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What is the World? Who are We? What are We Going to...

What is the World? Who are We? What are We Going to do About It?

| Op-Ed

[This is an edited version of a sermon delivered July 17, 2016, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX.]

What are the big questions that religion answers?

I know what you are thinking, this being St. Andrew’s, and St. Andrew’s being a good liberal Protestant church: “Bob, it’s not about answers but about living the questions.”

We can say that, yet we do need answers. Questions are fine in church, but we live day-to-day by answers, no matter how tentative and incomplete they may have to be. Whether or not there are any definitive ones to be found, we’re all hunting for answers.

One traditional formulation of the questions that various religions seek to answer is: Where did we come from? What happens to us when we die? How are we to live?

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Modern science gives us partial answers to where we came from—the big bang and evolution by natural selection. For me, the second question was never very interesting. I have always assumed that when my body stops functioning I stop functioning, and I “live” only in the memory of those who knew me. Other than that, when we die, we’re dead, full stop.

How are we to live? That’s the tough one. Physics, biology, and history give us clues, which we do our best to misinterpret, which produces drama and comedy, which distract us from our inevitable failures to figure it out.

This morning I want to offer a different trio of questions to guide our stumbling through the tentative and incomplete answers, questions that I think are a little less self-centered and are made more relevant by the multiple, cascading ecological crises of this moment in history: What is the world? Who are we? What are we going to do about it?

What Is the World?

I believe that we live in God’s Creation, though I don’t believe in God. I believe in Creation without a Creator. I believe we all live as part of a glorious Creation, so grand that it must be the work of a Creator that I don’t believe exists.

Why do I hold onto the term “Creation” if I’m not looking for a Creator? Because the word conveys the reverence appropriate for the complexity of a living world that is beyond our ability to fully understand. While our future—if there is to be a decent human future, maybe any human future—depends on our ability to understand as much as we can, we should act on that partial understanding cautiously. Speaking of Creation encourages humility, reminding us of humans’ relatively small, albeit disproportionately destructive, place in that larger world.

The first step toward that understanding is to realize the arbitrariness of the distinction we make between the living and the dead.

Like any organism, we focus on our own survival and the lives of those closest to us, kin and clan. The expansion of the moral realm has led us to recognize that all human life comes into the world with the same claim to dignity. From there, we realize that we depend on other living things, whose place alongside us in the world we must respect.

So, I think first of my own existence, but I realize that my life is empty without friends and family, and that those people so dear to me are no different than billions of other humans, and that we best understand that all life has value.

From there, one more move remains, to recognize the slippery nature of the line we draw between living and dead. Don’t worry, this is not the start of a séance, but rather the next step in developing a seriously ecological worldview, in going ecospheric. We move from being self-centered to human-centered to life-centered to eco-centered. We recognize the centrality and supremacy of Creation, or what the late ecologist Stan Rowe preferred to call the ecosphere: “atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere—connected in a living planetary ‘cell.’” [Stan Rowe, “The Living Earth and Its Ethical Priority” (2003).

To challenge the living/dead dichotomy is not to suggest that water has consciousness or that rocks have the same moral status as humans, just as the suggestion that all life is precious doesn’t mean we assign the same value to the lives of mosquitos and our children. Rather it is a different way of thinking about how to use the term “life.” Rowe argues that instead of “organism=life” (the idea that life is a property of an organism) we should revive the more ancient idea that “Earth=Life” (life is a property of the ecosphere). We can do that by going beyond our limited viewpoint from the “inside,” as a small component of the world, and moving to an “outside view,” imagining how the world looks from afar. Here’s how Rowe explains it:

Analogous to the outside/inside view of Earth is an examination of a cell under a microscope, followed by an imaginary view from within. Looked at the from the outside the cell is seen as a unit whose parts are the watery cytoplasm, the vacuoles, inclusions such as starch grains, the nucleus and various other organelles. Seeing the whole, the viewer accepts at once that all the constituents are related components of a living cell. Now suppose the viewer is reduced to micro-size and placed inside the same cell with a pair of binoculars. Looking out and around s/he will apparently see the same cell components but now as separate things. The slow flowing cytoplasm, the vacuoles and starch grains, will appear “dead” while the more active, dividing organelles will be identified as “alive.” From the outside, all the components participate in and express the life of the cell. From the inside, only certain parts appear to be animated. Just so, people immersed in Earth’s surface—deep-air animals—have misclassified most of what lies around them as “dead.”

