The Seventh Principle: Ecology, Justice, And Faith

In his book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, former priest Matthew Fox writes of a dream he had one night during an exhausting conference. It was, he says, what America Indians call “A Big Dream,” that is, a dream that is to be shared with the community. In his dream, a voice said continually “Your Mother is dying.” The “Mother” in Fox’s dream is the earth. The dream said to the people that the earth is dying.

Here is the situation — only part of the situation that stirred Matthew Fox’s dreaming and disturbs the sleep of any who care about the planet. Agricultural practices in North America remove topsoil at the rate of six billion tons per year. It takes ten thousand years to produce an inch of topsoil. Most agricultural areas have, at best, six inches of topsoil. It is said that, unless something changes radically, the state of Iowa could be desert land by the year two thousand twenty and, in fifteen years, all the planet’s fertile land will be reduced by one third.

The forests are disappearing. A third of the forests in North America will disappear in fifteen years. Each year a forest the size of half of California disappears. In other places– a third of the third-world forests are being destroyed by “the first world,” (that’s us) mostly to produce grazing land for beef cattle used for fast food in our first world– and to plant other luxuries like sugar, cocoa, coffee, and tea.

When the forests go, the creatures go; all the creatures of the trees, and their shade, and their hiding places, and the food they help produce. And the air goes. The air the planet needs, we and all that live upon it, need is unbalanced as the forests disappear. As American Indian activist Oren Lyons puts it, “The rain forests are the lungs of the earth.” Trees recycle carbon monoxide back into oxygen, cleaning the air that all life breathes in common, thus continuing the life-giving elements and maintaining the constant atmospheres and temperatures around the earth. As we destroy the forests, we destroy the very air we breathe.

This is all market-driven. The Mother is dying. Being murdered. The motive for the murder is the market. Greed.

This perhaps seems hyperbole. Isn’t it just like those tree huggers to exaggerate to make a point: to tell us the world is coming to an end to make us feel guilty about eating hamburgers using paper products and plastic cups.

The National Academy of Sciences is not given to hyperbole. As long ago as 1968, the Academy reported that human activity is rapidly reducing the earth’s biological diversity. Thousands of species a year, they said, are disappearing. This conference and its conclusions was reported on page twenty-eight of The New York Times. The death of the Mother is not big news. Not yet.

Think about water. One writer suggests that, to help us think about water — to get a sense of its preciousness– we not drink any for two days. The aquifers in the state of Arizona are critically low — pumped out to grow grass in resorts for tourists who go to the desert and want to play golf on grass. Half the water in the United States comes from underground aquifers. One third of the aquifers in Massachusetts are poisoned. A quarter of the aquifers in California are poisoned. All the aquifers on Long Island are poisoned. The Environmental Protection Agency says that there are fifty thousand toxic dumps leaking poisons into the nation’s aquifers. Our nation’s defense budget in the past seven years was over one point seven trillion dollars. In those seven years, twenty-two of the fifty thousand poisoned aquifers were cleaned up There wasn’t money for any others, the government says. Against whom are we defending ourselves? Who is our enemy? Who is destroying life on earth?

As Pogo Possum said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And what shall we do?

I must confess that I doubt very much that such litanies as the one I have just rolled off my tongue accomplish much in the way of promoting change. Of course we must learn to care and we must change our ways. Eventually, the things we take for granted will have to go–the air-conditioners, the one-person trips in the big SUV, the wonderfully greasy fast-food burgers. But, as Loudon Wainright wrote recently, it is ludicrous to think that these enormous problems are going to be handled by our personal sacrifices and caring alone–though these will be necessary. “Surviving this long-term crisis,” he says, “far more pervasive than any that has come before in the human experience, is going to require ways of thinking that are entirely foreign to self-centered consumption.”

Again, the decisions that are destroying the planet are “market driven,” and we are the market. Our self-centeredness, our human arrogance, our continuing foolishness in the face of all contrary evidence in thinking that we are the centerpiece of creation will inevitably leave us standing in dust up to our ankles on a dead earth. What it will take to save us is more than switching to biodegradable containers and boycotting spray cans — though anywhere is a good place to begin.

What it will take to save us is nothing less than a radical transformation of our way of understanding our relation to the earth.

As one Washington analyst said to Bill Moyers recently, “We’re going to need a sense of shared destiny.” The sense of shared destiny can only emerge from radical shifts in our understanding of the nature of the universe, of the world, of the reality in which we live and from a radical shift in our understanding of the nature of our relatedness to that reality.

Shortly before his death, Joseph Campbell said that he believed that we are on the verge of a new mythology– by which he meant a new way of understanding our relation to the world. We are on the verge, he said, of a new mythology of this world as one harmonious being. It is time, he said, to surrender our divided, dualistic view of the world and to understand that the view of ourselves as subjects in a world of objects that are ours, the ancient Genesis view of ourselves as chosen creatures who have “dominion” over the world, the mechanical, spiritless view of the world, is a view that no longer “works.”

