So I took a course recently in order to prepare for my sabbatical. My sabbatical will be about spiritual disciplines outside of the church. This weblog is part of it. The course was an attempt to work on thinking scientifically and ecologically rather than philosophically and theologically. It has been a long time since my college science courses and I wanted to get an update on the language and a reminder of how to think scientifically about environmental issues. In the end the course was a bit of a dud. However, The syllabus was excellent and the assignments generated a lot of material. My final project was a three part "presentation" on religion and environmentalism. So...here is Section 1!
Note: I do not normally write out an entire presentation, preferring an outline format. However, this particular 30-50 minute speech/workshop is based on a 15-minute sermon on the same subject that I gave during this class. You can still see parts of the way I format my sermons. Apologies for any unconventional punctuation. The actual presentation would probably not be read directly but would hit these points.
Context: This is set in the context of the original sermon, which is to say The Eliot Church of Natick, MA, located in the western suburbs of Boston, and affiliated with both the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association made up mostly of teachers, social workers, nurses and the like. Naturally It assumes their background, which includes a firm grounding in the scientific method.
Section 1: State The Problem
Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that “When [the Buddha] was challenged by Mara–who personifies delusion–[he] touched the Earth…and said ‘With Earth as my witness, I will sit here in meditation until I realize true awakening.’”
(from a short meditation entitled “Touching the Earth”)
There are few places where we can go today; where we human beings are not in charge, where we have not altered the landscape or the ecosystem in some way. After all, we can hike through the White Mountains among some of the tallest peaks in New England–places that feel so remote and wild to our citified and suburbanized selves–only to reach an open place. There we look down and see the result of human activity; towns and forest operations…and ski resorts…and the long ribbon of Interstate 93, which is how we all got there in the first place.
The ecosystem that supports us is fading. We know this.
We hear and read stories about “mountain top removal” in southern Appalachia, where whole hills and mountains are destroyed, sending toxic fumes into the air and toxic runoff into the water and the land below, permanently destroying the landscape. We know about Climate Change. The increasing levels of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that have created this crisis are the result–we know–of our own human conveniences and economic desires.
Also, we are well aware of more local issues. That Increased car and foot traffic in the White Mountains is an example. We know that this is the tip of the iceberg in the somewhat paradoxical situation we eco-tourists can find ourselves in. We also know that there is collateral damage evey time we leave our houses, whether we are going to work or to play.
Even more locally, the debate around the removal of the spillway across from our church is another example. We have a choice to either free and repair the river’s ecosystem that has been struggling for almost a century or keep it, preserving human memories and perhaps property values along the shore. We know, or have learned through this last debate, about the diverse ecosystem of the Charles River–whose Algonquin name is Quinobequin–that we rely on in our human-constructed neighborhoods. And we have learned about how much healthier it could be if we gave nature more power over its future and gave ourselves less.
In the noise of all these discussions–from the global to the particular–there are occasional fights over facts. There is actual confusion on the particulars, which is to be expected. However, the fight goes farther than that. I guess there are some folks who would like to fight over those details, to bend the truth to fit their needs.
I don’t want to get bogged down arguing scientific facts like they are opinions. The forces at work are well-researched and documented. They have been tested and we know that the ecosystem that supports us is fading because we do not seem to be able to change our ways. We can argue other things–like what to do with these facts and where to put our priorities–but the facts remain. The earth is warming because of us. The water and the air are filthy because of us. We may have passed the tipping point of sustainability, again, because of us.
Now, compounding the issue is that–In the midst of all the other very real and very immanent crises–this environmental crisis seems slow moving. As if we could put off worrying about these things until we fix other things. We can’t wait, of course, and we shouldn’t. These issues are intertwined, after all. At the UCC webpage you can find a statement from the People of Color Environmental Summit, for example, that makes that message clear.
They state, in part, that they “Hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples”
Which is to say, that the old argument of economics, or defense, or jobs, versus the environment perpetuates a false dichotomy. A just and sustainable human ecology requires all of us to live in ways that do not destroy our home.
So, let’s return to the topic of “touching the Earth”. As many of you know, over the year I have made a study of this. I have been concerned with finding ways;
To return to conversation with creation
To take time out of the manufactured human rush
To reflect and to communicate with the natural world
To Touch the Earth as Thich Nhat Hanh says
And see what this planet, this universe, this holy Creation has to say.
How do we do it? How do we touch the Earth? Needless to say, given my tendencies, I believe that we must approach the issue spiritually and religiously. We must make our connection to Creation our “practice.” We must, in fact, practice it every day.
Now, those of you who know what I am talking about when I mention looking down from a high mountain and seeing the highway must have climbed a mountain or two. You must already have the seeds of this practice within you. So before we move on, let us take a moment, first in silence to lift up those connections, and then to share them with your neighbor.
First: 1 minute of silence
Then: 5 minutes of sharing
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I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.