I’ve just completed a two-week workshop on Earth-Honoring Faith at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I’ve written a series of short reflections on my experience here.
You can read them in this long blog post or download them in this pdf: Earth-Honoring Faith A to Z.
From A to Z – an Abecedary Journal of Reflections & Insights during the Earth-Honoring Faith Workshop at Ghost Ranch, July 2-8, 2017
David R. Weiss
A short note to those reading this “from the outside.” The Earth-Honoring Faith—Journey of the Universe workshop was the last of a ten-year series of EHF workshops curated by Larry Rasmussen at Ghost Ranch. Each workshop had a slightly different entry point (this year it was the film/book, Journey of the Universe) into conversation and reflection about how to midwife an “earth-honoring faith” in Christianity (but also in other faith traditions), one cognizant of current science, committed to addressing climate change, and able to foster a renewed mutuality with Earth and beyond.
Our incredible faculty for the week were:
- Larry Rasmussen, Reinhold Neibuhr Professor Emeritus, Union Theological Seminary. He is author of many books and articles on Eco-Ethics including Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key.
- Mary Evelyn Tucker, Senior Lecturer & Research Scholar at Yale University in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies. A specialist in Asian religions, she is co-author (with Brian Swimme) of Journey of the Universe, and carries out multiple projects with her husband, John Grim.
- John Grim, Senior Lecturer & Research Scholar at Yale University in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Divinity School, and the Department of Religious Studies. A specialist in Native American & indigenous religions, he is co-director (with Mary Evelyn Tucker) of the Forum on Religion & Ecology at Yale, co-author of Ecology and Religion, and co-director/co-editor of the Harvard conference/book series, World Religions and Ecology.
- Bill Brown, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Bill has written extensively on biblical perspectives of creation, including The Seven Pillars of Creation: Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder and Sacred Sense.
- Betty Holley, Professor of Environmental Ethics & African American Religious Studies at Payne Seminary and a presiding Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
- Julianne Lutz Warren, Fellow at the Center for Humans & Nature with a Ph.D. in conservation ecology. She is author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, an intellectual biography of his land ethic.
Each day at Ghost Ranch I set aside time in the afternoon and evening—often outside the Welcome Center until midnight—processing my thoughts from the day. Some are personal insights, most are drawn from the day’s presentations. They’re still largely unedited. And I didn’t write them in alphabetical order, but once I’d written the first couple (Night and Motion) I saw a pattern worth pursuing, and I followed it until I filled out the whole alphabet. I have so much more I could write about—and will. But this collection will be a seed packet. Who knows what will sprout from it?
Of course—these are MY reflections. They can’t begin to speak to the whole experience, but they offer a glimpse of mine.
Foreword – a reflection on my way to Ghost Ranch
Driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe I find myself swallowed—no, embraced—by landscape that is at once foreign and familiar. I don’t know this land. Not on the outside. I’ve only been a tourist here on a few brief occasions. But it seems as if this land knows me … as if, on the inside we are already well-acquainted.
Yes, there is a sparse stunning beauty on the horizon. The mountains, if not quite majestic are more than respectable. But it’s the close-up landscape that greets me like a friend. The scraggly land that only rarely—here and there, now and then—bursts into vibrant green. More often the land waits, unapologetically, between a dry brown and a windy tan, with only the barest hint of faded green. Like me.
This land echoes my inner landscape so well it is impossible not to feel instinctively at home, affirmed by the ground under my feet. It’s good to be here.
A is for Alchemy. In centuries past (likely still in some minds today) alchemy names the proto-scientific ambition that sought to transmute some common substance (usually some cheap metal) into something far more precious—often gold. Today we see it most often as a fool’s errand although the sincere diligence of its most ardent practitioners laid important groundwork for chemistry and pharmacy.
What I am learning this week is that while alchemy may well lie beyond the reach and patience of humanity, it is standard practice in the universe. From the Big Bang through supernovae and evolving life forms, alchemy is what the universe does. Starting with just quarks and leptons it fashioned hydrogen—and from there stars, planets, all the elements, oceans, plants, dinosaurs, and us.
