Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Two Sermons

In my last post, I spoke about the contrasting stories of Scarcity and Abundance. I want to move now from the objective observation of these stories to the critical evaluation of them. As I have always told my students, just because we have to recognize that we all come to the table with a worldview does not mean that all worldviews are equally valid or useful. Ideas and stories have consequences, and sometimes these stories can bring about very negative outcomes.

I present the evaluation of these stories in the form of two sermons that I heard preached on Sunday mornings. These sermons were preached by two different ministers, about a year apart. They were given in two different churches, although both churches are members of the same denomination – a denomination that would be considered part of the “liberal mainline” in context of American Christianity. I use these two sermons to illustrate how the stories of Scarcity and Abundance can be manifest even within the same religious tradition. The theology and practical affects, however, are very different.

The first sermon was preached shortly after the devastating Paris terror attacks of 2015. The minister’s aim was to focus on the sovereignty of God in a turbulent time. He spoke of the Battle of Tours and Charles Martel, and of Jan Sobieski at the Gates of Vienna. The images were ones of war, a clash of civilizations against the armies of evil. The victory of Christendom was presented as proof of God’s favor, which subsequently allowed Western civilization to flourish instead of regressing into the darkness of false religion represented by the Muslim hordes.  

The parallel was drawn between the battles of the past and the events of the day. The enemy was at the gates again, threatening to destroy our civilization. But we need not fear, because God’s intention is the same today as it was then – to protect his chosen ones, the ones chosen to bear his message to the world. The truth would prevail, as it always had in the past.

The second sermon I heard preached just a few Sundays ago. The minister also addressed a congregation nervous and uncertain about the future, albeit due to different circumstances. His exhortations, however, were quite different. He spoke of the “impractical” nature of Jesus’ commands in the gospels, to love God and neighbor with a perfection that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Despite the seeming absurdity of the task, he spoke of the grace given to each of us to live such a life in accordance with our faith. This was a talk of victory as well, but victory of a different sort – victory over our own resignations in following Jesus’ example, rather than over external enemies.

Missing from this sermon was the clear, binary divide between truth and falsehood described in the first sermon. Jesus’ teaching was presented as a way of life to emulate, not a pronouncement of moral absolutism. He described truth as more of a destination than a starting point.

To me these two contrasting sermons demonstrate the practical differences between the stories of Scarcity and Abundance quite clearly. They also point to the outcomes of holding to those stories and letting them shape our actions.

In the Scarcity story, the big idea is one of strict certainty, of faith in the absolute. Things are completely good or completely evil, and we must choose a side or be swept aside into the ashbin of history. The truth is clear, and the idea itself is enough to die and to kill for. This whole approach is sanctioned, of course, by God himself, who wills it to be so. We either choose to be on God’s side, and thus are privileged to be able to be used as instruments for the glorious fulfillment of his plan, or otherwise we choose to be enemies and will deservedly feel the full force off his wrath as we are wiped out of existence.

The gospel of the Abundance story, by contrast, offers no such moral certainty. It is not an ethical program but instead a path that is to be followed, with very little vision of where exactly the path may lead. Any attempts to codify this path into some sort of law or set of precepts is always met with frustration. A reliance on grace is necessary for all parties involved, but the key belief is that there exists in the universe a sufficient grace to make the journey possible. And if we accept this grace for ourselves, we must certainly be willing to extend it to others.

If the specific application of the Scarcity story in the first sermon sounds familiar, it is because it has gained quite a bit of publicity recently. The narrative of the clash of civilizations is one of the guiding principles of the new presidential administration in the U.S. It is a key point in the worldview of Steve Bannon, one of the closest advisors to the President and likely a primary architect of many of the administration’s policy decisions. The same story has, in similar forms, been at the heart of authoritarian regimes in the past centuries. One of the chilling consequences of this story is the need to find a scapegoat, a common enemy that can be identified with the forces of evil that need to be extinguished. It’s an old story and one only need to study a bit of history to see how it generally plays out.

