These days, despair is preached. The sort of despair that makes it inescapable and inevitable that, one day, we will write a letter to future generations telling them we are so very sorry for what we did to the planet, so very sorry for listening to people who made excuses, so very sorry they (our children’s children and our children’s children’s children) now live in a destroyed world without forests and lakes and elephants and flowers and bees.
This sort of despair. It is preached far and wide. A recent example is from this past September, with Jonathan Franzen’s article in The New Yorker entitled, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” His essential argument was that the destruction of the planet by human-induced climate change is inevitable and that environmentalists and climate change activists are delusional for trying to stop it.
That is despair!
I will never preach despair from this pulpit!
But neither will I preach irrational optimism.
It may truly happen that, one day, we will have to write that letter.
It may truly happen, if human beings don’t change.
But I believe, fervently and passionately, that that small word “If” is big enough for plenty of hopefulness.
Human beings might change after all.
We might really and truly change basic behaviors so that hopefulness is reasonable and not irrational optimism.
To learn more about such changes, you don’t have to go any farther than right here. Our West Shore “Faith Communities Together for a Sustainable Future” group (FaCT for short) is right now hosting an eight-session speaker series that covers topics about our Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal. Check this out. Come to the sermon chat after the service to find out more.
Concrete on-the-ground change needs to happen, yes. But what also needs change is how we imagine ourselves, how we see the big picture—theological change. You can’t trust your eyes if your imagination is out of focus. That’s what I want to talk about today. Theological change that is about establishing the sort of understanding that will stand under changed behaviors–motivate the behaviors, support the behaviors, sustain the behaviors.
Change in our theology starts with getting a big picture sense of context. Context the size of the entire universe.
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, in their fantastic book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, envisions the universe process as an evolutionary story of smaller parts coming together to form larger and larger integrated wholes.
It’s the essential story of Life. Continual step-ups from simpler to more complex, and each step-up involves a shake-up of the status quo. Single cells doing their own individual thing, oblivious to the other single cells. Then a shake-up, resulting in a step-up to individual cells coming together and acting in unison, as an organism. Then a shake-up and a step-up to simple multi-celled organisms coming together to form bodies containing different organs. Then a shake-up and a step-up to social organisms like ants and bees forming complex communities functioning as integrated systems. Then a shake-up and a step-up to social organisms like human beings forming higher-level complex communities, in which such powers as language-use, imagination, reason, ambition, creativity, and wisdom have been harnessed to create religion, civilization, agriculture, music, art, technology, and everything else we know today.
Life’s impulse is to evolve parts into larger and larger integrated wholes. This is simply undeniable. Which begs the question, Why? Why is it that such a specific direction has been set? Is this when we start talking about God? What God is? God as a primal hunger for Life lived in ever-greater degrees of vibrancy and fullness?
Whatever word for the Sacred you want to use, we are now at the threshold of a true religious Mystery: the universe story that gives context to our humanity and how it ultimately emerged.
And this too: what the shake-up of the current status quo is going to be, and what comes next, beyond humanity as we know it today.
What will that look like?
Science fiction teases us with possible futures. Will the future end up looking like The Matrix? Will it look like Avatar? Will it look like Star Trek?
Who can tell? But things are going to change.
The larger Universe story guarantees it: a pattern that always starts with a state of harmony, then disharmony crashes in, then harmony is achieved at a different, higher level. This is the Larger life process you and I belong to.
And this is where we need to be thinking from, as we approach the environmental crisis. From the very beginning of time, crisis has been the shake-up that leads to the step-up.
It’s the lesson of the humble coffee bean, once again. The coffee bean must be ground, it must be boiled to reveal its marvelous essence and taste. Crisis is a key ingredient.
So here’s my theological point: we don’t have to be afraid of crisis. The human species was born out of crisis. We know crisis. Some people, when there’s not enough crisis in their lives, create some just to keep life from getting boring!
There is a reason why every culture on this planet—all places, all times—tells some version of the hero’s journey, which begins in circumstances that are ordinary; and then crisis hits, which is at the same time the call to adventure; and the hero goes, and they encounter dangers and strangers and meet new friends and fight all sorts of monsters; and then they find what they were seeking, a knowledge, a treasure, a changed state of being; and then they return home and nothing is ever the same again.
Crisis is in our bones, and our mythology, which arises out of our deepest instincts, proves it.
Odysseus and his Odyssey
Demeter in search of her daughter Persephone
Arjuna in the chariot with Krishna
Buddha under the Bo tree
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
Frodo on his way to Mordor, ring of power in hand
Celie in The Color Purple, and all she endures
Luke Skywalker against The Empire, and Darth Vader
Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger, and Ron Weasley in the fight against Voldemort
Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games
Yesterday and today and forever we will be telling stories like this because we love them, we thrill to them, they feel realer than real to us, and that is because we are no stranger to crisis.
We don’t have to be afraid. We can step towards crisis, rather than away.
We are stronger and braver than we know.
The environmental crisis is our call to adventure today, to become agents of a Larger Life that wants a fuller expression than it’s getting right now. If we can wrap our theological minds around this, we’re on track for real behavioral change.
