Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare

June 1, 2012 § 13 Comments

We are hard-wired to protect ourselves when we’re threatened. The environmental movement often invokes this reality in its appeals to care for the earth, claiming that, since we and the earth’s other creatures and processes are all interconnected, we protect ourselves when we protect the environment. This is especially true regarding climate change.

This sounds good and it is sound ecological science. But for most of us in the West, at least, this idea is what Friends used to call a ‘notion’—just an idea that has only very shallow roots in our actual experience. Even for those of us who have had profound spiritual experience of the natural world, these experiences tend to be isolated events that struggle to remain vivid in the face of modern life’s overwhelming alienation from a sense of relationship with the ecosystems we depend upon. And our communities—our meetings—only very rarely have had collective, land-based religious experience. Why? Some claim religion—Christianity, to be specific—is the reason.

In 1967, medieval technology historian Lynn White published a landmark article in Science magazine, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” (Science, 3-10-67; vol. 155, no. 3767). In it, he blamed Christianity for our ecological crisis. Many have found fault with aspects of his argument, but its central thrust has the ring of truth: by desacralizing creation, by denying the presence of spirit in nature and locating spirit elsewhere and elsewhen instead, Christianity has abstracted the human from the natural world and removed the spiritual impulse to care for the creatures and processes that are our ecological relations.

This stands in stark contrast to the indigenous peoples of the world, for whom religion is defined by place, by spiritual practices that build relationships between communities and their landbases. These practices deeply involve, not just the sustenance patterns, the creatures and processes that their local ecosystems require for sustainable preindustrial civilization, but also the social, political, psychic, and religious lives of the community and its individuals. For these communities, spirit not only dwells in the heart of the natural world but also communicates directly with the human, through visions and other shamanic practices employed not just by their medicine people but by everyone in the community. The faith of the animist worldview and the practice of shamanic religion and spirituality guided indigenous peoples in ‘lifestyles’ that remained remarkably ecologically sustainable for centuries before contact with ‘civilized’ peoples.

I would take this argument a few steps further. Christianity is both a ‘cosmic’ and a universal religion. It speaks of ‘earth’ and ‘creation’ rather than the local landbases and ecosystems of its communities. And it claims to be spiritually relevant and valuable (if not spiritually necessary) for all peoples in all times in all places. Religious practice is virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries, with very little change (at least within any one tradition). Most importantly, our religious practices have nothing to do with where we live. We have almost no religious culture of place.

Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ as the primary god of our religious attention and on his atonement for sin on the cross as God’s primary function has tended to devalue Jesus’ Father and the Father’s role as creator rather than judge. Furthermore, Christianity actually inverts the moral view of creation that prevails in animist and preindustrial and aboriginal spiritways: far from being sacred, creation is anti-sacred, even evil. Christianity views creation as the stage upon which the drama of sin, judgment and salvation plays, yes, but creation is not a morally inert ‘environment’; it actually shares in the sinfulness that lies at the heart of the drama. Nature is not just a stage upon which the salvation story plays; it is a character in that story. Sin came from a fruit, an animal, and a woman, after all.

Furthermore, from the cosmic battle between Yahweh and Baal in ancient Canaan through the conversion of the pagan peoples of Europe and the Western Hemisphere to the witch burnings in the Middle Ages to the war against ‘New Age Spirituality’ today, people who have felt drawn back to concrete spiritual relation to the land have often suffered violent persecution for answering that call.

Quakerism has spiritualized religion even further, doing away with all the religious practices that call to the senses: no music, no incense, no genuflections or sacred bodily movement, no art, no food. Most importantly, perhaps, we’ve done away with the two outward practices that could actually serve as channels back into relation with our landbases, baptism and the Eucharist. To be fair, these land-based sacraments don’t reconnect worshipping Christian communities to their landbases, anyway: how many parishes know where their baptismal water comes from or how it’s treated, let alone use rivers or lakes for baptism? How many know where the grapes for their wine are grown or whether the workers in those vineyards breathe and touch pesticides for a living, let alone make their own wine? But they could know and do these things if they chose. We Quakers can’t.