The need to define ideas and people along the binary categories of good and evil can have dangerous consequences. We will almost always see ourselves as good, and those outside of our tribe or nation as evil. Being in possession of the “truth” can excuse any number of atrocities. Our own national history was shaped by a doctrine of Manifest Destiny that took this story as a starting point.

The Abundance story hasn’t gotten as much of an opportunity to be tested over the course of human history. When it has, it is usually on a smaller scale, in counter-cultural communities that oppose the dominant ideology of scarcity and isolation. It has animated powerful non-violent movements in history, such as the American Civil Rights movement.  It provides the theological backbone of Liberation Theology. I see signs of it now in the teaching of Pope Francis, who took his name from a saint that lived this story at a great personal cost. It is no surprise, then, that modern-day proponents of the Scarcity story take exception to Francis’ words and seek to discredit him in the name of “tradition.”

We may be again facing a moment in our history where the adequacy of our stories will be put to the test. Both provide answers – but which answers will stand? Can we continue to exist in a zero-sum world where gains can only come at the expense of the Other? Or does the arc of the universe truly bend toward justice, and provide us all with the grace needed to exist in harmony with each other and with our world?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Abundance and Scarcity

Our human existence is marked by stories. Stories are the way that we make sense of the world around us. They frame our discussions, but they also frame the way that we experience the bare facts of existence. All reality that we experience takes place in the context of the stories that we tell ourselves, and they are essential to our human nature. Without them, we would have no idea how to comprehend the events that make up our lives and the lives of those around us.

These stories come from a variety of sources: our culture, our families, religious beliefs, and even our own personal conclusions. When I teach students about the concept of “worldview”, it is really these stories that I am referring to. Of course, these stories can change over time as we find evidence that might contract a long-held belief. Still, as these larger stories form the framework for our thought processes, it can be very difficult to challenge the overriding elements of the story that we take for granted.

What we are seeing now in our country and our world is, in my view, a grand conflict between competing stories. It is a somewhat gross simplification for me to suggest that there are only two opposing stories right now, but for the sake of discussion I will focus on just two. Let’s call them the story of Abundance and the story of Scarcity.

The story of Abundance begins with the fundamental belief that the universe provides the sufficient means for life – and not just mere existence, but “abundant” life. This means that the raw materials for all living things to exist harmoniously and to live relatively well are provided by nature itself. This story does not require nor preclude any sort of religious belief – a Christian, an animist, or an atheist could all believe this story with equal consistency. The point is that the means for living well are there, not how they got there or who or what perpetuates them.

The definition of living “well” is, of course, subjective, but in the Abundance story it is generally agreed that living well involves taking no more out of the system of resources than is required for a fully realized existence. Boundaries are necessitated by the realities of the delicate balance required to sustain this optimal life. If one group of beings starts taking more than their share, it will cause the entire system to suffer, but the system is self-correcting in that the takers will eventually feel the consequences of their actions. In other words, the greedy animal soon finds himself starving when he can’t control his appetite. Whether this is enforced by divine providence, karma, or just the laws of nature doesn’t matter as much as the recognition that it will happen.

In the story of Abundance things have intrinsic value. They are all equally valuable merely by the fact of their existence, and also because the existence of all things is interconnected. Power is largely an illusory concept because the real power lies in nature, the universe, or in some form of divinity. Therefore power is best used as a tool to work with the greater forces of nature, not to subdue or contain them in some concept of certainty. An archetypal person for the Abundance story might the Farmer, who works with and respects the land, and seeks to know it without dominating or controlling it while at the same time benefiting from it.  

Those whose realities are formed by the story of Abundance recognize that the present world does not operate according to this paradigm. Therefore, they work, as they can, to restore the essential balance as much as possible, by whatever actions they can. They do this because they have the faith that the balance does exist, and can be restored even when it seems unlikely. Martin Luther King Jr’s quote referring to “the arc of the moral universe” that “bends toward justice” is an example of the Abundance story being conceptualized and articulated.