It may overstate it to say the universe is consciously purposive. But is has been relentlessly creative and expansively expressive over its billions of year. Perhaps our place is not to play alchemist but to observe this alchemy already at play, to pursue an appreciative understanding, a posture of wonder, awe, gratitude.
B is for Bird. No happy tale, this one. Several years back the American Museum of Natural History was hiring an ornithologist (a bird expert). One of the most prestigious positions for an ornithologist in the world, the candidates were numerous and all top tier. When the search had been narrowed down to the final six candidates, each was invited to make a presentation on the bird that was the focus of their research.
At that point a sobering realization emerged. Of the six candidates, FOUR of them were studying birds that had gone extinct during the course of the researcher’s study. Life evaporating before their very eyes.
We aren’t perched on the edge of an extinction event; we have begun the cascade down the hill. As a direct result of this ominous intersection of human expertise and species extinction, the Museum added a dimension to their exhibits that treats the spiritual-religious facet of species loss, recognizing that this isn’t simply an historical event; it’s an existential one.
C is for Center. Our best science used to regard Earth as the center of all that is (which at the time wasn’t even the universe). Then Earth was displaced by the Sun (cause for no small bit of theological drama), but we still claimed the Sun-centered solar system as the center. Then we learned about not just stars but whole galaxies. And we discovered to our existential angst that we’re actually located in an outer arm of the Milky Way galaxy, swirling around its center, while floating in (what we thought was) a static universe. Now we know the universe itself is dynamic: in constant motion, still expanding from that initial Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago.
Here’s the scale: current best estimates are 100 billion or more stars in each galaxy—and likely as least one trillion galaxies in the universe. These galaxies are gathered in groups (of perhaps several dozen) that revolve around a center in their midst. These groups of galaxies revolve around yet another center in a cluster of galaxies (hundreds, perhaps thousands of galaxies to a cluster). And these clusters revolve around yet another center in superclusters of galaxies (comprising millions of galaxies at a time).
Here’s where it bends your mind. The center of our supercluster is a massive star at the center of the Virgo Cluster. Mathematical calculations confirm this star as “the” center of cosmic expansion. Everything is rushing away from this point. EXCEPT our best science right now says that every other supercluster (and there are millions of them) also has an exact center of cosmic expansion. There are millions of centers, all legitimately claiming with mathematical certainty and the gravitational pull to prove it, that THEY at the center of this universe. Boom. Mind blown. We can’t think that way for long.
But what if the same is true of religions? What if truth is not Christocentric or Judeo-Christian-centric or Abrahamic-centric? What if at the heart of all religions is a truth irreducible to others? What if, in our one universe, there are multiple centers of religious truth? Science (almost gleefully) bends our minds to tell us the truth of multiple cosmic centers. Would we expect spiritual truth to be any less challenging?
D is for DNA. Life’s evolved means of preserving the memory of its successes. Pythagoras’ greatest insight was his conviction that the essence, the ground of reality was not water, air, fire, but … number. Where many of us see only confusing equations, he saw sheer beauty in the endless array of precise mathematical patterns (including the theorem that bears his name).
But he couldn’t have known the extent to which he was right, not simply about abstract equations or the laws of physics or the exacting relationships that make for visual or auditory art, but about life itself. In DNA life codes its accomplishments in patterns. Meaning it doesn’t need to pass on each finished molecule from one generation to the next. It simply passes forward the genetic memory, the blueprint, so that each new generation can build on the last (occasionally improvising through mutations).
Most astonishingly if you think about it, through evolution DNA has “taken flight.” To some extent among animals who teach the use of tools, but especially among humans, with the development of symbol and language, life’s memory is no longer bound by genetic code. Through cultural tradition, religious heritage, the arts and humanities, and through scientific knowledge, we have “externalized” DNA.
Though hardly without risk. Our increased awareness, our self-consciousness, allows us to more actively “partner” with DNA than any other creature can. We help fashion the next generation by what we encode in rituals, books, and more. But whether by abusive eugenics, racist science, bigoted religion, or oppressive culture, sometimes what we pass forward is precisely what life would prefer to forget: dysfunctional hatreds that are hardly the fittest for survival. We have yet to learn how to consistently shape ourselves through wisdom.
