First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore October 29, 2000


From essay: Eco-Religion:Remaking Man in Earth's Image by Dave Workman[1]

Make no mistake about it. Today in our society within the environmental arena there are two radically different religious world-views contending against each other for the control of men's minds.

In one corner you have Christian Monotheism, the belief in one personal God Who as the Creator has given man the stewardship of earth; in the other corner you have Eastern World Pantheism which views Nature as a divine entity with rights equal or superior to man. As this pantheistic eco-religion labors to remake man in earth's image we can already see it flex its religious muscles in several normal ways: in its establishment of new holy days (e.g. Earth Day); in its demand for new ritual performances (e.g. recycling, carpooling); in its identification of new religious taboos (e.g. fur coats, aerosol sprays, fossil fuels); and in its writing of new moral laws (Human dominion over Nature, once a religious mandate, now becomes a religious crime.)

Underlying all this is an eco-theology which believes that humankind achieves peace with God by attaining peace with divinized Nature, that is, by assuming our appropriate status as one equal element of nature among many.

From Pantheist Harold Wood's response:

Yes, Rev. Workman, I do indeed embrace ... [a] "World Pantheism which views Nature as a divine entity with rights equal or superior to man." A stewardship approach to nature is filled with human hubris, it is as corrupt spiritually as what David Ehrenfeld called the "arrogance of humanism". I am not the steward of the Earth, I am a plain member and citizen of it. It was here before I was, in fact, it is my Mother, my Creator; it deserves not only my respect and admiration, but my reverence. I am a part of the Earth; the Earth is part of the Universe, and it all is divine. Humans can recognize and celebrate their divinity only by recognizing it as part of the divinity of the natural world as a whole. If we attempt to ascribe divinity upon ourselves and no others, that indeed is the true sin. The anthropocentric idea that God created the world for our exclusive benefit is doomed to die.

FIX by Alice Fulton (published in Atlantic Monthly)

There is no caring less
for you. I fix on music in the weeds,
count cricket beats to tell the temp, count
my breaths from here to Zen.
September does its best.
The Alaskan pipeline lacks integrity,
mineral fibers are making people dizzy,
we're waiting for a major quake. Ultra-
violet intensity is gaining,
the ozone's full of holes and

I can find no shade.
There is no caring less.
Without the moon the earth
would whirl us three times faster, gale-force
winds would push us down. Say
earth lost mass, a neighbor
star exploded -- it's if

and and and
but. The cosmos owns our luck.
Say under right and rare conditions,
space and time could oscillate.
I know what conditions
those would be for me.
I'd like to keep my distance,
my others, keep my rights reserved.
Yet look at you, intreasured,

where resolutions end.
No matter how we breathe
or count our breaths,
there is no caring less
for you for me. I have to stop myself

from writing "sovereign," praising
with the glory words I know.
Glaciologists say changes
in the mantle, the planet's vast
cold sheets could melt. Catastrophe
is everywhere, my presence
here is extra -- yet --
there is no caring less.


We approach the Celtic New Year's festival of Samhain celebrated between October 31st and November 2nd. It is a time between time when chaos rules. Historically, "People did crazy things, men dressed as women, and women as men. Farmers' gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples' horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbors' doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today . . . in the custom of trick-or-treating on Halloween[2]"

The Druids of old believed that these three days" were the time when "the veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside ... and journeys could be made to the `other side. Today Pagans see Samhain as a time to honor the dead, not as the dead, but as the living spirits of loved ones and as guardians who hold the wisdom of mankind. It is a celebration of the afterlife where we do not die but rest and continue to learn and prepare for our next incarnation.[3]

I don't think I need to persuade anyone this morning that interest in Earth Centered Spirituality is greater than it ever has been within Unitarian Universalist circles. One bell weather of that change was the passage in 1995 of the amendment to our Purposes and Principles, by a two thirds majority I might add, officially recognizing as a source in our religious tradition: "Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature."

What we may not realize is just how fast and dramatic this change has been. Forty years ago, the environment was a non-issue. Our ministers and theologians focused on the human realm, on history, on social ethics, and the relationship between God and humanity[4]. Thirty years ago, there was no such thing as a Coven of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Twenty years ago, I remember meeting Starhawk, a famous Pagan author, advocate, and leader visiting Starr King School to talk to my UC Berkeley Unitarian Student group. Her ideas were new and challenging to us at the time. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the first Earth Day in 1970 got the paradigm shift started. But probably the key event that changed people's thinking forever was seeing the first photographs of the earth taken from the Moon called "Earth-rise". Seeing our small planet in a sea of darkness is the ubiquitous symbol of the ecological age.

