A Sacramental Universe
An Excerpt from “The Earth as Primary Revelation” in Shaking the Gates of Hell: Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization
“Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things [God] has made.” Rom. 1:19-20
When people have the opportunity to share about their spiritual experiences they often speak of experiences that take place outside: when they were at church camp as a child, on a backpacking trip, at the top of a mountain, in a forest, by a lake or river, at a beach. Places of natural beauty can trigger experiences of awe, and can put into perspective who we are in relation to the universe and what is really important in life. At such times, the natural world reveals something of the nature of God.
We live in a sacramental universe, a universe that is an expression of the divine. A sacrament is an “outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”[i] The inward and spiritual grace at the heart of creation is revealed by its outer and physical manifestations. The ongoing creation reveals God as its Source. God’s beauty and love, power and energy are mediated through the natural world.
Global capitalism knows nothing of the sacramental value of life or the intrinsic value of God’s creation. Its view is purely utilitarian, based on turning plants, animals, land, and even water into commodities so that they can be bought and sold, reducing their value to the economic value of the bottom line. This ideology desacralizes life and creates a framework that allows creation to be exploited for the sake of human beings.
But does this view of the natural world merely as natural resources to be exploited actually improve the quality of human life? In later chapters, we will explore how a degraded environment affects human beings. But for now, let it suffice to say that no matter what the benefits of such an ideology might be, they are not worth the cost of living life “in the absence of the sacred.”[ii]
Passionist priest Thomas Berry claims that the earth itself is the “primary revelation” of the divine.[iii] He writes: “The natural world is the life-giving nourishment of our physical, emotional, aesthetic, moral, and religious existence. The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own existence.”[iv]
Berry also makes a potent and eye opening case about our human responsibility to care for creation. He points out that since God’s glory is revealed and mediated through the natural world, when we degrade the earth’s bounty or turn its natural beauty to ugliness, it changes how we experience God:
“Our exalted sense of the divine comes from the grandeur of the universe, especially from the earth in all the splendid modes of its expression. Without such experience, we would be terribly impoverished in our religious and spiritual development, even in our emotional, imaginative, and intellectual development. If we lived on the moon, our sense of the divine would reflect the lunar landscape. Our imagination would be as desolate as the moon, our emotions lacking in the sensitivity developed in our experience of the sensuous variety of the luxuriant earth. If a beautiful earth gives us an exalted idea of the divine, an industrially despoiled planet will give us a corresponding idea of God.”[v]
When the earth is diminished, its ability to mediate God to us is diminished, and thus our experience of God is diminished as well.
The Christian sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion involve the use of water, bread, and wine to symbolize the sacred in the ordinary elements of life. What would baptism mean if the water is polluted? Could polluted water symbolizehealing, blessing, cleansing, renewal? What would it mean to celebrate the eucharist by serving pesticide-laden wine or bread made with genetically modified grain? Could we still claim that it is the bread of life and the cup of salvation? Thomas Berry says, “If the water is polluted, it can neither be drunk nor used for baptism. Both in its physical reality and in its psychic symbolism, it is a source not of life, but of death.”[vi] The same would be true for the elements of Holy Communion.
God has given the physical and spiritual blessings of creation to all creatures and all generations. If we diminish creation’s ability to show forth God’s glory, we diminish the opportunities for God to touch people through creation. We prevent the earth’s blessings from being received by those for whom they are intended.
Destroying the beauty of God’s creation is a spiritual and moral issue. To despoil the earth, pollute the air, and contaminate the waters is desecration and sacrilege. To knowingly and willfully do so is sin.
A World of Relationships
“Human beings are not the web of life, but only a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” Chief Seattle[vii]
Discussion of Christian ethics has mainly focused on human relationships with God and with other human beings. Our ethical responsibility to the rest of creation has often been ignored. But we are in relationship not only with God and with each other but also with the other life forms that inhabit this planet and with the earth itself. We are part of the web of life.
This may not always be obvious in the midst of shopping malls and parking lots, gated communities and megachurches. We may be under the illusion that our human-constructed “world” sits on top of nature, somehow insulated and separated from the forces of nature that we have tamed through technology. But this view is as artificial as our constructions.
John Wesley said, “Sin is the refusal to acknowledge our dependence on God for life and breath and all things.”[viii] In spite of our incredible cultural and technological accomplishments, we are still created beings, dependent on the God who created us and interdependent with the rest of creation: plants and trees, mountains and rivers, stars and swirling galaxies.
What we do affects the whole web of life, and the condition of the whole affects us. Poisons released into the air and waters come to lodge in our tissues, as well as in the tissues of the other creatures with whom we share the earth. The loss of other species depletes the biological diversity from which medicines and food sources for human beings are developed, while also diminishing the whole. Ozone depletion causes skin cancer and cataracts in people as well as in other animals. Climate change brings floods and super-hurricanes, changes disease patterns, destroys ecosystems, and threatens to submerge whole islands, including populated ones. In the words of theologian Jürgen Moltmann: “Human beings . . . belong to nature and are dependent upon nature. Human civilizations can only develop in equilibrium with the cosmic conditions of the earth’s organism, which provide their framework. If civilization destroys these, human civilization itself dies.”[ix]
In the following chapters we will take a closer look at the direction that the Powers are taking us, and at the hell on earth they are preparing for future generations. These topics are painful. As the awful truth of our current situation dawns on us, it becomes clear why many would rather stay in denial. But we can’t afford that luxury; time is too short. Besides, the path of denial leads to darkness and spiritual death. It also leads us further along the path of complicity with evil and destruction. If we are willing to have eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand, God will surely give us the capacity to face reality, no matter how painful, to process what we learn, to see where hope lies, and to gain a more complete understanding of our calling as people of faith in the world.
Furthermore, the future has not yet been determined. The interrelated network of institutional Powers that dominate the world is not absolute and the direction that they are taking us is not inevitable. The dominant global system continues only with the willing conformity and active compliance of people who support it, either knowingly or unknowingly. Without this support, it cannot go on. If enough of us nonviolently resist, refuse to go along, and instead choose another path, there is yet hope for the earth. As people around the world join together to resist global domination by the Powers and to develop life-giving alternatives, hope becomes more real and creative change becomes possible.
[ii]. Jerry Mander, In The Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992).
[iii]. Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 81.
[v]. Thomas Berry, “Economics: Its Effects on the Life Systems of the World,” in Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology: In Dialogue with Gregory Baum, et al., ed. Anne Lonergan and Caroline Richards (Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1988), 17.
[vi]. Marjorie Hope and James Young, “Thomas Berry and a New Creation Story,” Christian Century, Aug. 16–23, 1989, 750, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=852 (accessed 3/2/07).
[vii]. Chief Seattle, quoted on the Web site ThinkExist.com, http://thinkexist.com/quotation/humankind-has-not-woven-the-web-of-life-we-are/1573311.html (accessed 3/2/07).
[viii]. John Wesley, as quoted in Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville: Discipleship Resources-Tidings, 1975), 40.
[ix]. Jürgen Moltmann, “Has Modern Society Any Future?” in Jürgen Moltmann and Johannes Baptist Metz, eds., Faith and the Future: Essays on Theology, Solidarity, and Modernity (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1995), 174.