Environmentalism: from sacred texts to the real world

Revised version, 15 April 2016

Introduction and Methodology

Since at least the 1970s and the birth of the modern environmental movement, theologians and scholars of religion have paid a good deal of attention to how religion can support environmentalism and environmental justice. An important part of this scholarly attention has been directed at interpreting sacred texts and narratives to support environmentalism and environmental justice. (1) Both I, and the local faith community I serve, sometimes use this scholarly work to help inform and shape our response to the environmental crisis.

As much as I appreciate the scholarly work that has been done on this topic, I find a gap between this scholarly work and the work we do in our local congregation. Most people in our congregation have little time for reading sacred texts, let alone reading scholarly works. Our lives are filled with family and personal matters—raising children, going to school or working at jobs or coping with unemployment, caring for aging parents or declining spouses, etc. Many of us are also active in social justice work—our congregation is particularly concerned with homelessness and affordable housing, peacemaking, and managing the global environmental crisis, but we also are fighting racism, working to end modern slavery, dealing with the immigration problem, etc. As a minister of religious education, I myself have little time to read scholarly work, given the demands of teaching children’s classes, advising youth groups, managing volunteers, administering programs, fundraising, counseling people in crisis, etc.

Teaching, managing, administering, and counseling; caring, coping, working, and handling family responsibilities—these leave little time for reading or study. From one point of view, these mundane human relationships crowd out the divine. From another point of view, this is where the divine thrives, growing in the midst of mundane relationships. The poet Marge Piercy, in a poem we sometimes read in our worship services, says:

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs. (2)

We could try to clear a straight path through the thickets and brambles of ordinary life, to cut through the thickets that lie between sacred text and our lives. I have attempted to do just this in conducting religious education classes for children and teens: to try to develop straight-line connections between sacred texts and young people’s lives. But trying to make direct connections in religious education has never worked as well as “tangling and interweaving and taking more in.” With that in mind, I decided to document the existing “rabbit runs and burrows and lairs” of our congregation’s religious education program, with its interconnections spreading like tangled rhizomes of plants—to document how a real-world congregation resists “an artificial unity” and instead celebrates “the messiness of becoming.” (3)

Those of us who do documentary work don’t really fit into the scholarly world. Documentarians tend to use language that is “too subjective” for scholarly articles; we tend to write in the first person singular, not in the scholarly passive voice. (4) We are writers, and also photographers and filmmakers, attempting “to ascertain what is, what can be noted, recorded, pictured,” and we try to figure out “how to elicit the interest of others, and how to provide a context, so that an incident, for instance, is connected to the conditions that informed and prompted its occurrence.” (5) Documentary work may seem wordy, non-linear, and overly passionate; documentarians have been accused of avoiding firm conclusions. But documentarians prefer to work this way in order to preserve the tangled messiness of what they have witnessed.

In documenting religious education programs in my congregation, I have protected the privacy of those whom I document, except where I asked for permission to quote someone directly. I have changed names and personal details, and sometimes combined identities to provide additional privacy.

On to part two.




(1) One notable example: Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, series ed., Religions of the World and Ecology Series (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998-2004). Our congregation has the complete ten volume series in our library, though it appears to be little used.

(2) Marge Piercy, “The Seven of Pentacles,” Circles on the Water: Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1982), 128.

(3) Michael Mikulak, “The Rhizomatics of Domination: From Darwin to Biotechnology,” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 15: Deleuze and Guattarri’s Ecophilosophy (2007): 17, accessed April 1, 2016 http://www.rhizomes.net/issue15/mikulak.html.

(4) Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 28-30.

(5) Ibid., 20.

(6) Footnote 6 was moved to the main body of the text.

A letter about learning and salvation

Dear Mark,

You ask us to write a “Letter to Mark,” in which we are to talk about what we learned during the week-long course at Ferry Beach. You also invite us to post this on some public forum — Facebook, a congregational newsletter, a blog, etc. — and so I am posting this to my blog before I even send it to you. But before I address the issues you ask about, I have to begin by talking about one or two big problems that overshadow liberal religion right now, in this moment in history; those problems will require some theology; and after doing some theology I will finally address the issues you ask about, what I learned at Ferry Beach and how what I learned is shaping my own praxis and my own spiritual journey.