In the story of Scarcity, the benevolent nature of the universe is called into question. Instead of sufficiency, this story tells of a lack of resources. Since resources are inherently limited, the questions of survival and of flourishing are matters of competition – competition within the system with other beings, and competition with the system itself.

Like the story of Abundance, the story of Scarcity does not belong solely to the religious or non-religious. There are plenty of belief systems on all sides of the spiritual spectrum that hold to some version of this story. The bottom line is that the universe is essentially a hostile place to life, and in order to continue surviving, living things must to some extent take matters into their own hands. This is the largely pessimistic counterpoint to the story of Abundance.

Boundaries are also necessary according to this story, but primarily for protection against the forces that seek to diminish life. These elements of chaos are seen as being at war with life, and thus need to be held back, subjugated, or eradicated entirely. There is a strong dualism at work in this story – the binary opposition between dark and light, good and evil, chaos and control. Things are identified based upon which side of the dichotomy they fall.

Value and power both play important roles in the story of Scarcity. Value is based primarily on utility, whether in the form of expertise, strength, economic value, or other forms. Things increase in value as utility increases, and more valuable things are held in higher esteem. Power is closely connected to this, because power is necessary to retain value, lest it be taken away by others. Power is also necessary to control the unpredictable elements of both human and wild nature. Knowledge adds to power by increasing certainty, which allows for greater means of control. The archetypal person is the industrialist who uses knowledge (and its resultant product, technology) to bring will to power.

As I said before, this is a very simplistic categorization of worldviews. However, I would risk to say that some version of either of these two stories underpins the thinking of many people in our modern world. It is because of the deep differences in these stories that two people can experience the same events, and yet interpret them so differently. How could they not, when the ends lead to such different conclusions? It is from these differences that we see the rifts in our society, which have become that much more clearly defined in a very short period of time.

How can we stand on common ground, when our stories give us radically different meanings to the very ground itself? Do we resort to tribalism? Do we resign to nihilism, giving up on the hope of ever finding a solution? At this point I’m not sure, but I do know that conversation is required. But if there is to be any conversation, it begins with identifying and owning our stories. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Those Who Know The Story

The call to a deeper connection with nature was, for me, something new and unprecedented. For most of my life, I have pursued what many would consider to be “social justice” or what my religious tradition calls “the works of mercy.” My paradigm for taking action in the past has been centered firmly on humanity. I have worked with the homeless, with the poor, and with immigrants. I have found my solidarity with those who are marginalized by the dominant society and culture, and much of my work has been about understanding just what concrete forms that solidarity might take. In turn, I have found that my spirituality is inevitably colored by this view from “the bottom.”

In the last few years, however, I’ve gotten more involved with causes and movements that put a strong emphasis on justice from a whole-earth perspective. This means seeking connection, solidarity and justice not just for the marginalized humans of the world, but with all living things and with the very earth itself. Surprisingly enough, this has not required much of a theological shift for me. In fact, this movement seems like the fulfillment of a way of seeing that begins by looking at what society deems useless, and finding transcendence and connection to the eternal in the mundane and physical. If any Christians find this appalling, I would suggest they examine their own practice of the Eucharist as a starting point.

It’s no secret that our society finds little to no value in the elemental “stuff” of nature, beyond what economic value it can provide. The idea that the earth can contain any form of transcendence is denied outright, or at best dismissed as mere emotion or sentimentality that cannot compete with the universal laws of endless growth and expansion. It’s not much of a stretch to move from the disregard of the value of nature to the disregard of human value – especially those whose contributions to the almighty economic engine are minimal. In the meritocracy of utility, only those things (human or otherwise) that provide maximum gain are given esteem, while the rest are paved over and shoved to the side.

