“There’s so many people that don’t really recognize a vegetable unless it’s in a bit of plastic with an instruction packet on the top.” These are the words of Pam Warhurst, the co-founder of Incredible Edible in Todmorden, England. Pam herself is not new news, but her TED talk is provocative and ought to inspire countless ideas. Immediately I am thinking of my friend, a local Primary Care Physician, who complains righteously and correctly about the waste of money and resources in the plantings around the hospital where she works. Imagine if those of us with doctors appointments, or those of us visiting patients could pick an eggplant or a Big Boy tomato and lettuce enough for the evening’s salad!
“Can you find a unifying language that cuts across age and income and culture? … ” Pam Warhurst knows through experience the answer to this rhetorical question. “Yes, and the language would appear to be food.”
This is a TED talk worth every second of the eighteen or so minutes that will be required of you.
I can picture a town, say the size of Burlington, Vermont, or an area of a city such as Brooklyn, in the way that Pam Warhurst describes Todmorden. I belong to the Central New Hampshire Permaculture organization, and its rapid growth is indicative of the passion and commitment to grow and eat locally.
Coincidentally I am reading Charles’ Eisenstein’s new book, Sacred Economies, (look soon for a review) and am finding my own sense of radical hope, not in one idea only, but in the ways that different thinkers across professions, across cultures, across generations, continue to add their brave voices to the work of articulating what must become our new and prevailing narrative if we as a biotic community are to survive and thrive.
Sacred Economies and Incredible Edible and countless others have as their starting points: kindness, gratitude, generosity, and the building of communities inclusive of human and non-human members, communities which understand clearly that every resident of this living web carries value equal to every other.
It’s often the case that a poem or a piece of art or a book review finds its way into my inbox; not nearly so often that I repost it. This is a powerful, imaginative piece of writing, and by way of confession, I wish I had written it. (Still, the introvert in me most likely wouldn’t have been able to perform it.) I am grateful to Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoi for writing it, and at least as grateful to myCourage and Renewalcolleague Larry, for making sure I saw it.
This is the time of gardens – in this part of the world anyway – and because Jim and I have more than doubled our garden capacity this spring and summer, I’ve got gardens on my mind (and on my aching back). As this is our first permaculture experience (permaculture philosophy and practice has exploded throughout New Hampshire) I am as interested in what the insistent impulse to grow does without benefit (or harm) of human intervention as I am in a garden with intention.
In my most recent book, I included a description of an urban community garden, my first experience of such an adventure. It was years ago, yet the experience is as fresh as though it were yesterday. Rather than put it among the other excerpts from the book, I am including it here.
Years ago, the people of two neighborhood churches partnered with elected district officials and neighborhood activists to organize what became a successful community garden in a rough Seattle neighborhood. Unlike some, this garden had no personal ownership, and its rules of protocol—suggested by its organizers—were simple. First, each household that ate from the produce over the course of the growing season was required to work in the garden; that included children as well as elders who were able. The garden was situated on the grounds of a three-tiered assisted living home owned and operated by one of the churches, and a number of the residents contributed regularly to its tending. Second, we were asked to harvest only what we needed for the day. “We want you to keep coming back,” was the explanation given. This was as much about the community gathered as it was about food; people had to come back every day and talk to one another, work with one another, get to know one another. I was a Metro Transit bus driver at the time, and the garden was located along my daily route. I loved signing out of the bus yard, climbing into my bright red Volvo 122-S, and stopping by on my way home to harvest my home-grown dinner.
Finally, we were asked that we not take all or even the last of any particular delightful thing that had weathered the grey days, the exhaust from the cars and buses. The last of the harvest would be shared among all of us.
We honored these commitments for the most part, with no policing of any kind, without censure of anyone. On the day we harvested the last of the vegetables of the season and prepared the soil for its winter rest and spring planting, we wanted to celebrate. “We get to eat the rest of this now, right?” asked one of the residents of the home whom we had dubbed “the hoe-man.” It was a great idea, and we, the motley crew, set up tables, chairs, and blankets on the front lawn under the shade trees whose leaves were just starting to turn.
