Ecotheology at the Pond

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2005 Daniel Harper.


The reading this morning comes from the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau:

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows….”

SERMON — “Ecotheology at the Pond”

The story of Henry David Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond has entered our common mythology. Even though not many people actually read the book Walden, probably most of us know the outlines of the story. I’ve begun to think that story is pointing us in the direction of a new theology, and ecological theology or eco-theology. The story as it’s written in the book goes something like this.

Henry Thoreau had grown frustrated by a society that drove the divinity out of human beings: it is bad enough to be a slave in the southern states, but, said Thoreau, it is “worst of all when you are the slavedriver of yourself.” Thoreau looked around and saw that his neighbors were enslaved by owning farms, and holding down jobs, and having to work, work, work without time for reflection, without time for oneself. So he decided to try an experiment: he would go off into the woods where he would build himself a little cabin, and grow some of his own food, and pick up work as a day laborer when he needed some cash. His experiment was designed to show that it was possible to live comfortably while working only a few hours a day, leaving plenty of time for reading, contemplation, and spiritual growth.

With that object in mind, Thoreau got permission to live on some land near Walden Pond. He borrowed an axe from a friend and set to work building himself a cabin, which appropriately enough he moved into on July 4th, Independence Day, thus celebrating his independence from the slavery his neighbors suffered under. He planted a couple of acres with beans and other vegetables (he was a vegetarian, so he didn’t need to keep any animals) and picked up the odd job here and there. But mostly, he was able to devote his time to long conversations with friends, reading and study, writing, and (most importantly) spending time in Nature.

And then at the end of two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau decided it was time once to again become what he ironically termed “a sojourner in civilized life.”

Using conventional theological terms, you could say that Walden is a book about salvation. But Thoreau does not offer a conventional salvation story of the kind we’re used to hearing in our culture. Thoreau isn’t saved by his belief, and he doesn’t have to make an altar call. No angels descend from some heaven to redeem him, nor is he saved by the influence of some other person. Instead, he is saved by profound encounters: he is saved by deep conversations, by reading and writing, and above all by transcendent encounters with Nature. I happen to think this unconventional salvation story has a lot to offer us as Unitarian Universalists, so I’d like to explore this a little further.

First and foremost, Thoreau’s story of salvation suggests to us Unitarian Universalists that we don’t need to work so hard. I suspect this is the hardest message for us to hear because we Unitarian Universalists like to take the weight of the world on our shoulders, thinking that we have to solve all the world’s problems by ourselves. We are obsessed with doing social justice work, to the point where we believe we are bad human beings if we are not working on at least five all-consuming issues. We are obsessed with social justice work sometimes to the point where our entire lives become consumed with social justice, where we have jobs doing social justice and where our leisure time is consumed with doing social justice and our families become laboratories for doing social justice work and where all our friendships are centered around social justice projects — or if we’re not living our lives that way, then we think we’re bad human beings. We judge each other by these high standards.

But in Walden, Thoreau challenges this notion of ours. If you read Walden carefully, you realize that Thoreau is in fact engaged in social justice work the whole time he lived at the pond. In the chapter titled “The Village,” Thoreau writes:

“One afternoon, near the end of the first summer, when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler’s, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house.”

In other words, Thoreau engaged in civil disobedience because of his opposition to governmental practices. Then in the chapter titled “Visitors,” Thoreau writes in his characteristic mix of levity and dead seriousness:

“Men of almost every degree of wit called on me in the migrating season. Some who had more wits than they knew what to do with; runaway slaves with plantation manners, who listened from time to time, like the fox in the fable, as if they heard the hounds a-baying on their track, and looked at me beseechingly, as much as to say, ‘O Christian, will you send me back?’ One real runaway slave, among the rest, whom I helped to forward toward the north star.”

In other words, Thoreau’s cabin functioned at least once as one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. We’re also pretty sure that he was involved in the Underground Railroad in other ways, beyond helping that one real runaway slave to freedom.

Thoreau was deeply involved in social justice work, but I feel his social justice work arose from his religious convictions, not the other way around. It’s tempting to believe that your duty to doing social justice work is more important than religious introspection and reflection. But I’ve seen what happens to a person who fills his or her whole life with such duty: his or her whole life fills up with social justice work and there is no more room for him or her; the self disappears leaving an empty husk enslaved to social justice work. It’s one thing to go to jail and lose your freedom because you know what you’re doing; it’s another thing to become enslaved to duty, to be a slave with the hounds baying on your track and you wishing for an Underground Railroad to save you from yourself. Equally troubled are the people who are enslaved by guilt, who think (rightly or wrongly) that they don’t do enough social justice work. Guilt can put you in chains stronger than any iron.

So it is that Thoreau warns us against enslaving ourselves, warns us against living lives of quiet desperation, and he gives his own story as one example of how we might escape from all kinds of such slavery.

Which brings us to something else Thoreau’s story of salvation offers us Unitarian Universalists. Once we clear some space in our lives by freeing ourselves from the quiet desperation of always having to do something, we have the time and the space to engage in deep conversations. Thoreau said that was one problem with his small cabin:

“One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words…. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plough out again through the side of his head.”

