Dr. Arvind Vasavada, my guru and friend, my gentle, generous mentor from my seminary days, used to advise me and his analysands (counseling clients), “Be…
I have a new tagline on my outgoing emails: “We are born of Eden and for it.”
The more I learn about our garden planet the more I am astonished and in love. I am in awe at whatever mystery and wonder that brought creation into existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? I hope there’s a God to hear my gratitude. I want to take in Eden fully and treat it with reverence, responsibility and joy. I thank whatever Creator may be by enjoying and serving Creation.
When supposedly religious people, often estranged from their bodies and nature, are offended by evolution, insulted to think we are animals related to apes and all life, I am offended by their alienated, judgmental view of life. Do they think Earth in all its interdependent splendor is a mere irrelevant testing ground for a more real and important afterlife? Would they look at the starry heavens in the beyond and the intricate workings within and say, “Unimportant,” or, “Not enough”? Would they claim to love the Creator while ignoring and trashing Creation? Would they waste this actual life while pining for some imagined other? How alien, lonely and selfish.
I recently audited a course on Oregon’s geology and read R.W.B. Lewis’ The American Adam. While Lewis’ book sets the philosophical context of authors and theologians of the 19th Century, claiming we’re like the new Adam and Eve in the New World, the geology sets the ancient stage for that notion. Together, they bring the issues to us: are we of and for Eden in us and beyond us? How?
Did you know the Cascade Mountains we love to see and play on are only a mere million years old or younger? We think of a million years as a long time. But we humans emerged in Africa in less than that. All of history and what we think of as civilization developed in less than a tenth of that. The first humans on this continent date back only about twenty thousand years and we of European descent have been here in less than a thousand. The New World seemed a limitless gift of trees, animals and plants. The New World seemed an unlimited bounty, a New Eden for new Adams and Eves.
However, that set of trees, animals and plants were just the recent ones. Long gone were the camels, small horses, huge elephants, forty foot long crocodiles and eight foot long salmon. Long gone were the earlier huge flying pterosaurs and the fish-like Polyptychodon with a three-foot long head. Ferns with ten foot thick stalks and fifty foot tops once flourished. Grasses are only 30 million years old, and flowers only 40. “Only,” I say, talking about multimillions of years, already perhaps more than we can easily imagine.
North America wasn’t always here. It used to be connected to a singular supercontinent until a gap opened and widened. We now call that gap the Atlantic Ocean. The French Broad River in North Carolina was once adjacent to Ethiopia. A mid-ocean ridge in the Atlantic rises up from deep heat, pushing our continental plate westward. The huge hot spot now under Yellowstone was once under southeastern Oregon. It didn’t move; North America moved westward over it. Ocean beaches were once here. Gradually, the continent moved westward, but as it went west the Pacific Plate dove eastward under it, generating friction heat. The Western Cascade volcanos are 40 million years old and mostly worn down now. Pilot Rock is the remnant of one. You can see other remnants east of I-5 up by Eugene. They created the rock and ash that we now drive around on and farm.
But let’s take it back further. Here where we’re sitting in Grants Pass, we’re atop a huge granite pluton that formed in the deep, hot earth 139 million years ago. Gold Hill is on one 150 million years old. Ashland’s is the oldest at about 161 million years, give or take 20 million years. The oldest rocks in Oregon are up in the Blue Mountains and right here in the Klamaths and Siskiyous. While they may be as old as 400 million years, it was about 165 – 170 million years ago that the Klamath Mountains, not then a part of the North American continent (they were an island archipelago) were pushed around and up, probably by a passing plate or continent during a 3 – 5 million year tectonic activity called the Siskiyou orogeny.
There’s gold in them there hills all right, precipitated out in the deep heat of clashing plates. But that gold formed in a 12 second moment during the supernova of an earlier primitive sun that spawned all the heavier atoms that help make us up. Our current sun, a second-generation star, was born 4.5 billion years ago of the gravity that condensed the early materials of the initial Big Bang some 14.5 billion years ago, give or take hundreds of millions of years.
That’s Eden for you, condensed.