E is for Earth. Every one of the speakers here refers to our planet as Earth. Not “the earth”; simply Earth as a name. It’s a rhetorical move I intentionally made in my own eco-speaking at churches over the past year, but I wasn’t aware of others doing the same. I do it to personalize the planet, to refuse to make language reduce this life-giving orb to an “It.” Following Martin Buber’s wisdom, calling Earth by name bestows a Thou-ness to the planet. (BUT—it’s a thou-ness that science increasingly suggests is less ours to bestow than to acknowledge.)
Tonight I recall words spoken this morning commemorating Rina Swentzell, a Pueblo wise woman and former teacher in this course who died not quite two years ago. Rina married an Anglo man and one of her daughters, Athena, spoke about how difficult it was growing up in the pueblo with features that followed her father’s Anglo heritage far more than her siblings. Just shy of outcast, she was consistently “edge-cast,” regarded as “less than” by many outside her immediate family. Athena said it was a tortuous childhood, yearning to belong, yet recognizing that belonging rests in the chosen embrace by others … in her case an embrace largely withheld. Until her mother told her as a young adult, “No, you don’t belong to the people. They do not choose whether you belong. You belong to Earth, and each day she upholds your feet, she is embracing you. You always belong.”
Here, too, Earth not only stands before us as Thou. Indeed, her grace is that she “thou”-s us unconditionally and irrevocably. We are because she claims us as hers.
F is for Fusion & G is for Gravity. That these letters fall right next to each other in the alphabet is both convenient and appropriate. A bit like yin and yang, fusion and gravity represent forces that can hold each other in check and that provide the creative tension in which the universe unfolds.
Consider: it is gravity, driven by unimaginable mass, that presses elemental particles together until fusion occurs, ultimately pressing hydrogen into helium, generating the explosive energy of a star. But that explosive energy, rather than simply exhausting itself, is captured again by gravity, triggering another cycle of fusion. A star’s life is an explosion caught in suspended animation—with an emphasis on both words. It isn’t a frozen explosion, it’s an ongoing explosion that never dissipates (well, at least not for billions of years).
Two side comments. Gravity, the physical force of attraction between all things that have mass, might be analogous to love, the emotional force of attraction that pulls persons together. I often remark that I have a “blended” family, since Margaret and I “blended” our children together when we married. But I’ve heard two people here describe themselves as being from “fusion” families—a notion I like because it acknowledges what I’ve known to be true: when families, like elemental particles, are fused together by love, something more than the mere sum of parts results. Something altogether new—with a burst of transformative energy to boot.
H is for Hope. But we begin with hevel, the Hebrew word that opens the Book of Ecclesiastes. Often rendered as “vanity” (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”), it’s a wispy word with lots of nuance. Other options: futility, absurdity, passing away, vaporous. One German commentator proposes Scheisse. It’s just the way life is: hevel happens.
Hevel speaks a real truth. Shit does happen. Our best hopes evaporate. Our dreams prove futile. These are undeniable aspects of human life. Absurdity makes a strong case for having the final word. Regarding climate change, hevel might ask, “What did you expect? Have you not been following human history? It’s populated by people with hevel for brains!”
But we need hope. So, consider hope a trustworthy hunger. How do we know it’s trustworthy? I’ll guess because it’s bound up with the memory of stars—the whole saga of the universe—woven into our psyches. We remain part of creation’s book, even if we’re no longer paying attention to the story. The story still claims us. I recall, playfully but purposefully, Winnie the Pooh and his honey pot. When Pooh gets lost in the woods, he follows the “rumbly in his tumbly”—his own trustworthy hunger—home to his honey pot. For us, the hunger to be at home on earth is trustworthy as hope comes. (I also believe religious traditions offer hope through their varied stories, symbols, and rituals. Personally, I see these as distinct doorways into the primal universal hope described above. My greatest “fluency” in is Christian hope, but I don’t regard it as more “true” than that of other traditions … or that of sheer scientific wonder. And some religious hope may be less earth-friendly than others.)
