Reverence for Life
Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life. (The Earth Charter, 2002)The Earth Charter’s use of “reverence for life” reflects its indebtedness to Albert Schweitzer (1875 –1965), the doctor, theologian, humanitarian, and Unitarian. Schweitzer did not invent the concept: it is a central teaching of Jainism and Buddhism, which Schweitzer studied. Schweitzer did, however, adopt the phrase, reverence for life, as the summation of his life and work, substantially develop the idea within the Western tradition, and bring it widely to the attention of Europeans and Americans.
In The Philosophy of Civilization (1923), Schweitzer set forth his most detailed and philosophical exploration of reverence for life. His premise:
I am life which wills to live, in the midst of life which wills to live.From this premise, Schweitzer arrived at his ethical stance.
A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.Helping life and avoiding harm benefits other beings and brings wholeness to our spirits:
Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.Today an increasing number of people are heeding the call to reverence for life. It is a call to open our hearts to, commit our talents and resources to, and dedicate our lives to compassion to all living things – for the sake of the planet, for the sake of all beings, and for the sake of finding peace. Compassion is called for in each of the ways that humans use and relate to nonhuman animals. This list, neither exhaustive nor exclusive, includes the main areas of animal concern:
· Wildlife threatened by loss of habitat: Habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change have accelerated species extinction rates.
· Wildlife poached or hunted for profit: Trade in elephant ivory, rhinoceros horns, birds, reptiles, fish, though often illegal, continues.
· Animals humans breed for food: Industrial meat production subjects billions of cows, pigs, and chickens to painful conditions.
· Animals humans companion: There is abuse and abandonment of dogs, cats, and birds and other animals kept as companions.
· Animals humans use in research: Painful experiments, procedures, and housing conditions are inflicted on millions of laboratory mice, rats, rabbits and numerous other species every year.
· Animals whose fur or skin humans wear: The fur industry inflicts pain and death.
· Animals used in sports and entertainment: Horse racing and equine-using sports, dog racing, dog- and cock-fighting, animals in circuses and various animal shows, recreational hunting and fishing, are all issues.
The Liberal Faith Context: Challenge, Resource, Possibility
Challenge. For a number of years now, LoraKim and I have witnessed the confusion and misunderstandings in liberal congregations when animal issues arise. We have seen repeatedly how individuals and congregations struggle with questions about our relationship with nonhuman animals. We have been at congregational potluck dinners that have evoked anger, irritation, sadness, and disappointment among participants. We have seen members seethe and sometimes resign from the congregation because their hopes for more humane potluck dishes went unrequited. Others have seethed and sometimes resigned when they felt their preferences for food that included animal body parts was not respected. We have seen the puzzled looks when we say “multispecies community.” (One congregation member wondered whether dogs would be running board meetings. She then added, “Probably not such a bad idea.” But, of course, having a dog chair a meeting amounts to not having a meeting. And we will need to continue having meetings -- discussing, sharing wisdom, and planning actions -- to do the work before us.)
From witnessing these tensions and disconnects through the years of our respective ministries, it has for some time now seemed to us that animal concerns are the most significant area of need for spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth in liberal religion. It’s an area of needed growth in mainstream and conservative religion as well, to be sure, yet here we address the liberal religion we know best.
If our liberal religious movement were to turn its attention and commitment to reverence for life in all its forms, it would not be because we have ended the oppression, suffering, injustice, and violence humans inflict on each other. Indeed, the world of human-human relations seems as far from global peace and justice as ever. Nor can we say with any certainty that caring about species other than our own empirically correlates with caring about human conditions other than our own. Studies are inconclusive, and some suggest that people can compartmentalize their compassion: attitudes about the appropriate regard for the beings in the various categories through which humans relate to other animals (as companions, as food, for research, as wildlife, etc.) do not always correlate with attitudes about social justice, human rights, or peace movements. Rather, if people of liberal faith commit to revere life, it will be because of an inner urging toward wholeness. We will have heard an internal whispering that reverence for any life is incomplete without reverence for all life, and that our own fullest flourishing lies in a life of uncompartmentalized compassion.
Resource. Unitarian Universalists and others of liberal faith who seek to respond wholeheartedly and effectively to the call for reverence for life have a context of empowering meaning in our liberal religious tradition. Our worship practice and experience, our way of being together in free and covenantal faith community, give us solid footing from which to move forward to meet Schweitzer’s challenge to bring fuller and wider justice and peace to our world. Liberal religion for centuries has centered on a set of related values: freedom, acceptance, fairness. Unitarians and Universalists have expressed those core values with various words through the epochs of our history: the earlier words and understandings paved the way for the language and understanding now current among us. Of particular value for understanding and caring about animal concerns, there is the enduring legacy of the 19th-century Unitarian Transcendentalists who limned the sacred depths of nature, and many of whose words, included still in our current hymnal, continue to inspire.
