Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Fundamentals

Does the Language Matter? A Question of Paradox

This is a question that has puzzled me for a long time, both as a clergy person and as an ecologist. The question arises from my conviction that language matters because it is formative. Whether or not we are conscious of it, language forms and shapes our attitudes, our ethics, and our behaviors. Here is the question. Is it possible to reconcile the language which calls humans to two things at once: our rightful place within the earth community, and our rightful responsibilities with regard to the health of the planet? Is it possible to find the language that can point to both?

In the year 2000, the Earth Charter Commission, begun as a United Nations initiative, released what is known as the Earth Charter. The brilliance of it lay in the recognition that ecological justice cannot be separated out from the social injustices of poverty, economic development, respect for human rights, democracy, and peace. In other words, there is no human justice outside of ecological justice; they are intertwined.

As I have read through it several times, I continue to be struck by the intricacies of language. The Charter’s first premise, that humanity is part of an intricate and vast evolving universe, suggests that humans are not separate creatures but integral to the biosphere. Yet it speaks of the resilience of the community of life and the well-being of humanity as though they were different entities. In fact, the paragraph heading reads, Earth, Our Home, and although a stretch could be made, it’s pretty evident that the our refers to the human home.

I am asking that you who might be reading this reflection not assume that I am talking against The Earth Charter, because I am not. I think it’s a terrific document. Yet I am of two minds about the language. On the one hand, the document is intended for human reflection and activism and, as such, is addressed to the humans. On the other hand, language is formative and such language that serves to distinguish humankind from other ecological systems is problematic. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and have come to the only possible conclusion: we have to learn to live in the paradox.

The language of The Earth Charter is about as careful and deliberate as any I know, which is why I begin with it. Yet the paradox, I think, cannot be resolved. It is the reality that humans have capacities distinct from all other forms, with regard to the biotic and abiotic diversity of the planet. And yet, every diverse form of which Earth consists – including the human – is subject, ultimately, to the same pressures of interdependence and interconnectivity as any other.

Having set the bar pretty high regarding this question of formative language, I would like to hold up against The Earth Charter, the language of four other documents.

The first is the bible. In the Genesis stories of Creation, we hear a couple things: one, although all creation is worthy of blessing, the humans are the Chosen, called out by God, set apart, and awarded dominion and rule over all creatures. The humans are also charged with care taking; the Church calls it stewardship. I want to say unequivocally that the language here does, in fact, matter. Stewardship implies oversight, management. It does not imply – as The Earth Charter does – that all beings are interdependent. Moreover, as the language and ethical tenets of scripture serve to dictate the shape of the worship of the church, religious assemblies are deeply imbued with a theology that cannot stand the scrutiny of the science. Humans are not called out, not the Chosen, not set apart. Whether we are biblical literalists or prefer to understand the creation stories as myth, the theology is formative. The language matters because it has formed and shaped us for millennia, even those of us (the nones) who claim no religious affiliation.

The second document is The Charter for Compassion, a global effort initiated by Karen Armstrong. Not quite as problematic as the scriptural account of creation, maybe, but its sole focus on human-to-human behavior omits two significant principles. The first, articulated so clearly in The Earth Charter, is the recognition of the interdependence and interconenctedness of every form of life. The second is the implication by omission, that compassion of human to human – that social justice human to human – can in fact be accomplished without the recognition that eco-justice (eco-compassion) and human justice (human compassion) are intricately intertwined. One cannot happen without the other. I like to think in terms of possibilities, and not many additional words, it is certainly possible to widen the embrace of compassion to include compassion for Earth.

The third document of note is The United Nations Millennium Development Goals. There are eight of them, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, and several health provisions. Number Seven (next to last) is Environmental Sustainability, as though the environment were in some way distinct from the global conditions of poverty, ill health, hunger, inaccessibility to clean water, etc. Next to last as though the conditions of poverty and hunger could be addressed without addressing ecological healing and health. In a similar way as above, it takes very little to move from the goal of environmental sustainability as the next to last goal, to language which might allow us to understand ecological health as the ground for all the other Millennium Development Goals.

Finally, the United Religions Initiative, an effort begun in 1993 in the Episcopal Diocese of California by its bishop William Swing. I’m including this one as a solid effort to affirm the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms, human and non-human. The URI formed the charter for religious peace and cooperation, yet understood the delicate interconnections of the Earth Community; peace and justice cannot be separated from the health and protection of Earth.

