Category Archives: Ecojustice

In addition to global climate change…

In the United States, there’s this stereotype that different human populations worry about different environmental catastrophes. College-educated white suburbanites, so the stereotype goes, worry more about global climate change — perhaps because they are more aware of how much energy it takes to power their many automobiles, and to heat their large homes. Communities of color and working class whites, so it is said, worry more about toxics in the environment — perhaps because people of color and working class people are more likely to be exposed to more toxic substances in the places they live and work.

College-educated white people have tended to be dismissive of the threat of toxics in the environment, at least in comparison to the threat of global climate change. Global climate change has the potential to cause another “great extinction” and to decrease human chances of survival, whereas toxics in the environment don’t have the potential to do as much damage.

But I think we all should start worrying more about toxics in the environment.

According to a BBC article titled “Pesticides linked to bee deaths found in most honey samples,” a recent study published in Science shows that neonicotinoids have been found in three quarters of honey samples from around the world (from every continent except Antarctica). The widespread presence of neonicotinoids is especially troubling, because they were found in places where the chemicals have been banned for several years.

When asked by the BBC to comment on the article, Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, said: “Entire landscapes all over the world are now permeated with highly potent neurotoxins, undoubtedly contributing to the global collapse of biodiversity.”

The collapse of biodiversity is bad enough. But consider, too, that if we humans kill off major pollinators, there’s a potential cascade effect that could drive many flowering plants towards extinction. So if you’re looking for a cause of the next “great extinction,” or if you’re just looking for another reason to lie awake at night and worry — look no farther than toxics in the environment.

Not happier

George Mackerron, lecturer at the University of Sussex, England, studies links between environment and human happiness. In 2010, he developed an iPhone app called Mappiness which pinged users to ask them where they were and how happy they felt. Based on his unpublished analysis of the data gathered, he found that happiness does not correlate with being in a city.

“We find that people are happier in the moment in natural environments, and all natural environments are happier than cities,” Mackerron said in an interview with a BBC reporter.

An obvious conclusion follows. Human population continues to climb. At the same time, the internal logic of consumer capitalism is reshaping the landscape, through resource extraction, commodification, the reduction of everything to information, etc. The combination of these and other forces is driving more and more humans to find themselves in urban and suburban environments dominated by human-made objects (buildings, roads, housing developments, etc.); or rural environments dominated by resource extraction (corn and soybean farms, wind farms, mines, etc.); or digital environments (computers, smartphones, virtual reality, etc.). And while the global elites are able buy themselves happiness by purchasing one or more vacation homes in natural settings, the general trend will be that non-white people, and lower income people will be driven into areas that provide less happiness: into cities and less attractive suburbs; into rural areas dominated by resource extraction; into low-paying jobs in digital environments cut off from the natural environment.

Failed rain barrel

Carol and I wanted to put together a rain barrel for the middle school Sunday school class in eco-justice. Of course we waited until the last minute to purchase materials, and so when I saw the “DIY Rain Barrel Diverter & Parts Kit,” it seemed like the perfect solution. The packaging proclaimed, “Works with Plastic Barrels, Wooden Barrels and Garbage Cans.” So on a Saturday evening we purchased one of the kits and a 32-gallon trash barrel, and brought everything to Sunday school the next morning.

DIY Rain Barrel Diverter and Parts Kit

The class had fun drilling holes in the trash barrel for the plumbing fittings. But when we tried to install the fittings — a faucet and a drain hole — into the holes, the class found it very difficult to screw the fittings in. Before people got too frustrated, class ended, and after class I figured I’d try putting the fittings in myself — but they just wouldn’t go. After a lot of fiddling, I finally managed to force them into place. It started raining, so I quickly put the trash barrel, er, rain barrel next to an existing rain barrel that was already full. I directed the overflow from the existing rain barrel into the new rain barrel. It started filling. And then I saw that it was leaking around the drain hole. I wound up having to plug the drain hole with threaded PVC fittings, gasket material, and pipe joint compound. I should have replaced the faucet fitting as well, because by the next day, it, too, had a very slow but noticeable leak where it went into the trash barrel. And now, after three weeks, the sides of the trash barrel are very definitely bulging — it simply isn’t strong enough to bear up under the weight of the water.

Failed rain barrel made of a trash barrel; note bulging sides

Instead of purchasing an expensive pre-packaged “DIY Rain Barrel Kit,” I should have gotten a couple of 3/4 inch bulkhead fittings, two sink faucets, and one of those blue plastic rain barrels. Live and learn.

