Book review: Relational Reality

By Charlene Spretnak
Published by Green Horizon Books, $14

Charlene Spretnak’s new book opens with this sentence: "Our hypermodern societies currently possess only a kindergarten-level understanding of the deeply relational nature of reality.”

In her previous book The Resurgence of the Real, cultural historian and ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak shows how the modern outlook handed down from the Enlightenment is now losing ground to an emergent worldview, one rooted in what she calls “the real” — the realities of nature, our bodies, and our physical surroundings.

Many of the social and political crises of our time, she says — from post-Cold War nationalist movements to the breakdown of civic engagement and trust in institutions — are rooted in a profound and widespread questioning of the modern worldview, particularly its emphasis on economic expansion and technological progress. These crises often appear as sporadic, unrelated occurrences that need to be brought under order and control, she says, but they are actually part of a larger dynamic, one “that has the potential to effect a profound correction of the assumptions and conditions that have led to the crises of the modern era.”

In her new book Relational Reality, she builds on the previous work, looking at the interrelated nature of reality. Nature writer John Muir at the end of the 19th century observed that everything in the universe turns out to be “hitched to everything else.” Ecologists and Greens took this to heart, investigating the ways nature works and looking at how our societies and institutions might be transformed by aping her interrelated ways.

As scientists working in the fields of ecology and systems theory would later put it: Everything exists in a network, or system of relationships, rather than in isolation. Moreover, every entity is literally constituted by relationships, both internal and external.

“With the insights of the ecological worldview, The Real – the dynamic, relational nature of the physical world – has finally burst through the mechanistic assumptions that had shaped the modern worldview for centuries.”

As we try to grasp the interrelated nature of reality, she shows how the emergent relational approaches are already transforming the way we educate our children, attend to our health, green our communities, and rethink economic activity. New analyses of the crises of modernity and abundant new solutions are the result.

It’s good news she brings to us.

Her examples of new scientific discoveries of interrelatedness present solid evidence for the relational way that the physical world works, and she shows us how this truth is coming into focus in many different fields of human endeavor all at once. She calls the overall change in the collective understanding of humanity a Relational Shift.

The holy mystic Kabir said he laughed when he heard the fish in the ocean were thirsty. Spretnak helps us to see and put into language the very sea we swim in. The living world can greatly benefit when we take relationship insights seriously and begin to implement the creative solutions afforded by them.

She looks at four areas of living and culture that are being transformed by the new relational conciousness -- education and parenting, health and healthcare, economics, architecture. In education alone, the information is both disconcerting – when she presents a picture of what the disconnected view has wrought in our children and their upbringing, in their worldviews and lifestyles -- and it's breathtaking, when she examines some of the innovative ways the importance of interrelatedness and relationships are being brought back into the formation of children and young adults. School gardens are just one example.

She ends her book with a discussion of The Relational Calling. The earth community desperately needs more of us to learn how to perceive, to think, and to live in more relational ways.

We in the West, she points out, “hardly have the necessary vocabulary to shift our thoughts and utterances to a more deeply relational orientation. Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested we think of existence as matter of interbeing. We interare. They interare. Everyone interis. Our bodymind needs real connection with the embodied presence of other people and with nature.” Our children long for it.

“Indeed, communion with nature enables us to be our true, caring, generous, and expansive selves. It seems to free us of the psychological restrictions – self-absorption, disengagement, and diminished empathy – commonly imposed by modern, industrialized cultures, which are proudly devoted to progressing in opposition to nature.”

Charlene Spretnak is the author of several books on ecological and relational thought, on spirituality, feminism and religion. Her other books include The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics, States of Grace and Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-emergence in the Modern Church.