Interestingly, this is the same time that women's liberation swept across our society. Interest in Unitarian Universalist Paganism was a byproduct of the Women and Religion resolution passed at General Assembly in 1977. The UU Pagan movement was strongly encouraged by the UUA adult religious education curriculum, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven that drew on pre- Christian European religious traditions. Women were rejecting the highly patriarchal Christian and Jewish religious traditions and seeking something more affirming of their sexual identity. Many began exploring Druidic and Celtic practices, the ancient Greek mystery cults, and the Native American beliefs developed on this soil. Each of these traditions brought the explorer back in contact with our planet as its spiritual center.

One of the important events that happened as many were beginning to see the earth as sacred rather than satanic was the publication of the Gaia Hypothesis by James Lovelock in 1979[5]. Lovelock had been looking at the inability of other planets to support life and examining our planet's amazing ecological systems that stabilize its environmental factors within a fairly narrow range. All these systems interact with each other with a mysterious interdependent harmony. Lovelock posited an intelligence in this homeostasis that exceeds the individual parts.

The more we learn about the amazing interconnections that support life on this planet, the more reverence many feel for the blue green orb we call home. We are witnessing a re-enchantment of the earth that harks back to a time before the scientific worldview dominated Western consciousness. Almost all pre-monotheistic religions believed that the Gods and Goddesses could be discovered existing and acting in natural world. The sun, the rain, the thunder, the fire, the crops, the animals, the mountains, the rivers, were all home to spirit beings.

Some would like to throw out the last several thousand years of monotheistic religion and return to these ancient religions in their original form. For the most part this is impossible because we've lost the historic record of these ancient traditions. And some of what we do know I'm not sure we'd want to recreate. For example, animal and sometimes human sacrifices were made in the great bond fires during the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain (Sou'in) to keep evil spirits at bay.

There are other choices. We can create new ways to do religion that is earth centered and modern. A few theologians have been working to create a contemporary understanding of the divine that is more harmonious with today's imperative to respect and support our planet ... or die.

This new theological view integrates the world's religious heritage with 20th Century scientific and mathematical discoveries in the relatively new field of ecology. The science of ecology along with developments in the understanding of complex systems are opening new ways to think about, value and relate to the natural world.

This new way of thinking about ecosystems breaks with conventional thinking. Our planet supports an amazing complexity and interdependence of its many interconnected systems from the atomic to the planetary level. When a scientist wants to study something of great complexity, he or she must simplify it to a model. And when people start making models, they usually start thinking about machines.

This is the big mistake many scientists originally made when they started thinking about trying to understand how our planet works. While simple parts of an ecosystem have relationships with each other that can be modeled using the image of a machine, ecosystems don't have the rigid boundaries machines have. Ecosystems such as our earth are not closed systems that can be sealed off from everything else. They depend on interacting with everything else to exist, survive and thrive.

Think of a beautiful little pond up in the Adirondacks. Its contents could be analyzed and inflows of rain and sun and outflows of evaporation could be approximately measured. On first encounter with our landlocked pond, one might be tempted to consider it a closed system, a little laboratory to understand upper New York State ecology. Yet the chemistry of the lake cannot be absolutely determined because of the unpredictable effects of living creatures in and around the pond. A passing bird may drop something into the lake that will radically alter its balance. An algae may mutate into a form that will cause it to overrun the lake. Living systems evolve and adapt in ways the machine model cannot.

We can still investigate and model living systems like our lovely mountain pond but we need better ways than the machine model. Ecological systems behave in non-deterministic ways and exhibit ascendant properties. Things will emerge out of our pond that we didn't expect. Yet what might emerge from our pond can be predicted.

Dealing with probabilities rather than certainties to describe phenomena are one of the new ways we've learned to model reality in the Twentieth Century. Particle physics has led the way. While it is impossible to describe exactly where an electron is, where it is likely to be found can be very accurately described. Thus I can speak of the propensities for what might emerge from the pond without knowing exactly what and when something will emerge.

Scientists are discovering that this uncertainty, this randomness is absolutely central to understanding living systems. The accidental is integral[6] to all living systems. Evolution is driven by chance. The parameters that constrain evolution's random walk are environmental. Monkeys and Mango trees will not emerge from our pond fully formed. But perhaps a fish that can breathe will.

