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The Earth and the Sacred

by Liz Howell, Director, Wyoming Wilderness Association

Sheridan UU Fellowship on April 15,2007

I might be the wrong person for this presentation today. When I began my studies, I was skeptical. And that’s the beauty of UUs. We are free to explore as few or as many of these spiritual paths as one chooses. Some UUs are mystics by nature and find themselves most inspired by those spiritual teachings and practices that help us reflect more deeply on the transcending mystery many cultures consider divine; others investigate, internalize, think, reason; while still others hold back and listen, denying any beliefs; but we all seem to return with our feet planted firmly on the ground. Where I’m about to take you, however, is an free flowing study in which I begin as the skeptic.

I was asked to give a talk on the Sixth Living Tradition of the Unitarian Universalist. This fellowship has spent this year on programs investigating these Living Traditions—known as "the source from which we draw our inspirations."

In developing this relatively new "religion", the UUs first version of the principles was adopted in 1960, and this modern form was amended in 1995 to include the Sixth Source and the Seventh Principal—both Earth-based tenets—only 12 years ago. The Sixth Source of Living Tradition is stated as:

"Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature."

I will attempt to delve into what are Earth centered traditions and their spiritual traditions, what is the circle of life and how we can be in harmony with nature.

First, I wanted to find the reason that UUs were moved to amend the principles and add these Earth-based tenets. The first Earth Day in 1970 spurned a growing environmental movement. It couldn’t have take 25 years to bring the Earth-based source to the UUs.

The Sixth Source of Inspiration, according to the UUs of Boston, was found "in an age where our environment is threatened by our own shortsightedness and exploitation, and where advances in technology and a culture of voracious consumerism has left us all wanting and unsure about the future, many of us are again looking to the earth, to her beauty, simplicity and wholeness, as our primary source of inspiration."

The Women’s movement of the UU faith takes some responsibility for the Sixth Source. Earth-centered traditions describe the physical world as the face of the Goddess. Indeed, some for whom the annual earth day celebrations are religious as well as political, speak of Gaia, our mother, the earth, the goddess who nurtures and preserves our earthly home and ourselves and who in turn we must respect and honor.

Between the Environmental movement and the Women’s movement, the UUs didn’t stand a chance of avoiding the Sixth Source or Seventh Principal.

There was a surprising find in my search of the Earth-centered traditions in relation to the UU. The CUUP or Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans is a strong and growing movement with rituals, its own membership of 70 recognized Covenants with meetings, based on Earth ceremonies and somewhat worshipping nature. Many UU fellowships, in addition to valuing Native American spirituality and Celtic tradition, sponsor CUUPS groups. Despite the bad rap they’ve acquired through centuries of persecution by the Christian church, pagans are simply those who derive their spirituality from the earth.

The fact that the word pagan actually means country, or rural doesn’t keep it simple. The original pagans were simply folks in the outlying areas of the Roman empire who maintained some of their non-Christian practices and ideas, much to the chagrin of the city folk. But we’re not simple folk anymore. We’re a society of complex, intellectual, contemporary, and somewhat neurotic human beings. Still, there must be some longing to return to the simplicity of nature…To the power of knowing the mysteries of nature, of paying homage to nature in music, ceremonies, prayer and meditation.

I will confess here. I’m an environmentalist. I love being outdoors and in the wilderness. I made art about nature and put nature in my art. I paint nature, I even went so far as to work for environmental groups and even started my own. If anyone should confess to being a Pagan it should be me. But not so fast.

There’s the Earth and then there’s the Sacred. When the two meet, we have the basis for spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions. Whether it be in Christianity, Buddhism, Taoist thought, or our own Covenant of UU Pagans.

Its what we all do everyday when we recycle a can, ride a bike, take a walk, or write a letter for toads or sage grouse or the Red Desert. Its the right thing to do. An activist act is a moral issue.

