Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Vocabulary

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.

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!

A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Ecotone (Sometimes ecotome)

The ecological work we need to be doing isn’t really coming from people of churches or from those outside churches, at least not with the urgency it requires. Take churches, for example, especially Mainline churches. This is from a 2008 article in the Boston Globe. “(yet) Protestant denominations are leaving many of their small churches open, allowing for a sizable number of struggling, even moribund, congregations with minimal programming and part-time clergy.”

Mainline churches are pretty much about the business of trying to keep their clergy from bolting and trying to prop up their buildings. What’s left might go to outreach, but even so, the environment falls pretty much to the bottom of the list as though the environment were some distinct category, which, of course, it isn’t. Church outreach tends to be more about food banks and soup kitchens and clothing drives. Patchwork, and charitable, yes, but not systemmic.

The ecological work – for the most part – happens outside churches, through environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife or Oceana or Biogems, Sierra Club – there are many. The work they do is essential, yet they are not likely to turn around the planet’s destruction. And here’s why. All they (we) can do is react. The insults and assaults to the earth community, including its subset of humans – particularly humans who fall outside the mainstream – come so fast, and so furiously, one on top of another on top of another, that all we can do is react, try to put out fires, try desperately to bandage up one wound then another would.

Environmental groups are working reactively. And they do it by pulling on our heartstrings. Pictures of aerial gunning of wolves, polar bears unable to swim to the next ice cap, sea turtles slick with oil.

What we don’t have is room to breathe. The space between . . . is breathing room, room to shed ourselves of all that puts us on one side of the aisle or the other. The space between . . . is where our collective imagination can do its work. The space between . . . is where education can happen, where education must happen.

For example. Take the Greater Yellowstone area. Here’s why you don’t want to kill all the wolves. If there are no wolves, the elk overpopulate. Too many elk, the aspen and willow seedlings have no chance to mature. No willows, the beaver go, leaving their dams untended. No dams, the wetlands disappear. Wetlands disappear, the land dries up.. The land dries up, the riverbanks erode. This is not just about wolves on one side of the aisle and sheep on the other. We can’t get to the problem this way. It’s not possible.

Carl Safina – in his book The View From Lazy Point – makes reference to “the whole enterprise” and I am grateful to him for this language. The space between . . . makes room for the whole enterprise. Systems. Systems at work.

My friend Paul Michalec reminds me that the space between . . . has its physical counterpart in the natural world. The word is ecotone. I wish I had had this word in my vocabulary when I was writing this book. But I didn’t. Picture a forest as it moves down the mountainside and abuts a vast wildflower meadow. It’s not like one moment you’re in trees, the next, in tall grasses. An ecotone is the area between different habitats, and it contains elements of both. It’s – literally – the space between . . .

In fact, not only does the ecotone contain elements of both forest and meadow, neither forest nor meadow could survive without the ecotone. In fact – this is where it gets even more exciting, found in the ecotone are life forms that aren’t of the forest and aren’t of the meadow. The ecotone – the space between . . . is the ground for something altogether new. What I am calling the space between . . . is basically a form of bio-mimicry. Isn’t there something we can learn from this?

One would hope! Think of the space between. . . as an ecotone, a safe space in which people of churches and people not of churches can meet to consider in a proactive, not reactive way, the many urgent crises that demand our attention, and in particular – the one from which all other ills emerge – the deteriorating health of our planet.

The question is, “how do we get there?”

From an earlier vocabulary lesson comes the word  apophatic. We have to learn all this vocabulary, by the way. It’s essential to learn it for the urgent conversations we need to be having.

Literally it translates as knowledge learned through negation, but that doesn’t put it in any recognizeable context. To enter the space between . . . to live in the ecotome, is first and foremost to lose our sense of human entitlement, to release our anthropocentric insistence that the world exists to serve us.  To live in the ecotome is also to release or let go of the things that we all have such righteous opinions about. In the context of the space between . . . , apophatic is all about unlearning. Not only a challenge to our assumptions – which is a given – but an actual releasing or unlearning of them.

For people of churches, the apophatic journey has to do with the release of doctrine and exclusive forms of ritual practice. For people not in churches, maybe it requires a release of antipathy, and indifference, even anger. Maybe an unlearning of the notion that churches have laid claim to the sacramental and ritual life. The apophatic journey – the way of release and unlearning – is a spiritual practice and discipline, by the way, and it doesn’t necessarily come easily.

But, if you think about the polarity of our conversations these days, if you think about the vitriol, the uncivil discourse, the discounting and dismissing of one another, the distortions, even outright lies, it ought to be fairly clear that we’re lost. We’re stuck. We need to find ourselves, and what I’m suggesting is that we need to find ourselves in the space between . . . a space which is neither one thing or another, but of both – a new thing. A new thing we haven’t yet seen. As with any ecotone, this is where the growth and transformation is going to happen.

A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Anamnesis

This is what I love to do. I love to borrow back words the Church has claimed for its own and re-introduce them into a more universal context. Anamnesis is such a word, a wonderful word. In the Church, it’s associated by the act of remembrance, with the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. The word comes to us from the Greek, and it can mean as well, the remembering of things from a previous existence. Literally, it means a loss of forgetfulness, and it’s that silken nuance of the phrase that intrigues me. We can easily say that to lose forgetfulness is simply to remember, that it’s nothing more than a question of semantics. This is what fascinates me, though. Remembering becomes a two-step process. First, we have to lose, or release, our forgetfulness. Only then, in step two, will we be able to remember.

For Reflection

This is a good time for an art project. I am thinking of a collage in particular, something not too threatening. Finger painting would do as well. As you’re settling in with the materials, hold in mind this question: What have you forgotten? Color? Shapes? Making messes? The art of play? Have you forgotten what it’s like to engage in something and not worry about outcome? Have you forgotten to listen to your own inner knowing, your inner teacher? Take this project outside, if you can, and ask the same questions of the wind as it breathes through your hair, the songs of the early robins or the peepers, the rustle of grass, the smell of the season. What of your forgetfulness do you need to lose in order to know your place within the earth community?