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Besthorn, F. H. (2002). Expanding spiritual diversity in social work: Perspectives
on the greening of spirituality. Currents: New Scholarship in the Human Services,
(1). Retrieved from http://uscalgary.ca/currents/fred_besthorn.htm
Fred H. Besthorn, M.Div., M.S.W., Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of Northern Iowa, USA
There is little doubt that social work has had a strong religious heritage. It has been
associated with a Christian and Jewish sectarian service ethos from its early years (Canda
& Furman, 1999).
While social work went through a fifty-year hiatus when focus shifted to
secularization and professionalization, over the last decades this has begun to change. Many
social workers are finding religion and spirituality to be important components of personal
growth and professional practice (Sheridan, Bulls, Adcock, Berlin & Miller, 1992). Unlike
the earlier period, the focus of this new phase has tended to be on broadening the definition
of the religious/spiritual construct, making it more inclusive and honoring of diverse
religious and nonreligious spiritual traditions (Besthorn, 2000; Canda, 1998; Russel, 1998;
Bullis, 1996; Ressler, 1998).
Fruitful new areas of emphasis in this resacralization of social work are efforts to
establish linkages between a deeper ecological consciousness and spiritually diverse

practice (Besthorn, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002). Social work has always had an ecological
vernacular. Yet, social work’s conventional models have never clearly envisaged the deeper
connection between person and the natural environment And, only recently have there been
explicit attempts to couple a deep ecological sensibility with a spiritual or religious
consciousness (Best horn, 2000; Besthorn & Canda, 2002).
This paper will assess the status of new international efforts to in fuse green
consciousness into spiritual and religious traditions. It will also evaluate the greening of
spirituality in social work by focusing on the emerging partnership between spirituality and
a deeper ecological awareness. It will suggest specific parameters of a new green
spirituality and discuss implications on a range of social work practice domains.
I began this paper mindful of my many social work friends who genuinely seek to
find a place in their professional activities for intense engagements in a variety of
expressions of personal faith, commitment and discovery. Indeed, this is my experience as
well. As an academic, with degrees in both religion and social work, I have more freedom
than most to delight my two most embracing passions; deep ecology and spirituality. For
much of my professional life these two preoccupations remained important, but fairly
differentiated domains. It was not until a number of years ago that I began to seriously
explore the connection between ecological awareness, spirituality and social work practice.

In the years since, my ardor has only grown and deepened. It no longer seems possible in
my mind to separate nature from spirit and to keep them isolated from my professional life.
Nature and spirit are, as most of the great indigenous traditions of the world have known
for millennia, of one and the same substance. The task for social work is to find ways to
incorporate the recognition of this new, yet ancient, ontology into the orientations and
primary experiences of our profession. In many areas the process of connecting ecology
and spirituality has already, if tentatively, begun. This paper shall trace this development,
both in contemporary culture and social work, and attempt to discover where it might lead
from here.
Considering a New Story
Famed nature writer and ecological activist Barry Lopez once counseled that when humans
behave as though there is no spiritual dimension to the physical places and spaces they
occupy, they easily treat nature as an object — utterly imperiled by the vain and exploitive
tendencies of human ambition (Lopez, 1998). On the other hand, when nature is genuinely
incorporated into the same moral universe that humans inhabit, we are left with no
alternative but to bow in acknowledgment of our teeming membership in the mystical and
sacred universe story. Indeed, since Rachel Carson raised her incisive alarm in 1964
warning us of impending disaster if our wholesale destruction of the environment
continues, many in western society have sought to discover a New Story for defining the

