A Theology of Ecology: Greening Our Faith

an Enrichment Hour presentation by Rev. Katherine Jesch
Paint Branch UU Church
February 3, 2003

Thomas Starr King found beauty and relaxation in the wilderness of California’s Yosemite Valley. On entering the Valley, he is said to have proclaimed "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the Yosemite of music! Great is granite and the Yosemite is its prophet!" Now if you’ve ever been to Yosemite, you’ll know exactly what he meant! Today, one of the towering peaks of granite in Yosemite Park bears his name, Mt. Starr King.

One of the streets in San Francisco also bears his name; Starr King Street runs alongside the block containing the Unitarian Society of San Francisco. This great cosmopolitan city remembers Starr King’s work as an orator and activist for justice in California’s political landscape. He did not separate his faith from his politics, and he looked toward nature to sustain him in this work.

I open with this snapshot of Thomas Starr King because it reflects the starting point of my own theology: a combination of religion as social activism and nature as sustenance. However, I think today we are much more aware of the complexities of nature and the interconnections between human culture and Earth’s systems.

We can no longer afford to separate our understanding of justice for humans from protection of ecosystems. We recognize that nature gives us much more than beauty and relaxation. Ultimately, we depend on it for our very survival, the wealthy as much as the poor.
This morning, I thought I’d share with you where I’ve come from and what I believe – in other words my theology of ecology – since it provides the foundation for an environmental ministry I’m trying to create. And I want to encourage you all to think about your own theologies, creating your own basis for ministering with the earth.

Before I went to seminary in 1997, I worked for the US Forest Service in the strategic planning office here in Washington DC. After 20 years in the Forest Service, though, I was starting to re-evaluate my career direction. It started as the usual mid-life crisis, of course, but it was deeper than that. I was coming to question my place in the scheme of things and felt like I had somehow misplaced my purpose and meaning. Fortunately, by this time I had discovered Unitarian Universalism in a big way.

I took the Rise Up and Call Her Name class that explored goddess traditions around the world, and I found it very easy to embrace this ancient earth based spirituality. I also jumped headlong into an effort to bring the labyrinth to my church in Arlington that spring. At this same time, I became chair of the Religious Services division and so became involved in the worship life of the church. I found myself nourished by these activities, feeding a spiritual hunger I didn’t even realize I had.

My integration into religious community at this particular time somehow reignited an interest in professional religious life that I had buried long ago from my Catholic upbringing. So I decided to take a class at Wesley Seminary in Washington to test how it might feel to consider the ministry. The class I chose was "Christian Ecological Ethics". And much to my surprise, the connections I found between ecological ethics and earth based traditions helped me realize that my commitment to healing the Earth was indeed a spiritual call to ministry.

As I’ve pursued my education to respond to that call, my theology has deepened and clarified. What I know about Reality is that everything is connected to everything else. For me, God is a reflection of this Reality. I don’t see God as a person, a character, an individual "out there somewhere". God didn’t make creation; God IS creation. God is not about separation, transcendence, hierarchy. God is about interdependence, collaboration, and relationship.

Directly emerging from this understanding of Reality, my core theology is eco-feminism. This came to me initially as a secular philosophy in the early 1980's. I was excited at the time to find a philosophy that connected my strong environmental values and my growing feminist perspective into a coherent world view.

But my concern about the environment had come from a perspective that failed to recognize the spiritual elements of our relationships with each other and with the earth. It would be another decade before I would find Rosemary Radford Reuther’s Gaia and God, a prophetic treatment of eco-feminism that articulated its connection with religion and spirituality in a way I could understand in my heart, not just in my head. And that’s important, I think...I understood it in my heart, not just in my head. The spiritual basis of eco-feminism recognizes our connection to a larger reality, outside ourselves. This reality goes beyond the economic implications of caring – or not caring – for the earth. And this theology goes beyond specific definitions of God.

As theology, eco-feminism draws from many sources: experiences of women with oppression toward themselves, their families and communities; Native American traditions and ancient Greek mythology; goddess traditions, feminism in many forms, socialism; and postmodern analysis. Eco-feminism starts with the notion that oppression of women, certain ethnic groups, and other non-powerful groups in society is related, connected, and synergistic with the destruction of nature.

Even while they celebrate the beauty and interconnectedness of nature, traditional environmental groups tend to ignore the dimension of spirituality. But I must agree with Carol Christ who believes that the ecological crisis is not only social, political, economic, and technological, but is, at its root, a spiritual crisis.

As eco-feminism provides the philosophical underpinnings of my theology, the seventh principle provides the ethical framework. The interconnected web of all existence conjures up for me an image of a spider web, all the strands connected to each other at several points, each one by itself being pretty much useless, but together serving the essential functions of gathering food and offering protection for its owner. At the same time, to our human sensibilities, it hangs as a piece of art, a thing of beauty in the early morning sunlight in the garden, holding drops of dew like pearls strung together between two flower stalks.

