From Dust to Dust – Coming Home
David R. Weiss – March 1, 2021
For Christians who observe Lent, the solemn season began on Ash Wednesday (February 17), with our foreheads marked with ashes as a sobering, tactile reminder of the words spoken to Adam and Eve, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). That “dust” isn’t the collection of sundry specks that seeks to cling to our furniture; it’s the dust from which God created us: it’s earth.
It is at once a humbling and ennobling assertion. Humbling: we are but mortal. Our personal end is … guaranteed. (If we’re honest, the ends of our families, nations, civilizations, and even species are guaranteed, too, if the time frame is made long enough; mortality is a bitch.) And yet, there is a gracious nobility hidden within: you … and you … and you—you have loaned your heart and mind to Earth itself, bringing 4.6 billion years to self-conscious and awe-filled fruition in your mortal frame.
We tend to forget the ennobling part, but, as if on cue, the United Nations reminded us of this on February 18, releasing a new UN Environment Programme report, Making Peace with Nature (MPN). Admittedly the reminder comes cloaked in paradox. Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, describes the report as offering “the bedrock of hope,” while also declaring that humanity is, at present, “waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature.”
Before MPN sets out its peace plan, it describes the triple emergency we face: climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and pollution that overwhelms ecosystems. It is an emergency of our own making. And, while “triple” in one sense, these aren’t discreet crises that can be addressed apart from each other, they’re interlocking crises fracturing planetary wellbeing. We address them together, or they will—together—unravel the planet and our wellbeing.
Making Peace chronicles in painful detail how our present policies and practices are not merely unsustainable—they’re senseless (indeed, economically counterproductive) and suicidal (on track to produce absolutely catastrophic repercussions for human society). Worse, they’re systemic and structural and cultural: embedded both in the economic and political systems by which we have chosen to organize our life, and also in the very habits and customs (and beliefs) by which we fashion meaning. We’ve been betrayed by the very systems we imagined promised us prosperity.
However, the report goes on to say it needn’t be this way. It is (yet*) possible to choose a sustainable future. There are actionable policies and practices that could meet the conditions of sustainable human civilization on a finite planet. And MPN lays these out in detail as well.
*About that “yet”: the report is brutally clear: we have AT BEST a decade to demonstrate a once-in-a-civilization resolve that has been woefully lacking for the past half-century. That doesn’t mean we have a decade to waffle, whine, fret—and then act. No. We now have one decade—of which every year, including this one, is essential—to shift the paradigm by which we organize life on the planet. And do so, mind you, as prelude to a century of concerted effort to sustain that shift and deepen it. In fact, that “yet” is so precarious, the counsel is often to deliberately understate it, lest people be incapacitated by its precarity. But there comes a time when so much is at stake that the difference between sounding an alarm and precipitating a panic, is the difference between telling the truth today or being swept away by that same truth tomorrow. I’m telling the truth. Today.
To borrow a metaphor from last month’s story regarding United Flight 328, when one engine is out of commission and on fire in plain view of passengers, it’s actually a good time to BOTH stay calm AND call out with total conviction and urgency, “mayday—need a turn immediately.” If the UN Report were a visual map it might well place a star by that mayday call and write, “you are here.”
In January, just a month before MPN was released, seventeen climate scientists published a piece in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Conservation Science titled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.” Ghastly. Now that’s not a word you often see—or hope to see—in a meticulously referenced (about 170 sources cited) scientific article about our future. But they’re quite serious. Citing the same crises noted in MPN and more, they assert we are currently living so far beyond the carrying capacity of the planet (a condition called “overshoot”) that it’s fair to say “humanity is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society robs nature and future generations” to pay for an unsustainable present. When they summarize the cascading consequences awaiting us if we continue to mostly posture and pontificate, it reads like an over-the-top zombie movie script. They conclude, “The predominant paradigm is still one of pegging ‘environmentalism’ against ‘economy’; yet in reality the choice is between exiting overshoot by design or disaster—because exiting overshoot is inevitable one way or another.” Again, “you are here.”