What difference will this view from outside have? Realizing that life is a property of the ecosphere should make us more reverent, more respectful of the whole. When we label some things living and other things dead, it gives us license to be cavalier about the non-living. Think of soil. Especially for those of us in cities, it’s easy to think of soil as dirt, as something dead, even though soil is teeming with life at the microbial level that we don’t fully understand. Are there living things in the soil, or is the soil alive? How we answer that question doesn’t change the material reality at work in the soil, but it can influence how we see that reality.

If we were to understand the world this way, we would be more thoughtful about treating apparently “dead” things as if they have no value beyond what we can do with them in the short term for our comfort and pleasure. We would recognize the power of Wendell Berry’s words from “How to Be a Poet”:

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

[Wendell Berry, Given: New Poems (Washington, DC: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005), pp. 18-19.]

If we understood all the world as sacred, we would not have desecrated so much of Creation. But that’s exactly what we have done and continue to do. Why? Because we think we are gods.

Who Are We?

I have no answer to this question, except in the negative: We are not gods.

That may seem obvious, but not to everyone. For example, Mark Lynas writes: “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.” That’s a way of saying that we are gods. If you doubt that interpretation, take Mark’s word for it. A couple of pages later he writes, “playing God (in the sense of being intelligent designers) at a planetary level is essential if creation is not to be irreparably damaged or even destroyed by humans unwittingly deploying our newfound powers in disastrous ways.” [Mark Lynas, The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2011), pp. 8, 10.]

If that’s not scary enough, consider this: Mark is not a corporate profiteer from the 1 percent who is trying to rationalize the destruction of a living world for the sake of profit, but an environmentalist. At least, that’s what he used to be. Now, in his own words, he “campaigns on behalf of various pro-science causes.” Science, in this usage, has less to do with rigor of the scientific method and is rather a synonym for the most dangerous kind of fundamentalism, technological fundamentalism.

Technological fundamentalism is a form of magical thinking that promises a way out of the problems that the extractive/industrial economy has created. Technological fundamentalists believe that the increasing use of evermore sophisticated high-energy advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of previous high-energy/high-technology “solutions” eventually can be remedied by more technology. Perhaps the ultimate example of this fundamentalism is “geo-engineering,” the belief that we can intervene in the climate system at the planetary level to deal with global warming. Given massive human failure at much lower levels of intervention, this approach—for example, what is called “solar radiation management,” which would inject sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect back sunlight—is, quite literally, insane.

Am I unfair in my assessment? Let’s go back to Lynas, who is one of the sort-of environmentalists who authored the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which argues:

Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.

Lynas and his co-authors believe in applying human ingenuity to long-term planning, just not the kind of planning that could lead to reducing consumption. The ecomodernists believe we can keep pursuing our desecration of Creation—indeed, we can intensify the desecration—because we will magically decouple our consumption from the material world through more and better gadgets. In other words, we are gods. We can create what we want, out of the void.

Again, I am not unfairly slapping a pejorative label on the ecomodernists. Another of the manifesto’s co-authors, Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame, in 1968 wrote, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Forty years later, he updated that: “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” [Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (New York: Viking Adult, 2009), p. 1.]

In other words, after 40 years of the demonstrated failures of technological fundamentalism, the ecomodernists encourage us to double down on magical thinking, ironically all in the name of science.

What Are We Going to Do about It?

Again, my answer is in the negative: Not more of the same.

That doesn’t mean we abandon science, but simply that we abandon the narcissistic illusion that we can control our interventions into an infinitely complex world. Instead, we should cultivate the intellectual humility that helps us be more careful in our tinkering. Such an attitude obviously would eliminate geo-engineering as an option, and also would check the ecomodernists’ enthusiasm for expanding production of nuclear energy, a process that we can’t really control and produces waste for which we have no safe disposal system.

But it also would lead us to doubt the miracle-cure rhetoric around renewable energy offered by folks such as Al Gore, another sort-of environmentalist who prefers high-tech solutions to protect the affluent from accountability. I believe that we should continue to pursue research on renewable energy, using the best science, carefully, to reduce our use of fossil fuels. But it’s equally important to realize that no combination of renewable energy sources can power the modern industrial world at current levels of consumption. Instead of focusing exclusively on new ways to power up, we should put most of our ingenuity to work on living with less energy, and less of most everything else.

