The Ecospiritual Imperative

See also: "The Ecospiritual Challenge"

Happy Earth Day! We’re celebrating Earth Day Week today. Alachua County has designated the week of April 17 – 25 as Creation Care Week. Earth Day itself was Thursday, April 22. Did you celebrate? Did you exchange gifts with friends and family? Well, at least you sent your Mother Earth some nice flowers, right? No? You figure she’s got enough flowers? Well, then, you gave her a phone call, right? Hmm. If you’re like me, maybe you called collect.

On this auspicious occasion, let me begin with a vocabulary word: “soteriology.” Soteriology is the branch of theology that deals with salvation. What saves us? Salvation, it is well to remember, comes from the same root as the word “salve.” What is it that heals us? What makes us whole? What sources are available to us for meaning and hope, inner peace? For mystery, awe, and wonder before the fullness of reality? For equanimity, awareness of the beauty of each moment, and the one-ness of all things? For loving-kindness, compassion, and a trust of our own intuitive wisdom? So I’m asking today: what is your soteriology? What is your account of what saves us, salves our woundedness, makes us whole?

Salvation lies, I believe, in our connection with this world of ours. The salve for our woundedness, our fragmentation, lies in nature, in an ecological spirituality.

And, oh, we are feeling the wound. A sense of doom permeates the zeitgeist of our age. On the right-wing this manifests in the Left Behind series of books and increasing talk about a rapture. On the left-wing it manifests as urgent warnings from environmentalists who describe impending catastrophe: climate change, melting icecaps, species extinctions from loss of habitat, impending shortages leading to resource wars.

Maybe those environmentalists are right. I don’t know. Or, more precisely, what I don’t pretend to know or to even have any good guesses to share with you about how much time we’ve got, what factors the models have overlooked might buy us a few more years – and what behavior changes we will make that will make a difference.

Forty years ago at the first Earth Day in 1970, many of the environmentalists giving speeches on that day didn’t expect our planet would last 40 years without ecological collapse. The good work of the environmental movement of the 1970s helped buy us some time. How much, we don’t know. What I do believe the evidence is clear about is that we will eventually need to change our ways. Hard times are coming – we don’t know when, or how hard. We as a species are going to have to develop and adopt sustainable ways of living if we are to survive – and our present ways, particularly in the US, are not sustainable. Nowhere close.

Let me speak personally and confessionally: I don’t live sustainably. I took a quiz online – you can try this:

The first question: How often do you eat meat or diary? All right. We’re off to a great start and I’m feeling all virtuous because I’m a vegetarian. “No meat, occasional dairy.”

How much of the food you eat is processed, packaged, and not locally grown (more than 200 miles away)? Oh. Suddenly, I’m not so virtuous. I said about half, though really, it’s probably more than half.

How much clothing, footwear, sporting goods purchases do you make in a year? I answered, “A little.”

Household furnishings? Again, I said, “A little.”

How often do you buy new appliances? I said, “Infrequently.”

How often do you buy home entertainment, personal computer equipment and electronic gadgets for your household? We do get more than our share of computer stuff. I said, “Occasionally.”

How often do you buy new books, magazines and newspapers for your household? Uh-oh. I’m in trouble on this one! I had to say, “Often.”

How much paper waste do you recycle? I said, “Most.”

How much of your plastic waste to you recycle? I said, “Most.”

Which housing type best describes your home? I clicked the answer, “Free-standing house with running water, not green-designed.”

Do you have electricity in your home? Well, yes, in fact, I do.

How many people live in your household? Three.

Size of your home? I’m in the 1050 – 1600 square feet range.

How far do you travel by car each week, as a driver or passenger? Well, we’re still racking up about 1,000 miles per month on our one car. I said: about 200 miles a week.

How far by motorcycle? Zero.

Gas mileage of the car you travel in most often? Ours is a small car. We get 30-40 mpg.

How often do you drive in a car with someone else? Occasionally.

