This morning I will be talking about the creative forces of life – those within us and those the drive the universe. I will talk of re-creation and Creation itself – or as I like to call it: Creationing.
I was asked to speak this Earth Sunday because I work for The Nature Conservancy. And as a good environmentalist I feel obliged to start my talk with a doomsday proclamation. So I offer this from the Zen Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hahn:
We have constructed a system we can’t control. It imposes itself on us, and we become its slaves and victims. We have created a society in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, and in which we are so caught up in our own immediate problems that we cannot afford to be aware of what is going on with the rest of the human family or our planet Earth. In my mind I see a group of chickens in a cage disputing over a few seeds of grain, unaware that in a few hours they will all be killed.
The fact of the matter, for those paying attention, is the news of climate change and other environmental calamities (deepwater horizon, the polluting of Puget Sound, ) are dire. We live in an epoch that is called the Anthropocene - a geologic period during human activities are having a global impact on the Earth's ecosystems. We are the dominant species on the planet – 7 billion strong. And growing – in raw numbers and in our collective appetite for resources. The human empire seems alarmingly unsustainable. Some of the disruptions climate change could cause as people try to scape a living from an increasingly unstable climate are sobering. People are already suffering. The suffering of the world’s wildlife, already squeezed into small corners of the planet by an immense human population, will grow worse as unpredictable changes to their habitats take shape. Floods and droughts will become more frequent and intense. Wars – particularly between more impoverished peoples – will become more common. Yet the societal inclination to do anything the dire forecast were getting from our scientific community is seemingly on a downward slide.
At a time like this I want to implore Rumi’s advice on our society:
Sit, be still, and listen.
For you are drunk.
And we are at the edge of the roof.
Now my confession: I’m not a very good doomsdayer. Like the fundamentalist who ignores science to adhere to his religious beliefs, I ignore the science to hold onto my optimism. All is not lost. I’m not going to jump from the roof. I believe there’s hope.
So how did we get into this mess? What can we learn from it? Are there any lessons for us a spiritual community?
Smarter people than I have tried to understand our proclivity to live like Thich Nhat Hahn’s chickens. I think it boils down to the misunderstanding we have of creation and the dominance of the left side of our brains.
Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon describe the phenomenon this way – I quote:
To the Ancients, as well as to many contemporary seekers, the world is alive with spirit. The surrounding landscape is infused with creativity and meaning and each place speaks to us of the divine.
This notion of a richly sacralized world may seem strange to the mainstream western culture. We live in a secular landscape. We have been taught to identify the sacred primarily with cathedrals, churches, and temples. The rest of the Earth is considered real estate—a mere “it” to be used as a resource for our benefit. This effort to desacralize the world, dispel its sacred aura, is what made possible our commercial relationship to the land [creation]. It has allowed us to plunder the natural world, destroying places of more power and beauty than we will ever be able to recreate.
Similarly, John Stanley and David Loy, explore how in times past humans drew in a more balanced form their left and right sides of their brains. The right side – attuned to empathy, relationship and creativity – was a well-functioning lobe during most of homo sapiens rule on the planet. Particularly through those long expanses of time when we were outside more, more connected to nature….to Creation. Though time, with modernity and increased separation from creation, the left side of our brain has become dominant. Stanley and Loy state:
“We live in a world the left [side of the brain]has built, replacing the ancient Soul of the World with its own mechanistic model. Its preoccupation with competition and control and been institutionalized. It has become our way of life”
This one-side drive for power and profit has proved so intoxicating that we now find ourselves “at the edge of the roof.” We live in a left brain world. Driven by competition, engineers, marketing, greed. We sleep in engineered homes. Drive to the office in comfy cars along engineered roads. Work at desks in cubicles. Stop and the supermarket on the way home. And find most of our entertainment on electronic screens as we seemingly compete to see who has the biggest or newest.
Perhaps the most distressing thing about our left sided obsessions is they don’t actually lead to fulfillment. We are not only destabilizing the climate and resources that sustain people and the planet, we’re not even becoming happier in the process. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard University psychologist, compared the happiness of those who won the lottery and those that became parapalegic and found – shockingly - the millions made no difference.
I believe it is our disaffection with Creation and the creative side of our brains that is leading to both the degradation of the planet, and our souls.
In his book Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry explains it like this:
We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that spiritual “autism”.
By listening to and integrating the lessons of Creation into our lives and beings, both our societies and our persons can become richer and more sustainable.
A deeper dive into science and understanding of nature reveal an incredibly poetic story of awe, excitement, unpredictability and a phenomenal amount of dynamism and creativity. It is indeed a more wondrous and complex universe that it appears at first blush…and we’re only beginning to understand it.