One caveat as we follow our hunger home. The more we re-member ourselves into the universe story, the more we’ll grieve for the pages we’ve ripped from the book (see “V is for Voices”). This grief is not disempowering, though it may be overwhelming. It represents the muted joy of getting closer to home.
Hevel happens, and is wont to revel in its happening. But hope—watered by tears—will have the last word. Because, finally, this story rests on perspective far larger and longer than ours. Be hungry. Go home.
I is for Intuition. How else to name the deep insights harbored in the sacred stories of indigenous peoples? (Plus, it was the word chosen by one of the Native women at our workshop.) I’m not concerned with the scientific “accuracy” of these many tales—and, I daresay, those who first told them weren’t either! Rather, these stories offered up the holy intuitions of those sages and seers in varied cultures whose vision outpaced science by centuries. Whose tales told truths far more fecund than mere facts. They tethered the people to the ground and sea, to the moon and stars, to the plants and animals, to the seasons of nature and the cycles of life. They didn’t imagine this web of life. No, they perceived its objective reality through the wisdom of their hearts. They saw our interconnections—often all the way to the stars—and simply spun tales so that others could hear the drama they intuitively knew.
I’m honestly not sure that modern ears (attuned to contemporary science and/or contemporary religion) can easily or fully “hear” what these indigenous traditions say today. The gaps in worldview are so great, it’s almost like trying to interpret a whale song. Such songs undeniably carry rich meaning, but rely on a “grammar” and “syntax” that we have yet to fathom. Regarding intuition, our contemporary minds have invested so much energy in linear-logical thought that we may well have rendered them incapable of hearing other tones. In which case, respectful listening to what we cannot hear may be the best we can do. And that virtue alone may help us hear.
J is for Journey. Of course. That’s the theme of the workshop: Journey of the Universe. In a nutshell, the point (the power!) of this unassuming phrase is that, far from being a static backdrop against our lives, the universe itself is an unfolding story—a drama, in which we have a role. This ought to humble us: we are, after all, players in a cast that includes supernovae and black holes—forces beyond anything we can conceive of. But it also ought to inspire us: we are the fruit of a story fourteen billion chapters in the making—and not one chapter is dispensable to our being here. It’s taken everything the universe has in it to reach this point where we step onto the stage. Whoa.
Sadly, we’ve assumed our role is to plunder our corner (read: planet) of the universe. Driven, I’d argue, by existential insecurity and a patriarchal order that equates dignity with dominance, we’ve invested deeply—and across centuries, perhaps millennia—in a project destined to be our death if we cannot find another role.
I recall the words of early feminist theologian Nelle Morton who said to her sisters, lest they be wearied by their own arduous journey toward gender justice, “the journey is home.” From Big Bang to first stars to our galaxy, our Sun, our Earth, we dwell within story upon story upon story. An endless cascade of journeys, one nested inside the other. Our role—uniquely ours because of our capacity for culture—is to be troubadours of the journey. To learn the stories as best we can and to find our place within them, offering songs (whether scientific, religious, philosophical, or artistic) that honor the journey we’re on.
K is for King. Today Betty Holley’s presentation on Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us see the profoundly creative connections between “King and the Cosmos.” Although understandably best known for his leadership in the civil rights movement, Betty showed how wholistic King’s vision of a truly universal justice was. It’s possible we prefer to keep King’s reach bound by race for our own comfort, but his words and wisdom touched on economics and militarization, indigenous rights and ecological concerns.
Far beyond the claim (itself resoundingly important[!]—though also historically conditioned) that “all men are brothers,” King also declared “all LIFE is inter-related,” comprising “an inescapable network of mutuality … a single garment of destiny.”
Moreover, his capacity to move the conscience of the nation on civil rights helped inspire the environmental movement—and the environmental justice movement (the wing of environmental activism focused also on racial justice). As Betty read through the Principles of Environmental Justice drafted in October 1991, the echo of King’s wholistic vision of justice, now embraced and developed by others, stilled the room in awe.
