Earth Economy: A Spirituality of Limits

Sallie McFague

Spirituality is “in” these days, and religion is “out.” But I am not sure there is much difference between good spirituality and good religion.A 1977 definition of spirituality by the Scottish Churches Council claims it is “an exploration into what is involved in becoming human,” and becoming human is “an attempt to grow in sensitivity to self, to others, to the non-human creation, and to God who is within and beyond this totality.”

Spirituality is not about a one-on-one relationship with God, but about growing in relationship with others, including God and the natural world. Spirituality is communal, about learning and caring for the world. And what is our world like these days? Two main crises face us: global warming and economic recession. The goal of the recent climate conference in Copenhagen was to revolutionize our energy systems and the way we live through negotiating an international treaty controlling greenhouse gases. The lack of a resolute outcome was deeply disappointing. The economic crisis, meanwhile, has re- treated a bit – at least enough for the CEOs and the bankers to declare the recession is over.

But a deeper issue is indicated by both of these crises – that we are living beyond our means, both financially and ecologically. We are abusing our credit cards and the planet with an insatiable appetite that is not sustainable.

Tough-Minded Wisdom

We need to change our minds and change our behavior. Thomas Friedman, writing in The New York Times last year, put it this way: “What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last fifty years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both

said: ‘No more.’ What if we face up to the fact that unlike the U.S. government, Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts?”2

One way we can begin to change our minds and our behavior is through a communal spirituality. The poet Robinson Jeffers says that we should “fall in love outward,” fall in love with the world, rather than “inward” with ourselves.3 For some, spirituality is about the individual – how might I live serenely and happily? But what would a “communal” spirituality be – one that was good for the planet and all its creatures?

The religions – the neglected wisdom traditions – have something to teach us. They move us from individualism to community, for they are not just about “me and my well-being.” Rather, they are tough-minded and objective, insisting on global kinship – that all creatures have the right to the basics of existence. How can you get more revolutionary than that? Such a revolution would involve immense changes in the lifestyle of us well-off North Americans. Some have suggested that the religions encourage people to be good “stewards” of creation, and I agree. However, most religious traditions declare much more: most make the radical proposal that to find your life, you must lose it, that sacrificing for others is not just for the saints but for all of us, that when the basic necessities of life are limited, they should be shared fairly. Theologian John Hick claims that the function of the major religious traditions is “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.”4 And Gandhi said that “worship without sacrifice” is one of the seven deadly sins.5

Economies of Self-Emptying

I have taught a course on spiritual autobiography for many years. It is about folks like Teresa of Avila, John Woolman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Jean Vanier, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day – people who live lives of extraordinary love for others, especially the weak and vulnerable. I always find new insights teaching the course and my last time was no exception. I have been struck by a characteristic shared by many of them: the rather shocking practice of self-emptying, of what the Christian tradition calls “kenosis.” It strikes me that self-emptying proposes an ethic for our time, an era characterized by climate change and financial chaos. These two related crises are the result of excess. We are debtors twice over – financially and ecologically. The very habits that are causing the financial crisis are also destroying the planet – the reckless use of personal credit cards, the practices of financial lending institutions, and the planet’s resources that support us all.

Could the crazy notion of self-emptying, a notion found in many religious traditions, be a clue to what is wrong with our way of being in the world, as well as a suggestion of how we might live differently? Whether in Buddhism’s release from desire by non-attachment or Christianity’s admonition that to find one’s life one must lose it, religions are often countercultural in their various ethics of self- denial in order to find genuine fulfillment. In some religious traditions, such self-limitation moves into asceticism and life-denial, yet this is not usually the underlying assumption.

A Singular Witness

I am thinking of John Woolman, an eighteenth century American Quaker who had a successful retail business and gave it up because he felt it kept him from seeing clearly something that disturbed him: slavery. He came to see how money stood in the way of clear perception of injustice: people who had

a lot of property and land needed slaves to maintain them (or so these folks reasoned). He saw the problem with his own reasoning: he said his eye was not “single” because whenever he looked at an injustice in the world he always saw it through his own eye only, his own situation and benefit. It was as if he had a conflicted double vision. Once he was able to move himself out of the self-regarding center, then his eye became “single” and he saw the interconnectedness and moral consequences of economic decisions. Once he reduced his own level of prosperity, he could see the clear links between riches and oppression.

He wrote: “Every degree of luxury has some connection with evil.”6 Reducing his lifestyle gave him insight into the difference between “needs” and “wants,” something our insatiable consumer culture has made it almost impossible to recognize. As an ethic for a time of climate change and economic excess, Woolman suggests the clarity of perception into others’ needs that can come about through the reduction of one’s own wants.

However, Woolman did not find such self-emptying negative or depressing. Rather, he found it fulfilling. He has a dream in which he hears the words, “John Woolman is dead,” and realizes that now his own will is dead and he can say with Paul that he is crucified with Christ, that Christ might live in him.

