Humans are slowly waking up to what seems like a very bad dream. We are in the midst of a climate catastrophe that will only grow, with intense disasters of increasing frequency, glaciers melting, an unimaginable rate of species extinction, and unprecedented phenomena of forced migration as climate refugees seek new habitats. The situation is desperate and alarming. For the first time, non-indigenous people confront what indigenous people experienced when colonizers reached their shores: the imminent end of the known world. As we wake to this hard reality, our knowing and feeling push us to do something, even though we may be at a loss about how to respond.
I am teaching two classes this fall at Union Theological Seminary in New York City — Creating Rituals in Community: The Work of Mourning The Earth and Extractivism: Ripping Earth Apart: A Ritual/Liturgical Response. They are tiny attempts to respond to this ongoing trauma. In these classes, students create rituals that attend creatively to the end of our lives and respond to our ways of feeling. We are rehearsing the impossible.
Last week our chapel service was called Temple of Confessions.
As we gathered in the narthex of James Chapel, I gave an introduction that included these words:
Many of us have a disconnected relationship with nature and relate to nature as outside things, as "it." Today we will try to create new connections by talking to the plants, soil, and rocks and confess how we have related with them. Confessions are also forms of mending relations, healing, and changing our ways. We are all manifestations of the sacredness of life and the "we" of God's love is way beyond the human, so let us confess to “each other" including plants, soil, rocks, rivers, forests.
We processed into the chapel carrying plants and placed them on soil. Immediately people started to come to the plants, to confess their forms of relation or non-relation. One student said something that stuck with me: “I don’t know how to relate to you in this subjective way. I am afraid that if I do I might discover a level of pain that I don’t know whether I can bear.”
I think her reaction sums up the beauty of the ritual. By confessing, we are able to perceive something new. We experience what were the objects of nature – animals, plants, trees, forests — as subjects, with their own full life and experience. They become to us what many sacred scriptures have claimed: a full part of creation, just as we are. And for Christians, who are called to confess their sins, they may take seriously what Jesus said: Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5: 23-24)
Confession is a basic practice in Christian tradition. It involves vulnerability and requires openness. It invites a response of kindness, empathy, support. Our confession at our ritual hoped for what all Christian confession promises: healing and transformation. We looked to a new relationship with the earth, and thus with God. Ritual confession involves pausing, listening, and a new way of being. Confession can run the risk of a naïve and sentimental idealizing of the earth and of nature, but this practice sought something deeper — to expand faith as we recognize the interdependence of life and relinquish the death-dealing habits of our human autonomy in relation to our mastery over the natural world.
For some Christians, the message of this confession is a bitter pill to swallow.
Christianity, as it grew up in the West, all too often took on the mantle of Empire, becoming allied with a succession of projects of world-mastery and dominium through colonization, the slave trade, industrialization, capitalism, extraction, and imprisonment.
From the point of view of dominant forms of modern Christian practices, the material world was to be dominated. Dominated and explored only to fulfill our desires, while the sources of our disembodied spirituality were placed in a spiritual God who lives most often within our confused sense of selves. In this way, the “exteriority” of the earth could never become a spiritual source of wisdom and strength. Religions that fostered a connection to the earth were labeled pagan or pantheistic.
But if Christians were to turn to their Bibles and some of their saints, they might find that confessing to plants is not quite as obscene as one might think. The Bible is filled with stories and images of the elements of nature as persons, who speak and who are spoken to.
Psalm 19 tells us, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”
Psalm 148 summons the extremes of the inhabited world to sing forth: “Praise God, sun and moon … all you shining stars! Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters, and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!”
The Bible resists the idea that non-human life is extraneous to our deepest religious experience. Instead, it helps open us up to a more complex understanding of who we are. As creatures in and of the earth, we are all inextricably bound together in a web of life, as organisms deeply entangled in ecological community, composing and composting the immensity of who we are, together.
From this point of view, I gain a spiritual appreciation of interdependence, of a mutual otherness. Without coral reefs, I can’t breathe. Without seeds I cannot eat. Without rocks stable under my feet, I collapse. Without trees I cannot have water. Without the miraculous balance of the interconnection of life, I cannot survive. Body and spirit together, with the earth.
To be reconciled is the only way not to be penalized by the fire of hell or the fire of this global warming. Romans 8:22 says “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.” This pain has been increased exponentially to the point of its death.
When we confess to plants, to forests, to each tree, every meadow, to birds, fish, rocks, animals, rivers, and mountains, we repent, mourn and reconnect ourselves to a much larger web of life, made of people, animals, creatures, and ecosystems that we have lost, taken away from our common home.
This understanding demands a reinterpretation of democracy. When are we going to consider the seeds and the panther and the zebras and the cows and horses as part of our democracy?
This movement entails a different mode of perception and a mode of being. Christianity’s major allegiance is with racialized capitalism and its financial market under the sign of an exceptional patriotism. The fierce sense of coloniality within Christianity as dominion continues to give shape to the present form of perception and our forms of being that can’t preclude extraction, development, richness, and the presence of the state just for a few. Our worship is a manifestation of God’s love and a love that goes deep and wide, beyond ourselves and fully lived in the complex and diverse ecosystems of the earth.
Our worship seeks to witness to God’s love for the whole world, to manifest a love that goes deep and spreads wide, that transcends ourselves and becomes fully lived and embodied in the complex and diverse ecosystems of this earth and the cosmos.
If our worship is expanded, we must learn how to confess to plants, and to the whole creation, so we can start dreaming about trees, plants, forests, meadows, rivers, and animals as well. Then, perhaps, we will start living, and dreaming, with the earth.