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"The Garden"

Sermon on ecotheology, delivered by Rev. Dan Harper, various locations, winter and spring, 2006.


The first reading this morning is from the Pentateuch or Torah, from the book we know as Genesis, chapter 1 verses 27-28:

"27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

"28 God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'"

The second reading this morning I take to be a commentary on the first reading. This comes from Rosemary Radford Reuther, a Christian ecological theologian, in her book Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing:

"First, I assume that there is no ready-made ecological spirituality and ethic in past traditions. The ecological crisis is new to human experience. This does not mean that humans have not devastated their environment before. But as long as populations remained small and human technology weak, these devastations were remediable by migration, retreat from to-heavy urban centers, or adaptation of new techniques. Nature appeared a huge inexhaustible source of life, and humans small.... The radical nature of this new face of ecological devastation means that all past human traditions are inadequate in the face of it. Whatever useful elements may exist in, for example, Native American or Taoist thought, must be reinterpreted to make them usable in the face of both scientific knowledge and the destructive power of the technology it has made possible.

"My second assumption is that each tradition is best explored by those who claim community in that tradition. This does not preclude conversions into other traditions or communication between them.... But the plumbing of each tradition, and its reinterpretation for today's crises, is a profound task that needs to begin in the context of communities of accountability. Those people for whom Taoism or Pueblo Indian spirituality are their native traditions are those best suited to dig those roots and offer their fruits to the rest of us. Those without these roots should be cautious in claiming plants not our own, respectful of those who speak from within." [p. 206]

Sermon -- "The Garden"

We all know that wonderful old story about how God created the heavens and the earth, and all living beings including human beings; and then God tells the human beings that they will have dominion over all over living things; and then God has the human beings live in the Garden of Eden until they get themselves thrown out by eating a piece of fruit. We all know that story; that is, we all think we know that story; because when you really start looking at the actual story as it is written in the book of Genesis, it really isn't the story you think you know.

For example, you know that God created male human beings in God's image, right? --and then God took a rib out of the first man to make a woman, right? Well, wrong. That's the way the story is told in a later part of the book of Genesis, but we get quite a different story in an earlier part of the book of Genesis, which we heard in this morning's reading:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

In other words, there are two stories of the creation of human beings in Genesis. In this first story, both male and female human beings were created in God's image. Take this a step farther: if a God identified as "he" or male can create female beings in "his" image, we are not talking about a living being made into a literal copy of God's image; this is not a literal statement, but a mythic or poetic statement; and the opinions of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters notwithstanding, none the less true for being poetic and religious truth.

Genesis is a big, sprawling, complex book. It's really a collection of myths, tales, poetry by several different authors living in several different eras, and eventually collected or redacted together by an anonymous editor or editors. We think we know the wonderful old story told in the book of Genesis, but when you actually read it carefully you find that maybe you don't know it quite as well as you think you do. Our culture tries to reduce Genesis to a simple linear narrative, but when you do that you wind up with all kinds of things that simply aren't in the book. "Original sin" is an example: as the great Universalist Hosea Ballou pointed out, this is not a phrase that appears in the book of Genesis, it's an invention of Augustine and Milton. Another example: the belief that Genesis presents one unified story of how human beings came to be, when you can find three different stories of the creation of humans [Gen 1.27; Gen 2.4-7 & 20-23; Gen 6.1-4]. You can't reduce Genesis to a simple, linear narrative; you have to approach it with mythic poetic thinking. Genesis is a story written by poets, it is not a blueprint written by engineers or a mathematical proof written by physicists.

And we need to keep that in mind as we read the second part of that passage from Genesis, which says: "God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'" Do we read this as poetry, or as a social blueprint? In our second reading this morning, the one by Rosemary Radford Ruether, we heard her say, "there is no ready-made ecological spirituality and ethic in past traditions; the ecological crisis is new to human experience." She also charges us with the task of reinterpreting our religious tradition in light of the ecological crisis.

