The writings of Scott Russell Sanders are characterized by a calm, strong, and lyrical voice arising from encounters with the simple beauty and the subtle secrets of the natural world. While he is best known for his collections of literary non-fiction, he also has written fiction, including short stories, science fiction, and children’s literature. Like many contemporary nature writers, he emphasizes the importance of place, calling for people to “stay put” (as in the title of one of his books). His writings focus on the Midwest (the title of Writing from the Center refers in part to this geography), including places in and near his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, that are quite humble compared to, say, Yosemite. Still, his experience of nature is animated by wonder and awe, suggesting a sense of the sublime. (A recent book is A Private History of Awe.) His writings also exemplify that nature writing can be social, developed in the context of other people (in his case, often his family) rather than in a solitary retreat into the natural world.
Sanders is one of our most spiritually complex nature writers, and this interview seeks to highlight and question his religious views. His writings epitomize an eclectic spirituality in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau. While some nature writers, such as Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, have blended more than one religious tradition (for Rexroth, Catholicism and Buddhism, and for Snyder, Buddhism and Native American spirituality), Sanders articulates the “perennial philosophy,” arguing that diverse traditions have a common core and point to the same ultimate reality. His metaphysics, particularly his notion of ongoing creation, have important parallels with Daoism, a tradition he explicitly draws on. But given his deep moral concerns and his insistence on the social context, there are significant similarities with Neo-Confucianism, a tradition he rarely mentions. Sanders is particularly interested in discerning the ground of being, its force and its flow, while his central religious yearning is to conform to this dynamic grain of the universe. Moving with the universe is not only spiritual and aesthetic but also moral and political, shaping and being shaped by his long-standing opposition to social injustice and war.
This interview began as an informal discussion on the campus of Indiana University during the June 2011 ASLE Conference, where Sanders was a featured speaker. At his request, he then responded in writing to questions that I submitted to him.
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ISLE: In essays you have recounted participating in Quaker meeting (“Silence”) and meditating by yourself (“Stillness”). How would you describe your spiritual practice? Do writing, being out in nature, or other activities function as a spiritual practice?
SRS: I don’t pretend to understand this great mystery in which we participate. Whether we call it life, cosmos, creation, Allah, God, or some other grand name, no label is large enough. I merely try to learn as much about it as I can, during my brief time under the sun. So I study what the most perceptive of our ancestors have discovered—artists and scientists as well as spiritual seekers. I turn outward to nature and to human artifacts, and inward to the images and voices that arise in silence. The louder the world becomes, with its relentless demands and messages, the more precious silence becomes. I can’t prove that what emerges within me arises from a source beyond the boundaries of my own skin, but I believe this is so. Simone Weil wrote that “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” What I pay attention to might be my breath, a sentence in a book, a butterfly on a zinnia blossom, my granddaughter’s face, a skein of music or a skein of geese. I may do my seeking outdoors or indoors, alone or in company, but always the goal is the same: to deepen my awareness of this encompassing mystery.
ISLE: In A Private History of Awe and other essays, you have written about the religious character of your rural Methodist upbringing and your later encounter with Quakerism. How do you see your spirituality – your views and your practice – evolving since you settled in Indiana?
SRS: As I’ve written in Awe and elsewhere, I’m grateful for my religious upbringing, even though I have relinquished many of my childhood beliefs. The version of Christianity imparted to me by those rural Methodist congregations, and by my own parents, was moderate, kindly, and forgiving. It was the religion of people who knew the value of neighborliness, hard work, honesty, and compassion. I found all of those traits echoed in the Hebrew prophets and the gospels, which I read earnestly, along with the rest of the Bible (parts of which struck me then and strike me now as cruel). I was an avid student of science from an early age, and I was especially captivated by the saga of evolution, not only of life on Earth but of the whole universe; and I never encountered anyone in those religious circles who discouraged me from embracing the scientific story of the cosmos. Beginning in my college years and continuing through my twenties, I came to distinguish between the ethics of Christianity, which I sought to follow, and the metaphysics of Christianity, which I gradually let go. The core ethical teachings, as I see them, include peacemaking, welcoming the outsider, caring for the vulnerable, living simply, sharing the world’s goods, and showing equal respect to all people. By midway through my twenties, I no longer felt at home in worship that insisted on the unique divinity of Jesus, on his literal resurrection from the dead, on a God that intervenes in the world in response to petitions, and on the promise of eternal life in heaven for those who embrace the proper creed.