How far do you travel by bus each week? By train each week? Zero.

Last question: How many hours do you fly each year? Oh, I do go a fair number of plane trips each year. I estimated 10-25 hours.

My results? I’m doing better than the average US resident. Just barely. If everyone lived like me, we’d need 4.8 planet earths to provide enough resources. The average US resident lives in a way which, if everyone lived that way, would take 5 earths. If everyone lived like the average Canadian, we’d need 4.3 earths, eh? Canadians do a little bit better than we do. Fortunately, a lot of countries do a lot better than we do and many are living within the planet’s resource means, which pulls the world average down. As it is right now, we need 1.4 earths – that is, the earth’s population of humans are utilizing resources faster than the earth can regenerate them. Every year we’re using 40% more resources than the earth created that year. Eventually, at this rate, we will use it all up.

That’s a problem.

It’s an economic problem, and I’m not an economist.

It’s a political problem, and I’m not a politician. I do have, as you do, political opinions, but I don’t have the kind of political connections to begin bringing world governments to the kinds of agreements we need.

It's a technological problem because modern technology burns huge quantities of resources. At the same time, some technological advances help other technological advances use less. It’s a technological problem, and I’m not an engineer.

It’s a spiritual problem. Ah. Now we can talk. Can we talk? A spiritual problem? Oh, yes, indeed.

Steven Rockefeller says:

“Our environmental problems will not be fully addressed until we come to terms with the moral and spiritual dimensions of these problems, and we will not find ourselves religiously until we fully address our environmental problems.”

Connecting to the sacredness of the earth is what saves us – and it’s also what will save the Earth, if it will be saved.

As Jeanne Mackey puts it,

eco-spirituality “means that our experience of the divine comes through the natural world.”

Writes Thomas Berry:

“The universe is the primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture, the primary locus of divine-human communion.”

As a recent campaign from the Sierra Club put it: “This is not about getting back to nature. It’s about understanding that we never left.”

I am a Unitarian Universalist. I am in a sacred covenant with every other Unitarian Universalist in this world, to, among other things, affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part. That is a spiritual statement and a spiritual act. Environmental action is spiritual practice, and environmental protection is a spiritual mandate. Our relationship to our planet is as much a religious issue as our relationship to our soul is; as much a religious issue as our relationship to God is. Indeed, for many of us, our relationship to our planet is both our relationship to our soul and our relationship to God.

Every religious tradition on the planet includes a deep belief-tradition of respect and honor for our planet. Indeed, “deeply embedded in our human consciousness is a primal awe and gratitude for the air, water, solid ground, sunlight, and nourishing life forms that sustain” us. Our ancestors have “stood in awe of these at our most sacred ceremonies” for maybe a million years.

Our awareness of being bound in a relationship of responsibility with our planet is religious awareness. Acting responsibly within that relationship is religious practice. To ignore what is happening to our home – out of hubris or out of despair – is to break our connection to the holy whole, to break faith with the ground of our being.

Environmental protection a religious issue? If it isn’t, then there are no religious issues.

Amidst the many trends – the resource depletion, the pollution, the greenhouse gases, there is this hopeful tend: religion is greening. There’s green religion and then there’s what University of Florida professor Bron Taylor calls dark green religion. Green religion “posits that environmentally friendly behavior is a religious obligation.” A number of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim groups have in recent years shifted away from the idea that humans have been granted dominion over the earth and toward the idea that God calls us to stewardship, and that this stewardship is measured by health ecosystems and sustainable, responsible consumption. That’s an important shift.

There are also an increasing number of people who are going beyond green religion to dark green religion. For dark green religion, it’s not merely that we have a religious obligation to protect ecosystems, reduce consumption, and in general be responsible stewards of our environment. Rather, in dark green religion nature itself is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is due reverent care – not simply because it is God’s creation and God tells us to, but because nature tells us to, and nature has that authority based on being sacred in itself.