We see this clearly in modern America with the treatment of native protesters to the Dakota Access pipeline. The shockingly heavy-handed response of the government to these protesters, with military-level displays of force from law enforcement personnel, is no surprise when considering the statement ultimately being made by the native people. They are saying, in effect, that the earth has value beyond the resources that can be extracted from it. They are daring to suggest that it might be better to leave the sacred ground to its sacredness, and to trust in the very benevolence of the earth itself to provide as it always has. To the extractive worldview, this way of thinking is anathema, beyond comprehension. It threatens the very foundations of utilitarian society and must be stamped out with all of the violence that the state can bring to bear.

Most everyone knows the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I fear that to a Western, rationalist worldview these words mean very little. We don’t much value the meek, and we only value the earth as much as we can take from it. But I think that the words here call our attention to the very real connection between “the least of these” and the very earth that we stand on. Maybe these meek – these native peoples, these poor and oppressed everywhere – remind us how closely our survival really depends upon the stuff of nature, the simple things that the earth provides if we pay attention and learn to understand it. The meek are not filled up with the illusion that more industry and more extraction will make us great and insulate us from suffering and want. They are no strangers to suffering and want, but they have seen also that the earth, their inheritance, will indeed provide if left to pursue its course and treated with the respect that its sacredness requires.

I have read the passionate pleas of many native folks over the last few weeks, and can understand the despair and frustration that they express. I have read accusations that Americans of European descent, like myself, are a people without roots in the land, and I agree. While the situation in North Dakota is certainly about national sovereignty and broken treaties, it is also about a fundamental collision of worldviews. If the land is not sacred to us, what is to stop us from draining it dry? If we don’t believe that the land itself has a transcendent value, I have to wonder how we will ever reach a point of agreement and an end to the conflict. Now is the time to recognize the worldviews that drive us, to turn to the land and seek to put down those roots, and to join with those who know its story and listen and stand with them. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Living well in the watershed

Agua Hedionda Lagoon, where the Agua Hedionda Creek watershed meets the ocean

In a few weeks, I’ll have the privilege of doing a presentation at an Environmental Education Leadership conference on one of my favorite topics, watershed literacy.  This concept is rooted in the idea that we need to understand how to “read” and understand the places where we live, in order to truly live well in them. But the bigger question is, perhaps: what does it mean to “live well?” And what do watersheds have to do with it?

The physical definition of a watershed is fairly well-known – a watershed is an area defined by the movement of water from one place to another. The more important discussion is about why watersheds matter in the first place.

For me, the concept has always resonated because I love to try to understand how things are connected. I’ve always been one to notice contrasts in places and environments – mountains vs. sea, urban vs. natural, and so on – and try to figure out possible relationships between these things. A watershed is a way of understanding that relationship, based on water. And although we may not realize or acknowledge it, water is a sort of life-blood of the earth that draws us all together.

Living in our modern world, we might not have much cognizance of the critical importance of water in our existence. Yet if we look into history and the roots of much of our political and cultural discourse, water flows both metaphorically and physically through it all. Civilizations rise and fall based on proximity and availability of water. Our modern conveniences do not make this any less so. We are as dependent on our watersheds as all other life forms within them, whether we want to admit it or not.

So if watersheds are important, how can we be watershed literate? From a broad perspective, the task is to become fluent about what is happening around us. Where does our water come from, where does it go? How does it affect the topography of the land we live on? What kinds of affects do our buildings and roads have on the flow of water? And how does all of this affect the various forms of life that surround us? These aren’t just questions for the environmentalist or the planner, but for anyone who wants to know how to live well in and on their land.

It is here that the question of living well becomes relevant. It’s easy enough to merely exist, at least as long as we can extract or import the resources we need to survive. But is this really living? I’m going to argue that it isn’t. The things that we enjoy about life – culture, beauty, society – are shaped by the land as well. In my own home, Southern California, we have a culture, an aesthetic, and a way of life that is shaped by the land’s unique features. None of these things would be the same somewhere else. The definition of living well in San Diego would not work in New York. And while we might attempt to create the same conditions elsewhere, the attempts always fall flat. So the discipline of watershed literacy involves more than just hard science. It’s about culture and society as well.

