December 20, 2015 § 1 Comment
As a political and social change movement and philosophy, bioregionalism stands on completely different ground than the arena defined by the traditional conflict between left and right. Bioregionalism challenges the very foundations of modern social-political organization. Instead of the United States of America, we would have the United Bioregions of America.
Likewise for economics. Corporations, and indeed, all economic entities, would be treated as households whose consumption and disposal would be accountable to algorithms derived from bioregional carrying capacity. Of course, in today’s globalized economy, this would be impossible, virtually inconceivable, except by the bioregionalist fringe that I inhabit.
I suspect that this is the main reason bioregionalism has faded from public view. Its vision is too radical and implementing that vision is virtually impossible, at least until the eco-apocalypse makes even the most radical new forms of social organization possible. Maybe when Florida is under water . . .
But things are different for religious communities. Quakerism could bioregionalize. The only people who care how we are organized is us. And we are sovereign over our own outward forms. The vision of a bioregional Quakerism is no less radical; it would face the same fierce resistance that you would get from capitalism or even democracy. But we could in theory implement a Quaker bioregional vision to a considerable degree, if we thought that’s what G*d wanted from us. Just discussing the possibilities would transform the movement. That’s my goal here—to open a conversation about who we are on some new ground.
So here are some ideas for what a bioregional Quakerism might look like:
Identity your bioregion.
First, meetings at all levels would identify their bioregion. Bioregionalists often turn to the landmark work by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, Ursula K. (Kroeber) Le Guin’s father, for how to define a bioregion. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America was the first work to categorize North America’s indigenous nations according to the way their culture, especially their sustenance patterns, were defined by the place in which they lived. Kroeber’s regions are more like macro-regions—the northeast woodlands, for instance includes a vast region in the northeast.
Redefine our borders and rename our meetings
Once we had mapped the bioregions of North America against the map of North American Quakerism, we would redefine the territories of the yearly meetings and replace their history-defined and often urban-centered names with bioregional ones.
The first place I would go for guidance on new boundaries is Kroeber’s and other anthropologists’ work defining the territories of indigenous nations. For Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, for example, we might consider the territory of the Lenni Lenape. New York Yearly Meeting might divide into two yearly meetings defined by the territories of the Iroquois Confederacy in the Finger Lakes and western New York and the Algonquin-speaking peoples to the east.
Or we could use the standard organizing principles of bioregionalism—watersheds, major bodies of water, and mountain ranges. This would redefine Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PhYM) naturally around the Delaware River basin. (I choose to use “PhYM” because Pacific Yearly Meeting calls itself PYM also, and somehow, it makes more sense to me than PaYM. Of course, bioregional names would probably eliminate the overlap, and Pacific Yearly Meeting is, arguably, already sort of a bioregional name.).
New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) is more complicated. The Hudson River valley is one clear starting point, but the rest takes some thinking. I plan a case study for both yearly meetings that illustrates how this thinking might develop.
This is a radical proposal sure to upset a lot of Friends, a sort of cosmic version of proposing to change the seating in the meeting room, which, as any meeting that has tried to do this knows, usually leads to months, if not years, of bitter dispute, only this would involve all the meetings in North America. So this is an exercise in thinking bioregionally. Personally, I myself think it’s worth taking this project seriously. Just having the conversation over say a decade or two between and within yearly meetings would raise bioregional consciousness among us a lot.
Besides redefining their borders and renaming themselves, meetings in a bioregional Quakerism would also undertake whatever reinhabitationist activities they felt called to. These might include:
- Ecological inventories. Enlist an environmental engineering consultancy to draft an ecological inventory and assessment of your bioregion—probably meaning a micro-region, the local bioregion around your meeting. If they won’t do it very cheaply or pro bono, do what you can yourself, or find a grad student in a local university who’s looking for a project. Or maybe your region already has one; if so, help to publicize it and its implications for local zoning, etc.
- Ecological restoration. Initiating and supporting ecological restoration projects—restoring local ecosystems to their natural condition. Reforestation in the country, urban gardens in the city. Could your meetinghouse roof support a roof garden or solar panels? In cities, this might also include cleaning up and restoring streams. New Brunswick, New Jersey, where New Brunswick Meeting (NYYM) is located, is almost completely surrounded by Mile Run Creek, but that creek is almost invisible. Very few residents even know it even exists, let alone that it comprises the city’s boundary. And it’s in terrible shape. It needs restoration.
