MOTHER EARTH - The Theological Roots of Environmentalism

© Barbara F. Meyers 2004. All Rights Reserved.

A sermon delivered at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco on May 9, 2004

and at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation on August 15, 2004

Sermon - Mother Earth - The Theological Roots of Environmentalism

When I was growing up I lived in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico. Our back yard bordered a canyon, where I spent endless hours playing. My best friend Lisa and I used to construct little villages out of moss, pebbles and pine needles. We used to pretend that elves would visit these villages after we left in the late afternoon. The next day, we would rush back to see if we could see any evidence that they had been there, and usually we found something that was slightly different, proving to us that our villages were being used when we weren't there. After our family moved, I lost contact with Lisa and with this close connection with nature.

Many years later when I participated in an art and spirituality workshop, we were asked to draw something from our childhood that we considered spiritual. I drew a picture of Lisa and me playing in a pine forest. By chance, around this same time, Lisa contacted me and we renewed our friendship. She told me that she had written a book, and of course I went out and bought it. In one of the chapters, there was mention of playing in a forest, constructing elfin villages. It seems that we had both independently used the same image from nature that we shared as children as the basis for something spiritual and creative in our adult lives.

It matters what underlies your beliefs, the theology on which your beliefs are based. It is evident to me now that the spiritual dimension of nature was implicit to me and Lisa as children, and that it continued to play a role in our lives, guiding our way of looking at the world. But, the relation of religion to nature was not taught in my Christian Sunday school. This connection didn't come to me consciously until I discovered Unitarian Universalism which embraces many world faiths, and learned to respect pagan religious expression. Sadly, it is the case that many fundamentalist Christians are anti-environmentalist. Today, I would like to look at what their reasoning is, and the theology that lies behind it.

Some of you know that I recently co-taught a class on Understanding the Christian Scriptures, based on the book by John Buehrens entitled Understanding the Bible, an introduction for skeptics, seekers and religious liberals. One of Buehrens main themes is that we liberals need to reclaim the Bible as a source of inspiration, liberation and creation. Today, I hope to reclaim the wisdom of the Bible to help understand our responsibilities with respect to the environment.

An argument of fundamentalist Christians about Bible's view of Environmentalism proceeds as follows:

  1. According to the Bible man is not made for the earth, the earth is made for man.
  2. Before sin entered the picture via Adam and Eve, the earth God created was not plagued with disease, pestilence, catastrophic weather patterns, etc.
  3. With the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden came death and a disruption of all creation, including sickness, environmental disorder, etc.
  4. The earth is unstable and growing old.
  5. This earth will be destroyed. Some think it will be destroyed soon.
  6. God will make a "new" earth, in which all creation will be at peace and orderly again.

In an influential 1967 essay entitled The Historic Roots of our Ecological Crisis, UCLA History Professor Lynn White argues that the roots of our environmental problems can be traced to Western Christianity which "not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends." Rev. Reed Jolley reflects that "It has not helped that more than a few high profile Christians have made statements that seem to bolster Lynn White's suspicions. For example, James Watt, Secretary of Interior under former President Reagan, was an outspoken Christian who on more than one occasion said that it was not important to have a strong environmental policy to protect our world because Jesus was coming back soon and the world would be destroyed."

This is Exhibit A for the argument that it matters what you believe. It seems that some, who believe that the earth will be destroyed soon, don't think it matters to take care of the environment. Even the Secretary of Interior, whose job was to safeguard our resources, held these beliefs!

But, I submit, there is a different way for Christians and other religious people to look at the environment. White points out that "the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, Saint Francis of Assisi [for whom our beautiful city is named] proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it. He tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man's limitless rule of creation." Francis believed in the virtue of humility--not merely for the individual but for mankind as a species. However, he failed in establishing this alternative Christian view. It was quickly stamped out as a heresy by the authorities in the Catholic church of the time.

But we now live in a different time than Francis, and we belong to a different religious community. Therefore, I would like to propose elements of a theology that reclaims (in the spirit of Buehrens) the Bible's message in service of environmentalism. The elements are as follows:

  1. The Earth was created as a beautiful garden There are many Biblical texts that illustrate this, among them Psalm 65 that we had for a reading this morning. For those who want a longer reading assignment, I recommend reading Psalm 104 which enumerates the many wonders of creation at length with poetic beauty.

  2. Humans are embedded in Nature The Book of Genesis 2:7-8 in the Jewish scriptures says "then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed."

    In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus frequently uses metaphors in his parables that refer to objects in nature: the lilies of the fields, the mustard seed, the lost sheep, and lots of images of nature familiar to the rural life of Palestine of his time. In none of these stories does Jesus suggest that people should exploit or destroy nature.

  3. Mankind is steward of the Earth Mankind is formed from dust of the earth, but is different from other animals. People have special abilities and thus special responsibilities. We are stewards of the Earth, ruling over that which is not ours. Psalm 8: 6-8 says, "You [God] made humans ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under our feet: All flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas."

