I was so grateful to see so many friends join with me this Ash Wednesday 2019 to bless the beginnings of Earth Church. There is such a deep yearning in my soul to connect more deeply with faith, our community, and the earth, with the creation herself as our teacher and guide.
People came from throughout Columbia County and all the way up to Albany in response to an invitation to come together in a posture of humility and repentance before nature, seeking a renewed relationship to Her. I chose Ash Wednesday as the day to begin this journey because it’s a time when we look inward as to the reality of that relationship.
And here’s the facts: we are in an era of mass extinction - in the words of conservationist Aldo Leupold – “a human-caused biotic holocaust” in which 6 species go extinct every day, that’s 1 species every 4 hours. 40% of the worlds birds are in decline. 25% of mamals are endangered, 30% of reptiles and amphibians – all due to loss of habitat, invasions of non-native predatory species, pollution, and overhunting/fishing.
40% of the world’s topsoil is gone due to erosion caused by industrial agriculture. Tropical forests are currently being destroyed at the rate of twenty-five million acres each year. Half of the forests that once covered the earth are now gone.
Less than 20% of the world’s population (in the US, Europe, and Japan) consumes over 50 percent of the world’s industrial timber and 70 percent of its paper. And in this country, we use 20% of that lumber to make shipping pallets and crates – which are mostly discarded.
And the United states which is home to only 4.4% of the world’s population is the second largest contributor to carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, accelerating the already dire climate crisis which by the end of this century the earth’s temperature will have risen by as much as 8 ½ degrees, causing delicate ecosystems to be thrown out of balance and the sea levels are to rise anywhere between 1 and 6 feet.
The sheer magnitude and urgency of our ecological crisis is so overwhelming. Its easy to feel helpless and small, and its tempting to not acknowledge the gravity of whats happening. That’s why what we’re trying to do here is reconnect. To the earth, to each other, and to something greater than ourselves – so that we realize how much power we really have. Because we are provided for by the incredible generosity of the land, held in the hands of a loving God, and journeying together with a community – this empowers us to finally open our eyes, knowing we. have. all. we. need. to take our next steps and to change.
Here were my remarks from Ash Wednesday.
The Christian narrative of humanity’s relationship to God follows three basic parts: we are created, we are fallen, we are redeemed. We enact this drama throughout the liturgical year in the life of the Christian community through sacred days like Ash Wednesday. And the season of Lent which begins today is the time during which we reflect on how we are fallen… I believe that humanity is fallen. And all the preceding criteria is ample evidence.
And so for me there is no coincidence that the biblical narrative fall of humanity takes place in a garden – a garden in which every single thing that man and woman could ever want was provided – and yet they wanted more. That story is not about some man named Adam and some woman named eve – it is a story about all of us. The earth gives us everything we could possibly need, and yet we want more.
Ash Wednesday is also about mortality. It is essentially about how we are not God; in that we are both imperfect and mortal. As is tradition we anoint one another with ashes saying the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return…”
But while Ash Wednesday is uniquely positioned for reflection on our relationship to the planet within a framework of repentance and redemption, it also also presents us with precisely what is been problematic about Christian theology as it relates to ecological stewardship.
The normative Christian paradigm has been that our fallenness is intrinsicly intertwined with our mortality. Essentially that we are sinful because we are embodied and finite beings. Which is why this day itself needs to be re-claimed, and that’s what we are doing here.
The philosophical root of this association comes from Greek philosophy, the platonic view that there is an eternal, disembodied, intellectual “essense” or “soul” that exists apart from the physical world, which is trapped in our bodies, considered the source of all evil… but the true home of the soul is quite literally above the earth in the cosmos, the astral upper level where it can in Plato’s words “contemplate truths that lie beyond the heavens.” The death of the body is what frees the soul to its true home.
The apostle Paul who authored several books in the New Testament was a Roman citizen and was highly influenced by Greek thought. And therefore even after his conversion, he was only able to understand his newfound faith through the lens of this dualism between body and soul.
“The wages of sin is death” those are amongst his most famous words… we die because we are sinful, we gain eternal life because of Christ, whereby our fleshly bodies will become immortal spiritual bodies at the resurrection … and some of the most resounding themes of his texts are warnings against the corruption of the world, and the temptation flesh… and that this world will one day pass away
That’s whats problematic. Because if some otherworldly existence, the true home of the soul is a place we will one day escape to… why would we care about this world?
