Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Moment for All Ages

Members of the Sunday school sang the song “Garbage” by Bill Steele.

Roger Weiss has posted “Garbage” sung by the songwriter online. Bill Steele had originally posted this recording on his own website, but after his death in 2018 his website disappeared. For Roger Weiss’s remembrance of Bill Steele, along with more recordings, go here.


The first reading was a poem by Ada Limon, “The Origin Revisited.”

The second reading was from “The Edge of the Sea” by Rachel Carson.

Hearing the rising tide, I think how it is pressing also against other shores I know—rising on a southern beach where there is no fog, but a moon edging all the waves with silver and touching the wet sands with lambent sheen, and on a still more distant shore sending its streaming currents against the moonlit pinnacles and the dark caves of the coral rock.…

Once this rocky coast beneath me was a plain of sand; then the sea rose and found a new shore line. And again in some shadowy future the surf will have ground these rocks to sand and will have returned the coast to its earlier state. And so in my mind’s eye these coastal forms merge and blend in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality—earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.

Sermon: “Garbage”

The First Parish children’s programs — both our summer ecology camp, and the Sunday school — have been singing the song “Garbage” by Bill Steele. This has become a favorite song of several of our kids. Partly, it has become a favorite song because they sing it as fast as possible — maybe twice as fast as you heard it earlier this morning. Obviously, that’s too fast to really understand the words, but they all have the words memorized. They know exactly what the song means.

The other reason I think they like the song is because it has meaning for them. Today’s kids seem to be very aware of problems like plastic pollution of the ocean, so even though this was a topical song written back in 1969 to convince peopple to stop filling in San Francisco Bay, it still has meaning for today’s kids. In 2009, Steele told an interviewer, “Writing topical songs can be frustrating because they go out of currency very quickly. What’s frustrating about this one is that 40 years after it was written, it is still current. From the environmental standpoint, it’s frustrating that we haven’t done anything about it, and that this problem is still with us after all this time.”

I don’t know how the kids feel about it, but for me the most powerful verse is the third verse. That’s the verse that tells us that we’re not only filling up the Bay with garbage, and filling the air with garbage, we’re also filling up our minds with garbage. The song tells how Mr. Thompson goes home after a hard day at work, and settles down to read a newspaper story about “the mayor’s middle name,” which he finishes just in time to watch the All-Star Bingo Game on television. Today it’s more likely to be TikTok and Instagram than newspapers and television, but the phenomenon remains the same — most of us spend way too much time on trivia. While it is important to stay abreast of the news in a democracy, we don’t really need to know about the mayor’s middle name, any more than we need to know about Joe Biden’s dog’s behavior, or that Donald Trump does not own a dog.

We fill our minds with information of no value, and Bill Steele wanted us to convince us that that was analogous to the way garbage was being dumped into San Francisco Bay back in 1969. I’d even extend that metaphor somewhat. Great tracts of San Francisco Bay were filled in with garbage and other landfill during the 1960s and 1970s. But that kind of landfill liquifies during an earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey tells us that “When the ground liquefies, it may lose its ability to support buildings and other structures.” Thus, don’t build your house on garbage, because the garbage won’t provide stability in moments of crisis. If we fill our minds with garbage, we will not have a secure foundation on which to build wisdom or ethics. The first time our mind is shaken by some catastrophic event, all that garbage will turn to mush.

Of course there are alternatives to filling our minds with garbage. This is supposed to be the role of the great spiritual and ethical traditions throughout human history. And indeed, the environmental movement has been cast as a kind of spiritual battle. We are told that we must recycle more, and buy electric cars, and eat more plant-based food. If we could just rid ourselves of our individual spiritual failings — our lack of recycling, our consumption of meat, our gas-guzzling cars, and so on — we could solve the environmental crisis.

