Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare – Part Two

June 8, 2012 § 7 Comments

A response to Marshall Masssey’s comment

Marshall 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 White’s article and a similarly White-like tendency to indulge in extreme rhetoric. So I have been struggling to clarify for myself and now for my readers what I am getting at, since I still feel I have something to say along these lines. And my response has become so long that I’ve decided to make it its own post.

I had claimed, along with Lynn White, the author of “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” which blames Christianity for our ecological woes, that traditional Christian faith and practice have stripped ‘nature’ of the sacred status it enjoys in indigenous spiritways; that this desacralization allows Christian cultures to treat their landbases as spiritually inert ‘resources’ over which they can exercise dominion (modified in theory by earth stewardship); and that religiously motivated earthcare requires that we go a step further: that we spiritually reinhabit our landbases, recognizing them once again as ‘sacred’ through a religious culture of place and incorporating them into our spiritual practice, in just the kinds of ways that traditional Christian culture resists; and finally, that Quakerism itself has no clear pathway to such a religious culture of place, either. Marshall disagreed.

The first problem is that I think Marshall and I are talking about two different ‘Christianities.’ Marshall may be right about the “articulately religious members of the Christian community” in his impressively long list of Christians who have celebrated the presence of God in creation and so on. I’ve not read even a small portion of these people’s works and haven’t even heard of quite a few of them. But I don’t think they represent “Christianity in general,” as Marshall puts it. I study this stuff somewhat and if I have not heard of Heinrich Suso or Andrew Linzey, the chances that the worshippers in the pews of Hopewell Second Baptist Church in my town have internalized their insights is not very good.

It’s not writers and theologians that mine uranium in the Black Hills, sacred to the Lakota, or who burned Europe’s sacred oak groves and its female herbal healers in the Middle Ages. It was/is ecclesiastical authorities who do these things, or religiously motivated mobs, or institutions that have no understanding of or respect for sacred place and whose leaders have no religious impulse to think of place as sacred. A clear example of this appeared in the May 27 issue of the New York Times Magazine, in an article about the Wisconsin governor recall titled “Land of Cheese and Rancor,” by Dan Kaufman. At the end of the article, on page 47, Kaufman is talking about the mining company Gogebic Taconite’s (GTac) attempt to open a large open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills near the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, whose chairman is Mike Wiggins Jr. The mining bill was narrowly defeated, with one Republican Senator voting against it, Dale Schultz. Here’s part of the next to last paragraph of the article:

Schultz was sympathetic to Wiggins and the Bad River Chippewa. “For them, this place is like Bethlehem is for our Christians,” he said. “So they’re obviously going to fiercely defend their territory. If you read some of the comments from Assembly members, they’re saying, ‘We don’t have to listen to them.’ So there is an unbelievable amount of anger and fear that’s built up in the tribal community. When Mike first came to see me, I said: ‘I’m for mining, and I know that you’re never going to be for mining, and I understand that. But I want you to know I appreciate the fact that you’re here.’”

This is a very current example of what I call spiritual ecology in action and of our culture’s disrespect for religious culture of place. One of the sources for this disrespect is our Christian prejudices against peoples who practice a landbased spirituality—or at least, the fact that our own religious culture does nothing to prompt that mining company or that state Assembly to see that land as sacred.

Moreover, theologians that do get too close to true reverence for creation, like Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry, and Teilhard de Chardin, all too often face institutional censure. This is the Christianity that I claim has desacralized nature, not the exploratory thinkers and the reforming voices, but its Powers—the elements of the tradition that actually exercise power in the world. This reaches from the very top of church hierarchies down to the personal and micro-level. For instance, in my personal case, my pastors and conventionally religious parents taught me as a kid that there were no mosquitos or poison ivy in the world until the Fall—that nature itself is anti-sacred; it participates in sin along with us.

Second, these voices that speak for the sacredness of creation have utterly failed to reform their tradition. The people in the pews have hardly ever heard their ideas from the pulpit. The seminaries don’t even send their students into the wilderness for testing and communion with the voice of God as part of their spiritual formation, notwithstanding the stellar example of their own God. The synods, dioceses, and other denominational organizations have done a little to witness against creation’s destruction, but you wouldn’t know it unless you looked pretty hard.