What is required to save our earth– and to save ourselves — is nothing short of a spiritual transformation, a re-uniting of our divided selves into a wholeness with the whole of being. That may seem a bit abstract and mystical, but if we understand spiritual transformation as a process of making different choices, then spiritual transformation is something we can do. That, of course, is the hard part–making the choice that will change us and change the way we live. The evidence is certainly in that our non-spiritual, dualistic, divided, domineering, market-driven, self-centered view is no longer working. The choice of that understanding of ourselves and the world is destroying the earth.

It is a hopeful sign that even our stubbornly dualistic western religions are beginning the spiritual work of transforming their understanding. We Unitarian Universalists expressed our faith–our choice of how to understand and live in and with the earth–in the Seventh Principle of Purposes and Principles. That Principle states that “We gather to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

We make two important faith statements in that Principle: that existence–all of being–is interdependent, a web. Everything is related to everything else. That’s the choice of another way to understand the nature of reality. And we say that we are a part of that web, inextricably bound in that interdependence. That, too is a faith statement. It is a choice to understand ourselves as a part of the planet, not as masters of the planet, set here by a puppet-master god to have dominion over it all.

We begin the statement of the Seventh Principle –as we begin all seven Principles– by saying that we gather to affirm and promote those Principles, those faith statements. We affirm them. We say, “This is our faith. This is where we stand.” “This is what defines us as a people of religion.” But more: we say we will promote that faith. We will promote that understanding of the planet as interdependent web and of ourselves as part of that web.

It is important to note that we are not alone in coming to relate the fate of the planet to faith and spirituality. That faith-based commitment to the environment was clear in a message of Pope John Paul II who declared that the ecological crisis is a moral issue. The Patriarch of Eastern Orthodoxy, Bartholomew I, has called destroying and polluting the earth “sin.” And if “sin” is interfering with the design of all things to move toward the greatest fulfillment possible for them–as Unitarian theologian, Henry Nelson Wieman, defined sin–then how can the destruction of earth, air, water be anything other than sin?

When the Religious Action center of Reform Judaism met in Washington recently, they put the environment on their agenda for the first time. The National Council of Churches recently mailed to its 72,000 member congregations packets of information on environmental health. Seminaries are adding courses on the environment to their curricula. Even evangelical Christians have come to include ecology as part of their faith concerns. In 1966, The “Evangelical Environmental Network” waged a successful million dollar battle against congressional efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Of course, there are many people who are committed to preserving the environment who have no religious connection and no particular religious interest for that matter. They act out of what they consider to be common sense: if we keep treating the environment as we are, the earth will die. It’s as simple as that. Others act out of a sense of justice.

In my title for this sermon I have referred to the Seventh Principle as having to do with ecology, faith, and justice. What is justice? I know this is an oversimplification, but I think of justice as, at rock bottom, being “the right thing to do.” Justice proceeds from an understanding, an intuition, which often transcends the rules and mores of societies. That’s why justice is not always law. And that is why the law is not always just. The law serves the society. Justice serves the intuition of The Right Thing To Do.

Some believe that intuition of The Right Thing to Do is implanted in humankind by God. Emerson believed we intuit justice because justice is inherent in nature and we are part of nature. Nietzsche said he was sure of two things, the starry heavens above and the moral law within. For Nietzsche, The Right Thing to do is a given. In the Hebrew Scriptures, in book of the prophet Micah, it is written, “He has shown you…what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Note that Micah says that God has shown us what is good. Given a reasonable degree of sanity, we know what the good is and cannot fool God, ourselves, or Mother Nature. And note that, among God’s simple, essential requirements, the first is to do justice. The first requirement of what is absolute in the universe is that we do the Right Thing.

We can bring that home, right here to our own congregation. Ecology, Faith, and Justice. No building is an island unto itself. Everything we set upon the earth affects the whole community and the whole earth. We are embarked on the process of building and renovation. What’s the right thing to do? It is simply the Right Thing to do to create, to the best of our ability, a sustainable building.

Sustainable building is defined as: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” We have the opportunity to build and to renovate in such a way that we will not contribute to the pollution or desecration of the earth. It is the right thing to do.

We can hardly proclaim that we gather to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence unless, when we come to act upon the earth by setting materials on it or setting materials in it we do so with awareness and deliberation. And, apart from building and rebuilding, there are ways in which we can do justice–do the right thing–in the daily life and work of our congregation. As we turn our attention to ecology, faith and justice, we might turn our attention to the ways in which we promote the life of our web of being or contribute to its desecration.

I attended a conference on sustainable building a few weeks ago with the members of our building design committee. One of the ideas discussed was that of an “energy audit.” How can we affect the balance sheet in terms of waste on one side and conservation on the other?

We do recycle here–that fact is hard to miss.

We do compost.

We do recycle our paper and, whenever possible, we use recycled paper for our publications.

And the other side of the audit?

How many cars do we bring here to our gatherings, burning resources and fouling the air to come to gatherings to discuss virtue and good acts.

What about our use of paper products instead of mugs and plates?

Let us simply become aware of our behaviors as individuals, families, and in community, which affect the plant. We have been shown what is good. Let us do justice. Let us do the right thing.