We find ourselves by losing ourselves. To empty the self is not an act of denial but of fulfillment, for it creates space for God to fill one’s being. What we see here is not an ascetic call for self-denial to purify ourselves or even a moral injunction to give others space to live. Rather, it is more basic. It is an invitation to imitate the way God loves the world. In the Christian tradition, “kenosis” or self-emptying is a way of understanding God’s actions in creation, the incarnation, and the cross. In creation, God limits the divine self, pulling in, so to speak, to allow space for others to exist. God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, does not take all the space but gives space and life to others.

This is an inversion of the usual understanding of power as control. Instead, power is given to others to live as diverse and valuable creatures. In the incarnation, as Paul writes in Philippians 2:7, God “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” substituting humility and vulnerability for our in- satiable appetites. In the cross God gives of the divine self without limit to side with the poor and the oppressed. God does not take the way of the victor but, like Jesus and the temptations, rejects absolute power and imperialism for a different way. Therefore, Christian discipleship becomes a “cruciform” life, imitating the self-giving of Christ for others.

More, More, More

Another example of kenotic living is the case of the French philosopher and unbaptized Catholic Simone Weil. She lived a radical and brief life of solidarity with her poorest and often starving fellow citizens during World War II. She said that our tendency is to love others because of our needs, not theirs, our hunger, not their hunger. Our fat, relentless egos want more, more, more – the insatiability of the consumer culture, which has resulted in climate change and financial collapse. Simone Weil says that human beings are naturally “cannibalistic”: we eat instead of look, we devour rather than pay attention, we consume other people and the planet in our search for self-fulfillment.7 Augustine claimed something similar in his understanding of sin – the voracious, lustful desire to have it all for oneself. From a twenty-first-century perspective, sin means refusing to share, refusing to live in such a way that others – other people and other life forms – can also live. For us in our time, sin is a refusal to live justly and sustainably with all others on our planet. It refuses to share the banquet of life.

This is a strange crisis we face: it does not have the immediacy of a war or plague or tsunami. Rather, it has to do with how we live on a daily basis–the food we eat, the transportation we use, the size of the house we live in, the consumer goods we buy, the luxuries we allow ourselves, the amount of long distance air travel we permit ourselves. The enemy is the very ordinary life we ourselves are leading as well-off North Americans. For all its presumed innocence, this way of life, multiplied by billions of people, is both unjust to those who cannot attain this lifestyle and destructive of the very planet that supports us all.

The kenotic paradigm in Woolman and Weil is not for the sake of self-flagellation. It is not a negative statement about the earth and life. Rather, it is the recognition that life’s flourishing on earth demands certain limitations and sacrifices at physical and emotional levels. The ego that demands everything for itself – honor, power, money – is the same cannibalistic self that devours all the food and land. As St. Francis well knew, “possessionlessness” is a matter of the spirit and the body: one can no longer, he insisted, hold on to one’s sense of superiority while giving away all one’s clothes to the poor. While the self-emptying pattern might have been seen in other times as a peculiarly religious way of being in the world, I think we can now see how it might be the germ of a personal, professional, and public ethic for our century.

What characterizes our time is an awareness of our radical interdependence with all other life forms, as well as an increasing appreciation for the planet’s finitude and vulnerability. These realities mean that the vocabulary and sensibility of self-limitation, egolessness, sharing, giving space to others, and limiting our energy use no longer sound like a special language for the saints but an ethic for all of us. The religions may finally be the greatest “realists,” with their intuitive appreciation for self-emptying and self-limitation as a way not only to personal fulfillment but also to sane planetary practice.

Could it be that the religions might take the lead in exploring and illustrating how an ethic of self-limitation might function in light of the twenty-first- century ecological and economic crises?

Beauty or Duty?

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that at seven years old he had two passions – for the world and for God, and he could not imagine giving up either one. Must it be beauty vs. duty, an either/or, or is there another way? What is the character of the spiritual practice for just, sustainable living? What kind of spiritual practice is called for?

Both God and the world call to us to “fall in love outward” (Robinson Jeffers), not inward. One is not “duty” and the other “love.” Rather, both call for our attention and do so primarily by focusing on the world. Spirituality meets God in the world, in both its beauty and its pain. An incarnate God directs our attention to what God loves – the world, all its creatures, human and otherwise. We are not first of all selves who then respond to a call to love the world. Rather, this is who we are – world-lovers – which always means world-bearers, who come to the aid of both nature and the neighbor, for both are the “new poor” in our time.

Nature’s Give-and-Take

So, it is not God or the world, but the world in God. But we must love nature as it is: physical, needy, interdependent, vulnerable. This militates against an individualistic, spiritual relationship between God and the soul. It unites mystical spirituality – our personal relationship to God with the world – with the needy body that must have the basics for flourishing. It means as well that our use of energy be- comes crucially important, for nature and its many creatures can only live by energy. Hence, responsible use of mundane things like transportation, heating and cooling systems, concrete for buildings and roads, food production (whether local or brought from afar) becomes “the way we love God.” This kind of spirituality leads not only to delight and joy in the beauty of the world, but also to kenosis, limitation, self-restraint, an ecological economics, a sense of finitude, the need to share space as we come to realize who we are in the scheme of things.