So how do Friends find their way back to the ‘earth’ if not to their local landbases? We have precedents: Fox and his days and years walking about England outdoors, his very localized visions and the way they opened the ‘virtues of the creatures’ to him; Woolman and his earthy compassion for the creatures around him. But naturally, inevitably, perhaps, we Quakers are drawn outside our tradition for meaningful ways to connect spiritually with our landbases.

The Quaker Pagans (Quagans) are trying. I haven’t followed this movement, so I don’t really know what they’re up to. But I was very close to some Wiccans for a while, some of them Friends, and the neo-pagans I’ve known have not found a way to get free of their European psycho-religious background. They are still attached to European gods and goddesses, for one thing. And what role would Demeter, for instance, have in a North American land-based spirituality? She’s the goddess of wheat, and we’ve used wheat as the standard bearer for European agro-imperialism on this continent: we have  ‘ethnically cleansed’ the indigenous grasses of North America, especially of the Great Plains, and almost wiped out the indigenous strains of maize, the primary grain of indigenous North America, and we’ve imported European grains instead. More catastrophically for the health of the continent, we have also imported European cattle culture, when the continent once teemed with its own indigenous ungulates. The European deities who embody the spiritual power of European sustenance patterns are no less ‘invasive species’ than the plants and animals these European patterns cultivate.

So also with the popular members of the culture-hero pantheons we’ve inherited from our Indo-European ancestors: the king-smith-warrior-herald (etc.) paradigm that has given us Zeus, Hephaestos, Thor, Hermes, etc. These gods reinforce the socio-political power dynamics of ancient monarchical Europe. Is that what we as Friends want to embrace?

Of course, most neo-pagans (and Quagans?) are women and they have gravitated toward the goddesses—Gaia, Persephone, Isis, Astarte, Innana, even Lilith—all Old World Powers who have nothing to do with New World ecosystems. And goddess-oriented neo-paganism tends, in my experience, to be a Jungian, depth-psychology spirituality: the goddesses are archetypes of female power through which women can rediscover sources of identity, meaning and power within themselves. This is a potentially powerful spiritual path, don’t get me wrong, especially in a social-political-religious milieu that suppresses female power, like ours does. But it has nothing directly to do with reconnecting to the spiritual presence of the land.

So where would Friends turn to resacralize the natural world in which we live, upon which we depend for everything, and which does have inherent spiritual presence? We know this latter claim to be true experientially. I’ve been part of many Quaker workshops and conferences on environmental concerns and these events almost always have opportunities to share personal stories that illustrate why we were attending. Everybody has stories of spiritual opening that took place in ‘nature.’ Many Friends have been profoundly affected by these experiences. Very often, they were childhood experiences.

So many of us have the experience. But our religion provides scant opportunity, either in its faith or in its practice, for exploring this experience, or for deepening and expanding it into a land-based spirituality or a religious culture of place. We have added earthcare to our testimonies. And many Friends have done a great deal to alter their lifestyles to make them more sustainable. But we still are far from a spirituality that would transform our landbases into sacred places that would demand that we protect them by direct spiritual communion.

We still tend to speak of earthcare rather than of care for the Sourlands (where I live in central New Jersey), or Lake Cayuga, or the White River in Richmond, Indiana. We still fly thousands of miles to attend continentally constituted committees of environmental concern rather than attending meetings of the local planning board or environmental commission. We still tend to name our macro-organizations after cities or politically defined geographical regions (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting, Indiana Yearly Meeting), rather than watersheds or bioregions. We still worship indoors using an inward-focused spirituality of silent waiting. We do nothing to open ourselves to the spiritual presence(s) waiting for us in the ecosystems in which we live.

