This Sunday join in a Golden Anniversary Celebration of Earth Day. From 1970 to 2020 awareness of ecology and its concerns has grown exponentially—as have the crises it has helped to make clear.
Respect For the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part
I want to talk about Earth Day and, as Earth Day lines up perfectly with our Unitarian Universalist 7th principle, I will use the occasion to continue my sermon series on UU Principles. Throughout this series, I’ve tried to explain the matrix out of which each principle was born. How, for instance, the first principle emerged from the writings of the Italian Renaissance, the second from those of the Biblical prophets, and so on. The important point here is the recognition that our Unitarian Universalist principles were not made up by some committee thirty-five years ago. They have emerged organically over the past 3,000+ years with roots in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, Classical Greece, the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, the American Founding Fathers, the founders of the United Nations*, and—this morning—from the insights of modern science.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the UU principles are not a creed. They’re more the nature of shared sympathies. No one is asked to memorize them or anything of the sort, in order to become a Unitarian Universalist. However: while not a creed, they are a covenant. Whereas a creed (as it says in the dictionary) is a “formal statement of religious belief,” a covenant leaves the issue of belief aside and focuses instead on process, and on ideals that we tend to hold in common.
It’s also important to remember that the UU principles are open-ended. They are not the final word. They are, instead, something more like springboards: designed to encourage individual exploration and discovery. As revealed in the name of our hymnal, ours is a living tradition. It’s up to you—each of you as questioning and questing
Unitarian Universalists—to grapple with these principles and to discover their meaning for yourselves. And to struggle to come to terms with how best to live by their light.
The seventh principle—respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part—focuses on ecology: the scientific study of living things in relation to each other and their environment.
The totality of open inquiry concerning the world, the cosmos, and all things therein was once—a few hundred years ago—known as Natural Science. And it was out of the common root of Natural Science that what are today known as the physical sciences† all emerged and diversified. What we call the social sciences grew from those strands of Natural Science that developed peer review practices more recently or that have been more holistic than specific in application. Ecology emerged simultaneously from both the physical and social sciences.
No doubt there are many reasons why the disciplines of environmental and ecological science did not emerge until recently. One thing is sure: the first visual photographs of the planet Earth taken from outer space during the late 1960s radically boosted people’s awareness of ecological systems and processes and of their global interconnectedness. Pictures of earth from outer space also clearly revealed the unmistakable visual difference between our living planet and all of the others, which are dead. Earth Day, a celebration of ecological awareness, was first celebrated in 1970. Thereafter a growing scientific understanding of the interconnectedness of all things has blossomed: recycling, alternative energy, endangered species lists, and so on all emerged into our everyday lives and into our collective common sense. It was this impulse that led, in the mid-1980s, to including the Seventh Principle in our evolving UU covenant.
Ecological awareness, however, existed long beforehand. University of California physicist Fritjof Capra makes this point in his book The Turning Point.
The recognition of the non-linear nature of all systems dynamics is the very essence of ecological awareness, the essence of “systemic wisdom” as [Gregory] Bateson called it. This kind of wisdom is characteristic of traditional non-literate cultures but has been sadly neglected in our own over rational and mechanized society. Systemic wisdom is based on a profound respect for the wisdom of nature, and is totally consistent with the insights of modern ecology.
Within our Unitarian Universalist tradition, ecological awareness begins with the New England Transcendentalists of the 1830s and ‘40s. Transcendentalism took the Reformation a step beyond Protestantism. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church had held that people could only know God through the seven sacraments, the Protestants, declaring a “priesthood of all believers” held that one comes to know God, not through the sacraments, but through personal reading and reflection on the Bible‡.
The Transcendentalists went a step farther. Sure, said they, the Bible reveals a lot, but God’s handiwork is ubiquitous: it’s around us, within us, and in our midst. These Transcendentalists—Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Margaret Fuller and their whole community—essentially declared: insofar as human beings can know God, it is through the direct unmediated experience of nature.
I realize how loaded the word God is for some UUs. OK, I understand. But it is just here, it seems to me, where ecological science can help us and come to our rescue. In his book The Great Living System, the late
John Ruskin Clarke, Minister for a quarter century at the First Unitarian Church of San Diego, articulates a vision of religion compatible with ecological science. For Clark, “God” is just another name for the natural world. “The oceans, the atmosphere, the biosphere, the noosphere,” writes Clark, “all form independent global systems which indicate…that the earth itself is a great living system, …a vast dissipative energy-flow structure using energy from the sun to create and sustain order from disorder, with the same self-organizing characteristics as a cell.”