That’s one of the blessings of our huge old building: we have the space for our big ideas to ricochet around a little bit before we hear them. And it’s not just this big old grand room, but the other rooms, too. I’m always glad when I go into Social Hour that the ceilings are so high and the rooms so broad, notwithstanding the fact that we can’t afford to heat them adequately this winter, because I feel the need for all that room; I love Social Hour best when I hear big thoughts uttered in big words, in those big old rooms.

Nor need we limit our conversation to each other. One of the most remarkable things about Thoreau’s Walden no longer seems so remarkable: he wrote the book just a few short years after the first English translations of such classic religious scriptures as the Bhagavad Gita, the Confucian Analects, and the Koran; and in those few short years, Thoreau had already started deep conversations with all those texts. We forget how radical he was, having a religious and spiritual conversation that went beyond the Bible, and the Greeks and Romans, to include all the great scriptures of the world. No wonder he needed so much space for his conversations.

That’s two reasons why we need lots of space in our own lives. It requires lots of space to have a real conversation with another human being; we can’t have those conversations in a cramped space, because our thoughts will just plough through each other’s heads. And it requires lots of space to have conversations with the wisdom of the ages, with the great religious scriptures of all ages and all cultures. Lacking both these kinds of conversations, we become less than human. Lacking these deep conversations, we become automatons who thoughtlessly carry out tasks with which we have enslaved ourselves.

Which brings us to yet something else Thoreau’s story of salvation suggests to us Unitarian Universalists. In traditional Western culture, we have two most important types of relationships. First, there’s the relationship we have with each other; second, there’s the relationship we have with God. (These two types of relationships apply to atheists, too, because for Western atheists it’s critically important to show that humanity has a null relationship with God because there is not God.) These two types of relationships are summed up by Jesus, a figure of central importance in Western culture, when he says that we only have to worry about two commandments: we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love God with all our hearts and minds.

Thoreau adds a third type of relationship: the relationship of humanity to Nature, to the natural world; and he puts this third type of relationship at the center of his book. In Thoreau’s story of salvation, our relationship with Nature is a saving relationship. In our reading this morning, Thoreau almost anthropomorphizes the Natural world, making a pond seem like an eye:

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature. The fluviatile trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows….”

Yet Thoreau says it looks like an eye because in it we measure the depth of our own nature. So it is with any deep and abiding relationship: we become more human and more who we are through that relationship. To say this is to link our personal salvation with the salvation of Nature. With the Arctic ice cap melting and rain forest disappearing and species after species of animal slipping into extinction, we’re not just talking about some kind of abstract salvation, we’re talking about literally saving endangered species and whole ecosystems — we’re talking about literally saving ourselves.

The dominant theology in our Western culture is quite explicit: we human beings have dominion over the natural world, and we are told by God to go out and subdue that natural world. But Thoreau says we don’t have to dominate Nature in this way; instead, we relate to Nature as a source of wisdom, as a place for healing and reflection.

I am captivated by Thoreau’s story of Walden. He lives by a pond for two years. There he finds that a satisfying life does not require him to work constantly. There he finds that a life where he’s not constantly working allows him time for deep conversations with other people, and with the wisdom of the ages. There he finds that instead of having to fight against the natural world and subdue it, we can live in Nature, that we can as it were engage in deep conversations with Nature.

At the end of the book, Thoreau leaves Walden Pond and goes back to take up his life in Concord village. He ends the book by saying, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.” The end of the book is but the beginning.

I started off this sermon by saying that Henry Thoreau had grown frustrated by a society that drove the divinity out of human beings. I, too, have grown frustrated with a societey that drives the divinity out of us human beings. Our society drives the divinity out of us by keeping us constantly busy, and constantly working. Even when we retire, we are expected to keep busy by immersing ourselves in innumerable projects. This constant busy-ness distracts us from our true natures, from our true humanity; we enslave ourselves with our busy-ness; and the result is that we constantly complain that we have no time. We don’t have any time, enslaved as we are, because our time does not belong to us any more.

Because we have no time, we can no longer take the time to engage in deep conversations. Nor do we have time to cultivate three kinds of relationships: relationships with each other, relationships with whatever it is that is divine in this world, and relationships with Nature. When we don’t cultivate these relationships, we become less than human; we are lost, not saved.

In order to reclaim our humanity, eco-theology calls on us to save ourselves, to liberate ourselves from being slaves to busy-ness. If we lose our basic humanity, we will continue to be enslaved; and we will continue to enslave other people because we can no longer know their basic humanity; we will either lose our connection with the divine or become enslaved by a warped notion of divinity; and we will continue to enslave and exploit Nature.

Thoreau offers us just the beginnings of an ecological theology, just a glimmer, as when the first light of the sun begins to light up the sky behind the morning star. A hundred and fifty years after he wrote his book, we can still glimpse that beginning; we haven’t done much more than glimpse that beginning; and while we have managed to end the legalized slavery of African Americans, we still are far from liberation.

A path of ecological theology seems to open before us. It appears to be a path of liberation. I believe ecological theology may help us understand better the links between the destruction caused by racism, and the destruction caused by exploiting Nature, and the destruction of our very souls by dehumanization. I believe this kind of theological exploration will be the most important conversation we have together as Unitarian Universalists — but there’s still a lot of exploring to do. You can be a part of this exploration — all you have to do to start is to clear a little time in your life to call your own, time when you can come here and be a part of this conversation.