Mother of Us All

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is by James Lovelock, the person who developed the “Gaia hypothesis” that the Earth taken as a whole acts as if it is a living being:

“…Had it been known then that life and the environment are closely coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute the air or use the Earth’s skin — its forest and ocean ecosystems — as a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left untouched because they were part of the living Earth.

“So what should we do? First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent….

“Unfortunately our nation is now so urbanised as to be like a large city and we have only a small acreage of agriculture and forestry. We are dependent on the trading world for sustenance; climate change will deny us regular supplies of food and fuel from overseas.

“We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.

“Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilisation the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.

“We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.”

[This opinion piece by Dr. Lovelock is from The Independent (London), 16 January 2006.]

The second reading is from Homeric Hymn no. 30 to Gaia. Please excuse the gender-specific language of this old translation from ancient Greek:

To Gaia, the Mother of All.

I will sing of well-founded Gaia (Earth), mother of all, eldest of all beings. She feeds all the creatures that are in the worlds, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly: all these are fed of her store. Through you, O queen, men are blessed in their children and blessed in their harvests, and to you it belongs to give means of life to mortal men and to take it away. Happy is the man whom you delight to honour! He has all things abundantly: his fruitful land is laden with corn, his pastures are covered with cattle, and his house is filled with good things. Such men rule orderly in their cities of fair women: great riches and wealth follow them: their sons exult with everfresh delight, and their daughters in flower-laden bands play and skip merrily over the soft flowers of the field. Thus is it with those whom you honour O holy goddess, bountiful, wife of starry Heaven; freely bestow upon me for this my song substance that cheers the heart!

[Homeric Hymns, ed. & trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classics (Cambridge, Mass.: Havard Press, 1914.)


This is the fourth and final sermon in series of sermons on Greek goddesses. You may recall that when I began this series, I said that the ancient Greek goddesses are examples of female god images from our own Western culture — these are goddesses who are an integral part of our Western cultural inheritance. For this final sermon on Greek goddesses, I would like to speak with you about Gaia, or Mother Earth. And while the previous goddesses I spoke about — Artemis, Athena, Demeter, and Persephone — are no longer all that familiar to us, we all know and are familiar with Mother Earth, Mother Nature, the goddess who comprises all living beings on the broad earth.

Furthermore, the ancient Greek goddess Gaia is of interest today because today we face vast ecological problems. These ecological problems require a religious response from us. A few of our Christian brothers and sisters do a better job — they’re the ones who talk about “creation care,” meaning that God created the earth so we better not mess it up, because if we do we’re going against God’s will. I don’t happen to feel comfortable with that theology, but I respect the fact that this a genuinely religious response to the ecological crisis.

So what might be a genuine Unitarian Universalist religious response to the ecological crisis? Of course we already promote religious respect for the Earth; people in this congregation do this in a variety of ways. Some among us are neo-pagans, and may in fact understand the Earth as worthy of religious veneration. Some among us are humanists, with a religious appreciation of the importance of scientific insights, including the insights of ecology and climate science. Some among us — and this is our oldest religious tradition — are Transcendentalists, and like Emerson and Thoreau we feel that there is some transcendent reality in Nature.

These are three of our religious approaches, and we could probably come up with several more. It would be easy to emphasize the differences among us. Instead, let’s meditate for a while on the ancient Greek goddess Gaia, a Mother goddess who is part of our Western cultural inheritance, and see where such meditation leads us.

1. To begin with, I’d like to tell you a little about that ancient Greek goddess, Gaia. In the second reading this morning, we heard an ancient Greek hymn to Gaia, extolling her many virtues. She is the “eldest of all beings,” the first to emerge from the chaos that existed at the beginning of everything. Gaia “feeds all the creatures that are in the worlds, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly.” It is she upon whom we human being depend for our very lives, and she can either bless human beings with a good harvest, or remove from them the means of life. If the ancient Greek goddess Gaia smiles upon humanity, then our farms produce good food for us, our houses are “filled with good things,” our cities are orderly, our sons “exult with everfresh delight,” and our “daughters in flower-laden bands play and skip merrily over the soft flowers of the field.”

All of which makes old Mother Earth sound like a delightful goddess indeed. But the ancient Greeks knew a Gaia who had her dark side, too; a goddess who was quite different from the sanitized versions of Mother Earth that seem to float around popular culture today. Let me tell you one of the gorier stories about Gaia:

In the beginning was Chaos, which was unformed stuff, or some say a bounded gap. Out of Chaos emerged Gaia, Mother Earth. Now after some indeterminate time, Gaia bore a son, who was named Ouranos, or the Heavens. Ouranos and Gaia had various children together, among whom was born Cronos.

Ouranos did not like some of his children, and he took his children Cottus and Briareos and Gyes and hid them away beneath the Earth. Gaia was angry at Ouranos for doing this, and she asked her other children to wreak revenge on their father. But only Cronos would follow Gaia’s plan — he took the sickle she gave him, ambushed his father, and castrated him. That was the end of Ouranos’s rule.

And there are many more rather grim stories involving Gaia: stories of monsters, stories where Gaia gets involved in a war with some other gods, more stories of revenge and hatred. There is a dark side to the ancient Greek goddess named Gaia. She was not all flowers and greenery; she was capable of wrath and destruction as well.