Understanding Creation requires dispelling two myths. A myth that has pervaded religion and the western worldview is that creation is static. Whether you believe it came into existence 4 billion or 6 thousand years ago, Creation is a noun. Something that “is”. God created the world and here it is – for us to exploit and steward. A more recent myth that has pervaded environmentalism for years is that nature is fragile. Ecosystems hang in a delicate balance. The fact of the matter is that, on the whole, Creation is both dynamic and resilient.
Rivers and forests and shorelines are in a state of constant evolution. In the wake of so called devastating floods and fire, life returns with exuberance. Nature creeps back in to even the most unlikely places - parking lots, polluted rivers – in an amazingly short period of time.
Creation changes. It evolves. It recreates itself in new and amazing ways. It is resilient. This is why I feel the word “Creation” is inadequate. “Creationing” – a verb, not a noun - I think better reflects the ever unfolding of life in the Universe.
People can be resilient, too. And this, I believe, is one of the great challenges of this century. The more resilient we can become, the better we’ll be able to cope with the very significant disruptions likely to emerge from climate change, resource depletion, even political strife. And the first step in becoming resilient – as a society and as individuals - is to understand nature and life are dynamic.
By understanding Creation as a process, as a verb, not as a destination or noun….and by stewarding the process, not some patch of already created forest or shoreline….we can both free our minds to become more fulfilled and more resilient….and free nature to be more productive and resilient.
As individuals we find solace as we draw closer to nature. The term recreation – or re-creation – was first used in 14th century England to refer to the restoring of one’s health. In more modern times it is associated with outdoor activities. These two are related. By communing with nature we restore our spiritual health. And if we can take the time to actually sit and listen as Rumi advises, we gain the most.
By understanding creation not a thing to be stewarded – like a garden or building – but as a dynamic, ever-changing system, we can be awed by wonder and more in touch with the complex and magical and creativeness of spirit. God did not create the universe. S/he is continually creating it. I suspect s/he’s just begun.
In our current systems of land management, we treat the land as static. We divey things up into parcels and do what we want with them irrespective of how the larger ecosystem works. This has serious consequences. Until we understand the places in which we live to be part of an unfolding creation, we will forever undermine the natural systems from which we derive our air, water and food as well as our mental and spiritual health. By understanding the creation isn’t static we can develop richer ways of inhabiting the planet.
Much of my professional career has been focused on giving rivers more room to create. For years humans have thought of rivers as static. In the controlling drive of our left-brained system we’ve hemmed our rivers in with levees to maximize our economic gains. The consequences are significant – catastrophic flooding, the degradation of our water sources, the loss of our fisheries. By stepping back and giving our rivers more room for Creationing, our rivers respond. And as they again begin to express themselves the richness of live again unfolds. Floodwaters are absorbed. Aquifers recharged. Contaminants are filtered by newly created wetlands. Side channels, pools and riffles form allowing salmon to again thrive. And local communities regain their ability to re-create themselves along the greenways that become the rivers edge. By understanding and respecting the dynanmic nature of Creation we can unlock the richness, the productivity and the resilience of our freshwater ecosystems.
Likewise, by creating more space for the creative forces of nature in our communities it will be richer and more productive. It will be more resilient to floods, climate change or other disturbances that will come along. And as the ecosystems on which we depend for food, water, and air regain their resilience, so too will our communities. By giving more room for the creative forces of nature in our lives, we too will lead richer lives.
Before I close, let me offer that there may be a lesson here for our congregation. Resilience does not mean lack of loss, but rather the loss of ability to recover quickly from setbacks. Hemming a river in between two levees, not allowing it to spread out across its floodplain, impedes richness and resilience. Likewise, it seems to me that, at least over the last few years, the large majority of this congregation’s energies and mission work has been confined within these walls. It’s been static. I’d suggest that hemming our congregational life between these walls has impeded the richness of our mission. And we are clearly seeing signs that our over-dependence on it has degraded our resilience now that we are faced with its loss.
But we can learn from this. My hope is that we can find opportunity in the changes ahead. We can create a spiritual community that is more dynamic. We can create new and changing places in which to gather. We can create more space in our congregational life to connect with nature and re-create our spiritual health. We can devote fewer resources to a thing, and more to acting on the empathetic tendencies of the right side of our brains – to our mission work and to each other. We can create a richer, more resilient future.
The universe is a creative process – always changing, always creating, always full of wonder. In our lives we need to create more room for this. We need to give room for Creationing to occur – across our landscapes, in our hearts, and in our congregation. By creating more space for the creative forces of nature in our communities then it will be richer and more productive. By giving more room for nature in our lives and creative forces in our minds, we too will lead richer lives.