Charles Darwin
Dark green religion is popping up in a lot of places that aren’t in churches. Here is a religion that is spiritually satisfying and scientifically respectable. Scientists themselves have expressed it. When Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species first appeared 150 years ago, he concluded it, saying:
“There is grandeur in this view of life . . . Whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Carl Sagn would later add:
“A religion, old or new, that stressed that magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”
Even the New Atheists – folks who have made a name for themselves being cranky about religion – have religion of the dark green sort. One of them, Richard Dawkins, acknowledges that “a quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists.”

Another of the New Atheist crew is Christopher Hitchens, who, for my money is the crankiest of the cranky, a man who seems either to be, or to have carefully cultivated an image of being, joyless and permanently annoyed.

Even Christopher Hitchens, it turns out, has religion. It took a Unitarian Universalist minister to coax it out of him, but he’s got it. My colleague Rev. Marilyn Sewell interviewed Christopher Hitchens, and in the course of their conversation Hitchens declared:
“It's innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That's the numinous, and there's enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required. . . . I know it's not enough for us to eat and so forth. We know how to think. We know how to laugh. We know we're going to die, which gives us a lot to think about, and we have a need for, what I would call, ‘the transcendent’ or ‘the numinous’ or even ‘the ecstatic’ that comes out in love and music, poetry, and landscape.”
Christopher Hitchens said that! Who knew he had it in him?

At least one politician, Al Gore, seems to have dark green religion. His 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, came out before he was elected Vice-President. In it, he says:
“We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle of civilization. . . . As a politician, I know full well the special hazards of using ‘spiritual’ to describe a problem like this one . . . . But what other word describes the collection of values and assumptions that determine our basic understanding of how we fit into the universe?”
Disney cartoon movies from the mid-1990s express dark green religion. The Lion King sung to us of the Circle of Life that had to be respected and balanced, and in Pocahontas, Grandmother Willow teaches of belonging to nature and of the sacred interconnections within the web of life. Pocahontas sings, “You think you own whatever land you land on; the earth is just a dead thing you can claim. But I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name.”

There may be more religion, more spirituality, in movies these days than there is in some churches. Last year’s film, Avatar stands out. James Cameron, the writer and director, said, “Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth.”

If you are a subscriber to Surfing magazine – as I’m sure most of you are -- then you will recall the July 2008 issue which proclaims in large letters on the cover, “Surfing is a religion,” and in letters twice as big above that, it says, “Nature = God.”

The article inside -- by Bron Taylor – analyzes surfing as aquatic nature religion and quotes from a number of surfers who understand their practice as spiritual. As one surfer put it: “The ocean has a powerful energy and it connects you to the earth.” Dude!

The New Atheists have got dark green religion. It’s possible to be a politician and have it. Disney and Hollywood have got dark green religion, in some of their products. Surfers have dark green religion, some of them. It’s popping up all over the place these days.

Dark green religion has no single sacred text. It has no institutions. I asked Bron Taylor about institutions: do we need there to be places – buildings and memberships – where people gather for ceremonies to express and affirm the sacredness of nature? He said, it’s infusing a variety of institutions, various church denominations are beginning to embrace it, environmental organizations are increasingly speaking a spiritual kind of language about the earth they seek to protect, and dark green religion is expressed in all manner of ways in books and movies and theme parks where people are jazzed up, or awed by the majesty and sacredness of our blue-boat home, and sent out into the world without ever taking the step of being a member of an organization. That’s rather encouraging, really – this trend all around us toward dark green religion. But we will need institutions if we are going to make it through the hard times that are coming.