Ecology camp

This month, I’m overseeing ecology camps for three different age groups: Nature Camp for gr. 2-5, Ecojustice Camp for gr. 2-5, and Ecojustice Camp for gr. 6-8. The middle school camp is this week; Nature Camp and camp for gr. 2-5 are next week.

To give you a flavor of what we’re doing, below are a few photos from the first two days of the middle school camp. (We have media release forms from all campers and staff.)

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Above: One camper’s field notes on arthropods. Yesterday, arthropod expert Jack Owicki visited and gave an overview of arthropods. Then we checked some insect pitfall traps we had set, checked bushes and plants for arthropods, and looked at spider webs.

 

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Above: Some of the campers built a teepee yesterday. This is not a traditional teepee as built by the native peoples of the Great Plains. We used structural bamboo borrowed from Darrel DeBoer, an architect specializing in natural materials. Bamboo has good structural properties, and can be grown sustainably.

 

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Above: Nancy Neff, an expert on native plants, came yesterday and gave us a guided tour of the native plant gardens on campus. She explained some of the adaptations native plants have to grow in our climate.

 

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Above: Today we visited the Zeise place, up in the redwood forest near the Skyline to the Sea Trail. As you can see, some of the trails were pretty steep (and this was not the steepest trail we hiked!).

 

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Above: Every camper got about 20 minutes of alone time in the redwoods.

 

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Above: Talking together about the experience of being alone in the woods. Notice that some of us are wearing jackets. It was windy and cool today, and when we sat in the shade it got pretty chilly.

Critical Approaches to Faith and Environment

The 9 a.m. session on Tuesday, May 24, of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference, titled “Critical Approaches to Faith and Environment I,” included presentations by John Fadden, adjunct professor at St. John Fisher College, and Shalahudin Kafrawi, professor at Hobart and William Smith College.

In “The Apocalypse of John: Friend and/or Foe of the Environment?” Fadden gave an analysis of the book of Revelation. As a Biblical scholar, he said that we have to be careful about using a two thousand year old text to discuss contemporary issues. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, was writing for a first century C.E. audience in the Roman Empire; he was not writing for a twenty-first century audience, and did not specifically address global climate change or other ecological concerns.

“He’s also not really concerned with the end of the world in the way we have perhaps come to associate with the apocalypse,” said Fadden, “especially what we have come to call dispensationalism,” a contemporary interpretive framework that inspired the Left Behind series of books. “That’s not really his interest,” said Fadden, and “as Biblical scholars, we have to be sympathetic to the first century audience.”

However, the intended audience of the Bible is often forgotten. For example, in 2005, during George W. Bush’s presidency, some observers believed that Bush was influenced by an apocalyptic attitude, and those observers believed this attitude had an impact on Bush’s environmental policies. Some of these observers went to far as to wish that Revelation had not been included in the Bible. But Fadden says you can’t really blame a first century text for George W. Bush’s environmental policies. “The problem is not the text so much as how you might interpret it,” he said.

Thus Fadden is interested in seeing if there is an alternative, “eco-friendly way of reading the text.”

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Panel on Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings

The second Wednesday morning session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference, titled “Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings” at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25 included presentations by Brianne Donaldson, professor at Monmouth College; Jamison Stallman, M.A. candidate at Union Theological Seminary; and Cecille M. Medina-Moldonado, M.A. candidate at Loyola University. I was most interested in hearing Donaldson’s presentation on Jainism, but ultimately found Medina-Moldonado’s presentation equally interesting.

Donaldson’s presentation, titled “I Ask Pardon of All Creatures: The Centrality More Than Human Life Jain Text and Rituals of Repentance,” began with some basic information about Jainsim, including an introduction to the principle of ahimsa, not causing harm. Pointing out that Mahavira, the key figure in early Jainism, was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, she said, “Both buddha and Mahavira prioritize ethical action over Vedic ritual practice.” [Note that I am not able to include diacritical marks for Sanskrit transliteration on this Web site.]

“Jainism posits a universe of which our universe is just one part,” said Donaldson, adding, “There is no deity.” instead, according to the Tattvartha Sutra, there are six substances, including jiva which may be interpreted as soul, or as sentient substance. All organisms house a jiva, she said, including microorganisms.

