Category Archives: Ecotheology

One possible test

One possible way to test the extent to which a given group is predominantly politically liberal, white, and middle class is to look at that group’s attitudes towards environmentalism:

“The evidence suggests that most mainstream environmentalist groups have traditionally had little interest in issues faced by poor, minority, urban people…. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that at least some observers have had harsh words for mainstream environmentalism. For example, in his book Environmental Quality and Social Justice in Urban America, James Noel Smith has argued that mainstream environmentalism is ‘a deliberate attempt by a bigoted and selfish white middle-class society to perpetuate its own values and protect its own lifestyle at the expense of the poor and underprivileged.’ A similar view was expressed even earlier by Richard Hatcher, then mayor of the city of Gary, Indiana. ‘The nation’s concern with the environment,’ Hatcher said, ‘has done what George Wallace had been unable to do: distract the nation from the human problems of black and brown Americans’ (“The Rise of Anti-Ecology,’ 1970)….” [Environmental Justice: A Reference Handbook, David E. Newton (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO), pp. 15-16.]

If a group is predominantly concerned with the siting of hazardous waste disposal sites and incinerators, heavy metals in the soil, high cancer rates due to environmental toxins, environmental hazards concentrated in communities of color, food security, etc., you can safely predict that that group has few liberal white middle class people in it. If, on the other hand, a group is predominantly concerned with carbon footprints and alternative energy, preservation of non-local wildlife and natural spaces, “locavore” issues, and the like, it is more probable that such groups are dominated by liberal white middle class people. (And if a group believes that the best solutions to hypothetical environmental problems will be created by businesses and the free market, there’s a good chance that those groups are dominated by more conservative white middle class people.)

Universalism for a new era

UU World magazine just put a good article by Paul Rasor on their Web site. Titled “Can Unitarian Universalism Change?” the article is an excerpt from the Berry Street lecture Paul gave last June.

Using demographic and other solid evidence, Paul makes the case that in an increasingly multiracial society, Unitarian Universalist congregations are predominantly white. In other words, we are increasingly out of step with the surrounding culture. In other words, we are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Paul goes on to say that our Universalist heritage offers a solid theological foundation on which we could build a truly multiracial, egalitarian religion:

Early Universalism was a communal faith. ‘Communal’ here means more than a group of individuals who share a common belief and come together for mutual support and worship, the way we might understand it today. Instead, in this form of communal theology, the individual was removed from the religious equation. Universalists insisted that our personal salvation was no more important than anyone else’s salvation. As Ann Lee Bressler, author of The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1880, puts it, Universalism ‘encouraged the believer to think of his own interests as inseparably linked with the eternal welfare of the whole body of humanity.’

This theological core led to a radical egalitarianism. The American emphasis, shared by most Protestant denominations, including Unitarians, had always been on equality of opportunity, at least in principle, while in practice tolerating vast inequalities of outcome. But Universalism’s egalitarian theological doctrine became the basis for a truly egalitarian social doctrine — ‘an egalitarianism not of opportunity, but of desert,’ or outcome. In other words, Universalism was not simply pluralistic; it was radically inclusive.

However, a radical Universalist inclusivity is going to ruffle lots of feathers of current Unitarian Universalists who place an extremely high value on personal and individual freedom. In my reading of the Treatise on Atonement, Hosea Ballou’s foundational theological statement of Universalism, Ballou places great restrictions on free will: you don’t get to choose whether or not you wish to be saved, you will be saved no matter what. Unitarians placed much more emphasis on free will:– Continue reading

Responsibility and gratitude

Recently, I’ve been reading transcripts of seminars that Bernard Loomer gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. In a seminar on “Surrender,” Loomer said:

“My own feeling is that if you emphasize responsibility too much, you are undervaluing others or the other. Also, you are over-valuing yourself. You are operating with an individualistic conception of the individual, not a social conception of the self. If you have a social sense of the self, you cannot maintain that you are wholly responsible for what you are. You can be responsible within it, but there are limits to which your responsibility extends. I also think that within this attitude of responsibility there is the idea that gratitude beyond a certain point leads to dependence and this is a basic form of weakness. As much as we may not admit this intellectually, many of us feel emotionally that dependence is weakness.”

Unfoldings, Bernard Loomer, 1985.

The year in review

There was good news and bad news in 2008.

First, lots of bad news:

The economy: From my perspective, it was already going downhill last January. I knew something was up when the minister’s discretionary fund at church was out of money, more people were asking me for money, and no one could afford to donate any more money. In September, Wall Street and the media finally woke up to the fact that our economy has been driven by predatory lending and Ponzi schemes for the past decade, and suddenly we were in a “global financial crisis.” The Dow Jones industrial average fell 34% in 2008, the biggest one-year drop since 1931.