There was an abundance of food! But this was not the most important part of the celebration. In response to an inarticulate and certainly not uniformly conscious understanding about the gift of harvest and the life-sustaining qualities of the fruits of the earth, sun, and rain, we were moved instinctively to celebrate in a sacramental way. No one told us how to do it, but we figured it out; it was second nature.
This was my first experience with what I now call the intersection of church and not-church; as I had been not-church for many years, it was also my first experience with people of churches. The celebration evolved in an organic kind of way. The Presbyterian Home provided us with a home-baked loaf of bread and a very large stein of wine. We also had juice. And, heaped on the table we had dragged out from the wraparound porch were cucumbers, tomatoes, foot-long zucchinis, radishes, bell peppers, pole beans, and a few scrawny remnants of broccoli. Without using the language or theology of any faith or denomination, we thanked the earth, sun, and water for their fruits. We told the story of our gardening efforts as a part of—even a small part of—an effort to feed and therefore to better a broken world. We told family stories about love and support, about the importance of this particular gardening community and a growing sense of safety within our neighborhood and our city.
One woman, too young to have a fourteen-year-old son—but she did—said, “It’s the first time Jason has wanted to hang out with me in a long time.”
Some of her friends who knew Jason nodded their heads.
One loaf of bread served about thirty of us that day. As it was passed from person to person, table to table, each of us named the blessing held within the loaf as best we understood it and could speak it. Two of the children sitting next to each other on one side of me took hold of the loaf, glanced at each other, and, as though on cue, shouted the words peanut butter.
A few of the older adults were reticent and awkward, mumbling words quickly through their hands as the bread passed by. They knew the church rules for right behavior; only the priests were allowed to touch the bread. But there was no such rule that day, and there was no question but that peanut butter was a sacrament. The blessings of the children in particular, most of them undertaken with reverent solemnity, broke open our adult hearts with an intensity that we had not expected. By the time the bread came to me, I could hardly speak. We knew what this was about—the bread of life, about the celebration of community, about acts of kindness, generosity, and joy. It was about thanksgiving. It was about the celebration of earth and water and sunlight.
As with so many of our life experiences, this one continued to reveal itself long after the fact. I think back now on what had been a glorious summer, one in which everyone belonged; I try to remember who was in charge and quickly realize that no one was in charge. Or, better said, we were all in charge. We were in charge of the “rules”; we were in charge of the tending of the garden; we were in charge of the celebration. People rose to whatever the occasion demanded. Against the tapestry of my current professional life, it seemed irresistibly easy. No one was ever angry. No one was ever dismissed or diminished. No one person mattered any more or less than anyone else. Leaders arose for the times and occasions they were needed. Today I call it “circular leadership.” At the time, I wouldn’t have had the words, or even the thought; then, it was seamless.
And while I am on the subject of city streets let me recommend a short read called Seedfolks, one of the best, most heartwarming and hopeful descriptions of the collaborative birth of an urban community garden.
Once again, the images come from the generous camera and heart of Rex Nelson.This post follows on the heels of a recent conversation with my friend Candis Whitney who chairs the Central NH Permaculture Meet-Up. Check out the site. Build one in your area.
For the past few years, in my book and in my blogging, I have – with intention – been extrapolating the spiritual language of the Church from its institutional life and grafting it onto the root stock of where most of us actually live, that is, outside the Church. I am wanting to make accessible to all of us, the language familiar to people in churches, language developed to give flesh to the profound spiritual questions around all life’s exigencies to which we yearn to attribute meaning, suffering and dying, for example, or love, or – even more basic – why am I here? My thinking has been simply this: the language best suited to articulate the sacred doesn’t belong solely in the Church; it belongs to all of us.
And when I speak of the language of the Church, I am not talking about the archaic stilted (still loved by some) language of thee’s and thou’s and wither thou goest’s and praiseth . . .
Yet in an institutional way, I suspect churches are quite satisfied to perpetuate the illusion that the meaning of all things holy and the language which describes them belong inside the institutional orbit; if you want to participate, then you have to come inside.
The assumption is patently untrue, and yet those of us in churches and those of us outside live as though it were. I think of it as the language of sacred meaning, and most of us outside churches aren’t familiar with it. Truth be told, many people in churches aren’t familiar with it either.
