Tuesday, November 29, 2005

How Eastern Christians Get It Right with Mother Earth

In my first post, I said that many of us would need to travel the road of one of the axial religions to reach reconciliation with the Earth, who is daily being “crucified” in the words of Matthew Fox. Back in the late sixties, Lynn White, Jr. made a now famous speech in which he said the Judeo-Christian tradition was the root of the problem with our species' trashing the earth, especially the notion of "dominion" in Genesis. White later softened his remarks, but I still meet starry-eyed youg environmentalists who quote that speech as if it were gospel, yet another reason to turn from the religion of their parents. A more critical look shows something different.

Turn to the Quran and you'll find a clear statement of the idea of dominion. There the idea is that we are "vice-regents" for God, in charge in His absence. This does not mean we are free to do as we please, but rather to follow the injunctions to "dress and to keep" His cherished creation. And by the mid-1980's, even conservative little schools of theology in the Midwest were spreading the same interpretation. Since Christian liberals have been saying this for a long time, and now the fundamentalists are on board, we have just about cleansed Christendom (!?) of an interpretation which grew lush in the fertile soil of the unholy alliance between Protestantism and capitalism.

But frankly, this doesn't do it for me. Duty to an Absentee Landlord isn't sufficient motivation to restore Creation. What if Creation itself were divine? Children of all the Abrahamic faiths flee from this experience, denying it as pantheist. Well, almost all. There is a branch of Christendom, Eastern Christianity, where earth and heaven are not experienced as split, where the Fall is restricted to human beings, rather than being a divine curse laid on all Creation by a vengeful God.

For Eastern Christians, at least a significant strain of them, the Cosmos is God's first temporal child, the flesh through which He incarnates into space and time. And the Earth, no matter what the odds for her essential replication in other corners of that unimaginably vast body, is the splendid flesh to which we are married. To use the language of Genesis, she keeps us. "To keep" is a reflexive verb, and the farmstead - or ecosysystem - keeps us even as we (remembering) keep her. We keep the earth because we love her, not just because we should take care of God's property. She keeps us because she can do no other. She is unfallen, like the animal who carries me, and thus her love is unconditional, even if increasingly unrequited.

In the Orthodox sense, my essential animal is the unfallen Adam, who is Christ the Logos and type of the perfect human, reborn as a reminder of what God first had in mind. My love for the earth, a deep lifelong yearning still imperfectly expressed, comes from a desire for union with my Sister (and Mother), for the Cosmos and Christ are perfect forms coeternally existent in God's Mind.

Whew! There is so much more here, and I invite my readers to further explore the splendor of the Orthodox world which they call Sophiology through some of the texts laid out in the sidebar. The point is that one does not have to be a deep ecologist who wants us all to return to the hunter-gatherer state, the anthropologist's "unfallen" world to make a truce with our battered Mother Earth. One can continue to live the life of a Christian without all the baggage of being exiled from the earth.

The Roman West also has had its earth saints, notably St. Francis. The confessor of Norwich, Julian, said the cosmos is the womb of God, "our true Mother in whom we are endlessly carried and out of whom we will never come."

Meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew is a towering example, dedicating his life to saving the dying Black Sea ecosystem, tirelessly crisscrossing the sea to carry his message of the imperative of restoring God's Creation. And as our Quaker prophet George Fox put it, what canst thou say, oh friend of the Earth?

Resources: Sherrard, Phillip. Christianity: Lineaments of a Sacred Tradition; Human Image, Divine Image. Sherrard is key to my understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy and its radical acceptance of the sacrality of the cosmos. Background on Sophiology, the tradition within Orthodoxy Sherrard represents: Florensky and Bulgakov; Patriarch Bartholomew's speeches: Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: the Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch, - Chryssavgis, John. And for a taste of the sacrality of nature in the Eastern tradition, try Saint Ephraim, “Hymn on Paradise.” APOLOGIES, dear reader: “Resources” was intended as sidebar material, but I have yet to learn how to perform necessary code. Thanks to David of Boone, Antiochean Christian, for many references.

Next: "Parable of the Gold Coins" (a parable of Christ and the Earth)

Friday, November 18, 2005

Dear Ideal Reader

My ideal reader is self-aware, and awakening to the global eco-crisis and thus the biggest challenge for our species since the invention of agriculture. This reader is hungry for dialogue, for companionship in the struggle, for honest feedback on their thoughts and actions and ready to move through denial and despair to a measure of clarity about this mess we’ve created and empowerment to clean it up. Our Mother can take care of herself. With divine help – the divine within that gives life from within to all Creation – we can learn to be a sustaining presence in the web, rather than a cancer spreading throughout it, and thus aborted through Her self-regulating systemic wisdom.

Ultimately, my ideal reader dwells at my root, as I described the animal almost twenty-five years ago: There is an animal deep within me who carries me. It has never split from nature, and does not worry about messing up another creature's habitat. It always knows what to do, through what we call instinct: a bodily kind of knowing. It knows its place in the great web of creation in which it is enmeshed. It doesn’t worry about theology, or images of God, for it sees God's face in all the natural world. This animal is divine, was worshipped in the infancy of our race, and must still be honored if we are to keep the connection with our deepest selves, our oldest roots, and the Earth, our Mother. There can be no new religion, New Age, or evolutionary leap forward that does not take with it this animal, for it contains and carries us. If we lose its image, we perish.

Since then, I have journeyed from pantheism to panentheism, and from identifying as a “pagan Quaker” to a Christian Universalist (still Quaker). The best teachers of how to live on the earth remain the dwindling little bands of “primary” peoples upon whom our rapacious technological facility preys. It is not just other species I want to preserve, but these precious ways of knowing how to live in the varied corners of the earth – including the small farmer everywhere. But to journey back to my earlier insight, many of us will need to travel the path of the axial religions which were born out of human failure: when we first became priestly and hierarchical in urban centers with differentiated castes, turning our backs on shamanic vision and sustainable lifeways.

“Journeying back” to the pivotal realization of my animal self does not mean, however, that I propose we return to a hunter-gatherer mode of existence. The journey is a psychospiritual one. The outer cultural journey, thought we know some of the elements, crucially devolution of the global economy and regrounding in the local, learning faster than we’d like to live without fossil fuels, is not back but achingly forward into something I hope all of us who blog here can help build. And I’m not referring to a “virtual community.”

NEXT: Ecospiritual values of Eastern Christianity and a parable. I plan to post weekly, usually Fridays.

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