First Comes Love: Building the Religious Counterculture

That gay marriage went from impossible to inevitable in this country in such a short span of time is a testament to the wonderful suppleness of the human heart. Through this process we all got to witness firsthand how societies, like individuals, have the thrilling ability to change from the inside. It has been breathtaking to watch as, household by household, gay people have become human in the eyes of the American public. Their commitments to one another have come to be seen as real commitments, their parenting as real parenting, their love as real love. Our collective hearts opened and then the laws changed, in that order, slowly at first and then quickly.

In a recurring drama of our American social theater, the hot-button issues of one generation are often matters of common decency for the next. In one generation it’s acceptable to proudly fly the Confederate flag and fight for segregated schools; in the next generation it’s not. In one generation you can argue with a straight face that women should be ineligible to vote; in the next generation you can’t. In one generation it seems reasonable to pass sodomy laws; in the next generation same-sex couples can legally marry. Such changes build gradually over decades, even centuries, like separate trickles of water slowly forming streams and merging into rivers. But once they join, the current is strong and swift, and suddenly the naysayers find themselves on “the wrong side of history.” And the current doesn’t go backward: once we have identified a site of collective spiritual constriction and released it, our new openness and wisdom carry forward into the future.

The environmental movement today finds itself somewhere in the middle of this process. We are still living in a time in which it is politically acceptable to fight against clean air and water regulations, to try to obstruct international agreements on global warming, and to promote fracking and drilling for oil within fragile ecosystems. It is still socially acceptable to throw bottles in the garbage, get takeout in Styrofoam containers and plastic bags, eat meat daily, and water our lawns. Our paltry environmental victories are politically expensive, haggled in back rooms through gritted teeth and with pinched noses. We do, of course, have some political activism and books and movie stars arguing for environmental stewardship. But clearly the tipping point has not yet been reached. The current has not yet shifted the consciousness of our cultural soul.

Vestige by Rob Mulholland

What will it take to engender that shift? If we’ve learned one lesson from the success of the gay marriage movement, it’s that it will take nothing less than love—in this case, love for the sacred, natural world and everything that is part of its delicate web. Ultimately there are no statistics dire enough, no news reports dramatic enough, no storms devastating enough to convince us to make the large-magnitude changes we will need to heal our earth. The shift is too profound for us to be reasoned into it. First must come love. We’ll need to feel akin to all living beings, from the bees to the rain forest trees, and attach our hearts to the interconnected web of all life. We’ll need to know that a mother lion will risk her life to protect her cub, just like we would for our children. We’ll need to hear the flute sound of an owl and see how light filters through the summer leaves swaying high in the trees. We’ll need to remember how much it used to snow when we were kids and the pure joy we felt as it fell.

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