For me, it was a revelatory affirmation of what liberation theologians call the epistemological privilege of the poor: the clarity of vision that is uniquely accessible to those on the underside of systemic injustice. Suffering does not guarantee insight, but privilege almost always insures ignorance. And in this document, suffering’s voice is crystal clear. (http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html)
L is for Light. I’m a poet: I listen for evocative connections; I take delight in the suggestive. So listen to this. If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear, does it make a sound? I’d say, No. It’s sending out a puff of waves, but if there are no ears to hear them, it just vibrations moving through air.
God said, “Let there be light.” Did anyone hear that? God doesn’t have physical ears, and there were no humans and no animals around to pick up those “spoken” vibrations. I know, it’s all myth. I agree. But play along. Listen for the delight.
The Milky Way is a galaxy with a spiral structure. When scientists first noted its spiral “arms,” they thought the arms were comprised of matter swirling around the galaxy’s center. Now they understand that the spirals are caused by gravitational waves pulsing outward through the galaxy. Think waves of powerful attraction, waves of love.
Imagine the vibrations of God’s breath saying “Let there be light,” despite there being no ears to hear the words. Only silent vibrations pulsing outward. But as these words-waves move they pull gas clouds together with such force (love) that they IGNITE into massive stars—“Light!”—and burn for millions of years until they’re expended and the waves-words pulse further outward igniting more stars along the way. We SEE Genesis 1:3 occurring in the spiral arms of galaxies, the universe responding to God’s soundless-but-brilliant call for light.
M is for Motion. We started the morning 250 million years ago up on the mesa. The ground exposed under our feet used to host a jungle populated by dinosaurs. Part of Pangea back then (the great singular land mass before our current continents went their own ways) this ground was equatorial at the time. Like me, it traversed a thousand miles or more to get here this morning. Now some cosmic dance places us as partners. Here. Today.
Later on—the layers in the exposed mountains tell the story—this land was all sand dunes. Dried out by a mountain range, itself long since expired, that stopped all the rain on the western slopes. And millions of years after that, it was a large inland sea. Jungle, dunes, seabed. These are my neighbors in this place across time. And they have graciously welcomed me to the neighborhood.
N is for Night. Sunday night—my first night here. When have I known the comfort of such dark? When has silence been such an intimate companion? Too rarely, for sure.
My roommate headed to bed shortly after nine. I showered, gathered my things and headed to the library, where I read and reviewed notes for tomorrow’s conversation. From 9:30-10:30 I was alone … then the high school and/or college kids came. Hardly noisy, but the stillness was gone. By 11 I finished my work and had my phone & laptop fully charged. I made my way, clothed in darkness, to the Welcome Center where the rock patio stills holds a bit of the day’s warmth, and I have been sitting in the dark wrapped in nothing but stillness. No voices. No cars. No media. The lazy chirp of crickets at most.
I don’t imagine I could live like this daily. I know I could. In this expanse the voices that clamor inside me don’t feel so much urge to run amok seeking attention. They quiet down and organize themselves into something like a lilting symphony. A soothing melody with myriad variations that rolls like a lazy—friendly—river behind my thoughts without disrupting them.
I was made for silence. Sure, I am head over heels in love with words. But apart from silence, they become unruly noise. In the stillness they unfold themselves with the patience of leaves. It is such joy.
And this: whoever taught us to be afraid of the dark did so to keep us from learning the liberating wisdom that lies beyond sight. (Yes, I know there are things to fear in the dark, though no less fearsome things operate in broad daylight if we’re honest.) But darkness carries a beauty deeper than eyes can see. Not simply that it compels us to look inward—but that it reminds us, sometimes, simply to stop looking at all.
O is for O’Keeffe. Georgia O’Keeffe, of course. The famous artist stumbled upon Ghost Ranch in 1934, first spending summers here in a rented cottage, eventually managing to buy the house and a few acres of land. She spent her summers here exploring the terrain on foot and then capturing it on canvas. A loner all her life, she sought isolation on the Ranch and only uneasily fashioned alliances with the other residents. When she could no longer live at the ranch, she retired to Santa Fe, eschewing social contact to the end, declaring, “I find people very difficult.” Me, too.
I need to add—and quickly—that there are plenty of people I love: Margaret, my six kids, nine grandchildren, parents, siblings, and plenty of other family and friends to make a short working list.