As for Christian communities “speaking of local landbases and ecosystems,” I want them to do more than just “speak.” No Christian community, as far as I am aware, has designated a place as sacred and put institutional and ecclesiastical weight behind its protection, the way that the Bad River Band fought to protect its landbase, or the Lakota have fought to protect the Black Hills. As for Marshall’s examples, Eden is not a local landbase and the Promised Land, as a theological idea, is arguably the very religious/rhetorical foundation of American Manifest Destiny and the ethnic cleansing it engendered, beginning with the Puritans and their City on a Hill and continuing at least until Oklahoma was stolen from the First Nations and made a state in 1907 because oil had been discovered there. “This land is your land . . .”

The actual land of Israel—now that’s another matter. Jesus did in fact have a deep spiritual bond with his landbase and actively used its landscape in his own spiritual practice, a topic to which I will return in later posts. I have actually read Brueggemann’s The Land (though not the revised edition) and it’s a good book. But again, it’s great theology that hasn’t had any visible impact on “Christianity in general.” And anyway, Israel is not the landbase of any Christian community in North America. If “Christianity in general” is not hostile to the faith and practice of sacred place, then it is at least almost totally missing in action.

When I say that Christian practice is “virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries,” I mean that congregations generally worship indoors in services that focus on the written and spoken word, rehearsing themes that come mostly from interpretation of the Bible, and the central theme is salvation from sin through Christ’s atonement. Ecocide is sometimes added to the list of sins for which we will be judged, but when does that judgment take place? When we die or at the End Times, whichever comes first. The Christian tradition holds us accountable for our ecological behavior—when it does so at all—after we’re dead, or after the whole world is dead. This is not a foundation for meaningful earthcare in real time in the real places in which we live.

I still feel that meaningful earthcare requires a religious culture of place in which specific local religious communities treat real places as sacred, that is, as places that deserve their deepest religioius commitment, along the lines demonstrated by the Bad River Chippewa. The heart of such a religious culture of place, at least among the Iroquois, the First Nations with whom I have direct personal experience, is thanksgiving. Every traditional Iroquois gathering I ever attended, and even events not directly hosted by the traditional community, began with a thanksgiving prayer. I have known that prayer to take 45 minutes, enumerating an incredibly comprehensive list of gifts from the Creator and always including virtually every kind of creature. Except for short mealtime prayers, this kind of thanksgiving is rare in Christian practice. It might get a mention in one of the spoken prayers on a Sunday, but giving thanks for creation is not an integral part of Christian gospel. Giving thanks for the Atonement is; but that’s not what I’m talking about.

This kind of deep religious commitment and reverence would require the community to know its landbase intimately, the way Jesus knew his. You can’t love something until you know it. And its ecological health and integrity would have to be integral to your community’s physical health and spiritual integrity. Since most of us do not rely on locally grown food, the primary connections left between our religious community’s health and integrity and our landbases are our water supply and, of course, our air.

At the very least then, speaking in practical terms, Christian communities should treat their watersheds and their aquifers as sacred. That’s exactly what the Bad River Chippewa were doing. (In my next post on this topic, I want to look at the Black Hills and the Lakota as a case study of how this could work.) Churches that practice water baptism have a natural avenue into such a practice. Friends don’t practice water baptism, so for us, as I said in my original post, the inward and abstracted character of our religion poses an obstacle to this kind of earthcare.

Furthermore, just as we don’t single out “days and occasions” for special religious attention (though, of course, we do now, mostly, at least with Christmas), so we’re not inclined to single out places for special religious attention. There is no obvious avenue built into our traditional faith and practice for spiritually reinhabiting our landbases in the way I am proposing. The best we can do so far is add earthcare to our list of testimonies, which is our version of adding ecocide to the list of sins for which we’ll be held accountable somehow when we die and stand before the Judge. I don’t believe that testimonies and minutes—theology and words—are enough. Not so far anyway, based on empirical evidence.


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§ 7 Responses to Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare – Part Two

  • Ellie says:

    I see this post was written some time ago so i’m not even sure if you’ll see this comment. I found this post after doing a goggle search. I hope you won’t mind me adding my thoughts here.
    This post spoke directly to my heart and I have to say that I completely ‘get’ what you are saying. My own views are somewhat different in that I see ‘that of God’ not only in human persons but in the animals too, in the Earth itself. I especially like the term ‘no unsacred place’. I am something of a Pantheist and have to see all places as holy as having ‘that of God’ within them.
    Just another viewpoint to add to this thought provoking post.