I’ve become convinced that the environmental crisis we’re currently facing does have spiritual roots, but I don’t believe that the roots of the environmental crisis lie in ridding ourselves of our individual spiritual failings. We’re not going to solve the environmental crisis by addressing our individual sins of not recycling enough, not eat plant-based foods, and so on. Instead, I feel one of the main roots of the environmental crisis comes from a collective misinterpretation of the Bible. Specifically, I feel that our society collectively buys into a gross misinterpretation of the so-called “dominion clause” in the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, which goes like this:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’”

This passage has been widely interpreted by Western Christians, Jews, and atheists to mean that God gave humankind god-like powers over every other living thing, meaning we humans have permission to do whatever we like to the non-human world. The historian Lynn White thought this misinterpretation of the Bible dated back to medieval times. I don’t know about that, but I do know that in the late twentieth century a theological viewpoint called Dominion theology became very influential. This theology is based on a misinterpretation of that passage in Genesis, teaching that God has given god-like powers to humans, so they can do whatever they want. Dominion theology goes further than this, teaching that men should have dominion over women. And dominion theology also teaches that Christians should be in charge of all human political affairs. Humans have power over non-humans; male humans have power over female humans; male Christian humans have power over everyone else.

In my opinion, dominion theology is spiritual and religious garbage. Nevertheless, a great many people are filling up their minds with this garbage — not just conservative Christians, but secular people are also being influenced by it. Now the secular people should know better, but let’s look at why dominion theology is religious and spiritual garbage.

According to Genesis, God created all the creatures that live on the earth, in the seas, and in the skies; God also created all the plants and every other living thing. Periodically during this creation process, God stopped, looked at the latest creations, and “saw that it was good.” That is: God did not stop, look at the latest creations, and say, “Gee, I hope some day the human beings make this animal or that plant go extinct.” Nor does God ever say, “Gee, I hope the humans use their garbage to fill in San Francisco Bay, which by the way I created to be a home for ‘every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm’.” Nowhere in the Bible does God say that humankind is supposed to trash the world.

Not only that, but the very next passage in the Bible states that men and women are equal. This upends another major tenet of dominion theology. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” You’ll notice that God had both male and female characteristics, since both males and females were created in God’s image (if this is hard for you to imagine, that’s no surprise since we limited mortals can’t entirely comprehend God anyway).

Contrary to what the proponents of dominion theology claim, here’s what those passages in the book of Genesis actually say: Humankind may have a great deal of power over the nonhuman world, but we are supposed to use that power to take care of God’s creation. God created both women and men in God’s image, which means that women are just as good as men. As for Christians being in charge of everyone else, nowhere in the book of Genesis does that come up. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christians are supposed to run the United States. This is garbage theology. Yet this is the garbage that has been filling many people’s minds.

So why do people allow their minds to be filled up with this kind of garbage? I suspect that part of the problem is that more than a few people in the United States today feel a sense of spiritual emptiness. They’re tired of conventional organized religion — and let’s face it, too much of conventional organized religion today feels spiritually empty — but they want something that fills that spiritual void they sense within. Then they hear about this spiritual movement that sounds pretty convincing, that gives them a purpose, that makes them feel a part of something larger than themselves, and they decide it fills the spiritual void they have been feeling.

There are also a good many people who don’t consciously accept dominion theology, but still act in accordance with some of of its values. Yet these people have unthinkingly accepted the tenets of dominion theology. Even though these people may not want conservative Christians running the United States; even though these people may believe that women are just as good as men; they are providing unthinking support to dominion theology.

So what are we to do about dominion theology? How can we promote the opposite of dominion theology — how can we promote the careful stewardship of planet Earth, the equality of men and women, the separation of church and state?

Today, a great many liberal Christians and Jews are pushing back against dominion theology. These liberal Christians and Jews are saying: Hey, this is our God and our Bible, and dominion theology has gotten it all wrong. Yes, we believe God created the nonhuman world; but while we humans may have dominion over the nonhuman world, dominion was given to us in order to care for God’s creation. And our Bible teaches that “God created humankind in his image…male and female he created them”; that is, women are just as good as men. Oh, and by the way, it says nothing in the Bible about Christians running the United States. This is some of what liberal Jews and Christians are saying. And if you’re a liberal Christian or a liberal Jew, you can be a part of this; you can say: Hey, stop trying to throw your dominionist garbage into our religion.

