of such information depends on how we think of evolution, the theoretical framework to which the information belongs. Below I examine interpretations of evolution that remain anthropocentric, leaving traditional transcendence theories essentially intact. In the popular mind evolution is often considered a progressive process crowned with the emergence of humans, but science is more wary of importing purposeful direction into the picture. Contemporary genetics and theoretical understanding of self-organizing complex systems yield a much richer picture of the way a selective system becomes increasingly complex. A development in such a system remains radically historical and contingent on circumstances grounded on earlier circumstances. The only guarantee is change, with systemic collapse and redirection an ever possible feature. On the tree of life, we as a species are more a probing twig than an established branch, and civilization, let alone industrialization, is a radical experiment that depends on conditions civilization itself may systemically undermine.

Radical environmentalists favor this non-teleological scientific interpretation for very practical reasons. The feasibility of the experiment remains an open question. This can be salvific knowledge: if we can see that we are embarked on a mighty experiment, then we might scrutinize with a more observant and questioning mind just how the experiment seems to be working and what we might do about it.

This view takes as salvific knowledge the very kind of irredeemable contingency identified with meaninglessness and absurdity within conventional transcendent frameworks: until we grasp our radical contingency, we have small chance of really understanding the nature of what is at stake. Here we are at a profound parting of the ways. Classical transcendental frameworks that seek reality and meaning by a transcendental grounding of the historical and contingent and write humans into the very fabric of existence.  From the radical environmental perspective, the conventional claims make it impossible to confront the true nature of our situation and imprison us in destructive anthropocentrism as the price of a meaningful existence. The historical contingency of random self-organizing evolutionary systems brings us home into our biosystem, but that homecoming seems in the traditional perspective to undercut the very meaning of our existence. How are we to understand this alternative framework within which undirected historical process and profound meaning are compatible?

As a first step of this exploration, it will be useful to examine more closely the anthropocentric turn involved in the common transcendental grounding of meaning. Understanding this linkage clarifies how to frame an alternative spirituality that avoids an over-confident centrality of our species and our projects.                         

The grounds of the anthropocentric twist in conventional theories of transcendence are evident in the way Darwinian evolution has been made safe for meaning. Liberal Christianity, freed from the constraints of literalistic Biblical interpretation, can explain the whole evolutionary process through the creative will and intention of God. Human life is then founded on the self-validating purpose and intention of the Creator. But there is also latitude beyond maintaining the Creator/creation framework. Teilhard deChardin moved to a more radical centering on the evolutionary process as such, describing it as a trajectory of increasing complexity leading to the emergence of consciousness and beyond to Christ. This has resonated strongly with New Age orientations, where it easily combines with Hindu sources and becomes the story of the cosmic evolution of consciousness. The infinite, eternal, personal creator by whose will we may live, and cosmic consciousness--the process and ultimate directional reality of one's own mind--are different metaphysical expressions of the familiar transcendence. They succeed equally in furnishing meaning by supplying a non-contingent purpose within all existence, described as the product of Divine will or as the inner nature of Being identified as consciousness.

Both succeed in securing for humans a central place in the fabric of existence. Positing mind or consciousness as the ultimate origin entails this anthropocentric consequence. Once this is done, human consciousness, however described, becomes a central feature in a cosmos founded on consciousness. Rationality, ethics, or an enlightened human understanding thus emerges as the highest value. Within this framework, one cannot but imagine that the emergence of our kind of consciousness represents the highest achievement in our world.

A spinoff of this vision has played a critical role in our secular confidence in the ability and suitability of our minds to comprehend and perhaps control the world through science and technology. If mind is somehow at the basis of all things, then it is plausible that human minds are proportioned to grasp and perhaps control the nature of things. It is an ironic historical unfolding that allowed us to become so fascinated with our own rational powers that we could displace the cosmogonic Mind in determining a purposeful ordering of the world.