- Art and education. Support bioregional themes in local art and in local education. Here in Philadelphia, where I live, which is famous for its public art and especially, its outdoor murals, we could encourage scenes of the city’s bountiful natural places with both money and public presence. The Sourland Conservancy, formerly the Sourland Planning Council, has had great success helping earth science teachers in some of its region’s school systems to develop field trips and learning units around the Sourlands, a large and largely undeveloped forest on volcanic ridges in central New Jersey.
- Religious education programs for both adults and children in which you teach yourselves about your bioregion—or invite local professors to help. Sponsor a lecture series.
My first encounter with the distinctive Quaker way of clerking a meeting for business was the governance sessions of the first North American Bioregional Congress in 1984. The Congress had asked a Quaker clerk from some meeting to facilitate their consensus-based decision-making sessions. I don’t remember who the woman was, but she was very good.
Those sessions had a bioregional aspect to them that I would like to see us consider in our own business meetings. Some of the participants were formally appointed to represent various aspects of the natural world. If I remember correctly, someone listened and spoke for the four-leggeds, the wingeds, the standing people (trees), and the waters. You get the idea. Could we not appoint some Friends to be mindful of the bioregion while we do our business?
Local earthcare witness => bioregional witness
Christianity in general, and Quakerism in particular, tend to think in cosmic and universal terms. Jesus came to save mankind (sic). Quaker earth-care witness. Global warming.
But many of the decisions that degrade the quality of our lives, as individuals and as meeting households, take place in local governments. Municipal governments and county governments often have environmental commissions that oversee the environmental impact of the government’s decisions and regulate the behavior of individual and corporate households. And local governments almost always have some kind of planning or zoning board. Big cities often have neighborhood associations (my neighborhood in Philadelphia does) that have a presence if not a say in city policy. Our meetings should be tracking the agendas of these agencies and standing in their midst as earth-keepers.
A persistent, consistent, well-informed, respectful, and morally-oriented presence in these bodies changes the way these bodies work. When they know you are going to show up, they anticipate your message; they even internalize it to some degree. And it helps to keep the rest of the citizenry from going nuts. These meetings tend to attract people with a lot of time on their hands, not to mention axes to grind, with chips on their shoulders, ignorance and prejudice in their minds, and anger and disrespect in their hearts. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? The perfect arena for some Quaker peacemaking.
Next—a case study.
I have started thinking about a case study for bioreginalizing a yearly meeting. I think it will be New York Yearly Meeting, because I know it pretty well. But it’s really complicated and I don’t know my bioregions well enough yet, so I have some studying to do. And it will necessarily mean thinking about Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, New England YM, whatever is the FGC yearly meeting in the eastern midwest, and probably Canadian YM, as well. So maybe not for the next post. But soon I hope to have something to offer.
December 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
Just as individuals have certain spiritual gifts, so do religious communities. The Quaker movement has been endowed with quite a few, and some of them equip us uniquely to practice spiritual ecology, to engage as individuals and as local meetings with our local landscapes and ecosystems as channels of divine revelation.
Direct experience of the divine
The most important of our collective spiritual gifts equipping us for a religious culture of place is the very core of our faith and practice: our experience of direct communion with G*d, our experience of the Light and of the gathered meeting. Quakerism is already shamanistic.
We already know how to seek and find what we call continuing revelation. We already ground our social witness in this experience of G*d’s leading. We already expect that leadings can come to anyone, not just the officially ordained, and that leadings can draw one into a very broad range of ministries, not just preaching and pastoral care. We already understand earthcare as a religious ministry, as a testimony to divine truth revealed inwardly and collectively about our earth-keeping responsibilities.
Many religious communities do not have this gift for direct revelation available to all in the community.
We also have a tested spiritual infrastructure for testing and supporting earthcare leadings—the faith and practice of Quaker ministry . . . in theory. In fact, most Friends only know committees as the way to structure witness activities; they are used to using visioning exercises, brainstorming, and open discussion within a committee to seek for revelation. A shamanistic Quakerism will rely on prayer, meditation, and worship for revelation . . .
. . . and time spent in the land that is our meeting’s landbase. We will want to join the annual Audubon bird count around Christmas. Find, join, support local nature centers, preserves, and so on.