Jains believe in reincarnation after death. They also believe in karma, said Donaldson, which she described as a kind of “causal entanglement. “Just to live in the world has a cost.”

“One’s own jiva might yet be reborn in a the body of a plant or animal,” said Donaldson, so care for other organisms is important, as one might sometime be reborn in one of those bodies. This leads to ethical concern for other beings.

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Environmental ethics panel

Presenters at the Environmental Ethics session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, were Lyndsey Graves, recent graduate of Boston University School of Theology; Michael Malley, student at Methodist Theological School in Ohio; and Etin Anwar, professor at Hobart and William Smith College.

I was particularly interested to hear Graves’s presentation, “Liberal vs. Literal?: Opportunities for Environmentally Ethical Pentecostal Interpretations of Genesis 1:26-28.” Pentecostalism is arguably the fastest growing religious group in the world, and as such could be a valuable interfaith ally in addressing the current global environmental crises.

Graves chose to address Gen. 1:26-28 because it has been such an influential text, with its injunction to “subdue” and have “dominion” over the earth. While this text has often been interpreted as giving humankind license to exploit other organisms and non-living things, eco-theologians have re-interpreted the text as calling on humans to be responsible stewards of the earth. Graves said that today, some Pentecostals are now “creatively coming up with ways to reinterpret Genesis 1:26-28.”

“I am focusing on the words ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’,” Graves said. She pointed out that liberal Christians can say that this passage is not particularly important to them, or they can re-interpret the text to call for stewardship, “which I do not think is really justified in the Hebrew.”

But Pentecostals do not really have these options. Pentecostals assert the “inerrancy of the word of God, and because of this they do not aim to evaluate the Bible, but “to understand it and submit” to the will of God.

Graves reviewed the work of several relevant theologians who have provided readings of the text that might prove useful to Pentecostals.

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Catherine Keller on “Ecologies of Diversity”

Catherine Keller, author of From a Broken Web, was the keynote speaker at the opening session of the 2016 Sacred Texts and Human Contexts conference at Nazareth College, Rochester, New York. This year’s conference theme is “Nature and Environment in World Religions.”

Keller’s address was titled “Ecologies of Diversity: Beyond Religious and Human Exceptionalism.”

To help address the global environmental crisis, Keller believes religions must move beyond human exceptionalism — that is, religions have to get over the notion that humans are somehow more privileged than other organisms. Furthermore, she believes that we must also move beyond religious exceptionalism.

She said she assumed that those of us attending the conference are participants in a faith that is “planetary.” “By talking together, we hope to get and give some hope,” she said, “Hope for the planetary future.” She added: “Those hopes come encoded in our sacred texts.”

Keller went on to make three main points:

First, the unprecedented planetary emergency should not be treated as exceptional, she said. The current ecological crisis is driven both by politics that use emergency powers to prolong the crisis, and by various types of exceptionalism. Instead, she said the planetary emergency can be understood as “an emergence.”

Second, Keller believes “an alternative politics” is needed. “The key to this alternative is, I believe, what might be called ‘entangled difference’.” Her 2015 book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement goes into more detail on “entanglement,” which she relates to the concept of quantum entanglement.

“Difference is not a separation, but a relation,” she pointed out. Thus, difference and entanglement can go hand in hand. “And so while difference may exclude or ignore” that from which it is different, there is still a relationship between the things that are different.

Third, Keller said, “If we can turn catastrophe into catalyst, the answer is hope.” In fact, she said that “catastrophe must become a catalyst” in order for positive action to happen.

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Environmentalism: from sacred texts… pt. 4

Read part one

Analysis:

I’m always a little surprised at how much the children seem to like Ecojustice class; we do try to make Sunday school classes fun, but this class seems to be more fun than most. Late last year, I overheard a conversation that helps explain why. A seventh grader told a fifth grader, “You have to take the Ecojustice class. You actually get to do things.” When he said “You get to do things,” that seventh grader—who happens to be a non-praying atheist—did not mean his friend would get to pray or read sacred texts. He had grasped in an intuitive way that the curriculum of Ecojustice class is based on a progressive educational philosophy where “the learning experience is a part of life, not a separated preparation for life.” (23) While we aim to inculcate religious literacy and the core values of our religious tradition, including familiarity with sacred texts, these things cannot be taught separately from the lives we are in the midst of living.