But the truth is, my best gifts, my deepest joys and strongest sense of purpose, unfold mostly in solitude … and tend to wither in its absence. I might well fall prey to despair were I not tethered to others, but I need to cultivate space—especially in the form of time and solitude—for my best self to come forward more consistently. I want more “social balance” than Ms. O’Keeffe chose, but no less honesty. So, although I don’t say if very often, here it is: I find people very difficult. J
P is for play. Longer recess may have begun as a genetic mutation that lengthened our childhood, humanizing us in two distinctive ways. We see “play” in the young of many mammals—it carries an essential role in building the skills that equip them to successfully navigate their world. But as childhood lengthened dramatically for our earliest human ancestors, they spent successively more and more time “at recess.”
First, this meant their brains had significantly more time to mature while still young, tutored by play in ways that stretched and deepened cognitive development beyond anything the animal kingdom had ever seen. Second, one “by-product” of play that followed us into adulthood is doing things that bring delight as an end in themselves. Thus, sport, art, literature, music, dance are all instances of “play” polished to a fine point. Indeed, the freedom we experience as beings with a sense of choice is also a form of play carried forward into adulthood.
Ironically, under this hypothesis, we stand—in truth—not simply on the shoulders of our wisest elders, but equally on the giggles of those mischievous children in our distant past.
Carrying this notion one step further, many development theorists (I’m thinking particularly of James Fowler) posit a stage of post-conventional awareness in which adults—those who reach it anyway—experience a second naiveté, an ability to relish wonder and complexity with joy that is play in its richest form. Unfortunately, modern society—from education to market to employer to parish—all conspire to halt our development shy of post-conventional maturity. Today, more than ever, if we hope to bequeath a breathing planet to a next generation of children, we adults must remember how to link the knowledge we have to the wisdom of play.
Q is for Quest. I am my own worst critic. (That’s sheer assumption—maybe people say worse things about me behind my back than I imagine. I just know the critical voices in my head can be severe, even savage.) Blessed with many gifts, I rarely manage to bring them together with focus. Despite my plentiful passion, my days are usually defined more by distraction than determination, shaped more by my anxieties than my aspirations.
I’ll be honest. My “quest” in coming here was fundamentally to disrupt the distracting rhythms of my life sufficiently to re-center myself. Yes, “earth-honoring faith” is a central passion for me, and cultivating some contacts and deepening my understanding will be helpful. But I needed something more than another academic conference. I needed a setting that invited personal transformation as much as professional development. Ghost Ranch has been that for me. (And—holy shit!—I still have eight more days here!)
Maybe next week, after the workshop is over and I’m here as part of the Adult Service Corps (read: free labor for five hours/day), I’ll take in the museums and a few hikes. This week—maybe you’ve noticed—I’m writing. Processing each day’s ideas a bit, although I barely scratch the surface of all there is to think about. Most importantly, I am daily re-making myself. Giving words and silence the place they need in order for determination, focus, and joy to blossom in my life. (But see “V is for Voices”; this joy is both gracious gift to my soul and anchor for soul-rending grief.)
This is heart-work for me. Remembering who I am and what I need. Tending the desert in my soul. I came to the right place, surrounded by the right people, to do this work. And I’m determined to carry a well-tended desert back with me to the land of ten thousand lakes.
R is for Religious. I won’t argue if you’re skeptical. Religious traditions have done their damned best to stain their own image. They’re too often pressed into the service of top-down power and hierarchy. Wielded as cultural weapons rather than serving as wombs for wonder, they are—without question—ambiguous at best.
And yet, how else to stand before a world—from the terrain our eyes meet to the stars rushing away to ancient days beyond our gaze—a world “charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)? Go ahead and replace God with Mystery or Allure. Reduce it to a capital-G Grandeur, and put the period right there, if you wish. The bottom line is that, given our sensuous perception and given the world’s sheer Isness, our fundamental response should begin with wonder and awe.
And religious (keeping organized and institutionalized religion at arm’s length) is the human posture that allows wonder to wind its way like ivy around our lives. It invites awe to grow in our souls. Finally, being religious is not about believing in God or practicing strict rituals. It is about meeting the world with a deep bow of boundless gratitude. Now go practice.
