Category Archives: Ecotheology

On retreat: Autumn watch

Wareham, Mass. I was sitting at the breakfast table talking to some ministers whom I hadn’t seen in a while, when Rachel, the program chair for this retreat, came around and said the morning’s program was about to begin. The other ministers filed in to hear the rest of the presentation by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd. Even though I strongly disagreed with Dowd’s presentation last night, where he described an eco-theology grounded in a grand narrative of the universe, I felt that I should keep an open mind and go hear more. Then I thought to myself:– Would I rather sit indoors and listen to someone talk theology, or would I rather go outdoors to take a long walk? I went quietly upstairs to get my coat and binoculars, and slipped out the back door of the retreat center.

Cloudy and cold this morning, a real mid-autumn day. Birds filled the bushes along the edge of the retreat center’s lawn: Gold-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, catbirds, cardinals, and even a Hermit Thrush. I bushwhacked to the edge of the little estuary. As I came down to the edge of the salt marsh, a Great Blue Heron squawked, crouched, and leapt into the air, tucking his neck back and slowly pulling his long legs up against his body. Some of the trees surrounding the salt marsh were already bare of leaves; one or two maples still covered in brilliant red leaves; the white oaks shone dull gold in the subdued light; a few trees were still green. The tide was quite high, and I skirted the high water through the salt marsh hay. One high bush blueberry, a bush about five feet high growing right at the edge of the marsh, was covered in deep, glowing red leaves; I only noticed that small bush because the trees around it were already bare and grey.

After a long walk, I wound up on the Wareham town beach. A fisherman stood at the far end of the beach, where the sand ends in a little spit sticking out into an estuary winding up through extensive salt marshes.

“Catching anything?” I said.

“Not today,” he said. “Caught a little striper yesterday.”

I said that was pretty good; it’s late to catch a striper this far north.

He was feeling talkative, and we chatted idly for a few minutes. “What are you looking for?” he said, noticing the binoculars hanging around my neck.

“Ducks,” I said. “The ducks should be here by now. But I’m not really seeing any. Maybe because it’s been so warm, and they’re just not moving down onto their wintering grounds yet.”

“Yeah, that’s what they’re saying about the stripers this year,” he said. “They should be gone by now, but it’s still warm so they’re staying up here.”

Every year, the story is a little different. The fall migrants generally move on at about the same time, but a Hermit Thrush might stay a little later than usual. The striped bass run south, but one year that might leave a little earlier or later than another year. Some years a few maple trees hold their leaves a little longer, or a blueberry bush turns a particularly bright red. The same story is told year after year, and it’s always the same but always different. That’s the only grand narrative I care about, a grand narrative that’s not told in words.

Grand narratives at the ministers’ retreat

Wareham, Mass. At noon, I got in my car and drove down the interstate to Wareham, to a retreat center where the district ministers group is having its annual retreat.

The featured presenters at the retreat are Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. Dowd and Barlow travel around the continent spreading a new gospel, the good news a religion based on evolution, which they call “creatheism.” Drawing heavily from the writings of Brian Swimme, Ken Wilbur, and Thomas Berry, Dowd started out his hour-long presentation tonight by asserting that their creathism is a “meta-religion” that can encompass any other religious position, including atheism.

My immediate thought was, who needs a new meta-religion? If we have learned anything from the post-modernist movement, we have learned that these grand meta-narratives, these grand stories that claim to encompass everything else, have tended to be more destructive than constructive. Postmodern thinkers point out that some of the greatest tragedies of the modern era come from meta-narratives — the grand narrative of Nazism, a story of a white Aryan race ruling all other “races”; or the grand narrative of a colonial power like Great Britain, a story of colonialism told to justify tiny Britain ruling over the entire sub-continent of India. I’d rather cast my lot with Mahatma Ghandhi than the colonialism of Edwardian England.

As Dowd talked, I began to realize that an implicit assumption of any meta-narrative is that everyone is going to agree with it, is going to buy into it. What happens if I don’t buy in to creatheism? I’m sure Dowd won’t try to forcibly convert me, but he did say that everyone else’e religious position is, in fact, a subset of his religious position. I’m sure if I told him about my version of Transcendentalism, he’d tell me that I was, in fact, a creatheist just like him. Except that I’m not.