We will need people organizing, committing to each other to be members together of a place that will be there for them week after week to support them in remembering what is divine, and in practicing it, and in worshipping (worth-shaping, giving shape to what is of worth) this blue-green home on which we live and breath and have our being. We will need:

- a place that will call them, over and over, because Gaia knows we are prone to forget and to lapse, to practice what we preach;

- a place that doesn’t just give you an experience like a book or a movie or a speech or a theme park;

- a place that provides community support for a way of life;

- an institution: an ongoing pattern of being together through which there is, (a) awakening of the spirit, and (b) encouragement to action in line with our spiritual values; and these two, the (a) and the (b), the spiritual and the action, are mutually reinforcing.

Unitarian Universalism has always been about living our religion, and religioning our lives. Awaken to the sacred depths of nature. Express your worship also through acts of care for our mother, for Earth, for Gaia. Re-commit today to this faith of awe and wonder and openness to whatever this universe may bring us. Re-commit today to actions of care, of compassion for our planet home.

That’s what the paper leaf inside your Order of Service is for. Write on it. Write down your commitment. Write down what you’re going to do as an act of love and an act of worship that will reduce your footprint. During our closing hymn, and then on into after-the-service, come on up and attach your leaf to the large bare-branched tree banner at here at the front of the sanctuary. That’s our altar, and this is our altar call to every one of us. Take some action, rise to whatever for you is the next challenge in living more wholesomely, not because you actually expect it to do any good. Do it because it might. Do it because it’s sure to do this good: you will be more whole, more spiritually alive, the more you replace mindless consumption with mindful consumption.

As the Bhagavad-Gita says, “Those who perform actions without attachment, resigning the actions to God, are untainted by their effects as the lotus leaf by water.”

And begin, as Joanna Macy says, with gratitude.
“We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful self-organizing universe – to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it – is a wonder beyond words. And it is, moreover, an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, to possess this self-reflexive consciousness, which brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world.” [Macy, Joanna. Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (New Society Publishers, 1998)]
That’s a soteriology for our time.

* * *

A earlier version of this was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida, 2010 April 25.


The Song of the Nonsinger

Keren and my Uncle Toby married in 1959
I had no idea . . .

My Mom, the first born, has a brother a couple years her junior, my Uncle Toby. A few years after my Mom and Dad married, Toby married Keren Coxe. From Toby and Keren came my cousins Charles (about a year and a half younger than me) and Mary Sue, younger still. For a while there, when I was wee, Mom and Uncle Toby were both graduate students at the University of Virginia, and our two families shared a big house in Charlottesville.

During that year or so, Aunt Keren was a daily part of life. I remembered her most for a disability that she claimed: she said she couldn’t sing. One day, in my four-year-old way, I wanted us all to sing, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Keren said she couldn’t sing. This was frustrating for me, difficult to understand (which, I suppose, is why it has stuck in my memory all these years). What could she mean? How could anybody not be able to sing? There are certain kinds of sounds that come out of people’s mouths that are just talking and there are other sounds that are singing (at age 4, I had no concept of off-key, or missing the note), and surely everyone can produce both sorts. Everyone at my nursery school piped right up when it was time to sing “Old MacDonald,” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” C’mon Aunt Keren. Sing with us. But she wouldn’t. Said she couldn’t. Couldn’t! How bizarre!

A couple years ago I read Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia. Sacks describes a number of things that can go wrong with the brain, one of which makes an otherwise normal-functioning person unable to reproduce a melody. We’re not talking “off-key” – we’re talking “no identifiable key or melody at all.” Maybe that’s what my Aunt Keren had. Or maybe she just didn't like to sing.
From left: Mom, me, Aunt Keren,
and Cousin Charles

Graduate school is fleeting, and our two families soon had finished their programs and headed off to jobs in other cities. A few years afterwards, word reached us that Toby and Keren were divorcing. This was the mid-sixties, and my first significant exposure to the concept of divorce. It all seemed very mysterious: sad and inexplicable.

