A presentation by Bernard Zaleha to Boise Unitarian Universalist
Fellowship on April 20, 1997. (Bernard Zaleha is a member of the
Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and local environmental attorney)
When I was thirteen, I went backpacking for the first time, and in so doing, accidentally became a mystic. I say it was accidental, because I was not on any intentional vision or mystic quest. But nonetheless, the spirit of life that I encountered in the wilderness touched me in a deep way that my rational self still struggles to understand. I have never been the same. That early experience led me in my early teens to reject the Christian fundamentalism of my upbringing and immediately thereafter to replace that faith with Thoreauvian Transcendentalism, which in due course of time led me to become a Unitarian Universalist some 20 years ago.
My early nature experiences ultimately put me on a path of pursuing environmentalism as my career. I have been an environmental activist for the last sixteen years, and experience has been disheartening. Instead of making progress, we are, by and large, losing the war. What limited legislative gains were made in the early seventies are constantly being eroded. The rate of destruction is accelerating. And with few exceptions, the public at large seems generally disinterested. And there seems to be a growing acceptance in the general public, especially in rural states like Idaho, that the greatest intentionally caused extinction spasm in history of the planet, is simply a necessary and acceptable price for maintaining our modern lifestyle. All of this has led me to the belief that our crisis is primarily a moral crisis, not a political one.
This is not the common analysis within the secular environmental community. There the assumption is that the general public is being tricked by large corporations into high levels of consumption, and being tricked into accepting green-washing by deceitful politicians who portray themselves as environment friendly while pursing an earth-destroying secret agenda. The further assumption among secular environmentalists is that if only these frauds could be exposed, the general public would raise up and demand environmentally responsible public policy. I have become increasingly dissatisfied with this analysis. While some people have been duped by deceitful politicians and the clever public relations campaigns of the large corporations who stand to benefit by continued exploitation of the earth, I think this analysis ultimately shortchanges the perceptiveness of we, the general public.
The general public wants clean air to breath, clean water to drink, and wants carcinogens and other toxics kept out of our food. It is therefore not surprising that our environmental laws are strongest in these regards. This is simply enlightened self-interest. But when it comes to rest of the creation, and the continued drive into extinction of many of our non-human neighbors with whom we share this planet, the public is increasingly complacent. And, I would suggest, knowingly so.
It is this knowing public willingness to subsidize our modern lifestyle with the death of our planet, thereby denying life to whole species of our non-human cousins, and denying to future generations of humans an earthly home rich in diversity and beauty that highlights the moral dimension of this issue. Today, we are enslaving the planet to maintain a lifestyle. We stand exactly in the shoes of the landed aristocracy of the Old South who had built a life of privilege on the enslavement of a vulnerable human community. Our environmental crisis is, therefore, a moral, that is to say, religious crisis.
My growing conviction that the extinction crisis is primarily a crisis regarding the religious, moral, and ethical values by which we have elected to govern ourselves has led me to pursue a personal quest of surveying a broad range of human religious, moral, and ethical systems to see if any have anything to contribute to this problem. Over the last four and a half years, this personal quest of mine has taken what for me has been a very surprising turn. I had for a long time been interested in the emerging secular philosophy of deep ecology. And like many others in the environmental movement, I have at various times explored Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, as well as the thoughtful secular writings of Aldo Leopold, as potential sources for inspiring an earth-care ethic. However, I was definitely one of the anti-Christian environmentalists described by Wendell Berry who assumed that Christianity was a large part the problem and could have nothing valuable to contribute to the solution. There is a bumper sticker that is sometimes seen around Boise, which I have discovered is being distributed by the Treasure Valley Baptist Church. It says the following: "Forget 'Save the Earth'; What about your soul? The earth is going to burn, What about you?" Such earth-hating propaganda being spouted in the name of Christianity certainly gives justification to the critique that Christianity has nothing to offer to this moral crisis.