Morality can come down to the binding of religion and science. A belief system and a science. In 1991, 32 Nobel laureates wrote, "Many scientists argue that the practice and teaching of science must rediscover or acknowledge the mystery of nature, and therefore its spiritual aspect." The Nobel laureates including E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould continued to say… that protecting habitat is inescapably a moral issue: "We scientists… urgently appeal to the world religious community to commit to preserve the environment of the Earth." "If the world is just a bowl of molecules banging against each other, then where is the sacredness of nature?" (1)

Many different religious traditions have shaped human beings' fundamental outlook on the environment in ancient and modern times. Can we blame the environmental crisis we’re facing on religion or science or both?

"The world's religions ask basic questions about the cosmos that share deep affinities with the science of ecology," said Mark Wallace of Swathmore College, "Both thought systems -- religion and ecology -- are concerned with the place of human beings within the general cosmic order…We live in a time of environmental crisis. While some traditions valorize the natural order as a place of divine presence and therefore worthy of respect and protection, other traditions look beyond the natural order to a higher order still to come that effectively devalues the earthly cosmos as unrelated -- or even inimical -- to the values of the world beyond." (2)

In other words, fundamental Christianity has a belief system that is centered on seeking entry into Heaven, at the expense of the world we live in. Some traditions, such as Buddhism, find god in nature, the here and now.

Wallace continues with questions such as, Are human beings part of or beyond nature? Do human beings have obligations to other life forms? Does the cosmos have an inherent purpose or function? -- questions that are alternately religious, moral, and ecological at the same time. Wallace notes that many religions have a common theme on nature as divine. This "green thread" can be traced…

    in the creation story in the Hebrew Bible where all species possess inherent worth as the handiwork of the Creator;

    in the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit, the animating power of life in the universe who unifies and sustains all things;

    in the Chinese doctrine of Ch'i -- the vital force within nature that dynamically integrates all forms of life into common flow patterns; and

    in the American Indian imagery of the earth as the Great Mother, which entails the values of care and respect for the "body" of humankind's common planetary parent.

Wallace then gives us the view of UCLA historian Lynn White, who argued that Christianity in particular, in its war against the earth-centered pagan religions of pre-Christian Europe, bears a disproportionate burden for causing the current ecological crisis.

According to White,

    ancient and medieval Christians taught that the natural world is not charged with sacred presence;

    it is not a place where tree nymphs and water sprites make their habitation.

    God (or the gods) are not nature deities;

    rather, God is a sky-God divorced from nature who lives in a heavenly realm far removed from the muck and mire of earthly affairs. (3)

Lynn White concluded that, "Historically, then, Christianity has helped to sacralize humankind's exploitative treatment of nature, because if natural objects are dead matter and not imbued with the Spirit (or spirits) of divine presence, then such objects can be used and abused to serve human ends."

Wallace counters White’s premise and brings some hope and basis for Christianity to use incarnation and spirit as the basis for ecological responsibility. For Christianity to return to its roots as an Earth-based tradition is reaching, however, I have to acknowledge the power in our society of Christianity and the moral/environmental issues at stake here. Had the traditional Christian religions moved to protect the environment from the beginning, I say we would not be in the crisis we are in today. The movement has just begun. The Wyoming Council of Churches stepped forward with resolutions for the protection of the Red Desert and other imperiled wildernesses. The Chair at the time, Reverend Murphy of Cody who led the Red Desert resolution, was scorned and forced to quiet down somewhat by the more conservative ecumenical members. Its the Cowboy way…

But as UUs, we can find solace in our own open spaces and open minds of the UU Traditions. Hopefully, we live here in Wyoming, as I do, because of our proximity to nature, to a wilder nature than most of the lower 48 states. We become closer to understanding our own nature when we have a sighting of eagles, of wolves on the hunt, of elk in the woods and that to me, is the definition of the Sacred. We are present in the moment—the Now experience.