Our ancient Greek cultural inheritance portrays Mother Earth as a primal religious power. Gaia is not a greeting-card version of Mother Earth:– she is a powerful Mother Earth, who nurtures but who also participates fully in the total life cycle of birth and death. She is a goddess who is in some sense beyond real human comprehension. So the first part of our meditation on Mother Earth recognizes her great power.

2. From ancient Greek myths we jump forward a few thousand years to modern science, and we find that the name “Gaia” appears in the scientific world. Perhaps you have heard of the Gaia hypothesis. First proposed by James Lovelock in the 1960s, this scientific hypothesis proposed that the earth is a self-regulating system. as I understand it, the proponents of Gaia theory state that it is possible to understand the Earth as a living being, in the very specific sense that the Earth can be understood as the complex interaction of various systems. These interactions can best be modeled using non-linear mathematics, and a serious study of these interactions require scientists to look beyond the confines of their specific disciplines, so that biologists have to consider the effects of geology, and atmospheric and hydrospheric science on life forms, and vice versa.

Lovelock is a serious scientist who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and doctorates in medicine and biophysics. In spite of his academic credentials, his use of the name “Gaia” turned out to be quite controversial. Some scientists seemed to think that using the name of an ancient Greek goddess made it seem as if Lovelock was proposing that the self-regulating system of the earth is somehow conscious and capable of willful action. Lovelock has explicitly denied that he intended this, and he has said that he does not believe that we should consider the Earth as a thinking, feeling being. And in the ensuing years, others have begun talking about earth systems science, or geophysiology — terms which are perhaps less inflammatory.

While the term “Gaia theory” may sound imprecise to some scientists, from a metaphorical standpoint I think that name can be useful to us. We all know that widespread worship of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses has long since died out. But using the name for an ancient goddess might help us keep in mind the complexity embodied by Gaia theory — just as those ancient goddesses were complex and in some sense impossible for us humans to understand, the complexity of the relationships between the various systems of the planet Earth is beyond our current comprehension, and impossible to model with any degree of accuracy. This in turn might help us to be aware that our actions may have consequences that we cannot foresee and that we do not intend. And that should prompt us to be wary of anyone who proposes a simplistic solution to the ecological problems facing us.

We know that we should be wary of simplistic answers to complex questions; we know that human beings often do things that turn out to be pretty stupid in retrospect; and we know that the solutions to life’s problems are rarely simple. We don’t have to know anything about the non-linear mathematics behind Gaia theory to understand this. So the second part of our meditation on the goddess Gaia reminds us that while we know a lot more about how the universe works than did the ancient Greeks, there’s an awful lot that we still don’t understand.

3. And now I’d like to turn to consider our own religious tradition. For me, one of the central points of our Unitarian Universalist tradition is that we are ultimately hopeful. In spite of everything that is wrong with the world, we continue to believe that the arc of the universe tends towards justice; we continue to believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Even in the face of evidence that things are not going particularly well, we continue to believe that we can make a positive difference in the world.

Right now, there is a fair amount of evidence that things are not going particularly well. I mentioned the scientist James Lovelock earlier; in the first reading this morning, from a recent article by Lovelock, he calmly states his belief that we are already past the tipping point of global climate change. Many of us would disagree with Lovelock on this point, but even so there’s plenty of other evidence that things are not going well in the world. If you pay attention to the news you can find plenty of evidence that implies that the world is currently in a handbasket, and it is not heaven to which we are headed to in that handbasket.

It is in times like these that we need hope. I would suggest that the image of Mother Earth can serve as a powerful symbol of hopefulness. Mother Earth is a mother. By definition, mothers are mothers because they have children: whether they have biological children or other kinds of children, by definition mothers care for children, nurture them, believe in them. Referring to this image as Gaia might help remind us that this remains an image, a symbol, not reality; that we are constantly striving to turn that image into reality. But it is an image that can lead us forward in hopefulness.

Raising children is an act of hope. Whenever we see a child, whenever we see new life starting out, we have the hope that this child will be one of the ones who helps make the world a better place. In the first reading this morning, James Lovelock says that human civilization should be the heart and mind of this planet. Whenever we see a child, we have the hope that this child will participate in the great work of maintaining civilization as the heart and mind of our planet. Yes, we adults do our part, to the best of our ability: but we always hope that the children in our lives will soar beyond our own efforts.

I would say that children are central to my religious outlook, even though I have no children of my own. Caring for children is central to my religious outlook, because in caring for children lies my hope for the future. For me, a central purpose of any religious community must be to raise children to help them become good adults; to instill in them the idea that there is more to life than being a good consumer; that we human beings must always strive to reach the highest moral and ethical ideals. In this sense, religious communities act like the best of mothers: nurturing, caring for, and believing in the children in our midst. As Unitarian Universalists, we can believe whatever we wish about God; but we are religiously called to create a religious community that nurtures the rising generations. This is how we live out the essential hopefulness of our Unitarian Universalist faith.

So in closing, let me say: happy Mother’s Day. Care for the children. Care for the earth. The two are synonymous. And mothers are central to it all.