War: The war in Iraq went nowhere. The much-vaunted surge didn’t seem to change anything except that the federal government was spending even more money over there, and the few people who were willing to be soldiers were going over for their fourth or fifth deployment. No improvement, just a slow ongoing decline. Blessed would the peacemakers be, if we had any peacemakers.

Climate: Summer was hot, hotter than ever. Yeah, I know that global warming is “just a theory” and “not really based on facts.” Even if it is true (and it is indeed a well-proven theory), we’re supposed to be calling it global climate change. Well, the result of global climate change here in New England is that it was hot last summer, and it is freakishly warm this winter.

But also quite a bit of good news:

Green technology: “On October 3, President Bush signed into law the Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 that included the hoped-for 8-year extention of the solar investment tax credit. The act also lifted the $2,000 cap on the tax credit for residential systems, granting both commercial and residential systems eligibility for a 30% tax credit…. The law will encourage rapid growth for the solar industry….” (Distributed Energy: The Journal of Energy Efficiency and Reliability, November/December, 2008, p. 50.) The lousy economy is driving us to become more energy-efficient, and to develop renewable energy sources.

Green religion: One of the more interesting things to come out of the presidential campaign was that about half the Christian evangelicals are now promoting what they call “Creation care.” It’s a little weird that they can’t bring themselves to say “ecotheology” or “environmentalism,” but at least they’re headed in the right direction, and are starting to catch up with liberal and moderate religious groups.

Personal: This marked year 19 with Carol, which is better than I can express. I have wonderful extended family, great friends, and a job that I love. I know 2008 was a tough year for many people, but from my selfish point of view it was a great year.

The president: Obama is no saint, by world standards he is pretty conservative, he has far too many ties to the corporate puppet-masters, but — he is Not-George-Bush. And as for George Bush, the shoe incident sums it up for me:

Yup. At great personal cost, Muntadar al-Zaidi became an instant folk-hero by summing up what many people around the world think about George Bush. (Image courtesy Dependable Renegade.)

New book on religious naturalism

Jerry Stone, adjunct faculty at Meadville Lombard Theological School, and retired professor of philosophy at William Rainey Harper College in Chicago, sent this email message today:

“Friends — I have just found out that my new book, Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative is now available from SUNY Press for orders placed in December for a 20% discount plus free shipping (WOW!). I apologize for the late notice. Orders can be placed at”

“Discounted price” means it’s US$60 instead of US$75. Big bucks for a book, but those who are interested in process theology (Bernard Loomer apparently looms large in this book), or contemporary humanism, or connections between religion and environmentalism, might want this book. I know my local library isn’t going to get it, so I just ordered my copy. (It’s also available in a downloadable version for US$20.)

If you want to know more about Jerry’s work in this area, try this article from Process Studies, or this article on the Meadville Lombard Web site, or my report on a 2006 lecture by Jerry. For those who might be interested, I’m placing Jerry’s abstract of the book below. Continue reading

“EcoAdventures” — Final day

For now, all I’m posting is today’s session plan. Later, I’ll find time to post more, including some feedback from the evaluation I did with program participants.

Older posts on ecojustice activities at Ferry Beach:–

Nature and Ecology with children at Ferry Beach in July, 2007: one, two, three, four;

Nature and Ecology with children at Ferry Beach in July, 2006: one, two, three, four.

Read the session plan…. Continue reading

Christmas, commercialization, and ecotheology

The December 11, 2007, issue of Christian Century magazine, has an interview with theologian Nicholas Lash. Noting that Lash has written sympathetically about Marxism, the interviewer asks if Marxism is “still a philosophy that Christians need to engage.” Lash responds that there is no doubt that Christians still must engage Marxism:

Those who doubt that Christians still need to engage with Marx are as foolish as those who doubt that we still need to engage with Aristotle, Kant, or Hegel. At the heart of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production was his insight that it led, with almost mechanical inevitability, to what he called “the universalization of the commodity form,” the transmutation not only of things, but also of all relations, into commodities….”

Lash is British. Here in the United States, as we drift farther and farther to the right, most people simply dismiss Marx without seriously engaging his thought. Thus we have Christians and other religious persons in the United States decrying, say, the commercialization of Christmas (which is simply a specific instance of commodification), but refusing to engage in a serious critique of the capitalist system that has commercialized Christmas — understandably so, because after all it is not a good idea to be branded as a “communist” or a “socialist” here in the United States. Lash addresses the refusal of many U.S. Christians to take Marx seriously:

May I risk being a little polemical here, out of friendly exasperation? I can understand why, in a culture as driven and absorbed by messianic capitalism as is the United States, versions of socialism of any kind are hard to comprehend with sympathy. But please do not drag us [British Christians] in with you. There were, as any historian can tell you, the very closest links between 20th-century socialism in Britain and Christianity, especially Nonconformity…. We do not find Christian socialism in any way difficult to understand, because we remember it.