Here is where Darwinian evolution poses its most radical challenge. That Darwin would relate us to other primates was a shock to the sensibilities of his time, but systemically the blow was relatively superficial. The real problem was that he posed a vision of the evolution of life in which mind or consciousness were neither origin nor purposeful end achievements. Mind within the framework of natural selection has no inherent claim to superiority, nor can it escape the pragmatic question, "what is it good for?" Consciousness comes with no cosmic warrantee. Nothing in this system supports New Age expectations or the technocratic dreams envisioned by the likes of Buckminster Fuller: there is no reason to think that Spaceship Earth has finally evolved its own pilot. And yet reflective consciousness does pilot a myriad earth transforming projects. Instead of celebrating this as a self-evident peak of evolution, evolutionary theory asks the same question that confronts every emergence of life: does this work in the context of this set of systemic conditions?

Humans remain either explicitly (religion) or tacitly (expectations of science/technology) at the center of any world view premised on mind or consciousness. A radically non-anthropocentric spirituality does not incline towards such a premise.  In the search for bio-centric alternatives there is a revival of Native American and other primal traditions that integrate humans into the community of life. The same may be said of the fertility-based Mother traditions of Gaia, Wicca, various forms of neo-paganism, and East Asian Tao-based traditions. Green spiritualities are in the process of being called into being and what might evolve is unclear. Directions for the future merit careful consideration.

Green Spiritualities

An environmentally aware spiritual movement seeks relational wholeness in terms of an inclusive life community that encompasses and extends beyond human society. The devastation caused by humanity in this larger community is a primary motivating force in the development of this movement. The meaning that can guide self-cultivation in this context must encompass both the traditional issue of situating humans within a relational whole, and include the new intuition that recognizes the entire biosystem as vulnerable and hence contingent. What then, might be the meaning-full story of our relatedness and our contingency?

Our participation in the biosystem of life on earth is a cogent contemporary insight richly figured in primal traditions. Stories that help us find our place in the community of life take on new meaning for urban dwellers at the turn of the millenium. Ritual traditions that allow us to relate to mountains, rivers, and wind, or to the mysterious power of life itself have a new-found power. My brother the bear, my sister the singing waters, my mother the earth, these are modalities that allow us to express the awe, reverence, joy, and love for the process of life in which we have our own being and from which, along with all other forms, we have emerged. Once this was sufficient as the whole story. Its contemporary retelling includes the poignant awareness that the bear, the singing waters, the fertility of the earth are products of a history that is at risk. Awe, reverence, and love for the shape of that history motivate a fierce desire to preserve, foster, and continue it, giving a new point to the ancient stories. And for some that may encompass a total life path and direction, much as the values of secular humanism were sufficient to make sense of the lives of the unchurched of an earlier generation.

But for many in contemporary society the terms in which the primal traditions find expression are too inextricably bound with a way of life that has little to do with the daily reality of an urban setting. Ancient civilizations were already at pains to move beyond the immediate natural world and ground the structures of their complex societies some kind of broad cosmic framework. And for the modern urban world the vocabulary of science has become the shared vehicle of serious knowledge. The web of life depicted in terms of familial relationships in primal traditions is described by contemporary environmentalists in the scientific language of information and systems theory.

We would expect then, that in addition to drawing on various sorts of primal traditions, a green spirituality might move towards grounding itself in a cosmic framework elaborated in the respected vocabulary of science. Harbingers are already with us. Berry and Swimme's Universe Story consciously strives to weave a spiritually cogent cosmogony in scientific terms. Less deliberately but with similar effect, scientific work on self-organizing systems such as Kauffman's At Home in the Universe depict a cosmic process bound to eventuate in life. Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature explores a religious sense of mystery and awe emerging from scientific theory and insight. Clearly the resacralization of nature is emerging as a trajectory beyond the traditional divide between the worlds of religion and secularity.

The mechanistic reductionism characteristic of Newtonian and Cartesian models is being challenged by a more holistic approach that emphasizes systemic emergence. Given a supernova producing heavy elements, plus about ten billion years, and carbon reaches a state of complexity where it can give lectures and miss publication deadlines, or perform an intricate dance to signal hive mates where to locate new flowers in bloom, or mutate and change essential metabolic processes quickly enough to survive the latest insecticide onslaught, or photosynthesize.