And we will need to study. We will need to learn our earth science and the place we call home. Even if we live in a city, we will want to know where our water comes from, where our waste goes, what natural features have survived development, which ones haven’t, where the fault lines are, where underground rivers and streams are, where they have been buried by development, where the wetlands are and where they have been filled in, where the holy places are, the places that play indispensable roles in the overall ecosystem.
This is our second strength. We tend to be well educated and we have always embraced science as a tool for human betterment.
This should include political science. We will want to start tracking the local ecological commissions, planning and zoning boards, and other local governmental bodies that have jurisdiction over our landbase. A meeting that has a consistent, respectful, and well-informed presence at the local government level can have a really meaningful impact on its decisions.
We tend to think bigger than that. We call this testimony earthcare and we seem to naturally focus on the big issues and the planet as a whole. And that’s important. But our chance for the most significant impact is at the local level, where many of the decisions that directly affect people you can talk to and work with actually happen.
Finally, liberal Friends at least have a unique religious worldview that opens us to new forms and channels and messages of revelation.
Our theological diversity is mostly a weakness, I think—diluting your tradition with foreign and even contradictory elements confuses people and leaves them wondering who they are as a community. The only real value in having so many members with different religious and even non-religious worldviews is that it makes you open and flexible; it opens you to revelation—as long as you still rely on deepening, prayer, and worship.
Some Friends have been extending the tenet that there is that of God in everyone to saying there is that of God in all creation. Some Friends actually turn to this belief as the foundation of their witness.
As many of my long-time readers will know, I have a lot of problems with this trend of basing our testimonies on “that of God” thinking, and I think the thinking itself is usually so sloppy, shallow, and unconsidered, and so ignorant of our real tradition, that it strains the testimony of integrity.
Nevertheless, this phrase, this thinking about “that of God”, does work for a lot of Friends. The neo-Platonic “divine spark” idea behind the modern liberal Quaker interpretation of Fox’s phrase has a very strong appeal and it applies nicely to earthcare witness, as long as you are willing to uproot it from Quaker tradition, or at least, from its context in the writing and thinking of George Fox. “There is that of God in all creation” sounds great, as far as it goes.
However, let’s be clear: we are led into earthcare witness, not because we believe that there is that of God in all creation, but because that of God in ourselves—the Light—has revealed to us the truth of earthcare as a witness concern and has given us a passion for it. This passion is a religious leading.
We also need to be clear about what we mean when we say that there is that of God in all creation. My own experience is that there is, in fact, that of God in creation. But I don’t mean by that that nature is to be worshipped, only that in nature we can encounter the Divine. As Jesus did at his baptism, as Moses did at the “burning bush”, as Ezekiel did by the River Chebar, as Peter, James, and John did at the transfiguration. As I have many, many times, though less spectacularly than these biblical figures.
So I think we need to really work out what we mean by “that of God in all creation” more than we have. Many Friends just don’t like or trust theology. They are happy just to use a phrase that works for them and leave the religious ideology alone. This is especially true, in my experience, with “witness Friends”.
But without a religious understanding of your language and your work, you will end up—as our witness committees so often do—relying instead on just the language and thinking and tools of science, politics, and the secular social change nonprofit world. But that aspect of earthcare has already been covered by the secular environmental movement. Our strength, our unique contribution, is the moral and religious argument.
Which is why we can’t afford to just jettison the Bible—but still must know our science. That’s why I keep combining the two in this thread. We need a shamanistic science and a scientific shamanism for a bioregional Quakerism.
Next—what is “bioregionalism”? What is a bioregional Quakerism?
December 11, 2015 § 2 Comments
On both counts—as a place sacred to the People, and as a place essential to a healthy water culture in the northern Plains—I learned of Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, as a holy place from some Lakota person. I don’t remember if it was Vine Deloria, Jr, Lame Deer, Black Elk, Rolling Thunder, or some other writer.
But I could also have learned it from the physiography textbook in my personal library. We may not have many medicine people who can commune directly with our landbase, but we do have earth science.
Until last year, I lived in the Sourlands of central New Jersey. This ancient igneous intrusion forms a ridge that curves eastward and northward in a long arc from Lambertville, New Jersey, to the Palisades across the Hudson River from the Bronx. It starts as the Sourland Mountains in the southwest, dives below ground and resurfaces as the Watchung Mountains, dives down again and resurfaces as Snake Hill in the Meadowlands, dives a final time and resurfaces as the Palisades. It has some outlier ridges, as well, including one that surfaces in Rocky Hill and Princeton.