Now if you ask me -- not that you did ask me, but anyway -- this passage in Genesis where the God of the Israelites says to the two freshly-made human beings, "Subdue the earth, and have dominion over it" -- this passage has been one of the roots of the current ecological crisis. If it's not the taproot, it's definitely one of the big, main roots. Because this passage, my friends, has been interpreted over and over again as giving human beings license to "subdue" the non-human world by any means at all; it has been interpreted over and over again as giving human beings the right of dominion, or domination, over all other living beings and over the inanimate world, too. This passage from Genesis has been interpreted to mean we get to do whatever we want with the world, no matter what the consequences. I'd say this attitude towards the world lies at the root of our current ecological crisis; this attitude towards the world is why, in my home town, New Bedford harbor is a Superfund site; it's why the Bald Eagle became an endangered species; it's why we now have doubts about the cleanliness of the very food we eat and the very air we breathe.

It is my belief that one of the deepest roots of the current ecological crisis is, in fact, a matter of religion. A certain narrow interpretation of Genesis from our Western Christian tradition has legitimated actions that cause ecological problems. Obviously, as Rosemary Radford Ruether would say, we need to do some reinterpretation here. And we Unitarian Universalists are perfectly placed to do exactly that kind of reinterpretation: because we are a non-creedal faith, we've gotten pretty good at questioning and reinterpreting religion; and because we have our roots within the Western Christian tradition, we are perfectly placed to reinterpret this particular tradition.

So let's see if we can do some reinterpretation of this passage from Genesis. In a twenty minute sermon, we're not going to finish the task. But we can make a start at it, see what it feels like; we can see if this might be one of the things that could take our shared faith to the next level.

Back to the passage from Genesis. The first question that occurs to me is this: what does it mean, in a poetical-mythic-non-linear sense, when the God of the Israelites tells the first man and the first woman that they have "dominion" over other living beings?

First part of the answer: clearly human beings are somehow different from other living beings. We are told explicitly in this passage one way in which human beings are different from other living beings. God tells the human beings to "be fruitful and multiply," but God has already said that to every winged bird and every creature that lives in the sea. But God says to the human beings that they will "fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion" over every other living being. Human beings will be different from other living beings: they will not only fill the earth and subdue it, they will have dominion over every other living being. This in fact tallies with our own observations of the world: we human beings certainly have been fruitful, we have multiplied, and we do indeed have dominion over other living beings. Already, this passage begins to make a kind of poetical sense.

A second part of the answer seems to lie in the word "dominion." For those of us who speak English, the word "dominion" has some specific connotations. Were these connotations part of the original Hebrew text? For the Western Christian tradition, it almost doesn't matter one way or the other, because in the Western tradition we trace our understanding of the Bible back to Jerome's translation of the Greek text into Latin, and his translation uses "dominamini" in this passage, meaning to rule over, to govern, to be master of. No matter what the original sense was, we wind up understanding that God gives human beings dominion over other living beings in the sense of mastery, domination, non-democratic rule. And as we look at the place of human beings in the world today, we see that in fact is true; we have dominion over the rest of the world; we have dominated all other living beings to the point where we find it quite easy to drive them to extinction. And in the old interpretation of this passage, that's fine and dandy -- God put it there for us to do with what we want.

In our new interpretation of this passage, however, we like to point out a poetical, mythic truth that was ignored in the old passage. We like to point out that God does not say: use everything up, and destroy it too if you want. We like to point out that God does not say: all this used to be mine, but now I'm giving it to you humans to use any way you want. Nor does God say, Now that you're rulers over every other living thing, be sure to act like the worst kind of tyrant, torturing and abusing all those other living things.

In our new interpretation of this old passage, we readily admit that human beings have subdued other living things, and we do indeed have dominion over other living things; we're pretty much rulers of this planet. But we also like to point out that we can be good rulers, or we can be bad rulers; we can be benevolent tyrants or we can be malicious dictators.

Then there's the third part of our answer to the question: "when the God of the Israelites tells the first man and the first woman that they have "dominion" over other living beings?" For this third part of the answer, I'd like you to suspend your own personal beliefs about God for just a moment: if you don't believe in God, forget about that for a moment; and if you do believe in God forget about whether you believe in the God of the book of Genesis or not. Remember that we are reinterpreting this influential passage from an influential book; and to reinterpret the mythic poetry of this book, we have to suspend personal disbelief and get into the spirit of the story. At this stage of reinterpretation, we have to take the book on its own terms. So, if you've suspended whatever disbelief you might have, we're ready to take the next step.

