What The World Needs Now

Reading
excerpted from “Live For It” by Ellen Bass[i]

Jasmine unfolding, the scent and color attracting the bees,
the darker veins guiding them toward the nectar,
honey in honeycombs, worms aerating soil,
the levity of bird bones,
fins of fish, the eye blinking—
who could have ever conceived it?

The crescent moon, tender as new love in the luminescent blue,
Milkweed silk—who could have imagined it?

And my lover, when she lifts her lips to me
and I first feel that softness,
warm like summer nights as a child
when she rubs against me like fur
and small cries escape my mouth like birds,
“Sing to me,” she breathes
and I sing glory I did not know was mine to sing.

What is this but a miracle?
What is this but the improbable, marvelous reward of desire?

Desire—that fire I was taught to suspect,
that intensity I struggled to calm.
“Don’t want too much,” the voices warned.

No.  Want.  Want life.
Want this fragile oasis of the galaxy to flourish.
Want fertility, want seasons, want this spectacular
array of creatures,
this brilliant balance of need.
Want it.  Want it all.

Desire.  Welcome her raging power.
May her strength course through us.
Desire, she is life.  Desire life.
Allow ourselves to desire life, to want this sweetness
so passionately, that we live for it.

 

What The World Needs Now

(Offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Chico, February 10, 2019)

What does it mean to love and be loved?  What is healthy love and what is not?   What is the place of love in human life on earth, and why does it matter?

In the field of systematic theology, these questions fall into the category of theological anthropology, or human nature in relation to the divine.  Wow, you may be saying, that sounds dull.  I thought we were going to be talking about eros today!  I was expecting something a little more, shall we say, exciting?

Okay, let’s talk about eros.

Have you ever stood in a winter storm with your arms open wide and your face to the wind and felt it scour you clean?  In the summer, have you ever been so hot that you slipped off all your clothes and slid naked into a cold river?  Have you ever stood between the rising of the full moon, and the setting of the brilliant sun, and felt the turning of the earth?  Have you ever lost yourself in music or painting or sculpting, or danced in joy until dawn?  Have you ever tasted a strawberry picked straight from the plant and nearly swooned as the bright flavor exploded in your mouth?  Have you ever made love with another person and felt, if only for a moment, your two selves become one?  Has longing ever pierced your heart?  Has beauty ever made you cry?

These are erotic experiences, experiences in which we feel the life force moving through us and responding to the life all around us.  We feel a longing to intimately participate in this life; we long to know and be known, to love and be loved.  We see beauty and respond by creating more beauty; we are the world consciously loving itself.  We are part of a great communion of all life.

Erotic love is one of the most joyful pathways human beings can follow to awakening to this communion.  Relationships based on mutual care and pleasure provide refuge and sustenance for their partners.  These would be wonderful enough, but even more is possible.  The ecstatic awareness that comes with erotic love can be a magic portal.  Through it people can enter a new relationship with what some call the interdependent universe and others call the divine.  Do you remember your first mutual love?  Did colors seem brighter?  Did birds seem to be singing in a language you could almost understand?  Did every breeze seem to caress your skin?  Did the moon seem to hang low and lush, just for you?  The heightening of our senses that comes with desire can make us exquisitely aware of our interbeing with all that is.

This was what happened to a Muslim man named Mevlana Jelal Ad Din Muhammad Rumi, in 13th century Persia.  Rumi, as Americans call him, was born in what is now Afghanistan and moved to what is now Turkey as boy.  He was a respected scholar and jurist—until the fateful day when a wandering ascetic named Shams came into his life.  Shams means Sun in Arabic, and for Rumi Shams was his sun.  He fell madly in love.  His love for Shams opened his whole being so wide that he began regularly to experience all life and love as One, in Arabic called Allah, THE One. In the mystical school of Islam that Rumi began, Allah is said to have created the universe that Allah might be known by Allah.  In other words, the universe both is God and is a mirror of God; in still other words, the universe is Godself becoming.  In still yet other words, humans are the divine beholding the divine, both Lover and Beloved.  The job of lovers is to see the divine in each other and grow, through love, toward union with the whole.  In Islam, there is a concept of the unity of all creation.  It is a communion of all life and the divine, from which human beings often feel cut off, but long for.  The name of this concept is tawhid.  According to Rumi’s teachings, this communion, this state of participation in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, is what we seek when we love.

