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Our Mother the Earth – 5/11/2014

Once there was a farmer; well, he would have been a farmer, except that he had no land to farm. With neither money nor deed to his name, he found himself only poor, with nothing else to say about it. So he would go from town to town, looking for work in other people’s fields and pastures, though there wasn’t much to be had.

Then one day, he happened to pass by a place alongside the road. It was a field lying fallow and ownerless, where the locals threw their garbage. Having no other place to sleep for the night, he made his bed there, under the stars. In the morning, after he’d slept, it occurred to the poor man who was not yet a farmer, that a thing that was broken and abandoned and neglected, that had been treated poorly and forgotten by the whole of the world – that such a thing was worth at least a little bit more than nothing at all. For the man knew himself what it was to be abandoned and neglected and forgotten.

So he set to work. He cleared the debris and the refuse. Out of the wreck of an old wagon he fashioned a plow, and he tilled the soil until it was free of the larger stones and loose enough for planting. From the garbage that he had cleared away, from rotted potatoes and corn gone to seed he found enough to plant his field. And he worked the earth enough to have a small harvest from it in the fall. And so the man became a farmer then.

Many years passed, and the farmer continued to work that same field. One day, a new priest came to the parish, and riding along the road into town, he saw the man at work. It was late summer, and the crop was already green and high. The farmer came over to greet the stranger surveying his farm. The young priest greeted him and thought to pay him a compliment. He said, “You and the Lord have done fine work here.”

“Thank you,” said the farmer. “You should have seen it when the Lord had it alone.”

There is a view, common and familiar in western culture, that the natural world is an empty canvass, formless and void until it is worked by human hands and given shape and meaning. Wild and empty spaces are worth less than organized and habitable ones, and of course land with buildings on it is generally even more valuable, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been involved in a real estate transaction – or just played a game of Monopoly. For thousands of years, human beings in many – though not all – nations and cultures have carved up the world into plots and parcels and estates, with titles and deeds and easements and tenancy agreements. We have made a commodity out of the earth. And when a theological explanation has been needed to justify this attitude, advocates for it have returned, again and again, to a particular place in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

The book of Genesis – the first book in both the Jewish scriptures and the Christian bible – opens with a story about how the earth and its human inhabitants came to be. The first of these is the seven days of creation, in which the God of the story separates the universe into successive divisions: light and dark, day and night, the sky and the sea, the land and the water, and then brings forth living things to inhabit air, sea, and earth. The last of these major works in the story is the creation of humankind. This particular species receives a special blessing: to be fruitful and multiply, and to have a special relationship to all the other animals of the earth. The most familiar term in the Christian tradition is dominion, but the word being translated here from Hebrew – radah – is probably better rendered as rulership. Humanity, in this story, is set to rule over other animals, and all green and growing things are given to those animals and to humans for their food. This single passage – three verses from Genesis – has been leaned on for millennia in order to justify absolute human domination exploitation over the earth and everything that lives there.

But the very force of our own experience pushes back against this attitude. The earth is the ground that we walk on. It is the only place we have to live. It is the source of all bodily nourishment: the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. So for as long or longer than there have been religious justifications for the dominance of the land – and this fragment from Genesis is by no means the only one – there have also been voices of reverence for the earth and our relationship to it. In the Atharva Veda, a 3,000 year old section of the scriptures of Hinduism, we find a hymn to Prithvi, a goddess who is the embodiment of the earth itself. The hymn reads, in part:

          In the villages and in the wilderness, in the assembly-halls that

are upon the earth; in the gatherings, and in the meetings, may we

hold forth agreeably to thee!

          As dust and seeds did she, as soon as she was born, scatter these

people, that dwelt upon the earth, she the lovely one, the leader, the

guardian of the world, that holds the trees and plants…

          O mother earth, kindly set me down upon a well-founded place! With

heaven cooperating, O thou wise one, do thou place me into

happiness and prosperity!

          The religious imagination has long associated land and the earth itself with mothers and motherhood. The world nurtures and fosters life. The connection to parenthood is obvious, and the parallel to biological motherhood – the physical alchemy by which one being creates another being from itself – should be as well. This points to a closely related religious theme, applied to mamas of all sorts: birth, adoptive, or otherwise. The range of gifts which mothers give to their children, gifts of nurturing and teaching and protection and life itself, are gifts which are impossible to repay.

But just because a debt cannot be repaid does not mean that no one has ever tried to calculate it. The religions of India, Hinduism and Buddhism in particular, have a deep fascination with the debt which all people owe to their parents and ancestors, and a similar theme of unbounded gratitude appears in many native religions of Africa and North America. At one point in the development of Buddhism in China, religious thinkers became particularly fascinated with the idea of milk-debt: the amount of loving kindness and selfless compassion owed to one’s mother for the breast milk which all children required in order to survive infancy, before the advent of modern substitutes. An official estimate of the amount the average infant consumes was eventually set at roughly 360 gallons.[i] The point of all this was to make clear just how ridiculous and impossible repayment would be. But because we live in an era when it is actually possible to buy human breast milk through a sort-of Craigslist for nursing mothers, I could not resist making the calculation. Based on my best guess of a current average price and ignoring problems with supply, storage, and transport, the twelve barrels of breast milk needed to meet that historical measurement would cost just about $100,000. The debt we owe to the source of our lives – whether our parents, or the earth itself – is immeasurable.

