Sermon is copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.
This sermon is one in an occasional series where I attempt to relate one of the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association to current events, and to our congregation.
This week I thought I’d speak to you about the looming environmental disaster. The second reading this morning serves as an adequate reminder of the challenges we face, and I don’t think we need to rehearse the details of environmental disaster. I am sure most of us here this morning are all too aware of the problems we face. Nor do I want this to turn into one of those doom-and-gloom sermons. Instead, I’d like to reflect on what we might do as a religious community.
And it seems to me that we need a spiritual response to environmental disaster. Technological fixes will be necessary. Changes to our neoliberal capitalist economic system may be in order. Yet it seems to me technological and political and economic fixes are necessary, but not sufficient, for addressing environmental disaster.
This is not an original argument on my part. Back in 1966, historian Lynn White, Jr., presented an influential paper titled “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” White contended that our current ecological crisis began in the Western world when our culture made the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. During the Enlightenment, the Western world began to draw a firm boundary between human beings on the one hand, and on the other hand all non-human organisms and rocks and soil and air and everything else. Furthermore, the Western worldview began to believe that we human beings are more important than anything else. And Westerners justified this new worldview with religion. For example, there’s a passage in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 1:28, which reads: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” [KJV] This was interpreted by many Westerners to mean that we humans were separate from the rest of Nature, and we could do whatever we want with everything else on earth. Even now, in our allegedly secular age, this religious worldview still dominates our thinking.
We may not quote the Bible any more in our secularized world, but it is an unquestioned axiom for most Westerners that we human beings have dominion over the non-human world. We humans get to make all the decisions. We humans don’t really need to consider any non-human viewpoints. If we do consider non-human viewpoints, we do so at our sole discretion.
This new Western worldview set up categories of binary opposites. We Westerners like to believe that there is humanity on the one hand, and Nature on the other hand. Nature is waiting to be tamed or subdued by humanity. Similarly, we tend to believe that mind and body are separate, with body waiting to be tamed by mind. And again, we Westerners believed for many centuries that man and woman were binary opposites, with women waiting to be tamed or subdued by men. Many people here in the United States still believe this about women. And we Westerners have believed for many centuries in a binary distinction between Civilization and Savagery, with Savages waiting to be tamed or subdued by civilized men (and I do mean men; in this worldview, it’s the men who do the subduing). So Westerners gave themselves permission to kill off the indigenous peoples of the United States, and to develop the brutal system of chattel slavery for people of African descent.
Our post-medieval Western worldview tends to categorize everything into binary opposites: mind – body; man – woman; civilized – savage; humanity – everything else. For each of these binary opposites, one of the opposites is more powerful and has dominion over the other binary opposite. This worldview helps justify colonialism, sexism slavery, and so on. This worldview gives license to the more powerful of the binary opposites to dominate the Other.
This remains the dominant worldview in the United States, and has real-world effects. Many people in our country still believe in the binary opposite of men and women, with the result that transgender people are discriminated against, women are no longer allowed to have abortions in many states, and women still earn less than men for the same work. Many people in our country still believe in the binary opposite of white-skinned people and non-white people, with the result that we can document significant differences in health and wealth among people simply on the basis of their skin color, and we also have a loud minority of white people who say that people of color should be ruled by white people. Many people in the United States still believe in the binary opposite of humanity versus the non-human world, with the result that it is considered perfectly acceptable to exploit the non-human world, as long as it benefits at least a few human beings.
I suggest that this is a religious or spiritual problem. We Westerners think of religion in terms of belief, but religion and spirituality are really about worldviews. Thus it becomes a spiritual exercise to stop thinking that one binary opposite should subdue or dominate the other binary opposite. We need to figure out a different worldview. And we Unitarian Universalists are especially well placed to do this work. We’re already heretics. We already know how to reinterpret Western religion so that it becomes less destructive.
Let’s return to that passage from the Hebrew Bible: “God blessed [the human beings], and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” As Unitarian Universalists, we have already come up with alternative ways to interpret this passage from the Hebrew Bible.
