How we view our history and future can be skewed, or even screwed if we don't see either well. I promised my readers I would…
Readings prior to the sermon:
“Managing environmental resources sustainably has always been difficult, ever since Homo sapiens developed modern inventiveness, efficiency, and hunting skills by around 50,000 years ago… [E]very human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans – whether of Australia, North America, South America, Madagascar, the Mediterranean islands, or Hawaii and New Zealand and dozens of other Pacific islands – has been followed by a wave of extinction of large animals that had evolved without fear of humans and were easy to kill…”
“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” Jared Diamond, Pg.9
Concluding his chapter on Easter Island, home of the giant stone faces where an estimated 6,000 – 30,000 people once lived, Diamond notes that among other causes, deforestation brought their entire civilization down. Where once stood trees 7 to 30 feet thick in abundant diversity, holding lush soil in place, there now exists barren, treeless landscapes. The trees were used for heating, cremations, and the stone faces projects (kings competing for who built the tallest). While Easter Island ended up with no trees standing and 90% of its former population gone, two smaller islands ended up with only one tree species and no humans.
“The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious… if mere thousands of Easter Islanders with just stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their environment and thereby destroyed their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power now fail to do worse? (Collapse, Pgs. 118-119)
Diamond reminds us of the ironic iconic symbol of our neighboring state: the California Golden Bear ─ is also extinct. (Pg. 503)
Bill Bryson, in his, “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” bemoans some of the birds of North America, now extinct. The Passenger Pigeon once darkened the skies in flocks of millions, and the Carolina Parakeet, living in large clusters from Florida to New York to Wisconsin was considered the loveliest songbird ever. Bryson remembers the demise of the parakeet:
“Take the case of the lovely Carolina parakeet. Emerald green, with a golden head, it was arguably the most striking and beautiful bird ever to live in North America – parrots don’t usually venture so far north… But the Carolina parakeet was also considered a pest by farmers and easily hunted because it flocked tightly and had a peculiar habit of flying up at the sound of gunfire (as you would expect), but then returning almost at once to check on fallen comrades… By the second decade of the twentieth century, the birds had been so relentlessly hunted that only a few remained alive in captivity. The last one, named Inca, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918 (not quite four years after the last passenger pigeon died in the same zoo) and was reverently stuffed. And where would you go to see poor Inca now? Nobody knows. The zoo lost it.” (Pgs. 474-475)
Similarly, the big, dim-witted, and trusting flightless bird, the Dodo, was quickly clubbed to death unto extinction by sailors. They had no fear of humans. Bryson comments:
“You would be hard-pressed, I submit, to find a better pairing of occurrences to illustrate the divine and felonious nature of the human being – a species of organism that is capable of unpicking the deepest secrets of the heavens while at the same time pounding into extinction, for no purpose at all, a creature that never did any of us any harm and wasn’t even remotely capable of understanding what we were doing to it as we did it.” (Pgs. 469-470)
“And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth … into your hands are they delivered.” (Genesis 9:2)
“And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
We are born of and live in Eden, and it lives in us. We are made of it and for it.
By Eden I don’t mean a mythical land of a biblical past, I mean the actual garden bible writers once loved, and I mean the rest of the garden that we should love. Eden suffers both blunder and attack by us humans, exponentially-so in the last two hundred years. Vast forces are rapidly depleting and injuring our beloved home. Humanity faces a sudden imperative: love it or lose it.
Preparing for this sermon, I opened an old family bible. The fine paper with gilded edges hadn’t been used much, but it was a place to record births and deaths – my dad’s, his brother’s, his mother’s. Going to Genesis One, my favorite bible passage (where all of natural creation is generated in six days) I see a note in my dad’s handwriting along the edge, “Probably a day was a billion of our years.”
This is my thought, too, towards that passage. Genesis One is quickly ridiculed and dismissed for the silly six days concept. But that misses its evolutionary structure. Six days might be thought of as six epochs of time, from the initial big bang of light in the midst of the “darkness upon the face of the deep” to the creation of new suns, oceans, land, life, and finally, humans. Importantly, each stage is labeled “good” by Elohim God. All the parts of natural existence, from atoms and suns to humans, male and female, God calls “good.” Seen all together in its wholeness, people included, God declares it is “very good.”
I agree with God.
I know some of you wince at religious language. The word religion means “binding back to our root.” Religion is relating well with reality. Whatever ultimate reality there may be, it is in part and at least this obvious, inescapable, awesome physical and energetic reality that we are in and of. If religion involves acknowledging “something greater than ourselves,” ─ our world, solar system, galaxy, and universe, made of minute atoms everywhere ─ is that. We have bodies for our time in environmental and cultural systems that came before us and will persist long after us. Religion should relate us well with reality.