ISLE: In a number of essays you draw on Asian religions such as Buddhism and Daoism. When and how did you become exposed to Asian religions? What have you learned from them? How have they impacted your spirituality?
SRS: Let me say at the outset that my knowledge of Asian religions, like most of my knowledge, is haphazard, picked up here and there in the manner of a seeker rather than a scholar. I first encountered references to Buddhism, Hinduism and Daoism in the works of Emerson and Thoreau, who read some of the earliest English translations of primary texts from those traditions, and who drew on that reading as they sought to articulate a spirituality more comprehensive—more global, if you will—than the one offered by conventional Christianity. As I was struggling to define my own relationship with Christianity, especially as I became involved in supporting the Civil Rights movement and in opposing the Vietnam War, I began reading Thomas Merton, the brilliant and rebellious Trappist monk who was also drawn to the Asian traditions. Later, I found the works of Thomas Berry, who, like Merton, turned to Asian philosophies to complement and enlarge his initially Christian worldview. I also found myself engaged by writers such as Gary Snyder and Peter Matthiessen whose work had been profoundly shaped by Zen Buddhism. I have never formally studied Buddhism, either in a classroom or in a sangha. Mainly I have read books by living teachers from Asia, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as translations of the great scriptures, such as the Upanishads, and works by Confucius, Lao-tze, the Buddha, and other ancient sages. As I said earlier, this reading has provided me only haphazard knowledge of these great, subtle, and complex traditions. Even such limited knowledge has confirmed my sense that every effort to explain the universe and this fleeting existence is partial.
ISLE: In an interview in the Kenyon Review in 2000 (Perry and Zade) you stated that you have learned from “a wide array of Native American traditions.” What kind of sources have you drawn from? What kind of impact have Indian cultures had on your spirituality?
SRS: The cultures I have studied—in my amateur way—are mostly from the Great Lakes region and the upper Midwest: the Lakota, Shawnee, Miami, Ojibwe, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). I’ve also studied the Hopi and Navajo. While these peoples differ from one another in significant ways, they have all developed spiritualities that root them in their home places, and that align their actions with the ways of nature. By “nature” here, I don’t of course mean a realm apart from us; I mean the rivers, mountains, forests, prairies, animals, plants, seasons, weathers, moon, sun, stars, and the whole living web that runs through us, that makes us and sustains us. I don’t imagine that these cultures have been invariably wise in their treatment of the Earth, but they have been far wiser than our own capitalist, consumerist, techno-industrial extravaganza.
ISLE: You have written about your interest in the Quaker tradition, and in a 2007 interview (Perry and Zade) you mentioned being attracted recently to Unitarianism. Would you comment on what appeals to you about these two traditions and how you see your relationship to them?
SRS: Neither Quakers nor Unitarian Universalists insist on a shared dogma; they make room for theists and atheists, they take seriously the social gospel embodied in the life of Jesus, and they seek wisdom from other traditions. They welcome what science reveals to us about the workings of the universe. They’re opposed to war, discrimination, inequality, acquisitiveness, and showiness. They seek to alleviate suffering, not only of humans but of other species. If I prefer to worship with the Unitarian Universalists, it is because they are much more enthusiastic about the arts—music, literature, painting, sculpture—than are the Quakers. They’re also more adept at conveying their values and stories to children.
ISLE: You have written that diverse world religions are different ways of pointing to the same spiritual reality, and you mention in Aldous Huxley’s idea of a “perennial philosophy” that lies at the root of all great religions. Scholars and others have criticized this perspective in several ways and I wonder if you would respond to two of those criticisms. First, they claim that religions arise within specific cultures, which differ substantially from other cultures. As a result, it is inauthentic to attempt to take ideas, values, and images from religions of other cultures, such as Asian or Native American. How would you respond to such an argument?