Three things happened to me in rapid succession that has made me change my mind, and, to my surprise, to stop identifying myself as a luke-warm agnostic/atheist and to identify myself again as a Christian. The first event happened 4 and a half years ago. As many of you know, I was working for a law firm here in town whose practice involved the representation of various resource clients not necessarily friendly to environment. Two days before a scheduled performance evaluation, I was warned by the junior-most partner that my leadership activities with the Sierra Club were going to be an issue, and that the firm would probably demand that I resign from any active participation in the Sierra Club, or face being fired. Up to that point, I had attempted to "have my cake and eat it too," to have a prosperous legal career while doing some small amount of good on the side. I was suddenly confronted with a demand to surrender completely to the dark side, but promised that I would be rewarded handsomely if I did so.
In my earliest youth as a as a Seventh-day Adventist, I was taught a song entitled "Dare to be a Daniel" which was about the old testament prophet's fateful night in King Nebuchadnezzar's lions den. The chorus to the song contained the following words: "Dare to be a Daniel, Dare to stand alone, Dare to have a purpose firm, and Dare to Make it Known." Of course, I had abandoned Adventism to become a Unitarian Universalist twenty years ago, and I can say with the utmost certainty that that song had not entered my conscious mind for at least twenty years. Yet, as I prepared to walk into a metaphorical lion's den comprised of a law firm's conference room with its six partners, the words of that song from my youth came flooding back to me with enormous power. Those words suddenly seemed awfully relevant. I had rejected, and still reject, the fundamentalist theology I had been taught as a youth. But this experience led me to an initial hint that there was something in my fundamentalist upbringing that had given me the strength to confront evil, a strength that, at least for me, was not drawn from my last twenty years as a Unitarian. It made me wonder whether there was something important in my fundamentalist youth that I had missed.
The second thing happened shortly thereafter. I was listening to public radio while driving through Twin Falls a short time later and came upon an interview with Fritjof Capra, the physicist author of "The Tao of Physics" and David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk. They were discussing the compatibilities between Christianity and Buddhism. This was shocking to me. I had always assumed that the two were irreconcilably in conflict. I then read their book, "Belonging to the Universe," which indeed did give me a tentative initial impression that Christianity could be construed in an earth friendly manner. I still had a lingering skepticism, however.
The third, and probably major, factor in my rediscovery of Christianity, has been my study of the work of the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar is a group of both secular and religious biblical scholars who have issued a report of the authentic words of the historical Jesus. Among their conclusions are the following: Jesus was a teacher of intuitive wisdom, did not think he was the Messiah, and did not think he had come to die for anybody's sins. He did, however, teach a message of radical egalitarianism and sternly challenged the injustices of his day. And the one thing the scholars are nearly unanimous on is that the historical person of Jesus really did throw the money changers out of the temple, thereby creating an incident that probably led to his arrest and summary execution.
The work of the Jesus Seminar has attracted wide attention in the media. However, we UU's have largely reacted to their work with a yawn. They are merely confirming what we have believed for centuries, namely, that the notion of a God turned human to perform some cosmic sacrifice to "save" us from sin cannot be taken seriously. For me, however, the work of the Jesus Seminar solved a persistent, puzzling riddle: Why are some of the sayings attributed to Jesus so profoundly right-on, while so much else attributed to Jesus strikes the modern mind as grotesque, apocalyptic nonsense. The Jesus Seminar provides a convincing, if simple, explanation. Jesus didn't actually say those grotesque, apocalyptic sayings, nor did he indulge in the self-absorbed "I am" ramblings found in the Gospel of John wherein Jesus is alleged to have gone on ad nauseam about how he was the be all and end all to human history. Those saying are a reflection of how others, much later and deeply influenced by the traumatic aftermath of the Judeo-Roman war of A.D. 66-70, came to view the teachings and life of Jesus.
I realize that I am breaking a UU taboo by talking so much about Jesus this afternoon. We UUs can barely tolerate the "G" word, and we have almost no tolerance for the "J" word. However, I have come to believe that our aversion, though completely understandable, is unnecessary, and ultimately harmful. Jesus' message of radical egalitarianism, compassion, and, most importantly, action, is profoundly needed by us today. Further, even some elements of the Christian tradition which do not trace back to the historical Jesus himself, are supremely valuable. We can now realize with confidence that a Christianity that is genuinely faithful to the teachings of Jesus will having nothing to do with a blind faith in an atoning death of an incarnate God through which we attain some blissful state in a hereafter. This tragic accumulation can now be tossed aside.
