Unitarian Universalism’s historic embrace of theologies and philosophies that supported and amplified the lived realities of being on this earth is a legacy we can draw on to remain in a place of openness and generosity with each other and with the earth. In responding to both the COVID-19 pandemic and rapidly accelerated climate change, one of the most powerful strategies we have is for as many of us as possible to decenter ourselves, to get off the pedestal that has convinced too many of us that humanity is the ultimate point of creation. We must get out of the way. This is so counter-intuitive. We want to do something, make our mark, exert our influence, be the heroes of the moment.
This message was offered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL, The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI, and Eliot Unitarian Chapel, Kirkwood MO in April 2020. May be used with credit given to the author.
Wisdom Story Love the Weeds, an Iranian Folktale, from Earth Tales by Margaret Read Macdonald.
Reading: “We Are Nature” by Walt Whitman
We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return,
We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark,
We are embedded in the ground, we are rocks,
We are oaks, we grow in the openings side by side,
We browse, we are two among the wild herds, spontaneous as any,
We are two fishes swimming in the sea together,
We are what locust blossoms are, we drop scent around lanes mornings and evenings,
We are also the coarse smut of beasts, vegetables, minerals,
We are two predatory hawks, we soar above and look down,
We are two resplendent suns, we it is who balance ourselves orbic and stellar, we are as two comets,
We prowl fang’d and four-footed in the woods, we spring on prey,
We are two clouds forenoons and afternoons driving overhead,
We are seas mingling, we are two of those cheerful waves rolling over each other and interwetting each other,
We are what the atmosphere is, transparent, receptive, pevious, impervious,
We are snow, rain, cold, darkness, we are each product and influence of the globe,
We have circled and circled till we have arrived home again, we too,
We have voided all but freedom and all but our own joy.
– Walt Whitman
Weeds became part of my life at a young age. In our family, once you turned 9 you were old enough to work on the farm. Every summer morning until the plants had grown thick enough to shield the soil from the sun, my mother, my brother and I entered the fields with our newly sharpened hoes and worked our way up and down the rows as the younger boys played in the shade at the edges of the field. Ragweed. Elephant ear. Thistle. Crabgrass. Burs. Sow thistles. The weeds fell through our dogged persistence.
Today, I get nostalgic remembering this time. My family is scattered across time zones and we meet every few years so it’s easy to romanticize the work we did together. Actually it wasn’t romantic at all. The days were long, my mind often struggled to find new things to think about as we worked, and my body ached at night.
I remember one day the ground was so hard and the weeds so thick, and I thought, “Why are we doing this? These weeds are so strong! The crops we plant are weak. Why aren’t we growing things that are already strong?”
The answer to this question, of course, is that there’s no market for ragweed. Of course we had to grow the things that we did. But the bigger balcony view answer is that we were breaking our backs for plants that were weak. We were fighting against what was natural for the soil, what actually belonged there.
We were also fighting weeds that had simply become stronger because they survived the chemicals used to kill them. What we often call “weeds” are nature’s way of responding to deficiencies in the soil that is out of balance because of poor crop rotation, monoagriculture and synthetic fertilizers. All the weeds we were fighting were there for a reason. They were responding to human choices made over generations.
Farmers who transition from conventional to organic will say that weeds show them where the soil is in its process of restoration. The first years are awful. The withdrawal of fertilizers and herbicides leads to weedy infestations that are almost impossible to manage. You’ll be tempted to give up because your fields look hideous. But, if you can be patient, stand tall while other farmers smirk at your weedy fields, you will get restored organic soil.
My 9 year old self was already starting to wonder about how we find this balance, already thinking about what it means to restore things. When did you start to wonder about that balance? When did you start to question the primary of the market over the cycle of the seasons? When did you start wondering how we got to think we are so important that we come first in all things?
Many of us are thinking a lot about this. Climatologists have been issuing dire warnings that we are running out of time. CO2 emissions have reached a level from which there is no point of return. We are beyond restoration and into harm reduction, trying to slow down what is happening.
There are some parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and this reality of climate harm reduction. We know that social distancing is about slowing down infection rates while the scientists and medical professionals struggle to catch up. What we need are the right weeds! We need more people who are immune, which happens in only one way right now– you get the disease and recover. We need to know how long you are immune. We need a vaccine. We also desperately need an effective treatment. So while many of us are staying in place, there is a whirlwind of activity to increase the rate of testing, develop a vaccine and find a treatment.
What would it be like if we achieved this same collective sense of urgency for the climate emergency? I know that some of us have this sense of urgency. But others are just starting to catch on. When there is a political will and a public that supports action, we are seeing that things happen. That’s why we are going to get through this pandemic. We are like farmers watching a conventional field transition to organic. The weeds are exploding and it would be so tempting to go back to life as normal. But if we want restoration, we have to be patient with the weedy fields. We have to be open to whatever is asked of us.
In truth, it is the openness that is the most important thing because the climatologists, the scientists, the public health officials, the policy writers, the number crunchers –they have to know that we are on their side and we will stay there while its messy. It means we can’t travel for a while. We can’t go in to work, can’t go into the grocery store without a mask, can’t sit by a loved one who is in the hospital, which is heartbreaking. We’re not going to reopen our businesses until we’re allowed. We can’t meet in person for worship even though we are missing each other terribly and it just isn’t the same online. There is so much loss and anxiety and we trying to find ways to manage it so that we don’t do something stupid and make it worse.
