Spiritual Environmentalism

From Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, on the spiritual dimension of environmentalism:

I have come to believe that the physical destruction of the earth extends to us, too. If we live in an environment that’s wounded…it hurts us, chipping away at our health and creating injuries at a physical, psychological, and spiritual level. In degrading the environment, therefore, we degrade ourselves.

The reverse is also true. In the process of helping the earth to heal, we help ourselves. If we see the earth bleeding from the loss of topsoil, biodiversity, or drought and desertification, and if we help reclaim or save what is lost…the planet will help us in our self-healing and indeed survival…The same values we employ in the service of the earth’s replenishment work on us, too. We can love ourselves as we love the earth; feel grateful for who we are, even as we are grateful for the earth’s bounty; better ourselves, even as we use that self-empowerment to improve the earth; offer service to ourselves, even as we practice volunteerism for the earth.

Of course we need to be stewards of the environment, and environmental causes are seen as something that go hand-in-hand with faith more and more often.  For myself, I often think about taking care of the environment on a level of “doing what’s right” or thinking about future generations, but I rarely think about it as a spiritual duty.

Yet, if we are indeed stewards of the environment (as Genesis 1 certainly implies), then it is a spiritual matter insofar as everything we do is a spiritual matter.  There is no spiritual life as different from a physical life, or even as a subset of it, rather: there is life.  If anything, our temporal physical lives, our eating and drinking and talking and singing and dancing lives are part — or a subset of — a larger spiritual life.

And if this is true, wouldn’t our call to be good stewards of the environment have an inherent impact on our connection with God?

I try to do my part for the environment: Brooke and I recycle, and we buy organic food, we pick up trash if we see it in a park, but really: we do enough to feel good about ourselves without truly sacrificing.  Or, as stewards, are we called to sacrifice for the environment, or merely make good decisions about it?

But even then, I fear my lack of knowledge about what I buy and what I throw away and the corporations I support: I am sure I have been a poor steward again and again.

I realize that this is an individual matter, but I find it fascinating on a spiritual level, as someone who has already thought some about my duty for the environment.  The duty, I believe, goes hand-in-hand with my duty and love for humanity, as so often environmental issues are social and justice issues.  Or again, just as there is no physical duty and spiritual duty, there are no purely environmental issues and purely social issues: they blend together.

I appreciate thinkers such as Wangari Maathai, who remind and reveal to me, to us, that each decision and action is spiritual in nature, and that throwing a piece of trash on the ground — or picking one up — is as important as a kind word to a friend or opening up the Bible, for it is God’s urging to us in a specific time and moment, and the reminder that God ultimately requires every inch and second of our lives.

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Learning and Spirituality…

I read an article last week that talked about the need for memorization in schools.  As a teacher, I have seen the push to engage students, to let them discover facts for themselves, because a self-discovered truth is weightier than one told you by others.  I think, a lot of this push toward self-discovery, self-paced and individualized learning is good.  Yet, when I came home last week to see Brooke watching an Oprah show on the disgraceful state of education in America, followed a day or two later by an article in New York Magazine about the need for memorization, I see the oddly traditional manner in which Americans overreact to a situation: we all saw the weakness in having to memorize dates or capitals, how we weren’t really “learning,” and thus students should self-discover the important truths of a time period, dates be damned.

As a lover of trivia, I have already struggled with this.  Just today, I was listening to a sermon by a pastor that I greatly enjoy and respect, and he said that the steam engine was invented around 1880.  I muttered to myself, “Try a hundred years earlier,” with an adequate amount of arrogance and pretentiousness, and wondered how this pastor thought trains were getting around all those years before 1880.  The date the steam engine was invented is largely inconsequential, until you’re actually talking about, you know, steam engines: then we do need to know dates because they are causal links in a chain.  And, I have no doubt that if the steam engine were invented a hundred years later, then our lives today would be vastly different (remember, the steam engine is largely credited with making the Industrial Revolution possible in the early 19th century).  No steam engine until 1880, and I’m blogging to you all by writing a letter over and over again, then sending it out via post.