S is for Stardust. It sounds fanciful to say, but it’s true, we carry stardust in our hearts. The iron that reddens our blood was born in stars. Indeed, all the elements that comprise this planet, from rocks to plants to animals—all of this is made from stardust. But we alone know this.
The Earth Charter, which we reviewed today, is glorious in its aspirational vision for our life together. It’s like a moral murmuration (see W is for Whirlpool): a glimpse of human lives moving in full alignment in a pattern of justice. It’s what moral consciousness looks like under the right conditions so that universal self-organizing dynamics can emerge.
It’s also a long way from aspirational charter to actual change. I get that. But stardust! In its powerful Preamble, the Earth Charter summons us, both individually and collectively, to a life geared toward “being more rather than having more.” That change needs to happen (and quickly, because the time is short!) in our lives, our communities, our common commitments, our governments, our actions of resistance and hope. But it begins in how we see ourselves. It begins in our hearts—the very stardust core of our being.
We are stars come to life. It’s time for us to trace our genealogy back to the beginning. To find our place in a proud family, where our ancestors truly shine down on us each night. A family where it is already an honor, already enough, simply to be.
T is for Touch. This is perhaps THE challenge of “earth-honoring faith.” Yes, we need to grasp the basics of the science, both cosmology and climate change. And, yes, we need to reckon soberly with the implications of our present economic-industrial inertia for our livelihood on the planet—and the livelihood of our fellow fauna and flora. But we need more than this.
We need to touch hearts. The stark numbers are essential, but they don’t tell the whole story. In fact, for most people, numbers don’t tell stories at all. Which is exactly why religion (and arts of every kind) have a crucial role to play here. We must move people to grief, to hope, to imagine, to resolve, to resist, to renew. Our knowledge must find expression in stories that can touch.
U is for Us. Though likely not the “us” to which your mind races. I’m thinking of the “us” in Gen 1:26. “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings …’” Many have wondered or argued at length over this “us.” Some say it’s simply an instance of “the royal ‘we,’” as when a monarch speaks on behalf of the whole realm. Others believe it shows God speaking to the angels. And still others hold that it reflects an early intimation of the Trinity. I don’t really care, but I’m going to cast my vote for a yet more evocative reading.
Genesis tells us, “God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation …’” creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …’” (1:11, 20, 24) I don’t imagine for a minute that the author of Genesis is making scientific or historical claims. He’s spinning a tale that will orient his people meaningfully in the world in which they dwell. But it does seem significant that he portrays a God who works with creation in creative partnership.
So, given what we know today of life’s unfolding course, why not read the “us” as God turning to the entire animal kingdom (all brought forth in the immediately preceding verses), and saying to them with a grand evolutionary invitation, “Now, let us—all of you creatures—let us together make human beings in our image … so that they carry within themselves both the seeds of creaturely roots and the aspirations of God.”
V is for Voices. A whole symphony of them. Silent. Silenced. Tonight we listened to audio recordings of birdsongs of five birds gone extinct in the past century. I was wholly unprepared. These songs were instances of aural beauty that will. Never. Be. Sung. Again.
We heard them tonight. Though not resurrected. Still fully dead. Songs from beyond the grave. As I listened a macabre scene played out in my head against my own wishes. I imagined myself plucking each bird, feather by feather, until I took each brutally bared body and twisted the neck to stop the song. Forever.
Julianne Warren’s presentation was as exquisitely poignant as anything I’ve experienced. Teary-eyed and breathless, I scrawled in my notebook, “Oh————you ripped a hole in my soul! I did not know how to feel such grief. Only that I needed to. And you led me there. What a strange thing to say ‘thank you’ for.”
I know, I’m not to blame. But my “innocence” does those birds no good. And I have my own strong intuition that hope is something sown deep in the soil of our souls, where it requires the salty water of tears before it sprouts. Tonight I watered hope.
