International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Religion and the Order of Nature

by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

This book comprises the 1994 Cadbury Lectures, given at the University of Birmingham, by the distinguished Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The theme is the current global ecological and environmental crisis and the extent to which these disasters have been brought on by modern science. Nasr argues that a solution requires turning to a more spiritual stance and sketches ways in which this might be achieved. What distinguishes this work and makes it of major significance is the extent to which the writer is knowledgeable about different religious traditions. The richness of the discussion makes this work truly outstanding.

Working historically, Nasr discusses the diverse thinking about the order of nature in major religions, particularly including the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). These latter share a commitment to the centrality of God, a divine and purely good being, who created the world from nothing as an act of free will. Essentially, therefore, the world is seen as good and in the care of God. Nasr does point out, however, how crucial to Christianity is the notion of the Fall and how (following Augustine) the world is seen as disordered. This has been taken by many as presenting a barrier between God and His creation – the physical world becoming something distant from God. 

From the perspective of a religion like Islam, there can be no understanding without bringing in the concept of God – hence science is always going to be a matter of a “balance” between secular and spiritual understanding (especially in such areas as the medical and social sciences, but elsewhere also). But, tragically, following on the Scientific Revolution (the great moves from Copernicus to Newton in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), there came to Christianity an alienation from the divine.  Descartes is paradigmatic in his movement of nature from a “thou” to an “it” – from life with its ends and values to pure material quantity.

This leads to Hegel, Marx, and Darwin, where man is god, life is meaningless, and we are but accidents of history. We are set straight on the road to the personal and environmental disaster of today. There were and are those in the twentieth century who reacted against this horror. Nasr speaks warmly of the Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr who argued for the significance of “loyalty to the community of life.” Process theologians (in the tradition of Whitehead) also stood against the flood. And today we find many across the religious spectrum who recognize the godlessness of the environmental crisis (and the general existential crisis) of the present.

Offering his own prescriptions, Nasr stresses the importance of the body, not just as a physical object but as something sacred, reflecting the creative power and wisdom and loving care of God. It must be recognized that, in an important way, the body is a reflection of the cosmos. It will come as no surprise therefore to find that Nasr speaks sympathetically of the Gaia hypothesis, seeing the world as a living being. We must move beyond a material understanding of the body, however, and recognize everything as a product and reflection of the sacred. It is only thus that we can begin the work of personal regeneration and reclaiming the universe.