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Our progressive educational philosophy cause us to look with alarm at the seeming inability of local faith communities to address the global environmental crisis. We all know people of faith have to address the global environmental crisis, yet in spite of this apparent consensus “that religion must play a central role in building a more environmentally sustainable society, religious organizations and individuals have achieved few tangible results.” (24) Religions have done pretty well at linking their sacred texts and traditions to abstract thinking about environmental justice, but this does not seem to have had much effect in the real world. The specific conditions of the global environmental crisis require a new approach to ecological theology, just as the conditions of Latin America required the new approach of liberation theology; (25) sacred texts and theology cannot be treated separately from the immediate reality of our lives. To put this more directly: when I asked a group of elders at UUCPA about sacred texts and environmental ethics, one replied, “You don’t get your ethics by reading, … you get your ethics by living.” (26)

That seventh grader who urged his friend to do the Ecojustice class knew that words—whether spoken or written words—are not the most important teaching tool. In U.S. culture, we often equate teaching with explaining, which “makes teaching a talkative affair” where we assume that “to teach is to tell.” But this assumption is not accurate, because most teaching is actually nonverbal teaching. Example and experiences will always prove more powerful than speech: “No amount of talk can substitute for the well-placed gesture of the human body.” (27)

The teaching that takes place in the Ecojustice class is always connected with bodily movement and gesture. Before the class even begins, the children take part in the worship service, sitting near to other people of all different ages, standing up to sing, running out the door to their classes. When we arrive in the classroom, we sit in a circle so that we are aware of each other’s faces and bodies. When we say opening words together, we have hand motions to go with them. The children run to get food scraps and dead leaves to put into the composter; they pick up worms in their hands; they peer over a fence to look in the creek; they saw wood, hammer nails, and help hold things that other children are hammering and sawing; they pick up tools and materials and put them away. Of course I and the other teachers explain things with words, but those words are linked to specific bodily actions: hold the hammer like this, don’t forget to put a little water in the worm composter, etc. When we had the ethical discussion of removing House Sparrow eggs from the nesting box, this was not an abstract discussion, we were talking about a living organism that might cause a problem that we had to face with hands and hearts. At the end of class, when we say together “Hold fast to what is good” (based on words from a sacred text), we hold each other’s physical hands.

What these sixth graders, and us adult teachers, experience in the worship service and throughout the class can be understood metaphorically as a form of dance; not high-art dance done as a performance by professionals (e.g., ballet, modern dance, etc.), but participatory social dance done as a community. Even though our congregation rarely includes dance in our formal worship services (as is true of most religious groups stemming from the Christian tradition), you can find elements of informal social dance throughout the worship service, and in the liturgical elements interspersed through the class time: a time to stand and to sit, a time to greet each other in worship; a time to run pell-mell, a time to pick up worms; gestures and movements that express who we are and how we are interconnected. If we did not have these elements of dance, if we did not respect the bodies of all those in our congregation, it is likely that the children would be much less willing to be part of our congregation: “If children are screaming, they might just be having a bad day or else they might be doing what many of the adults feel like doing.” (28) Not that we always manage to respect the bodies of those in our congregation, but at our best, children, teens, and adults embody our values through dance-like moves.

Carla Walter, a dancer and scholar in our congregation, describes a womanist spirituality, drawing on African spirituality, which helps me understand what our post-Christian congregation aspires to. A womanist spirituality, says Walter, incorporating elements like dance, music, oral tradition, direct perception of spiritual matters, and relationships with other people, “draws on ancient knowledge of power in our spirits and communities to move us as it remembers the past, and on today’s hegemonically valued groups to work against intra- and intergroup hatred to build social sustainable structures. Spiritual wholeness is what is sought, in interconnectivity….” (29) This is what we are trying to do with our children and teens: make socially sustainable structures, seek spiritual wholeness. Womanist spirituality, a “struggle spirituality” that was never subject to Cartesian dualism and “the Adam and Eve mythos that informs Western religion,” (30) helps us dance through the resistance to Western religion; rather than correct interpretation of sacred texts to solve environmental problems, it nurtures spiritual wholeness and liberation through interconnectivity.

I don’t mean to suggest that scholars should give up re-interpreting sacred texts, like the Adam and Eve mythos in Genesis 2, to help solve environmental problems. And I appreciate the attempts to describe a straightforward connection from sacred texts to “ecological lived practices that continue to reshape an ecologically conscious social imaginary.” (31) But as a religious educator in a post-Christian congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have found this approach is more likely to lead to restless children and resistant teens, and not a few restless and resistant adults.