By becoming watershed literate, we are seeking to “read” the cues in the land itself about how to live well. Sometimes this means adjusting our expectations. We can’t expect perennially green lawns in a drought-susceptible place like Southern California, any more than we can expect to skateboard outside every day throughout an Oregon winter. If we became a bit more fluent in the language of the land around us, maybe we would begin to understand how to let the land itself sustain us, rather than always seeking resources from other places. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


Sometimes we look for sacred spaces, and sometimes they find us. In my experience, these spaces are typically on the edges of things. The edge is a transitional zone where, for example, a residential area might transition into an open, natural area. Often these are the forgotten places, hiding in plain sight outside of our field of vision. Someone from a more mystical persuasion might call them "liminal" or "thin" places. They are portals between worlds, both here and elsewhere simultaneously.

On the edge of suburbia, on a wooded hill overlooking a shopping mall, we found the ditch and D.I.Y. skate spot pictured above. The ditch, I suppose, is meant to provide some sort of erosion control. It certainly was not intended to be a place of creative movement and freedom. This is the beauty of skateboarding in seeing the innate possibilities of a place. And of course, to the hard work and ingenuity of skateboarders in crafting the spot as a canvas for expression. Maybe this is the way that a sacred space is made...

Friday, July 29, 2016

Geological Stories

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful educational program with the California Chaparral Institute. This program was the Advanced Chaparral Naturalist certification course, and I found it intriguing because it had a great deal of focus on geology. Geology is one subject that I knew almost nothing about. Aside from some basic, middle-school level earth science knowledge about types of rock, I could not claim to have any knowledge of geology whatsoever.

I found that geology has a lot in common with philosophy and theology. Now I know that some of my naturalistically-inclined friends will scoff at this comparison, but bear with me. Geology, like theology and philosophy, is typically not the first choice of study for those interested in natural sciences. Studying rocks and dirt is just not quite as accessible as plants or animals. Sure there are impressive instances of geology, such as the massive granite cliffs and domes of Yosemite Valley, but these are rather simplistic examples in geological terms. Geology is much more of an intuitive pursuit. You cannot see the movement of tectonic plates and the formation and transformation of rocks in the same way that you can watch a plant grow.

Through the course, I found that my home region of Southern California has a particularly unique geological makeup. We are located at a sort of crossroads – the boundaries of tectonic plates, uplifted ranges from ancient subduction zones, and the proximity to the ocean have all contributed to the variety of the topography found around here. You can find specimens of many different geological ages in close proximity in San Diego County.

This impressed upon me most the idea that our topography is not just a matter of chance. The forces that have come into play in this region have each shaped our coastal bluffs, mesas and canyons, rolling foothills and boulder-studded highlands in specific ways. This variety of topography, in turn, has created watersheds and environments for the native plant and animal species that live here. You cannot have the life without the land.

One of the most significant parameters in the study of geology is that of time. Geological time is measured in terms of ages, epochs, eras – periods of time so massive that our minds can barely comprehend them. We speak of the uplift of continents and the movement of ranges along plate boundaries, and we are asked to picture and think of these things in real time, while in fact they take place over lifetimes longer than any species alive on the Earth. Imagining these things takes a shift in the way of seeing. It involves viewing the landscape and the places we know with whole new dimensions – time and motion among them.

Geology really is, at the root, a story of motion. And it is here that I find the most congruence with theology, at least the kind of theology that I espouse. The lands that we know are in constant motion. They were someplace else before, and they will be someplace else later. In 50 million years, San Diego county will be in Northern California (we are moving northwest at a rate of a few inches per year). Even the things we find most solid, rocks and mountains, are not so solid after all, but are moving and will be transformed again and again. Such is the nature of spiritual things as well. That dance of transformation, of birth, life, death, and re-birth, is inherent in the nature of the universe in both a spiritual and physical sense, and this is manifest even in the ground we stand upon. This is the profound mystery that geology reveals to me.