Live your time in eternity with gratitude, responsibility, and celebration. Life is good, and we are of that goodness. If you would seek the Creator, love Creation, study it, protect it, be it. Be the freeborn, intelligent, caring, sexy human that creation made you to be. Be the one only you really know and want. The Creator and creation made you good. Trust that. Be that.
God’s goods of Genesis One very much inform and fix the big problem of the second creation story in the bible, Genesis Two and Three. This is the story of Adam and Eve getting expelled from the Garden of Eden for having eaten a new and problematic sort of good and evil. What was created and called “good” by God fell into the alienation of shame, blame and pain. It is the origin of the twisted perversion taught us – original sin. Millions have been misled by the telling of it, saying humans sinned by being sexy, willful, and smart instead of just obedient. The original sin story then goes on to say because we’re inherently evil we should believe in a preposterous scenario to not be punished in a supposed afterlife.
We not fallen; this idea is. It makes us fall. It trips us up. What a tragedy that we fell for confusion over just what is good and evil when good was already given by God in Genesis One. What a tragedy that our religions alienate us from our given and glorious home while directing us to other realms. What a tragedy our governments waste us and Eden in war. What a tragedy the ordinary technologies we use are ruining us. The serpent, the subtle deceiver, is incarnated now in the church, government, and marketers whenever they offer poisonous goods that divide us from our inherently divine natural ones.
I am not saying Genesis One justifies loving life. I’m saying Genesis One affirms what is inherently good – natural existence and our place in it. I don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God to mankind, but I admit much of mankind believes it is. All three theistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) base themselves on these creation passages. That makes the word “good” in Genesis One a very important one, especially for our moment in history. Do we live in it, and up to it, or not? Will we love the good, or lose it?
The way to do that isn’t complicated or hard. The simple advice of Genesis One is to “replenish” the earth and to have “dominion.” Replenish means composting your meal scraps and yard debris rather than wasting them. It means investing in the goodness of life rather than exploiting and exhausting it, whether in your backyard or in how countries and multinationals run modern technological processes. Having dominion needn’t mean being a bossy, selfish king. It means having sovereignty in your life in ways that enjoy and augment the goods you are made of and live in. Our current “kings” defile the good, but we can better them.
That’s what old Isaiah thought, too. It’s as if he foresaw our current “kings,” and he offered a way beyond them. Preparing this sermon, my family bible happened to fall open to this passage:
“For the vile person will speak villainy, and his heart will work iniquity, and practice hypocrisy… to make empty the soul of the hungry… He deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right. But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand.” (Isaiah 32: 6-8)
“Liberal”? Was he allowed to say that? Are we to affirm that when vile people speak villainy, practice hypocrisy, and devise ways to destroy the poor with lying words ─ that tolerant, generous, abundant liberals should rule instead? Yes, that’s what Isaiah recommends. If we do, he says, “… my people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.” “Behold,” says Isaiah, “a [liberal] king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment.” (Isaiah 32:18)
What do our current vile kings do for the refugees in Syria, Turkey, or here? How about for those living in low-lying areas near our rising oceans, from Bangladesh to Miami? The bulk of Americans are increasingly poor over the last fifty years while the already rich engorge themselves on the never-ending increase. What sort of political leadership, supposedly backed by religious people, have we now, sidelined liberals, or vile hypocrites, devising ways to “empty the souls of the hungry”?
I bring these bible passages to our celebration of Earth Day, not to pump up belief in the Bible, but to pump up belief in ourselves and nature. These are the real substance of religion, not imposed scriptures from various dubious sources.
Emerson wanted us to stand up in our own divinity ─ wholly, holy humans. He wrote, “A faith in oneself is the height, not of pride, but of piety.”
Like Emerson, Thomas Paine, philosophical founder of our USA, earlier detested the notion we should believe some supposed prophet just because he claimed to be channeling God and others then agree. He critiqued the Bible in no uncertain terms, denouncing it and Christianity in favor of a Deist perspective.
“The assassination of infants is a matter for serious concern, I cannot dishonor the Creator by calling it by his name,” he wrote in 1795. “To read the Bible without horror, we must undo everything that is tender, sympathizing, and benevolent in the heart of man.” (Age of Reason, Pgs. 25, 85)
The Bible isn’t the Word of God, he said, Nature is. “THE WORD OF GOD IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD,” he wrote in all caps. We come to know the Creator as we come to know and live well with Creation. Tragically, such deism did not become our national faith. Neither it nor Nature, nor Reason, nor sciences are parts of our national faith. Faith in reason, science, and nature resides outside of most churches. We’re better than our religions.