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Above: a dance choreographed by Carla Walter in a UUCPA worship service

Dance — “the earliest art form” which “allows expression that can’t approximate rational thought” (32) — lies closer to the embodied experience of young people than sacred texts. And while dance may not be prominent in sacred texts, it is there in the texts; in addition to re-interpreting Genesis 2, we might pay attention to texts like Exodus 15:20, where Miriam led women in celebratory dance, (33) as well as many other sacred texts that describe the relationship of human beings, other beings, and the divine in terms of processional dance, ecstatic dance, dances of praise and worship, etc. When we move out of the spheres of Western-style religion, and Westernized scholarship, we may find that dance is valued more highly. Professor Hyun Kyung Chung of Ewha Women’s University in Seoul gave an unusual presentation to the Seventh General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1991:

“Chung entered from the rear of the hall. She was accompanied by nineteen Korean dancers with bells, candles, drums, gongs, and clap sticks … [and] two Australian Aboriginal dancers dressed only in loincloths and body paint. … When they had all reached the stage, Chung and her companions stepped through a synchronized pattern [of dance] which combined Aboriginal movement with traditional Korean folk dance.” (34)

Some of those present experienced Chung’s presentation “electrifying, powerful, evocative,” while for others it was an “abject surrender of Christianity to a pagan environment.” (35) Many of us in the West have come to believe that hierarchies, orthodoxies, and standardized rituals define religion. Thus the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches gave a mixed response to Hyun Kyung Chung’s incorporation of dance into her presentation. Western Christianity (and Western religion more generally) has been preoccupied with hierarchies, creeds, and standardized rituals. But the majority of Christians now live in the global South, Christianity is no longer no longer shaped exclusively by Western-style religious practices, and Christianity is no longer defined by hierarchies, creeds, and standardized rituals. (36) This should cause us Westerners to rethink the definition of religion more broadly. We should remember that before Constantine’s deployment of Christianity in service of empire, Christianity “meant a dynamic lifestyle sustained by fellowships that were guided by both men and women and that reflected hope for the coming Reign of God.” (37)

In a post-Christian congregation such as the one I serve, children, teens, and their parents are rightly wary of religion that serves imperial ambitions; rightly suspicious of Western-style religion imposing its hierarchies and standardization on us. As we move away from standardization, then contemporary poems, like the one Beverly read at the beginning of the worship service I described, may serve as sacred texts. As we move away from standardization of religion, we may listen when an elder in our congregation vigorously asserts that “you don’t get your ethics by reading, you get your ethics by living,” we may notice the persons in our congregation who are preliterate children, and we may conclude that reading sacred texts isn’t as important as it has been in Western-style religion. Our bioregion and cultural context may also influences us: here in the San Francisco Bay watershed, an urban area on the Pacific Rim with a large East Asian population, we may find ourselves understanding religion in Asian terms, in non-Western terms, as “a matter of seasonal rituals, ethical insights, and narratives handed down from generation to generation.” (38)

The fact that we no longer have a centralized, standardized definition of what constitutes religion leads to uncertainty in how we conduct religious education here in the United States. Our closest religious cousins in the U.S., the liberal mainline Protestant Christians, also find themselves in the midst of this uncertainty. The disestablishment of Protestantism in the U.S., which occurred half a century ago, challenged mainline congregations—and post-Christian congregations like ours—to embrace “religious, racial, and cultural pluralism”; since then, we have been uncertain what religious education is supposed to accomplish, and who should do the educating. (39) And the uncertainty within religious education, the uncertainty with Western-style religion, is only magnified by the existential uncertainty of the global environmental crisis.

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As we re-imagine religious education within our congregation, I find the image of the Web of Life helps to make sense out of the many and varied dance moves we engage in. Bernard Loomer, a theologian affiliated with both mainline Protestant and post-Christian congregations, described the Web of Life as “an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality,” a complex which includes “the human and non-human, the organic and inorganic levels of life and existence”; what Jesus called the Kingdom of God was also the Web of Life, although this insight of Jesus’s was “covered over because we have surrounded Jesus with religiosity.” (40) In the Web of Life, humans and non-humans and the inorganic are all bound together in a web of relationships; reworking more traditional Christian terms, Loomer says that sin is when we act against this web of relationships, while forgiveness “is a restoration to those relationships.” (41) Loomer adds that as human civilization advances—as we achieve greater freedoms for minority groups, better understand the dignity of the other, etc.—we create the need “for adopting disciplines that are more complex and requiring virtues beyond anything the human spirit has known.” When Loomer said this in 1985, he remained uncertain whether we humans would be able to respond adequately to this challenge: “If the response is inadequate the human organism may turn out to be a dead end.” (42)