Here is one of Rumi’s ecstatic poems:

Some Kiss We Want

There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body.

Seawater begs the pearl
to break its shell.

And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling!

At night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine.
Breathe into me.

Close the language- door and
open the love window. The moon
won’t use the door, only the window. [ii]

Rumi taught that when we love well, when we move past the limitations of our own ego, when we reach consciousness of our unity with the divine whole that is our world, we have no choice but to love that whole and care for every part and being.  Rumi taught his followers to love and care for peoples of all religions, castes, and nations, as well as the other creatures of the earth.

Hafiz was another Persian poet from this same school of thought.  Here is one of his works, which can be found in the back of our gray hymnal.

“Cloak yourself in a thousand ways; still shall I know you, my Beloved.
Veil yourself with every enchantment, and yet I shall feel you, presence, most close, dear, and intimate.
I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses and in the sheen of lakes, the laughter of fountains.
I shall surely see you in the tumbling clouds, in brightly embroidered meadows.

Oh, Beloved Presence, More beautiful than all the stars together,
I trace your face in ivy that climbs,
in clusters of grapes,
in morning flaming the mountains,
in the clear arch of sky.
You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.
You are the breathing of the world.”[iii]

In this way of understanding, eros, the life force, our drive to love, is the divine moving in us, making us aware, giving us our ability to perceive beauty, making us long for union with all that is.  These Islamic teachers express an idea of the divine as both immanent—fully present in this world now—and transcendent.  Transcendent in this case not meaning something separate and apart, but rather a reality that is greater than the sum of its parts, something of which we are members and in which we participate.

One thing that might occur to you as I speak of these teachings is how familiar they sound.  Do they sound a little bit Unitarian Universalist? The unity of the divine, and the divine as both immanent and transcendent?  The universality of divine love?

This is not actually a coincidence.  Islam directly influenced the development of Unitarianism in eastern Europe, and that influenced American Unitarianism.  The Persian Sufi poets greatly influenced Unitarian and Universalist thinkers, particularly the Transcendentalists.  Think of William Ellery Channing writing:  “Nature is a great shining forth of the Divine Mind.”  And Emerson writing:  “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball-I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me-I am part or particle of God.”

Partly as a result of these Islamic influences, our faith tradition has a long history of understanding the world as sacred and beautiful, and the human capacity for relationship and sexual love as being one of what Channing called “the powers of the soul.”  Our faith tradition values all healthy erotic relationships.  As Rebecca Parker writes in the book, A House for Hope,

“Eros is more than acceptable in liberal religious understanding, it is revelatory of humanity’s deepest capacities to touch and be touched, to take joy, to be transported and to transport another, to create life… at its best, sexual intimacy can reveal the powers of the soul—our ability to feel and be affected, our capacity for both vulnerability and power, to receive and to give.  It can teach us that we have agency to act in the world and that we can be moved deeply by the presence and the actions of another.  It can transport our hearts into spaces of openness, flexibility, tenderness.  It can renew, refresh, and satisfy our love for life—not only our affection for a beloved, but our affection for the world.  Same-sex affectional and sexual relationships do all this, just as heterosexual relationships can.”[iv]

These understandings directly counter conservative church doctrines holding that the world is corrupt, human sexual love is dangerous, and same-sex love is wrong.  Was anyone here taught these doctrines at some point in your life? According to these doctrines, the only way human beings can reach union with the divine is through obedience to God’s laws.  Rebecca Parker, again, shares an experience she once had in talking to a conservative colleague in ministry about the divide in the Methodist church over same-sex relationships.  She writes:

“Sam felt loved by God when he was obedient to God’s rule…In (his) interpretation of (Genesis), God created humanity in two genders, male and female, and created woman to be man’s helpmate.   Patriarchal heterosexual union is the way God has ordained things to be.  Only by complying…could people receive God’s love and be in right relationship with God…those who turn away from God’s love will suffer the torments of the damned, and those who accept it will be rewarded with eternal life…God’s love, he said, includes rewards and punishments, because human beings are nothing more than selfish, willful children…motivated by what gratifies us, by what we want, not what God wants…For him, love was inseparable from a hierarchical structure of command and obedience.”[v]

Our faith tradition sees this identification of love with “a hierarchical structure of command and obedience” as precisely the problem—in fact, we see it as the biggest problem facing life on earth.  It haunts personal sexual relationships, structures of political and economic power, and our relationships with the whole web of life.  Relationships with each other and the rest of the world that are based on patriarchal dominance, on control, and power over, cause harm.  Between individuals, at best, they limit women’s freedom, and at worst result in outright abuse and violence.  At larger levels, they give rise to industrial capitalism and empires whose machinery and wars endanger all of life on earth.

