Sin — A Series on Sin and Spirit-led Earthcare Witness

March 6, 2013 § 9 Comments

Introduction to the series

In the early 1980s, I was active in the bioregional movement, a movement that sought to make deep ecology the foundation of all human systems, believing that you should design, manage, and live as though the place you lived in mattered, and that bioregions* had no right to exceed their carrying capacities or to colonize other bioregions to sustain themselves.

The spiritual godfather of the movement was Thomas Berry, creator of the New Cosmology, and he lived in New York where I was active. One evening, a bunch of us in the New York City group were having dinner together after going to a lecture and I happened to be sitting next to Thomas. For some reason I said that I didn’t see what the idea of sin had to offer to our work as environmentalists and bioregionalists and he responded quite strongly that no, sin was really important, sin was at the very heart of what we were doing.

This took me by surprise. Berry was a Catholic Passionist priest, so he knew a lot about sin, but he hadn’t mentioned sin even once that I could remember in all the monographs I had read that eventually became his landmark book The Dream of the Earth. (The Church had prohibited him from publishing his ideas and he was still abiding by the silencing at that time, so his graduate students at Fordham had published his essays themselves in the kind of bindings that dissertations often have. There’s no entry for “sin” in the index of The Dream of the Earth.) So I was surprised that he felt so fervently about sin when he hadn’t mentioned it in his writings. I wanted to get into it with him but someone else joined the conversation at that point and it moved off in another direction. I have been thinking about what Thomas Berry said ever since.

In this and future posts, I want to pursue these thoughts. I want to explore the idea of sin in general, but also specifically as regards our earthcare witness.

I still am not comfortable with the idea of sin. Not that I don’t believe in sin. Certainly people sin. And certainly harming creation is a sin. What I have been rejecting is the value of the whole religious ideology for which sin is the linchpin. I call this ideology the sin-salvation paradigm, the belief that sin is the basic human problem (certainly the basic religious problem), that sin incurs divine judgment, and that Christ’s atonement is the (only) salvation from that judgment.

This has been the basic message of the Christian tradition for a couple of millennia and today it still informs the political ideology of powerful people who either don’t see how their religious beliefs should turn them toward earthcare, or it actually turns them against earthcare.

Now, as in the early ’80s, I still resist the idea that sin and the sin-salvation paradigm are useful ideas in the struggle to reverse our ecological downspiral, or that they can help humans, or at least Western society, turn towards ways of thinking and living that foster and embody Spirit-led earthcare. More negatively, I find I often want to struggle against this gospel message as one of our ideological enemies in our attempts to cure Western society of its ecological insanity.

And yet my respect—my love—for Thomas Berry runs so deep that I feel I cannot ignore his perspective. I feel I must be missing something. So I want to explore my resistance and my counter-arguments with my readers, to see what kind of way might open. I know that for many of my readers—and many of my f/Friends—sin and salvation are at the heart of their religious lives and I trust that they will join the conversation. Together let us see what love and truth can do.

So this post has been a brief introduction to a series of posts in which I plan to explore sin and its possible role in Spirit-led earthcare. In the next post, I want to talk about how

the sin-salvation paradigm misses the basic reality of our ecological crises with its focus on individual sin and the individual sinner, rather than on collective sin and collective actors like corporations and communities and societies and the ecological sins that these collective entities commit.

* Bioregions are geographical regions defined by their physical and ecological features, often by the boundaries of watersheds, and also by culture, to the degree that a culture is defined by, or related to, or has impact on, its bioregion. New York City, for instance, has always been defined physically and culturally to a degree by the bays it has turned into harbors and by its relation to the Hudson River. The lower Hudson River valley (some would say all the way up to the falls in Troy, New York, since the Hudson is a tidal river to that point) could be considered a bioregion. Richmond, Indiana, lies in the watershed of the White River—a much smaller bioregion, perhaps too small to be useful in thinking about the human systems it supports. But it would be interesting to break out the maps and take a look.


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§ 9 Responses to Sin — A Series on Sin and Spirit-led Earthcare Witness

  • Small Farmer in Frisco says:

    Perhaps I come at this obliquely, but…we need to remember that our current way of material life in the 1st world, and in particular North America, is a significant departure from human living historically. The idea of watershed focused community is very ancient and its influence is clearly seen in most of the world’s long running religions…how interesting we in North America are much more nomadic and therefore less watershed oriented – a city is a city is a city in many respects. I offer the thought that perhaps there needs to be an acknowledged place for traditional bioregional (rural) ecology vs, contemporary watershed agnosticism and that sin in each setting has differing meanings and calls for differing salvific responses?

  • Steve, this posting gives me joy, because I’ve been feeling a great need for fresh conceptual tools to think and talk about Friends’ (and people of faith’s generally) call to ecological witness with, and I’ve felt discouraged from using terms like “sin” and “the Devil” because they’ve been so abused that people freak out and stop their ears when they hear them. “Moral error” and “the spirit of confusion” are euphemisms that sneak by folks’ freak-out buttons but are so namby-pamby-sounding that they could push their sleep-buttons instead. The Yoga Sutras provide a serviceable set of conceptual tools for understanding evil (the five kleshas or defilements of consciousness: ignorance, egoism, lust, hate, and fear of death) but they need some explanation and adaptation; I’d say the same of A Course in Miracles (“belief in attack,” “projection,” perception vs. knowledge, etc.). No doubt the terminologies of Buddhist, Sufi and Jungian traditions present similar problems. In any case, you’ve started a conversation that I think badly needs to happen.