Assuming we think this is desirable (and many of my readers may question this), I see three possible avenues forward. The first is the potential for leadership in our farming communities, especially those in the Conservative branch. They still have the intimate communion with the land that a religious culture of place requires and, because they are still essentially Christian, they will not veer off into ranterist paganism (though paganus means farmer and ‘heathen’ comes from heath—both meant country people originally).

Then there’s Christ himself. Jesus used his landbase in his own spirituality so intensely that it’s one of the most bizarre and telling indications of just how much our tradition has desacralized nature that we don’t think of him that way. He is always going off alone to “a deserted place” to pray, or taking his disciples with him, from the call of the twelve to the feeding of the multitudes to the last night in Gethsemane. I will talk more in a later post about what I call the spiritual ecology inherent in Jesus’ spirituality. Here let us just note that every major revelation associated with the Christ took place outdoors and many through natural agency. And this is true, not just for Jesus, but throughout our religious tradition, beginning with creation itself, the first revelation, through the Exodus and lawgiving to Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill and the conversion of the Seekers on Firbank Fell. The God of this tradition obviously prefers meeting God’s people outdoors, often on mountains, often in the ‘wilderness.’

Finally, there are our young people. They have environmental concerns in their spiritual DNA. Baby Boomers like me remember the birth of these concerns; we acquired them by choice. Our children have grown up with our secondary awareness built into their awareness as a primary reality. And they are just disaffected enough with our spirituality—with its abstractness and its apparent lack of meaningful transformational experience (as I discussed in my last post)—to be ready to seek something else. Maybe they can still hear the screams and pleading of the lands we inhabit and learn to spiritually reinhabit them.


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§ 13 Responses to Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare

  • “The entire Christian tradition has abandoned the first commandment and put Jesus as God before his Father. ”

    Ok, we’re speaking entirely different languages here. If one believes Jesus IS the messiah, the christos, the second person of the Holy Trinity, then he IS God and there’s no contradiction. But if we both do not agree to this basic premise, then nothing else can possibly follow. God bless you.

  • […] Massey’s strongly worded comment to my post on Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare rightly corrects a tendency I have to make just the kind of broad generalizations that flaw Lynn […]

  • Emily says:

    Many if not most meetings do have some music now.

    The visual arts have not been totally absent from Quaker tradition. Many Quakers were craftsmen, who spent their lives focusing on the visual. Edward Hicks in Peaceable Kingdom developed a whole series of visual sermons for fellow Friends. Arden, Delaware was a community developed by a Quaker sculptor and a Quaker architect as a garden city with the purpose of giving the arts a chance to develop in a green space, along the principles of Henry George.

    Many of us have grown up with a sense of spirit in nature, and continue to feel it a part of our religious practice. Francis Frith, William Pollard, and William Turner, in A Reasonable Faith, likened God to the wind in the Bible, which makes God ever present and filling every piece of nature. Many of us have also studied many different belief systems, and have our own favorite gods and goddesses, not necessarily Europeans. Quaker Inazo Nitobe compared the Quaker idea of the spark of the divine in every man to the Japanese belief of the divine in everything–and it can be interpreted that way, and is for many of us, that each object is a piece of the sacred–not so different from other animist beliefs.

    I do not agree that by being indoors we cut ourselves from what is outside. A traditional plain meeting house set in the midst of nature really does have a sense of nature within it. I recently sat in such a meeting in New Jersey and was filled with a sense of the presence of nature.

    The point that monotheistic religions don’t have specific relations of places to the sacred is well taken. But the Abrahamic religions don’t desacralize creation itself–creation was indeed a sacred act. Our meeting recently discussed Genesis 1, which I found on rereading to be a very moving creation myth–not so different in many respects from others. I don’t know how this creation myth could be interpreted as setting a stage for sin. The garden of Eden is only one way to interpret the beginning of evil, but it had nothing to do with creation.