Like the Black Hills, the Sourlands are the source of recharge for an aquifer—the Hopewell aquifer below Hopewell valley, which stretches south toward Trenton from the Sourlands. Like the Black Hills, the Sourlands have been invested by the Creator, by the creative process of geophysical evolution, with a sacred earth-keeping role.
I’m betting that the Lenni Lenape, the Delaware Indians, who were the original inhabitants of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, treated the Sourlands in a fashion similar to the way the Lakota treat the Black Hills. It’s a mountain range—if you are willing to call hills that are only a few hundred feet tall “mountains”. (The Black Hills aren’t very “mountainous” either.) The Sourlands have great rock outcroppings, like the Black Hills, and some “caves”, hollows between huge rocks tumbled on each other. These would have made decent vision questing sites for the Lenape. It’s too rocky to farm in most places, so they probably only used the region for hunting camps.
But the Lenni Lenape are long gone from New Jersey. They no longer have a living tradition of shamanic relation to this landbase. But you go hiking there, go to Roaring Rocks and the rock formations nearby, and tell me the place is not holy. Or browse through my Geography of New Jersey textbook. Either way, you will find good reason to protect the Sourlands from over-development.
There’s a Quaker meeting in Princeton. Their meetinghouse is a sacred space. I can testify—I was married there. Nearby is this holy place, the Sourlands, a place that needs protecting. I can testify—I have hiked there a lot. That place plays an important earth-keeping role in the region. I can testify—I served on the board of a nonprofit that commissioned an ecological survey of the Sourlands as part of their (successful) efforts to get the five towns and three counties with jurisdiction over the Sourlands to revise their zoning and land-use ordinances.
So here are my queries: What does your meeting know about your landbase? Could you identify the holy place(s) in your region? Are there still indigenous people in your region whose stories and relation to the land might guide you? Do you have hikers in your meeting? Do you know where your drinking water comes from? Does your local library have a geology or physiography textbook you can consult?
If we wanted to explore the possibility of a “shamanistic” earth-keeping Quakerism, a bioregional Quakerism, a religious culture of place in which the place we lived in mattered religiously, we have several things going for us. First, we love education and respect science. Second, we already believe—because we have experienced it ourselves—in direct, unmediated experience of the Divine. And third, among liberal Friends, anyway, we already are probing in this direction, we are open to new sources of revelation, new understandings of what “the Divine” means to us—we are unfettered by the traditional conservative Christian knee-jerk opposition to “nature worship”.
But anyway, I am not proposing “nature worship”. I am proposing using our landscape in our personal and our collective religious practice the way Jesus used his. I am proposing following in the footsteps of that spirit-possessed prophet who, after being called by his Father, was “with the wild animals” in the wilderness (Mark 1:13).
More about these advantages in the next post.
December 4, 2015 § 2 Comments
I seem to be starting a new thread on what I will call bioregional Quakerism. I started a first essay, as is usual for me, with some dense theological exploration of where the revelation of Quaker earthcare witness comes from. But I would rather start with a story instead, something that happened to me that illustrates part of where I want to go with this thread.
The annual sessions of New York Yearly Meeting take place in a YMCA resort on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains. One of the most popular and spiritually enlivening features of NYYM’s summer sessions is the daily worship sharing groups, many of which take place outdoors in tents or in pavilions with 360-degree window views of the lake and the mountains. During one of these worship sharing sessions sometime in the early 1990s, I had a vision.
I saw—and felt—a female human face lying supine, gazing up at the firmament. The face was female, mature, maybe in her late 40s, but in fact timeless in her presence. She was transcendentally beautiful in her features, which were deeply expressive of her character, beyond what words could utter. I wish I could express how drawn to her I was, how profoundly moved I was by the sense of her presence and her wisdom and her beauty. She was Lake George.
Her eyes were open. Her eyes were always open She was always in regard of the sky above, with eyes she could not close.
It was nighttime and it was raining, in my vision. And the rain fell with the force and the sound of tiny steel pellets plummeting into the water, an awful and awefull sound. And overlaying this hideous thundering hiss I heard a scream, a sustained soul-shaking keening that was both high in pitch and rich in timbre. Lake George was screaming.