Unitarian Universalism offers an alternative.  We affirm the beauty and goodness of eros.  We affirm that healthy erotic love between human beings, whatever our sex or gender, can bring us joy.  Not only that, it can be a doorway through which we enter into profound awareness of our interbeing with all life.  Love is the seed, love is the green growing stem, love is the flower, love is the fruit, and love is the seed again of more love.  Love is the life force expressing itself in our human forms.  Eros, desire, longing…when we can let go of our need for control, and surrender to these powerful forces calling us toward communion, toward intimate relationship with the world, in ways that create life and beauty, we fulfill nature’s purpose.  We are ourselves fulfilled.

This is the Unitarian Universalist theological anthropology about eros.   It is what we believe about what it means to love and be loved, what healthy love is, and what the place of love is in human life on earth. And so it is critical that Unitarian Universalists make our voices heard in the public sphere.  Our faith tradition offers a path to healing our broken hearts and our wounded bodies.  It offers a path to healing our broken society, and our relationship with the whole community of life.  As Rebecca Parker writes:

“As we face the future, we need a rebirth of love for life, for the planet, and for one another, grounded in a relational understanding of human existence…There needs to be a (religious) home built on the understanding that all life is interdependent, whose foundation is faithful care, whose threshold is open-hearted welcome, whose kitchen serves any in need, and where love can lie down in peace and take joy.  This kind of love can provide us the nourishment we need to resist the excesses and injustices of market capitalism.  It can instigate more justice and sustainability for the planet.”[vi]

May this community be such a home for love.

Blessed be.

Artwork:  Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green

[i] Bass, Ellen, “Live For It,” from Woman of Power.  Excerpted in Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, eds., 1996Life Prayers From Around the World:  365 Prayers, Blessings, and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey, Harper Collins, San Francisco. Pp. 234-235.

[ii] There are so many translations of Rumi’s poetry online and in print that it is difficult to choose one to cite. A quick Google search will reveal many possibilities.

[iii] The same applies to the poetry of Hafiz.

[iv] Parker, Rebecca Ann, 2010.  “A Home for Love.”  Chapter Nine in Buehrens, John A., and Rebecca Ann Parker, A House for Hope:  The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century.  Beacon Press, Boston.  Pp. 130-131.

[v] Ibid,  pp. 124-125

[vi] Ibid, p. 136.

Everyday Miracles

(Beloveds:  I am traveling this week, so I offer you this reprise of last year’s poem in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., who once wrote that he had worked his whole life to get his people up into the house, “only to learn that the house is on fire.”  He was referring specifically to the problem of environmental destruction resulting from unrestrained capitalism.  He understood the direct connections between humans and the wider community of life.  He understood that for each individual to flourish, the whole community of life must flourish, and for the whole community of life to flourish, each individual must flourish.)

I was meditating on the front porch
in the half-light of dawn
when I saw movement,
which was two bucks coming toward me
on the embankment above the house.
They stopped and stretched out their necks
to the east and blew as if slightly alarmed
but uncertain as to why.
Then a marten hurried westward
at the bottom of the embankment
and as soon as it was by
the deer relaxed.
I had never before seen a marten.

A relative gave us a pot of amaryllis
for Christmas:
three dry old bulbs in potting soil.
Dubious, we watered them,
and within a few days
the green tips of leaves were emerging.
Now they are two feet tall and stately,
and juicy stalks that clearly contain flowers
are also growing toward the light.
Soon they will open
to reveal showy scarlet lilies.

The morning after a hard rain
I was in my customary place on the porch
when a shaft of sunlight
pierced the forest canopy
and landed on a little Japanese maple,
which lit up, as every raindrop
on every bare branch and twig
suddenly blazed with reflected light.
Then as if that weren’t enough
a family of birds—
I couldn’t see what kind—
landed in a nearby cedar and
sent forth a glorious fountain
of beautiful song.
My heart stopped,
just for a moment,
and when it started again
my face was full of tears.

These are everyday miracles,
just the kind of thing
that happens all the time—
but how intricate!
How marvelous!
So many different kinds of beings,
each with its own beauty,
each with its own gifts,
each with its own power to dazzle,
all interwoven in the same web of life.