Case in point, me. I rarely spoke a word during my first year of seminary. I didn’t know the language, and I didn’t know the meanings of words that my peers tossed about with abandon. During my first weeks, I called my friend Dick and asked him, “What does liturgy mean?” When he began to expound philosophically and historically, I interrupted him, “No, What does the word liturgy mean?” I wrote my best friend’s mother, “What are the names of things you find in a church? Why do people get baptized? What is Compline? Why would somebody ask me if I was a postulant; what are they asking, exactly? What are the names of the clothes that priests wear? What does incarnation mean?”
I dared once to approach a fellow student and asked her why she wanted to be ordained. She puffed herself up like a blowfish, and added a couple inches to her short frame. “It’s all sacramental, of course,” she said. I called my friend Dick. “What’s a sacrament?”
During a required summer internship, I worked in a Psychiatric unit, on a lock ward. After one particularly distressing encounter with a woman who had climbed over the wall, had broken a glass Pepsi bottle against a rock, and then swallowed the pieces, my supervisor asked me to reflect theologically.
“I don’t know what you’re asking of me,” I told him.
“I want you to talk to me about the meaning of this encounter,” he said.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I told him.
Over the past few years, I have watched those of us committed to ecological healing, watched those of us who have recognized the ever more pressing need for safe habitat for animal and bird populations displaced by the sprawling human enterprise, struggle with or even be unaware that the spiritual thread is essential to the strength of the environmental movement and the health of the planet. And the spiritual thread needs commensurate spiritual language.
The irony is that the very language we need to express our deepest yearnings for the health and well-being of what Carl Safina calls the whole enterprise, has been sequestered within the confines of the Church. The further irony is that my attempt to bring the spiritual language out into the world is like introducing something so alien and alienating into our communities that the experience that I described above, of my silence in the face of all that I didn’t know, is multiplied exponentially.
SO, what to do. How do we begin to have the conversation together about the sacredness of earth, water, creature, wind, and fire?
Well, first, I’d like to ask you who are reading this, to consider how you go about describing that which gives your life, your relationships, your work, your passions, their most profound meaning. Why do you care about the healing of the planet? What does it mean to you that humans are an integral part of a vast living network, interconnected and interdependent, and why does it matter? What language have you found to give expression to all that is sacred, mysterious, unknowable?
For example, if you engage Rex Nelson’s images in this post, what language would you use to describe the ineffable nature of such an evening sky, ineffable meaning of more mystery and beauty than can be described in words. What does that mean, exactly? And what common language might we find? Well, when you look at Rex’s image, in what ways does the sun as it sets mirror your life? Can you see the wind and know it’s the same air you breathe? Or the clouds, and know they are the same water of which you are made? Or the image as a whole as a visual expression of the vastness of the universe? Whether or not you claim a belief in a deity, this is holy stuff. The whole world is of sacramental value; how do we learn to talk with one another about that? How do we begin to learn from it? How might this understanding inform our decision making, and our behavior toward the planet?
Or consider the three different colored blossoms on a single back yard tree? A plant scientist could explain how it happens. A Christian might see it as the symbol of a Trinitarian God. But if you are neither of those (or even if you are) how do understand it sacramentally, as the symbolic expression of a deep inner yearning, say, for peace? Or a deep yearning for the revisioning of a broken democracy? What might this tree have to teach us? What kinds of seeds ought we be planting?
This may well be the most important conversation we need to be having, and the invitation to you who read this is that you make use of the comment section at the bottom of this post.
Second, I think I am going to follow this post with a glossary, to which I will continue to add substance.
Third, I am pretty convinced that the language the Church uses to express the ineffable and unknowable sacred is powerful and explicit, equally convinced that such language serves to give spiritual meaning and depth to our lives, and, in the context of this site, spiritual meaning and depth to our ecological efforts (in a sense they are one and the same). The language of the sacred is the language of hope, and gives us resources to resist cynicism and defeat. Still, I suspect there are other ways to tease out the same things. I’d like to make this a both/and experience; for those of us outside churches who might not claim the status of believer, this is our language, too, developed over thousands of years, to give expression to the sacred.
