Saving the World

Submitted by Ben on Sun, 07/11/2004 - 15:59

presented at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, July 11, 2004

(Good morning! Let me start out by saying that what I'm about to tell you is a work in progress... it's the product of many months of reading many different books and mulling over a wide variety of ideas. Maybe most of it will be old news to you, but I hope you find something new that will help you in your own ponderings.)

I was raised a Unitarian Universalist in small-town Oklahoma, where most of my peers were Southern Baptists. My introduction to the concept of salvation came when friends and neighbors -- mostly other kids -- would ask me if I was "saved." When they learned that I had not accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior, the older ones said they would pray for me, and the younger ones took some delight in telling me I was going to Hell. I thought I was being clever when I replied that I didn't believe in Hell and so couldn't go there... until a friend told me that when he was a baby, still too young to believe in the existence of Texas, he had gone there just the same.

From an early age I rejected the notion that people are flawed and need to be saved from going to Hell. And yet I wasn't much older when I became convinced -- with a religious fervor that has lasted all my life -- that the WORLD needs to be saved from going to hell.

We skeptics have our own mythology of the Last Days. Whether we're talking about politics, economics, ecology, schools, social services, or religion, nearly everyone I've met seems to believe that although individual people have good intentions and do the best we can, collectively humanity seems to go in the wrong direction most of the time, and that precious little time remains before some sort of Day of Reckoning arrives.

Now, if I thought the idea of an afterlife was ludicrous as a UU child, I would have really had trouble with the Book of Revelation. Fortunately no one told me about it until I was able to listen with a straight face. Now, most skeptics dismiss the Apostle John's vision of Armageddon as ridiculous -- at least as a description of things to come in the physical world -- and even historically harmful. But our scientists, especially our ecologists, are telling us a very similar story about the impending end of the world. Like John's Revelation, it's a story that's been told for thousands of years, and it's always set in the near future, and although that future has never arrived, we continue to believe that it's just around the corner. Both stories warn that we humans are collectively responsible for the disaster to come, even though individually we're doing the best we can in the circumstances that God or evolution set up for us.

I've even had my very own vision. I had a recurring dream that I'm a passenger on a luxury cruise ship, casually walking the deck, when I notice some people have fallen overboard. As any decent passenger would do, I help to pull them back on board, dry them off, and give them plates for the buffet. After rescuing a dozen or so people in this way, I think to ask one of them why so many people are in the water. "Don't you know?" he gasps. "The ship is sinking!"

Given my history of working for various environmental and social causes, I think the point is painfully clear: I've been congratulating myself for pulling people back on board a sinking ship. My first thoughts after having this dream were, "What can I do that would be more helpful? Where are the lifeboats? How can I stop the ship from sinking?" But the question I'd like to explore first is, "How can the ship be sinking when the individuals on it are not?" In other words, how can we UUs believe we're all going to Heaven (interpret that word however you like) when we believe the world we live on is going to Hell because of us?

First we need to back up a step: What is this world that we want to save?

When I tried to explain Unitarian Universalism to my friends in high school, I usually left off the last part of the seventh principle: "We affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence... of which we are a part." Well, of course we're a part of all existence -- where else would we be?

It's taken me years to understand that this phrase means that there's more than one interdependent web. The sun and planets hang in gravitational balance with each other, yet even at our most destructive we humans could have no measurable effect on the orbit of Jupiter, let alone the rest of the Universe. Nor could we affect the Earth's core, which will go right on spinning for billions of years regardless of what we do.

No, the interdependent web of which WE are a part consists of five layers on the outside of the Earth, which taken all together are proportionately as thick as the skin of an apple. First is the lithosphere, the solid crust of the earth. Then there's the hydrosphere, all the water that sits on and in the crust, and the atmosphere. All the living creatures of Earth make up the biosphere, and all its consciousness constitutes the noosphere or mindsphere.

If we're feeling poetic, we can call these the bones, blood, breath, pulse, and thoughts of Gaia.

But even that definition is not specific enough, because Gaia is constantly changing. The lithosphere and hydrosphere were here long before there was any life on Earth. The atmosphere evolved along with life; it was not always breathable by people and may not be in the distant future. As Daniel Quinn pointed out in the second reading, some sort of life will almost certainly survive us, and I would go further to say that whatever life survives us will owe its success to our failure, just as we mammals owe our success to the death of the dinosaurs.

So what we must mean by "saving the world" is preserving the interdependent web of which WE are a part ... but doing that means preserving the millions of other species and the clean air and water that we all need to survive. And yet we're endangering most of those species -- and therefore ourselves -- by poisoning and destroying their habitat every day.

Our metaphorical ship is sinking because we humans -- and our culture in particular -- have collectively decided that we are more important than anything else. We're removing material from the lower hull of the ship to improve our quarters in First Class. Never mind that the lower decks are flooding: nobody important lives down there! The fact that we're doing it together means that we can excuse our behavior as normal, and anything we do that's better than what other people we know are doing makes us feel good about ourselves. "Sure,” we say, “I know taking rivets from the hull is a bad idea, but there are so many rivets down there, and besides, I use less than most of my friends do."

The question then becomes, how do we stop the ship from sinking? Never mind the physics and the chemistry and the biology -- how do we do it politically? How do we win people to the cause of saving ourselves?

The notion of salvation is tied up with the notion of divine judgment, another concept that we skeptics tend to reject. Fundamentalists believe that if you live a pure life and follow the rules, God will judge you favorably and send you to Heaven -- which is defined as God's constant presence -- instead of Hell, which is His absence.

As a Universalist I believe that God's presence, whatever that may be, is everywhere. It follows that there can BE no place where God is absent, and therefore no Hell, and so I've disregarded the concept of divine judgment for most of my life. And yet I believe we should save the world -- in a sense creating heaven rather than hell here on Earth -- because it's the Right Thing to Do. If that's not a divine judgment, I’m not sure what is!

