We need a new religion: to reconnect with nature
The Fall can be dated exactly. It occurred in 1637, the year in which the philosopher René Descartes (1599–1650) published his Discours de la Methode („Treatise on Method”). In the sixth section of this work, Descartes found the formula for a new self-image that would redefine human dignity and nobility: As maître et possesseur de la nature („Lord and Master of Nature”) man was allowed to consider himself, yes, man should consider himself, since he was by his intellect or mind far superior to the kingdom of nature. All phenomena of nature shared in his eyes the stigma of uncertainty and unreliability, whereas the self-conscious mind alone was suitable as the unshakable fundamentum inconcussum of humanity. Rationality and intellect now became the master tool of the human subject – while the world out there, nature, was perceived only as a mere object, indeed as a resource of human exploitation.
Longing for control
Surely it would be too much of an honour – or even a disgrace – to appoint Monsieur Descartes alone as the author of the new mindset that began to take hold in Europe in the 17th century. He too was the child of a time marked by the catastrophe of the Thirty Years’ War, a time which, more than other eras, called for certainty, stability and security. This collective longing to regain control over life may well have been powerful in Descartes as well. And so his merit lies above all in the fact that he formulated it and thereby gave Europe’s history a decisive turn: towards the mindset of Homo Faber, the man of power, who was now preparing to take over the planet using science and technology. Not without success, as we all know. The triumph of technology and the multitude of advances it has achieved are unprecedented – as is the destruction of nature, native peoples and biodiversity.
In fact, there can be no doubt that the Western man of modern times has alienated and distanced from nature at breakneck speed. And not only him, because as a result of the economic colonization of the entire globe, the West has implemented the matrix of its thinking, science and economy far removed from nature in the minds of people all over the world. If you are looking for a reason why in the 21st century we find it so difficult to meet the challenges of climate change, the poisoning of the oceans and the mass extinction of entire species, you will find it here: The fish stinks from the head; the matrix of our thinking is malfunctioning; our brain is working with a defective operating system. Its name is, in a word coined by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, Ge-Stell.
The deformation of the world to a resource.
This sounds strange, but on closer inspection it is very enlightening. What Heidegger wanted to express by the term Ge-Stell is the fact that contemporary man has sought to confront (= stellen) the world in which he lives – just as a commissioner confronts (= stellt) a criminal. Modern science is there to determine facts (= feststellen); our technology is there to produce (herstellen) goods that are exhibited (= ausstellen) on the market, posted (= einstellen) on the Internet, ordered by customers, delivered by the post office and set up at home. In all of this, nature is converted into a stock (= Bestand) – a resource – which is stocked (= bestellt) and utilized by our machine-designed economy to achieve the supremacy and power sought since the days of Descartes. The strategists at Google, Amazon and Co. desire it to become perfect by converting nature completely into a processable data stock (= Bestand) and thus making it obsolete. If the matrix of the Ge-Stell becomes absolute in the digital age, this may well be the end of nature. And possibly also for us.
This concern was already known to others, not just yesterday, but more than 200 years ago. This sounds surprising at first sight, if you think that the world was still well before the industrial revolution and that people still had very little reason to lament the loss of nature. True, but it wasn’t the loss of nature that natural philosophers and romantic poets complained about around 1800, but rather the disturbed relationship between man and nature, which at that time was suspected to be harmful to man – even if one could not yet imagine the damage that nature itself would suffer one day.
One of those who stood out in this respect was the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, whose 250th birthday is being celebrated this year. He had an extremely sensitive feeling for the disastrous effects of modern man’s alienation from nature, which was only just beginning to reveal its basic features. And he never tired of lamenting the loss of aliveness, freedom and humanity that threatened to go hand in hand with the Cartesian program of domination and supremacy over nature. In his novel Hyperion of 1796 he wrote: „I tell you: there is nothing sacred that is not desecrated, not degraded to a poor remedy in this people, and what is mostly preserved divinely pure even among savages, that is what these all-calculating barbarians do, how one does such a craft, and cannot do otherwise, for where once a human being is drilled, there it serves its purpose, there it seeks its use.” Utilization, functional rationality, calculability – it is these fetishes of today’s digital homo economicus that the poet pillories. For it is they who have deformed what ” is mostly preserved divinely pure even among savages, ” – nature – into a mere stock of material or data.