In many applications contemporary systems theory is as rationalistic and control oriented as traditional mechanistic reductionism. But when its holistic character finds full expression, it easily leads instead to a sense of reverence and even mystery: What kind of amazing, awesome stuff is it that gets on a vector from which emerges such a performance? The move from an inanimate mechanistic cosmos  to a living cosmos requires no new evidence, only a new way of seeing the evidence already here. The  life system that evolved into us can be permitted a full historical contingency, and yet be moored in a wider life process, a mysterious, religiously enshrined becoming.

The meaning framed above finds its anchor in life rather than mind, thus displacing human consciousness from its privileged place. The movement from earth to cosmos, from biosystem to life, is a form of transcendence that is characteristic of degrees of abstraction, rather than a movement towards some kind of Absolute metaphysical dimension. There is no cosmos posited apart from the historically ongoing one within which we find ourselves, nor is there life apart from ongoing living, at whatever level it is considered. Instead of the typical vertical transcendence of the Greek inspired tradition, the movement of this kind of spiritual cultivation is horizontal, perfecting our relationship with the world of life about us.

In this kind of horizontally framed spirituality the question of belonging acquires a new kind of centrality. Recovering a more sacral sense of the earth and universe starts us on the way. But coming from a background of traditions premised on a discontinuity between ourselves and the rest of the natural world, inevitably many of our ordinary ways of thinking and acting carry the imprint of that discontinuity. Belonging is an achievement as well as a statement of fact, and the path to such achievement leads through a reexamination of basic habits of mind.

How are we to conduct ourselves in a manner appropriate to our place and role in the order of things?  Our mind-centered habits naturally lead us to imagine that if we belong, then the first order of business is to identify our place, our ideal fit in the life system; then we will know how to act. But this abstracts actual fitting into a question akin to trying to find how a given part fits into a complex mechanism, and we have scant warrant for expecting that such an understanding of the earth is within our grasp. An approach more in keeping with our concrete and situated reality would be to rephrase such questions into a consideration of relationships appropriate to given circumstances. We are now, and always will be, situated beings; we exist always and only enmeshed in the relational reality of surroundings and situation. There is no alternative to being here now, so the question of fitting is really not a matter of how we fit in some ideal scheme but a question of the appropriateness of our response to the situation in which we find ourselves.

Introducing the language of concrete, situated response profoundly alters the common understanding of action. We ask how we are to act, as if we were autonomous initiators of deeds. In a situated, relational existence, there is no action which is not in fact a response. This has major consequences. Action sets goals and succeeds or fails; response is ongoing, dealing appropriately with what is at hand and looking to the feedback from an always evolving situation. Our favorite modern language of goal-setting, problem solving, competence, and control has only limited meaning in the borderless process of a continuously transforming life situation.

The framework of situated responsiveness likewise transposes the questions we ask about human nature. Questions regarding human nature are important because they set the immediate stage for spiritual cultivation: what are we dealing with, what is it that we attempt to remedy or complete as we cultivate our humanity? Traditional western answers have variously emphasized our godlikeness and our sinfulness; "self-interest" is the most common contemporary evaluation, perhaps reflecting the depth to which economic thought has saturated our sense of self. Certainly the environmental movement is afflicted with an overwhelming feeling of an almost futile battle against the forces of self-interest and greed.

If we are indeed coevolving, situated existences, then inquiries regarding our particular nature inappropriately look for some kind of distinctive, self-contained characteristic. A coevolutionary understanding of a particular nature would look to the relational process within which the creature emerged. On the genetic level the feedback loop of selective environments and gene pools means that an atmosphere rich in oxygen is patterned into our lungs and the presence of the flora and fauna of the earth is anticipated by the form of our digestive tracts and metabolic systems. Organs of sensation arise in terms of the available vibratory patterns of light, sound, and heat, or the chemical effects we register as taste and smell. And cultural, mental, and social processes continually condition one another and coevolve. On all levels we are immersed in selective processes which shape and are shaped by what we become, so that our nature may be best described as a node of relations with the world.

Because creatures emerge conditioned by everything else, apt responsiveness to an expected world is patterned into their nature. But the world-life process is ultimately one of dynamic flux and change: the history of extinctions is simply the history of disappointed expectations. Considered in this light, the ability to learn from experience and flexibly adapt to changed circumstances seems a great advantage. Humans are at the forefront of this line of evolutionary development. In particular our communication abilities enable us to amplify learning by sharing and by accumulating it at an exponentially accelerating pace. Through this process our ability to anticipate and manipulate have grown to the point where the prime mandate of adaptive fit is less evident than our spectacular ability to adapt the environment to fit our purposes.

