Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Second Inconvenient Truth

While climate change has now risen to national and global conscience, in large part because of Al Gore's remarkable documentary and richly deserved Nobel Prize, another looming crisis sits in the wings, waiting for its own advocates on the world stage. The issue is tied to climate change, but possesses its own vital agenda as well; this biosphere we call earth needs friends and protectors. The pauperization of the earth itself, brought on by pollution, species extinction, and plundering of the planet carries with it an enormous cost.

Currently, experts warn, we are on the verge of destroying much of our ecological diversity in the coming century, if the present course of human behavior continues. A passionate movement to address climate change has started. A similar effort is required to rescue all living organisms.

One advocate who has long spoken with an eloquent and compelling voice is the noted biologist E.O. Wilson. Wilson served on the faculty at Harvard for over 50 years and won two Pulitzer Prizes for his writing in biology. He writes like a poet. But he's also one of the world's great scientists.

In his recent book The Creation, E.O. Wilson constructs an imaginary correspondence through letters with a Southern Baptist Pastor. Wilson's aim is to enlist the commitment of church leaders, and evangelicals in particular, for care of the creation. As a native of Alabama who grew up in the intense religious atmosphere of Baptist revivalism, Wilson seeks to build a bridge to a world he had long since abandoned. He's clear about his reasons for this effort, because he recognizes that religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today. And the very creation itself, along with the future of all life, depends on a growing partnership between religion and science for the health of the planet entrusted to our care.

Here are a few persuasive observations from Wilson about what is at stake:

In Wilson's imaginary correspondence with a minister, he sets forth the ominous fact that we are entering a period of mass extinction never before seen on our planet. We are about to enter, what poets and scientists alike may choose to call "the Eremozoic Era- the Age of Loneliness...Humanity must make a decision, and make it now: conserve Earth's natural heritage, or let future generations adjust to a biologically impoverished world."

"Because wild natural ecosystems are in plain sight, it is also easy to take for granted the environmental services they provide humanity. Wild species enrich the soil, cleanse the water, pollinate most of the flowering plants. They create the very air we breathe. Without these amenities, the remainder of human history would be nasty and brief."

"According to estimates by a team of experts in 2004, climate change alone, if left unabated, could be the primary cause of extinction of quarter of the species of plants and animals on the land by midcentury."

The sad thing is that we do not understand what we are doing. Wilson argues that the priority shouldn't be exploration of Mars or other planets; we need to mount an expedition to Earth itself. The number of species of organisms discovered to date, comprising all known plants, animals, and microorganisms, lies somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8 million. Estimates of the true number vary widely from 3.6 million at the low end to 112.00 million at the high end. About most of these species we know very little.

Reading Wilson's book, I learned for example, that we owe the churning of the soil not to earthworms, but to ants and termites. People need insects to survive, but insects do not need us.

Wilson argues that we need to build an Encyclopedia of Life to learn about and document the rich diversity of life, all of which has a purpose in the grand scheme of nature, but about which we know so very little. Already, discoveries have led to medical and scientific advances of remarkable value.

According to Wilson, the value in dollars (call it world-wide Gross Domestic Product) of the environment either matches or exceeds the value of human generated economic value.
Can we afford to dispense with this contribution of nature to our welfare?

Wilson passionately argues that the "obliteration of Nature is a dangerous strategy. For one thing, we have become a species specialized to eat the seeds of four kinds of grass- wheat, rice, corn, and millet. If these fail from disease or climate change, we too shall fail."

Wilson's book is a self-described class-action suit on behalf of biological diversity on our planet.
With an investment world-wide of some $30 billion dollars to combat species extinction and human practices that degrade the environment, Wilson believes that enormous progress could be attained. As he argues, "conserving biodiversity is the best economic deal humanity has ever had placed before it since the invention of agriculture."

I ended my reading of "The Creation" with a heightened awareness of how much our own tenuous life on this planet owes to the embattled natural world. People of faith should partner with the scientific community to face this second inconvenient truth- 'Blinded by ignorance and self-absorption humanity is destroying the Creation."

Here's a taste of a testimony/sermon that Wilson shares with his Southern Baptist pastor correspondent:

"Save the Creation, save all of it! No lesser goal is defensible. However biodiversity arose, it was not put on this planet to be erased by any one species. This is not the time, nor will there ever be a time, when circumstances justify destroying Earth's natural heritage. Proud though we are of our special status, and justifiably so, let us keep our world-changing capabilities in perspective. All that human beings can imagine, all the fantasies we can conjure, all our games, simulations, epics, myths, and histories, and yes, all our science dwindle to little beside the full productions of the biosphere.We have not even discovered more than a fraction of Earth's life forms. We understand fully no one species among the millions that have survived our onslaught."

Friday, December 28, 2007

Welcome to the Wisdom of the World

For the last several weeks, I've begun my day by reading a chapter from Joan Chittister's new book Welcome to the Wisdom of the World: universal spiritual insights distilled from five religious traditions. I've long counted Chittister one of the great modern voices and writers in spirituality, and her newest book adds to the warm-hearted and socially engaged perspectives of her own Catholic/ecumenical faith. I recommend a visit to Chittister's web site: for further connection to this remarkable spiritual leader and author.

