Decomposition theology

Jack sent Carol and me a link to a wonderful article titled “What if God were a maggot?” which outlines a theology of decomposers:

“You can choose who seems holy to you, godlike, a god even, but I’ll take the bacteria and other decomposers. I’ll take the vultures standing on rooftops and fences, raising their angular wings as if in some unchoreographed tribute to Martha Graham. I’ll take the dung beetle. I’ll even take the maggot. Anybody can celebrate a monkey or a panda; they are easy gods, worthy of a simple sort of worship, one of fences and nature reserves. The decomposers are harder. They are everywhere and they need to be, without them nothing would be reborn. Without them we would all be, like the Australians of yore, knee deep in feces and bodies. Without decomposers even the plants would eventually stop growing. Some gods are clever, some gods are beautiful, some gods — it has been said but not proven — are even merciful. You can have those if you want. As for me, I’ll take the maggot and the vulture. I’ll take the bacteria. I’ll even take the catfish rolling in the shallow stink of Techiman’s market, the catfish whose groping mouth reaches up like the afterlife, that tunnel through which, as the poet Yusef Komunyakaa reminds us, we must pass to get to some other side.” (Rob Dunn, Scientific American blog, “What If God Were a Maggot?” 20 December 2012)

Back in October, I mentioned Carol’s notion of “compost theology” in this blog post. Decomposition theology is compost theology as seen from a biologist’s point of view, where you look at specific species or clades; by contrast, compost theology takes an ecologist’s point of view, where you look at processes, cycles, and interrelationships.

Whichever point of view you take, I see all this as related to Universalist theology. Classic Universalist theology asserts that every human will be saved, i.e., every human will got to heaven after death. Compost theology asserts that every organism gets saved, i.e., every organism will decompose after death and its constituent elements reabsorbed into the Web of Life — and, according to theologian Bernard Loomer, the Web of Life was what Jesus intended when he said “Kingdom of Heaven.”

This, by the way, argues against the theology of Richard Dawkins, who says that immortality is achieved by an organism’s genes (The Selfish Gene). Dawkins takes a taxonomist’s narrow point of view, in which clades or species are most important. Compost theology, by contrast, argues that cycles and ecological relationships are of equal or greater importance to genes. Dawkins is a fundamentalist: it’s all about genes! Whereas we compost theologians are mystics: all is one, everything is part of an ecological unity.

An obvious point

An obvious point, but one worth making:

Traditional Christianity, which still dominates the United States, sets up a hierarchy of worth among human beings: all humans may be ultimately equal in the sight of God, but those who will be saved upon dying (sometimes phrased differently: those who accept Jesus as their personal savior, those who are Christians, etc.) will go to heaven and everyone else will not. The humans who get to go to heaven thus feel that they are more equal than the rest of us. There’s a good name for this theological viewpoint: it is called the “limitarian” viewpoint because the number of humans who get to go to heaven is limited.

Traditional Universalism, by contrast, leads us to a radically egalitarian viewpoint: all humans will be saved, all humans will go heaven upon dying. The conversion experience for traditional Universalists is not an experience of relief (“Whew, now I’m one of the ones who gets to go to heaven!”); the Universalist conversion experience is an experience of happiness upon knowing that we all get to go to heaven (“Wow, now I realize that we’re all worthy of God’s love!”).

The humanist and non-theistic Universalists may be somewhat less cheerful than the traditional Universalists, because the humanist and non-theistic Universalists don’t say that everyone is going to go to heaven; there is however a very cheerful humanist or non-theistic Universalism which rejoices in knowing that one’s body will return to the ecosystem and remain a part of the web of life. I like the term “compost theology,” coined by my partner Carol, for this theological position. (Since some traditional Universalists feel comfortable with Bernard Loomer’s contention that when Jesus preached about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, he meant the web of life, these traditional Universalists find substantial common ground with the compost theologians.)

But the obvious point here is that all Universalists — humanist Universalists, traditional Universalists, compost Universalists — come down on the side of a more radical egalitarianism than the vast majority of U.S. Christians. (This may be what really annoys U.S. Christians about us Universalists: they like to think they’re better than we are, and we’re so very sure that they are not.)