SRS: Of course religions arise within specific cultures, and each one acquires strengths and weaknesses from that shaping. I respect those who identify wholly with a particular religion, so long as they do not claim that their tradition provides the only authentic path to truth. Reality is a single, unified, and ultimately mysterious whole. Every religion—like every scientific theory, every work of art, every language, indeed every word—separates out some features of this great Oneness, describes them or paints them, reduces them to names or numbers. Our mistake comes in confusing our descriptions and creeds with the thing itself. Scientists are just as prone to this error as anyone else, but at least they assume that all science everywhere, no matter where it’s practiced, is seeking to understand the same reality. I’m all for respecting the integrity and contributions of every culture, whether Hopi or Hindu, Calvinist or Confucian. But reality—the great Unity—precedes and transcends all of them. Why is it “inauthentic” to ask of any tradition what it might teach us about the whole of things? On the contrary, it seems to me a sign of deep respect to assume that every tradition has caught a part of the truth.
ISLE: Another criticism of the perennial philosophy is that it erases real differences. While there are some surface similarities among religions, these critics would admit, a closer look reveals important divergences between, say, Buddhist mysticism and Christian mysticism. Would you comment on that view?
SRS: Again, I acknowledge that there are important differences among religions. There are also numerous divergences within religions, as witness the many schools of Buddhism and denominations of Christianity. As a species, we’re very good at noticing differences—whether of creed, skin color, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, or some other parameter; and we are very good—often murderously so—in attaching values to those distinctions. The Inquisition was all about hunting down and persecuting anyone who espoused beliefs other than the official Catholic line. These divisive tendencies, which are no doubt an evolutionary inheritance, give rise to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and every other cleavage of the world into Us and Them, orthodox and heretics, the saved and the damned, the cared-for and the scorned. The sundry religious traditions are well supplied with defenders, intent upon their claim to distinctness. With so many dwelling upon those differences, surely a few of us may be allowed to consider what the many paths have in common.
ISLE: Your spirituality, and your writing, is suffused with a calm centeredness that comes from dwelling in the “still center” (Staying Put 55). In some essays you also write of the essential stillness of reality, a “silence at the heart of every moment” (A Private History of Awe 264). But at the same time your portrayal of the nature of reality emphasizes dynamism: energy, flow, force, power. How do you see the relationship between stillness and energy, both in yourself and in the universe?
SRS: At the level of metaphor there may appear to be a contradiction; but I would call it a paradox. One’s mind and body may be stilled in the midst of the world’s motion. One may be quiet amid noise. Again, I have been influenced by the findings of modern science. Nothing in nature is static; everything flows, pulses, vibrates. Physicists tell us that a primordial vacuum gives rise to fundamental particles, that energy and matter are alternative phases of the same reality. Quarks flash in and out of existence, and so do organisms, species, mountains, and stars, at vastly different rates. What gives rise to this ceaseless activity? What drives the evolution of the cosmos? How are the rules governing this evolution defined? And what role, if any, do humans play in observing, pondering, and articulating this cosmic story through our many modes of language? Even if those questions must remain unanswerable, due to the constraints of our intellect and lifespan, they are the questions worth asking.
ISLE: In various essays you refer to reality as Mind, such as “the great Mind of the Cosmos” (Hunting for Hope 153). On the other hand, you criticize Emerson for his philosophical idealism (Hirt 2003). Would you explain your notion of Mind and how it is related to the material universe?
SRS: I believe there is only one reality, which we apprehend fragmentarily with a consciousness that is one manifestation of the whole. We divide our perceptions into thinkable pieces and give them names—matter and energy; body, mind, spirit; Father, Son, Holy Ghost; economy and government; oak, maple, beech; protons, neutrons, electrons—and then we assume that reality corresponds to our naming, that it is divided along the boundaries we have drawn. But in meditation the names drop away, the boundaries dissolve. For me, that meditation is as likely to occur on a forest path as on a cushion. I don’t oppose mind and matter, as Emerson did; I recognize them as dimensions of the same reality, just as physicists recognize matter and energy as phases of a single entity. The findings of modern physics suggest that the universe is less like a clock—the dominant eighteenth-century metaphor—or like a vast machine grinding away—the dominant nineteenth-century metaphor—than like a mind thinking.