    The basis of the Christian faith is not simply that Christ died to atone for our sins. That’s only one way of interpreting Christ’s death, and not all Christians have accepted that as central to their faith. The explanation of Christianity on the BBC website doesn’t even list it as a central tenet of Christianity. God sent Jesus to save us, and Jesus died for us, but that doesn’t mean he died to atone for our sins. That’s been a point of dispute between evangelical and other Quakers for over 200 years now, but I would wager that the majority of non-evangelical Quakers, and many, many Christians, think of Jesus as a role model, not as someone who simply sacrificed his life for us.

    There is not one European psycho-social tradition. If there were, Europe would not have spent several thousands of year at war.

  • Julie says:

    “Not the weird necromantic practice of eating a sacrificed god-man’s flesh and blood, a pagan practice that would, I think, have horrified Jesus.”

    Wow. Are you dismissing all Catholics and Orthodox as non-Christians? I’m a Catholic and I certainly would never go that far with non-Catholic Christians. The Catholic/Orthodox position (by far, the oldest Christian position on the eucharist), is not without biblical basis:

    “Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” St. John 6: 53-56 (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%206:53-56&version=NIV) See also St. Matthew 26:26, Luke 22:19, etc.

    God bless you!

    • Well, of course, both John and Paul do seem to believe in a literal eating of Christ’s flesh and drinking of his blood. I personally do not consider Paul a legitimate follower of Jesus, for a lot of reasons, and I don’t trust John either. John’s theology is so rich and complex that this comment is not a good place to get into a faithful discussion of it, but it diverges so dramatically from the teachings in the synoptic gospels that I just don’t trust it as true to Jesus’ ministry (though maybe it is the “truth”——that’s a tricker proposition).

      As for Matthew and Luke, I am intrigued by Bruce Chilton’s argument that Jesus is saying: the (illegitimate) temple and its priests have their covenant blood (involving sacrifices) and bread (the daily shewbread put on the altar each day)——and I have mine: this communal meal, a new covenant that replaces that old one. I admit that Luke does seem to be leaning toward Paul and John’s reading of the blood as some kind of mystical stand in for Jesus’ real sacrificial blood, but Luke, if he is not a convert of Paul, is at least extremely synpathetic to Paul’s mission and theology.

      I think it all comes down to whether you think Jesus completely jetissoned the law the way Paul did, because the prohibition against eating sacrificial blood is just about as primal as the law gets in Jesus’ tradition (see Leviticus 17:10ff). This is even visible in the terms negotiated in Acts 15 for Paul’s Gentile converts: the Council of Jerusalem only holds them (us) to a handful of strictures, which had already been clearly codified for Gentile converts to Judaism, the socalled Noachic covenant (Genesis 9:4), and one of these strictures is——they (we) can’t eat blood (Acts 15:28-29, where sacrificial blood is, by my reading, at least, implied). It’s just unthinkable to me that Jesus would want his followers to be drinking his blood the way some of the pagan mystery religions drank the blood of their gods’ sacrificial surrogates, in violation of such a deep-rooted moral repulsion in his tradition.

      I don’t mean to demean the Roman tradition or other Christian traditions that do believe in the literal body and blood of Christ. That’s how I was raised as a Lutheran. But I just think they have abandoned Jesus for Paul on this one (among many other points of theology). And there’s no denying that it is literally necromantic——practicing the Eucharist as a literal eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood to confer forgiveness of sins is practicing religious death magic. My Webster’s 10th Collegiate defines necromancy as “conjuration of the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events.” Here the spirit is the resurrected Christ and the event is the outcome of one’s judgement before God.

      • Julie says:

        Well, I don’t see how Catholics and others could have abandoned Jesus for Paul if Jesus himself made the statements. Of course, if you pick and choose what you would like to believe and what scriptures are acceptable or “legitimate,” that’s another story. If you throw out both the gospel of St. John and the epistles of St. Paul, then you can choose to believe whatever you want. However, that is extraordinarily heterodox practice for a Christian. (Of course, throwing out the gospel of St. John simply makes no sense for a Quaker! It is foundational for Quakers theologically and historically, but I digress.)