 Therefore, as interdependent people rooted in our traditions, we now unite for the benefit of our Earth community.

We unite to build cultures of peace and justice.

We unite to heal and protect the Earth.

We unite to build safe places for conflict resolution, healing and reconciliation.

I want to say, in this brief examination of these four resources, that it is not my intention to challenge or diminish any effort for good. Maybe it would be better said that I am calling all of us to an awakening of the importance of language as it expresses a philosophy or theology. Human justice and peace cannot be accomplished without ecological justice and respect for all creation. It’s not possible. Ecological healing cannot be accomplished from a position of over-seer, particularly when the over-seer (steward) is convinced of his/her right to do upon Earth as s/he wishes. It’s not possible.

The better efforts toward justice and peace are those which make explicit the intricate interconnections of all forms, biotic and abiotic. Of these above, The Earth Charter – despite the essential linguistic paradox of this and all efforts – comes closest to a philosophy of not only of the value of all beings, but of our the essential interdependence. It’s only from this ground that we can even begin to attend to the healing of our planet.

Cultural Diversity in the Environmental Movement

A few months ago I gave a talk entitled Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire ~ The Missing Thread in the Environmental Movement, the thread itself being that of spirituality. The question I was (and am still) holding was this: if we could come to understand the spiritual and sacred dimensions of this astonishing planet, would we behave differently? I offered spiritual giants in the environmental movement such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, and am suggesting strongly that we would behave differently.

More recently, I participated in a tele-conference sponsored by Orion Magazine, Bringing Cultural Diversity to the Environmental Movement. Then, just several days ago, I read a blog post by a colleague, Courtney Martin, who serves on the board of The Center for Courage and Renewal, Nine Learnings on Privilege and Diversity. (Whew! I think I have broken my own record for the number of links loaded onto the front end of a post.)

So today I want to offer an additional dimension to “the missing thread”, and maybe begin a conversation about the spiritual cost to what many feel is a homogenous movement, as well as the political, policy, and activist cost. Finally, I want to add a dimension to an earlier post on this website concerning human privilege and entitlement.

In the Orion Magazine tele-conference, Marcelo Bonta, director of the Center for Diversity and the Environment, and a conservation biologist, speaks to the efforts of others in the movement to silence his voice, dismiss his education and experience, and his having to deal in general with racist comments and ignorance around people of color as they engage the environmental movement. He speaks of his own isolation in the work, and identifies the root cause of the movement itself as “the homogenous environmental culture.” Without diversity of leadership and opportunity, the work won’t be sustainable. “Linking the environmental movement to equity, diversity, and inclusion,” he challenges, “leads to creative solutions to environmental problems.”

As I listened to Marcelo on the conference call, I am chagrinned to confess that it’s not occurred to me until now that the environmental movement could suffer just as any other organized movement from the effects of white power and privilege. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. One of Courtney Martin’s “nine learnings” and one that attracts me personally, is the charge to shut up and listen.

If you have power and privilege, of whatever kind, sometimes the most important thing you can do is stop talking and start listening. Privileged people are used to taking up space, being heard, contributing their stories and opinions. Don’t silence yourself, but consider the gift that your silence can be if offered in a spirit of true self-awareness and re-balancing.

Monica Smiley, of Oregon’s Tualatin Riverkeepers shares the experience of an all white board of directors under her leadership, serving a population in the Tualatin watershed which is 80% latino. She speaks of the shock of being turned down for a grant to partner with the latino community to develop watershed programs. It was a wake-up call to her that the granting organization insisted the board and staff reflect the diverse community their organization was trying to serve.

Courtney’s learning number two suggests that those of privilege and entitlement make our mistakes in public.

You will screw up. You will hurt people. You are human. The most courageous thing you can do is not to try to never hurt anyone, but to acknowledge the hurt you cause and try to learn from it.

Ginny McGuinn of Vermont’s Center for Whole Communities calls us back to basic principles of ecology. It’s always surprising, she says with some measure of irony, that the environmental movement thinks it can function and find solutions while neglecting the most important and obvious ecological principle – diversity – a “slap your forehead” moment certainly.

Courtney’s learning number five suggests we learn to embrace the paradox.

I have to be constantly aware of the unearned privileges that I have been afforded because of my whiteness, my membership in the middle-class, my heterosexuality, etc. I also need to know that when I hurt someone else with my ignorance, I am not a terrible monster, but a person shaped by my racist, classist, heterosexist environment. It is my fault, and I am also a product of my environment. Both are true at the same time.