This is the cluster of characteristics often cited as distinctive of human beings. But the inclination to congratulate ourselves on our evidently superior status neglects the relational matrix within which every evolved character has its meaning. As we transform earth, air, water, and biotic environs, less rapid adaptive strategies are overwhelmed by unexpected conditions and we are surrounded by cascading extinctions. Concern for the well-being and relative continuity of the life community with which we coevolved requires no altruism; we understand now that we ultimately interdepend in the web of biotic life so that concern for other creatures operates in synergy with self-concern. This is the spiritual dynamic of systemically grounded horizontal transcendence, where the part and the whole are never two.

We thus return to the troubling phenomena that have given rise to contemporary environmental consciousness and a critical turn from anthropocentrism. Speed, the rate at which we can drive change, is our problem, though not our fault. The growth of civilization on a trajectory of accelerating accumulation of learning and manipulative power may be seen as in continuity with a dynamic of self-organizing and ramifying complexity characteristic of the entire biotic process. Far from being a stable, equilibrium process, evolving life seems to continually probe, push, and eventually overshoot systemic limits (Kaufman 1995: 235-43). One such limit may be a speed limit, and we are the probe testing it.

This gives a larger perspective on the question and allows us to locate the human problem more precisely. In dimensions of geologic time and the changing, ever-probing process of evolving life, this is one more critical moment in a systemic process in which crisis, collapse, and reorganization may well be a the deep pattern of patterns. In a sense everything is operating perfectly, and there is nothing wrong with our being as we are, even if that means an ecosystemic crisis. Replacing anthropocentrism with a misanthropic dislike of civilization is surely shortsighted. But from the position of historically and systemically situated humans, there is indeed a problem. We are responsive to and responsible to not geologic time but to our own moment, with success and failure measured in terms of passing on a flourishing life to our kind and to the web of all kinds with which we are interwoven. To experience this as an urgent and engrossing problem is inherent to the fundamental dynamics of life itself.

Knowing that nothing guarantees, or even favors, the success of our efforts to save a slipping ecosystem easily fuels a burst of desperate activity all too often followed by frustration, bleakness and despair. The history of profound environmental concern, like all idealisms, includes a large measure of despair and burn out. Traditional vertical transcendence could offer another dimension as a buffer against the way our ideals and efforts to realize them refuse to take lasting shape in the contingent processes of our lives. And as illustrated in the consideration of evolutionary life in geologic time, a similar transcendent buffering is possible in a horizontal mode.

The buffering against frustration and despair amidst the vicissitudes of a world of open, contingent process offered by these two kinds of transcendence appear structurally similar. Both move beyond the context of this human life and incorporate it in another dimension which supports the meaning of our efforts even while absolving them from the onus of worldly success. But there is a great difference in the spiritual process each entails. God, heaven, and afterlife can represent a dimension in which my intentions and activities in this world receive their ultimate and appropriate consequences. Or in an enlightenment oriented tradition, a similar effect is achieved by positioning suffering worldly experience as somehow less than ultimately real, the product of an ignorance from which we may finally awaken. Horizontal transcendence to the vast scope of temporal process prior and consequent to human or even earth existence is a different challenge, for it does not relate to our goals and projects with either an ultimate affirmation or negation.  Rather it connects with the effort itself, as our mode of manifesting and experiencing a dynamic that is coextensive with the process of life.

The inner dynamic of horizontal transcendence is to associate the life process with which we identify with the universe itself. Earth oriented biocentric works such as the The Ages of Gaia or The Breathing Planet can inspire an intense spirituality of belonging to this earth and its life. A parallel might be the experience of God's love and caring providence, or the all-encompassing compassion of the Buddha Nature: the transcendent must somehow be present to daily life. But it must also reach beyond, so the living-earth library is complemented by a growing shelf of books with titles such as Universe Story, At Home in the Universe, Belonging to the Universe, and The Conscious Universe. Such works adhere to the traditional scientific language of random process rather than the mind-centered language of purpose, but the emergence of what we recognize as life from such random process is increasingly seen as an inevitable outcome rather than an unlikely accident.

