February 4, 2024
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
Psalms 104 points to a higher power, “All living things on earth and in the sea, whether wild or domesticated, birds, sea creatures, and human beings have some idea of the living Presence by whom they exist.” What could this be if it imprints even on the wild creatures? First thing that comes to mind is our life-giving sun with its inescapable quality. Over centuries we evolved from worshipping it to scientifically understanding it. Just like our parents who were once the only things we knew, until one day we realized their faults and understood, sometimes, why they did some things. I appreciate this rather evolutionary understanding of phenomenon in our midst.
At the onset of the Gaza conflict, over land that will be uninhabitable in a generation or two, there was the passing of an influential theologian whose message grabbed my attention. I followed his presentations and online classes with discussion time. What he presented greatly changed my life with a series of revelations based on reasoning and logic I had not considered. I shared this with my mission group and sensed a bit of unease. One word was both satirical and grave, hopium, a word that combines hope with opium, that engendered a somber reflection on our predicament of our natural world and its livability in crisis. This pastor was Michael Dowd. I had attended his classes on being resilient. I now think about the presence in the sky imprinting on us, with increasing intensity. He preached an evidentiary approach to faith, to see things as they are. I appreciated his eclectic use of other religious and philosophical scholars reifying the message. One of them puts reality at the forefront (Loyal Rue): “Religion is not about God” This struck me since I always thought we went to church to worship God. “Instead it is our relationship to reality, that which is undeniably, inescapably real, and if we live at odds with reality, we are doomed. Living in proper relationship with it, we are saved.” I like this parallel message where my mind can map to it easily from the biblical concept of salvation. This idea folds in how we live in our biosphere, our awareness of the past and present and what we leave for future generations. It posits a world that is not an ‘it’ but a ‘thou’. This is Eco-theology. It engages in interdisciplinary conversations with science, philosophy, and ethics to address ecological challenges. Real credit goes to the first pioneer, Seyyed Nasr, from a 1965 essay.
Dowd’s message is completely opposite of my Catholic upbringing, and for that matter, any preaching you would hear from a common pulpit that asks us to honor God, become saved through salvation acceptance or good deeds, and be penitential in thought and prayer. Thoughts and prayers, then silence, is often the reaction of politicians following preventable violence. This then concludes with no action. How long has the threat of God’s retribution, sermonized, been used to terrorize us into acceptance of the Good News? Dowd believes any understanding of ‘scripture’ that doesn’t include all forms of evidence (scientific, cross-cultural, personal) interpreted collectively is anti-future and self-terminating. Our understanding of ecology, and resource limits, helps us to see where real wealth lies and brings to the fore intergenerational injustice.
Eco-theology invites us to appreciate the larger universe, one that is not indifferent, but benign, which invites its intimacy and maybe trust. This approach can be seen to move in 5 directions: diversity, complexity, awareness, speed of change, and greater intimacy with itself (ref the book “Thank God for Evolution”). He teaches that humans at the peak of a long evolutionary history is the universe becoming more aware of itself through us. This happens on a grand scale, a quantum scale and the interconnections between. I thought about the story of sun cycles, tree rings, seafaring expansion and the Age of Discovery in a story which really connected natural phenomenon and human behavior.
Recent theory and experimental evidence proved a physical phenomenon (false vacuum decay) and offers us insight into the machinations of nature at play. The experiment conducted now evolves somewhat our idea of a Creator, or threatens to replace it. The experimental laboratory finding is an analog and portends both the birth of the universe, igniting the Big Bang, and also its immanent destruction. Theoretically, all can come to an end when the “false vacuum” decays to a “true vacuum” state and collapses everything. Likely? Maybe. I wonder if we would have a second coming if this is immanent. Maybe a transcendent God is a better deity to have, as (he) is absolved from the complete destruction that a quantum phenomenon could bring.
On the interconnected aspect, I think about the Trinity as a metaphor for relations we see around, in the biosphere, in life. Discoveries in science keeps showing us wonders with the most subtle dependencies. Trees are dependent on underground fungi to provide nutrients (and also reflect sun cycles), plants can warn another of nearby pest attacks. I found out about snow crab livelihood dependence on cool waters to keep their metabolism at bay, without which their population would collapse in the absence of food to keep pace with their metabolism. Our own gut bacteria influences us remarkably where there is a robust bi-communication pathway with our brains, influencing quite a bit of our mood and emotions, stress levels, inflammation and other systems. The documentary ‘You Are what You Eat’ speaks to the importance of diet. We find in their twins study that a vegan diet brings, “enhanced mental and physical well-being, depression treatment, improved quality of life, and overall health among diabetics.” This includes cardiovascular health benefits and lower weight. Also biological age slows or reverses cellular aging.
Externally, meat consumption contributes more to carbon emissions than the transportation sector. Might major turning points in history be fundamentally influenced by leaders and what they ate, such as Pontius Pilot? I like to think if I had more GABA production, which produces a calming effect on the nervous system, my demeanor I would align my behavior to one Christ-like in the face of adversity.
When I was a kid, I had an early moment of renewed understanding, at least of custom and ritual. I temporarily breached the veil of the sacred when I curiously lifted the priest’s Chasuble after Mass. I wanted to see what was underneath. I’m not sure if I got the idea from the movie where the curtain was drawn to expose the man pulling the levers of smoke and fire which really terrified the cowardly Lion, who ended up running and jumping out the window. We now have politicians instilling dread and fear in our midst with words and hand waving. I wait for someone to lift the toupee of some politicians to bring it all crashing down.