All the while, my heart cries out in pain for the degradation we perpetuate against the earth. And like the trees in the forest, the different oppressions are interconnected with each other. The litany of the destruction is a direct result of the new American religion: corporate economics. The theology for this religion is written by those who already have the power to control the market. They write the rules we all must live by, justifying hyper-consumption because it creates jobs and produces the goods and services the rest of us must have. In fact, they try to convince us it’s our responsibility, indeed, our patriotic duty, to buy our way out of recession. And we buy into it – literally, by buying the products and services they offer. In fact, for most of us, our livelihood does depend on it. And so does the standard of living that we’ve gotten used to.

But at what cost? Corporations externalize every cost they can get away with: manufacturing and labor costs, social costs, and especially environmental costs. They claim they must keep the prices low enough for consumers to buy their goods and services. Their investments are aimed at increasing efficiency and developing ever more effective ways of externalizing these costs. So workers and their communities are exploited with the claim that it’s not the responsibility of business to take care of social needs.

Natural resources are used up while pollutants are disposed of without regard to their affects. Groundwater aquifers are depleted; air and water are polluted; fish stocks are decimated, and some types of waste -- pesticides, organochlorines, and radioactive waste -- just cannot be assimilated to harmless levels. Increasing numbers of plants and animals are threatened or endangered, if not already extinct.

Productivity of agricultural lands and forests is compromised with over-use of fertilizers and pesticides, and now we’re even adding the pesticides to the genetic material of the plant itself. All the while, industry resists any form of control, even as they demand more government subsidies and protections to insure that they can continue to operate by their own rules.

This litany of the Earth’s destruction is for me the impetus for articulating a new theology – A theology of ecology. The theology itself is not new. It is based on our seven principles, and draws from the same six sources that underlie them. It is new, only because it begins with a focus on our relationship with the Earth, out of which all other relationships proceed. And it’s not really my invention.

Over the last 20 years, most mainstream denominations have been developing their Christian theology of the environment. Unitarian Universalists have been discussing it informally for at least a decade or so. Some aspects of it find their way into sermons occasionally, and I’ve seen a couple of articles about it recently, but it hasn’t yet become part of our UU culture.

The Rev. David Bumbaugh, on the faculty at Meadville-Lombard Theological School, claims that we have lost the value of our seven principles of UUism. Especially for the seventh principle, he says, we enjoy talking about its imagery on one level, acknowledging its fundamental truth, without going deeper to examine the challenging questions it raises about the human species as one of the strands in the web. We dismiss how we dominate the web, pulling the other strands our own way, assuming they are there only for our benefit and ignoring the danger when one breaks, never questioning that another will appear to replace it. The concept of the interdependent web is a direct challenge to the way we live our lives, conceive our relationships, understand morality, envision the meaning of our existence.

Some of the questions Bumbaugh raises provide a litany of those questions raised by philosophers throughout the ages: "What is the nature of nature; how do we relate to it? What is the nature of spirit and how does it arise from the natural universe? How does the concern for justice arise out of the material stuff of the natural world and to which portions of creation does it extend? How are we to live in this interdependent web? But with the lens of the seventh principle, these questions can draw us into a continuing and ever deeper journey to understanding our relationship with the larger world . If we allow it, these questions should also disrupt our comfort, making it impossible to continue our lives as if nothing were happening. Our penchant for denial would be compromised; our ability to pretend the storm will pass around us, that it will visit its destruction on some other town, will be lost. We would be forced to come to terms with our own roles, our responsibilities as individuals and as a community, in the future of the planet."

The seventh principle offers no answers, no certainty. So, like Sharon Welch explains in her book, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, we hold on to our fear, refusing to step into the uncertainty, refusing to risk the privilege we have accumulated to work for economic, social, and ecological justice. We lull ourselves into believing that modest adjustments to the way we live are sufficient to the challenges we confront, or that modest adjustment is all that we are capable of achieving. We use the seventh principle to promote symbolic action over political action, and reasonable over radical responses, thus allowing us to feel sanctified without actually engaging in struggle with the powers that be. It gives us a mantra to say as we congratulate ourselves for taking the recycling box out to the curb while we continue to consume the earth’s resources that were so carefully packaged in the cans, bottles, or cardboard containers we’re still discarding. It’s no easy matter to live by it, but as I read the seventh principle, I find within it a rich and complex theology in its image of the interdependent web.

It affirms that there is no distinction to be made between us and the natural world; that we are expressions of the larger context in which we live, and move, and have our beings. This theology enlarges our sense of the sacred, affirming that the sacred is always related to, unifies, and dwells in mysterious fashion within the whole. And most important, as Bumbaugh professes, out of that theology will grow an enlarged understanding of the dimensions of the demand for justice, an understanding which recognizes that no concept of justice is complete or adequate which does not extend to all of creation – all beings whose lives are shadowed by the burdens imposed upon them by the inappropriate, unsustainable, and destructive life-styles of some.