I think Dowd has accepted a certain mid-20th C. idea that in the end all religions have the same goal; different religions may take different paths to get there, but they’re all trying to arrive at the same mountaintop. Dowd uses the metaphor of those Russian nesting dolls, and he says that all other religions can nest inside his meta-religion. I don’t buy that idea. Mark Heim, a theologian at Andover Newton Theological School, has said that different religions not only have different paths, they also have different final destinations; the Christian’s heaven is not the same place as a Buddhist’s nirvana. I tend to agree with Heim, that different religions are not necessarily commensurable.

I was bothered by a few other minor points. One example: Dowd gave an overview of his “evolutionary arrow,” which he said was such an important concept that he sometimes gives an hour-long presentation on it. But I feel his evolutionary arrow, which starts with bacteria evolving into multi-cellular organisms and ends with the United Nations evolving into a better form of world governance, doesn’t work. It is not accurate to say that the evolution of bacteria is the same as the creation of the UN. Nor does evolution in the strict Darwinian sense mean “change in directions which make me feel comfortable.” Dowd seems to believe in “progress onwards and upwards forever.” After the horrors of the 20th C. (genocide, ecological disaster, things like that), some of us now question whether we were making any progress at all. We also began to wonder if part of the problem with the 20th C. was that uniformly applied solutions, which supposedly would result in progress for everyone, really only benefitted a few powerful people.

Another minor point that bothered me was Dowd’s use of the terms “day language” and “night language” to refer to the difference between what I would call mythos and logos. It’s not a bad distinction to make, but Dowd’s terms don’t accurately reflect the difference between the two kinds of language.

More than anything, I was bothered by Dowd’s pedagogical style. He depends on attractive “Powerpoint” slides to create continuity through his presentation. I felt he used his slides string together a series of basically unsupported assertions. Many of his slides had stunning National Geographic style photographs of plants and animals and landscapes, but because the photographs had nothing to do with the text printed on them, they only served to distract you from careful evaluations of Dowd’s assertions. In short, Dowd uses a rhetoric designed to persuade you, and to prevent you from thinking too deeply about what he says. The result is a presentation filled with half-truths (and some outright inaccuracies) that sounds plausible, but that prevents deep thought, so that you can easily be carried away with what he says.

Although a question-and-answer session was scheduled for the end of his presentation, Dowd decided to skip the questions and answers in order to show yet another video. I slipped quietly out the back, and went upstairs to think and to write.

Ecofeminism defined

My partner Carol sent me a definition of ecofeminism, while I was writing last Sunday’s sermon on ecofeminism. Her definition is much better than mine (she probably should have preached the sermon), and she has given me permission to reprint it here:

eco-feminism: the new era of the green paradigm will be championed and fronted by strong, sexy women, ages 30 to 90, but especially 35 to 68—when wisdom meets energy. They are more likely to be systems thinkers, partly thanks to their internal purpose and sense of a web of relationships and their relationships to others.

they are less prone to seeking off-the-shelf solutions and more likely to look to broader systems

after a generation of attempted protest-based change, the new age of change will be led by solutions-based change driven by women (and men).

the image of a woman suggests nurturing, abundance, sexiness, fecundity, potential — which is why i try to get women into as many images as possible in my books, etc.

environmental restoration/right relations with ecosystem won’t be implemented with intervention (a penetration model). it will be effected by creating a whole other potential, one that combines the forces of many and is nurtured by many (a birth model)

(Now that’s what I call being born again….)

Transcendental change in liberal religion?

I don’t usually post my sermons on this blog, because for me the sermon is a spoken genre that doesn’t translate well into written form. But people at church seemed to like this sermon, so I thought, what the heck, maybe you might like it. And this sermon is for you, no matter what flavor of religious liberal you happen to be.

Be warned: if you were in church this morning, I usually ad lib 20-30% of the sermon, including most of the funny bits — so this is different from what you heard today.