May our response to these miracles
be reverence
and gratitude
and love
and may we therefore
act accordingly.

“We are caught
in an inescapable network of mutuality,

tied in a single garment of destiny. 
Injustice anywhere
is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

 

Fever Rising

Spirit of Life, Source of all Love:

Our planet has a fever.
Giant storms bring floods
that inundate whole countries.
Smoke rises from the ruins
of thousands of miles of forests.
Incalculable numbers of beings
suffer much worse things
than death.

How do we bear it?

How do we bear it,
knowing that it will get worse
before it gets better
and it may never get better
at all?

Help us allow ourselves to grieve.
Help us know that our grief
arises from our love
which arises from our interdependence
with all life on Earth.

If we can allow ourselves to grieve—
if we can sob and wail
and stomp our feet;
if we can release the tears
that clog our throats—
we can recover our voices.
We can come back to life.
We can act from our love
on behalf of all life.

Spirit of Life, power of greening:
nothing is stronger than You are,
You rise in the trees,
You swim in the waters,
You fly in the air,
You crawl on the earth.
You move in our hearts as Love:
Love that is stronger than death.

In our hour of need, we pray:
Rise in us and overflow
as the tears that express our love
and clear the way for you to move
as the wisdom we need
to know how to act
and the strength we need
to do it.

Rise in us, O Spirit of Life,
and help us make all things new.

Amen.  Ashe.  All our relations. Blessed be.

Fourth of July Prayer

Spirit of Life, mystery beyond all understanding:

Now the clear waters of the lakes
become warm enough to swim in.
Now insects swarm in the evenings
and frogs sing all night.
Early summer has arrived.

Our nation celebrates its birth
and also its highest values:
that all people are created equal;
that all have the right to life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness.

High values indeed… if we could only live them.

Spirit of Life,
help us live these truths,
which we hold to be self-evident:

that another’s sorrow is my sorrow
that another’s joy is my joy.
that none can be happy at the expense of others.
that each can be happy only when all are happy.
that each is free only when all are free.
that our lives are held together in one greater life:
that of our whole blue-green planet.

Help us live these truths.
We thank you for our lives.

Blessed Be.

Earth Day Prayer

Spirit of Life, Spirit of laughter and lusciousness,
You who body forth in spirals and spheres, in
galaxies and seeds and peaches and snails:

Help us honor the source of our existence,
our Mother, Earth.

We offer up our grief and regret
that humans have done so much damage.

We offer up our thanks for the continued blessing
of life here.

Help us care for our beautiful home.

Help us remember who we really are:
precious beings, unique, full of love and joy and pain
and the capacity to heal and grow and change,
interdependent with millions of other precious beings.

Help us know what interdependence means:
that we have power.

Help us claim our power
and use it to heal our world.

Blessed be.

The Fourth of July Picnic

One Fourth of July, the Element family was having an argument. Sun, Wind, Earth, and Water were arguing over which of them was most important. They were watching a human family have a picnic at the beach, a few hours before the fireworks. They saw potato salad, and corn on the cob, and lentil salad, and bread, and watermelon, and chocolate chip cookies, and many other good things. And each of them—Sun, Wind, Earth, and Water, wanted to take credit for making all these good things possible.

Sun was feeling pretty proud of how beautiful everything looked in his light. He was pretty proud of himself generally, since several planets revolved around him. He felt himself to be the most important and responsible of the family, and he never hesitated to say so.

“Look what a wonderful job I have done there,” he said. “All that food grew because of my light, and see how my light shines on the people and sparkles on the water. It’s pretty clear that I am the most important and responsible one here.”

“Wait a minute,” protested Water. “Every living thing needs water. It seems to me that I am the most important. If it weren’t for me, nothing on this planet would be alive. I watered the plants that became those foods with my rain, and those people love my beauty. And your light couldn’t sparkle if it weren’t for my wavelets.” She swirled around a little to show off how pretty her colors were.

But then Wind spoke up. “Hey, what about me? If it weren’t for me, nothing here would ever move or grow. The air would stay still. Water wouldn’t be able to move. It would be too hot for things to grow at the equators, and too cold at the poles. People wouldn’t be able to survive. Only because of my work keeping things moving do temperatures stay right for living things.” He puffed up with pride and said, “I am obviously the most important one here.”