The Now brings me to the many paths to other Earth-centered spiritual traditions:

    If Pagan is defined as country folk in touch with nature or by the dictionary as: one of a people or community observing a polytheistic religion, as with the ancient Romans or Greeks; then

    Polytheism is the belief that there are multiple spiritual paths, not a singular spiritual truth, if you will, multiple gods, multiple ways to imagine the holy; while

    Pantheism: the doctrine that God is the transcendent reality of which the material world and humanity are only manifestations; then

    Wicca, from witchcraft, esp. benevolent, nature-oriented practices derived from pre-Christian religions with sorcerers and witches;

    Mysticism is a doctrine of spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding; or of a direct, intimate union of the soul with God though contemplation or spiritual ecstasy;

    Taoism advocates simplicity, naturalness and noninterference with the course of natural events in order to obtain a happy existence with the "Tao" which is defined as the dynamic principal of life by which all things happen or exist; and finally,

    Zen Buddhism which emphasizes enlightenment by means of meditation and direct, intuitive insights.

All these isms are in my search for the best answer for questions about what are the spiritual, earth-centered traditions. Do any of these beliefs or doctrine ring true to you? I get a little anxious. What is causing my anxiety about the cultist sound of some of these practices? Cults are dangerous, right? Cults are defined (by Webster) as "a particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its ceremonies and rituals; now associated with extremist factions or false religions. Cults can be based in any religious tradition."

Getting back to the NOW experience. This phenomena in my mind is the pen-ultimate experience of existence. It appears to be the backbone, or if you prefer, the "guts" of the matter. Or the heart of the matter? The moment of this mystical connection to nature, the experience of awe, the head-pounding, jaw-dropping, realizations that are encountered, such as with physical exertion when we get to the top of the mountain -- is that immediately, intuited, fact, or truth, if you will.

In such mystical experience of becoming one with the divine (unio mystica), the distinction between subject and object disappears along with the distinctions between objects. I believe this to be the Zen experience of becoming one with nature. And that brings the spiritual into our Sixth Source, also it gives us the harmonic life experience, humbles our being, bringing us back to the sacred circle of life.

The "Circle of Life" concept, which in UU thought "operates from a deep belief in the interdependence and interconnection of all life. Our commitment is to transform the way humans interact with the Earth and with all living beings." Sound familiar? Religion and Science, Clarity not Charity as Ronn Smith said.

The Circle of Life is also an ecological principal of ‘you are what you eat’ or you were what was eaten. The term Circle of Life has become representative of nature’s way of healing, recycling, restoring, karmic justice, rejuvenation, and return to the Earth--and all other "re" words. I think can even include my 97 year old mother’s life as a circle—from the cradle to the grave to the cradle again (needing the same care as a baby).

The term "medicine wheel" was first applied to the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, the most southern and one of the largest in existence. That site consists of a central circle of piled rock surrounded by a circle of stone; "Rays" of stones travel out from the central core of rock and its surrounding circle." Have you all been there? We should hold our next UU meeting there as Pagans…

First Nations people believe in a creation-based form of spirituality which has at its center, the symbol of the sacred circle. It is believed that the circle represents a harmonious relationship with nature and with all living things who are our relatives and that all things are connected and equal because there is no beginning and no end. Mother Earth is often referred to as a Medicine Wheel or Sacred Hoop because she is circular who also turns in a circle. As Black Elk taught: "Birds make their nests in circles; we dance in circles, the circle stands for the Sun and Moon and all round things in the natural world. The circle is an endless creation, with endless connections to the present, all that went before and all that will come in the future." (4)

When we truly research what we, as Wyoming people, are inspired and feel closer to a higher being, a bigger purpose of order, when in our wild natural world, we may see the relationship with the same values represented by the pagan, druid, Zen monk or Native American, then we’re on to something simple, something eternal and perhaps, instinctual. Maybe we are yearning for those simple country folk after all.

While not advocating for a Covenant for the Sheridan UUs, I found it intriguing to see that our own fellowship has provided us with ceremonies and celebrations that correlate with those of sanctified Covenant of UU Pagans.

Nationally, CUUPS seems to becoming its own tradition, experimenting with new forms of worship suitable for groups of 50 or 500, multiplying active roles, adapting the techniques of theater to teach as well as to move hearts. There are actual pagan ceremonies described on the Internet. (5)

The Sheridan UU’s offered our own form of pagan service with the Winter Solstice ceremonies based on the shortest day of the year, the time of winter magic and giving. This service today comes at the time of year when we Honor the Earth and recognize the activism required to face the environmental crisis we have created. I apologize for not breaking into a chant and doing a dance, darkening the room, lighting the candles and drumming for the spring to bring out the pagans in us all. If I thought it would save us from Global Warming, I might do it.