The first reading this morning is from the book Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, from the chapter titled, “Sounds”:

What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.

I did not read books the first summer [I lived at Walden Pond]; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time…. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.

The second reading is from the Hebrew prophets, the book of Isaiah, chapter 24, verses 5 and 6:

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt….

Sermon — “Transcendental Ecology”

In case you haven’t noticed, the historically liberal churches have been shoved off to the margins in the United States. Historically liberal churches such as the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists, the Methodists, the northern Baptists, the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterians, the Quakers, and yes the Unitarian Universalists, have been losing members and influence for some forty years now. We used to be at the center of things. Forty years ago, during the Civil Rights movement, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called on church leaders to come stand beside him, we in the historically liberal churches went and stood. Some religious liberals even died for Civil Rights, including two Unitarian Unviersalists: Rev. James Reeb, and Viola Luizzo. At that time, we engaged with the outer world, and our opinions actually mattered.

Since that time, Unitarian Universalists and all the other historically liberal churches have been steadily losing membership and influence. (We Unitarian Universalists have actually been gaining members in the past twenty years, at about one percent a year; which however is not enough to keep up with population growth but at least we’re not shrinking like all the other liberal churches.) I sometimes feel that we religious liberals have spent the last forty years in a kind of a daze; we have spent the last forty years gazing at our navels. Sure, individual religious liberals work harder than ever to make this a better world — but as a group, as a liberal religious church, we are far from the centers of power and influence.

Of course, you know who is at the centers of power and influence. While we religious liberals have been gazing at our navels, the Religious Right, a loose coalition of many of the fundamentalist churches, some of the evangelical churches, televangelists, billionaires, and other conservative Christians, has gained in power and influence. The Religious Right has enormous influence in Congress and in the White House. The Religious Right is extremely well-funded. The Religious Right has charismatic preachers, some of whom have built churches of upwards of thirty thousand members. We are shrinking and increasingly irrelevant; they get to elect presidents.

I think it’s time for us to change. For the past forty years, we religious liberals have been coming to our beautiful church buildings, politely sad because global warming and massive species extinctions are destroying living beings that we consider sacred. Perhaps we even gently wring our hands, and we say we don’t quite know what to do. We know that environmental destruction is a religious issue. We know that one of the roots of the ecological disaster we face today is the simple religious fact that Western religion has mis-interpreted that passage in the Bible, the one where God gives us dominion over all other living beings, to mean that we can rape the earth and destroy at will. We know, too, that the Religious Right is happy for their God to have dominion over the United States, and for men to have dominion over women, and for men in the United States to have dominion over all over living beings — and when they say dominion, they don’t mean it in a nice, polite way, they mean domination. We religious liberals know all that, and when we leave our beautiful churches after coffee hour, we seem to forget all this until we next come to church, maybe four weeks from now. We conveniently forget that the ecological disaster we are now facing has deep religious roots.

I think it’s time for us to change. We no longer have the luxury of sitting quietly in our beautiful liberal churches. We no longer have the luxury of chatting politely with our friends at coffee hour about everything except the religious roots of the ecological crisis (to say nothing of the religious roots of gay-bashing, the religious roots of the widening gap between rich and poor, and so on). We no longer have the luxury of being able to separate our polite religion from the rough-and-tumble of real-world events; we no longer have the luxury of hiding our religious faith from the world.

So I’m going to try to set an example here this morning. I’m going to speak here publicly about my deeply-held religious faith, a religious faith that drives me to try, against all hope, to save what’s left of the natural world from further destruction. Maybe what I say seems a little raw; maybe I’m making one or two people feel uncomfortable. We have gotten out of the habit of speaking of our deeply-held religious beliefs here in our liberal churches; we have, in fact, gotten out of the habit of being religious. But that’s what ministers are for: to set the best example we know how to set, and to call people to be religious.

So let’s talk religion — to start us off, I’ll talk about my own deeply held religious beliefs.