And I never saw or heard from Keren again. Uncle Toby remarried, and I had a new aunt – with an additional couple of cousins. I’d be taken for visits with the new family – or they’d visit us, or we’d both visit at my grandparents’ – once or twice a year for most of the years of my childhood and adolescence. Since Toby had complete custody of Charles and Mary Sue, Keren was out of the picture entirely. Very rarely ever mentioned, at least in my hearing. She existed only in one or two of the older snapshots in the family album, wearing the cat’s-eye glasses and a dress in that early 60s style.

I got the news today that Keren Coxe died last week, on March 26, at age 71. Cardiac arrest. In reading the obit in the Washington Post, and in googling around, I learned what a fascinating woman my missing Aunt Keren actually was.

In 1960, she became the first female physics major to graduate from Virginia Tech. I hadn’t known that. It fits that my Uncle Toby, an engineer, would have liked a scientific-minded woman. Indeed, the big sister he’d always looked up to (my Mom) was herself working on a PhD in physical chemistry during the year we lived together in that big house in Charlottesville. My grandparents, born in 1908 and 1909, somehow got it into their heads, apparently, to teach their children to value the pursuit of truth and the power of science to progressively reveal truth – and that the progress of truth was more important than traditional gender roles. So Mom grew up unafraid to be a pioneering female scientist, and her brother grew up unafraid to marry one.

After the divorce, as I learned just today, Keren worked as a statistician for Jones & Laughlin Steel in Pittsburgh. In 1970, she completed a master's degree in health statistics from the University of Pittsburgh. The next year, she moved to Washington, DC, where she lived the rest of her life. In 1981, she got a master's degree in theoretical statistics from George Washington University in DC.

Then there was a car accident. She was run down by a drunk driver. Yes, I had heard something about that. What I hadn’t quite picked up was that the brain trauma incurred in the accident made her unable to do statistics, but awakened a passion for art. She started working in stained glass and moved on to work in watercolor, other water media, design and collage.

Here's one of her works:

She also began posing nude for art students at the Corcoran College of Art. Of modeling, one newspaper quoted her as saying: “I found I liked it almost as much as I liked being a statistician.”

She lived with Alex Belinfante, an econometrician, for the last 24 years of her life.

In 2004 September 17, The Washington City Paper ran an article about Keren and Alex. It seems that, to some extent, they lived on the hors d’oeuvres at art receptions.


According to the article: “Since they met in 1981, Coxe, 60, and Belinfante, 65, have dined almost exclusively at gallery openings and other cultural events. ‘The number of art openings we go to in one day varies a lot; anywhere from zero to over a dozen,’ says Belinfante.”

The article continues:
You can’t ingest that much raw celery and dip without getting a name for yourself, and the Chevy Chase couple has several: “the Eaters,” “the Munchers,” “the Moochers,” “the Art Bums,” “the Cheese Critics.” Whatever they’re called, their voracity is legendary.
“Some people get some food at an art opening [that] they kind of eat because it’s there,” says B. Stanley, artistic director of the District of Columbia Arts Center. “It’s not like they really care about eating this food. It’s obviously not very good food.”
Coxe and Belinfante are different. “These guys,” Stanley says, windmilling both hands in front of his mouth, “it’s like they’re having dinner or something. It looks like somebody’s who’s watching the news while they’re eating dinner.” And they sometimes opt for takeout, he adds. “If it’s cookies or something you can put in your pocket, those guys are up for it.”
They also eat with singular focus. Painter Dana Ellyn Kaufman, who was at a 2002 opening of erotic art at Arlington’s old Khoja Gallery, remembers a votive candle on the food table setting Coxe’s sleeve afire while she loaded up with crackers and Hershey’s Kisses. “She was very cool about it,” says Kaufman. “Just put it out and went along with her business. I think I’d have been...screaming like a little girl if it happened to me.”
I’ve sometimes, myself, been known at various events to be paying a little more attention to the refreshment table than was quite seemly. Guess I’ve got a little of my Aunt Keren in me.

