Category Archives: Eco-scripture

An eco-universalist prayer

Yesterday’s post has the story of how the great Universalist Hosea Ballou did a preaching tour of the New Bedford region in May, 1820 — including an anecdote of how Rev. Le Baron of Mattapoisett unsuccessfully tried to keep Ballou from preaching. Never one to miss out on provoking a good controversy, Ballou wrote a letter to Le Baron the next day, which apparently had some kind of wider distribution. This letter is probably the first Universalist tract ever written in the New Bedford area.

Ballou’s letter contains one almost poetic passage, which could almost be a proto-eco-universalist prayer. I added snippets from elsewhere in the letter to make conclusion for it, and here it is:


     Does not the sun shine universally,
     and the moon likewise?

     Do not the clouds give rain to all,
     and the fruits of the earth grow
     for the benefit of all?

     Is not the vital air for the life of all;
     and are not all equally entitled to the waters?

     All people, every person,
     and the whole world are universal.
     This testimony, I believe, is Universalism.


For those of you who love to watch early 19th C. Universalists picking fights, I’ve included the full text of the letter below. Continue reading

From frogs to creation

A couple of weeks ago, we went in to Seven Star books in Central Square, Cambridge. Though it’s known as a New Age bookstore, Seven Stars has the best selection of new and used books on world religions that I have found in eastern Massachusetts. I found a two-volume copy of Hymns of the Rgveda translated by Ralph T. H. Griffiths, from Munshiram Manoharlala Publishers, New Delhi. The book is simply a wonderful artifact in and of itself: the typical off-white paper used by printers in India, fingerprints where the printer picked up sheets before the ink was fully dry, a dust cover with a tessellated leaves-and-flower motif in pale green.

This week, I’ve been dipping in to the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda, a collection of hymns to ancient Vedic gods and minor deities, is considered one of the oldest religious-literary works in the world. I find some of these hymns fairly incomprehensible, like this one which praises frogs (Book VII, Hymn 103):

1. They who lay quiet for a year, the Brahmans who fulfil their vows,
The Frogs have lifted up their voice, the voice Parjanya hath inspired….
3. When at the coming of the Rains the water has poured upon them as they yearned and thirsted,
One seeks another as he talks and greets him with cries of pleasure as a son his father….
6. One is Cow-bellow and Goat-bleat the other, one Frog is Green and one of them is Spotty.
They bear one common name, and yet they vary, and, talking, modulate their voice diversely….

According to Griffiths, Max Muller saw this hymn as a satire on the priestly class. Maybe, but it seems more likely to me that we are simply missing some cultural referent that prevents us from really understanding what the hymn meant originally. Some words from the past must remain forever obscure.

Yet there are other hymns in the Rig Veda which I find moving and thought-provoking, such this hymn about creation (Book X, Hymn 129):

1. Then was no non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
2. Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider.
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
3. Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit. …

6. Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
7. He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he does not.

These are words from the past which still speak to me with the same sense of wonder, the same sense of confronting the unknowable, with which they spoke to the priests and followers of the ancient Vedic religion, when this hymn was first sung three millennia ago.

Green Revelation

Carol, being a free-lance writer specializing in ecological pollution prevention issues, is always bringing home the latest environmental publications. Her latest find is Plenty, a glossy magazine with the motto “It’s easy being green.” I opened it to find an article by Liz Galst titled, “Saving Grace: How Evangelical Christians Are Energizing the Environmental Movement.” Galst opens the article like this:

Like the Bible-thumper that he is, the Reverend Rich Cizik [pronounced “size-ick”], tall, lanky, slightly stoop-shouldered, stood in the September heat of midtown Manhattan bellowing into a microphone. His subject was the Book of Revelation, and he was hoping to reach the ears not only of his audience but also of the unconverted who happened to wander by.

“In Revelation,” he thundered against the wind, against an incredible din, “in Revelation we’re told that God — hear this,” he paused, tilting his heavy head forward. “God will destroy those who destroy the environment.”

Preach it, Brother Cizik. The article continues:

“What an amazing statement about the world that God created and cares about!” Cizik continued. “Isn’t it amazing?”

Though he was sweating in a pin-striped suit, Cizik is not your average street preacher. In fact, he has friends on Capitol Hill, friends in the White House…. Cizik is the public-policy voice of the National Association of Evangelicals [the evangelical version of the National Council of Churches]….

And in case you’re wondering whether he’s one of those progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis, author of the New York Times 2005 bestseller God Is Politics, forget about it. Cizik opposes abortion, opposes marriage for same-sex couples, opposes stem-cell research. Cizik is the deepest Republican red.

And yet, he continued on that hot September afternoon, “I have told people, ‘Look, you’ve got to care about this because when you die, God is not going to ask you about how he created the earth’ ” — a reference to the recent public debate on so-called intelligent design — “He’s going to ask you, ‘What did you do with the earth I created?’ “

And may I remind my readers that while these evangelicals are going green, most religious liberals are keeping their environmentalism separate from their religion? Well, wake up and smell the (fair-trade organically-grown) coffee! I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Unitarian Universalists, it’s time for us to go public with our own captivating ecological theology based on the Bible, Emerson, Thoreau, William Carlos Williams, and Sharon Welch. It’s time to quit sniping at each other, quit sitting around and grousing about the sorry state of Unitarian Universalism, and start doing public theology.