I’m a Transcendentalist. When I was about sixteen, I had a transcendental experience. I was sitting outdoors at the base of Punkatasset Hill in my home town of Concord, Massachusetts, with my back against a white birch tree. There was this alley of white birches that someone had planted along an old farm road, and the fields on either side were still, at that time, mowed for hay twice a year. So I was just sitting there on a beautiful late spring day, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of the oneness of everything. I mean, this was an overwhelming experience, I really don’t have the words to describe it. Since then, I’ve had numerous other transcendent experiences, some more powerful than others.

What do these transcendental experiences mean? Well, I suppose I’m still trying to make sense out of those experiences. When I was about twenty, I found William James’s book Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he describes the various mystical experiences that people have. James said that perhaps a quarter of the population have mystical experiences of one sort or another, and in his descriptions of the various kinds of mystical experiences I could see the outlines of my own mystical experiences. But James’s book didn’t tell me about the meaning of my mystical experiences.

I found something of the meaning of my transcendental experiences in a book by my fellow townsman, Henry Thoreau. I had always disliked Thoreau when I was a child; when you grow up in Concord, and go to the Concord public schools, you get force-fed Thoreau and Emerson, and Alcott and Hawthorne for that matter. I don’t take well to force-feeding and so dismissed Thoreau. But at last I found that Thoreau’s book Walden probably described what I had been experiencing better than anything else, especially when he writes:

I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, …until by the sun falling in at my west window… I was reminded of the lapse of time.

I discovered that I, too, love a broad margin to my life. That broad margin is a margin to my life in which I have the time and the space to be able to be rapt in a revery, to reflect on the ultimate meaning of the universe. It is also a margin to my life where I can reflect on the difference between real religion, and religion as it is imperfectly practiced in the world around me.

When I have been able to sit “rapt in a revery,” I have come to the inescapable conclusion that there is a unity which binds all human beings together, which binds all living beings together — which, indeed, binds us human beings to the non-living world as well, to the sun and the moon and the stars above and the rocks under our feet.

I can put this into scientific terms if you’d like: all parts of the ecosystem are interconnected, these interconnections can be modeled in terms of systems theory using feedback loops and non-linear relationships; and to harm one part of an ecosystem will have wide repercussions throughout the ecosystem. I find I am quite comfortable with scientific language. I can also put this into the language of Christianity if you’d like: God’s creation consists of earth, moon, sun, and stars; of the ocean and all the creatures that live there; of the birds of the air; of the plants that grow and the animals that live on the earth; of human beings. And to harm one part of God’s creation is to do violence to God. I find I am reasonably comfortable with Christian language. Or if you like, I can also put this into the one of the dialects of neo-paganism, which might sound something like this: the Goddess who is Gaia, earth mother, mother of all that lives; the Goddess who is the Moon Goddess who sets the rhythms of the seasons; it is she whom we love and must respect, and to harm the ecosystem is to harm the Mother Goddess. I find I am reasonably comfortable with neo-Pagan language, too.

Right now, the specific language is less important than the fundamental underlying insight. In fact, we could even put this in words that the Religious Right might recognize:

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.

(Right after that, by the way, Isaiah goes on to say why the earth has become polluted: it’s because his people have twisted and mis-interpreted their religion.)

Yes, we have broken our covenant, our promises, to the earth. I am told by some religious liberals that in speaking this way, I’m not being decorous, I’m not being polite. (Funny how you don’t hear the Religious Right saying to each other, “Now be polite!”) But my religious faith sets me on fire; I’m not polite. I know that my faith can transform the world; I know that my faith can change the religious attitudes that lead to dominion theology and global ecological catastrophe; but I am told by some Unitarian Universalists that I am not polite, because I’m trying to change this nice comfortable little religion we’ve had for the past forty years.

Maybe that’s the problem: mine is not a comfortable faith. I have not been made comfortable by having transcendental experiences that cause me to sit rapt in a revery on a summer morning; I have not been made comfortable by the religious realization that my contribution to global warming and habitat destruction is morally wrong; I have not been made comfortable in the knowledge that our churches must grow quickly or sink into complete and total irrelevancy as the Religious Right gains more and more influence in the United States; I am not comfortable knowing that it is up to me and other religious liberals to combat the misguided religion of domination that is the Religious Right.