Of course, this story isn’t over. As the natives here witnessed some 7,700 years ago when Mt. Mazama erupted (leaving behind what we now enjoy as Crater Lake) and as we witnessed in our lifetime when Mt. Saint Helens exploded in 1980 (releasing 1,600 times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb) nothing is settled. Fences by highways droop downhill. Mount Hood is still active. Though it has slowed, the Pacific Plate still moves a couple of inches a year. The huge flat lands on Nevada are separating. Baja is faulting northwest. Trump’s wall won’t stop it.
We’re not at the end of things. The middle could be near! Planet Earth will continue to spin daily and revolve yearly around the sun for thousands, millions, billions of years. How it will be for us depends largely on how we treat it. That’s why the idea of Eden is important. We’re brief; earth’s life is long. We are born into a process that came way before us and will continue way past us.
We’re said to be cast out of Eden, suffering from our exile, redeemed by belief, getting us into some supernatural heaven. This idea is only a few thousand years old, yet it informs us. Or should I say misinforms us? We’re not out of Eden; we’re made of Eden, and I would add, for it. We have only recently, in the last couple hundred years, come to see this grand cosmic story. The starry heavens above are far vaster than we ever knew. The interdependent workings of life are far more intricate and important than we ever knew. The potential for humans in Eden is far lovelier than we ever imagined.
Half of our modern medicines are derived from or modeled on the 10% of the plant world we have only begun to study and respect. The same sunlight that grows our plants can power our cars and houses. The span of life we expect may be only a bit of what we might be able to enjoy. Do our religions direct us to this, or alienate us from it? What have America’s religions done with Eden? If religion is that which relates us well to reality, how’s it going?
That’s why I read The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century.
Could we be new, innocent, emancipated from our European history, ready to live in a New World garden, venturing on our own, relying on our innate resources? What is The Garden to us?
John Donne had written (I’ll keep the old masculine words, but intend them for all of us):
Prince, subject, father, son are things forgot
For every man alone thinks he has got
To be a Phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
We can be unique and even alone, but we can’t be independent of Eden’s process. Lewis writes, “A major test of the visionary hero must always be the way he can put his experience to work for the benefit of mankind.” “… and Eden itself,” I would add. Lewis’ book is limited. He barely mentions our ecological impact, and he mostly ignores our treatment of the native peoples here, the African slaves, or the Civil War. Nor does he even mention Thomas Paine’s radical deism and his deconstructing of Christianity and the Bible. Even so, Lewis takes up a philosophical and theological set of ideas pertinent to the New World, reminding me especially of our important Unitarian forerunners.
In Walden Thoreau wonders: “Men think it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride [railroads] thirty miles an hour… but whether we should live like baboons or men is a little uncertain.” For him, the function of a sacrament was to open one to the currents of nature, not to grace flowing from some super-nature. Our sin had to be washed away in order to let the natural reveal itself in us. That sin includes the fallen teachings of the fall from Eden.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, while at orthodox Andover, received a whipping so severe, he too came to doubt Calvinist beliefs. “If for the Fall of man, science comes to substitute the Rise of man, sir, it means the utter disintegration of all the spiritual pessimisms which have been like a spasm in the heart and a cramp in the intellect of man for so many centuries.” What, science, overcoming spiritual pessimisms and the Rise of mankind?
Walt Whitman said Coleridge was, “like Adam in Paradise, and just as free from artificiality.” For him, the aroma of the body was “finer than prayer,” and his head was, “more than churches, bibles and all creeds.” Whitman voiced a high and holy humanism. Maybe humans aren’t fallen wretches. Maybe we are of the Creator itself, created, but also co-creating. Maybe we could live up to ourselves.
This must have been a radical notion to people reared in the pall of Calvinistic Jonathan Edwards. For him, sin was the operation of nature apart from grace. Much like Augustine’s earlier Manichaean dualism, Edwards posited two kinds of principles: inferior ones such as self-love and normal human appetites, summed up as flesh, and superior ones such as righteousness in the image of God. But what image of God did he hold if it is cast against the very Creation God had created and called “good” including mankind, male and female – in his own image? Did God divide us from the Garden, or did we divide ourselves from it and our innate God by being tricked into the fallen notion of The Fall?