    In this understanding of Christianity, we are care-takers of the earth. Genesis 2:15 often used by anti-environmentalists to religiously justify their point of view says "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till and keep it," But, the Hebrew words shamar and abad, usually translated as "till and keep" in this verse, could be just as accurately translated, and indeed are translated elsewhere in the Bible, as "serve and preserve." Thus, we can just as easily interpret this verse to say that God desires that people act as stewards of creation.

  4. Mankind can and has devastated the environment by acting unwisely There are numerous examples of this in the Bible as well. For example, consider the Jewish prophet Jeremiah 4:18-28: "Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you . . . Disaster follows disaster; the whole land lies in ruins . . . I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone… I looked, and there were no people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert."

    Today, evidence of environmental destruction is all around us: polluted and scarce water, smog, extinction of many species, global warming, and dying oceans. I am reminded of the words of Paul Shepard in his book Nature and Madness. Observing that as a species mankind behaves as if fixated in the destructive impulses of pre-adolescence, he asserts that "the only society more frightful than one run by children, as in Golding's Lord of the Flies, is one run by childish adults."

  5. Humans can help restore Earth to be a beautiful garden

The prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures foresees a better time. Isaiah 65:17 "For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind." I believe that we can interpret this to mean that a "new Earth" can be created from the existing one by divinely inspired humans. This doesn't necessarily require the old earth to be destroyed physically first. We can be God's partner in doing this.

Let us look at the differences in the two theologies I have outlined for you:

  1. In the second theology, there is no Original Sin that causes environmental problems. Instead, there is a multitude of earthly sins.
  2. In this theology, mankind is a part of the Earth and a steward of the Earth, not its exploiter.
  3. And, in this theology, the Earth does not have to be completely destroyed before it can be saved. Humans can participate in restoring the Earth.

I submit that it makes a difference which of these two theological views that you hold. It makes a difference in how you live your life and how you treat the environment. It makes a difference in how all people and all living things will live. And, I submit that the new view is fully consistent with our religious heritage, including our Biblical religious heritage from the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Following Buehrens' example, I have used examples from the Bible to illustrate each of these items. In fact, I could have also found sacred scriptures from any of the major world religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Baha'i, and others that have a similar message. And, of course, the indigenous traditions are particularly strong on respecting the Earth. This is ancient wisdom for all peoples.

There are several relatively new branches of philosophy and religion which consider the impact of thought and beliefs on the environment. They are usually preceded by the syllable "eco," for example, eco-feminism, eco-spirituality and eco-ethics. These philosophies incorporate many of the ideas of the ecology movement with feminist ideas. The basic ideas of these philosophies include these:

  1. That the Earth is sacred, her rivers and forests and all her living creatures have intrinsic value;
  2. That the fate of human life and the earth are deeply intertwined. Justice in society can't be separated from Earth's well being;
  3. And, that humans must learn to walk the narrow line between respecting the Earth's cycles, needs, energies and eco-systems, and using the Earth respectfully as a resource for human beings.

The scholar Dr. Howard Clinebell who writes on eco-spirituality and eco-ethics sees several environmentally destructive religious and ethical beliefs:

One might interpret the up-swell of these eco-philosophies as being part of a general shift that many philosophers believe is now occurring, from Modern to Post-Modern thought. Brian McLaren who writes on the Post-Modern Transition sees the following changes in thought as we move into this new way of thinking:

As a new philosophy comes into being, it changes how we think, how we know the world, and thus what our actions are going to be. I invite and challenge you to think how any of these ideas may be true or untrue in your experience. And, how this underlying change may affect the actions that you and other people take.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has passed over 20 resolutions that reflect the intersection of our faith and the environment. Among them are resolutions on ecology, energy and population control. The most comprehensive such UU-sponsored action is The Seventh Principle Project Green Sanctuary Program named after the UU principle that states that people are part of an interdependent web all existence. This focuses on the theological, spiritual and ethical aspects of human activities that affect the health and sustainability of the living earth. The goal is that a congregation can become a "Green Sanctuary," something which this congregation is committed to do. Goals of this program include:

Ed Ayres, in his book God's Last Offer says, "We have been presented with an offer… The offer is to trade our closely guarded personal security for the larger security of the world we stand on. It need not be a final sacrifice of selfhood, but merely a brave step that will in evolutionary time take only a moment, but that will make all the difference. Ironically, it can be only through our acceptance of this offer - to defend our world instead of ourselves - that we have any real chance of saving ourselves and of regaining the sense of personal and family security we care about so deeply."

Lynn White, who I quoted earlier, believes that "Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecological crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious… We must rethink and re-feel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction." I will add that earth-centered traditions also point in a similar direction.

I'll end by reiterating that it matters what the theological underpinnings of you believe are. It matters so much that the destiny of our Mother the Earth depends on it.

counter for wordpress

Back to Top