The rough outlines of a spirituality of horizontal transcendence are thus already in place, but it is still very much a project under construction. The story of the emergence of life has been the natural pivot of this revisioning of ourselves, the earth, and the universe. But correlative points beg for further elaboration. One of the most urgent is thinking through the transformation the traditional concept of matter must undergo in this new context. The assumption that matter is lifeless, and yet  from it emerges all the rich and varied phenomena of life and consciousness, has long been a stumbling block for those who approach the question of evolution framed in a mechanistic universe. The consequence of this implausible combination has long been a reductionist science that has insistently explained the vitality of our bodies and minds in terms of chemicals and complex electric functions that presumably themselves have no vitality.

The thrust of a holistic approach moves in the opposite direction. Instead of reducing the higher to the lower, we are asked recognize that we do not really know what an element such as carbon is if we do not take into account its performance at highly complex systemic levels such as plants and animals as well as its functioning at simple levels such as lamp black. If we can recognize matter as alive when it is at the complex level of metabolic and self-reproductive processes, what are we to think of it at less complex levels? This is the line of that leads thought towards a living universe, in which recognizable life is understood as a phenomenon just waiting for the right level of complexity to appear.                                            

How then are we to see life in the elemental forces and forms of the universe? The direct attribution of life and consciousness as we experience it into less complex levels of physical reality inadequately recognizes the newness of emergent phenomena, while the total denial of some kind of presence that can eventually become manifest as what we experience as life ignores the demands of continuity. We have already advanced greatly in understanding our connectedness with all life, but much remains to be understood as we expand the sphere of life to include what has been regarded as non-living.

We can expect multiple perspectives and insights as this question is pursued. It already is a magnet for scientific investigation from both the reductionistic and holistic perspectives. Philosophers might devote more attention to phenomena at the undecidable border between what is now regarded as life and non-living. And spiritual experience will offer another kind of window, for spiritualities premised on unity or continuity invite, beyond intellectual apprehension, direct experience of the reality they frame.

This reexamination of how we regard the "non-living" aims to open the possibility of a mode of self-identification which transcends the boundary of biotic life. Once the boundary is down, an arena of immediate access to horizontal transcendence is created. What the poet Robinson Jeffers has referred to as "the massive mysticism of stone" (Hass 1987: 167) surrounds us, inviting us to discover the patterning that lives in geologic time or even cosmic time, substrate to patterns manifest in the rapid complexity of life time. What is it from which we have emerged, and to which we return at death? It cannot be less than us, for we are formed of it, belong to it, manifest it.


Contingency plays an urgent role in the environmental consciousness that is a primary force moving many towards a biocentric life orientation. I have argued that traditional western forms of transcendence negate contingency not only by creating an absolute dimension, but also by writing humans into the very fabric of existence by framing mind or consciousness as the origin of the cosmos.

An alternative, green spirituality, I have suggested, needs to move from the vertical transcendence of the Absolute to the horizontal transcendence of belonging to the universe. Premised on life rather than mind, such transcendence does not deny our contingency, but it provides a deeply grounded belonging that extends beyond human life or even the earth itself. We are not invited thereby to relax and do nothing about the destabilizing effects that attend the world transforming power of our accumulated learning: indeed the fundamental dynamic of life is rightly manifest in concern for survival. And it was to discover a spirituality that could disclose a meaningful existence without muting the urgency of that concern that we embarked upon this investigation.

But in discovering a dimension of life running as a fundamental thread in the forces and processes of the universe, we find grounds for an affirmation that reaches beyond the life of our kind. This horizontally transcendent affirmation does not delude us with a questionable sense of permanence, but no less than other forms of transcendence, it sustains us with a sense of awe and reverence for the mystery that encompasses us.


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Eliade, M. (1957) The Sacred and the Profane, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc.

Goodenough, U. (1998) The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

Gribbin, J. (1986) The Breathing Planet,  Malden: Blackwell.

Kafatos, M. (1996) The Conscious Universe: Part and Whole in Modern Physical Theory, New York : Springer Verlag.

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Swimme, B. and Berry, T. (1994) The Universe Story: From the Promordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era. A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, San Francisco: Harper.