And . . . we need to be able to talk with one another, even with the youngest among us, in ways that reclaim the spiritual underpinnings of our ecological efforts for healing. Because the spiritual thread is essential; we cannot accomplish the sea change required to turn around our behavior without it.
Fourth, I will do my best to remember that the language and thought process I use now so effortlessly is language and process that has burrowed itself deep inside me, over more than a quarter of a century, language and process which has come to me at a pretty steep cost over an even steeper learning curve.
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 partson 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.
It’s giving me much pleasure to speak to the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I am grateful for the invitations.
Edward O. Wilson is a remarkable biologist-slash-ecologist who introduced himself to his audience of a 2007 TED talk in this way: “I’ve come on a special mission on behalf of my constituency, which are the 10-to-the-18th-power — a million trillion — insects and other small creatures, to make a plea for them, the teeming small creatures that can be held between the thumb and forefinger: the little things that compose the foundation of our ecosystems, the little things, as I like to say, who run the world.”
E.O. Wilson knows his insects, particularly his ants!
Now, I’m not crazy about ants. My garden is riddled with the outdoor version of those glassed-in ant farms you could mail order some decades ago – (now it’s Uncle Milton Ant Farms on sale through the internet). But I’m really interested in a person who is . . . crazy about ants, especially one who has won two Pulitzers for his science, the Carl Sagan award for the Public Understanding of Science, AND . . . the 2010 Heartland Prize for Anthill: A Novel, his first, which he wrote at the age of 81. Should give all of us would be fiction writers hope and sustenance!
In Anthill, Wilson, describes his young hero Raff Cody through the eyes of Raff’s college professor Frederick Norville who says, “I had known Raff almost all his life. We met at the unspoiled environment of Lake Nokobee, located in the central part of South Alabama close to the border of the Florida Panhandle. It was a world few knew existed and fewer still could speak of with any understanding, a world that we shared and loved. I was the scientist and historian of this place, Raff the boy who in a sense grew up there. His intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life.
The moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life. This book was my nighttime reading, and when I read those words I sat straight up in the bed. What could that possibly mean, Raff’s intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life?
Now, I need to set this against the tapestry of my own work at the time. I was immersed – drowning might be a better description – in the “earth-centered morality” section of my own writing, working with an editor who clearly was struggling with me. I was trying to articulate a concept which I’d named the space between . . . in this instance, the space between people of churches and people not – and my editor was asking me, over and over – when we got to the morality section – what are the ten commandment equivalents for the space between . . . ? I had no answer for her; all I knew was that it wasn’t the right question. Even metaphorically, it wasn’t the right question. But . . . I didn’t have a clue as to what the right question might have been. So, maybe you can imagine how Wilson’s words impacted me at a visceral level, “Raff’s intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life.”
WOW! You know how sometimes you can hear or sense the truth of something before you actually can put words to it? It was like that.
The natural world – the elemental world of earth, water, creature, wind, fire – from which might emerge one’s moral compass . . . how does that work? That’s the question I was holding then, and I still am, really, holding that question, because there is a tape still looping through my brain, one that found its way inside my head during my college years. I was a philosophy major at Columbia University, and as you might imagine, the world of ethics and moral choice was reasonably important. All the early philosophers had to address the moral questions – they did it, most often, against a tapestry of . . . God.
My particular conundrum at the time was embodied in the writings of David Hume. I thought he was pretty cool. I don’t remember why, exactly. But he was right at the top of my list. What I do know is that I had a paper due in May, and if the University hadn’t gone out on strike in 1969, in protest of the Vietnam war, I would never have graduated. As it was, I – like most everybody – took incompletes. I skipped out of New York in May, played hard the entire summer, but finally, the time came to . . . pay up. I wasn’t any more disciplined at the end of the summer than I had been at summer’s beginning. I had to write seven papers in five days; my solution – I was in good company – was to stop sleeping.
It was the middle of the night, Day 5, and New York was as quiet as it ever gets. There was no one to ask, and so I dialed – dialed! – O for Operator.
“What number, please?” she asked.
“Um, it’s not a number exactly.”
“Then what is it, exactly?”
“I need some help.”
“Are you all right? Do you need a 911?”