Facing this uncertainty, I am sometimes tempted to fall back on old educational models which impose certainty. I could make children and teens find spiritual certainty in a standardized body of sacred texts from which we extract truth. Or — something my congregation would feel more comfortable with — I could have children and teens find scientific certainty in technological fixes to the global environmental crisis. However, the best efforts of both science and Western religion have not decreased the probability of global environmental disaster, nor the probability that we humans will turn out to be a “dead end.” While I wouldn’t advocate abandoning either science or Western religion, they seem to me to be insufficient for making new “virtues beyond anything the human spirit has known.”

Imagine religion as a dance which restores us to the Web of Life, rather than acting against the relationships of the Web of Life. In this dance, we are interconnected with other persons as embodied beings bound in a web of relationships. Those relationships begin in the immediate human community where we are dancing; the relationships extend further into the immediate bioregion of the local watershed; and then still further into the relationships of the whole of the Web of Life. The relationships in the Web of Life are not neat and tidy; rather the Web of Life is a thicket and bramble wilderness filled with the messiness of becoming. In this dance, we communicate the reality of the Web of Life through gestures rather than through words or texts, through the interaction of the whole selves of embodied human beings.

As a religious educator, I hope to restore persons to their relationships of the Web of Life. To that end, the spiritual practices associated with womanist spirituality, including dance, music, narratives and oral tradition, direct perception of spiritual matters, relationships with other beings—spiritual practices that treat human beings as fully embodied beings—help connect children and teens (and adults too) to a spiritual wholeness within the Web of Life.

Our embodied approach to religious education might offer at least three helpful insights to more scholarly or theoretical approaches to mobilize religion to address the global environmental crisis. First, the children and teens in our post-Christian congregation are resistant to Western-style religion, associating it with intolerance and bigotry—associations that seem related to the imperial history of Western Christianity. Second, we see that the children and teens in our Pacific Rim congregation willingly and joyfully participate in dance-like embodied religious education—an educational approach that appears related to changes in global Christianity, and that can be conceptualized through womanist spirituality. Third, an accurate description of what I see in this post-Christian congregation does not lead to neat and tidy conclusions; instead I find myself in a thicket-and-bramble wilderness, where nothing about the messiness of becoming is clear and obvious.

A scholar of religion who walked into one of our classes and saw a bunch of sixth graders building birdhouses might be forgiven for thinking this class didn’t involve religion. Where are the texts, the beliefs, the prayers that define U.S. religiosity? Yet our post-Christian faith community might also be forgiven for thinking that organized religion has, so far, not been very effective in dealing with environmental crisis. It may not look like it on the surface, but our children and teens are dancing their way towards socially sustainable structures of spiritual wholeness. As the poet Marge Piercy says:

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening. (43)

 

Notes:

(23) This description of progressive educational philosophy is from Robert Pazmino, Foundational Issues in Christian Education 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 120.

(24) Anna L. Peterson, “Talking the Walk: A Practice-based Environmental Ethic as Grounds for Hope,” in Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, ed. Laurel Kearns and Catherine Kellar (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 46.

(25) Ibid., 58.

(26) Cecil Bridges, personal communication, February 23, 2016. Cecil gave me permission to quote his words.

(27) Gabriel Moran, Fashioning Me a People Today: The Educational Insights of Maria Harris (New London, Conn..: Twenty-Third Publications, 2007), 51.

(28) Ibid., 81.

(29) Carla S. Walter, Dance, Consumerism, and Spirituality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 49.

(30) Ibid., 48.

(31) Anne Marie Dalton and Henry C. Simmons, Ecotheology and the Practice of Hope (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2010), 105.

(32) Walter, 86.

(33) Ibid., 88.

(34) Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1995/2001), 213.

(35) Ibid., 217.

(36) Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 174.

(37) Ibid., 174, 179.

(38) Ibid., 221.

(39) Charles R. Foster, “Educating American Protestant Religious Educators,” Religious Education, 110 (2015), 548-550.

