Earth Teach Me

Earth Teach Me

Rev. Anthony Makar

March 6, 2016

 

Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest

Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth

Come roll in all the riches all around you

And for once never wonder what they’re worth

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers

The heron and the otter are my friends

And we are all connected to each other

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.

 

Pocahontas sings this, in the 1995 Disney movie named after her which grossed $346 million worldwide. Just the year before it had been yet another Disney movie, The Lion King, which grossed even more worldwide–$987 million—and in it we hear Mufasa (Simba’s Dad) say, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” “You must,” he says, “take your place in the Circle of Life.”

 

This is the earth-centered message: humanity de-centered and brought into right relationship with the rest of nature. In 1995 millions of people saw it on the big screen played out.

 

1995 also happened to be the year that the earth-centered sensibility of Pocahontas’ “Colors of the Wind” song received official expression in our Unitarian Universalist faith community. That was the year that General Assembly delegates from congregations everywhere voted to add a Sixth Source: “Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” Now it’s an integral part of our living faith. Hard to imagine our faith without it.

 

But 1995 has yet another fascinating coincidence for us to consider: it was the year that a social science researcher, Richard Wayne Lee of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, finished writing his seminal paper entitled “Strained Bedfellows: Pagans, New Agers, and ‘Starchy Humanists’ in Unitarian Universalism.” Published the following year, the paper would describe the spread of earth-centered spirituality in our congregations and also the resistance it encountered. Why some folks balked, even as General Assembly delegates were officially confirming the validity of earth-centered spirituality as a valid source for us and millions of children around the world were singing “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney movie.

 

1995 was a revelatory year. In today’s message, I want to explore the story in more detail. What is earth-centered spirituality, first of all? Why did some people balk at it, and still do? And where are we now—where do we go from here? Let’s ask these questions and see where they take us this morning.

 

Begin with the insight that earth-centered spirituality is a big family of traditions. Besides Native American spirituality, we’re talking modern witchcraft/Wicca and Neo-Paganism. We’re talking contemporary feminist theology and neo-shamanistic groups and certain ‘New Age’ movements. We’re talking the spiritual perspectives of the environmental/sustainability movement like Deep Ecology. It’s a big family. Lots of member traditions which at times can seem profoundly different. But, even so, key similarities are there to prove they all belong to the same family.

 

One of these key similarities is the conviction that nature is the truest Bible. Natural cycles and processes are sources of spiritual truth. In the West, a key voice here comes from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century, who made it an epistemological first principle to go to nature to find one’s true happiness and authentic heart.

 

That’s why we hear Pocahontas sing,

 

Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest

Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth

Come roll in all the riches all around you

And for once never wonder what they’re worth

 

Come run, come taste, come roll… Do that because of the second key similarity: the experience of animism, and the explanation of that through pantheism.

 

There’s a scene in the movie when John Smith has a very interesting experience, and he says to Pocahontas, “Pocahontas, that tree is talking to me.”

 

Pocahontas: Then you should talk back.

Grandmother Willow: Don’t be frightened, young man. My bark is worse than my bite.

Pocahontas: Say something.

John Smith: What do you say to a tree?

Pocahontas: Anything you want.

 

Animism attributes consciousness and intent to all the forms that AIR, FIRE, WATER, and EARTH take. Henry David Thoreau, one of our Unitarian Universalist ancestors, professed animism when he once said, “I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person or a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.”

 

Have you ever experienced trees listening? Animism says they do. You can indeed tell Grandmother Willow anything you want.

 

And pantheism helps to explain why. Pantheism says that the Divine is nature and nature is the Divine. All things are animated by the same Sacredness, and Sacredness is in all things (not just human beings). Ralph Waldo Emerson, yet another Unitarian Universalist ancestor, proclaims pantheism when he says, “Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

 

Which leads to the third family resemblance that helps us to identify various disparate traditions as earth-centered: polytheism: belief in many gods not just one; belief in male and female gods both and not just male. Wikipedia (which here focuses on polytheism in a Pagan context) gives us a taste of the nuances involved: “One view in the Pagan community is that these polytheistic deities are not viewed as literal entities, but as Jungian archetypes or other psychological constructs that exist in the human psyche. Others adopt the belief that the deities have both a psychological and external existence. Many Pagans believe adoption of a polytheistic world-view would be beneficial for western society – replacing the dominant monotheism they see as innately repressive. In fact, many American neopagans first came to their adopted faiths because it allowed a greater freedom, diversity, and tolerance of worship among the community. […] Most Pagans adopt an ethos of “unity in diversity” regarding their religious beliefs.”

 

Besides these beliefs, additional family resemblances between differing earth-centered traditions can be found in such things as the employment of magic and spells, an emphasis on ritual (like our calling the quarters ritual from a moment ago), and an enjoyment of festivals that are seasonal in nature, such as Wicca’s Wheel of the Year: Beltane, Midsummer, Lammas, Mabon, Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, and the festival right around the corner, Ostara, which happens to be a time of great fertility and is celebrated by the ritual of egg decorating. Bunnies are also popular.

 

Ostara. Where the word Easter happens to come from. Which is very interesting…. But that leads to a completely different sermon, which we’ll hear March 27.