“No, not that kind of help. I am very tired and have to turn in this paper tomorrow or I’ll flunk the class.”
“Yes?” Now she sounded more intrigued than alarmed.
“I seem to have forgotten how to spell. Do you spell the word of with an f or a v?”
The woman was mercifully kind and wanted to know what the paper was about. “It’s a paper on the philosophy of a dead man whose name was David Hume.”
I tried to explain about Hume’s thought, that you cannot derive a moral “ought” from the reality of what “is.” Hume’s explanatory words rolled off my tongue as though I knew what I was talking about, “The prescriptive does not derive from the descriptive.” I could tell I’d lost her. But she did spell of for me, with an f, and we parted as late-night compatriots of a sort.
It would please me now to make the claim and mean it that I still understand Hume’s argument that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” But I’ll try. He was saying, I think, that you can’t take something like a Walden Pond experience and derive a moral framework from it. The Walden Pond is the “is” and it’s really not going to tell us much about the “ought” – at least according to David Hume – how we ought to behave.
But . . . here’s the thing. Hume’s rationale – like any of the anthropocentric, and by that I mean human-centered, ethicists of today, and they are legion – rested on the unchallenged premise of human primacy and entitlement —humans are set apart, distinct from the rest of the biotic world—a premise that is not only flawed but altogether wrong . . . and one that remains unchallenged, and, for the most part, one that remains unexamined.
This is important, because it suggests – continues to suggest – that human morality can be forged independently – disconnected – from the rest of the biotic community. It suggests that morality exists only human-to-human, or,for many people, human-to-God. And that’s just not true. The reason . . . that my editor’s question about the ten commandment equivalents for the space between was the wrong question, was that she was asking me about human-to-human morality and human-to-Divine morality, and nothing else.
What Edward Wilson’s novel makes clear, is that one’s moral compass has everything to do with that person’s understanding of his or her proper place within the biotic world. Raff’s intimacy with the Nokobee provided the moral compass that was to guide his remarkable life. Raff knew his place. His place was in/within the Nokobee. He was not a visitor, not an observer/scientist, not an exploiter. He was of the Nokobee, and, as such, knew that he was of no greater or lesser value than any other Nokobee denizen . . . even an ant. He knew that his moral behavior was intricately and inextricably connected to the health and well-being of his real home, the Nokobee.
So I guess my question is: how did we arrive at an understanding of morality that was based only human-to-human, or human-to-Divine? How did we get there? And how do we get from there to where we need to be, namely that morality is systemic, intricately interwoven with the elemental world of earth, water, creature, wind, and fire? How do we get there?
So . . . let’s start with the first question. How did we arrive at the understanding that morality that was based solely on the human-to-human, or the human-to-Divine relationship? In the biblical narrative contained in the Book of Exodus, Moses is said to have received the moral law direct from God, in the form of two stone tablets containing a total of ten commandments. What’s important for this discussion is this: they were delivered from an external authority; they are linear; they are hierarchical. And . . . they deal only with human-to-Divine and human-to-human relationships. Whether or not we want or choose to rely on the Ten Commandments for our moral frame, they’ve infiltrated the culture. There are no boundaries, in this case, between scripture and culture. The beauty of this particular moral system was that it reflected the hierarchical structure laid out in the Genesis story of Creation. It reflected what the early biblical writers knew of the ordering of the universe.
God dwelt in the highest of the heavens – the heaven of heavens. Then came just the plain old ordinary heavens. That’s where the Angels lived, angels and other semi-divine beings. Then came the waters above the firmament. Windows and doors opened onto the heavens, the sun . . . moon. . . stars.
And then the earth. Below earth, Sheol, sometimes called Hades, or Hell, and several layers of that.
So . . the idea that I’ve been working with for a couple years, emerges from the observation that a biblically based morality was based on the known ordering of the world. Linear and hierarchical.
Assuming that this observation has value, then we can ask ourselves what a moral structure would look like if it corresponded to the world as we know it today.
Let me say this another way. In the same way that the ten commandments reflected the way the world was presumed to work at the time of their writing, the moral frame we need to develop from a biocentric perspective has to reflect the real structure of the world as we know it today.
What we know is this: the structure of the earth community is a web, and so it needs to have its parallel in the development of a biocentric – not hierarchical – moral framework.