So what does Christianity have to offer. I have titled my talk "Recovering Christian Pantheism as a Lost Gospel of Creation." Pantheism is the branch of philosophy and theology that perceives the presence of the divine and sacred in all of creation. Given our denomination's recent formal embrace of Nature-centered traditions as a legitimate source of religious inspiration, the pantheist part of my ideas should not arouse scandal. However, the term Christian Pantheism will strike many, inside and outside of our denomination, as oxymoronic. Isn't Christianity monotheistic, albeit, with the strange wrinkle of the trinity? Indeed, much of the Bible can be read monotheistically. As John Van Cleve has said, the Bible is a fiddle on which many different tunes can be played, and the dominant, popular tune played to date has been monotheistic. However, the Bible has significant pantheistic strains. Jesus' authentic saying that "the kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation . . . because the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21) is one pantheistic saying tracing back to Jesus himself.
Two of the most pantheistic texts are from the Apostle Paul. In the Book of Acts, in an account of one of Paul's sermons to the Athenians, Paul is reported to say the following: "[God] is not far from each one of us 'for in him we live and move and have our being.'" Acts 17:27-28. Here, Paul is actually quoting the Greek pagan philosopher Epimenides for authority. Perhaps you recognize this phrase as being a prominent part of our minister's weekly prayer. Then, in Paul's Epistle to the Colossians he states "Christ is all, and in all," Col. 3:11, thereby identifying the Christ principle as a cosmic presence in all things, not a resurrected God/person living in some heavenly paradise.
Finally, what in my opinion is the most important text for any Christian Pantheism is Paul's following statement in his letter to the Romans: "What may be known about God is plain. . . For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--His eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what is made, so that men are without excuse [in regards to knowing God]." Rom. 1:19-20. The catholic eco-theologian Thomas Berry has said "the Earth is the primary scripture." Apparently, the Apostle Paul would have agreed.
What this says to me is that in our efforts to understand the divine, we need look no further than nature. Further, when new knowledge about nature is revealed, such as through science, that knowledge supplements earlier, imperfect efforts to articulate our understanding of the divine. Indeed, new scientific understandings of the true nature of the cosmos may totally overturn earlier understandings about the divine. Augustine's notion of death entering the world due to original sin is one example of a traditional Christian doctrine that becomes logically untenable in the face of the evolving cosmos revealed by science. Under Paul's maxim, new knowledge from nature trumps earlier, imperfect, human strivings toward understanding. The Christian tradition declares, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8:32. Any formulation of dogma which requires people to ignore new truth of divine nature that comes to us through science cannot be regarded as authentically Christian.
Christian pantheism liberates us from 2,000 years of accumulated dogma about Jesus, and frees us to listen anew to the teachings of Jesus. Throughout his teachings, Jesus stressed that the value of a simple life and cautioned, indeed ranted, against using wealth and privilege to oppress. As Matthew Fox noted, today, Mother Earth is the most oppressed among us. Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan can be interpreted as a strong call to environmental responsibility. Today, to speak metaphorically, Mother Nature is the mugged, bleeding, and left for dead victim laying beside our modern superhighway of consumption. Jesus' parable calls us not to turn away, as we are doing, from a dying Mother Earth.
Time permits me to give only one more example of how the Christian tradition speaks to our environmental crisis. The emerging Christian tradition as recorded in Matthew contains the following account attributed to Jesus.
Thus, the Christian tradition declares that work on behalf of the oppressed is work for God. And, as Matthew Fox said, Mother Earth is the most neglected of the suffering, voiceless ones today.
My friend Mike Medberry of the Idaho Conservation League confided to me about a year ago that unless a new religion emerges that inspires humans with feelings of caring and duty towards the earth, our cause is lost. I think Mike was right that the solution is essentially religious but wrong that the solution was a "new" religion. The gospel of creation has been here all along. We need now only to heed its call.