The Divine Dance Part Four: Here, There, and Everywhere:
Developing A Trinitarian Ecological Ethic
Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
Sunday, September 24, 2017 – The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
As we have done throughout this month as we have explored The Divine Dance, by Richard Rohr, I want us to begin by taking a few moments of intention, to attend to our breath…
Mystical Jewish tradition points out that the holiest name for God in Hebrew, when written down is made up of 4 letters.
Y H W H.
Letters that sound like an inhale, an exhale, an inhale, and an exhale.
Like the name for God – is the sound of breath.
As if to say the name of God is to breath. As if to breath is to say the name of God.
Y H W H.
Breath—through which, when we take a broad lens, each one of us, is connected to each other person, and in very much a truth that we don’t often enough ponder, connected to each plant, animal, coral reef, tree and shrub.
The earth itself breaths in and out…and we join in…
Breath – God – Flow – Dance – Relationship
This has been the direction of our explorations throughout this month, pondering The Divine Dance, by Richard Rohr, who offers the idea that Trinity, far from being a confounding doctrine that sets Christianity at odds with other faiths, and often its own practitioners (a baffling theological math problem meant to be believed but never experienced), might in fact be a way to point to a radically different understanding of God than has dominated much of the Christian conversation for 2000 years.
That rather than God being a static, out-there-somewhere being, that God is an immanent (yet transcendent) dynamic relatedness, a flow, an energy, a ground of being, perhaps best understand as a dance to be entered into, to participate in.
As we look to Rohr’s work one more time as inspiration for a sermon, I hope that this invitation to ponder and imagine will build on the ideas explored for the first 3 weeks, but that also this will make space for those listening today who weren’t here for parts 1-3 (and maybe it will be compelling enough to warrant looking them up too).
As we end, I want to explore one final idea, and similar to last week’s discussion about Trinity and interfaith dialogue, this idea is one that is not treated in depth in any one chapter or section of Rohr’s book, but is another thread that is woven throughout and often hinted at as he discusses other ideas.
That idea is the way that this understanding of God brings humanity into a particular relationship with the natural world – and by consequence makes possible an ecological ethic – one that understands God as present and expressed not just in all people of any faith (and non-faith) which itself is a much needed foundation, but also God as present and expressive all natural things, recognizing all things as person – per sonare – sounding throughs of divine being – God is here, there, and everywhere…the context in which we live, move and have our being – a truth we share with all species.
Like I mentioned, this is an idea that Rohr never addresses in deep detail, so today I am taking a number of threads of his thinking and perhaps following them further than he does in the book, which would be one of my critiques of his work especially one emerging in an age of ecological crisis. Now I do understand that every book can’t do everything, and Richard Rohr doesn’t make a practice of asking my opinion mid-writing – but Richard if you’re reading this – the invitation is open…
There’s a number of ways that Rohr does this, and this reflection will try to weave together, appropriately perhaps, three of these ideas – that Christianity’s tendency to be anthropocentric (revolving around human existence) may not be faithful to the core of the Tradition – a broadened understanding of incarnation (or the enfleshment of God) – and the consequence of Divine Union (which to Rohr is the goal of Christianity and all Religion) is union with all thing – human and otherwise.
I hope this sounds like a good plan, because that is the only sermon I’ve prepared for this week.
The place I’d begin is with the tendency of Christianity (and many but not all religions) to be anthropocentric – revolving around questions and ideas about human existence – to the exclusion of the non-human world.
Most Christian expressions lean that way, but I don’t think they have to – although it may be hard for us to conceive of how that works.
Now religion (which I will quickly point out is not synonymous to relating to God), being a human endeavour it makes a certain degree of sense – but the exclusion or the indifference in much Christian thinking to the non-human world is, I would argue, deeply problematic – and sometimes not obvious to us.
When Rohr notes that immature religion is concerned with the ego & the self to the exclusion of others, I think he is pointing out that this operates on a personal level, and a tribal level – as in one community believing that their faith makes them superior to others (or even when more inclusive revealing an indifference) – that this could be operating on a species level as well. Even in its more inclusive forms where Christianity bears within it Good News for people who do not participate in the faith – it rarely is seen to hold Good News for (or pay much attention at all) to the non-human world.
Now this can be intensely problematic, and more than one historian studying climate change and the history of ecological exploitation in the West, has pointed to this inclination within Christianity in particular, because of its close relationship to the development of so many trends in Western thinking, as a major contributor to current environmental crises.
Lynn White Jr. for example notes how throughout the spread of Christianity in Europe that local pagan (which I use here to mean earth-based) religions which previously viewed themselves as one strand in a interrelated web of life —honouring the divine in forests, streams, mountains, were pushed to view themselves as distinct from the rest of creation and to view God as transcendent of nature, not immanently present. White notes that “[b]y destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”
So much of Christian thinking sees God in anthropomorphic ways – even when God is acknowledged to be beyond humanity, even when Christian theologies are adamant that God is a powerful human in the sky, the metaphors used are human-centred, God is often imagined as a magnification of human traits – the good within humans magnified. Which makes this sort of God relating to nature sort of hard to conceive. But what if God were understood to be like an eco-system – like a valley, like a pond, like a forest, a complex web of dynamic giving and receiving.
