Prayer as if the Earth Really Matters

More and more often, religious communities are bringing their prayer and practice to bear on a profound religious and spiritual question: radical dangers posed by the climate crisis to the web of human and more-than-human life forms on this planet.

Image of a figure with arms raised as the sun rises against a blue sky.

Mrs. Goda Held by … Credit: YoHana Bat Adam ({link url=""}{/link}).

There are two ways we’ve found to relate prayer to the present crisis of our planet. One is exploring how earth awareness can enter more deeply into our formal prayer services. The other is exploring how public action intended to affect public and corporate policy toward the earth can become prayerful.

Earth Awareness in Formal Prayer

“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote. One way to enhance earth awareness in the formal prayer of many religious traditions is to introduce new symbols and rituals into them. One extraordinarily powerful effort along these lines was undertaken at the Interfaith Summit on the Climate Crisis organized in 2008 by the Church of Sweden. The most moving aspect of the summit’s initial service in the Cathedral of Uppsala was the rolling of a large green globe made of moss down the center aisle of the cathedral—the symbol of no one religious community and a possible symbol for them all.

A version of this practice has since been introduced into a number of multireligious services focusing on the climate crisis—especially several held by Interfaith Moral Action on Climate at the White House fence and Lafayette Park in 2012 and 2013. At those events, the participants passed an inflatable globe from hand to hand, singing verse upon verse of a familiar hymn remade with environmental language:

We have the whole world in our hands,
We have the rain and the forests in our hands,
We have the wind and the clouds in our hands,
We have the whole world in our hands!

It is both factually and theologically notable that this liturgy transformed an older hymn in which the refrain was, “He has the whole world in His hands.” That assertion—He is in charge of the world—is closely related to a major traditional metaphor in most Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prayer. In that metaphor, God is King, Lord, and Judge, above and beyond the human beings who are praying. In regard to the earth, this metaphor crowned a series of hierarchies that emerged in ancient Greece and the Middle Ages through the concept of a great chain of being—a hierarchy from rocks and rivers up to vegetation, thence up to animals, and then human beings, and finally up to the Divine King and Lord.

Today we know that the relationship between the human species and the earth is ill described by these metaphors of hierarchy. Not only do we know that what we breathe in depends upon what the trees and grasses breathe out; now we also know that within our own guts are myriad microscopic creatures that occasionally make us sick but far more often keep us alive and healthy. There is no “environment” in the sense of “environs” that are “out there,” not us. There are fringes (threads of connection), not fences, between us and other life, and sometimes fringes in our very innards.

Though now we know that humanity has great power to damage the web of life on earth, we also know that we are strands within that web—not simply above and beyond it. What we do to the web also has an impact on us. The more we act as if we are in total control, the closer we come to “totaling” the whole intricate process. So those metaphors of ordered hierarchy are no longer truthful, viable, or useful to us as tools of spiritual enlightenment.

The Torah’s Take on the Breath of the Earth

If we are to seek spiritual depth and height, the whole framework of prayer must be transformed. How can we do this while drawing on the rich experience of prayer that spiritually enlightened many in the generations that came before us?

If we look deep into the Torah tradition, we can find accounts that hint toward a very different metaphor and therefore a very different path of prayer.

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