Our first reinterpretation of this Bible passage comes from feminism. As the second wave of feminism took hold within Unitarian Universalism, way back in the 1960s, we began to understand that “to have dominion” and “to subdue” are not the same thing as “to completely destroy.” As feminists, we would agree with Rosemary Radford Reuther, who in her book “Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing,” pointed out that the role of humans in this Bible passage is not that of “an owner who can do with it what he wills,” but rather that of a steward who is caring for the earth. We have not been given permission to cause some of God’s creations to go extinct.
Henry David Thoreau came up with another way to rethink that old passage from the Hebrew Bible. In 1862, in his essay “Walking,” he said, “in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” It should be remembered that Thoreau was raised as a Unitarian. However, he became an ardent abolitionist, and he left Unitarianism in part because the minister of the Unitarian church in Concord, where he lived, was at best a lukewarm supporter of abolitionism. So you can see that Thoreau rejected the binary opposition of white people over black people, of free people over enslaved people. Similarly, he rejected the binary opposition between humanity and the non-human world. He acknowledged that human beings could indeed “fill the earth and subdue it.” But he felt that our preservation depended upon reserving parts of the world for wildness.
Still a third interpretation of that old passage from the Hebrew Bible comes from theologian Bernard Loomer, a Presbyterian who joined the Berkeley, California, Unitarian Universalist church late in life. Loomer said that we misinterpret Jesus. Jesus was not God, but rather proclaimed the Kingdom of God. What Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God was precisely what Loomer termed the interdependent web of life. (Loomer, by the way, was the one who introduced Unitarian Universalists to the phrase “the interdependent Web of Life.”) In the Kingdom of God, not a sparrow falls but God knows about it; in the interdependent web of existence, all living beings are intimately connected, and not a one dies but that all are affected. We humans have dominion, but not in the sense of having power over other living beings. Instead, God told us humans that we have dominion, God was telling us that we power with, not power over, the non-human world.
More recently, we Unitarian Universalists have been exploring yet another spiritual worldview. We have been listening carefully to other spiritual worldviews. In fact, we’re experiencing this in the musical selections that Mary Beth has chosen for us this morning. I would especially draw your attention to the offertory music, a piece by Navajo composer Connor Chee titled “Hózhó” (and I’m afraid I’m mutilating the pronunciation of this Navajo word). In the composer’s notes, printed in your order of service, Chee explains the concept of hózhó, or balance. By listening carefully and respectfully to his music and his explanation — by listening to his spiritual worldview — we can experience another understanding of how human beings could relate to the non-human world. We don’t want to be condescending or impose Western standards onto the Navajo worldview, nor do we want to try to coopt Chee’s spiritual worldview and try to take it over for ourselves. We remain who we are, but through this cross-cultural encounter we can learn and grow.
So these are just some of the ways we Unitarian Universalists have already become aware of emerging worldviews, emerging spiritual outlooks. We need to shift our spiritual worldview, because the old Western religious worldview is what got us into this environmental mess. That old Western religious worldview showed us how to have absolute power over other humans and non-human beings. In these days of ecological crisis, we need to shift our focus slightly. An ecological worldview allows us to see, not how to have power over other beings, but how all beings are interconnected. The science of ecology expresses this in terms of systems theory, and interlocking feedback loops, and non-linear systems. Since all beings are connected, the harm we do to the least of those beings is harm done to the entire ecological system.
And actually, ecospiritualities aren’t really all that new. There is an ecospirituality in what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. There is an ecospirituality when the Dao de Jing says, “…in giving birth you do not possess it, in doing it you do not retain it, in leading it you employ no authority…” [10b, trans. Robert Eno]. There is an ecospirituality in the traditional Navajo concept of hozho, balance.
That narrow old Western worldview is still dominant in our society. I find myself slipping into that old way of thinking. That’s one reason why we bring our children here, to nurture them with a different worldview. That’s one reason why we come here each week: to remind ourselves of other ways of being in the world, so we need not slip back into that old dominionist worldview. It might look like we’re just sitting in these pews, here in this two hundred and seventy five year old meeting house. Yet what we’re really doing here, week after week, is reminding each other of another way of being in the world. And when we leave here and go out into the world each week, we begin to reshape the worldview of rest of our society. What we do here affects the rest of the world, because we are all part of the interdependent web of life.