In addition to that, what all of us can do — whether we’re Christians or Jews or atheists or Buddhists or Haven’t-figured-it-out-yet-ists — we can all offer a compelling spiritual alternative to dominion theology. Part of our spiritual alternative will be that we have reverence for all life; we respect all life. We have equal reverence for all human beings, equal respect for all human beings, no matter what their gender. We value all the wonders of Nature and all the wonders of humankind; or, as we might phrase it, we affirm and support the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. Lastly, we can talk about love being the most powerful force in the universe, and we can teach that principle to other people by doing our best to live it out in our own lives.

We can offer a positive spirituality to replace a negative spirituality. Dominion theology is essentially a negative spirituality; it is not cheerful and filled with love, it is depressing and filled with feelings of sinfulness and inadequacy. We want to replace that with a positive spirituality, a spirituality of hope and of love; a spirituality that helps us live our lives as if we are all connected.

One way we communicate our positive spirituality is the way we live our lives. Another way we communicate our positive spirituality is through the arts. This is exactly what we did with the two readings we heard this morning. Ada Limon, poet laureate of the United States, wrote about a positive poem about how the beauty of the non-human world can support us and sustain us spiritually. Rachel Carson wrote a prose passage about feeling connected to everything. By reading this poem and this prose aloud, we are creating a positive spirituality. That’s one of the most important things we do here in the Meetinghouse each week: we use the arts to create positive spirituality together.

Of course there’s more to it than that. The concrete environmental problems we face — invasive plants and plastics in the ocean and so on — require concrete action. But concrete actions will be so much the stronger when they are supported by a positive spirituality; concrete actions are more effective when they are backed up by hope, and by love.

Another Alternative: Religious Naturalism

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading was from the essay “What Is Religious Naturalism?” by Jerome A. Stone:

“Religious naturalism is a type of naturalism. Hence we start with naturalism. This is a set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world. On the negative side it involves the assertion that there seems to be no ontologically distinct and superior realm (such as God, soul or heaven) to ground, explain, or give meaning to this world. On the positive side it affirms that attention should be focused on the events and processes of this world to provide what degree of explanation and meaning are possible to this life. While this world is not self-sufficient in the sense of providing by itself all of the meaning that we would like, it is sufficient in the sense of providing enough meaning for us to cope.”

The second reading was the poem “In the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, Thinking of Rachel Carson,” by Anthony Walton.

Sermon: Another Alternative: Religious Naturalism

Probably most of us here this morning are firm believers in science. We believe that science is firmly grounded in the natural world. Science doesn’t need any supernatural elements — there’s no need of an afterlife, for example; no need for angels or demons or genies; no need for gods, goddesses, or other deities guiding our lives. As a result, many people give up on religions, because religions always seem to be full of supernatural elements.

This is a social trend that has been going on since at least the seventeenth century in Europe, when Baruch Spinoza rejected the idea that the Bible was divinely inspired, and raised questions about the nature of God. By the eighteenth century, a growing number of freethinkers, people who rejected many of the fundamental doctrines of Western religion, began to emerge. One such freethinker was Thomas Paine, who wrote the pamphlet Common Sense which did so much to further the cause of independence from Great Britain. Paine also wrote a treatise titled “The Age of Reason” which called the supernatural elements of the Bible:

“If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the course of what is called nature, that she must go out of that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such a miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is,– Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.” (Pt. I, Ch. 17, The Age of Reason)

Paine said that while he liked the teachings of Jesus, many of the stories about Jesus found in the Bible are lies. It’s worth knowing about Paine because in today’s political debates we hear arguments that America was founded on the tenets of orthodox conservative Christianity; yet here is one of America’s founders arguing quite forcefully against orthodox Christianity.

The debate about miracles and supernaturalism continued in nineteenth century New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who served as a Unitarian minister for eight years before becoming a full-time writer, infuriated the religious establishment when he said that the miracles of the Bible have been grossly misunderstood. Here’s Emerson from his Divinity School Address:

“Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul…. The idioms of his language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes. Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. [Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle… and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

Emerson’s younger colleague Henry David Thoreau found miracles in his close observations of the natural world. Thoreau said we need to face up to reality as it actually is. This is what he wrote in his book Walden:

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Thoreau was telling us that this life has miracles enough in it, and we don’t need to add any miracles to it. Thoreau remained open to the insights of traditional religious and spiritual wisdom — not just Christian wisdom, but the wisdom that can be found in all spiritual and religious traditions — but he kept his focus firmly on this world. This present life is sufficient, said Thoreau: “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” So he did not reject religion. He simply wanted his religion to remain focused on this world, the world he could directly experience.