 Google images located this 2006 photo:

Keren and Alexander 06 by yospyn.
Keren Coxe and Alex Belinfante

Keren’s memberships included the National Capital Art Glass Guild, Senior Artists Alliance and Metropolitan Washington MENSA.

Smart woman. Creative. Weird. I wish I’d known her past my pre-school years. I myself am not such great shakes as a singer: I go off-key, miss notes. I can, however, hum "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in a way that you'll recognize the tune. In some ways, Keren couldn't pick up and sing along with the melodies of the social world. In some ways, I can't either, though I do, as it were, recognizably hum the simple tunes. We are not genetically related, Aunt Keren and I, but some kind of vague resembling vibe connected her with my family to be the mother of my cousins, and I do see some of her in me, though the differences are certainly great (I'm not and have never been a physicist, statistician, artist, nude model, or art collector). I, too, may some day find myself wearing my wristwatch almost at the elbow. I'm already a fan of bright tie-dyed t-shirts. Not to mention cheese cubes.

Keren sang with her life -- with her brain and with her body -- and she sang of numbers, of colors and shapes, forms and figures. She sang a song that teaches us, if we give it a sympathetic listen, to expand our conception of how it's possible for humans to be, and to thrive, in this world.

Rest in peace, Aunt Keren.

- - - - - - - - -


Since posting the above, have heard from Alex Belinfante. He says that Keren was a passionate lover of opera and excellent music. She had a perfectionist's ear, and chose not to sing because it didn't match what she felt was worth hearing.

Regarding the 2004 article in the Washington City Paper, Alex wrote to the paper:
In spite of John Metcalfe’s attempts to check facts prior to publishing “The Hunger Artists” (9/17), it nevertheless contained factual errors. For starters, he got our ages mixed up. Keren is 65 and I am 60. He failed to mention that while “pacing around the room” at the Korean Cultural Service we were admiring the art. Stanley of DCAC has selective memory. They have only once served any food worth mentioning in the few times that we have been there. (We rarely go there because it is hard to park in Adams Morgan.) That was the occasion in 1995 he mentioned, where the food, contrary to his characterization of it, was very good, and donated by a restaurant. Anyone who sees my pockets knows there is no room for food in there, and Keren usually doesn’t have any pockets. The person that used to stuff his pockets with food at openings was a now-deceased lawyer friend of ours. Keren’s daughter rarely goes to art openings. Clark of MOCA doesn’t need to use “reverse psychology” to keep us from eating much. The only times they serve decent food is when it is provided by someone else. He knows that we will buy art if it is to our liking and reasonably priced, regardless of the cuisine. Gallery owners that are more concerned about how much we eat than they are about selling their art have their priorities mixed up. If they can’t afford to provide food, they shouldn’t do so. (Most galleries just provide drinks and maybe a little junk food.) We have often seen gallery owners’ attitudes toward us change 180 degrees when we buy art from them. My taste in art is not the result of a “medical condition.” My difficulty in distinguishing reddish brown from greenish brown may explain my distaste for brownish art, but it has little to do with my taste in art otherwise. Metcalfe’s uninformed snide remarks about our art collection show that he has little appreciation for colorful abstract art. This is exemplified by his characterization of paperweights as “glass blobs” and our house as a “monster.” Maybe he should have paid more attention to the retired Georgetown professor at the Korean Cultural Service than he did watching us.

In his letter (9/24) Campello of Fraser is wrong about our never feigning interest in the artwork at his galleries. While most of his shows are not to our taste, we particularly enjoyed the Dali-inspired show a while back at his Georgetown Gallery. Most of the time when we do go there it is simply because it is part of the art walks in Canal Square and Bethesda, and we don’t stay very long. The gallery he mentioned in Leesburg has not gone out business; it has simply changed its name and later moved. The birthday party he referred to was for Keren’s son (not daughter) who lives in Leesburg, and who does not normally attend art openings. The only thing in the back room refrigerator was beer (not food), which he helped himself to after he observed other people (not associated with us) drinking it.