I suspect that I’m probably passing along some of my discomfort to you. I keep challenging you, I know; I am not the warm, cuddly pastor that I would kind of like to be. I would love to be able to stand up here week after week, and be able to preach warm, comforting sermons. I would love to be able to sit with you each week and pass on comfortable religious thoughts as you live out your life. It would be so much easier if we could just keep on with our small, comfortable little church; for after all, growth just means more work for us. I wish I could be a warm comfortable cuddly pastor, in a nice relaxed sleepy little church; but I don’t think either you or I have that luxury.

My friends, the world is changing around us. Very rapidly. Ten years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that these United States could turn into a theocracy run by a Religious Right who distorts Jesus of Nazareth’s message of love into a message of prejudice and intolerance, who use the Bible to justify ecological disaster. Ten years ago I would have laughed at this idea; now I believe such a theocracy is a remote but all-too-real possibility. It will be a theocracy based on a religion of domination: men dominating women, the rich dominating the poor, straight people dominating gays and lesbians, and above all humanity dominating and destroying the rest of the natural world. Because, they will say, it is God’s will.

If such a theocracy comes, it will not be comfortable to be a Unitarian Universalist. If such a theocracy comes, we in the liberal churches will have no one to blame but ourselves. We have let our religion become optional, sort of like joining a country club, or supporting National Public Radio. We have let the Religious Right steal the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus and the other Jewish prophets away from us. We have let the political liberals to completely separate environmentalism from religion. We have let our churches dwindle in size, even though we are told that our churches get more newcomers and visitors, relative to our size, than the churches of the Religious Right. And we have been coming to church when we feel like it, staying comfortable, looking always inward.

My friends, I know that many of you are facing serious personal challenges. There are people in this congregation who have are facing so much that they don’t have any energy left over for anything except staying alive. But that, too, is a very different thing from having a country-club church; when life is that overwhelming, you are not in a position to have a safe comfortable religion; life is not letting you have safety and comfort. If we could start remembering that the world is not a comfortable place for most people, maybe we could offer each other a lot more comfort.

I’d like to invite you to join me in remaking liberal religion; in remaking this liberal church. I invite you to be on fire with your liberal religious faith. I invite you to feel your religion so deeply that when life overwhelms you, your religion becomes a source of strength. I invite you let your religious convictions of love, compassion, and justice draw you into passion and commitment to heal the world. I invite you to be moved by your deeply-held religious belief that all living beings are sacred, that the whole ecosystem is sacred.

If we did that, this church, First Unitarian in New Bedford, would once again become a force to be reckoned with. As it stands now, a few people are impressed with our beautiful building, and maybe with our past exploits; but aside from that, our little congregation of less than a hundred people is safely ignored. But if we choose to do so, we could change the world.


Second in a series of commentaries on the essays in the book Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World, edited by Peggy F. Bartlett (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005).

In her essay in Urban Place, titled “Reconnecting with Place: Faculty and the Piedmont Project at Emory University,” Peggy Bartlett begins by noting that academia is dominated by an ethic that “values a cosmopolitan placelessness.” Professors and academics are supposed to be ready to move to another university at a moment’s notice:

Such a commitment to placelessness responds to the mobility of academic positions and the nomadic life that many experience. It also reflects the deep familiarity that some faculty have with cities and places far from where they teach, an expertise that may be part of why they were hired in the first place.

Bartlett developed a curriculum development project at Emory University to help faculty reconnect with place, and to create course, or modules within existing courses, that were place-based. The response, she says was extraordinarily positive. Faculty liked being connected with the place they lived in. And of course, the hope is that they will train their students to become more aware of place — and thus more open to enviornmental stewardship.

I can’t help but note that Unitarian Universalist ministers are trained in placelessness. When I began training for the ministry, I was told to be ready to relocate anywhere in North America. It has proved true: I have had to relocate a number of times because of my career; a friend and fellow minister who wishes to remain in one place, on the other hand, has been struggling to put together a career. And I feel the placelessness of Unitarian Universalist ministers may well inhibit a rooted, place-based religion which can help foster further environmental stewardship.