„You tear where it tolerates you“
Thus it is the people of modernity, permeated by the matrix of the Ge-Stell and their instrumental reason, whom Hölderlin confronts: „You worry and think about escaping fate and do not understand if your children’s artwork does not help; meanwhile, the stars above are wandering harmlessly. You disgrace, you tear apart where it tolerates you, patient nature, but it lives on, in infinite youth. O divine she must be, because you are allowed to destroy, and yet she does not age and beauty remains beautiful in spite of you”. And further: „Or is not divine that which you exalt and call soulless? Is better, for your babbling, not the air that you drink? the sun’s rays, are they not nobler, for all you who are wise? the springs of the earth and the morning dew refresh your grove; can you do that too?”
The „patient” nature deserves the predicate „divine” because it is more all-embracing and greater than anything man has ever conceived – including the most advanced artificial intelligences. And the only appropriate way to encounter it is through devotion, reverence, shyness and love: qualities that we modern men too often smile at – and therefore deprive us of the best that nature’s life (there is no other! ) offers us: its constant appeal and approval, which can strengthen and empower us humans – yes, which grants the fulfilment for which we all yearn so much and for which we generally do not expect through turning towards nature, but through consumption and commerce, or even through spiritualisation and spiritual withdrawal from the world. From this, however, we will never achieve the fulfilment that is bestowed upon us by an open heart in relationship with nature.
The beloved in front of the beloved
Hölderlin also proclaims this in his Hyperion: „But you are still shining, sun of heaven! You are still green, holy earth! The streams still rush into the sea, and shady trees whisper at noon. The joyful song of spring chants my mortal thoughts to sleep. The fullness of the living world nourishes and satiates my starving being with drunkenness. Oh blessed nature! I do not know what will befall me when I lift my eyes before thy beauty, but all the pleasures of heaven are in the tears I weep in front of thee, the beloved one in front of the beloved.” These words speak of a clear understanding that nothing so fulfills us human beings as when we meet with nature or the ” all alive world”, as Hölderlin calls it. He knows: „To be one with everything alive, to return in blissful self-forgetfulness to the universe of nature, that is the peak of all thoughts and joys.” And he describes the bliss of this return to nature in profoundly moving words: „My whole being falls silent and listens when the gentle wave of air plays lovingly around my chest. Lost in the wide blue, I often look up to the ether and into the holy sea, and I feel as if a kindred spirit is opening its arms to me, as if the pain of solitude was dissolving into the life of the divine.
One could dismiss this as kind of pathetic exuberance by an eccentric poet – but this would only show how advanced the denaturation of one’s own feelings has already become. For in truth, these words speak of a crystal-clear awareness of what is needed in our denatured world alone: a new reconnection to nature – a new religio (from Latin: religare – to reconnect), which leads us humans to abandon all fantasies of omnipotence and dominance over nature, including, or precisely, the digital Homo Deus fantasies (Juval Noah Harari) from the spinning rooms of Silicon Valley IT giants. It is not escape into virtual or sterile merely spirtual worlds that will help humanity advance, but a radical, even disruptive departure from the machine matrix of Ge-Stell. Replacing it by a matrix of natural aliveness is the only way out of this dead-end street created by digital homo economicus. And it is likewise the path to what really matters and what is really important for the life of humans: the path to love and the path to the very meaning of life, which consists solely in gratefully and humbly accepting and affirming the life nature has given us; and by using words borrowed from Hölderlin’s novel Hyperion to say: „To be, to live, that is enough“.