Because the rain was acid rain, and it was falling into her eyes, which she could not close. And she was going blind, losing sight of the firmament she had gazed upon for untold millennia.
I found I was shaking—I was quaking. I was overwhelmed with sorrow and grief, with anger and despair. I think I may have moaned out loud.
Against my expectation, the vision continued even after I had become aware of it. In spite of my self-consciousness, the pain just deepened. I became more and more in unity with her suffering, for a while. In time, though, probably not very long, the vision faded. I was released from most of the emotional immediacy in the experience. But not all of it. Not ever. Writing now, even, some of that grief comes back.
This experience was shamanistic Quakerism—the riding of revelation on a Quaker spiritual practice to deliver, not so much a prophetic message as a prophetic relationship. I felt transcendentally united with a natural feature of creation in its capacity for communion with the human. There was a message, too: stop acid rain from killing the lakes of the Adirondacks. But it was the relationship that felt transformative; it was the communion that had reforged my soul; it was the Lake’s capacity for communion with a human that had blown my mind.
In subsequent posts, I want to explore this capacity for communion with nature—on the part of nature, on the part of the human individual, and on the part of the human—the Quaker—community. I want to explore the possibility of what I will call shamanistic bioregional Quakerism.
Some of the things I know I want to touch on:
- collective, communal communion with creation;
- spiritual ecology and land-based spirituality;
- sacred places, and holy places;
- earth science, earthcare witness, and shamanism;
- bioegional reinhabitation; and
- the “nature” of religious experience.
March 7, 2013 § 10 Comments
In this post I want to talk about how the sin-salvation paradigm, with its focus on the individual, misses the basic reality of ecological crisis, and how we need a new, collective understanding of sin against ecosystems.
With its moral lens, Christianity traditionally focuses almost exclusively on the individual, on individual sin and salvation. The sins it cares about the most are the sins that individuals commit. Think of the ten commandments and the moral teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and the sins that Paul catalogs in his letters.
Thus the solutions to the problem of individual sin also focus on the individual: preaching and evangelism, confession, and the sacraments. These vehicles for forgiveness are all about the individual.
By contrast, the real “sinners” in the ecological sphere are not individuals primarily. Oh, I suppose we might be held accountable by the Creator for neglecting our recycling, or destroying a lot of trees so we can read just three sections of the Sunday New York Times, or working on a boat that is overfishing the blue fin tuna, or lobbying against the signing of the Kyoto Accords. But the real culprits are collective entities—at the smallest and simplest end of the scale, domestic households; but much more importantly, corporations (and, yes, nonprofits, congregations, denominations), communities, nations, societies, and civilizations, plus the facilities, infrastructures, and the other systems, economic, social, and political, that give these collective entities bodies, as it were—hands and feet, eyes and ears, mouths and tools with which to act in the world and have an impact on our ecosystems.
A religious ideology that seeks to guide or even control only individual human behavior fails almost utterly to address these more important sources of our problems, which are collective. It fails to deal with collective sin.
Effective faith-based, Spirit-led earthcare witness in a Christian milieu like ours needs to recover the reality of collective sin.
We have Paul (as usual) and, to a lesser extent, Jesus himself to blame for this.
One of the under-recognized innovations in Jesus’ religious thinking is his focus on individual sin. We take this for granted now, but all the other prophets and the whole religious framework of redemption and salvation in ancient Judaism had focused primarily on collective sin—Israel sinned and Israel would be punished. Hence the destruction of the ten tribes by Assyria and the Exile of the remaining two tribes in Babylon, just to name the two main biblical examples. Individuals sinned, of course, but the focus of the prophets was on the collective.
Hear the word of Yahweh: Stand up, plead your case before the mountains and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, O mountains the indictment of Yahweh, listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth, for Yahweh has a case against his people, he is lodging a charge against Israel. (Micah 6:1-2, 13-14)
This began to change somewhat around the time of the Maccabean war, roughly 165 BCE, with the emergence of the Pharisee and Essene movements, though we begin to see hints of the shift even in Ezra, maybe 450 BCE. But Jesus brought this new emphasis to a new level.