Soemthing to think about as we strive towards an ecological theology….

Speaking of placelessness, Carol and I are off to Washington, D.C. until Monday. I probably won’t be able to post again until then — see you in three days!

Sublime nature in cities

First in a series of commentaries on the essays in the book Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World, edited by Peggy F. Bartlett (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005).

In his essay “On the Sublime in Nature in Cities,” Robert Rotenberg begins by asserting that city dwellers in the United States lack “a meaningful language to talk about [their] connection to landscape.” It’s almost as if many urban dwellers don’t even think of themselves as living in a landscape at all.

Rotenberg is an urban anthropologist who has been studying urban gardeners. He has been studying urban gardening in Chicago, and at the same time has research partners in Vienna, Austria. He found that American urban gardeners do not understand their gardens to be a part of the urban landscape:

Urban gardening in Chicago exists on a continuum between the amateur and the agriculturalist. Amateurs include home gardeners who plant small beds for aesthetic enjoyment… Their design rules and landscape tastes derive from popular media such as Martha Stewart’s magazines and Home and Garden TV, on the one hand, and the more serious magazines, such as Organic Living, Organic Gardening, and Horticulture Monthly.… The urban agriculture end of the continuum is characterized by for-profit and nonprofit community gardening…. The nonprofit version aims to build community and… is characterized by such ideologies as sustainability through intensive soil-building practices [etc.]. The for-profit organizations supply locally-grown, high-quality produce for restaurants and food pantries. [Emphasis added.]

By contrast, the Viennese urban gardeners make direct connections between their gardens and the greater urban landscape:

In Vienna, my partners connected their home gardens to public gardens, and through public gardens to several different discourses, including the relationship between activity and health, and between the individual and the community.

Rotenberg believes that here in America, the meaning of “nature” has become limited to wilderness. If an American wants to get out into nature, he or she will get in a car and drive away from urban areas. Because of this, says Rotenberg, when we talk about nature in cities, we are likely to talk about “concerns of sanitation, civil order, and governmentality.”

Case in point: here in New Bedford, there’s a local group called “Friends of Buttonwood Park,” a citizen’s group that wants to support beautiful Buttonwood Park, which was designed by Frederick Olmstead. But the Friends have faced stiff resistance from the city government when they have tried to plant more trees in Buttonwood Park. Even though the new trees would be consistent with Olmstead’s vision for the park, the city government does not want any new trees because that just means more leaves to clean up in the fall. Thus, the discourse immediately turns towards sanitation, civil order, and governmentality.

Rotenberg goes further. Here in America, he claims that we have gotten to the point where we understand the sublime only in the context of wilderness. The sublime is an experience of nature which can overwhelm us, terrify us. But we tend to ignore sublime nature that exists in cities. Rotenberg gives two examples of sublime nature in cities: wild animals and extreme weather. Here in New Bedford, we have seals in the harbor, which stay at a distance in the water and seem kind of cute and cuddly rather than sublime. But we also have peregrine falcons; in fact, a peregrine made the front page of the New Bedford Standard-Times a week ago Thursday. Pergrines have no qualms about sitting outside office windows and ripping apart a bloody pigeon to eat it; watching any large raptor eat can be terrifying enough to be sublime. As for extreme weather, any community on the New England coast experiences weather extremes. I happened to go into a supermarket the night before the blizzard hit on February 12. You could almost smell the fear as people stood in long lines at the checkout counters; I’d argue they were anticipating a sublime natural experience.

Rotenberg points out that by denying the sublime in nature that already exists in our cities, we are “debilitated from experiencing [nature] in its fullness,” and, worse yet, we “deflect attention from the nature that already exists in the city.” He ends his essay by saying:

To invigorate urban life with a more direct experience of nature means to embrace the sensibility of the sublime. The embrace of the sublime has already begun to occur in the reclaiming of spiritual and nonrational experience that is often associated with postmodern social movements. It may be merely a matter of time before our sense of the desirability of nature in the city has more to do with trembling fear than quiet beauty.