unique character of human/nature relationships. Increasingly, this New Story has taken on
deeply spiritual dimensions. Thomas Berry (1996, p. 3) observes that “our universal need
at the present time is a reorientation of the human venture toward intimate experiences of
the world around us.” A return to a mystique of the Earth is a primary requirement for
establishing a viable rapport between humans and the natural world.
The Natural World in Western Religious/Spiritual Traditions
Despite the recent emergence of some innovative interfaith and interdisciplinary
efforts to generate ecologically sensitive religious statements and theological positions, for
the most part mainstream western religious interpretations of spirit and nature remain
generally inconsequential to confronting an ever deepening ecological crisis. In practice,
many still perceive nature as spiritually and morally trivial, as the benign backdrop or stage
for a more fundamentally important divine/human redemptive drama. Atonement or
redemption loses its cosmic dimension and is reduced to an internalized response to an
exclusively human condition. As Berry (1996, p. 3) recognizes, the modern western
spiritual person is “in some manner abstracted from concern with the physical order of
reality in favor of the interior life of the soul.” Attention to the outer material and physical
world, when it occurs, is simply in the service to the inner non-material and psychic world.
Almost forty years ago Lynn White Jr. was the first to systematically illustrate the
general shortsightedness of the west’s religious heritage. White, then U.C.L.A. professor

and historian, argued forcefully, in his now famous article entitled The Historical Roots of
Our Ecological Crisis (1967), that modern western alienation from nature is largely related
to the early Judeo-Christian theology of despotic human control over the natural world.
White indicts the foundational cosmology of western religion, especially Christianity, as
encouraging both social and ecological exploitation by its feral hatred for a much earlier
primal worldview in which nature is inhabited by spirits that humankind relied upon to
inform their view of human/nature interactions. According to White’s analysis:
Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion that
the world has seen....Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and
Asia’s religions….not only established a dualism of man [sic] and nature but also
insisted that it is God’s will that man [sic] exploit nature for his proper ends. (cited
in Barbour, 1973, p. 25.)
In White’s view, popular religion of antiquity was animistic. “Every tree, every spring,
every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit” (1973, p. 25). Before
one could cut a tree or alter nature in any way the spirit in charge of that particular entity or
place had to be consulted and assuaged. Dominant western religious expressions, White
argues, desacralized nature thus encouraging its exploitation by humans who were seen as
separate from nature and superior to it. While first opposing and then destroying pagan
animism and primal pantheism western religious traditions “made it possible to exploit
nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (p.25). They replaced all

the old gods, many of whom were nature deities, and to a great extent demystified nature
making it nonsacred and a passive resource to be controlled and manipulated for human
White’s analysis also explicitly connects the rise of modernism and its neo-liberal,
techno-scientific enterprise as in large measure a logical result of Judeo/Christian insolence
toward the natural world. The predisposition to desacralized nature laid the foundation for
the rise of the Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm and the resulting technological manipulation
and domination of nature. White notes that the distinctively western version of progress,
technological control, the priority of economistic ontology, resource depleting
consumptivism and especially its heavy reliance on scientific description and prediction are
permeated with a religious vernacular that justifies human arrogance toward and dominance
over wild nature. He writes:
From the 13th century onward, up to and including Leibnitz and Newton, every
major scientist, in effect, explained his motivation in religious terms. Indeed, if
Galileo had not been so expert an amateur theologian he would have got into far
less trouble: the professionals resented his intrusion. And Newton seems to have
regarded himself more as a theologian than as a scientist, It was not until the late
18th century that the hypothesis of God became unnecessary to many scientists
(1973, p. 27).
Much of the western theological tradition suggests a view of reality where the divine is

primarily interested in human beings. The male god image delegates to them mastery over
the natural order which he created for their exclusive use. The human-centered essence of
the west’s salvivic soteriology is almost universally, though perhaps unconsciously,
accepted by the preponderance of the Christian and so called “post-Christian” (p. 24) era.
For White, both capitalism and Marxism are essentially quasi-religious heresies because,
despite apparent differences, both are rooted in a anti-naturalist, anthropocentric Judeo-
Christian teleology. The modernist project’s absolute faith and, in some quarters, religious-
like zeal for science and technology, irrespective of what socio-political ideology embraces
them, offers no singular solution to the current crisis of environment and the appropriate
human place in the natural world. “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious,
the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not” (p. 30).
It can be credibly argued that the west’s religious traditions do not consistently or
unanimously adopt a negative or exploitive attitude toward nature (Boff, 1995; Callicott,
1990; Dubos, 1973; Kinsley, 1995; McFague, 2000, 2001; Santmire, 1985). And, there are
numerous wisdom and minority traditions within Judeo-Christian thought (Mishnah,
Midrash Tehillim, Maimonides, Kabbalistic traditions, St. Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of
Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Transcendentalist traditions) suggesting that rapacious anti-
naturalism represents a one-dimensional and mischaracterized understanding of the
historical and canonical record concerning the natural world (Cobb, 1979; McFague, 2000;
Rolston, 1996;). This, however, does not diminish the fact that for the majority of western

