On the ceiling in the hallway of our apartment, there’s an image of God that makes sense to me. It has no face, no body, and is made entirely of clouds floating in a sky-blue expanse. Painted by my husband’s human hands before we ever met, the image covers the entire long-but-narrow space, framed by chunky ceiling molding on all four sides.
When I look up at it, I breathe deeper and my heart rate slows. I am reminded of how expansive the world is. I understand in an instant that even though my to-do list matters, I also need to see the “bigger picture.” My husband ensures me it is not a painting of divinity. But I protest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I feel the same way when I stand under the soaring 52-foot-high ceiling of the Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library. It too features stunning, cloud-filled paintings. Whenever I visit this massive, always-silent, book-filled room, I can’t help but remark there is something divine present in the seemingly secular sky.
In contrast, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel freaks me out. You know this one: the biblical Adam reclining nude on earth, his finger outstretched through the sky, almost touching the finger of God (who is represented as an elderly, white-bearded Caucasian man with gray hair and swirling robes). Eve just barely peeks out from behind God, her gaze cast back at Adam.
Standing once in the chapel, I remarked to my husband, “This painting ruined Christianity.”
Reclaiming Imago Dei
I suppose those of us who favor non-anthropomorphic versions of the holy and who eschew binary opposites like heaven and hell are rarely drawn to Rennaisance views of God. No, those images of a father who resides in the sky and speaks in a booming voice hold little meaning for we who interpret imago Dei (“image of God”) in the context of quantum physics and the everchanging multiverse.
[Read: “Spirituality and Pascal’s Wager.”]
Enter ecotheologian Jay B. McDaniel, who in his 2009 book, titled Earth, Sky, Gods and Mortals: Developing an Ecological Spirituality, advocates for the entire cosmic universe as the “body of God” rather than an interpretation of God as a flesh-and-bone being. From this perspective, McDaniels offers a stepping-off point to addressing the “widespread destruction of the natural world of which we are a part, and to the widespread abuse of individual animals in factory farms, scientific laboratories, and other areas of animal subjugation.”
In short: If “God” is the universe, then we need to treat every part of the universe better. To do so, McDaniel offers four different paths for ecological thinking: spirituality of the sky, spirituality of the earth, spirituality of mortals, and spirituality of the gods.
Reclaiming the Sky
McDaniel bases sky spirituality on the capacity for “imaginative ego-transcendence.” Developing this skill starts by passing through three different perspectives, which he refers to as three horizons.
Horizon 1: The Past
In this practice, we imagine the lives of people who lived before us. McDaniel suggests trying “to see things as our great-grandmother saw them, hear things as Jesus heard them, feel things as an early hominid felt them.” Though we can never truly succeed, when we contextualize others, we can drop our postmodern arrogance.
Try it: Imagine seeing the sky from the view of someone who has never seen a telescope or aerial photo, someone who doesn’t know about the existence of other planets or what an atmosphere is. As this being, how would you describe the sky? How might you experience lightning or rain? What might you think about birds? How would you understand the passing of day to night?
Horizon 2: The Present
When we place ourselves in another’s shoes in the present, we can decenter ourselves and our needs. While we cannot know precisely what someone thinks—and there is a danger of projecting—McDaniel observes that the mere switch of perspective reminds us that others have needs and interests of their own.
Try it: Notice when you form opinions about what others need or believe. Ask follow-up questions to determine if you are projecting your experience onto them or are accurately sensing what they need at the moment.
Horizon 3: The Future
McDaniels offers two paths for imaginative ego-transcendence
in the future, either to consider future generations or those currently alive who will be affected by the actions we take today.
Try it: Putting ourselves in the position of our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or beyond may help us prioritize the future over our daily wants. Think about your diet decisions, travel options, “resource” consumption, and other choices that affect the future. Read the Sixth Assessment Report recently released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
What might someone you love—at a future date—think about your current actions to ensure their future?
Going Beyond the Horizon
After we become familiar with viewing life through these horizons, McDaniel proposes we move upwards to imagine the world from “God’s perspective.” From this sky-based view, imagine seeing our world in its totality.
McDaniel states it is crucial “not simply to try, as best one can to behold the world as a totality of living beings inhabiting a small planet in a backwater galaxy. Rather, the key is to care for the world in its totality; that is, to behold the world with an inward sense of affection for its creatures, oneself included, and to desire the indivisible salvation—the wellbeing—of all those creatures.”
Try it: Head to earth.google.com. Take a few deep breaths to contemplate this view. Next, navigate the globe, viewing it in totality. Then, grab the small human icon in the lower right corner onto the globe to go directly to a street view. What might it be like to live here? Consider researching the area. What challenges do the beings there face? How might their lives be interconnected with yours? What actions might you take to help ensure their future?
For more sky-inspired practices, read "The Ultimate Qi Gong Exercise: Lifting the Sky."