We would all be well advised to listen to the counsel of Wendell Berry, who has been for the past fifty years America’s foremost teacher on the subject of the wholeness of creation. “To cherish the remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal,” he warns, “is our only legitimate hope for survival.” There is no more effective way to cherish the remains of the Earth than first, to recognize the primal elements of earth, air, water and fire as sacred and therefore worthy of reverence. Then, as we perceive more deeply the wholeness of creation, we understand as well that we have been born to belonging to the sacred primal elements, of which we are composed and without which we could not live.

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From the moment we are born until our death, we need air. Likewise water. Our body mass is, like the planet’s, 70 percent water. As the descendents of Adam, whose name derives from the Hebrew word adama (soil), we are groundlings, earthlings, the good clods who became the cultivators. We are creatures of dust, a little water, and the breath of God. Our identity is in our belonging to the sacred elements, a heritage that unites us with a past stretching back millions of years; yet, this identity has current implications as well. We live in a period of transition from an industrial-technological civilization to an ecological civilization, a transition that some have called the greatest that humans have ever faced. This transition marks the emergence from the Holocene Age to the Anthropocene Age.

The Holocene Age has hosted all the human civilizations ever known. Its salient characteristic? Relative climate stability. The Anthropocene Age, the age of the human, is distinguished by the high impact of human activities on the surface processes of the planet, whether on dry land, in and under the seas, oceans, and other bodies of water, or across the dome of heaven. The uniqueness of the Anthropocene Age is global geophysical change, change sufficient to effect what Bill McKibben has termed “a tough, new planet.” Ours is not the same planet our ancestors knew. Humans have not been on this “tough new planet” before, and we are ill prepared to adapt to it. Our world is hot, flat, diminished, and crowded. Our reach extends to places where few humans dwell – in the oceans, high into the atmosphere, into the polar regions. Our presence is large, but our resources and biodiversity, even species, are diminishing. Nature on this diminished planet seems to be more vulnerable than it once was, reaching what Marilynne Robinson has called “the end of its tolerance of our presumptions.”

The pathway to ecological civilization will not be easy, but we can take direction from Thomas Berry’s principle that “planetary health is primary and human well-being derivative.” We need to proceed from disenchantment with nature as a repository of resources to enchantment with nature’s mystery and spirit. We need to re-envision economics, with the principle of long-term ecological sustainability replacing that of short-term growth that benefits relatively few people, and we need to insist upon policy that integrates the impact of climate change, poverty, energy, food, and water with decision-making on all levels.

Central and fundamental to making a healthy transition to ecological civilization is an effective religious and moral transition. In ethics, this requires a shift from a focus on the self to one on the ecosphere as the relational matrix of our lives. Human creatures, embedded as nature in nature, are inseparable from the rest of nature, from which we have evolved, upon which we depend, and whose fate we share. The goal of ethics in the Anthropocene is to render what we might call “creation justice,” which acknowledges not only the moral claims made by human beings but those of soil, air, water, and fire (energy) as well as those of future generations of both human and otherkind. In the new order, it is a matter of justice that the primal elements regenerate and renew on their own slow terms. We humans, along with all earth life, are bonded to the primal elements and they to us; we have all been born to belonging.

The religious transition to the new age calls for honest, enlightened leadership, capable of teaching us to pray and worship as denizens of the tough new planet of the Anthropocene. Prayer and God-talk that do not encompass all 13 to 15 billion years of the universe’s pilgrimage to date and the immense wheeling of 50 to 100 billion galaxies, each swimming with billions of stars and who knows how many planets; prayer and God-talk that do not gather in all species come and gone, as well as those leaving as we speak; and prayer and God-talk that do not embrace the whole drama of life in all its misery and grandeur, is simply quaint. Shorn of the universe, the worship of God is worship of a human species idol. It is God rendered in our own smudged and diminished image.

Wendell Berry would say that our transition to the tough new planet that is now our home must “turn on affection,” on cherishing the remains of the Earth and nurturing its renewal. His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s word for this affection is compassion, which brings happiness to others and makes us happy as well. They know, as we know, that this is a time of crisis for our world and for us who belong to it. Yet, this is also a time of hope which promises a different Earth faith bearing moral-spiritual energy unlike any that we have experienced, and a new Earth ethic appropriate to a deeply altered world, which can lead to a new system of creation justice. We were born to belonging to this new Earth, and its great challenges and possibilities are ours.

Larry Rasmussen is the author of Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key (Oxford University Press, 2013).


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