The stories told by and of Jesus in Christian scripture are unique in Hebrew tradition in their personal poignancy, intimacy, and relevance. His encounters with real people are unlike anything in the earlier prophets of Israel. But he did not altogether abandon ancient Israel’s self-identity as a tribal, corporate entity. He talked about leaving the flock to find the one lost sheep, yes, but the sheep was still lost without the flock. So Jesus extended the collective understanding of sin, judgment, and redemption to include the individual, without wholly abandoning the sense of Israel’s collective identity and culpability.
Then along came Paul. Paul did utterly abandon his tradition’s collective understanding of sin. He focused exclusively on the individual. His Gentile converts had no connection to the collective identity of Israel and no tribal consciousness of that sort at all. In this, we are their descendants and, as in so many other areas, our religion has been impoverished by the Pauline legacy as a result.
We need to recover the kind of collective understanding of sin that Micah had.
But what if we did recover a collective understanding of sin? How would we bring the prophetic case of an earthcaring God to the collective entities of our own time? To the corporations that would release the vast stores of carbon in the tar sands and gas shale deposits of North America, for instance? With what forms of judgment could we threaten them?
For this is another weakness of the sin-salvation paradigm, that it has no concrete, real-time, real-world consequences to raise up as divine judgment. Almost all we have to work with is hell. Individuals can go to hell. But can a corporation go to hell? And even hell is not a realistic deterrent, unless the threat is reinforced through emotional trauma. Fear of hell can make you depressed, repressed, and neurotic, but it doesn’t seem to stem the tide of sin very effectively. In fact, when people become severely infected with the fear of hell, the trauma tends to make them a problem rather than a solution.
Therefore, just as we need a new collective definition of sin, so we also need a new formula for collective judgment. We need a new understanding of collective judgment because, unfortunately, we already have an old one and it is a total disaster—literally. I am referring to eschatology, the theology of the Endtimes—the belief that God will destroy all of creation as one of God’s last saving acts. Besides being a horrific religious ideology, the idea is virtually an oxymoron.
Moreover, the collective actor in the Endtimes is all of humanity, as it was in the story of the Flood. And the punishment is the annihilation of the very thing we earthcare witnesses are trying to save, the earth and all its creatures. I will return to this theme in a later post. Here, suffice it to say that “humanity” may be destroying creation all on its own, but this is a less than worthless way to think about changing human ecological behavior.
So the sin-salvation paradigm fails us at both ends of the spectrum of ecological action. The individual is too small an actor in ecological terms and “humanity” is too meaninglessly large an actor to talk about without becoming silly.
The real actors, the real locus of our problems, lie in between. The real focus of our prophetic witness should be the corporations and other collective entities with power to effect policy and impact ecosystems on a massive scale. It is they who sin. It is they whom we should condemn with our prophecy. It is they who should suffer judgment.
With corporations, this is theoretically not so hard. We have some legal tools to work with. Since incorporation confers legal personhood on a collective of humans, let’s treat corporations the way we do individual criminals (although, in fact, we should not be doing many of the things we do to accuse and punish individual humans, including especially capital punishment). I say let’s treat corporations like the “persons” they claim legally to be. Let’s define capital crimes for corporations and then exercise capital punishment as one of our options. Let’s start executing companies for crimes against humanity.
(Of course, executing a company will hurt innocent people, so we will need another set of laws that protect them, something along the lines of the laws the FDIC uses to dismantle a failed bank. The whole thing will get complicated, I admit. My point is to begin thinking in new ways about corporate accountability in a religious framework.)
Of course, not all crimes are capital crimes. We need less extreme measures, too. These could include more avenues for criminalizing the behavior of the executives who execute corporate crimes against the ecosystems their organizations are destroying.
And there are other things we might try. For example, I would favor requiring all executives above a certain level in charge of public safety and operations of nuclear power plants to live next door and downwind of their plant. I would require mining executives to get their water from the groundwater near their own mine’s tailings piles, waste disposal ponds, and extraction sites. You get the idea.
In the meantime (and of course, that “meantime” will probably approach eternity as a limit), religious communities that still ascribe to sin as a key element in their theology should take a new look at how they define sin and how they will respond to it, how they will raise a new kind of prophetic voice against our collective sinners.
If we’re going to believe in sin—in ecological sin—let’s get real about it. And let’s do it where it matters, in the sphere of collective human activity.
. . . Of course, many Liberal Friends do not “ascribe to sin as a key element in their theology”. But that’s another post.
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.
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.