Well, must a fish crawl out of our pond? Is there a design in evolution that requires sooner or later a fish to crawl out of the pond? The best scientific understanding we have says no. Evolution is not goal oriented. It doesn't have an agenda. Evolution shows no bias toward producing human beings. What all forms of life demonstrate responsiveness to is their environment. Environmental factors are the primary determinants of evolutionary adaptations. Human beings are the product of a multi-billion year evolutionary process adapting to unique environmental conditions and changes.

In other words, there is no reason, no design behind our creation. There is no gulf that separates us from the birds, the bees, the butterflies and the birch trees. We are all made of the same stuff. The ecological view rejects any anthropocentrism. This world was not made for us as a launching pad to heaven.

I promised earlier that theologians have found some usefulness in this scientific view that flies in the face of traditional religion. Can this dethroning of homo sapiens, leave any room for Gods and Goddesses? Does this reductionistic ecological view have room for fairies and goblins and ghosts coming out on All Hallow's Eve?

Well, perhaps it still does.

Even if we are not the apex of evolution (scientists have found that the evolution of bacterial DNA is far superior to ours) we still exist. In fact, our planet teams with life from the smallest to the largest, from the simplest to the most complex, from single cells to billions of cells.

What if ... what if life itself defines what is divine? The urge to be and become in living systems implies an inner valuing of existence over non-existence. Every living thing testifies in its being to an urge not just to be but to aim at the realization of value, at a rich experience of aliveness. The Spirit of Life is both in us and eternally beyond us, not dependent on any particular form but present in every life form. This Spirit of Life can be the center of a new eco-theology.

Many questions come rushing forward from this proposition, equating Life and the divine. Can we give thanks to an eco-god? Is it appropriate to worship this gift of being? Is that urge, that Spirit of Life - intelligent? Does it have a purpose? Does it care about me? Can it be trusted?

If the Spirit of Life is indifferent to us and our actions, its existence or non-existence is meaningless. If, on the other hand, our loving relationship to this Spirit, as expressed in the world and our heart, makes a positive difference, it is supremely meaningful. From the evidence we have of the historical direction of evolution, it realizes greater value, greater intelligence, and capacity for feeling. And it will not stop with us, it aims beyond us.

We didn't create evolution just as we didn't create ourselves. We cannot determine where it will take this planet next. We do, however, have a choice in our relationship to the Spirit of Life that is as close to us as our pulse and breath. We can either align ourselves with this process of evolution, work against these energies or stand on the sidelines. I assert that a creative cooperation with life will help us make our lives meaningful. Theologians Charles Birch and John Cobb put it this way: "To be truly alive is to refuse to be bound ... [and] allow ourselves to be transformed by new experience and knowledge[7]."

The message of an eco-theology, then, is one of creative cooperation with what arises drawing on all one knows without knowing where things are going, trusting in the goodness of the Spirit urging us on, and hoping we will be pleasantly surprised with what happens next. The human race is part of this planet's ecology and can, by its actions, effect what happens next for good or ill. Each of our actions matter because in a complex ecosystem, every action effects the whole in a non-linear, non-deterministic way. How do we best embody this willingess to cooperate with the Spirit of Life? Through our willingness to love and to live life to the fullest.

This month has seen the death of the great Unitarian Universalist Process Theologian, Charles Hartshorne (whose daughter, Emily Goodman was a member here) who helped bring some of these ideas I've been discussing into consciousness. I'd like to leave you with a few of his words:

The idea that worship is love with the whole of one's being is correlated, in many religions, with the idea that what we thus should love is itself also love, the divine love for all creatures, and for God as including all. And this, in my opinion, is not simply a pretty statement, but is, in cold logic, the most rational way to view the matter[8].

May we see love as the most rational and logical way to live in harmony with nature.

[1]Eco-Religion: Remaking Man in Earth's Image

[2]the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids
[3] Halloween: The Pagan Festival of Samhain
[4] "Christianity and Ecology:The Emergence of Christian Biopolitics" by Kenneth Cauthen 1998
[5]The Gaia Hypothesis proposed by Dr. James Lovelock

[6] Ecology, the Ascendent Perspective, Robert E. Ulanowicz, Columbia Univ. Press, 1997 p. 145
[7] The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community, Charles Birch and John Cobb, 1981 p. 201
[8] ibid p. 176