By Linda Gibler, OP (Houston)
What I think Earth is asking us is two-fold: to recognize that she is a source of wisdom, and to see our diminishment (as religious congregations and religious institutions of Western culture) in the context of Earth’s global ecological crisis. Put another way, what Earth is asking us is to realize that we are part of each other, to draw from Earth’s experience, and then do something to make a difference.
That we are linked to Earth and share a common future is clear in Romans 8:19. Here, Paul tells us that the whole creation is groaning like a woman in labor “waiting with eagerness for the children of God to be revealed… with the intention that the whole creation itself might be freed from its slavery to corruption and brought to the same glorious freedom as the children of God.” Paul, who expected the eschaton immediately, is writing of Earth birthing the saints who have fallen asleep into new life on the last day. With the perspective of a realized eschatology, we may rightly see this verse as suggesting that Earth’s travail will cease when the children of God wake up and realize their dignity. The Kindom of God comes into its fullness for all creation when we behave as children of God.
We (Earth, air, water, soil, creatures, humans, Dominicans) suffer from a flawed materialism and a maladaptive anthropology. In Western culture, we have wrongly believed that nature was to be controlled for human use and comfort. Simple examples include forests across the planet destroyed for human agriculture, building, and energy; and waterways on every continent overtaxed as sewage systems for ever-expanding human populations. As the forests and waters (and air and soil) are degraded by human overuse, the human populations that rely on them, along with other members of the bioregion, suffer from a lack of goods and the effect of toxins left in the environment. Perhaps when there were many fewer humans on the planet, perhaps at the time sacred scriptures first appeared around the world, a materialism based on human need was sustainable, even laudable; it is not now.
Perhaps when there were many fewer humans on the planet and we had no idea that all living beings descended from a common ancestor called to life some 4 billion years ago, a dominant world view that accepted humans as the masters of creation was not dangerous. The view that humans are so different from the rest of creation has severed much of our sense of intimacy with the very source that gave us birth, with the natural systems that nurture us, with the Earth community that sustains us. Because of what we often believe about the nature and purpose of the human, we so often fail to notice the realities our life depends upon; and that is putting our lives and the lives of the entire community around us in jeopardy.
The beliefs of Western culture, particularly its materialism and anthropology, have eroded its future. Educational systems, financial systems, political systems, and religious systems, as well as global ecological systems, are faltering all around us. The diminishment we feel as members of Dominican congregations and provinces in North America is a microcosm of a much larger reality.
But don’t despair!
Even though humans have never been in such a predicament, have never been immersed in a community on the verge of total global collapse and singled out as the cause of that collapse, Earth herself has survived this before. Earth has survived and, through her God-given creativity, actually thrived after five previous major extinctions. Even though this time the potential destruction goes deeper than in any other extinction—because of the damaging effects of nuclear radiation and human-made nerve toxins on all creatures’ DNA—Earth has something to teach us about how to live in a period of diminishment.
The first thing we notice when we look to Earth as a source of wisdom is that over the 3.8 billion years since God called forth the first life on Earth, 99 percent of all species ever created have gone extinct despite God’s love for them. Adaptation is the way of life. Not adapting is the way to guarantee extinction. For a species to survive, it needs to do two things: acquire the energy it needs, and raise offspring to maturity. As environments change, how a species gathers energy (or food for the day) changes. As a group navigates its energy choices, it has to pass on its successful choices to the young ones so they can survive to raise the next generation. How the Order adapts to these times of global, congregational, and personal diminishment in terms of energy (spiritual and physical) and what we teach our young (in formation programs and in the classroom) will determine how well and if we will survive.
We also notice that we are the descendants of the 1 percent who survived by successfully adapting to change. That wisdom and flexibility 3.8 billion years in the making is present in each of our cells. It is coded into our DNA. It has been passed down through each generation. Our lineage goes back through the first mammals, through the lizards and fish, all the way back to the first life God called forth. They all survived and thrived by doing what came naturally to them. The creatures who survived each of the previous mass extinctions did so without calculators, computers, conferences, or even by trying to figure it all out. They did it through God-given instinct. The gift we bring as Homo sapiens, as people of faith, and as Dominicans, is our ability to reflect on what we are doing, to make choices that build the Kindom of God, and to preach the Truth that we live.
The wisdom of Earth, what Earth is asking of the Order, is this: Expect change, be responsive to the entire community we are part of, take what we need knowing that our choices affect everything, take care of the young of all species, and do all this by following what is deepest in our hearts.