In my own Unitarian Universalist denomination, which is essentially a post-Christian denomination at this point, I see pretty much the same refusal to engage with Marx. Lots of Unitarian Universalists are worried about the commercialization of our lives, the breakdown in human community, the degradation of the environment, etc. But it seems we are culturally unable to draw on the analytical tools that Marx develops in Capital — tools which provide deep insights into things like the breakdown of community and the devastation of the planet.

Indeed, one of the weaknesses of current Unitarian Universalist theology, as it is practiced in our congregations, is that we pretty much ignore philosophers after Kant. The end result is that our theology, like our social justice programs, tend to be fairly irrelevant to the late capitalist situation. As someone who is concerned with developing a relevant Unitarian Universalist eco-theology, I’d have to say that it’s probably time for us to start reading Marx.

Sustainability network

Carol organized a great first meeting of a sustainability network for the South Coast region of Massachusetts. She asked me to facilitate the first meeting — group facilitation is one of two things that I actually know how to do reasonably well, so I said I would. I thought maybe twenty people would show up (I would have been happy with ten), but more than forty people came.

One of the best ways to keep a network networked is through a Web site. Since the one other thing I know how to do reasonably well is make a small Web site, I said I’d whip together a quickie site for the group. Which I just finished, and if you live in the area, you should go check it out: link.

On reading Kenko

The colder autumn weather has finally begun. While I was on spiritual retreat in Wareham early in the week, I managed to take a couple of long walks. My morning walk on Tuesday took me through an old tennis court at the retreat center, now unused except for one small corner where someone has painted a classical, concentric labyrinth. A line of milkweed stalks had managed to grow up through a crack in the pavement during the summer. By the time I walked past them, the stalks were yellowed, and the few leaves that were left were gray, curled, and dead. I find milkweed plants to be most beautiful when they have died from frost:– the curled leaves take on fantastic shapes, the gray pimpled seed pods burst open releasing the seeds with their white downy parachutes that will enable the wind to spread the seeds far afield.

In the middle of the woods — I had gotten off the path chasing some small brown woodland bird — I came across a few ferns that still had a little green. Most of the ferns in the forest had been bitten by frost, curled and brown. Yet in this one clump, presumably more sheltered, I found one frond mostly green, another frond mostly yellow with a touch of faded green, another frond brown at the top and yellow lower down, and the rest of the fronds brown and curled and dead. A month of autumn visible in one clump of ferns.

On my way to Agawam Cemtery, a couple of miles away, I passed a cranberry bog looking reddish purple in the slanting afternoon light. The berries had already been ahrvested, but the bog had a quiet beauty nonetheless.

In 1330 in the Tsurezuregusa, the Japanese writer Kenko said:

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring — these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration. Are poems written on such themes as “Going to view the cherry blossoms only to find they had scattered” or “On being prevented from visiting the blossoms” inferior to those on “Seeing the blossoms”? People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say, “This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms. There is nothing worth seeing now.” In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting….

When I got to Agawam Cemetery, I searched out the oldest gravestones. You can tell the general age of New England gravestones from their shapes, and the type of stone from which they are cut. I found twenty or thirty slate stones that clearly dated from the last half of the 18th C., mostly from the Federal era but some earlier. Most of the 18th C. stones in Agawam Cemetery are shallowly carved and covered more or less in lichen, and in most cases the lichens completely obliterate the inscription. The inscriptions half seen, half guessed at and half covered in lichen, are just as fascinating as stones where the entire inscription is visible. On one of the most beautiful stones, the inscription was no longer visible, the inscribed surface was actually flaking away; the beauty lay in its deterioration.

Walking back from the cemetery to the retreat center, I walked through suburban houses on their tight little lots. Since this is a seaside town in which the population explodes in the summer, “No Trespassing” signs appear everywhere. I passed a new house going in, a bulldozer parked beside the house, the entire lot scraped clean, showing the poor, sandy soil. The pine and oak woods that used to cover the land here were cut down for farming, grew back up again when the farms failed, and now the woods are being cut down once again for summer houses and gated communities.

More than one sign at the beginning of a road declared: “Members and Their Guests Only.” If they didn’t have those signs, the pressure from the growing population would mean the property owners would have invaders constantly traipsing through their land, past their summer house, headed for the sea. Can we say that the suburban houses, the gated communities, the signs are any less beautiful than the pine and oak woods they replace? For how long can the houses and signs last — a century or two, at most, before they fall into rack and ruin and something else replaces them. Although with global warming, what may well replace these houses is the open ocean, raging under the influence of huge coastal storms. Kenko never anticipated global warming completely changing the normal cycle of the seasons, nor did he ever anticipate that cherry blossoms might stop blooming entirely in their ancestral range.