ISLE: In various essays you reject the Western penchant for dualisms and speak of a “primal unity” (Staying Put 165), and in “Ground Notes” you state that “With our twin hands, our paired eyes, our sense of a split between body and mind, we favor dualisms: design and designer, creation and creator, universe and God. But I suspect the doubleness is an illusion” (Staying Put 138-139). In some passages, however, particularly those concerning the Ground of Being, there is what might seem to be a subtle duality in the terminology of a reality “beneath” and “behind” what we see. Also, in some essays, particularly “The Way of Things,” you write of a Creator who is passionately interested in the unfolding of the universe, and in a 2001 interview (Tydeman) you delcare that you are “a theist and a transcendentalist.” Would you comment on the nature of the Creator and the relationship between the phenomenal world and the Ground of Being?
SRS: I recognize the dualistic implications of the terms creation and creator, which have remained part of my vocabulary from the Bible reading I began in childhood. I may imply a duality, but I don’t believe in it. When I employ dualistic language, it is partly out of old affection for the language of the King James Version of the Bible. But I do so mainly in an effort to speak to readers—some 80 percent of Americans, if polls are to be believed—whose religious faith instructs them to care for the Earth because it was made by God, who loves it, owns it, and sees it as surpassingly good. I was reared in that faith, and I respect the power of that instruction, even if I no longer accept its theological underpinnings.
ISLE: In speaking of spirituality you have often talked of cultivating a stillness and a loss of self and in so doing coming into contact with the ground of things. Your politics, on the other hand, involves critiquing a ruinous society, positing an alternative ideal, and working to move us against the powers that be. How do you see the relationship between your spirituality and your political views and social commitment? Have you felt tensions between your spiritual drives and your political concerns? More generally, how can we shape a spirituality that energizes, focuses, and preserves political engagement, and conversely how can we shape political engagement in a way that grounds it in spirituality?
SRS: There is a tendency in many religious traditions to separate the faithful from the corrupt world, to concentrate on the salvation or enlightenment of the individual, to withdraw from the work of citizenship. I understand the temptation of withdrawal. It hurts to be aware of the suffering we humans are inflicting on one another and of the damage we are inflicting on Earth. It can be daunting to feel an obligation to help reduce that suffering and damage. People may come to feel such an obligation by way of many different paths, including ones in which religion has played no part. No tradition has a monopoly on compassion or caretaking. My own drive to help mend the world, as I have explained, came out of my particular Christian upbringing. Jesus has always seemed to me a radical reformer, one who measured the society into which he was born against his vision of a truly just, peaceful, and loving society. He refused to accept the status quo, simply because it was entrenched and seemingly immovable. I draw inspiration from the radical reformers in our own history—those people who struggled to end slavery and all forms of racial discrimination; those who fought for the rights of women and workers; those who, today, resist war, defy strip mines, decry pollution, defend endangered species, and care for the outcast and the vulnerable.
ISLE: Like Wendell Berry and other writers, you stress the need for personal and cultural change, and in A Conservationist Manifesto you state that “We arrived at our current predicament as a result of billions of individual choices.” Some thinkers, particularly those influenced by Marxism, would say that focusing on culture and individual lifestyles cannot affect the real sources of the problem, which are the economic and social structures that shape society. Capitalism, they would argue, can continue largely unaffected by personal changes, and in order to change a culture you need to change the larger system. What is your perspective on this view?
SRS: What goes by the name of “capitalism” today bears no resemblance to what the businesspeople of previous generations, let alone the classical economists such as Adam Smith, would have imagined or condoned. Smith, for example, opposed allowing companies to operate in more than one nation, lest they violate the public interest with impunity. Of the hundred largest economies in the world today, half of them are international corporations. Much of the world, including the U.S., is in effect ruled by a small number of gigantic corporations, which in turn are ruled by a small number of executives and interlocking boards, whose overriding goal is to maximize profits, first for themselves and secondly for their shareholders. Who are those shareholders? In the U.S., between 80 and 90 percent of all investment assets—stocks, bonds, trusts—are owned by the richest 10 percent of the population; half of all investment assets are owned by the richest 1 percent. That is not the profile of a democracy; that is a plutocracy. The question is: How are we going to wrest from these corporations their control of the airwaves, legislatures, courtrooms, universities, schools, research agendas, regulatory agencies, financial industry, mass media, and—through advertising and “think tanks” and propaganda—from our minds? Obviously we need changes at all scales—within individuals, households, businesses, economic structures, political and judicial systems, educational and religious institutions, electronic media, national and international organizations. Systemic change and cultural change are not separable. We can’t bring about radical reform of our social and economic structures without a fundamental shift in the values, worldview, and behavior of ordinary people. That shift is occurring, across our land and around the world; but you won’t hear about it from the mass media, which are devoted to perpetuating our present system.