I got to thinking of a folk tale that’s usually attributed to Zen Buddhism. In the story (more of a parable really), Hell is described as a long table piled with food. The people seated around the table must use utensils longer than their arms, so that they can't reach their own mouths, and so they starve for all eternity, surrounded by food. Heaven is exactly the same setup... but the people there reach across the table and feed each other.

The interesting thing about this story is that you can tell it in all sorts of company, and everyone will nod sagely and agree that that is, indeed, the difference between Heaven and Hell. The people in the story are not being granted or denied food by divine judgment. They are making their own divine judgment when they choose to feed each other the food that is already there in front of them. God is not absent from Hell; the people there just don’t acknowledge Him.

If we apply the story to the environmentalist vision of heaven and hell on Earth, then those aren't just other people sitting around us at the table. They're other cultures, other species, other ecosystems. The food is the physical and spiritual nourishment to be found in the natural world around us. And the long utensils, of course, are the interconnections in our web of existence.

If this story is true (mythologically speaking), then saving the world, like saving ourselves, is more a question of attitude than anything else. So what’s lacking from our attitude?

I read a book recently that was one of the most horrifying collections of atrocities that I've ever seen. It also gave me hope as no other book has done. It's called "The Culture of Make Believe," by Derrick Jensen. His basic point is that the driving force behind all the atrocities in human history, the reason we were able to commit them at all, is our belief that we're separate from others. We believe we're independent, we don't need others, so we can benefit from mistreating them. At the table of heaven, our culture put down our utensils and started eating with our faces and created hell. Jensen asserts that if we truly recognized our interconnectedness, we wouldn't be able to harm other people or other species because we would see that doing so would hurt ourselves.

Viewed in this light, it doesn't even make sense to ask how we can save the world, because the question assumes "we" are separate from "the world," and that assumption is the whole problem. The problem is not that we are killing nature, the problem is that we are nature, and we're killing ourselves because we don't realize it. The question is not whether we enlightened people can convince those other reactionaries to work with us to save the world. The question is whether we all can collectively realize that we are the world we want to save, and then save ourselves.

This brings us to one of the major differences between the environmentalist vision of the Last Days and the Fundamentalist one. The Fundamentalists believe they have a lifeboat to escape the apocalypse; they just disagree about who will be allowed on board. The environmentalist, Universalist vision has us all in the same boat, with no lifeboats: we either fix the problem and stop sinking, or sooner or later we will all drown together. The common ground is that both visions put the responsibility squarely on us: if we sink, it's our own fault.

But that's not to say we all contribute equally to the problem. The average American, for instance, consumes some 50 times the resources as a person in a developing country, effectively using our political and economic power to keep other people powerless. This is not only unsustainable, it's unjust and immoral and every other judgmental word you can think of.

But what's worse, we Americans are also in the greatest denial about the situation. My greatest fear is that, as resources start to get scarce in the future, we'll just use our wealth and power to mine more resources from whatever pristine wildernesses might remain, and damn the consequences. This is a very real possibility based in science, not theology, and yet how is it any different from the first reading?:

(Rev 9:20) "A third of humanity was killed by these plagues... The rest, who had not been killed, did not repent of the works of their hands, so that they did not stop worshiping their idols made of metal, stone, and wood, which could not speak or walk." (16:11) "They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their sufferings and because of their sores, but nevertheless they still refused to repent of their deeds."

As a child I said I couldn't go to Hell because I didn't believe in it, but if we refuse to believe in global warming, overpopulation, aquifer depletion, and the other damage we're doing to the world, we'll just create hell on Earth that much faster!

If the folks in First Class keep making holes in the ship, it won't be enough for a few idealistic individuals to stop contributing to the problem. It won't even be enough for us to patch the holes that are there today. We either need to stop the unsustainable behavior totally, or we need to start building lifeboats, because this ship is going down.

Of course, the danger of having any apocalyptic vision is that everything else is a moot point in comparison. What's more important to your survival: a job or oxygen? Who will care, after the Earth becomes uninhabitable, what religion you followed, whether you carried a concealed handgun, or what gender of person you married? On the other hand, what does environmental destruction matter if Jesus is coming soon to destroy everything anyway?

The answer, I think, is that keeping our leaky ship afloat is not as simple an assignment as accepting Christ as one's lord and savior. There are many different jobs to be done. We need a hull that doesn't leak, but we also need to stop making new holes. We need to support the passengers we have on board... but we also need to stop our population growth. We need to reduce the disparity between rich and poor that made our ship top-heavy... but we also need to reduce the disparity between human and nonhuman species, because we can't live without them. All of the hundreds of idealistic causes that are so precious to us are parts of the solution.

What we need, though, is a shared vision to work towards, a vision of a sustainable world, a vision of a ship that doesn't sink. We need to realize that we are not in any way detached from either the problem or the solution.

I believe that the only way to start is to find common ground. The reason I quoted from Revelation (in front of a crowd of humanists!) was to demonstrate that even though we don't realize it, environmentalists and Fundamentalists are on the same page here: left and right-wingers can agree that the world as we know it is being destroyed because of us. And the parable of the difference between Heaven and Hell gives us a way of understanding that participation in our interdependent web is the key to our salvation: we can all agree that feeding each other across the table is the Right Thing to Do. If we can agree on the problem and we can agree on the solution, then we're well on our way even if we disagree about the specifics.

We are the world that we want to save. Salvation -- both personal and ecological -- is as easy and as hard as taking our place at the table and doing what we know is right. Our every action creates heaven or hell, makes the ship float or sink. That is the danger we face, and that is the hope we nurture.

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