(40) Bernard C. Loomer, Unfoldings: Conversations from the Sunday Morning Seminars of Bernie Loomer (Berkeley, Calif.: First Unitarian Church, 1985), 1-2.

(41) Ibid., 3.

(42) Ibid., 19.

(43) Piercy, 128.

Environmentalism: from sacred texts… pt. 3

Read part one

The worm composter and the tire garden are right next to Adobe Creek, and some of the children look down to see how much water remains from the rain we had last week. Adobe Creek flows for about 14 miles from Black Mountain, a peak on the Monte Bello Ridge west of Palo Alto, to San Francisco Bay, draining about 10 square miles of land. (14) The creek runs in a concrete channel for its last two miles, including the stretch past the church. (15) The children stretch over the chain link fence that keeps people from falling in the ten foot deep channel to look. Water just covering the bottom of the creek flows quickly past. One of the children points at a pair of Mallards in the water.

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Every time we visit the worm composter and the tire garden, we look in the creek, and we once made a special point of visiting Adobe Creek after a big rain storm so the children could video the turbid chocolate-brown waters rushing past. We are trying to make the children feel connected to our local watershed. Anabaptist theologian Ched Myers argues that too often environmentalists and eco-theologians tend to think in broad abstractions while neglecting their immediate ecological context, a tendency that can lead congregations to engage in environmental justice work that is merely “cosmetic.” Myers wants religious communities to engage in what he calls “watershed discipleship,” environmental justice centered on the bioregion of their local watershed. (16) For Myers, “watershed discipleship” should be rooted in scripture, in the Bible, though he is careful to add that the natural world is a kind of scripture; and he argues that “liturgy and spirituality” and “church practices” should also be firmly rooted in the specific bioregion of a watershed. (17) We’re teaching sixth graders in this class, most of whom are still at the concrete operational stage of cognitive development, and we’re in a post-Christian congregation. But even though Myers’s “watershed discipleship” is too abstract and too Christian to accurately describe what we’re doing, it helps explain why I and the other teachers insist on taking the children to see dirty water flowing through a concrete channel.

We walk from Adobe Creek back to our classroom, then out the back door to a covered patio to work on the half-finished nesting boxes. Before we start working, I bring up our conversation from the previous week, about House Sparrows, an invasive species, who sometimes take over nesting boxes, thus depriving native swallows of nesting habitat. Last week, I had told the children that ornithologists recommend removing and destroying House Sparrow nests in swallow nesting boxes. The children did not like the idea of destroying House Sparrow eggs, even if theses birds are a destructive invasive species. This week I admit that I probably couldn’t destroy a House Sparrow nest myself, and I ask what they think we should do. Zoe finally says she would be willing to remove a House Sparrow nest, though she wouldn’t destroy it, she would put it on the ground somewhere. “What if a cat gets the nest?” asks Toby. “Well, at least we didn’t kill it,” Zoe says.

This is our third week building nesting boxes. By now, most of the children know what to do. Catalina, who hadn’t worked on the nesting boxes before, is taken in hand by some of the other girls, who show her the plans, and some partially assembled nesting boxes. Soon Catalina is sitting on a board to hold it while Eva cuts it with the hand saw. I’m at the table where we drill pilot holes for nails. We have a system where one person holds the piece of wood, another person holds the handle of the hand drill, and a third person turns the crank handle. We keep working until the worship service ends. Frank, an older adult, happens to walk past us, and stops to see what we are doing, and soon he is working, too. The children want to keep on working , but both Lorraine and I have other commitments, so we have to end the class.

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“OK, everyone stand in a circle and hold hands,” I say. “You, too, Frank.” When everyone is in a circle, and more or less holding hands, I ask everyone to say one thing that they learned, or that they’re taking away from today’s class. “Sawing is hard.” “I learned how to drill.” (Becky doesn’t say anything.) “Fun!” “Our worms are happy.” Finally we all say the unison benediction that the adults say at the end of each worship service:

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

This is our version of a widely-used benediction derived from 1 Thessalonians 5:13-15, 21-22, (18) adapted by other Unitarian Universalists, and further adapted by our church’s senior minister when she added the phrase “Rejoice in beauty.” Most of the children in the class have memorized our version of the benediction; they mostly like saying it together; sometimes their comments make it seem that they have even thought about its meaning. I suspect that some of them would be displeased to learn that the benediction they like so well comes from the Bible.