Beside the historical religious arguments, more modern insights also have some relevance to how we view the earth we share. The scientific creation story, the narrative of our current best understanding of how life began on earth, begins about three and a half billion years ago. The molten earth had cooled enough for oceans to form on its surface, vast seas filled with chemicals churned up in part by volcanic eruptions. Lightning raked the waters, providing the potential means for building more complex molecules. Somehow, through means we can guess at but still not fully prove, the swirling chemical cauldron of the primeval sea produced the first bacteria – incredibly small and just barely alive. Through the imperative towards survival and growth and complexity that is hardwired into life, the process of evolution led to the first complex cells, then multicellular life, and on and on until something like 500 million years after life first began, the first animals make their way from the ocean to the land. While we cannot say for certain yet just how rare, we know what we can observe in the rest of our galaxy that the conditions found on this planet, thirty-five thousand-million years ago were favorable to life in a profoundly uncommon way. The world that has made us all possible, and continues to make us possible, is a rare find amongst the stars.

Our particular tradition as Unitarian Universalists, which believes that true religion must work in concert with reason, counsels reverence towards our planet and our cosmos, and falls more on the side of earthly motherhood than earthly dominion. Out front, in the entry-way to the sanctuary you may have passed a framed text which was written originally by William Schulz, a former president of our religious association. His personal attempt to crystallize the notoriously varied and verbose essence of our faith had seven points, two of which are: “That Creation itself is Holy; the earth and all its creatures, the stars in all their glory…” and, “That human beings, joined in collaboration with the gifts of grace, are responsible for the planet and its future.” In this way, we are not actually out of step with the spirit of that first chapter of Genesis, either, because that text has been woefully warped and distorted in order to justify enormous violence against the natural world. In that story, after each act of separation or creation, a refrain follows: “and God saw that it was good.” The bible here is in clear and full agreement with the insights of science: the fundamental conditions of our planet are good – they make it possible for life to happen, and to thrive.

Now, all of this has been, I hope, an interesting lesson in historical theology, but it is far more pressing than that. Human rulership over the earth is a present fact in that we have vast capabilities, as a species, to disrupt and destroy ecologies and other natural systems. The global climate upheaval brought on by the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – over the last century cannot be ignored. There is no vast tree-hugger conspiracy at work doctoring mountains of evidence all across the globe. Last year, Richard Primack of Boston University published a book called Walden Warming, based on research conducted by him and his students in the woods around Walden Pond in Concord, where the famous Unitarian author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau established his quasi-hermitage. Primack’s work used the study that Thoreau made of his environment to show that flowers are blossoming and birds are appearing earlier than they did 150 years earlier in Thoreau’s day. The climate really is changing. The water levels really are rising. The Carteret Islands at the eastern end of Papua New Guinea really have been evacuated, and really are expected to slip entirely below the waves by the end of next year.[ii] As I stand here in our sanctuary less than a quarter of a mile from the ocean, I have to think that we are a community who ought to be particularly concerned about all this.

To slow the destructive reconfiguration of our planet’s weather and avoid the worst effects – in a very real sense to save current world civilization, which weaves together the lives of more than 6 billion people – we will have to stop burning these fuels. The clock is running, and by several reasonable estimates, we have only so much more carbon-based fuel we can use before crossing over into a world whose storms and temperatures and sea levels will completely upend the current society. That estimate says that we know of almost five times as much gas and coal in the earth as we can afford to burn. To protect the world we have, we will have to resolve, as a species, not to burn most of that carbon.

Messages like this one often end with some sort of pitch for personal change: drive less, recycle more, stop eating red meat. All of those are fine things to do, but slowing and stopping the warming of our planet isn’t something that can be done by small acts, not even by a very large number of them. This effort is going to take a change in public policy. We, and others like us – those who care about the world, and particularly about the people who live upon it, and at the mercy of it – will have to make it a central mission of our age to see a dramatic shift in public policy. In a recent article in the Nation, Chris Hayes compares this daunting project to the movement to abolish slavery in the United States.[iii] Obviously, there can be no moral equivalency with a system that kept millions of human beings as disposable goods for hundreds of years. But one of the chief forces that prevented the abolition of slavery for so long is also at play with climate change: an appalling amount of money. The lie that human beings could be property assigned to them a cash value, and the people who mistakenly believed themselves to be the owners regarded that value as very real, and very much theirs. Our current fuel economy also assigns a cash value to all that unmined coal and undrilled oil, and convincing the corporations and corporate boards and stockholders to leave all that potential money in the ground will not be easy. If we can do it, it will be one of the most impressive achievements we will have ever shared as a species.

The only good news is, that we’ve done it once before. Uprooting the public institution of slavery took far, far too long and cost vast sums in blood and suffering, and left continued injustice echoing into this day. But it was accomplished, and with some small but meaningful contributions from among our own theological ancestors, I might add. Ultimately, what is at issue in this age is not the earth, or even life, itself. These things are incredibly tenacious and adaptable. What it is in question is the motherliness of the earth – whether humanity will, by willful ignorance and foolish greed, so distort our planet that ceases to be the nurturing cradle for us that it so long has been. Already great damage has been done – as in the story we began with: the field lies fallow, and covered with waste, broken, abandoned, neglected. We can choose to proceed as we have been, and see destruction visited in our own generation or in our children’s – or we can begin to clear the garbage, fashion a plow, and get to work.

[i] This tradition seems to have its origins in a section of the Ekottara Agama – see R. Alan Cole, “Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism”




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