W is for Whirlpool. This patterning effect occurring with water is emblematic of the self-organizing dynamics at work within the universe. Seemingly present at all levels of matter and perhaps responsible for producing the spark of life itself, these dynamics are manifest when matter—even at a very simple chemical level, encounters conditions that lead it to organize itself spontaneously (and without any outside direction) into a patterned and persisting order. From crystalline structures to nanoparticles, from whirlpools in water to murmurations by starlings, we see a universal tendency to resist entropy (the tendency toward disorder and chaos) with creative pattern.
Hardly inevitable unless the conditions are right, self-organizing dynamics might offer a clue to human morality. My own flight of fancy here (still refining it): is it possible that ethical principles like justice, compassion, altruism, mutuality and so forth are the “moral whirlpools” that appear in human consciousness—under the right conditions? Might they represent consciousness intuitively organizing itself for life-giving purposes.
Within matter, self-organizing dynamics arise only when the physical conditions are right—temperature, pressure, etc. Otherwise entropy holds sway. So … are there conditions—physical, social, spiritual—that are prerequisite to the emergence of life-giving morality? I suspect so. And it feels rather pressing to discern them before entropic morality (principles, to be sure, but ones “guiding” life toward chaos) wins the day … at least in this corner of the universe.
X is for X, X + 1. I know, it seems like I’m reaching here, but wait until you see where I’m going. This morning we looked at Proverbs 30:18-19 as a text showing the biblical declaration of wonder for creation. It’s an example of “graded numerical parallelism.” What does THAT mean? Glad you asked. Simply put, as Bill Brown, our speaker, explained, the first clause speaks of X number of things, and the next one makes the same clam regarding X + 1. J
Here’s the verses:
Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of one lover with another.
And here’s the wonder. The poem declares its awe for creation by exclaiming in wonder at the mystery manifest in natures three great domains—no, four. The way a bird moves across the sky, the way a snake moves across the ground, the way a ship moves across the waters—and, most especially, the way love moves across human hearts.
A simple poem, astonishing in its exquisite reach for wonder, made clear by x, x + 1.
Y is for You. Yes, you. It’s the penultimate letter in the alphabet, but I’ve saved writing this reflection until the very end. In Journey to the Universe (p. 122), Mary Evelyn Tucker & Brian Swimme describe the existential restlessness that marks humanity: “Other species found their biome and settled into it, but nothing has seemed to satisfy us fully. Every place we went we felt we were at home, yet not at home.” They go on to suggest that perhaps our vocation is to so immerse ourselves in the wonder of this entire place—from Earth to space—that “we become the human form of the universe,” and that perhaps only then will we find ourselves at home on Earth.
I agree. But my mind is still pondering the phrase “other species found …”, and I hear “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but …” (Luke 9:58)—which, of course, is Jesus talking about himself. And I can’t help but wonder, Were we mistaken in thinking he was talking only about himself? We (Christians, at least!) are eager to maintain Jesus’ monopoly on messianic status … as though that’s the highest honor we can accord him. But what if that “honor” undermines his entire message? (I’m just asking.)
But I am really asking. What if Jesus was actually modeling messiah—for all of us? As our universal vocation. What if incarnation is our common calling? What if being a Cosmic Christ—someone chosen by God … by the Universe … smeared with oil (anointed) … selected by evolution … seeded by stardust … to be representative of Love—what is THIS is my destiny—and yours? Yes, you.
Z is for Zest. Specifically, “zest for life,” a favorite phrase of Teilhard de Chardin. But “favorite” misstates it. For de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist and theological cosmologist, zest for life names the quality of the human spirit on which our survival depends. It is the perseverance to survive against all odds, the determination to get up again, and again, to press forward. But it is not Sisyphean fatalism or stoic resignation. Zest for life involves taking stark account of the situation in front of you, assuming full responsibility for the weight your choices carry for tomorrow, and drawing deeply on the subterranean spring of joy that feeds the soul … not with happiness but with something far grittier: zest for life.
Whether you conceive of this zest as fed by God or by Nature or by Human Spirit writ large, this zest—think faith in its most visceral expression—is quite likely what will determine whether tomorrow dawns on a world that includes us, or one in which our memory fades to extinction. So, here’s to Zest!
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David R. Weiss