As writer Wendell Berry admonishes that "we will have the wisdom to survive, [if we] stand like slow-growing trees on a ruined place". So I will instead appeal to your wisdom.

The Melrose Massachusetts UUs gives us some insights to the birth of the Sixth Source:

"But some UU's, no doubt felt that in adding a sixth source, we were being quaintly indulgent, as our 19th century forebears before us, capricious in expressing our new discoveries of faith. And others argued that religious evolution is what being a UU is all about: adding new teachings as we identify these is our natural process. But some worried what fringe elements we would invite in next. [She must be referring to that "cult" thing.]

Most insisted that of course the proposed sixth source should be added. Speaking of this source now acknowledges that earth centered teachings have inspired UU’s throughout our tradition and practice. Earth centered teachings are already celebrated and encouraged in other sources is in the transcendentalist view that the divine is immanent and alive in everything.

We read in the writings of Emerson, Alcott, Fuller, Thoreau and others that the divine dwells within the outer world of nature, that it dwells within ourselves. "Within us is the soul of the whole," writes Emerson in 531, "the silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal One." Earth centered teachings push this immanence further, beyond interdependence, beyond the sacredness of all creation, and celebrates the holiness and worth of all human forms, seeing the divine expressed particularly in female form." (6)

Our Unitarian Universalist communities can challenge, nurture, and sustain us as we learn to live more responsibly with the Earth. Which is something deeply needed with the challenges we face today in Wyoming from excessive fast-tracked development of our wild landscapes. UUs have a long tradition of turning toward nature for spiritual inspiration. We find that many of our religious educational programs and hymns celebrate the Earth and teach the importance of living in environmentally responsible ways. Many congregations, and I can attest to this one in particular, serve as spiritual homes for environmental activists. Our UU community has welcomed those who embrace Earth-centered spirituality.

The one final challenge I’d like to bring to your minds is that of our children. The next generation to inherit the earth. When I was a child, I had a memorable moment with nature’s beauty. It was intimate and personal and extraordinary. I would bet that there is a rare person in this room that didn’t have a similar encounter as a child. We’ll call you an endangered and threatened species.

Getting kids back to the woods is a movement that is coming into full gear. Books, studies and programs about losing our children to the technological X-box world and what future it foretells for the environment is fairly troubling, personally and culturally. If we’re going to have a clean and wild environment, then we as adults, parents, Big brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles have to lead our children into nature. We have to give them the opportunities for their minds to wander, to wonder and to be amazed. This is the heart, the core, and the path to the spiritual. It begins in childhood. Its not about curriculum, its about connecting to the authentic…experiencing the creation of the natural world.

But that is only half of the task. Most importantly, we have to learn to think like our children and listen to what they say. Open your eyes, make friends with the bugs, howl with the wolves. Make a pledge to yourself—I will take a kid to the woods or prairie this year. Give them and yourself a chance to roam. This is the true source of inspiration—that of bringing up a new generation of nature lovers.

Lets circle the wagons and validate the Sixth Source of Inspiration: "Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature."

We need not be cultist, but honoring.

We need not worship, but be reverent.

We need not be all knowing, but dwell in the mystery.

We need not be a part from nature, but integrate into a harmonious life with all living creatures.

Do I still sound skeptical?

By the way, anyone who is brave and would like to testify for the Gray Wolf in Cody on Thursday, talk to me afterwards. Its a moral thing.



1 (Seyyed Hossen Nasr, professor, Georgetown University). Richard Louv. "Last Child in the Woods." 2006.

2 Mark Wallace, Department of Religion, Swarthmore College. "Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity in an Ecological Age" Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

3 Lynn White, Jr., "The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science 155 (1967)


5  CUUPs / www.cuups.org

6 Reverend Deborah J. Pope-Lance, Interim Minister at the Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church, Melrose, Massachusetts 5/2006.






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