ISLE: Apocalyptic images have played a significant role in environmental thought. Some have suggested that our current economic system will inevitably collapse and be replaced by one that is more in harmony with the Earth. Others more grimly suggest that if we don’t fundamentally change our society, the entire planet will undergo terrible trauma and cataclysm. Do you foresee such a collapse of our industrial, consumer society? If so, what do you think will follow it?
SRS: Humans are resilient and clever, if too rarely wise. I believe we will gradually figure out, in our various bioregions and communities around the world, ways of living that are in keeping with the requirements of nature and with our own true needs. The transition will take generations. To what extent the shift comes about because of a breakdown in the old order, and to what extent it comes about through deliberate choices and actions, will vary from place to place, people to people. Those who are invested—financially and emotionally—in the industrial, consumer society will resist change with every means at their disposal. You can see this demonstrated by those who deny that humans are contributing to climate heating, and by those who push to build more highways instead of railroads, more nuclear power plants instead of wind turbines, more weapons instead of medicines. The longer these defenders cling to practices and policies that brought about our grotesquely wasteful, inequitable, polluting, and war-prone current system, the more traumatic the transition will be. We shouldn’t forget that for the world’s poorest two or three billion people, the “consumer society,” as we know it in the U.S., has never arrived, and will never arrive. In rapidly industrializing societies, such as China and India, the rates of consumption are increasing exponentially, but they are still far below the level taken for granted in the richest nations. There simply are not enough resources on the planet to extend American rates of consumption to the whole of humanity. Already, wars are being fought over oil, and in the near future there will be wars over fresh water, arable land, and other necessities of life. So what are we called to do? Wring our hands? Grab as much as we can while it lasts? Retreat behind barricades and hire private thugs to protect our loot? I say we should work night and day, with every talent and opportunity we have, to create a more localized, ecologically sound, peaceful, just, and conserving way of life.
ISLE: I’d like to raise what I call the radical paradox: if things are really bad, and the Good is radically different, we face a dilemma: we can work toward the ideal—but that is so far away we can’t get there from here—or we can work on short-term reforms such as lifestyle changes or community supported agriculture—but that won’t get us where we need to go, and it may distract us from working on fundamental change or may even help make a ruinous economic system last longer. One option is to “build arks” by creating alternative societies, but such a move has been criticized as failing to challenge the dominant, destructive system. I wonder how you respond to this radical paradox?
SRS: We don’t need to achieve the ideal in order to be guided by it. The good we’re seeking—an end to war, say, or relief of poverty, or high quality healthcare for everybody, or the healing of a damaged landscape, or protection of endangered species, or the just treatment of all people—need not be realized in order for the actions we take in pursuit of that good to be rewarding in themselves. If you begin by asking yourself how you can be sure of solving this or that global problem or creating this or that utopia, you’ll soon give up. Instead, ask yourself what action most faithfully expresses your deepest values and affections, right here and now in this concrete situation, and you will always be able to act with courage and purpose. We make the path by walking.
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Perry, Carolyn, and Wayne Zade. "A Conversation with Scott Russell Sanders." Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion 53 (Spring 2007): 71-85. Web. 19 July 2011. http://scottrussellsanders.com/about/imageint.htm.
---. “Something Durable and Whole: An Interview with Scott Russell Sanders.” Kenyon Review 22.1 (Winter 2000): 10-24. Web. 19 July 2011. http://scottrussellsanders.com/about/kenyonreview.html.
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---. Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys. Boston: Beacon, 1998. Print.
---. A Private History of Awe. New York: North Point, 2006. Print.
---. Secrets of the Universe: Scenes from the Journey Home. Boston: Beacon, 1991. Print.
---. “Silence.” The Force of Spirit. Boston: Beacon, 2000. 151-164. Print.
---. Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Boston: Beacon, 1993. Print.
---. “Stillness.” A Conservationist Manifesto. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2009. 193-208. Print.
---. “The Way of Things.” Hunting for Hope. Boston: Beacon, 1998. Print.
---. Writing from the Center. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995. Print.
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