James Watt who was the secretary of the interior during the Ragan administration was once asked by a congressional committee as to why his agency was acting contrary to its expressed mandate… and he responded “I don’t know how many generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”
That we don’t see ourselves as a part of nature; that we see ourselves as separate and other, awaiting a true home in heaven… that is the intellectual source of our alienation from creation. It is the mother of dualisms like spirit versus matter, heaven versus earth, mind versus body… it breeds the false dichotomy between nature and culture, between wilderness and civilization, etc. And all of these exist with implicit hierarchies that translate into dualisms of human over nature, man over woman, white over black that are responsible for not only ecological destruction but also patriarchy, colonialism, and white supremacy.
Rosemary Radford Reuther, the founder of eco-feminist theology was among the first to articulate this broad indictment of dualism as responsible to social injustice and harm to the earth. If you’re not familiar, the term ecofeminism refers to the fact the earth, and women – are oppressed by a singular force. Which is why in our language you hear women associated with the earth: mother earth/virgin forrest/raping the land…
She cites that the identification of the essential self and soul as intellectual, disembodied, spiritual and male – like God has been considered male – is that oppressive force. This is how she articulated that problem:
“man believes he can master nature, not by basing himself in it and exalting it as an independent divine power, but by subordinating it and linking his essential self [that is the soul] with a transcendent principle beyond nature which is pictured as intellectual [as opposed to embodied] and male. This image of transcendent, male spiritual deity is a projection of the ego or consciousness of ruling-class males, who envision a reality, beyond the physical processes that gave them birth, as the true source of their being. Men locate their true origins and natures in this transcendent sphere, which thereby also gives them power over the lower sphere of "female" [of earthly] nature…”
But what I want to reclaim today for myself and for a new kind of faith community, is that this view is not inherent to the Christian faith. Early Christianity rejected dualism in favor of the Jewish view of the essential goodness of creation and unity with it… in fact they did not know what to do with Paul’s dualistic cosmo-anthroopology and set it aside for at least a generation. That was until Marcion, a Christian teacher from Pontus began to systematize and promote the teachings of the Apostle Paul.
So I think its time we get back to our roots. Lets revisit the creation story from scripture. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates each being in immense love and care for both sentient and non-sentient beings… and after each we hear this litany “and God saw that it was good…” which is how God regarded the human
And in the second chapter we’ve just read. God creates the ADAM– the Hebrew word which means human… forms him from the very soil of the earth… the “ADAMAH” the ancient Hebrews clearly understood the association.
We belong to the earth, to the very soil beneath our feet. In fact in Genesis 2, each act of creation is done as an act of relationship. God saw that the garden needed to be tilled, needed someone to be responsible with and for it - humanity inherently in relationship to the earth.
And so God breathes into the soil and the air that fills the human’s lungs and gives him life comes from God’s own breath – humanity inherently in relationship with God.
And lastly, God saw that the human should not be alone – and so he is created a partner from his very body. “bone of his bone’s flesh of his flesh” – all of us inherently in relationship with one another.
Genesis teaches us early on, that we were created interconnected and by our very nature to nurture and steward our relationships – with God, with the earth, with one another. We all long for this. We all were made for this.
We are part of the earth and it is a part of us. We are not separate, nor are we above. The story in genesis 2 counters the anthropocentric view of the creation that everything on this planet was created with a function to ultimately serve humans. In fact, that idea originates from human sin itself...
If you recall from the creation story… the fall of humanity is wanting to be God. When we are not. That is our sin.
My favorite theologian Rhinehold Neibuhr was the first to articulate how pride – how the human tendancy “to reach beyond the bounds of his creaturelness” is the root and heart of all sin. In an essay to the Stanford dialectical society, the Rev. Martin Luther King writes “…Niebuhr says sin is what results when man tries to find security for himself outside the tension of the dialectical relation between time and eternity.”
In short, sin is believing we are more than we are. We are not transcendent beings. We are part of the earth. Mortality is just our nature… because we are a part of nature, and we can in fact celebrate that, that death is ultimately our destiny. To return to the soil from which we came. Much like in ancient Hebrew, in the English languge we also have a close association: human and humus (the soil) - Humility.
Humility, knowing that we are not hierarchically above, but equally cherished by God just as rivers and oceans, plants and animals, the air that we breathe… that is the humble posture we can undertake for a truly rich and meaningful season of Lent.
Because this means God is not up there somewhere… but God is right here and every living being on the earth has something to teach us about God. Another world is not yet to come, another world is here and now and yet to be discovered. And our ultimate redemption does not consist in escape from the world to some far off heaven, but the transformation, and the healing of the world we have now. Amen.