For William James, a friend of Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, and Parker, the fall of Adam was just what was needed to acquaint humanity with our older, deeper origins. Once we realize we didn’t make ourselves we can become ourselves, members of a redeemed society.
Emerson advised we drop the sin of belief, the sin of empty ritual built on foolish books that place meaning and authority in distant prophets and popes while ignoring it in ourselves. He advised the graduating ministers of Harvard’s Divinity School to live and preach from their own inner knowing. Why look to preposterous miracles in distant others while missing those in us and around us? “The man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush,” he dared to preach. He went on, “and what greater calamity can fall upon a nation than the loss of worship?” Instead, “Whenever a man comes, there comes revolution… He is religious. Man is the wonderworker.” For this humanistic prophecy he was considered a blasphemer. Almost all Unitarian pulpits were then closed to him.
However, the young Theodore Parker heard him and kept the new Adam theme alive. He didn’t just reject Calvinism, he hated it. We are created anew in the image and likeness of the Creator, he reasoned. The Perfect is in us when we aren’t tricked out of it by preachers and their Bible. The proof of Christianity lay not in miracle stories but in the workings of our soul when we dare to live by love. He, too, was rejected by most Unitarians of that time. When asked to resign from the religion, he declined. There is something in us more important than what dogmas and stuffy religious practices conveyed.
I can’t help but wonder what insights these Transcendentalists would have encountered if they had access to the entheogens our generation has discovered. They aren’t new; they’re just new to us. Mushrooms, molded rye, peyote and the grasses, vines, and secretions of the Bufo Avalaris Toad that contain DMT are all old shamanistic technologies that open users to powerful encounters with pure spirit and connections to life-informing realizations. Talk about your direct, personal connection to the divine! These sacramental substances aren’t just ritualistic, they’re holy medicines, aids to profound spiritual reality.
Though widespread in human history, we don’t know how they were used in human pre-history. The change from hunting and gathering to agriculture is only ten or fifteen thousand years old, while humans have existed for ten times that at least. Agriculture allowed record-keeping, diversification of labor, and cities to emerge, but wars as well. Shamans became priests. Priests became powerful, mostly sanctifying even more powerful rulers who usually served themselves at the expense of common people.
Our own so-called founding fathers such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson saw and affirmed the inherent and inalienable worth of all humans. They tried to create a political system that allows us to live freely and well together, not ruled by a pope or king. We’ve taken that system to a consumerist economy, eating chemicals made in factories, changing millions of years of accumulated carbon into mere moments of comfort and waste, going to churches that care nothing for earth’s long evolution and the potential paradise it could evolve into. We’ve only recently begun to value what remains of what once seemed an endlessly abundant, plush New World. We’ve only recently begun to realize what our modern chemical and industrial processes do to a finite and fragile world.
I’ve taken us from hundreds of millions of years of evolution to a quick tour of 19th-century ideas. Let’s get even more local and recent. Portland used to be called Stump Town. The Willamette River was a downstream cesspool of trash and poisons. But in a mere couple of decades, because people cared, the river is springing back to life. Children swim in it safely, near to the ducks and salmon that are rebounding. With this river and all of Eden, if we have the will, we will find the ways.
Instead of an alienated attitude that we’re souls in bodies that are “above” our animal origins with no religious connection to the great, grand, good gift of life itself, we’re of a fairly new and precious religious tradition that affirms and augments our natural life. How healthy, happy, and whole could we be in our bodies? How healthy, happy and whole could we be together in our precious Eden?
How related are we? Koko the gorilla recently died. Koko had been taught sign language. She used to watch Mr. Rogers on TV. When he visited her, she helped him untie his shoes, just like he would regularly do on his show. When Robin Williams visited her, she played tickle games with him. As with these two and our pets, we are reminded of the personhood of other creatures. What would life be like if we learned to love life around us and in us?
Eden isn’t just some lost mythical garden in the Middle East. Eden is our planet Earth’s ecosystem. It is where we live, and it lets us be at all. Sentience, Love and Oneness aren’t just abstractions “out there.” They’re the realities “in here” that we all increasingly share. Eden is where we live, and it lives in us. We are born of Eden, and I would urge, for it.
Reverend Byron Bradley Carrier
Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass, Oregon
© September 15, 2018