Book review: Restoring the Soul of the World
Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence
Guest article for the Society by Chris Fisher…
“We have the greatest technological knowledge of any civilization, but we have forgotten what it means to be alive in the world, to be alive in a living universe. Yet without this living connection to the world, our lives become trivial, routine, and mechanical. Being cut off, we start to wonder about the meaning of life and raise other abstract questions, while meaning itself is an experience of being bonded to the world and others at the very deepest level.”
With that thought provoking opening, David Fideler embarks on a journey which has one goal in mind. His mission is to restore a soulful respect for our world by reacquainting us with the spiritual essence of our intelligent, living cosmos, which was “pushed underground with the mechanistic worldview.”
Restoring the Soul of the World educates, inspires and challenges the reader as it weaves a path from ancient times to a vision of the future. Fideler draws on his rare breadth of knowledge to tell the story of human conquest over nature and the subsequent disconnection from her which now threatens our psychological well-being and future survival. Ideas have consequences; that becomes evident as Fideler traces the historical chain of thought which separated us moderns from our ancient ancestors, who gained insight and inspiration from their intimate relationship with nature. For the ancients, the world “was alive, numinous, and sacred—animated by a living spirit. And they were part of that world. Every part of creation spoke to them—brooks, trees, and mountains—and they responded appropriately with myth, story, and song, in a vital spirit of participation.”
The ancients Fideler refers to are pre-historic hunter gatherers. Instead, he points to those who laid the foundation of Western civilization—the Greeks. They “saw life and divinity in all things. Deeply moved by the order and beauty of nature, the ancient thinkers set out on a quest to understand the cosmic pattern and our own relation to it.” Ironically, as the author makes clear, this picture of “the cosmos as a living organism with which we are bound in vital participation” was maintained by the greatest thinkers in the West until it was replaced by a mechanistic view of the universe during the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only then, did the West lose its connection with the living cosmos.
Fideler is not engaging in romantic historicism; this is not a back to nature diatribe, which bemoans the evils of modern science. Quite the contrary, Fideler relies on a scientific understanding of nature to restore our environment. However, he submits we must restore our relationship with the living cosmos first. Only then, he suggests, will we stop viewing nature as a “mechanized, objectivized, and conceptualized system” and start learning from her genius. Without being alarmist, Fideler points out there is no time to waste. Rapid human growth has already made “sustainability” strategies untenable. The survival of our species now depends on learning how to “biomimic” the regenerative and restorative processes of nature herself. We must heal the damage already done to nature as we simultaneously learn to do no more.
Readers who are interested in Stoicism will discover many gems in this book. Fideler makes reference to the Stoic theory of an intelligent cosmos. “For the Stoics, the entire universe was a living organism, synonymous with God, and permeated by a vital, animating spirit. This spirit or pneuma, like everything else, is ‘material,’ but at the same time intelligent and dynamic.” Moreover, he employs Stoic concepts like, living in accordance with nature and cosmopolitanism as tools to restore our connection to the cosmos. He understands, as the ancient Stoics did, there is a correlation between our relationship with the cosmos and our relationship with our fellow humans. This book is not explicitly about Stoic theory or practice; nevertheless, I think everyone attempting to practice Stoicism as a way of life will benefit from reading it. Fideler offers the best short description of Stoic physical theory I have read (pp. 60-1).
Many books entertain us and are quickly forgotten, good books educate us and are occasionally remembered, great books challenge our worldview and motivate us to act. We don’t forget them because we can’t; they infiltrate our consciousness and become life changers, and occasionally, if widely read, world changers. Restoring the Soul of the World could be such a book. Fideler does not rely on Pollyanna sentiments to inspire environmental action; such feelings often fade quickly. Instead, he relies on the age old Stoic concept that we must change our thinking to change our behavior. We must restore respect for our living cosmos. Until we appreciate her as a living intelligent organism, we will continue to exploit her as a resource. Fideler gives each of us a personal motive to do so: therapy for our own soul through reconnection with the soul of the cosmos.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century many people are searching for meaning in their lives. Something is missing and we seem incapable of putting a finger on it. Fideler’s book does not complete the puzzle; however, it does provide a critical piece which can help us find our way forward by employing the wisdom of the ancients. At the very heart of our environmental problem is a spiritual problem. We are separated from nature by a mechanistic worldview which obscures the divine order within the cosmos. Science is not the cause of the problem. It is the mechanistic interpretation and commercial application of science, absent any soulful reverence for Nature, which created our current spiritual and environmental catastrophe. As Fideler points out quite clearly, there is no fundamental antipathy between scientific discovery and spirituality. In fact, many of scientific theories and discoveries which engendered our modern age came from deeply spiritual thinkers. As Einstein famously stated, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
It is time for the lame and blind to join forces for the common causes of humanity and our Mother, Nature. Fideler’s Restoring the Soul of the World may bridge the divide between modern science and the intelligent cosmos of the ancients. Such a bridge is essential to restore the relationship between us and the living, intelligent cosmos, of which we are each a fragment.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions