Sparrow’s Fall

Sparrow’s Fall
By Douglas A. Taylor
April 3, 2005

I’ve been thinking about hippos lately.  Hippopotami.  They had always struck me as such funny creatures when I was younger.  Its name means “river horse,” which is not really funny in and of itself.  But when I found out that its closest relative is not the horse, but the pig, I thought this beast was the silliest thing going.  I later discovered, through nature programs on public television, that the Hippopotamus is a fiercely territorial creature; and although it is not a carnivore, stories of people losing life and limb in Hippo inhabited waters are not uncommon.

Albert Schweitzer did not see them as only fearful or funny.  He saw them as sacred.  It is perhaps one of the better known stories about Dr. Schweitzer when he discovered the best articulation of his beliefs.  He was gazing at the Hippos near the boat he was on when it struck him.  “Reverence for Life.”

Albert Schweitzer is one among a long list of people in our current history who have helped us to find a new language to talk about this world and what it means to be a part of it.  New language is desperately needed to describe our connection to the Earth because the old words have lost there power for most of us.

I have been reading a book by Thomas Berry, a cultural historian, priest, and author.  The book is called The Dream of the Earth.  In it he shows how the enlightened era we are now in has done away with what he calls the old story, meaning the Christian myth of creation and a personal God who still mucks around in everything and is even with the little sparrow when it falls.  While it has been good to move beyond this old story, science has taken away the sense of “Enchantment” with which the world used to be viewed.  He suggests that since the loss of that world view which the old story gave us, we have been grappling with a now seemingly insurmountable environmental crisis.  And the key to it all, according to Berry, is to rediscover that sense of enchantment.

Now, by “enchantment,” Berry does not mean fairies and spirits that magically “enchant” people into frogs and pigs.  He did not use the term it this medieval fashion.  Instead he spoke of enchantment as synonymous with awe, reverence, and wonder.  And, when he said science had done away with this sense of awe and wonder for the natural world, he was not science bashing. He was not complaining that scientific progress has ruined us; implying that we were better off in some Garden of Eden pre-industrial state.  What he meant was that the process of scientific inquiry involves a mind set whereby every assumption is question, every fact is tested, every mystery is tackled, has lead us to new levels of knowledge.  We have dug beyond the surface, and we dig deeper still to the bedrock of life itself.  We have gone deep and we have questioned everything.  No corner of life is spared the reasoned exploration of the enlightened mind, so that there is little room for awe, enchantment, and reverence.

All of this, Berry presents as ground work.  All this is history.  The crux of his argument, and of what I wish to wrestle with this morning, is that we are in the midst of confused and conflicting stories.  The old story no longer holds up to the tests of the scientific mind.  Jesus said that God will be with even the sparrow when it falls.  Yet the old story no longer works.  Holmes Rolston, an environmental ethicist, once quipped, “If God watches the sparrow fall, God must do so from a very great distance.” (Science and Religion, p. 140)

And so… who does watch the sparrow’s fall?  Does the death of a small bird matter in the grand scheme of life?  Does the death of a whole species matter?  Is there a grand scheme of life?  What is our story?

Berry insists: “It is all a question of story.  We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story.”  He writes, “We are in between stories.  The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective.  Yet we have not learned the new story.” He goes on to say, “our old story … sustained us … We awoke in the morning and knew where we were.  We could answer the questions of our children.  We could identify crime and punish transgressors.  Everything was taken care of because there was a story.  “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.”  It did not necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life or make for unfailing warmth in human association.  It did provide a context in which life could function in a meaningful manner.” (p.123)

It seems clear to me that we can’t go back.  The Religious Fundamentalists have tried that.  But even they can’t provide the basic values of human association we need to sustain us.  Other ideas have come, other stories of how we fit in the world.  Chief Seattle articulated a story of interconnectedness that resonates strongly with many people I know, but too often it is just a nice idea rather than a guiding belief structure.  People like the idea that the river and the otter and the eagle are one with them in nature as they drive their SUV’s across town while the kids zone out in the back seat watching Pocahontas on the in-car DVD system.

Many people are looking to science for the new story, in something called “the Epic of Evolution.”  Several years back The UU World magazine ran a series of articles about differing theological perspectives.  One of the features was on a perspective which embraced science is the search for religious understanding.  An article by Connie Barlow captured my attention with talk about an “Epic of Evolution.”  She drew from authors Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme in her exploration of this new story.  A story that encompasses narratively the questions of where we are and how we fit in to this evolving wonder we find around us.  And she quoted Thomas Berry saying, “The human [is] seen as that being in whom the universe in its evolutionary dimension became conscious of itself.”  And Brian Swimme, who wrote: “If you do not experience the universe directly, it doesn’t matter at all what you believe about it.”

For myself, when I read these articles, I felt things click.  We need to push ourselves to encounter the Universe.  I don’t want to lose that sense of wonder and awe.  Using theistic language, I would say I strive to have the spark of God within me resonate with the spark of God within the beauty of a crisp, clear Adirondack lake in the early morning.  We need to find the patches of beauty that move us to compassion for the earth.

Sometimes, however, reality makes it difficult to find these remote patches of beauty in our over-populated environment.  For what beauty is there in the intentional fires of deforestation?  What wonder is there in the bioregions destroyed by ‘industrial accidents?’  What awe can there be there in the Adirondack lake whose acidity level is “above the tolerance thresholds for many species”? (For the Common Good, p. 1)  How can we experience beauty in the sight of so much suffering and harm?

I cannot simply escape into the idyllic paradise of nature when so much is going wrong.  As one environmental ethicist puts it, anyone “who becomes environmentally aware, must realize that we live in a world of wounds.” (Caring for Creation, p. 3)  Creation itself is suffering.  Its beauty is marred, and its delicate balance appears to be teetering on the edge of our ignorance.  And yet we continue to ignore.

Do you remember Al Gore?  Al Gore wrote a book about the environmental crisis. (I can’t help for reflect on what a radically different place we would be in if the Supreme Court had pick Gore over Bush back then.)  Anyway, in his book Earth in the Balance, Gore writes: “The most dangerous threat to our global environment may not be the strategic threats themselves [meaning: water, soil, and air poisoning; overpopulation; and the systematic destruction of natural habitats (including our own),] but rather our perception of them, for most people do not yet accept the fact that this crisis is extremely grave.” (p.36)  Rather strong language, that.  Gore highlights a number of environmental concerns and how they are inflamed by political choices.  He called for a radical rethinking of how we do things.  He says, “A choice to do nothing in response to the mounting evidence is actually a choice to continue and even accelerate the reckless environmental destruction that is creating the catastrophe at hand.” (p 37)

Maybe we don’t feel the urgency because we are far enough away to be able to allow it to be covered up.  I know, for example, that I can go out and buy a watermelon in the middle of winter.  It doesn’t taste as good, seeing as it is out of season; but that is as it should be.  With our mega-malls and twenty-four hour supermarkets we can get just about anything.  It seems as if there is an endless supply of clothes, meats, and fresh fruits.  It is easy to not see what we do to the world to maintain this illusion of endless plenty.

The illusion is very strong.  It can be stated very scientifically, that on the grand level our impact is not that significant.  The water we drink is made up of the molecules that have been here all along.  The air we breathe is the same air that Buddha breathed.  The air that fills our lungs is the same air that filled the lungs of Muhammad and Jesus.  A closer look reveals, however, some difference because of increased levels of Carbon Monoxide and Chlorine.  We have, in fact, changed the very chemistry of the planet.  Our impact is significant.

We have a recklessly high rate of population expansion.  We have untold tons of toxic waste to contend with.  We have species that are beyond rescue from extinction.  We live with toxicity levels in our waters, soil and air, that will be with us for countless generations.  There is, from all that I can figure, nothing we can do about this.  It is here.  These are the facts.  And it is difficult to see how anyone can conceivably make any difference in this.

I lived in Chicago for a few years while I was in seminary, and I learned a bit of its history.  We took thriving marsh lands unusable to us, and transformed them into one of the renowned mega-cities of the world.  And we took land that was once beautiful to behold and transformed in into land that is literally poisonous to live in.  And let’s not even get started here talking about which people in our overpopulated culture who are forced to live in the most damaged areas.  Did you know that things got so bad with the river, the city of Chicago needed a place to send its sewage, but couldn’t in good conscience just send in down the river into Lake Michigan, to we managed to reverse the direction the river flow.  As Thomas Berry says we have changed “…structures and functions that have taken hundreds of millions and even billions of years to bring into existence.” -Berry p.xiii

So who then will cry out?  In the old story, the ground itself cried out when the blood of Abel spilled.  That is in there!  When God came and asked Cain where Abel was, the ground itself cried out for the blood of Abel that had poured out upon it.  The earth wept at this first grave injustice of one man to another.  Why then do we not weep for the injustices brought upon the earth?  What are we to do with this information?  What are we to do with the recognition that something needs to be done?

Albert Schweitzer’s final word on this issue was not a hopeful one.  He was of the opinion that our destructive relationship with the Earth would be our undoing.  He said this not because we had past the point of no return.  We were not at that point then and we are not there now.  He said our destructive relationship with the Earth would be our undoing not because there was nothing we could do to stop it, but because there was nothing we would do to stop it.  We will not care enough about the environmental atrocities we commit to notice that the path we walk is the path of death.

It is not all bad news.  There are agencies that are doing good work.  There are laws in place to protect endangered species and habitats.  There are success stories to look to.  But it is not enough.  In the old story God said, “I call the heavens and earth to witness that today I put before you Life and Death.  Choose life, that you and yours may live.”  And yet here we are, choosing death and yet we find so many ways to not notice.

So, who will cry out?  When will things change?  Dr. King once wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  To project that sentiment onto the environmental situation, I wonder what it would look like for that demand to come from the land.  Maybe things will need to get worse before they get better.  But we have no Dr. King to stir our blood and lead us out on this issue.  We don’t even have a commonly recognized story to look to and say, “What is going may be legal but it is also immoral, and it must change!”

It’s like we are in between stories.  The old story that says God is in charge and manages every little detail is not connecting to the amazing level of destruction we have grown capable of as a species.  God’s creation cannot keep pace with Man’s destruction.  But a new story that accounts for where we have come from and where we are now headed cannot be a dry list of scientific facts and formulas.  We need a story with feeling and connection that can inspire us to heed the call to be better stewards of our home.

We Unitarian Universalists, I must say, are well positioned to help this story emerge into the greater consciousness of the average person.  The interconnectedness of life and a respect for the interdependent web of existence makes sense to us, especially in light of scientific knowledge.  Hippos and sparrows and the silent sunrises are all a part of our story.   Our responsibility to the earth is not found in the old message that God made it all and us too; but that we are all a part of this and no one will clean up after us except for us.  The least we can do is to do less harm.  And perhaps the best we can hope for is that we care.

In a world without end, may it be so.