This weaving of voices has been powerful for me. It reminds me yet again – a reminder for which I am grateful and humbled – of the vigilance required particularly on the part of white people of privilege, unearned privilege based on whiteness. And it’s not just about looking around the table of a board room and seeing a diversity of color and culture. It’s about spiritual integrity and wholeness.

If we’re going to posit a sacred universe (regardless of to whom or to what dynamic we attribute creative agency) then we have to acknowledge and celebrate a sacred diversity. This is so very obvious that we obviously need to remind ourselves over and over. And over again. And . . . this sacred diversity includes the humans.

For me, the joy of being alive at this time, as the whole world groans in the throes of unparalleled greed and destruction, of fear and anxiety, of self-centeredness and self-paralysis, alive in a time of unconsciousness, blindness, and ignorance, is the reality that this particular moment, on what Carl Sagan referred to as “the pale blue dot” holds the possibility for unparalleled learning, unparalleled awakening, unparalleled generosity and kindness, unparalleled systemic transformation of selves, of institutions, of behaviors, of economies, of values.

Witness this short video clip of an interview from Courtney’s book Do It Anyway!

Hope abounds! My heart is dancing as I load my bottles and cans and paper into their respective bins and attempt to speed my way to the recycle station before closing.

Eco-Spirituality ~ An Elemental Perspective

My thanks always to my generous friend Rex Nelson who just gets better and better with his camera. His generosity and kindness have never faltered.

I know that the majority of the people who read this blog and respond to my work are among the many who have left churches and won’t return, or have never attended churches and have no plans to do so. Still, I want to share with people of churches and people not, some of the significant explorations being accomplished out of my former seminary, The Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, California.

In my posts I continue to challenge the institution of the Church and it’s insistence on human privilege and entitlement. I continue to charge that the restoration and healing of the ecosystems of the planet cannot be accomplished unless and until we humans release our sense of primacy and rejoin (appropriately) the natural world. Still I think there are little pockets of hope giving new voice.

Under the ecological vision and leadership of Dr. Marion Grau, Associate Professor of Theology, the concept of Elemental Theology (Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire) is beginning to take root and bloom. A DVD entitled Elemental Theology has just been released as part of a teaching series produced by The Center For Anglican Learning & Leadership; it’s a compilation of half a dozen voices whose deep commitment to the healing of our planet is growing. From the sacred elements of water, the fruits of the earth, light, and all life forms come the stories we’ve been hungering for, a shared narrative from an ecological perspective which challenges faith communities to rethink such biblical concepts as dominion and rule, human privilege and entitlement, and the meaning of justice.

It was a rare occasion that invited my own participation in this teaching series, and a privilege. My hope is to include this work in two ways: first, I have posted my contribution in two parts on the sidebar of the website. I am including both parts in this new post as well.

Second, I am asking that you take a look at the film Elemental Theology in its entirety, and consider its purchase.

What if . . . it’s a question I raise in my part of the DVD . . . what if faith communities could begin to re-imagine the perspective from which they understand the interrelationships of all life forms? I think of the sheer numbers of hands and hearts and minds – never mind political influence – that could address the ecological devastation of our times. I think of the deep spiritual foundation – not doctrinal – that carries the potential for real healing.

Then, of course, the reality sets in – the propensity of religious organizations to focus their resources on those things which prop them up. The cynicism is warranted, no doubt, but I’m not sure it’s helpful. Quite the opposite if it leads to numbness and paralysis as is so often my experience.

I’m asking that you take a look at this DVD, if not in its entirety, then my contribution to it. I’d like to read your thoughts and comments in the the space provided. I really don’t understand how it is that conversational threads are strong on some blogging sites, and not so on others. As there is no more critical conversation that’s needed at this particular moment, I am asking for your help.

The Space Between ~ We Know What it Looks Like

I’m beginning to understand two things: one, what I call the space between is the ground for holy exchange, not only between humans and the biotic world, but also between and among humans; and two, that the space between is hard to come by, even harder to hold.

When I was in the process of writing The Space Church & Not-Church, my editor continued to ask me, “what do people of churches and people not of churches bring to the space between?” I continued to respond that it wasn’t about what people dragged into the space, it was what they were able to release for the sake of deep listening, patience, trust, and respect, as well as a sure and certain knowing of the sacredness of creation.