I think Thomas Starr King would be preaching today that healing the earth is not separate or different from our other social responsibilities. I truly believe there can be no ecological integrity apart from social justice; and there can be no social justice without ecological justice.

For me, one of the biggest struggles in this crisis is managing the despair it raises in me. So I look for creative ways to remind myself I am part of a larger whole in this struggle. Metaphors I find in nature help me immensely. Hymn #123, Spirit of Life, is my favorite in the whole hymnal. The beautiful images in the hymn have become so vivid for me that I can almost touch them. "Roots hold me close; wings set me free." I see myself being held and strengthened by my roots so that I can fly free on the wings of my dreams. The roots are the arms of my community, embracing me, affirming me, teaching me. And the wings are my dream of ministering with the earth, caring for all of creation, receiving from its gifts, and joining with it in praise and healing. This image comes to me every time I sing the song.

But in my theology of ecology, roots and wings are more than just pretty metaphors. Images from nature illustrate for us fundamental truths about the world . . . and our place in it. To me, the image of a tree is a religious icon. Whether it’s a single tree with roots below ground and leafy branches reaching for the sky, or a whole forest carpeting the landscape as far as your eye can see, a tree shows us about connections, about the interdependence of all existence, about the essence of our seventh principle. You can see it in this description:

A forest exists in relation to its mountain. The individual trees germinate from tiny seeds, grow to great height, develop and drop their leaves, produce and release seeds to be scattered across the mountain, and finally die and decay on the forest floor. Together as the forest, they share in the task of nurturing and sheltering the plants and creatures of the mountain, including each other.

Throughout this cycle, soil develops from the material produced by the trees, and other plants and creatures participate in the life of the mountain side. In turn, this soil becomes part of the mountain that supports and nurtures the forest, even as it remains part of the forest that birthed it. Residual from the other plants and creatures is integrated – related – into this rich, dark, pregnant matter. A new generation of trees, of forest, is nurtured here. Without the mountain, the forest would have no place to stand, no food to nurture its growth. Without the forest, the soil would dry up and wash down the face of the mountain in a rainstorm, or blow away in the wind. The forest and the mountain need each other, and are changed by each other.

Sometimes I think I know too much about the world – about the conditions of the earth and of society. Environmental issues often seem overwhelming, especially when I add them to the rest of the list of social problems – poverty, racism, violence, various oppressions, and on and on . . . But I am gifted with a deep faith in the power of humanity to change. We cannot predict the future, but we can work to change it.

It’s just that the magnitude and complexities of the problems tend to make me cynical. I know I can’t change the whole of society . . . it’s just not possible. But, like Margaret Meade says, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has."

UUs across the continent are actively working to extend and deepen their theology of ecology. They are finding ways to translate it into social action in ways that go beyond the secular work of traditional environmental organizations. They join with other faiths to speak out in public witness for protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public treasures. They join local community organizations to protest the operation of polluters in poor and minority neighborhoods. They start covenant groups in their churches to support each other’s search for meaning beyond the emptiness of a life of endless consumption. They gather in interfaith celebrations for the blessings of the earth in Easter sunrise services and Earth Day and Solstice rituals. Eco-theology for the intellect, and spirituality for the heart and soul, are the foundation of an earth ministry, the roots, if you will. And eco-justice is the goal, the vision, the wings. There are three components to this ministry, as I see it. The first is developing our theological and spiritual basis and proclaiming it to the world. That’s the conversation we’re instigating here today.

Another part is modifying our lifestyles to become more "green." This means highlighting the connections between our spiritual lives and our environmental consciousness, and seeking ways to address environmental injustices. And supporting each other in these changes, since the larger world for sure won’t help you. The Seventh Principle Project of the UUA has a congregation—based program called the Green Sanctuary that can help by providing a structure for this effort. It’s a program of study and action that the congregation takes on as a whole, to increase their understanding of the issues, make the connection with their theology and spirituality more explicit, and translate their values into justice in the community. I coordinate that program as part of my environmental ministry.

Finally, this earth ministry involves speaking our Truth, representing Unitarian Universalism in the wider world, including an inter-faith dialogue in our communities about caring for our local environment.

I believe deeply that it is in resistance to the status quo that we encounter the face of the divine, awaken to the call of the earth, and realize our deepest connections to the mysteries of human life. As lay people, you all can – indeed, you must – become involved in this work too. It takes all of us, not just a few of us, to do this sacred work.

So that’s my take on this theology of ecology. Now I’d like to invite you to respond to what I’ve said with your own perspectives. . .

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