  • I am grateful for the presence of other responders besides myself. To a considerable extent, George and Flo speak my mind. I believe they are quite right that the ecological thrust of Christianity lies not in making places sacred, but in hearing the One who is in truth sacred, and who calls us to do what is righteous. As Fox put it in his message To All Sorts of People in Christendom (emphases mine):

    “What wages doth the Lord desire of you for his earth that he giveth to you … to all the sons of men, and all creatures, but that you give him the praises and honour, and the thanks, and the glory; and not that you should spend the creatures upon your lusts, but to do good with them; you that have much, to them that have little; and so to honour God with your substance; for … nothing you shall take out of the world, but leave all creatures behind you as you found them, which God hath given to serve all nations and generations; and so that you have food and raiment, therewith be content….”

    Religions are shaped and defined by their greatest, not their worst, for it is to their greatest that we turn when we wish to learn their Way. When we wish to describe Buddhism. we look to the Dalai Lama, not Shoko Asahara; and similarly, when we seek to learn Christianity we take Peter and Paul as exemplars, not Judas; Augustine and Francis of Assisi, not Savonarola; Martin Luther, not Jan Matthijs.

    I see you define Native American religion in terms of Lakota and Iroquoian teachings of reverence for land and creatures, rather than in terms of the thousands of Native American hunters (Iroquois most certainly included) who helped wipe out the North American beaver and the bison during the fur craze of the 19th century. (On the latter, see Calvin Martin Keepers of the Game. Indian-Animal Relationships and the Fur Trade [Univ. of Calif. Press, 1978].) There you are following this same principle of defining the tradition by its greatest, by the people and practices we would naturally look to as teachers.

    But your argument that Christianity is defined, not by the long list of celebrated exponents of the ecological side of Christianity I named for you, but by anonymous lazy pew-sitters, quite obviously departs from that principle. You choose to define Christianity, unlike Native American religion and European paganism, by the worst and weakest of those who lay claim to it. That is a double standard.

    You are quite right that it is not writers and theologians that mine uranium in the Black Hills. But why do you say that it is instead “ecclesiastical authorities who do these things, or religiously motivated mobs”? Can you name even one ecclesiastical authority or religiously motivated mob that is involved? I doubt that the corporate executives who decided to do that mining, and bought the necessary permits (and the necessary politicians), are even particularly religious. I would guess that most of them never set foot in a church unless dragged there for a wedding or funeral. And yet you lay their deeds at Christianity’s feet, rather than at Mammon’s.

    Is that how a fair trial should proceed?

    “Moreover,” you write, “theologians that do get too close to true reverence for creation, like Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry, and Teilhard de Chardin, all too often face institutional censure.” That is of course because “reverence for creation” is not what Christianity encourages. But the ancient Hebrews preserved the fertility of their fragile soils for a good twelve centuries longer than their neighbors and contemporaries, the pagan Greeks and Hittites (from ca. 1100 B.C. to 70 A.D.), even though the Hebrews did not revere the creation while the pagan Greeks and Hittites did. The Hebrew emphasis on doing the right thing because God requires it — an emphasis which we Christians inherit, through Christ, from the Hebrews — was sufficient.

    It was out of his own sense that the will of the Creator is sacred, rather than any sense that places are sacred, that Fox warned his readers in The Vials of the Wrath of God poured forth upon the Man of Sin… (emphasis, once again, mine):

    “…You that mind earthly things, your end is destruction, whose God is your belly, who glory in your shame, who live in the lust, drunkenness, gluttony, devouring the creation, a time will come, that you will wish you had never been born….”

    This is a potent message, and I think it deserves your recognition.