        Does one just decide for oneself what is worthy scripture and what is not? Is the ultimate authority each individual? And if so, how in the world can any Christians find common ground? If that was possible, there would not be the proliferation of denominations that exists today.

        I don’t want to be argumentative, and I realize no one gains converts through theological discourse, but I do find your dismissal of the Catholic position, accusing us of “magic” and idolatry, extremely disrespectful, not to mention a complete misunderstanding of Christ and the Church’s teachings. It’s a shame that some people feel the need to say such things.

      • I think one has no choice but to choose one’s self what is legitimate and not when it comes to scripture. First of all, who else are you going to have choosse for you? Becauase there is no getting around making choices.

        Just picking up a New Revised Standard Version instead of the New International is to make a decision. Deciding that the New Testament is more legitimate than the Old is a choice. Deciding that you like the Servant Songs in Isaiah because you believe they prophecy the coming of Christ and that you don’t like some of the weird and archaic laws in Leviticus is a choice. Catholics have decided to abandon Matthew 23:9, which forbids calling church officials Father; Quakers have abandoned the command to “do this in remembrance of me”. Almost all Christians but the Church of the Breathren have chosen not to wash feet, even though Jesus commanded it.

        The entire Christian tradition has abandoned the first commandment and put Jesus as God before his Father. The whole church has chosen not to define the role of the Christ as ministry to the poor, even though Jesus himself declared it in Luke four; instead, they understand the role of the Christ as the savior from our sins, resting on Paul and the Jesus of John. But now we (mostly) reject John’s virulent anti-Semitism and his explicit curse of the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion.

        It seems to me that there simply is no way to avoide making personal choices and the best one can do is try to be faithful to the truth as one sees it. I know that my own views are heterodox in the extreme. But I have tried in my study to seek the truth. In this quest, I have on principle given greater weight to the words of Jesus than to those of his followers, Paul and the evangelists, even though his words are filtered through his followers. I believe his followers were doing their best to understand him, just like I am, but they have their limitations, just like I do. I find a more or less coherent and compelling profile of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels that is inconsistent in many ways with the picture we get from John. John is so much later and so ‘theological’ in his presentation of Jesus that it just feels to me like we’re reading John, not Jesus, a lot of the time.n Those extended, poetic sermons of Jesus in John, for instance, are so at odds with the concise and pointed sayings of Q and the parables, so different in tone and message, that they just don’t ring true for me a lot of the time, though they are beautiful and inspiring, sometimes. For instance, did Jesus have a theology of the Logos like the one we see in the first chapter of John? Maybe. If Mary and Joseph did go to Egypt and if they stayed with the Therapeutae in Alexandria, as I suspect, then maybe they did absorb some of the Book of Wisdom that was probably circulating there. But there’s no sine of it in the Synoptics.

        Anyway, I’m sorry, Julie, if I have offended you. I don’t intend to of course. I’m just trying to share my understanding and engender a conversation.

  • I hardly know where to start in responding to this misinformation.

    Lynn White’s central thesis does not have the ring of truth for anyone who has actually studied Christian history. Christianity in general never “desacralized” nature, although some misguided splinters of it did so.