A big problem that we religious liberals face right now is whether science has made religion outdated. Science and technology hold out great promise for improving human life, and indeed they have accomplished many things already: science and technology have cured many diseases, extended our life spans, made it possible to feed many more people so that fewer need to go hungry, and so on. Perhaps liberal religion is now outdated, for what could religion offer to compare with the accomplishments of science and technology? On the other hand, science and technology have also created some horrors: atomic bombs, chemicals that have caused damage to us and other organisms, and a massive miasma of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that threatens the long-term survival of large mammals (including human beings). Perhaps science and technology are not an unmitigated good; in which case, does religion have something to offer a world that is both enriched by scientific wonders and technological marvels, and endangered by scientific and technological horrors?

To put all this another way: science and technology investigate the world and make things, but they don’t judge what they learn or make. Richard Feynman, a physicist who worked at Los Alamos during the Second World War, made this clear when he talked about his excitement at helping design and build the first atomic bomb: “You see, what happened to me — what happened to the rest of us — is we started for a good reason, and then you’re working very hard to accomplish something and it’s a pleasure, it’s excitement. And you stop thinking [about the consequences of what you’re doing], you know; you just stop.” (1) If scientists have stopped thinking, then who is thinking, who’s calling the shots, who or what is determining what is right and what is wrong? Continue reading “A letter about learning and salvation”


I took a week of vacation last week, which I mostly spent in historic downtown San Mateo — Carol was working this week — but I did take a day trip in to San Francisco to visit City Lights Bookstore, where I got A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri (trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987]; originally Mille Plateaux, 1980]). I got interested in A Thousand Plateaus through reading a chapter on Deleuze in Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics by B. H. McLean (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 2012).

What particularly fascinates me about A Thousand Plateaus is the way Delueze and Guatarri contrast “aroborescent” or tree-like thinking with rhizomatic thinking. In the Western tradition, we often structure our thoughts like trees: there are roots and branches, and a central trunk linking the two. Our thoughts have ramifications, just as branches ramify from the central trunk out to the twigs. However, as Deleuze and Guatarri point out: “Arborescent systems are hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification, central automata like organized memories.” [Dleuze and Guatarria, p. 16] Thus, arboresecent thinking is related to distinctions between subject and object, to hierarchical thinking, and even to power structures like dictatorships.

Deleuze and Guatarri comment: “It is odd how the tree has dominated Western reality and all of Western thought, from botany to biology and anatomy, but also gnosiology, theology, ontology, all of philosophy…: the root foundation, Grund, racine, fondement. The West has a special relation to the forest, and deforestation; the fields carved from the forest are populated with seed plants produced by cultivation based on species lineages of the arborescent type” [p. 18, ellipsis in the original]

Another image that can be used to understand thinking is the rhizome. In describing the rhizome, and rhizomatic thinking, Deleuze and Guatarri are not trying to set up a dichotomy, a dualism between rhizome (good) and tree (bad); they make it clear that rhizomatic thinking can lead to its own forms of despotism. Instead of creating another dualism, they are employing “a dualism of models only in order to arrive at a process that challenges all models.” And they summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome as follows:

“Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and it traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. It is not the One that becomes Two or even directly three, for five, etc. … It constitutes linear multiplicities with n dimensions having neither subject nor object, which can be laid out on a plane of consistency, and from which the One is always subtracted (n – 1)….” [pp. 20-21]

Why should any of this be of interest to you? B. H. McLean points out that “our arborified minds have been trained to essentialize things as isolated entities, rather than as mobile entities that enter into dynamic interconnection with other entities. Thinking ecologically does not come easy to us.” [p. 282] Rhizomes have no beginning nor end, only middles. Bernard Loomer says the great intellectual achievement of Jesus of Nazareth is his articulation of the Kingdom of God, what we would call the Web of Life; I think Jesus’s thought is an example of rhizomatic thought, a non-Western idea which sidesteps subject and object, which sidesteps isolated entities; and like the Kingdom of God or the Web of Life, “a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and…and…and…'” [Deleuze and Guatarri, p. 25, ellipsis in the original] And so if we come to an impasse, it may help that a rhizome has multiple entryways.