God gives the human beings in this story dominion over all other living beings, over the fish in the seas, the birds in the air, every growing thing on earth, and all the animals of the earth. God gives the human beings dominion over all other living beings, but God does not give total possession to the human beings. In other words, it is quite clear that God still owns all living beings Godself. I'm sure you see the logical conclusion of this. If we human beings cause some living being to go extinct, God is not going to be happy. God created that living being that we caused to go extinct. God looked at all those living beings at the end of one of those days of creation and said, "It is good." What do you think is going to happen if you cause one of God's creatures to go extinct? Trust me, it won't be pretty. You read the rest of the Torah, and you'll see what I mean. Remember what God did to Sodom and Gomorrah? When the God of the Israelites gets angry, you're going to want to run and hide.

What with my own personal beliefs about God having been suspended, I have to say it's a good thing I'm a Universalist, because we Universalists believe in universal salvation, where everybody gets to go to heaven. What with all the extinctions going on right now, if I didn't believe in universal salvation I'd be seriously worried about facing the consequences of God's wrath. To quote the old bumper sticker: "God is coming, and boy is she angry."

(OK, now it's time to un-suspend our own personal beliefs, and get back to what we normally believe.)

As you see, we have begun to reinterpret that old passage from our Western religious tradition, just in the way Rosemary Radford Ruether said we could. We could go much further than this, too, and I'll quickly sketch out one direction in which we could go much further.

One of the great things about the Christian tradition is that, at its core, it is specifically designed to resist and overcome domination; this in spite of the fact that Christianity got coopted by Roman imperialism, and became a tool of oppression. Most of what we dislike most about Christianity today has to do, not with the teachings of Jesus, but with the later appropriations of Christianity by imperialists.

Indeed, we find that over the centuries some Christians have used Christianity, not as a tool of domination, but as a way to understand that if you're in power, if you in fact do have dominion over other beings, you had better understand how to use that dominion wisely. Jimmy Carter comes to mind as one such Christian leader, although perhaps he became better at this after he was President. Martin Luther King is a wonderful example of someone who gained power and influence, understood that he was a steward of that power, and used that power to effect good in the world.

We do have dominion over other living things, and we have started asking if we are using that dominion wisely. The Christian tradition places a moral and ethical burden on having dominion: we haven't taken dominion by ourselves, bootstrapping ourselves into power; rather we are given dominion over other beings by God, and ultimately we are going to be answerable to God. By the way, if you personally don't believe in God, you're still within the Western tradition, and you can put the same concepts into different words: dominion is as a gift that has been given us as a result of the quirks and chances of evolution that happened to give us opposable thumbs and a big brain and great social skills including language; ultimately we are answerable to ourselves, and our children, as to how we use the dominion that chance has thrown in our way. We know that ultimately we are answerable for our actions -- and that, my friends, lies at the root of our reinterpretation of the Western Christian tradition.

This kind of ecological theology, or ecotheology, is going on all around us. Many liberal Christians, like John Cobb and Wnedell Berry, are already doing ecological theology, and some evangelical Christians are also starting to do ecological theology. Then, too, many neo-pagans are doing ecological theology from yet another Western religious perspective. Our Unitarian Universalist congregations -- this Unitarian Universalist congregation -- should be at the center of the ecotheological movement. We are really good at reinterpreting old mythic texts. we have already done pagan/Christian dialogue, and we also know how to have productive theist/non-theist conversations. It fits into our commitment to social justice, because ecotheology has the potential to really change how people behave; and it also ties in to our historic commitments to feminism and anti-racism work.

These days, we Unitarian Universalists are looking for a new theological direction, a new direction for our religious community. Ecotheology could be that new direction, it could be an important contribution we make to our local communities, and to the wider world.

I've laid this out as one possibility for this Unitarian Universalist community; now it's up to you to decide what to do with it....