In an inviting way, Chittister explores the wisdom/spiritual traditions of 5 of the world' great religions - Hindu, Buddhist, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity- and examines how each intersects with contemporary spiritual concerns. Chittister grounds these explorations in personal encounters she has had with individuals she has known or has counseled through her ministry.

Here's a sampling of the chapters in Chittister's book and the questions about life that she explores from the perspective of each spiritual tradition:

  1. Hindu Wisdom:
  • Why Does My Life Feel So Hectic?
  • What Does It Mean to "Make A Difference?"
  • How Can I Learn To Let Go of the Past?

2. Buddhist Enlightenment:

  • Would I Do It All Again?
  • Is It Possible to Make Up for Past Mistakes?

3. Jewish Community:

  • Where Did I Lose My Idealism?
  • Why Do I Feel Stuck?

4. Chrisianity:

  • What Does it Take to Put Excitement Back into My Life?
  • What's Wrong with Me: Why Can't I Change?

5. Islam:

  • What is Happiness?
  • What's Important in Life?

As I've spent my mornings with one of the chapters of this book, I've savored the deeply caring and wise ways that each of these 5 great spiritual traditions has sought to offer guidance for the human quest for spiritual truth and for the divine And I've wondered, what would it be like if human beings across national and religious divides sought to encounter each other from the best of our respective spiritual traditions.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

What does it take to be known?

This past Wednesday, December 5 my city- Omaha, Nebraska- joined in the sad and tragic line of communities across our nation who have experienced the devastation of mass murder. My son called that night from Missouri to tell me that he was watching CNN's coverage of this horrific act. It's hard to believe this happened in Omaha my son said. Another friend commented that he had liked living in Omaha because it is a city that ranks in the top 50 in size in the United States, while keeping a low profile. Omaha offers a wonderful quality of life he said. And now this!

What could have driven young Robert Hawkins to take a semi-automatic weapon to a shopping mall where he opened fire on innocent people, killing 8 and wounding several others. This is a city in shock!

Hawkins left a suicide note apparently, saying he couldn't cope with life any longer, while anticipating that he would finally be known and achieve fame. What a sad and ultimately pathetic search for some scrap of significance. To think that becoming significant must involve fame! I shudder at the images of Peter Hawkins splashed across the front pages of the Omaha World Herald, his grainy image pointing his rifle ahead.

At times like these, there's little to be said in explanation of such senseless actions. Rather, people of faith, along with others who may or may not claim faith, need to reaffirm the most basic truths about what matters.

I've been reading a book by the eminent Jewish Rabbi and theologian, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that helps me reaffirm fundamental touchstones of my own faith. It's a book titled, To Heal a Fractured World." The subtitle is "The Ethics of Responsibility."

Sacks opens with a quote from Psalm 8:
When I behold Your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars that You set in place
What is man that You are mindful of him,
Mortal man that You take notice of him?
Yet You have made him little less than the angels
And adorned him with glory and majesty.

That's long been one of my favorite psalms, for it speaks to the enormous dignity and worth of human creatures to God. But I also remember one of my first teachers of theology saying,
"We human beings are both the glory of God and the scum of the earth." Dr. John Bray was indicating that we human beings are capable of co-creating with God such wonderful gifts for life, and at the same time we retain an awful capacity for evil. It's a frightening paradox.
The events this past week are indicative of our human capacity for evil.

Rabbi Sacks in true Jewish tradition professes that "One of Judaism's most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility, the idea that God invites us to become, in the rabbinic phrase, his 'partners in the work of creation.'

Rabbic Sacks points to the reality that we also live in a fractured world:
"The gossamer filaments of connection between us and others that once held together families, communities and societies, have become attentuated. We have become lonely selves in search of purely personal fulfillment."

I think of that twisted young man, Peter Hawkins, and what led him to believe that he was making a name for himself. What fragments of faith, family, and community became so frayed that he felt so isolated and rejected? I'm not in any sense making excuses for this deed of personal responsibility. I'm just wondering.

As I reflect on what it means to be known, I'm also led to consider what we as a society and we as communities of faith have sought to make known about the things that count, the contours of an ethic of responsibility.

I appreciate Rabbi Sack's emphatic remark that "the ethical life is a form of celebration.
Doing good is not painful, a matter of dour duty and a chastising conscience."
The Hebrew word for this comments Rabbi Sacks is "Simha", usually translated as joy.
What it really means writes Sacks, is the happiness we share, or better still, the happiness we make by sharing.

The ethic of of responsibility, of sharing what we have, is the best answer I know to the meaning and meaningfulness of a life. I wish that Peter Hawkins had experienced this ethic in a deeper way. I pray that our communities of faith here in Omaha will come together, and that all people will know that we share in the call to mutual responsibility, even as we share our grief.