At about the same time John Ruskin Clark was writing The Great Living System, British atmospheric scientist James Lovelock and American microbiologist Lynn Margulis first proposed the Gaia Hypothesis, asserting what amounts to the same idea: that the earth as a whole is a single living—and fully conscious—organism. One of the problems with ideas of this scope is that they’re almost too big to wrap one’s head around. Indeed, when it comes to Gaia, we all suffer the myopic vision of a cell within a human body, knowing nothing of the larger sentient being of which it is a part. For just as a cell in a person’s toe has no conscious sense of its connection to the larger sentient being of which it’s a part, so are we—usually—unaware of our connection to the larger consciousness in which we have our being: the interconnected web. “If the word ‘god’ is loaded with false connotations for you,” writes Clark, “abandon it. But that to which the word refers, an ultimate ordering and controlling reality, cannot be successfully ignored.” As we are all ruefully discovering in the face of our dear earth’s growing ecological peril.
* * *
Trained to think causally and mechanistically, we unconsciously ignore pattern and process. Yet it is pattern and process that constitute the “stuff” of systems. And conscious of it or not, we are all part of the same pattern and the same process. Pattern and process are universal; they run right through us. And we are part and parcel of them. In the words of the late Beatle George Harrison, “Life goes on within you and without
you.” Harrison, turned a whole generation onto Eastern mysticism, but in so saying he was only echoing the legendary Chinese sage Lao Tzu who wrote in the classic Tao-te ching, “The Tao (i.e., the interconnected web) cannot be deviated from. That from which one can deviate is not Tao.”
“The Tao cannot be deviated from,” wrote Lao Tzu. “That from which one can deviate is not Tao….” There’s a paradox involved in recognizing our internal, integral connection to the web: the paradox that along with global consciousness comes local responsibility. I am repeatedly reminded of Carlos Castaneda’s Conversations With Don Juan and its sequels. In one of them Carlos asks his mentor if he can move to Mexico to live and study nearer by him. “No,” answers Don Juan. “Not because I don’t love you, but because your power spot is where you’re living already, among the freeways of Los Angeles.”
I’m reminded of what various congregants have said to me over the years about the power spots they have come to know and love and draw strength from. One spoke of how, looking heavenward at Chaco Canyon, he felt connected to people and cultures everywhere and throughout history; another of her joy living and raising her children in a truly multiracial multicultural community; others of turning their yards into gardens. We are part of the web whether we like it or not; it’s inescapable. But the only way we ever experience that connection is here (in the place where we are) and now (in the present moment.) We may be part of the global ecosystem, but more specifically we’re part of our local watershed and bioregion, whether that place is Walden Pond or Richards Creek (draining the property here at ESUC).
Ecologists may have been the first to use scientific language to describe this, but perceiving reality as a living unity is not new. It’s been intuited for millennia. “Whither shall I flee from thy Spirit?” asks the Psalmist§,
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in the grave, behold, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
Or the English poet Alexander Pope, writing in 1732 [40+ years before the American Revolution]:
All are parts of one stupendous whole
Whose body nature is, and God the soul:
. . . . . . . . . . . .
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.
Charles Hartshorne was a highly regarded Process theologian. For decades until his death at 103, Hartshorne was member of the Austin, Texas, Unitarian Church. He summarized his philosophy in his book Man’s Vision of God. “We may well consider,” he wrote, “the doctrine that the world is God’s body, to whose members he has immediate social relations, and which are related to each other, directly or indirectly, exclusively by social relations.” Those social relations are the inescapable and infinitely complex interdependent web. It’s as though we were all connected to everything by millions and billions of invisible strands, such that whatever one does to any part of the web ultimately affects every other part. All is one. We are all a part of it. That’s the seventh principle.
If you accept this Great Living System model, it dictates that no action is without moral and ethical consequences. It also upends the Biblical injunction that humanity is to “have dominion over the earth.” Instead of dominating and exploiting our environment, we’re here to use our intelligence to understand and live in harmony with it. We begin to see ourselves less as autonomous agents than as subordinate parts of the whole ecosystem, as conscious participants in a creative process that was here generating life long before we, as individuals, ever arrived. Moreover, the web will remain long after we’re gone.
At a General Assembly some years ago Berkeley sociologist Robert Bella addressed the delegates. He pointed out that from his Episcopalian point of view, our first and seventh principles were reversed: that the seventh—the ultimacy of the Web (i.e., God)—should be first. To me it makes little difference. Coming out of the Transcendentalist tradition as I do (as all Unitarian Universalists do) I’m comfortable with our individual hearts and minds and consciences being our starting point. But it’s a starting point in dynamic interrelationship with everything else and to that which includes everything else by whatever name one refers to it. Call it Gaia, Allah, Brahman, Absolute, Void, call it the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part. By any name we must learn to recognize its ultimacy. To rejoice in its incomparable beauty and majesty and power, too. But most of all to respect and care for it, that we can preserve it and pass it on.
Until Earth Day becomes Every Day!
So may it be. Amen. Shalom. Salaam. Namaste.