Think about a web for a minute. Think about it as a metaphor. It’s basically circular. Each component – or filament – of a web serves to strengthen the whole system; without any one of the filaments, the web degrades or even collapses. The same will be true of a moral framework.
In a biocentric universe, the “is”—the real world—is what we have, and perhaps all we have, to ground a biocentric morality. It’s not David Hume after all. And it’s from the world as it really is that we can begin to talk about appropriate human responses and choices. The difficulty we’re having, shifting moral paradigms, stems from an unfamiliarity with appropriate moral language for where we are, and what we know today . . . stems from the fact that a biocentric moral framework cannot be linear. And it cannot be external. And it cannot be hierarchical.
So what are the touchstones of a biocentric morality? How might we imagine the web itself, along with its filaments as a new moral paradigm?
I think the web itself represents . . . sense of place. Humans have long understood ourselves – misunderstood ourselves – as existing outside the order of the natural world, imbued with the privilege and power-over, that comes with entitlement. We’re entitled, we think, to do as we will with regard to the earth and water and air and all creatures. To each other, for that matter. Power-over extends to the human realm as we well know.
So, first, we have to remember – or, as the Greeks thought of it – we have to lose our forgetfulness with regard to our proper human place within and not external to the web. That . . . is a moral imperative. We have to do this. We have to relocate ourselves. The late eco-theologian Thomas Berry wrote, “In the 20th century, 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.” Berry’s invitation is to rejoin the community of life from which we emerged. I think of it as the pivotal ethical imperative. I see this as the ethical ground out of which our moral compass might be re-configured.
So . . . if the web is to represent, metaphorically and ethically, our re-imagined sense of place, then what might be some of its moral filaments?
In her poem Testimony, Rebecca Baggett writes:
“I still believe
we are capable of attention,
that anyone who notices the world
must want to save it.”
It’s that little word must. Anyone who notices the world must want to save it.
That word must indicates moral imperative. So . . . mindfulness . . . attentiveness . . . is the moral filament which emerges from a true sense of place. If we know our place in the world, then the moral imperative is to be mindful, to pay attention. Mindfulness . . . attentiveness . . . is also a moral practice. We’re not really very practiced at the moment, most of us. We’re not yet willing to release our sense of human privilege and entitlement. Anthropocentrism continues to be the order of the day.
A second filament of a re-imagined moral web is gratitude. Gratitude for the magnificence, complexity, and mystery of the universe emerges – can do nothing else but emerge – from mindfulness, from paying attention. In the radio broadcast of a couple years ago, They Don’t Call her Mother Earth for Nothing, Alice Walker speaks of her joy at being alive on the earth at this particular time. “Blessed with the opportunity to witness to the earth’s beauty, majesty, and grace. That’s the ecstasy,” she says.
Mindfulness and gratitude, two moral practices which not only support and strengthen one another, but also reinforce the ethical ground of a reconfigured moral compass – a sense of true place. I can suggest another filament of this web we’re constructing – compassion. Karen Armstrong, in her Charter for Compassion, acknowledges that compassion “lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions.” So, if we are to understand that a true sense of place – metaphorically weblike – lies at the heart of a re-configured ethics, then compassion is another of its filaments.
Mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion, these three, bring me to the question of the proper human role within the biotic community. It’s not exactly stewardship, although we’re all familiar with the concept and consider it, for the most part, a worthy endeavor. But stewardship has to do with oversight. When we talk about stewardship – many religions talk about stewardship – we’re perpetuating the mistaken notion that we humans are in charge. And we’re not.
So if I were to take a stab at rewriting Rebecca Baggett’s last sentence of her poem, meaning no disservice to her, but really for the purposes of this post, I would write,
Anyone who notices the world with a grateful and compassionate heart, must want to serve it. It’s true to say that I never for a moment would have thought I could articulate my ethics in one sentence. But I think I just did. Anyone who notices the world with a grateful and compassionate heart, must want to serve it.
And if I am given the opportunity to expand on this just a bit, I would say, Anyone who notices the world with a grateful, humble, and compassionate heart, with curiosity, joy, and wonder, must want to serve it.