Many other religious naturalists emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Walt Whitman, whose poetry dealt with the here and now, could be called a religious naturalist. Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois has been called a religious naturalist. Religious naturalists often felt uncomfortable in organized religion. So for example the poet James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the words to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,” felt he lacked religiosity, but to me it seems like he was forced into that feeling because the only definition of religiosity that he knew involved supernatural religion.

In the late twentieth century, the philosopher Jerome Stone began researching the various people who could be classified as religious naturalists. One of Jerome Stone’s most interesting discoveries was that religious naturalists cannot simply be lumped in with religious atheists. Some religious naturalists choose to use the word “God,” while others feel “God” is not a useful concept. So the biologist Ursula Goodenough, who calls herself a religious naturalist, and who feels that the natural miracles investigated by the science of biology are sufficiently miraculous, sees no need to use the word “God.” By contrast, Bernard Loomer — he’s the person who gave us the phrase “the interdependent web of existence” — is a religious naturalist who feels that God is a useful and important philosophical concept.

Thus religious naturalists interpret “God” in a variety of ways. Some religious naturalists interpret “God” as the natural laws of the universe, or as a human social construct, and so on. Other religious naturalists get along fine without God. So if you’re a religious naturalist, you can decide whether to use the word “God” or not. Yet all religious naturalists find common ground in their rejection of the supernatural and their embrace of this world. I like this aspect of religious naturalism, because it can facilitate communication across divisions. The search for truth is always communal, and anything that helps us talk across our divisions helps the search for truth.

As I’ve said before, I’m a devoted follower of Haven’t-figured-it-out-yet-ism — in other words, I don’t want to put a name to my ill-formed thoughts and feelings. But I guess I’d call myself “religious naturalism-adjacent.” I like the religious naturalists I’ve met in person; I took a class with Jerry Stone twenty years ago, and admired his humane and unpretentious attitude towards life.

And I appreciate the way religious naturalists have dealt with arguments about the existence of God. I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and the old battle between humanists and the theists doesn’t seem to have progressed much since I was a child. Instead of arguing about the existence of God, the religious naturalists want you to define what it is that you mean when you say the word “God,” and that has deepened my own spiritual life.

I also appreciate that religious naturalists focus on this world. And if we don’t have to worry about some supernatural afterlife, this releases our energies to deal with the problems we face here and now. This also releases us to appreciate the beauties of the here and now. If there’s a heaven, or an afterlife, or reincarnation, it will come in its own good time; in the mean time, here we are with reality all around us waiting to be experienced. Even when beauties exist side by side with horrors, it is better to face up to the horrors and do what we can to end them, than to wait for some heaven which may never arrive.

Our contemporary society does not encourage us to face both beauty and horror. Instead, our contemporary society encourages passivity and quietism. Religious quietism pervades our society, as when we say: “It’s in God’s hands,” or “It was meant to be,” or “Whatever happens, happens for the best.” Belief in the supernatural need not deteriorate into quietism, and I am firmly allied with those who believe in a God of justice and truth and love. But we live in a world where some religious people use quietism to prevent necessary change, religions that teach that women are meant to be subordinate to men, that White Christians are meant to rule everyone else, that rich people are rich because they are favored by God. Quietism is also encouraged by secular society, by a secular culture that teaches us to remain passive consumers of media. This is a form of anesthesia no different from the numbing effects of religious quietism; both forms of quietism want to convince us that we cannot change the world.

Instead of anesthetizing us, religious naturalism encourages the kind of spiritual practices that keep us engaged with reality, with the here and now. Think of Henry Thoreau next to his cabin at Walden Pond, kneeling down in the woods in order to the closest attention to the natural world, then writing about what he observed in his journal. Remember, too, that his cabin was a station on the Underground Railroad. Thoreau was not escaping from the world through supernatural beliefs, nor was he escaping from the world by ignoring the realities of injustice. Obviously, religious naturalism is not the only kind of religion that engages fully with this world — but it does set a high standard for other religious attitudes to match.