But then Earth spoke up too. She said “Now hold on, siblings, what about me? What would happen if there were no soil? Nothing could grow. I have thousands of different kinds of little tiny living things in my soil that help plants grow, like worms and ants. And what would happen if there was no ground? What would the people be sitting on and standing on? Don’t you think I’m important too?” Earth was a little more modest, you see, she didn’t say she was the MOST important one, she just wanted to be appreciated.

Well, they went on like that for some time. Sun shone harder, Wind blew more noisily, Water became quite choppy, and Earth started sending out ants to show just how many there were underground. But then the family on the picnic blanket started saying maybe they should leave if it was going to be this hot and windy and the waves were going to be so big they couldn’t go swimming and the ants were going to eat their picnic.

Then, Sun and Wind and Water and Earth felt embarrassed. They looked at each other and they remembered what the Spirit of Life had taught them way back at the very beginning. It had said:

“Life in this world needs all of us to work together. Without Sun’s energy, Wind could not move and could not carry Water’s rain from the oceans to the land. Without Wind and Water to protect it, life would burn up under Sun’s heat. Without the soil of Earth, many plants and animals, including humans, could not grow. Without me, life will not start. All of us are equally important and equally necessary. This is the way life works: we are all in this together.”

So Sun and Water and Wind and Earth settled back down to working together to make life happen. Pretty soon the family at the beach noticed how beautifully the sun shone down from the sky and how gently the breeze cooled their skin, and how the water sparkled, and how warm and soft the earth was.

And then a child on the picnic blanket spoke. The child said, “Thank you, Sun, for your light that helped this food to grow. Thank you, Wind, for the lovely sound you make in the trees, and for helping me breathe. Thank you, Water, for quenching my thirst when I drink you. Thank you, Earth, for holding me up and for giving us all these good things to eat.” The family of Elements felt very proud of the Fourth of July picnic they had made. And later on the human family had a wonderful time watching fireworks.

And that is the end of that story. Or…is it the beginning?

Declaration of Interdependence

Reading

On Interbeing by Thich Nhat Hanh

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are.

And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too… the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here–time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper.

“To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing.

Sermon

So, how are you feeling about this country of ours these days? All ready to celebrate its birthday?

I’ll tell you how I am feeling. I love this country. I love its landscapes, its wildlife, its enormous variety of ecosystems. I love the variety of peoples and cultures here. I love our ideals of freedom and equality and justice. This is my home, the country where my heart is.

And because I love this country, in the past few months I have been feeling enraged. I have been feeling heartbroken, and grief-stricken. We seem to be hell-bent on destroying our beautiful lands and completely trashing our ideals.

I am also feeling afraid. Never in my lifetime, which includes the Cold War and the terrors of the Reagan years, has this world faced the extreme level of danger we are facing now. If we in this nation don’t immediately mobilize every resource we have to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy, our planet will be unfit for human life within 50 to 100 years. Within the lifetime of my own children.

But it’s hard to work on that right now when he who must not be named and his administration of hate occupy so much of our national attention. We find ourselves having instead to mobilize to stop fascism and reclaim basic human rights we thought we had already won.

Do you think that’s an accident?

I am not suggesting conspiracies, though they may be afoot. I am suggesting that the upsurge in hatred and violence, and the extreme destruction we are wreaking our planet, are deeply interconnected.

There is an old story that goes something like this: once upon a time, there was a little town next to a river. One day, a person saw a baby floating down the river. They ran in and pulled the baby out, and called for help. No sooner had the person handed the baby over to someone else, when another baby floated down, and no sooner had they rescued that one when yet another floated along! Soon the townspeople were organizing a brigade: some people would catch the babies as they floated by, others would take them to shore, and still others would find food and housing and clothing for them. The townspeople became very efficient. But after some time went by, two people were seen leaving the town. “Hey, where are you going?!” the townspeople cried. “We need all the help we can get!” The two replied: “Someone has to find out what’s happening upstream.”

Today there are babies floating everywhere, both figuratively and literally. Climate change, war, poverty, mass shootings, hatred and violence toward brown and black people and gay and trans people, toward women and Muslims and homeless people—the list goes on and on. Many people are working as hard as they can to rescue babies—to care for the hungry and the homeless and the victims of abuse and war, to restore ecosystems. This is essential work. If this is your work, thank you for doing it.

And it is also essential to go upstream. It is essential to find out the causes of these interconnected crises. How can we begin to address them? How can we begin to heal our planet and its peoples?