The “Rapture”? It’s all about New Urbanism

If you’re like me, at some point in your working life you’ve wound up working beside people who were sure the “rapture” was going to come, where God swept good human beings up into heaven, and left the rest of us (including heretics like you and me) to deal with the calamitous “end days.” I’ve had some great conversations about the “rapture” during coffee break. (My older sister, Jean, has some great stories of rapture-talk in her new book, Rose City: A Memoir of Work.)

And we know the “rapture” is true because it’s in the Bible, in the book of Revelation. Except it’s not. Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of some “rapture” where human beings get swept up into heaven. Instead, God and the heavenly city of Jerusalem come down here to earth, as is told in chapter 21:

2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

This new Jerusalem sounds like the kind of urban paradise New Urbanism talks about, complete with urban agriculture and no cars and lack of crime and even clean power generation:

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Barbara Rossing, in her eco-theology essay “Alas for the Earth! Lament and Resistance in Revelation 12,” in The Earth Story in the New Testament, points out that most fundamentalists get the “rapture” backwards:

…the issue is to understand how Revelation’s ecological lament takes shape in our own global situation. Escapist scenarios of a “rapture” can only serve to deflect attention away from earth and away from [Revelations]’s critique of imperialism. There is no rapture of people up to heaven in Revelation. If anything, it is God who is “raptured” down to Earth to dwell with people in a wondrous urban paradise (Rev. 21.3; 22.3). The plot of Revelation ends on Earth, not heaven, with the throne of God… located in the center of the city (Rev 22.3) that has come down to earth. [p. 191]

So next time your fundamentalist co-worker asks you if you’re ready for the “rapture,” you can tell them that yes, you are indeed a supporter of New Urbanism.

A later post about a green evangelical Christian

Thinking out loud

Still working on this week’s sermon, even though in general Friday serves as a my sabbath day. The title this week is “The Garden.” One of the texts is Genesis 1.27-28: “[27] So God created humankind in his image,/ in the image of God he created them;/ male and female he created them. [28] God blessed them, 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.'” And my topic, as you might have guessed, is ecotheology.

One of the theologians I have been consulting on this topic is Rosemary Radford Reuther, in her book Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. She writes [my reading notes in square brackets]:

…I assume that there is no ready-made ecological spirituality and ethic in past traditions. The ecological crisis is new to human experience. [I.e., Ruether appears to admit the necessity of allowing ongoing revelation to humanity.] This does not mean that humans have not devestated their environment before. But as long as populations remained small and human technology weak, these devestations were remediable by migration, retreat from to-heavy urban centers, or adaptation of new techniques. [This challenges God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” in gen. 1.28.] Nature appeared a huge inexhaustible source of life, and humans small…. The radical nature of this new face of ecological devestation means that all past human traditions are inadequate in the face of it. Whatever useful elements may exist in, for example, Native American or Taoist thought, must be reinterpreted to make them usable in the face of both scientific knowledge and the destructive power of the technology it has made possible.

So one of the challenges of an ecotheology is that we’re going to have to completely rework religious traditions. I’d say this is a task that we Unitarian Universalists should be able to handle, as a non-creedal people who have been pretty willing to rework religious tradition (at least in small ways). Ruether goes on:

…Each tradition is best explored by those who claim community in that tradition [and she means “tradition” more broadly than the narrow confines of, say, Unitarian Universalism]. This does not preclude conversions into other traditions or communication between them…. But the plumbing of each tradition, and its reinterpretation for today’s crises, is a profound task that needs to begin in the context of communities of accountability. Those people for whom Taoism or Pueblo Indian spirituality are their native traditions are those best suited to dig those roots and offer their fruits to the rest of us. Those without these roots should be cautious in claiming plants not our own, respectful of those who speak from within.

So which tradition does Unitarian Universalism belong to? –and no, we aren’t deep or rich enough to claim to be our own tradition. It’s probably best to say we’re a post-Christian tradition, and while we might be post-Christian, we are post-Christian. But although Christianity is often equated with Western religion, that’s not at all true: we can’t forget the Jews; the neo-pagans have been helping us find the remnants of indigenous European traditions; there’s also a small but important secularist tradition that has to be included. Obviously most of our spiritual root system is in Protestant Christianity. But as a post-Christian spirituality, with individual members who are deeply embedded in Christian, Jewish, neo-pagan, and humanist spiritualities, we’re willing to acknowledge that our root system spreads a little more widely. We might be well-placed to mediate the conversation that will inevitably ensue between the different reinterpretations of Western spirituality.

I still don’t have a sermon, though, so I guess I better go back to Genesis 1.27-28 and see what I can do with it.