Still, Making Peace with Nature also charts a path toward a future in which we are at peace with Earth. It is technologically possible, even if it’s a far stretch politically. But if there was ever a time to attempt such a far stretch, now is that time. And MPN offers an integrated, systemic plan, both for achieving sustainability and also for overcoming the resistance posed by “vested interests that benefit from preserving the status quo.” Of course, the technological challenges, steep and costly as they are, pale next to the political ones. And the political challenges are so foreboding because they’re so misshapen by wealth and power. Sometimes held by corporations or political parties; sometimes wielded by lobby groups and individuals; and sometimes exercised by societal centers of value such as cultural institutions, extremist organizations, and religious traditions.
While actions at the individual level (household recycling, “greener” diet, transportation choices, etc.) are critical to cultivating personal integrity and empowerment—and even though every little action adds up—on the scale of the triple crisis, these actions, even when multiplied, don’t add up to much. To really effect change we need leverage points that access power on a much larger social-political scale (which does not, however, lessen the value of the italicized first sentence in this paragraph).
Perhaps understandably, the UN report never calls out the role of religious communities or whole traditions in expanding the realm of the possible in politics. Global policy papers seem reticent to ask (or accuse) religious traditions of much at all. As for me, I’m happy to do both.
Making Peace identifies eight leverage points able to move the dial toward a new paradigm and a sustainable future. The first three are: (1) Paradigms and visions of a good life; (2) Consumption, population, and waste; and (3) Latent values of responsibility. How we envision a good life … and where our patterns of consumption, reproduction, and waste intersect with that … and how actively we invest ourselves in responsibility for the well-being of our neighbor and the health of God’s creation … all these things are impacted by—often directly rooted in—the deepest (often religious) values we hold. Thus, religion will play an inescapable role in EITHER talking us down from the ledge of ecological annihilation, OR (wittingly or otherwise) encouraging us to hurtle ourselves—and half of God’s creation—off the ledge and into oblivion. It’s one or the other.
Yes, religion’s social influence is less than it once was—especially for mainline/liberal Christianity. And, yes, Christianity (and religion in general) have been at least as much a liability as an asset on ecological issues for the past several centuries. Nonetheless, when it comes to actually harnessing imagination and motivation for a common purpose at a level sufficient to impact an entire society there may be no institution that can do so as effectively as the church—that is, were it to make these leverage points the crux of being the church today.
Frankly, were it not to do this, the church will have abandoned any legitimacy for bearing witness to God’s love for creation. Unfortunately, overall, the church has thus far produced more fancy rhetoric than fierce resolve. If that sounds harsh, reread the part above about the entire human race having now just one decade during which we must either flip our entire paradigm of how we relate to nature … or we’ll have chosen to embrace a “ghastly future” for those who come after us.
We do not need more social statements about creation. We need to transform our entire lived witness—worship, education, fellowship, service, accompaniment, and advocacy—so that it forms us into persons who love nature as passionately as God does and are committed to stand in solidarity with creation and in resistance against the forces that threaten it. AND—we must do this as swiftly and dramatically as we did for Covid-19. We’ve shown, in response to the pandemic, that we are capable of swift and dramatic transformation. Now we must do so on behalf of all creation. (Or else.)
Which brings me back, at last, to the season of Lent and that Ash Wednesday reminder that we are dust. If being dust, dirt, earth is framed always as a curse—as something we find humiliating and are wont to forget, escape, or overcome—perhaps it’s no wonder we have played spiritual midwife to an entire culture intent on dominating nature, imagining ourselves somehow apart from it, and locating God in an absolute sense as pretty much anywhere but here.
How can we possibly begin “making peace with nature” until we reclaim the truth that we ARE nature? These ancient creation accounts in Genesis are myth; neither poor science nor pretend history, they’re tales that carry truth. And one truth is that before sin wracked Eden, when God breathed life into earth—culminating, as it were, some 4.6 billion years of gestation—God called that dust-bound humus being very good.
If we can remember that this Lent, we might find ourselves pulled faithfully into the fray of shifting away from a paradigm that promises to kill us all toward one that offers life … finite, abundant, and sustainable. The truth is that both while we are living dust and also when we return to dust, we are, as God intended, at home.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.