This is what I have spent my entire adult life trying to understand. Lucky for you, I can distill 35 years of study into just a few minutes of sermonating!

What I have learned is this: Western culture is built on a binary, dualistic understanding of the world, in which separation and power over are the main themes. Plato and Aristotle believed that the basic unit of human life was the solitary individual, separate from all others. They called this theory “atomism.” The ancient Hebrews believed that God created humans in the image of the divine, and then separated Adam from all other living things and gave him “dominion” over them.

Western philosophers, theologians, and scientists have spent centuries describing separations between heaven and earth, sacred and profane, mind and body, light and dark, order and chaos, purity and sexuality—with the second term always inferior to the first. The earth, or “nature,” women, and dark-skinned people—anyone and anything not white and male—were equated with each other, and all equated with darkness, sexuality, and chaos. All were to be subdued and used for the benefit of mankind (meaning white men of European descent.) All were considered Other, and relegated to the status of “It,” in Martin Buber’s terms, which permits separation between oneself and another, instead of the “You” that makes relationship possible.

Embedded in this dualistic understanding of the world is the notion of conflict between opposites. Not the kind of constructive conflict that engenders healthy mutual growth, but the destructive kind that keeps us locked in winner-take-all competitions. The kind in which a solitary self, alone and afraid, is pitted against everyone and everything else in the world in a battle for survival. Remember your literature classes in high school, how the three basic plots revolved around conflict? Man against man, man against nature, man against himself. Someone always won or lost. I was one of those pesky high school students who kept raising my hand and asking “What about woman? Why do we use “man” to refer to all people? And why does a plot always have to involve conflict? Isn’t love an important story? What about cooperation?” The teachers would sigh and roll their eyes. “That’s not what we’re talking about right now,” they would say. “You’re missing the point.”

But I wasn’t missing the point. I was making a different point. As I would later learn, this construct, of a fearful, solitary self, in competition with all else for scarce resources, with divine permission to exercise dominion over the world, is what formed the basis of the brand new United States of America.

When our forefathers wrote the Constitution, they relied heavily on the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith, who borrowed from Plato and Aristotle. In the 17th century, Locke proposed a theory he called social atomism, in which each individual acts solely in his own interest. These interests conflict with the interests of others, and require the consumption of “inert resources.” Therefore society should set up a social contract in order to make sure individuals respect each other’s rights. In the 18th century, Adam Smith applied the idea of social atomism to economics, proposing that the most efficient market would result from individuals acting in their own self-interest.

These theories appealed to men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, because in their world, people were not free to act in their own self-interest. Instead, they acted from obligation to relationships based on dominion, or power over: God had absolute power over everything. Kings had absolute power over their lands and peoples. Men had absolute power over women and children. Whites had absolute power over people of color.

Our forefathers did not like having to submit to the king. They were men of wealth and privilege, and brilliant minds, and they wanted the freedom to determine their own lives. So much the better if acting in their own interests brought about the best situation for everyone! So what kind of social contract could they set up to make it happen?

Well, for some years they had been observing and admiring the Iroquois League. This was a representative democracy, with every person, including women, having an equal voice. All people were considered equal! And that system of governance explicitly recognized interdependence. The Iroquois League considered the impacts of every decision on their nonhuman relatives, and they considered the impacts on the next seven generations. 1

But alas, our forefathers, like all people, were limited by their own frame of reference. So the only part of this system of governance they could grasp was the idea of representative democracy, in which each man had an equal say. They could not grasp the importance of considering women and men as equals. Or considering persons of different skin colors equal to each other, or considering nonhuman beings as important as human ones. They certainly did not grasp the importance of considering the impacts of their decisions on the seventh generation. But they took what they did understand and used it to form a new nation. They declared that all men were created equal and ought to be guaranteed certain rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Then they made the free market economy the foundation of the new nation, with slavery and genocide as its building blocks.

With a beginning like this, no wonder we still struggle. Our most basic national story is that the self is all alone in a dangerous world, and its survival depends upon harming others. There is a wound here that needs healing. Only if we heal that wound can we go on to heal all the other terrible wounds that have sprung from it: the racism, the genocide, the rape culture, and more.

How do we do that?

By changing the story. By changing our understanding of the nature of the self and its relationship to other people and the rest of the universe. We must unlearn old habitual thought patterns and re-learn new ones.