If we recognize that Creation is alive, and that we are not gods who can manipulate and manage all of life, then we will stop trying to run the planet and stop running from our real task, which is to give up the modern worship of “progress,” defined as more-and-bigger=better-and-better. The pursuit of that kind of progress is dangerous. As Wendell Berry once observed, “Progress has nowhere to go, and it is going there in a hurry.”

What can each of us do about that? First, we can dare to imagine life in a low-energy world, and then work to create that world in whatever ways, small or large, we can. That is not a call to go back in time, to some romanticized past. It simply recognizes that our only hope for the future is to go forward with humility, which is the slow path, with no magic tricks to save us but instead the hope that we can uncover ways of living that can sustain us.

One of the earliest stories in our tradition, the tale of Adam and Eve’s banishment in chapters two and three of Genesis, speaks to the need for this humility. In the garden, God told the couple that they could eat freely of every tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and after they ignored that warning they were denied access to the tree of life.

The essence of this story: Act I: God says, “Remember, humans aren’t gods.” Act II: Humans say, “Oh yea?” Act III: Bad things happen.

Getting back to that tree of life isn’t easy, because God “placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24)

Evolution doesn’t run backward. We can’t go back in history, but we can learn from it. We may feel as if “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” but there are now just too damn many of us, and we have done too much damage to the tree of life. To abandon the tree of knowledge would be a recipe for disaster. Lynas and the ecomodernists are right about the inevitability of deploying knowledge, but their arrogance suggests that haven’t paid much attention to history. While we can’t give up on knowledge, we have to contend with what Ronald Wright calls “progress traps,” the problems humans inadvertently introduce when seeking to improve our lives, which we then can’t solve. [Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2005).] We face an unlivable future, yet we can’t go back. We are stuck with knowledge, and knowledge is dangerous in the hands of humans. There’s no solution to that problem, and all we can do is be more aware of our weaknesses.

The lesson of the garden is not that people should avoid all knowledge, only that we should resist the temptation to believe we are godlike and can manipulate the complexity of the world. The larger living world of which we are a part—the tree of life—was adequate to sustain us, but we weren’t satisfied. The story suggests that when we humans believe we can rewrite the rules of that world as if we have godlike omniscience, things don’t turn out so well. When we try that, God—a term that for me embraces the ineffable wonder of Creation rather than naming a belief in a Creator—doesn’t trust us and places a guard, armed with a flaming sword, to keep us from mucking things up.

The Traditional Questions

To wrap up, let’s go back to those three basic questions: Where did we come from? What happens to us when we die? How are we to live?

When we go ecospheric, the answers are easy: We came from the ground, we return to the ground, and we should live knowing we are part of the ground. It’s an old idea—ashes to ashes, dust to dust; we don’t own the earth, the earth owns us. If we understood that, we would question a social system built on claims of ownership, which takes us out of right relation with each other and the larger living world. An economic system that claims we can own not only the ground but life itself is, literally, insane.

How are we to live? According to the always-popular Micah 6:8, our task is “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

The first step in walking humbly with our God is remembering we are not gods. We don’t own the world. We can’t competently run the world. We need to scale back our expectations. We must think about what we really need, recognizing that much of what we want is nothing more than things we have been trained to covet by a pathological economic system.

We might ponder the question that a historian offered at the end of his recent “big history” of our species: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?” [Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), p. 416.] I might offer a friendly amendment: dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who think they know what they want.

His book is called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The title got me thinking about how our self-naming reveals our fatal flaw, that hubris. Our genus, Homo (Latin for human being) began 2.5 million years ago with Homo habilis, which is usually translated from Latin as “handy” or “skillful.” We named ourselves Homo sapiens, the “wise” human beings.

Imagine asking two people how to describe themselves. One says, “I’m pretty handy.” The other declares, “I am wise.” Who would you rather hang out with?

We are better people, individually and collectively, when we reject hubris and embrace humility, and we stand a better chance of making real progress—defined by Rowe as “whatever is conducive to sustainable participation in Earth’s ecosystems”—when we better understand the world and our place in it.

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