Many of these children are from families in the middle of what political scientists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell call “a gaping chasm between those who are highly religious and those who are highly secular.” (19) They fall in the middle because they’re both religious and secular at the same time. They are secular because, like the senior minister and more than half the congregation, they are atheists, they don’t pray, and/or they rarely read sacred texts—they are secular by definition, since religiosity is commonly determined in the U.S. by belief in God, the act of praying, and devotional reading of the Bible or other sacred text. (20) For further confirmation of the congregation’s “secularity,” I have learned from listening to and talking with the children and teens that most of them think of “religious” persons as intolerant; in this, their views correspond to the views Putnam and Campbell have found in highly secular Americans. (21) Yet the sixth graders in this class are “religious” if we measure religiosity, not by belief in God or prayer, but by regular attendance in a local faith community. Some of them are aware of their awkward status as both religious and secular, and sometimes they’ll say that they don’t like telling their friends they go to church because it’s hard to explain that their church doesn’t make them believe in God.

The teens in the class I teach later on Sunday morning feel this awkwardness more acutely—these teens are older, in grades 8 and 9, ranging in age from 12 to 15. They are in our “Coming of Age” class, which corresponds roughly to a confirmation class in a Protestant Christian church, or a bar/bat mitzvah class in some Jewish synagogues. In a recent Coming of Age class, I led a session on Biblical literacy, reviewing material about the Bible to which they had already been introduced in previous years in Sunday school. When I asked some pre-assessment questions, I found that the fourteen teenagers in the class could say little about the Bible; even though I know they had been exposed to this knowledge in other Sunday school classes, they are very resistant to remembering anything that smacks of “religion.” I am sympathetic to their resistance to “religion,” given how religion has been used in the West as a form of “colonial control.” (22) Given our congregation’s commitment to social justice, no wonder our children and teens resist a label that that they associate with the opposite of social justice. Yet I also I hear from teens and from their parents that they love coming to the Coming of Age class, because they get to talk about big religious questions like the nature of human beings, good and evil, etc.; they resist the label, but they love the content. All this presents a formidable pedagogical challenge: introducing children and teens to the resources of religion, without provoking further resistance.

With that in mind, let’s return to the sixth grade Ecojustice class, to see what happens after the closing circle: After the closing circle, several children volunteer, without being asked, to stay and help put away tools and materials. Several of them, almost half the class members, walk back and forth between the covered patio and my office, carrying half-finished projects, supplies, and tools. It takes fifteen minutes to get everything put away, and some of the children linger, ready to stay longer if there is something to do; but I have to get ready for the Coming of Age class, so they drift away. These sixth graders show no resistance to the religious bioregionalism of Ecojustice class; exactly the opposite: they like to know how they are connected to Violet-green Swallows and House Sparrows, to worms and compost, to Adobe Creek.

On to the final section.

 

Notes:

(14) Chris D. Pilson, “Urban creek restoration, Adobe Creek, Santa Clara County, California” (Master’s thesis, San Jose State University, 2009), 10, 13.

(15) The channelization of Adobe Creek is just one of many human-induced changes. Adobe Creek may have originally terminated in a “bird’s foot distributary pattern” before it reached the bay, perhaps close to the present-day location of the church (Pilson, 58). It is probably no longer possible to reconstruct what the creek was like before Europeans arrived, and rather than focusing on the past we want children to know the creek as it is now.

(16) Ched Myers, “From ‘Creation Care’ to ‘Watershed Discipleship’: Re-Placing Ecological Theology and Practice,” The Conrad Grebel Review 32, no.3 (2014), 257, accessed March 31, 2016: link.

(17) Ibid., 266-268.

(18) Versions of this benediction, used widely in U.S. mainline congregations, may be found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.

(19) Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 494.

(20) Putnam and Campbell measure religiosity by asking “How frequently do you attend religious services? How frequently do you pray outside of religious services? How important is religion in your daily life? How important is your religion to your sense of who you are? Are you a strong believer in your religion? How strong is your belief in God?” (Putnam and Campbell, 18). Since half these questions involve belief and prayer, atheists who don’t pray will not be scored as highly religious. Putnam and Campbell admit there might possibly be some bias in these questions (ibid., 20).

(21) Ibid., 499-501.

(22) Robert F. Shedinger, “Jesus and Jihad: Transcending the Politics of the Sacred,” in Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: A North American Response to “A Common Word between Us and You” (Rochester, New York: Nazareth College, 2014), 120-121.