    From ancient Christians such as the Desert Fathers, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and the Celtic saints, through mediæval figures like Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Angela da Foligno and Julian of Norwich —

    — through late mediæval and Renaissance figures like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Heinrich Suso, Jakob Böhme and Thomas Tryon —

    — through moderns like Humphrey Primatt, Christina Rossetti, Födor Dostoevski, Albert Schweitzer, Eberhard Arnold, Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Lossky and Joseph Sittler —

    — and down to Christians of the present like Jürgen Moltmann, Wendell Berry, Thomas Berry, Vincent Rossi, Richard Cartwright Austin, Andrew Linzey, Tom Regan, Shantilal Bhagat, Langdon Gilkey, James Nash, and Ignatius IV of Antioch —

    — and in our own Quaker tradition beginning with George Fox and continuing through John Woolman down to Christian Quaker environmentalists of the present day like myself —

    — articulately religious members of the Christian community have articulated, demonstrated and celebrated the presence of God in the Creation, the blessedness and sanctity of the creatures, the integral unity of humans and nature, and the perils and eventual accursedness of those who violate the natural order that God established. Creation is not anti-sacred in the Christian perspective at all.

    Christianity does speak of local landbases and ecosystems, too — beginning with Eden and the Promised Land, and broadening as it has spread. Perhaps you need to read Walter Brueggeman on that matter, or Liberty Hyde Bailey? Christians in England sing of the holly and the ivy, and write books celebrating their local natural world like The Wind in the Willows, while Christians in Ceylon talk about preserving the lifeblood of their rice paddy soil.

    Religious practice is not “virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries” but, rather, remarkably diverse, with Christians in Ethiopia, in Kerala, in Szechuan, and in Yucatan (just to name a few examples), having evolved very different practices from those of, say, Puritan New England and Quaker Pennsylvania.

    Lynn White’s thesis continues to be honored among those who begin with anti-Christian prejudices and don’t care to have those prejudices challenged, but it has no honor among those who approach the subject with an open mind and investigate the facts.

    • Thank you, Marshall. I’m not sure what possessed me to write like that.I really wnet off the rails. And not for the first time recently. I think I may be losing my way with this blog. Might be time for a break. Or at least, more careful attention to what I’m saying.

      What am I trying to say here? And what am I reacting against? When I’ve thought this ought more carefully, I’ll return with a more thoughtful reply.

    • George Owen says:

      Marshall Massey may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I think it is possible to make all the corrections Massey suggests and still have a cogent argument along the lines that Steven Davison has set forth. A wonderful example of just such a “both-and” approach is Anthony Duncan’s wonderful little book “Celtic Christianity.” He uses the rich diversity and long history (both pro and con the “landbase” approach) to articulate a form of Christianity that is one with the Earth. There are many things wrong with Duncan’s book, but the core thread about a Christianity that embraces the whole of life as sacred is very compelling.

      • George Owen says:

        My wife, Eleanor Harris, suggests that I un-recommend Duncan’s book because it is so badly written and hopelessly bogged down in obscure historical detail. Instead she suggests “Life Abundant” by Sally McFague, who spoke at the Gathering in Tacoma.
        But book references aside, the underlying issue that Davison is raising is real and urgent, both for awakening our meetings into a more authentic spirituality and for transforming our awareness of our inseparability from all of God’s Creation.

  • I agree, Tom, that our pot lucks offer great opportunities to deepen our relationship with our landbases. I even think that the way we practice pot lucks is a lot closer to what Jesus had in mind at the Last Supper and how the first Chrsitians celebrated the common meal—(as it says in Acts) for sharing food and fellowship, for teaching and learning, and for distributing aid to the poor. Not the weird necromantic practice of eating a sacrificed god-man’s flesh and blood, a pagan practice that would, I think, have horrified Jesus.

    So you’re right. Thanks for the correction. I was too focused on formal faith and practice and not thinking of the conventional practices that don’t necessarily make it into our books of discipline.



  • Tom Smith says:

    I agree with much of what is said here and would very much like to see an understanding of ecology and our relationship to the environment — local, global, and universal.
    However, the one comment about not having “communion” further removes us from our relationship to the “grapes” and “bread” seems rather short sighted. In the “pot lucks” or “refreshments” following Meeting, there seems to me to be a much greater chance to share where a variety of foods and drink come from and ow that is related to our relationship with nature. It seems that it is in choosing to look at these issues rather than the “form” that we can approach a “spirituality of nature.”

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