    To cut to the chase: at last Saturday’s Meeting for Discernment in Brooklyn, where Friends were invited to express their “yearnings,” I felt moved to say that I yearned for both my monthly and my yearly meeting to commit themselves to the work Jesus said He’d come here to do, which is to destroy the works of the Devil and free men and women from bondage. No doubt many Friends tuned my message out and dismissed me as, at best, a likeable old religious eccentric with a peculiar world-view, but I think some heard me. I’d been seized by an intuitive sense of how huge, deep and multi-layered the world’s bondage is, and those were the words that came tumbling out my lips.

    I know in my bones that the battle for the environment involves spiritual warfare, described by Paul as work of “casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ,” 2 Cor. 10:5 (AV); and that if the Holy Spirit calls us to heal the tormented earth and her devastated creatures, and also to help one another break evil addictions and work out our salvation, the two lines of work must go hand in hand, and at times may seem indistinguishable to us. We must not only do what we can to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, we must also be doing what we can to call the people promoting and building it to a deep and thoroughgoing repentance. But we can trust the Holy Spirit to show us how.

    • Thanks, John! In a parallel line of thought I have been wondering about the usefulness of “spiritual warfare” as an approach to witness in general, also. I suspect it cuts both ways, offering new insights and tools and new problems and unintended consequences. In this, I am totally indebted to Walter Wink’s fantastic series on The Powers. So Satan and demonology come into it, too.

      I look forward to some lively commentary on the posts.

    • Needlochen says:

      Where does Christ tell us to go out and destroy?

      Jesus told us in Luke 9:56 that “the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save.” In Matthew 22, Jesus tells us that the most important commandments are to love God, neighbor, and Friend, and in Matthew 28:19 he commands his disciples to go out and teach that love.

      The environmental movement seems a perfect vehicle for the teaching of Christ in love. Destruction brings about counter-destruction, and this will not save our world.

      • Glenn says:

        Yes, Yes, Yes!!!!

      • Christ has never told us to destroy or even injure human beings, but we have it on the authority of 1 John 3:8 that the Son of God was manifested to destroy the works of the devil, which I believe is another way of saying what Jesus said, in Luke 3:18 and elsewhere, about what He was sent here to do. And His commission is our commission if we are members of Him (Eph. 5:30).

        Anyone who is in bondage, ignorance, misery, sin, addiction, sickness or despair needs those things destroyed; Jesus Christ can and does destroy them, and enlists the help of those who gladly and obediently follow Him here on earth.

        Having said that, however, I must add that the Jesus Christ of scripture exemplifies non-violence and non-compulsion, and disarmed us all of carnal weapons when He disarmed Peter (so Tertullian and Robert Barclay; Matt. 26:52, Luke 22:51, John 18:11), so that Paul could say categorically that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal (2 Cor. 10:4-5).

        So what is our warfare and what are our weapons? It’s a casting down of imaginations (ibid.) a casting out of fear by love (1 John 4:18), a mortifying of the man of sin in ourselves (Col. 3:5) so that the new creature might live (Gal. 6:15). It’s a simple saying “no” to all that’s not of God, of life, of love, of truth. It disallows all bullying, manipulating, seduction, trickery, disinformation, deprogramming, arm-twisting evangelism or conversion by brainwashing, for these (and “attack” generally) are the weapons of the deceiver, and once we’ve taken up the devil’s weapons we’ve become the devil’s tools.

        Therefore I absolutely agree with Needlochen that “the environmental movement seems a perfect vehicle for the teaching of Christ in love.” But I’d encourage reliance on Jesus Christ as more than a teacher, for both faith and experience have taught me that He’s also our Savior — our Savior from every evil more powerful than we mere mortals are, individually or gathered into our little groups of mega-corporation and mega-state resisters. Even if we individually are crushed physically, not a hair of our head will perish spiritually (Luke 21:19), and the victory will be Christ’s. It can’t be otherwise.

  • John Nurse says:

    1. Since the 1960s Catholics, at least, have been tuning in to social sin in your sense. I remember a Jesuit talking about destruction of the environment in just these words back then.
    2. I suspect that what you see as the ‘sin-salvation paradigm’ has been a particular problem for many, though not all, Western Christians (Coild exceptions include Julian of Norwich and many other contemplatives). The Desert Fathers, and other pre-Constantinian Christians, don’t seem to have been caught up in this (see, for example, Rowan Williams ‘Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another’) nor perhaps the Orthodox at any time (on this and on the Desert Fathers see Angela Tilby ‘The Seven Deadly Sins: their origin in the teaching of Evagrius the Hermit’).
    3. Problems arising from the ‘sin-salvation paradigm’ may be one strand in the argument you wish to make. Perhaps there is a parallel story of another strand that has been much less visible and that has valued the world we live in and that offers resources that we Western Christians have had – but generally avoided using – from our earliest times.

  • rightquaker says:

    A lot to chew on here… I am far from an expert but I have read a bit on deep ecology. Interestingly, it has some fans in the New Right/traditionalist/Green Conservative movement.

    My issue with it is that it seems to view humans with some hostility, as though they are a global virus and that the world would be better off if they were extinct. It seems to be an extreme form of anti-anthropocentrism or even misanthropy.

    Am I misunderstanding?

    • I think a few deep ecology fans go that radical route. It annoys me, too, when you hear people say that “we’re not destroying the earth because the earth can’t be destroyed”, that the planet will go on without us, as it has for billions of years before we came along. As if we didn’t really matter.

      Thomas Berry is instructive here. He talks about humans as the consciousness of the planet, drawing on his love to Teilhard de Chardin (he was president of the Teilhard Institute (or was it Foundation?) for a long time).

      But I don’t believe that hostility to humans is an inherent aspect of deep ecology. In fact the whole idea of deep ecology is to make ecology an integral part of all human endeavor.

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