So what’s the role of liberal religion in reclaiming the sublimity of nature in our cities? One big stumbling block for my own faith community is our over-insistence on the primacy of reason — which by definition means denying the sublime. Unitarian Universalists are still stuck in the extreme rationality that dominated modernism in the past century. Yet if we look back at some of our spiritual forebears, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, we would find that they made room for both rationality and the sublime. We will have to move beyond Thoreau and Emerson, however: they had the unfortunate tendency of only seeing the sublime in wilderness and ignoring the sublime in the city. Yet their embrace of nonrationality and their acceptance of the sublime in daily life could serve us well, as we try to grow into a postmodern religious movement.

Beyond evolution

The latest issue of the print magazine UUWorld carries an article on Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. Link You might want to read the article first, before reading my commentary on it.

Dowd and Barlow are Unitarian Universalists and itinerant preachers who preach the gospel of (drumroll please) evolution. Taking their inspiration from Brian Swimme’s “Great Story” of evolution from the beginnings of the cosmos through the evolution of life on our planet and culminating in human beings, Dowd and Barlow travel from place to place telling this “Great Story,” and telling people that religion can be founded on the story of evolution.

Not necessarily a bad start at theology, but the UUWorld article, and other things I’ve read about Dowd and Barlow, seem to indicate a number of serious problems with their thoughts. I’ll briefly point out some of the problems that come up in the UUWorld magazine, recognizing that I haven’t heard Dowd and Barlow directly, and recognizing that I’m filtering what I know about them through my own early attempts at ecological ethics.

1. Problems with meta-narratives

I’m always distrustful of grand, sweeping religious stories that claim to explain everything. Using the language of post-modernism, these grand, sweeping stories can be called “meta-narratives.” One thing meta-narratives seem to do is to blur important differences in order to further the agenda of the meta-narrative. Unfortunately, I think Dowd and Barlow are guilty of this. Here’s a quote from the UUWorld article:

Like Unitarian Universalists, the Great Story movement embraces both theists and atheists. Dowd has coined the term “creatheist,” to describe both religious orientations within the movement. He pronounces the word creatheist to refer to himself, a theist who “knows that the whole of reality is creative and that humans are an expression of this divine process.” And he calls Barlow a “creatheist — an atheist who knows the same thing.”

Back in 1974, in an article titled “Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones pointed out that most liberal theists were a lot closer to humanists (or call them atheists if you will), than they were to most conservative theists. Jones said that the liberal theists could be called “humanocentric theists,” that is, while they believed in God they also felt human beings had the freedom and autonomy to make serious moral choices; life was not all about “God’s will” being done. However, while Jones pointed out that humanocentric theists and (humanocentric) religious humanists shared many characteristics, he also identified serious differences between them, including:

At the bottom of the humanist world view hovers the opinion that ultimate reality may not be intrinsically benevolent or supportive of human welfare. Recognizing that God’s benevolence is not self-evident and that every alleged instance of divine agape can also be interpreted as divine malice for humanity (cf. Camus’s inverted interpretation of Golgotha in The Rebel), humanism permits but does not dictate a human response of rebellion as soteriologically authentic.

It sure sounds to me as if Dowd and Barlow think that ultimate reality is on the benevolent end of the spectrum, which means their meta-narrative glosses over at least one crucial theological difference. Dowd and Barlow could learn from Jones, who does a far better job of reconciling humanists and theists while respecting their real differences. Dowd and Barlow could also benefit Jones’s ability to link theology to social justice and ethics.

2. Problems with ethics

If we look at Dowd and Barlow from the point of view of environmental ethics, another interesting problematic emerges. Patrick Curry, in his new book Environmental Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge, U.K., and Malden, Mass., Polity Press, 2006), makes the case for the existence of at least three strains of ecological ethics:

  1. a “light green” ethics which is human-centered
  2. a “mid-green” ethics where “value is not restricted to humans but does not extend all the way to ecosystems”
  3. a “dark green or deep (ecocentric)” ethics which extends ethics to holistic entities, i.e., entire eco-systems.