Above all, we much acknowledge how particularly challenging this adventure is, since we ourselves are the monsters we’ll meet. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde who are both aspects of the same single person.
I’ve alluded to this before. How Universalism teaches that humans always desire happification, but according to the “Best/Worst Principle.” As in, humans are capable of rising to the most courageous, creative, and life-giving acts imaginable; but we are also capable of descending to acts that are the most pernicious, most destructive, most evil.
We must never lose sight of the strictly positive motivation that’s underneath all: happification. But in our power we can be best, or we can be worst.
The difference between best and worst is simply: what’s your degree of ignorance? What is the rigid socialization and what are the traumas that comprise or reinforce the ignorance? Are you in love with an image of happification that is way too small?
Where the environment in concerned, the problem has been greed. People willing to oppress others to get more life for themselves and their loved ones.
People taking short cuts to get an unfair advantage.
To get rich and stay rich, people willing to treat the planet like they treat black people, or Native Indians, or women.
To get rich and stay rich, people willing to treat black people, or Native Indians, or women, like they treat the planet.
Greed. What a pitifully small, unworthy vision of happification. But powerful. The Original Sin, creating a world divided into haves and have-nots.
And then greed is compounded by willful ignorance. All who benefit from the greedy look away from what has been done, they embrace ignorance, they punish the whistleblowers, so that the status quo stays put. We see this in the news headlines every day.
Greed, then ignorance, then fear. People afraid to suffer for justice. People afraid of the unknown and so resisting change. People in fact exploiting fear, people exploiting despair, because they can find a way to profit from the status quo never changing….
The human species has, through evolution, made all sorts of positive gains. Our inventiveness, our curiosity, our energy, our imagination—but it is put to work in service to greed, and ignorance, and fear.
That’s our monster side.
So for thousands of years, remarkable human beings have been telling us to stop it. Stop the insanity. Life could be so much different, so much better, so much more. Confucius said that. Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha said that. Jesus said that. Universalist Jane Leade said that.
And now the planet is saying that, in a language of hurricanes and wildfires and melting ice caps and dying bees.
The planet is talking to us!
It really is past time to start listening. It really is past time to replace fear with courage, to eradicate ignorance with insight, to mortify greed with justice.
Every time we risk confusing our lifestyle because we’ve got to unlearn old habits of consumption and start better ones, we have heard the call to adventure.
Every time we choose against consumption patterns that are really nothing more than stealing from the planet, we have heard the call to adventure.
Every time we vote like our lives depended upon it, which they do, we have heard the call to adventure.
We’re in the fight against monsters which are ourselves.
But there is one more thing we must know, of theological import, about this larger story that we are living, and how it illuminates the environmental crisis.
It’s that we are at but the start of our adventure, and in every hero story I know, the hero, at the start, sucks.
He doesn’t know what he’s doing.
She doesn’t know what she’s doing.
They don’t know!
It’s the Ralph Macchio character in the movie Karate Kid, who tries to fight the Kobra Kai gang before he’s properly trained, and they beat him to a pulp.
It’s way too many people today who still think climate change is a hoax.
It’s also the fact that most people have pro-environment attitudes; the fact that most people will thrill to our Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle that affirms the interconnected web of all existence. And yet it is also a documented fact that people go ahead and engage in environmentally destructive actions anyway. Attitude does not necessarily mean action. There is an attitude/behavior gap.
And then there’s also this.
It’s America pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Formal notification of this went out from the Trump administration just this past Monday. Almost 200 nations have pledged to cut greenhouse emissions and to help poor countries cope with the worst effects of an already warming planet, but not us.
The hero has been called to adventure. And the first thing they do is get lost! The first thing they do is shoot their own eye out!
And I am saying today that that is just what happens. It is par for the course, it’s what the hero has to go through and get to the other side of, it’s what it takes for the hero to learn how to step up to the task.
Don’t let fears and anguish make you forget the larger, beautiful theological story you belong to.
Know that we are in the midst of a capital-M Mystery unfolding: some primal God-urge wanting the world to be even more full of life than it already is, and now is another one of those transformational shake-up, step-up times.
Know that our humanity represents something truly special in planetary history, but greed and ignorance and fear have locked it into destructive patterns and we have to turn this thing around and we cannot let the purveyors of fear scare us into thinking we are helpless and hopeless (which they do so as to encourage even more consumerism, which is the height of perversity!).
Know that we are called to be nothing less than heros even in the small moments of our daily consumer lifestyles, and not just in the historic moments that are fodder for the news.
Know that we are exactly where we need to be. We are getting lost, we are messing up all over the place, we are voting in administrations that are just part of the problem, we are having the hardest time breaking bad habits and replacing them with better ones.
But I believe the myth that we find in all places and times, that is deep in my bones and deep in your bones: the hero eventually rises to the occasion. The hero eventually learns how.
It will happen.
We will not be writing any letters to the future, saying I’m sorry,
IF IF IF IF IF we have theological eyes to recognize the call to adventure in the crisis, and we go,
and we persist in our going no matter how many times we trip up,
we just keep on going,
we just keep on going,
because we know,
to the depths of our souls,
to the very depths:
WE GOT THIS.