Since the mid-1980s, we have had the Seven Principles in our association’s by-laws:
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote . . . inherent worth and dignity . . . justice, equity, and compassion . . . respect for the interdependent web of existence. . .”The practice of liberal faith community creates a steady deepening of the meanings of these values in our lives, and has lead us to live into them more fully. Our living tradition, in other words, has through the centuries gradually clarified what we may call “faith skills.” As we have sought to live the meaning of our values, we have developed among us resources of skill in articulating and practicing those values. Those skills will help us now move forward to find new ways for our principles to guide us to more compassionate and effective action, and more profound and loving reverence for life.
Moreover, we have applied and sharpened our faith skills in social action through the centuries. Unitarians and Universalists, joined by liberal Quakers, Mennonites, other Protestants, Jews, and sometimes Catholics have faced many challenges in our overlapping histories. People of liberal faith were together at the forefront of the movements for universal education, abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, improvement of worker conditions, birth control availability, desegregation, civil rights, women’s equality, ending the Viet Nam war, reproductive rights, acceptance of GLBT folk, and recognition of same-sex marriage. Each of those challenges called on us to change ourselves and change our world. Each of them was a step in our growing reverence for life, articulated in word, manifested in deed, and rewarded in deepened joy of connection and widened circle of community.
Finally, the liberal religious tradition of openness to new revelation and discovery has made us comfortable drawing from new work in the academy. Unhindered by suspicion of threat from new research, our worship, theology, and discussions, reference academic findings with a natural ease. This comfort will serve us well as we look to incorporate into our faith lives the substantial academic contributions in the last two decades. Works of philosophy, religion, social science, literature, and ethics departments offer new ways of thinking about nonhuman animals. Studies in biology, ecology, and physiology have shed new light on animal well-being and the science of human-nonhuman bonding.
Possibility. The academy alone, however, will not produce large numbers of humans motivated to act from care for the flourishing of all animals. There is a role for faith institutions to play in this world transformation, and liberal religion has not yet seized that role. Until we explicitly hold all beings to have inherent worth and dignity, we are only “light green.” In Dark Green Religion, Bron Taylor calls for a sensible religion, which includes the tenet that every being has inherent worth and a sacred spark, and which:
“is rationally defensible as well as socially powerful enough to save us from our least-sensible selves." (Bron Taylor)We believe that millions now yearn for such a religion, fostering communities of life where every species and every individual belongs.
The Unitarian Universalist delegates at the 2011 General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina, took an important step toward a mission of reverence for life when they approved a Statement of Conscience titled “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice.” The Statement addresses environmental and worker justice issues in the food industry and includes also these passages about our relation with nonhuman animals:
Aware of our interdependence, we acknowledge that eating ethically requires us to be mindful of the miracle of life we share with all beings. . .In recognizing that ethics is not limited to human-human relations, this Statement of Conscience is a milestone in liberal religion’s ethical development and on the path toward the peace which, as Dr. Schweitzer told us, humanity will not find “until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things.”
The mass production of food . . . has resulted in . . . mistreatment of animals and workers. . . .
We acknowledge that aggressive action needs to be taken to . . . end the inhumane treatment of animals. . . .
Unitarian Universalists aspire to radical hospitality and developing the beloved community. Therefore, we affirm that the natural world exists not for the sole benefit of one nation, one race, one gender, one religion, or even one species, but for all. Working in the defense of mutual interests, Unitarian Universalists acknowledge and accept the challenge of enlarging our circle of moral concern to include all living creatures. . . .
Concerns about the Humane Treatment of Animals include intensive confinement and abuse in CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations], and inhumane conditions during production, transport, and slaughter. . . .
We aspire to buy, raise, and consume food for ourselves and our families that . . . minimizes the pain and suffering of animals. . . .
We advocate for the benefit of animals, plants, food workers, the environment and humanity by . . . pressing food sellers to require that their suppliers certify the humane treatment of animals; . . .
With gratitude and reverence for all life, we savor food mindful of all that has contributed to it. We commit ourselves to a more equitable sharing of the earth's bounty. (To read the full text of the Statement, click here.)