I have a story to share about this space between sacred experience, although it would be another decade before I understood what this was really about. In 1999 or 2000, a Houston, Texas community of former teenage gang members, graffiti artists, drug dealers, under the auspices of a non-profit called Youth Advocates, came together several times each week to translate their rage, defiance, and often hopelessness into the art of breakdancing. They were an awesome group – funny, smart, compassionate, with older kids mentoring younger ones.

This group of about twenty was invited to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles to accompany the LA teenagers on a fifty mile walk with the former bishop. We’d walk eight or ten miles, then spend the night on the hard floors of some or other church. Each evening we’d do some or other form of Evening Prayer, and the bishop would offer a short homily. That was the pattern.

One evening, the bishop talked of the parable of the mustard seed, while the graffiti artists painted what they were hearing on an eight by four sheet of plywood. Here’s the backstory. That afternoon, my husband Jim and I, along with a couple other adults, had accompanied these three young men to an art store, where they examined various paint nozzles and colors, three heads so close in as to be touching, yes to this one, no to that one, how about this and this in combination?

If we were astonished by the collaborative nature of the adventure then, we were transported by the experience of the evening.

It was a balmy Los Angeles evening, breezy, not muggy, and we gathered in the courtyard. One of the host teens read the story of the mustard seed, and as the bishop spoke, the graffiti artists painted. The leadership was seamless, reminding me of a wise man who once told me (about collaborative leadership) the Spirit dances first on one, then another, then another. The three artists, again so close in they seemed as one body, communicated softly to one another as the bishop spoke, not always with words when words weren’t required. They laid down paint in layer after layer, white hot in the middle, to depict the explosion of the mustard seed itself.

During the years that followed, people looking at this remarkable painting, remembered the Big Bang, the waters of birth, the waters of baptism; they spoke of community, the eye of God. The image of the mustard seed evoked seemingly infinite responses, all of them resounding with the sacredness of the image itself, and to the creative sacred experience that created it.

I think this was my first experience of what it meant to move into the space between. I wouldn’t have called it that yet, because I didn’t understand it. But as I continue to speak and write about the space between as a path to the healing of the biotic community, I offer these as real life practical application of what it means to live there, with others, in the moment, with trust and respect, with a commitment to listen deeply to the creative gifts of the Other, and to honor both process and participants.

I am coming into the understanding – it’s been an evolving process – that the space between is where we will be able to acknowledge the harm we’ve accomplished, between and among humans, and between human and non-human life forms. I believe this is where healing begins, in the space between.

Last night I posted on my personal Facebook page and my Restoring the Waters Facebook page, a link to a TED talk entitled “There are No Mistakes on the Bandstand”. I hope you watch it. But if you don’t, and you stick with this post, I’ll just tell you about it, using improvisational jazz as the vehicle for a space between experience.

Stefon Harris, the band’s leader, begins with this explanation, “Okay, I have no idea what we’re going to play. I have no idea what it is until it happens. So, I didn’t realize there was going to be a little music before, so I think I’mm going to start with what I just heard.” Picture a xylophone with mallets, bass, drums, and a piano. Stefon lays down the pattern on the xylophone and repeats it. At fifty eight seconds, the drummer picks up his drumstick, the bassist’s fingers begin to dance with the strings of his instrument, and the man on the keyboard begins to offer the voice of his own instrument. Six minutes in, and the the band members have created something remarkable.

Stefon continues with his philosophy of “mistakes”. There are none, basically. The only mistake, he says, is “if I am not aware, each individual musician not aware and accepting enough of his fellow band member to incorporate the idea”, in other words if the musicians can’t allow for creativity.

Referring to jazz improv as sacred blessing, Stefon refers to the science of listening, of the value of patience, of the willingness to pull from something going on around him, and thus inspiring others to pull from him.

This is as clear a space between experience as I can imagine. It requires trust, respect, a willingness to embrace life in the moment.

Green in Spirit ~ Green in Action

The intentionality with which I am learning to offer my eco-spiritual writings into the world has been a stretch for me, and a steep learning curve. Many “green” websites and organizations are providing their services as resource centers for projects of all kinds – recycling, urban farming, green housing, organic clothing – the list is extensive, and the sheer numbers of such web communities help to insure that the commitment to shrink our human footprint is becoming normative.

Of those, only a few seem to step outside the bounds of green action into the realm of spirit, willing to explore the connection.  It’s a privilege, therefore, to be a guest blogger on a website to which I subscribe, Green Talk.