Now I present a rather radical departure from the traditional biblical view. Might there be a bridge where the scripture is more foundational, to fill that safer space that Christians can relate to more? Another theology brought to my attention and intrigued me equally is from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest whose book “Universal Christ” many may be familiar with. He introduces a primary incarnational view at the moment of Creation (Big Bang) and the historical Jesus revealing the universal patterns of this first Creation, where the presence of the divine is in everything and everyone, an incarnate presence of God. His ideas follows Neoplatonism where God is not external but present within all things, thus subscribing to a non-dualistic view. His message is positive and progressive, but critics argue that It subsumes the divine within a common profane world, where God is placed next to all the wars, rapes and murders. Ergo, evil comes from God, Jesus is demoted, is merely one of many master teachers. Humans can directly contemplate God without the sacrificial death on the cross, as Rohr would write. On a more supernatural and concerning level, which radically reframes the New Testament view, posits that demons do not exist. This runs counter to many times when Jesus drives them as, as have noted in the passages of Mark 1:29-39. By radically sidelining and ignoring evil in this incarnational world view, Gestapo officers at Auschwitz have the Cosmic Christ at the center of their souls. This is counter to biblical teaching where evil is an alien intrusion into a good creation, thus removing God from the brutality of men and women. Traditional biblical teaching states that since humans are cut off from the transcendent divine, they need to repent and trust in Christ Jesus. Rohr posits that we can see everything as a kind of guidance, sin is as illusory as the material universe, and the ‘Higher Self’ be trusted and followed.
I posit my challenge thus. I want to understand reality and all the things, good and evil, within it.
Where did the eternal damnation in hell come from? Is it a real place to know? Now I’d rather not have evidentiary proof of it, or understand it, except that it falls into an unknowable space, where once revealed, there is an immediate existential state of doom. I’d rather be more familiar with the unreachable knowns, like Quantum theory, complex mathematical proofs, or mathematical objects. One such example is a number expression so large that it cannot be written down even within all the tiny spaces in the known universe, but has a useful purpose nevertheless. I wonder if strict biblical authority defiles primary reality through idolatry of the written word, idolatry of the otherworldly and idolatry of beliefs. We can throw in progress, growth, the market and man as conqueror of nature.
In order to pick theologies that seem better suited, I had to undertake this work objectively. My research on exploring the basis of the Abrahamic tradition is traced to Pagan and Egyptian cosmological practices. Consumption of bread and wine was a practice by the god Osiris, the Egyptian god of fertility, agriculture, the afterlife, the dead, resurrection, and life. Egyptians had previously recognized the winter solstice and spring equinox, our Christmas and Easter. The Christian cross has its roots, or analogies, in the Egyptian Ankh (their word for life). I had the opportunity one time to see an original one, and its transformation to a cross over the course of a century or two, in an Egyptian museum. The Eucharistic bread also seems to follow in similar fashion, as there were Osiris cakes, a significant food offering, decorated to resemble God, in rituals and ceremonies. It symbolized the sustenance and renewal of life. That god rose from the dead to inherit eternal life, but through imitative magic. Another parallel is the idea of divine justice after death but with the consequences not of eternal torture but dissolution into nothingness. The ancient Egyptians conceptualized evil as a disruptive force that needed to be actively countered through ritual, magic, and virtuous living in order to preserve the natural order and uphold the principles of Ma’at. In Neoplatonic and Pagan circles, evil is the absence if good that arises when aspects of reality fail to fully conceptualize the One, the ultimate source of all existence and goodness; it is the result of imperfections, limitations and distortions in the material world, rather than a separate opposing force to good.
In our age, the evil that walks the earth is manifest in our anthropocentric worldview and material ambitions, which will eventually prove to be life-ending, as it is disconnected from the biosphere and knows not of absolute limits. I use a critique of Rohr to be vigilant of the dangers of not following the traditional biblical teachings, Christ as Savior, God as Redeemer. I find practicality with eco-theology that focuses on the local, and relationship to the land, and recognition of natural evils, not ones disconnected and mythological in nature. One such example of this evil on our land is the Chronic Wasting Disease from prions once detected in a small captive colony of deer. In short order, its high transmissibility has spread to 30 states and has been detected in more than 50 percent of the population and considered impossible to eradicate. This evil, if you will, can easily spread to humans, with free roaming cats being one vector. Lets not pick up on my pet peeve however, with cats. The prion can bind to plants and be taken into the roots and eventually into grazing cows, they are able to stay in the ground and remain contagious for years. The positive anecdote at the beginning about a vegan diet is now tarnished by a simple prion; cooking the plant will not eliminate infectivity. Native cervids are now manifest as evil, and we have to keep them out of the grazing and growing fields. A slaughterhouse who wanted to test for it was prevented by the U.S. government.
I believe we need to be better prepared to confront our evidential reality, especially that which is out of focus or unattended. A logical understanding of it and our presence therein is more whole, natural and sensible. However since the world is so complex, we may never get there. There may be that unnatural evil that we rarely see, if ever, which the bible speaks about, but physical realities demand more of our attention. I think a first step in living with true awareness is to accept ourselves and trust that it is good. We can then accept others as they are without judgement and celebrate again the lost innocence of youth in our soul, casting aside the burdens of shame and penitential thinking (except for acknowledged faults). We can further fold into our reality, and practice a kin-centric world view, as last week’s message shows, where spirituality is used to assist with healing, it can connect with our humanity to overcome challenges ever present.