Neither you nor I should be used by the Bible or those wielding it. Rather, we should use it ─ hence my appreciation for Genesis One and a few other passages. The biblical Garden of Eden isn’t my concern; our actual Garden of Eden is.
Only recently in human history have we come to know how old and precarious our Earth Eden is. For thousands of millions of years it has spun, gradually developing a thin and lovely biosphere that could keep growing for millions of years more. It isn’t a mere myth; it is our one and only precious home. It isn’t owned by religions, nations, or corporations. We shouldn’t let our current political, economic, technological predicament ruin our long-term earth pursuing short-term trite goals. We have a holy home to enjoy, defend, and improve.
In our part of the world, it takes about a thousand years to form one inch of soil; it can be washed or blown away in mere years. About a third of the great Oglala Aquifer is already depleted, and another third will be sucked up in about a mere fifty years.
The lovely Carolina Parakeet was a unique species, having arrived here 5.5 million years ago before Panama rose to connect the Americas. They are believed to have originated in Antarctica when it was still part of Gondwana, 50 million years ago.
It was only recently that we slaughtered the whales almost unto extinction to have oil to fuel our reading lamps. This came in an era of vast forests and huge herds of bison. They seemed limitless. Our ancestors burned off huge trees to open farmland, and they piled up bison skulls. They captured and enslaved people by the millions. They contended with other European powers to own colonies to be exploited. We praised competition over cooperation and devised an economic system that enriches a few kings at the expense of all others.
We sent a general named Westmoreland to control Vietnam, but there was no more land in the west to grab. There are only thin soils we use and could build.
We needn’t kill whales for our reading light anymore. We can craft mere sand into solar cells that create electricity out of sunlight, easily powering the new LED lightbulbs. We needn’t worsen global warming with our cars and trucks; we can use electric ones powered by clean, renewable solar and wind sources. We needn’t exploit and exhaust our oceans, forests, and lands for our needs; we’re beginning to learn how to replenish them so they’ll always be more abundant. We needn’t keep people poor and ignorant in order to have a slave-like workforce; we know that health, education, and freedom benefit all. We needn’t let vile hypocrites confuse us with fake issues; we are made in the image and likeness of divine forces before, within, and beyond us.
Ancient processes are being radically impacted by barely-understood new technologies. We only recently devised ways to go under the water or to fish there industrially. Now, between a warming, acidified ocean due to the fossil fuel frenzy of the last hundred years, overfishing, and pollutants, our oceans are sickened. Colorful coral reefs, where about 25% of our fish species live, are turning grey and dying. An island of plastic trash twice the size of Texas floats in the Pacific. Poisons are accumulating in our oceans, soils, and air, and they stick in our bodies. Whole civilizations are more devoted to profits than plenty, wasting their resources and the lives of their people on sickening processes.
We’ve been misled, but we’re smarter than the subtle deceivers. We’re more whole and holy than they know than we know. Jesus, Emerson, Paine, and I all urge you to live up to your freeborn, sovereign self. A religious connection isn’t owned by any church; it rides in you as you.
And in me as me. Walking up to the Y I noticed my face was tight with endemic worry. I deliberately changed it, put a smile on it. As I walked in, three or more people smiled back. Everybody was benefited a bit. Eden lives better this way. When you’re one in yourself, you can be one with others in Eden. Love it or lose it – in the instant and for eternity.
Eden isn’t a distant myth; it lives all around us and in us. Yes, it is injured and defiled, both outside and inside. We need to remember just what is originally and finally good, to acknowledge our religions have related us to fantasies, rather than to fantastic realities. We should be grieved. We should be alarmed. We should be reconnected – to life, to each other, to our inner worthiness, to Eden.
Eden starts in you as you. Take care of yourself and each other. Enjoy your breath and view, honor your vision, do what you can for Eden, and live healthily and happily in it. Be of this goodness that gives us life.
Live well in Eden and for Eden, and Eden will flourish with life abundant – beyond what we’ve only begun to envision. Earth will reliably spin as it does for thousands of millions of years. But how will this thin film of our entire ecosystem be on it as it spins? How will humanity be with Eden and each other as we ride it? Going towards the goal will get you there. Beauty, community, plentitude, pleasure – all these are ours in Eden – when we love it.
Reverend Byron Bradley Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass, Oregon
© April 22, 2018