For those of you who are becoming familiar with my way of thinking about things, talking about the space between . . . (I hope) is becoming a part of your vocabulary. For those of you who might be new to this site, I would encourage you to explore the category by the same name, to get a sense of the significance of the space between . . . The preface to my book begins in this way: There is a space between things, between all things. The space is sacred and it is rich with blessing. I know this because I have lived in one such space for more than a decade, and I speak from it.

For the purposes of this conversation, the space between . . . holds ecological and spiritual content both. Eco-spirituality has begun to show up in Google searches, which says to me that we are becoming accustomed to the partnership. What I am discovering is that the partnership requires new vocabulary. Elsewhere on this site I have begun to explore new language and the meaning it holds for the space between . . . with this post I want to continue the exploration of the meaning of sacrament which, in the context of Green Talk, makes the connection between spirit and activism.

I believe that green activism is the outward expression of an inner longing for connectedness to the earth community. In the language of churches, a sacrament is defined in just that way – the outward expression of an inner spiritual propensity. So I hope that you’ll read my guest post. I’ve linked to it above, and I will paste it below.

Our Need for Spiritual Connection with the Earth (As posted on Green Talk)

It’s a wonderfully hopeful thing, to have access, direct from fingertip to keyboard, to environmentally sustainable resources that range from urban farming, to rooftop gardens, to household cleaning products, to the challenge to go plastic-free for a week. Web communities that serve as clearing houses for such resources are of immeasurable value.

The cynics among us speak of the warts in the concept of “sustainable living”, and yes, underneath the sarcasm lie concerns worth exploring. Yet this is not the time for the cynics among us. Prophets, yes, but not cynics. Our earth community is in too much trouble, and there is too much work to be done.

From my perspective, what’s motivating us isn’t just “feel good environmentalism” or some kind of nagging moral thorn in our side that says we ought to be doing this.  From where I sit, all these efforts – to clean up, to recycle, to establish farmers’ markets, to replant indigenous seed – all of them – are the action/expressions of the deepest sort of longing, and it’s one that we may not even be aware of. These are the outward expressions of our innate longing for connectedness to this planet.

It’s a spiritual longing, and serves to remind us that our care of the earth, the waters and air, and wildlife habitat are spiritual endeavors. We are spiritual beings, and the spiritual dimension belongs not just to humans alone.

The words of Thomas Berry make me want to dance with joy. “The earth is our origin,” he writes, “our nourishment, our support, our guide. Our spirituality itself is earth derived. If there is no spirituality in the earth, then there is no spirituality in ourselves.”

The only way humans can understand ourselves as spiritual beings, then, is to understand our own spirituality as linked to, and inseparable from, the spiritual dimension of all life forms.

To make the claim, as many do, that humans alone are possessed of and share a spiritual life apart from earth community, is utterly false. This eco-spiritual component doesn’t yet carry a lot of weight in legal arguments, nor in moral persuasion, and certainly not among the religious, yet it is this connection – and this alone – that serves as the ground of true planetary healing and restoration. It follows, then, that the human-to-earth connection is the very ground for human healing and wellness as well.

I’ve been blessed with mentors such as Thomas Berry, Alice Walker, John Muir, Margaret Wheatley – some living, some not – who have insinuated themselves deep into the core of my true knowing – a knowing which is all too often eclipsed by a surfeit of information and righteous opinion – mentors who have insisted that I open my eyes to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms.

The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us that all life consists of “chemical elements forged in the center of high mass stars, unstable at the ends of their lives, which then exploded to scatter their enriched contents across galaxies, forming into gas clouds which in turn collapsed, forming stars, and planets, and life.”

We Can Reverse Our Own Destruction

That life includes not only humans, but all else as well. I find it thrilling to consider that we are all of the same stardust! The poets write lyrics, and the musicians sing songs. In this world view, Berry’s words ring with startling clarity. In our lifetime, he says, “the glory of the human has become the desolation of the earth. And now the desolation of the earth is becoming the destiny of the human.” In other words, what we’re doing to the earth, we are doing to ourselves. We are charting the course of our own destruction.

We have lost our bearings, but it need not be a permanent description.
If we can remember that healing and wellness – of all life including human life – is a spiritual endeavor, and that one cannot be healed without the other, there is hope. We long for healing, and such longing is given expression by the very actions of green that – we can say in celebration – are becoming increasingly the norm.

We are of the same stardust!