Is the religious insight of the transformation from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness sim- ply wild, crazy, idealism? Or is it closer to reality? The evolutionary, interdependent story of life that we are presently learning from the sciences suggests it is. Nature is the grandest, most intricate, most complex “economy” of give and take, of debt and payback, or borrowing and lending, and of sacrifice (albeit unwilling sacrifice). Everything, from a one-cell organism to a mosquito, from a whale to a human being, lives within a vast exchange system, whether they know it or not, whether they want to or not. We give and take constantly at every level of existence, in order to be at all. Every breath we take is borrowed, and our lives depend on being able to borrow more and more breaths every moment for the rest of our lives. Nature says this is the way the system works: we live off each other if we live at all.

A good example is an old-growth forest. I was first introduced to old-growth forests when I started coming to Vancouver from Nashville. I did not know anything like them existed. The forests back East do not have the complexity and bizarre qualities of old- growth ones. Old-growth forests are a mess – liter- ally a mess. On first view, such a forest strikes one as a tangle, a jumble, of stuff of all sorts: trees standing, lying down, or half-way down; caves, holes, and openings; ferns, mosses, and lichens; mushrooms, rocks, and epiphytes; springtails, crustaceans, and dragonflies; water dripping, running, standing; trees on top of other trees, trees with bushes growing out of them, trees with holes and knobs and twisted limbs like pretzels. An old-growth forest is seemingly chaotic, but it works, it sustains billions of different forms of life. Its haphazard quality is part of its genius: anything that can find a way to live there is accepted. Animals and plants live with, in- side of, on top of, beneath, partly inside and partly outside, one another. It is impossible often to tell what is what: where does this tree begin and this other one end?

Nurse Log Logistics

The best example of this marvelous messy muddle is the phenomenon of the “nurse log.” Nurse logs are lying-down trees – some would say dead trees – that having lived several hundred years as standing trees are now into a second career as homes for other trees. The body of the nurse log provides a warm, nutrient-rich birthplace for young saplings of all sorts to grow. It is not just seeds from the nurse tree that grow on it, but anything and everything. All are welcome! The nurse log can live another several hundred years as the giver of new life from its body. A new tree stretches its roots around the nurse log and still retains this odd position after the nurse log disappears. With the hole between its roots, it is a visible sign of the invisible tree that nurtured it. What is living and what is dead? Life and death are mixed up here.

The “way” of Jesus, the geography of the life he calls us to, is rather like an old-growth forest – marvelous, muddled, and messy. It works by symbiosis – living off one another. Nothing in an old-growth forest can go it alone; nothing could survive by itself; everything in the forest is interrelated and interdependent: all flora and fauna eat from, live from, the others.

The recognition that we own nothing, that we depend utterly on other life forms and natural processes, is the first step in our “rebirth” to a life of self-emptying love for others, a move from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness. Most religions say the self is found, is “reborn,” when it acknowledges by self-giving, by sharing space and food for others. Many call such sacrifice for others contrary to reality, but nature’s brutal exchange system in which everything is borrowed and payment exacted is a preparation for the further step of self-emptying.

What is distinctive about human beings is not that we can escape the economy of debt and pay-back, but that we have the option not only of recognizing that this is the way things work, but taking it one step further and giving when we see the balance sheet to be unfair to the weak. The prevailing debt and payback system is not merciful or fair or compassionate, but human beings have the possibility of making it more so, of sharing when they have too much, of sacrificing for others, of limiting their wants so the needs of others can be met.

We live or die together. Like the plants and animals in an old-growth forest, we are interrelated and interdependent. Along the way we find some nurse logs, those people and places of exceptional warmth and nutrients that give us the extra help we need. We also can become nurse logs to others. But like any forest, the threat exists that we can be clear-cut, made into a lifeless, sterile, straight superhighway. We, our world, can also become a desert where few can thrive. Or, we can welcome the good news that all of us, all human beings in our incredible and delightful diversity, as well as all other creatures and plants in their awesome differences, are invited to the feast table of planet earth.

We are not called to love God or the world. Rather, we are called to love God in the world, we love God by loving the world, we love God through and with the world. And, in defiance of all conventional commercial or “realistic” calculations of our era, this turns out to be a sacrificial love. 

Sallie McFague ’59 B.D., ’60 M.A., ’64 Ph.D. has been Distinguished Theologian in Residence at Vancouver School of Theology since 2000. She taught theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1970-2000, serving as dean of the school from 1975-80. She is the author of A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (Fortress, 2008), Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Fortress, 2000) and other books. She was honored with a Yale Divinity School Alumni/ae Award for Distinction in 1995. 


1  “Working Party Report on ‘Spirituality’” (Scottish Churches House, 1977), 3.

2  The New York Times, March 8, 2009.

3  As quoted in David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage Books, 1996), 271.

4 An Interpretation of Religion (Yale University Press, 1989), 300.

5 As quoted in Gary T. Gardner, Inspiring Progress: Religions’ Contribution to Sustainable Development (Worldwatch Institute, 2006). Gandhi’s six other deadly social sins are: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, and commerce without morality.

6 The Journal of John Woolman and A Plea for the Poor (Corinth Books, 1961), 46.

7 Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks, trans. Richard Rees (Oxford University Press, 1970), 286.