But that’s neither here nor there: the fact that I didn’t need to look up any of the above information really is more about my lack of a life and fortunate genetics: it’s pretty easy for me to memorize inane trivia.  And, when I come to a subject that I need to know about, memorization is absolutely necessary.  Sure, you don’t really need to know what year the steam engine was invented, because you so rarely deal with that information.  But, as the NYMagazine article pointed out, we must absolutely commit information to memory in order to let procedures become second nature, so that we can focus on the “structural elements of the problem.”

For myself, this means that I have far too much gray matter filled with dates about the steam engine or Battle of Hastings, far too much knowledge about song lyrics or Super Bowl winners, than I have about things of actual consequence.  In college, I memorized Henry V’s entire speech at Agincourt.  I memorized Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, Frost’s poem “Birches,” not to mention various paragraphs here and there in the Bible, let alone the Bible verses that I regularly crammed into my brain, from Bible studies in high school to classes in college (I went to a Christian school).  This knowledge, then, was available to me at a moment’s notice.  If I wanted to stir myself, to remind myself that life wasn’t meant to be comfortable, I could recite Henry V’s speech in my head.  I could recite “Birches” to be amazed at the natural world, and wonder at the ability of the imagination.  I could pull up the first twelve verses of 1 Peter to remind myself of God’s salvation story.

After talking with my brother last week, I am inspired to do the same.  Such great giants who walked before us leaned heavily on the Psalms: the psalms were the gymnasium of the soul, the book that instructed followers of God on how to pray.  Spending so much time in the book, I want some of the knowledge to become second nature.  Though I can quote verses throughout the psalms (especially since a lot are, you know, set to music), I want to let whole psalms sink into me, reside in me, instruct me so that I don’t even realize their instruction.

I want to fill my brain with that which matters, which that which will move me closer to God and not distract me from God.  So, this long post is to not only to declare that I’m learning that reading and studying is not always enough: if I want the Psalms to really inform me I realize I must begin to memorize some.  I must let their words sink through my skin and into my marrow.  May we all learn in such a way: to take what is most, most important, and to hold it so close to our hearts in the Hebrew sense of the word.  For in Hebrew, the heart is the center of our intellect and our will to act, it designates the totality of our being.  May we hold it that close.

Luther and the Bible

An interesting take on the German language from The Economist.  What is most fascinating is Luther’s ability to translate the Bible into everyday language.  I think of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, and how I’ve heard some circles speak against his interpretation.  While on one hand, I see the need to stick to the original text, I also see the need to put the Bible into modern parlance, something that is still often missing in many translations today (too many Christianese words sometimes).  I like Luther’s idea: create a book that the common person would WANT to read, even if it means going in the face of tradition.

Perhaps the most celebrated turning point in the history of the German language is the work of another rebel against Rome, Martin Luther. His belief in salvation through personal faith alone, not the intermediation of the Church, led him to violate a longstanding prohibition on translating the Bible into vernacular languages…

Luther’s genius was to infuse his translation with the words he heard on the street in his bit of Saxony, in east-central Germany. He obsessively asked friends and fellow scholars which dialectal words would be most widely understood. The common touch was so successful that a Catholic opponent complained that “even tailors and shoemakers…read it with great eagerness.” It was the bestseller of the century and remains the most popular German translation. Rarely has a single man had such a mark on a language. The German of Luther’s Bible was nobody’s native language in his day. Today it is so universal that it threatens Germany’s once-vibrant dialects with death by standardisation.

I wonder what this means for how we communicate today: where Christians use exclusive language that inherently excludes others.  Brooke has long told me that she wants to always speak — no matter the context — about spirituality in a way that includes anyone who might overhear.  I applaud those who continue in Luther’s legacy of communicating the Bible (and the gospel) in ways that consider the context and the audience.  For too much of the 20th century the church has failed to do this.

On a lighter note, I am a huge fan of websites that find interesting links.  I don’t have the time to find the links, but I do have time to visit a few sites that will point me somewhere interesting (i.e. I don’t read The Economist, but I’ll read an article now and then if someone tells me it’s good).