We are living in a time of immense challenge on every front—socially, politically, ecologically, and spiritually. In the midst of all this, the writings of Thomas Berry (a Catholic scholar of religion and cosmology) have kept me grounded. In his books, often very influential among those engaged in the current ecological conversation, he says that we need a new story to reorient and ground ourselves to meet these challenges. Religions, and Christianity in particular, have been slow to catch up to modern understandings of science, and the origins and future of the universe. Our theologies, liturgies, pastoral work, and ethics are still grounded in outdated understandings of the life of the universe as well as human social organizations. Science and religion must come together to foster a way of life on this planet so that all things may flourish. If religions fail to reform themselves and remain instead connected to conservative and often fundamentalist views, the future of the planet is bleak. Religion can be a potent force for change, but it can keep us stuck in the status quo.
In his book, The Sacred Universe, Berry writes that we must aim at “overcoming our human and religious alienation from the larger, more comprehensive sacred community of the natural world.” “Our challenge is to move from a purely human-oriented or personal-salvation focus in our religious concerns to one that embraces the universe in all its forms. This will require an immense shift in orientation.” John Philip Newell also pointed us in this direction, and his talks among us this last winter were a compelling call, complementing our Lenten reading in Pope Francis’ recent book. Together, they urged us to explore a distinctively Christian way to care for the earth, our common home.
This fall, I will offer a fall sermon series that invites us further into the kind of dialog we need in order to care more robustly for the earth, as stewards of and participants in the evolving life of the universe. I’ll do so by exploring these themes through the life of John Muir (1838-1914), the Scottish-born, American naturalist whose writings and advocacy led to the preservation of Yosemite and other national parks, and, through his founding of the Sierra Club, helped ignite the modern environmental movement.
Muir was raised a Presbyterian, and while he rejected the cold and rigid doctrinal formulations of his inherited Calvinism, his Christian faith nourished all his encounters with nature and supported his advocacy on behalf of the earth.
Here’s a look at the series I’m calling, “John Muir: What We Can Learn from California’s Neglected Saint”:
October 9, 2016: “The Home of God is Among Us”
October 16: “Consider the Lilies”
October 23: “When I Look at the Heavens”
These three sermons will include a meditation on biblical texts, stories from Muir’s life, excepts from his spiritual writings, and implications for Christian faith and practice. Throughout the series we will explore how our religious vision—joined with the best of our tradition and current understandings of cosmology—can provide us with a more holistic view of life on this plant and how we can each participate in its healing and flourishing, and, therefore, in our own.
I hope you’ll join in the important work before us, shaping a Christian view not only of that little bit of the cosmos we call the Earth, but also of the entire universe. Here are some suggested resources that might help you in your reflection:
Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. Berry, a Catholic theologian (or what he called a “geologian”) taught history of religions at Fordham University, and is in many ways a mentor for many religious leaders today who are working on the encounter between science and religion, and especially our ethic as humans in relation to the environment.
Journey of the Universe, by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. A remarkable, beautiful, and timely prose “poem” that explores, from a scientific point of view the origins and nature of this vast expanding universe. Not written from a religious point of view, the book bears the inspiration of a classic spiritual text—it’s a hymn to the splendor of the cosmos.
Journey of the Universe: An Epic Story of Cosmic, Earth, and Human Transformation. This Emmy award winning documentary, adapts the book by Swimme and Tucker (above and by the same title). A 57 minute video.
John Muir: Spiritual Writings, edited by Tim Flinders. Muir was a Scottish-born, Presbyterian naturalist whose writings and advocacy contributed to the preservation of Yosemite and other national parks. He also founded the Sierra Club. This collection of journal entries, letters, and excerpts from other writings, reveal his deeply spiritual sentiments and how they inspired his activism on behalf of the natural world.
The Coming of the Cosmic Christ by Matthew Fox. A thick yet helpful exploration of Christology from a creation-centered perspective. Fox re-digs the wells of historic Christianity to help us rediscover sources of theological reflection and spirituality that can help us at this point of the Earth’s great need.
Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, by John Philip Newell. Newell, of course, is influential among us at DCC. This handy little book offers us a vision for Christ who is not shackled by the doctrines of original sin and substitutionary atonement which are antagonistic to a faith perspective that honors the Earth as sacred.
Worship and the New Cosmology, by Catherine Vincie. Professor of sacramental and liturgical theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Dr. Vincie gives a short and concise summary of much of the current thinking in scientific circles about the nature of the universe and then applies those insights to the ways we express Christian faith through our worship. You will notice a number of things we have been doing for awhile in our worship services, but this book may help us with further reforms that carry our worship life further beyond outdated understandings of the cosmos and our place in it so that we can more fully participative in the gifts of the natural world.