sectarian traditions nature was considered a non-sentient object whose primary function
was to serve as resource capital for humanity’s ongoing economistic pursuits. Wild nature
is still generally accounted as having no intrinsic value or spiritual dimension. Its value is
solely instrumental, associated with its ability to provide raw material for production or, at
the very least, to provide some small degree of aesthetic enjoyment.
Homo sapiens remain a spiritually segregated and ecologically superior species,
private players in an unfolding drama of redemptive violence (Wink, 1984). Humans are, at
the same time, enjoined as stewards and overseers possessed with the divinely sanctioned
right to manage and, when required, commandeer nature’s bounty. The spiritual and
religious, as well as the political and ethical focus of the preponderance of western history
has been on the trajectory of the human condition, fully neglecting the reality that human
development is rooted in, continually molded by, and interdependent with, natural history.
In fact, according to Nash (1996), the myopic and anthropocentric fixation of the west’s
mainstream religious/spiritual institutions, while not being the sole cause of ecological
degradation, have contributed to three elemental failures at the root of the current ecological
crisis. These are:
• The failure to adapt to the limiting conditions of life (i.e. the carrying, regenerative,
and absorptive capacities of nature), as emerging problems of global warming and human
overpopulation illustrate.
• The failure to recognize the intricate and interdependent relationships involving

humankind and the rest of nature, in which there can be no isolation or segregation. We
know today, for instance, that even vibrant economic systems depend on the welfare of
ecosystems whether or not we fully appreciate that reality.
• The failure to respond benevolently and justly to the theological and biological fact
of human kinship with all other creatures, from strawberries to dinosaurs. This failure is
especially evident in the increasing number of species being extinguished, largely from
habitat destruction associated with economic over- development. (p. 6)
Finding Connections: The Greening of Spirituality
While many dominant western religious traditions have had limited expressions of
reverence for the sacred connection between humanity and nature that have hindered their
response to evolving and ever worsening ecological crises, there are encouraging signs that
this is changing. At all levels, nationally, internationally and locally, environmental and
spiritual/religious communities are beginning to re-examine their historic roots, taking note
of shared missions and values, and seeking ways to work together to end ecological
Internationally, for example, the Pope in his World Day of Peace Letter of 1990
entitled Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation held that the ecological
crisis is a moral crisis that requires all peoples of faith to humbly accept their responsibility
and duty toward protecting and preserving the natural world (Ferkiss, 1993). Just three

years later in 1993 the Parliament of World Religions was held in Chicago and was
attended by over 8,000 representatives of the world’s great religious and spiritual traditions.
It issued a statement entitled Global Ethics of Cooperation of Religions on Human and
Environmental Issues. The declaration sought to give direction to an emerging global
consensus that links spirituality to human development and ecological sustainability
(Tucker & Grim, 1998). Additionally, the international Eco-Justice movement has
strengthened and given new depth to a revitalized Liberation Theology that couples
economic and ecological exploitation with spiritual empowerment and social transformation
(Boff, 1995).
The Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders, first held at Oxford
England in 1988 and later at Moscow, Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto, has also established
guidelines for an International Green Cross which is intended to respond with material aid
and expert counsel to environmental emergencies wherever they may occur on the face of
the globe, in addition, The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) has been
publishing monographs and holding international conferences since 1995 in an effort to
raise consciousness over the inherently spiritual character of ecological and environmental
concerns. In North America, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) has
established an Environmental Sabbath program that, each year, distributes thousands of
worship packets in an effort to arouse congregant support for establishing an earth-based
global ethic grounded in international law (Rockefeller, 1996).