By Curry’s standards, Dowd and Barlow’s “Great Story” seems to privelege human beings enough so that it would be considered “mid-green” or even “light green.” From my own dark-green point of view, Curry helps me understand why I have some discomfort with Dowd and Barlow: their theology seems unlikely to satisfy me. More to the point, I find that there is an existing ecological theology within Unitarian Universalism, open to the insights of science (as any ecological theology must be), that is in fact “dark green.”

In his discussion of ecocentric spirituality, Curry notes:

The understanding of the sacred that can make a positive and effective contribution to ecocentric ethics, then, is a valuing of Earth which is:

  • pluralist (while allowing commonalities, with other people in other places also valuing nature in other ways, to emerge):
  • local (while allowing connections with those others elsewhere);…

(I need hardly to point out that Dowd and Barlow’s “Great Story” is problematic when judged against these two criteria.) Curry identifies several current “deep green” schools of ethics which would tie in nicely with an ecocentric spirituality, including ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism is already widespread within Unitarian Universalism, already linked with spirituality and religion, and already deeply linked to our other historic justice concerns. I don’t see that Dowd and Barlow make a strong enough case for adopting their “Great Story” theology over ecofeminism; nor do I find that their theology has as much to offer in the realm of ethics as does ecofeminism.

3. Problems with their religious education proposals

One of Dowd and Barlow’s claims is that they are coming along and linking science to religious education. According to the article in UUWorld:

If children can learn at church that they descend from the stars and that their ancestors once swam in the sea, Barlow says, perhaps they’ll see there’s no fundametnal contradiction between having a religious understanding of the world — one that stands in awe of creation and finds meaning and value in existence — and embracing the profound offerings of science.

An admirable goal. It happens to be a goal that Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist religious educators have been following for at least the past six decades.

A quick review of historic Unitarian Universalist curriculum would have showed Dowd and Barlow that the New Beacon Series of religious education curriculum, overseen by Sophia Fahs, included many titles that incorporated science into religious education programs as early as the 1940’s (Fahs herself was incorporating science into religious education in her own non-denominational Sunday school as early as the 1920’s). In the 1960’s, there was the Beacon Science Series. You could argue that the most influential curriculum in our denomination’s history, About Your Sexuality, was deeply grounded in science. And still in print today is Peg Gooding’s Stepping Stone Year, with a great unit on science and cosmology. So really, Dowd and Barlow offer nothing new to Unitarian Universalists.

There’s a deeper problem here, though. In my own personal experience, I had lots of science in my Unitarian Universalist religious education. I have fond, albeit vague, memories of the Beacon Science Series. When I got into my teens, I heard plenty of sermons on the compatibility of science and religion. However, speaking from my own experience as a religious educator for over a decade, and as someone who was raised a Unitarian Universalist, I would have to say that grounding religious education in science is not sufficient. Science is based on lab work, reproducible results, close observation, etc. — if you want to set up labs in your Sunday school space, go right ahead. But science does not answer many of the questions and concerns children have, like: “Who was Jesus, anyway?”, “I felt sad when my pet died,” or “Why is there hatred in the world?” As the great Quaker theologian Rufus Jones once wrote,

“The poet may know of flowers which ‘can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,’ but science discovers no such flowers in its field. Its flowers are amazingly complex, but they call for no handkerchief. Rufus Jones, Spiritual Reformers, p. xvii

Good religious education calls for a handkerchief.

Nor do I feel that Brian Swimme’s “Great Story” of creation provides very much substance for religious education. Someone once suggested I use it in a religious education program, and so I looked it over carefully, but it just didn’t stand up to existing Unitarian Unviersalist religious education materials.


Through their work, Dowd and Barlow are getting many people in Unitarian Universalism excited about doing some new theology. For that, they should be commended. I hope they will take into account existing theologies (and existing religious education materials) that mesh quite well with science, and indeed cover a far broader range of science than they do; they will be able to make their ideas go further that way. I hope, too, they move beyond their limited theological idea of incorporating the insights of science into religion, because that’s pretty old hat to Unitarian Universalists, and into a wider notion of an ecological theology.

They’ve made an acceptable start — now it’s time for Dowd and Barlow to do the hard work to crank it up to the next level.

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