Multispecies Community: Relations of Care . . . and Uncertainty
The path of peace, of reverence for life – and, indeed, the path of joy and fulfillment – leads, we believe, to multispecies community, – a term which remains unfamiliar to many. A grant to UUAM (the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry) is supporting development of a book to be titled, Reverence for Life: Toward Beloved Multispecies Community. Yet the grant almost did not happen because some on the grant panel found “multispecies community” baffling and bizarre. Perhaps you did too when you saw the title. If so, I hope you'll read the book when it comes out, and that by the time you're done, “multispecies community” will seem to you not only obvious and implicit, but also the urgent need of our time, our faith, and our planet.
The concept of right relation which liberal religious congregations have been seeking to understand and apply can help us in imaging a more whole relation to nonhuman life around us. The ways to be in right relation with the blue jays outside your church, with the cat and dog companions of your church members, with the South American jaguars affected by your church’s coffee-buying policies, with the cows whose flesh might or might not be destined for a dish at your next church potluck, are all different – and all of those relations matter, to us and to them.
In one important sense, multispecies community is unavoidable. It is and always has been a fact of life. There is no way for humans, or any species, not to be in relationship and interaction with many (or most, or all) other species. We are inescapably part of the interdependent web of existence, as the Unitarian Universalist seventh principle recognizes. In another sense, true community, built upon right relation, is the unrealized possibility before us. Reverence for life calls for us to be increasingly conscious of, increasingly intentional about, and increasingly compassionate in, the ways we participate in multispecies community. Through such reverence, our multispecies community becomes beloved multispecies community.
Right relation with animals, human or otherwise, requires our careful attention to the signals. Extinction rates and drastically diminished populations of wildlife speak quite clearly that something is not working for those animals. Extinctions may be “natural” in the sense that the shifting ecologies of the planet over the last 2 billion years of life have brought about the extinctions of most of the species that have ever been. However, where human activity is the cause, or where extinction and endangerment rates are way above “natural” levels and we have the power to lower them, then reverence for life calls us to action to preserve life.
Other signals are more subtle. Is a given animal displaying a troublesome lethargy, or is it just being a healthy sloth? What are the physiological and behavioral markers of well-being in each of the estimated 10 million species on earth, or even of the 62,000 currently known vertebrate species? Certainly, there is much more to learn. At the same time, we already know a lot about the physiology of vertebrate pain, how to identify normal and high levels of stress in birds and mammals, and what behaviors are neurotic in various species. We can’t all become veterinarians or zoologists, but we do make rough assessments of the health of animals in our lives, and we can educate ourselves to be better attuned to the signs of well-being in domesticated companions, animal raised for food, and in wildlife around us. We can learn actions that engender better health and flourishing of the animals in our world. Fundamentally, right relation is a relation of care.
Against the forces of complacency and relativism stands beauty: the splendor of every being and this earth we inhabit together. This beauty calls us toward greater understanding, compassion, and awareness of interdependence, calls us to constantly re-imagine how to be the change we wish to be in the world, for our sakes, and for our neighbor's sake. And who is our neighbor, those whom Jesus urged us to love as ourselves? If, as we believe, our neighbors are all living beings, then our human lot is cast with the underdog -- and underchicken, undercow, and down-under marsupials.
Yet there is no one right way to think about and care for nonhuman animals. We are all involved in a messy interdependent web of existence in which we are, willy-nilly, prey and predator, and eater and eaten. Each of us makes tragic choices that result in harm to others. LoraKim and I struggle with this. We ate meat for much of our lives, for instance – and still do, occasionally, eat dairy products. The goal is not purity. Rather, the goal is to engage in life to the fullest by being aware of the lives around us. This means that we do no rest upon what we have accomplished, but seek ever to grow, to change, and often as a result, to have our heart’s break open so the world can fall in and fill it up.
Take courage, friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth: You are not alone. (Wayne Arnason)The way is indeed not clear. Who most needs our care and attention right now? Is it the wildlife losing habit, or being poached or hunted? Is it the factory farm conditions of cows, pigs, and chickens? Is it abused or abandoned dogs and cats? And what is the best way to manifest our compassion? How does faith in the inherent worth and dignity of all beings grow and deepen? How can we better apprehend the mutual dependence of our well-being and the well-being of other beings? How can we act with greater compassion – and greater power? Life is so much more complex than any one stance or argument can convey. Fortunately, we aren’t alone. We have each other to turn to: to other humans on the path of reverence for life, and to such guidance as we can glean from the animals themselves.