I can’t claim to have anything beyond the most basic layman’s knowledge of geology even after this course, but that’s beside the point. What I have gained is an appreciation for the story that geology has to tell. It is a story about the places that we live and move around in. The best theology is also more about stories than it is about doctrines or details as well. We need stories to frame our existence, whether we acknowledge this or not. I’m glad that I’ve learned, in a small way, to listen to the stories that the rocks, hills and mountains have to tell.  

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Wisdom of Sacred Spaces

How do we define sacred space? This article from On Being got me thinking about this question. While the article speaks specifically of built spaces like churches, I began to wonder about the places that exist all around us. What makes a place, especially a place in the natural world, sacred?

We live in a world where the concept of sacred space is misunderstood, and often simply dismissed. The idea that a place could have a sacred, spiritual dimension is thought of as a relic of another time. The very idea strikes hard against our Western way of thinking, with its faith in the empirical and its search for predictable certainty. Oddly enough, this sentiment comes not just from secular corners but from religious ones as well.

Modern religious thought, at least in the Christian tradition that I was brought up in, tends to accept the epistemological conclusions of a dualistic worldview without actually realizing it. It stresses the transcendent nature of God over immanence, and leads to the conclusion that a place can only be sacred if it has been properly set aside as such. Churches and cathedrals might be considered sacred spaces, but they are only sacred in the sense that they provide an escape from the outside world and remind us of our non-material, spiritual nature. Their intent is to turn us away from the world, not to dwell within it. To suggest that the place itself has a depth of sacredness that is inherent in its physicality is considered pagan or worse.

The consequences of such a view are profound. Such theology forces us to become “dis-placed”, to feel that we are not at home no matter where we are. This distancing from the stuff of everyday life means that we also become free to exploit the land on which we live without any further thought. And if we can treat the land like an object to be exploited, what is to stop us from dehumanizing its human occupants as well? Coming from a faith tradition that centers its theology on incarnation, on the physicality of the divine, these consequences seem especially ironic and tragic.

Still, I find myself unsatisfied with the opposite approach, which simply says “all the earth is sacred”, and leaves it at that. I don’t disagree with this statement, but are there certain places that hold a more sacred dimension than others? We certainly find this in more traditional indigenous religious thought. There are certainly sacred groves and places where the proverbial veil is thin, these liminal spaces where the spirits walk more visibly. What makes these places sacred?

I think that the answer can only be found by entering into a relationship with the land that removes any notion of treating the land like an object. The land must be assumed to have a voice and a language, and it is the imperative of the dweller on the land to learn it. Perhaps the definition is personal and individual, but I suspect that it best understood communally. That is the wisdom in religious tradition in the first place: passing on knowledge of the sacred places to preserve them for future generations. Wisdom is ultimately connected to place because it is most clearly manifest in knowing a certain place. Wisdom without connection to place is just disembodied knowledge.

In my last blog, I spoke about the tendency to only equate nature with the pristine. This is relevant here as well. To the extent that we do find spaces in nature sacred, we generally limit this to places that we consider impressive based on our aesthetic sensibilities. I won’t deny that the impressive places I’ve visited, like Mt. Hood or Crater Lake, have a transcendence to them that is apparent. It’s not hard to have a spiritual experience in such a place. But if only these places are sacred, then we find ourselves able to trample our own neighborhoods underfoot without much thought.

A place becomes sacred when it reveals to us, in its own time and manner of speaking, what it truly is. This isn’t some sort of gnostic hidden knowledge. This is the truth hidden in plain sight, the fact of the interrelated nature of all life and the unique way that each organism contributes to the whole. When we can learn this from a place, I think that we can call it a sacred space. The most sacred spaces are the ones that reveal this to us time and time again, often with different nuance each time. And these places also show us our own interdependence, our own place in this complex web of life. Their sacredness comes in the wisdom that they communicate.