The same messiness, loss and anxiety will need to be embraced if we are to prevent the worst effects of climate change, especially for those who have the least ability to protect themselves from it.
We’ve seen what happens when you can’t manage the anxiety. This week, protests erupted all over the country demanding an end to social distancing, saying it’s a violation of liberty. It’s possible that these protests, with many refusing to wear masks or maintain 6 feet of separation, will actually prolong the pandemic. I’ve found myself incredibly judgmental of these protesters, in a way that almost ruined a whole day. But we also know that none of us is immune to twisting up information that is inconvenient because it raises our anxiety. It’s highly likely that each of us has given in to infectious anxiety at some time and we have caused harm when we did.
So rather than just delighting in self-righteous judgment, which can be quite delicious for a short while but ultimately leaves us nowhere, the question is how we maintain a spiritual openness and generosity, the kind that we started out with when we began this social distancing. In our liberal religious tradition, openness and generosity are spiritual strengths that help us to trust in a restoration that’s happening even if we aren’t personally able to see that the soil is regenerating right under our feet.
Did you know that our Unitarian foremothers and forefathers had the same questions? In the late 1700s and 1800s, when Unitarianism broke through in Britain and North America, there was a battle going on for the question of truth itself. Where did truth come from? How did you discern what was true? These questions were energized by the crises of their day, and one crisis was what you did with inconvenient information.
The inconvenient information of their day was the growing body of knowledge, revealed through scientific research, that was contrary to what was written in Scripture, which the majority of people in every class and station in the Western World considered to be 100% true. But then Galileo discovered that the Earth rotated around the Sun. Next came the discovery that the earth wasn’t flat. Then archeologists found artifacts that didn’t jive with the Bible. Carbon dating revealed that the world was a lot older than anyone had imagined. These discoveries caused a crisis of faith.
Some responded by trying to shut it all down, not so different from the anxious response we saw in protests this week. But others wanted a new approach. They were determined to blend their faith and all this inconvenient information. This turned into a fierce contest between revealed theology and natural theology.
Revealed theology is what many of us grew up with, the idea that God is a transcendent power that breaks into history and shapes what is right and true. The Bible is considered by many as one of those breaks into history. The Trinitarian Jesus is another. The idea that God can reach into human life and shape what happens here, that is revealed theology.
Natural theology proposed that God created everything and then stepped aside and let it go. God was like a clock maker. God built the clock, wound it up, and let it start ticking. Those who became the first Unitarians in Britain and the United States were drawn to this natural theology. They said that if you wanted to understand God, you needed to understand creation. Revelation didn’t happen through a breaking in. It happened as you discovered the laws of the universe that had been set into place at the beginning of time. Scientists were now our theologians, discovering ultimate truth.
This was really quite a shift in thinking. Natural theology created a path for those who didn’t want to choose between faith and knowledge. They wanted a unity of spirit and mind. This is when we see a widespread use of nature metaphors to understand humanity, like the poem that we read by Walt Whitman this morning. We began to see ourselves in the cycles of nature as opposed to outside of them. If you look in our grey hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition,” there are many old hymns where the lyrics have been rewritten with a natural theology. Our opening hymn, Lo the Earth Awakes Again, is a great example of how this theology permeated our thinking.
But Natural Theology could only go so far because it assumed an unchanging universe, an unchanging God and a clear moment when creation was formed. When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species, which showed that life is always evolving, it blew Natural Theology out of the water. The idea that creation was governed by a set of unchanging laws came apart. This is when Humanism entered Unitarianism. We began to question if nature revealed God or if it just revealed itself. And what were we learning about ourselves? That we weren’t the center. We weren’t the supreme purpose of creation. This creation wasn’t made for us and we can’t control it because how can we control something that formed us and is still forming us now?
So what does all this have to do with COVID-19 and CO2 emissions in 2020? Our historic embrace of theologies and philosophies that supported and amplified the lived realities of being on this earth is a legacy that we can draw on to remain in a place of openness and generosity with each other and with the earth. In both cases, the pandemic and climate change, one of the most powerful strategies we have is for as many of us as possible to decenter ourselves, to get off the pedestal that has convinced too many of us that humanity is the ultimate point of creation. We must get out of the way so that the weeds can do their work. This is so counter-intuitive. We want to do something, make our mark, exert our influence, be the heroes of the moment.
Maybe you’ve heard what’s been happening to CO2 emissions while we’ve been hunkering down. The air is cleaner. In Venice Italy, the water is almost clear because there’s almost no boat traffic and wildlife is reclaiming the canals. Perhaps you saw the video circulating this week of a huge jelly fish swimming through the canals. So beautiful. In Llandudo Wales, wild goats have moved into town because the streets are so empty. This is what happens when we get out of the way. The regeneration begins.
I have no doubt that as the virus diminishes, however that happens and whenever that happens, we will be back in our cars, the canals of Venice will fill with boats, the streets will be full and most of us will happily reconnect with loved ones that we are missing dearly. But I hope that we don’t waste this experience, that it becomes a moment to shift priorities in ways that many of us have yearned for. That this is a moment for us to learn how think differently, live smaller even as our hearts grow larger.
It’s been a long time since I went out into the fields with my family to fight the weeds. Since then, my parents did in fact transition from conventional to organic on part of their farm. They watched their beloved fields fill with weeds and then reaped the benefits of their patience with almost 25 years of organic harvests. The soil has returned to its own rhythms.
My prayer for all of us is that we also join these rhythms. May the rhythms of this time stay with us, regenerate and restore us and this earth that we love so much.