This brings us to the idea of incarnation.
The Christian doctrine of the incarnation is usually used to mean that God who is spirit becomes flesh, that God who is outside of time and space, enters time and space and history and geography in Jesus.
It’s a compelling and beautiful doctrine, although one that far too understood in exclusive and mechanical terms rather than inclusive/mystic archetypal.
Rohr talks about this in terms of contemplation: “you take all things into yourself by gazing at them with reverence, and this completes the circuit of love—because this how creation is looking out at you. The inner life of the Trinity has become the outer life of all creation. This is all about expanding our recognition and reverence for the universal mystery of incarnation”
Canadian theologian and Vancouver School of Theology professor Sally McFague invites us to expand our notion of incarnation—that the world itself is God’s body. Not that God is limited to the natural world—but that all of the natural world is an enfleshment of God—rather than a separate removed thing.
If Rohr’s idea of Trinity is that we are invited to enter into the dance of divinity that is God—the flow around and within—then this means recapturing that sense that, in the West at least, Christianity strove to eliminate, that humans are not a separate thing to nature, but part of a web, one part of a web, not unrelated observes of a web of natural life—and that God will be known within that web, rather than absent from it.
The challenge to the ego and the separate-self is an inability to see oneself in community, in relationship, especially to that which we’ve grown so accustomed to see and relate to, as mere matter, not alive matter.
The late Catholic poet and theologian John O’Donahue points to this:
I think it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house. Whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you.
If God is relatedness—revealed in theological language as a relationship within—a Trinity—especially when this understood as a dynamic descriptive metaphor rather than a static theological declaration—and we understand this to be revealing an invitation to enter into union and participation with this relatedness, this flow, this energy. When we understand that this invitation is a profoundly inclusive one—that three makes room for four and five, and seven billion, and when we lose our well practiced anthropocentrism—insisting that any religious/spiritual truth has to be about more than human existence—then this dance opens wide up.
At Lumsden Beach Camp this summer, we would gather, campers and staff, in a circle before breakfast in the field outside the Dining Hall, and recognize that we as people were joining in “the party that is today” a party that began before we awoke, the sunlight dancing like diamonds on the surface of the lake, the birds each bringing their unique voice to the song, the diverse prairie grasses and hidden lives of creatures we couldn’t see—seeking to ask, what is our place among this, how do we join this dance?
I think that this is the framework Rohr’s theology invites—but even if these ideas resonate, how do we make them part of ourselves?
How do we move to a way of being in the world in which, even if we believe that Christianity invites us into sacred relationship with the earth, how do we live as if that is a truth that shapes, that makes us consume, shop, eat differently than if we felt that nature was simply resource to be used.
Throughout The Divine Dance Rohr distinguishes between intellectual knowing (having information and understanding) and spiritual knowing (being in loving relationship), pointing towards contemplation as the path to move to the latter.
Jaques Cousteau who made it his mission to invite people to fall in love with the ocean said that “we use what we believe to be valuable, but we protect what we love.”
Rabbi, activist, intellectual and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 (a day he would describe later with his famous phrase I felt my feet were praying) said this—“the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference”.
If a way of walking in the Christian way that understands God as divine dance that includes humanity and indeed all natural things, species, eco-systems, lakes, grasslands— then I believe embedded in that way will be a profound ecological ethic, and a spirituality of love and contemplation.
Yet recognizing that culture that eats ideology for lunch, there is a need for a renewing of mind of St. Paul the Apostle writes, to fall in love again—again John O’Donahue argues that this in a moment of tumult and ecological and economic crisis that beauty becomes an ethical imperative because beauty, when allowed to take hold leads to reverence, respect and relationship—not creating new relationship, but awakening to the relationships that have been the core truth.
In his book about beauty, O’Donahue powerfully expresses (with a rich Irish accent I won’t even try to imitate but that I hear in my mind when I read his words):
“The earth is our origin and destination. The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows. When we emerge from our offices, rooms and houses, we enter our natural element. We are children of the earth: people to whom the outdoors is home. Nothing can separate us from the vigour and vibrancy of this inheritance. In contrast to our frenetic, saturated lives, the earth offers a calming stillness. Movement and growth in nature takes time. The patience of nature enjoys the ease of trust and hope. There is something in our clay nature that needs to continually experience this ancient, outer ease of the world. It helps us remember who we are and why we are here.”
Rohr quotes Miroslav Volf the great European theologian of this current moment, whose writing is deeply formed by the violence and ethnic cleansing in the 1990s throughout Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Croatia – who emphatically insists that the Christian conception of God cannot be understood as private, and therefore Christian Spirituality, must have this centripetal force drawing all things inward, while always expanding the relationship.
Are we not living in a moment that needs such a spirituality of bringing together that which we falsely view as unrelated—whether diverse peoples and communities, diverse pieces of our own psyche and experience, and even between us and the natural world—so full of beauty and brokenness.
This is the dance.
This is the breathing in which we participate.
This is why we say—that in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.
We are not alone.