 

For now, having laid out some of the essentials of earth-centered spirituality, let’s turn to the focus of Richard Wayne Lee’s mid-1990s paper entitled “Strained Bedfellows: Pagans, New Agers, and ‘Starchy Humanists’ in Unitarian Universalism.” A picturesque title, right? Diversity in the Unitarian Universalist bed, and it’s not feeling good.

 

One way he illustrates this is through articles in the World, our denominational magazine, together with letters to the editor. For example, a 1992 article about a UU witch and another titled “Celebrating the Goddess Within” provoked the following reader responses:

 

Once I was proud to be an Unitarian Universalist, and I could not understand why others thought us silly. But after reading the articles on [a] self-proclaimed witch, and a commentary on worshipping the goddess within, I not only understand, I agree….I am disturbed by the increase in mysticism and “new age” philosophy in our churches….There are limits to tolerance.

 

And:

 

….I am concerned about a revival of witches and witchcraft, even in the earliest meaning of wise woman/healer…. UUs are often considered a far-out sect; let’s not give our critics a chance to level more derision our way.

 

Now, these are voices from awhile ago. What’s valuable to me about the “Strained Bedfellows” article is that it preserves them in a kind of literary amber. The struggle of what an evolving religious movement looks like is preserved.

 

Why is there the feeling that an earth-centered tradition like Wicca is silliness? Why the shame? The concern?

 

Perhaps it comes from a sense that the “earth-centered” focus is faddish. Flighty. One of my colleagues, Rev. Roberta Finkelstein, admits that when the proposal to add the Sixth Source initially came up, she voted against it, thinking, “You can’t add a sentence for every fad that comes along.” Our Sources statement “is a carefully crafted consensus statement,” after all; “it ought not to be messed with casually.”

 

In addition to this concern about faddishness comes the larger concern that earth-centered traditions are regressive. As Richard Wayne Lee himself says,

“Oriented to scientific-technical rationality, UU humanists naturally reacted with particular hostility to … movements associated with pre-modernity and including occult elements (i.e. neopaganism and new age).”

 

Is the earth-centered focus faddish? Are its related traditions regressive and out-of-sync with what we know about human psychology the world in general?

 

The Richard Wayne Lee article doesn’t offer any answers here, but it does remind us that, as a religious movement, we’ve had “strained bedfellows” moments before.

“Leading transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson,” he reminds us, “resigned from the Unitarian ministry in 1832, complaining that the denomination’s excessive emphasis on reason had turned it into a ‘religion of dry bones,’ and a ‘thin porridge [of] pale negations.’” Emerson wanted to bring the Unitarians of his day into something far richer and juicier, which was his pantheism, his sense of the divine permeating the universe, revealing itself in nature and in the human soul.

 

And now, here we are again. “Known for decades as a ‘haven of starchy humanists,’” says Richard Wayne Lee, “UU has in recent years assimilated a set of new … movements. These include, most visibly, American Zen, new age, Native American spirituality, and neopaganism (the latter subsuming goddess spirituality and witchcraft).” Richard Wayne Lee goes on to say, “This analysis of UU’s remarkable turn toward ‘spirituality’ is based mainly on secondary data gathered by the author during and after a two-year study of a UU church in Atlanta, Georgia (1990-92).”

 

Which UU church do you think he’s talking about?

 

The vision he’s putting out there is this: dry bones and starchiness, on the one hand; and juicy spirituality on the other. The two colliding.

 

That was back in 1995. But where are we now, do you think, sixteen years later? Are the two still colliding?

 

Now and into the future, I’d like to shift metaphors. “Dry bones” vs. “juicy spirituality” feels bad to me. One’s wrong and the other’s right. I don’t like that. I think both are valid. Something that is more cerebral, more internal, more quiet can very well be spiritual. Just as an energetic AIR, FIRE, WATER, and EARTH ritual can be spiritual—but spiritual in a different key.

 

Now and into the future, I say it’s far better to think in terms of vegetarians and carnivores. The spiritual hungers are equally strong, but the desired foods differ tremendously. Some people have experienced the efficacy of magick; some people have really felt called by the Goddess; some people really do speak to trees and the trees answer back.

 

And then there are others for whom a walk in the woods is enough, or reading the nature poetry of Mary Oliver.

 

People are different and in some cases wildly so. As Unitarian Universalists we have “strange bedfellows” experiences because we fling our doors wide open to them. We are curious! We want to pursue truth wherever truth comes from! And then truth comes! Something truly diverse actually unfolds—and we go HOLY MOLY! We go, WHAT THE HECK JUST HAPPENED?

 

1995 doesn’t feel so far away, after all.

 

It just takes time to process and integrate. As with individuals, so with institutions.

 

I will say this. There is nothing faddish about earth-centered spirituality and the need for humanity to be in right relationship with the rest of nature. There is nothing faddish about Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson or that 20th century saint Rachel Carson (about whom I spoke this past January). There is nothing faddish about ancient pre-Christian traditions that folks today are drawing from because nothing they’re finding in Christian times is feeding their souls. There is nothing faddish about the Native American sensibility that sings

 

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers

The heron and the otter are my friends

And we are all connected to each other

In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.

 

Nothing faddish about that at all.

 

Our Sixth Source is perennial, and needed.