So how do we need to understand the self?

In answer, I invite you to try to stop breathing. Can you do it? How about eating, or drinking water, would you be able to do that? Think of all that is necessary for you to take a breath, all that happens in your nerves and muscles and lungs and bloodstream when you do. Isn’t that amazing? Now, look at your hand. Is there a dark line delineating the boundary between your skin and the atmosphere in the room? There is not, because your skin and the atmosphere interpenetrate one another, exchanging atoms and molecules at a rate too fast for your eyes to see.

We are embedded in and utterly dependent upon the ecosystems in which we live. We inter-are with them. There is no separation and there can be no separation.

Not only are we radically interdependent with all other nature, we also inter-are with all other humans. An individual can neither exist nor survive by their self. Not one of us here gave birth to ourselves or fed ourselves or changed our own diapers; if babies are not held and spoken to by caregivers they die. The basic unit of human life is not an individual, it is a relationship within a system of other relationships. In fact it is complete nonsense to even speak of a basic unit of human life. All reality is composed of systems within systems within systems. We are sustained by a web of relationships so vast we cannot even comprehend it.

Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. We sometimes struggle a bit to understand what that really means, in religious terms. But our six sources give us many rich ways to engage with it.

Over twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha explained that we and the world in which we live are formed together, in relationship with all that is and ever has been. Therefore we are continuously co-creating the world, by our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Early Christians put it a bit more simply when they said, as you sow, so shall you reap. Western physics reached the same conclusion as the Buddha just this past century. As Maria Mitchell, a Unitarian and early American astronomer, wrote:

“Small as is our whole system compared with the infinitude of creation, brief as is our life compared with the cycles of time, we are so tethered to the beautiful dependencies of law, that not only the sparrow’s fall is felt to the uttermost bound, but the vibrations set in motion by the words we utter reach through all space and the tremor is felt through all time.” 2

And then there is process theology, a union of mysticism and physics, which says all things are interconnected in a moving, flowing, dancing whole, a process of creative love ever becoming. The name process theologians give this living whole, this moving love, of which all things are part, is God.

We might say, then, that the universe is the body of God. As Pagan thealogian Starhawk writes: “Earth Mother, Star Mother, you who are called by a thousand names, may all remember we are cells in your body, and dance together.” 3

A common thread running through all of these understandings of the interdependent web of being, is that every single thing we think and say and do has an effect on the whole of which we are part. We are all co-creating the world we live in, in every moment. We must take care in choosing our thoughts, our words, and our actions, because the universe holds their consequences for all time. This means that as a nation, we will continue to struggle with the consequences of slavery and genocide and misogyny and ecological destruction until we decide to heal them.

The good news is that interbeing means we CAN heal them. We have enormous power, power TO and power WITH. We have power TO work WITH one another to co-create a world that is healthy. We have the power to recognize that the evil things in our world, those things that we are taught are permanent and inevitable, the things that require us to view ourselves as isolated individuals in conflict with nature and each other, are only as real and as contingent as a cloud. Meaning, they are real, and they have effects, but they depend for their existence on a certain set of conditions. We have the power to change these conditions. More than that, we have a responsibility to change them.

How do we do that? What can just one person do? As Kathleen Dean Moore says, “Stop being just one person!” Join with others. Whatever aspect of our interrelated crises you are most concerned about, there is a group of people doing something about it. Find out who they are and join them. Be careful to join groups who understand interbeing and intersectionality, who understand that every problem we have is interrelated with every other problem we have, and are working together with other groups to solve them. For example, poor people and people of color know that climate change and pollution always disproportionately affect those who are most marginalized. They have been getting together with historically white environmental groups to demand environmental justice. And that is how the people of Portland and the people of Oakland got coal banned from their cities.  Groups acting on behalf of seniors and women and disabled people and poor people are getting together to demand universal health care.

And this is why I am feeling something else about our country today: I’m feeling hopeful. I’m feeling hopeful because people of many colors and cultures and economic classes, many genders and sexual orientations, are beginning to come together in our love for the earth and all her peoples. We are coming together in a shared understanding of interbeing.  We are making real change.

So let us acknowledge our power. Let us take up our responsibility. Let us declare interdependence. Say it with me: We declare Interdependence! And let us go forth and make America beautiful.


1 Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. Fawcett Books, New York, 1988.

2  Singing The Living Tradition, UUA, Boston, 1993.

3  Ibid, #524.