  • Flo Fflach says:

    note that I have made a long response…

    “No Christian community, as far as I am aware, has designated a place as sacred and put institutional and ecclesiastical weight behind its protection”. All land is sacred, all land is precious. The 20th century “wilderness” movement has probably done as much damage as those Christians/ or people of a Christian culture who see nature as something to have dominion over, as something for our gratification. As far as I can see capitalism is the problem, profit, the desire for continual growth – maybe that has come out of a Christian based culture. But no longer just practiced by Christian based cultures! Some areas are precious by their rarity – marsh lands are seen as useless and they are gobbled up by development; on a very practical level they are useful, they are a place for flood water to gather – in the UK so many instances of flooding of housing built on flood meadows & what was originally marsh. Wet lands are crucial for bird migration but that doesn’t count in a commercial world. So I would campaign against certain types of land being developed, for their rarity rather than sacredness – but don’t we have enough brown field sites?

    I look to my copy of Quaker Faith & Practice and see a long tradition from the start of Quakerism that attends to nature, which looks to using only that which is essential, to simplicity. Every day, every place is equal. Yes we meet on Sunday, but that is a shared time, not a sacred time. Yes we meet indoors, but we live and work indoors a lot. Out of doors – woodlands, mountains, “beautiful” places are often set aside as precious; to a lot of people they are also precious in that they are places for recreation, entertainment. Land becomes commodity, whether it is to build on or to ride your mountain bike on. I have lived my life in a rural setting, as have my parents, neither of them has even lived in a village [I have], it is a rural working class background. The fruits of the land i.e. wild meat [as well as literally fruit] were sustaining, and you know it is your own loss if you kill more than you can eat, kill at the wrong time of year.

    Yes there is a detachment from land in western culture, a not even thinking about how we are sustained by the earth, everything we have – even when it can be called synthetic comes from this planet. If you rely on a spring for your water you know that you need to take care of the water system, if you only ever turn on a tap for “cleansed” water maybe you don’t know. But how much of this is directly from a Christian teaching or ignoring?

    I like George Amoss Jr’s response.

    I think I have pantheist tendencies, in that I find it impossible to conceive of god not being everything: as god is within, so are we within god.

    A note on your previous entry – you mentioned women being the majority of neo pagans, briefly I argued with that in my head, because of local Wiccan people, but then realise they don’t al see themselves as neo – they have a long tradition here, where I live, and a lot of men involved.

    • Emily says:

      Capitalism did not create all our problems, including our attitude towards the environment. Many early Quaker businessmen had profound reverence for life on a broad scale. Quaker merchant Peter Collinson, for example, who helped in the development of the science of botany through his enormous collection of plants, wa also profoundly worried over the state of the environment.
      Capitalism didn’t do away with all our problems, either, as so many philosophers hoped it would, for which it’s come to be seen as having created, as Albert Hirshman put it, “an empty, boring, petty world, lacking in the nobility and passion that capitalism was supposed to have done away with.” But it doesn’t deserve all the blame for that. As Max Weber once wrote, the “naive idea of capitalism” as being to blame for all our greediness “must be given up once and for all. Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse.” Capitalism, in fact, according to Weber, developed “only by virtue of very definite and high developed ethical qualities.” That we’ve come so far away from the original spirit of capitalism speaks more to human nature than the nature of capitalism. People in a socialist system are just as greedy as in a capitalist system.

      • Flo Fflach says:

        we created and continue capitalism, both as concept and practice. so it must always speak of human nature. To turn from wants to needs is hard. When shareholders demand to make money, the raw material and producers are not always thought of fully.
        Continual growth is impossible. Forests are dug up for precious metals to make machines like the one I am using to send this message. All land except where the beauty is appreciated by those of wealth seems to be for production, regarded with economic value.
        A world of sharing in not sharing out would be an ideal

  • Steven, I’ll offer a different perspective.

    I see no need to require any designation of land as “sacred,” and in fact I see such a requirement as a potentially large obstacle to bringing Christians and others to ecological awareness. As is evident in your posts, such a belief is likely to be perceived as “pagan” and as attributing to creation a status, holiness, that belongs to God alone. That can lead to defensive resistance rather than careful thought and cross-cultural cooperation.

    I find it useful to appeal to the love in people — the Light, if you will — for other living beings, beginning with their own families. I would ask not that people sacralize land but that they respect and care for it out of love for others, and I think we have a fair chance of successfully weaving that message into popular religious discourse.

    Ultimately we may come to love the land in itself, but if our present motivation is to protect it and other beings for the long-term benefit of our race, even if only our own posterity, then that may be enough to bring positive change. If it’s not, then I think that our situation may be hopeless.

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