The Forum on Religion and Ecology Newsletter
2.1 (January 2008)
1. An opening word, by Whitney Bauman
2. Editorial: Gender and Justice in Bali by Gotelind Alber
3. A note about the Humane Society’s Religious Initiative
4. Focus on the Web: Intersecting Disciplines
5. Worldviews Advertisement; other journals and organizations
6. World Council of Churches News (See JG email)
7. Paper Calls and Upcoming Events
8. “From the Field” by Jay B. McDaniel
1. An Opening Word on Time
Happy New Year to you! Somewhere between reflecting on the New Year, reading Jay McDaniel’s “From the Field” essay along with an essay by Chet Bowers on the cultural commons, and thinking about nature as enchanted, I began to think about the relationship between time, ethics, and our relationship to the rest of the natural world. Specifically, I began to think about time as having more to do with ethical and valuable relationships than with any sort of ontology or metaphysic. Perhaps, then, what we need more than anything in this New Year, maybe even what the planetary community needs, is to slow down. Slowing down here becomes an ethical choice. Indeed if, as so many “post” thinkers have suggested in the past 50 or so years, we disrupt the idea of wholism, teleology, inherent progress or decline, then we are, as David Burns sings, “on the road to no where.” This is not cosmic pessimism, rather it means that we can slow down, look around, experience one another, and take our time before making the ethico-political decisions that we all have to make. If we are not “expected” at a destination (or expected to arrive at a final destination), then reaching a transcendental point of arrival no longer requires us to move at a break neck pace—which often leads to ignoring the detailed contours of the nature-cultures in which we live. In other words, unless we are emergency medical doctors, or political leaders deciding how to respond to war and other disasters, or parents (at times), why do we feel that we must all be moving, doing, and progressing all the time?
To be sure, every second counts in the sense that our experiential lives are short and we have limited time to value, or make-valuable the lives that we lead and the lives that we touch. But, every second doesn’t count toward reaching some all-important, metaphysical future point of arrival if there is no such place or time. So, smell the flowers; take a train instead of an airplane; take some time off; just be/become with your family, friends, pets, and ecosystems of which you are a part; take a long time to prepare and eat a meal; take time to make preventative/holistic decisions regarding your health; take time to decide what coat, shoes, or shirt to buy; take time to sit and breathe. All of these things require our presence and attention. Perhaps this type of slowing-down, conducive to awareness, will help lead us out of our eco-social problems and into more value-able ways of living within our planetary communities. Perhaps slowing down will do more to correct global climate change than furiously flying all over the world to figure out what we need to do about it.
In light of taking time, I hope that you will take the time to enjoy the rest of this newsletter. Following is an editorial on “gender and climate change” that focuses on the recent conference in Bali. Can we take the time to listen to the many voices affected by climate change and that should thus be included in solutions to climate change? Jay McDaniel has also written an excellent essay on “Whitehead, Animals and Jazz”: can we train ourselves to slow down and listen to the many voices through thinking the time of creation as more like jazz and less like an orchestrated symphony? For those of you interested in religion and animals, there is also information on how the Human Society is beginning to work with religious communities on food, animals and faith. They took the time to listen to the intersection of these tropes and respond thoughtfully. Likewise, the “Focus on the Web” section in this issue addresses the intersecting disciplines section of the Forum on Religion and Ecology’s web-site. It takes time to listen to connections between disciplines if we are to begin to think and act in new ways. Finally, the newsletter ends with news, paper calls, and other upcoming events. As you will see, 2008 is shaping up to be a very value-able year for those of us interested in “religion and ecology.”
Finally, and as always, please let me know if there is something that you would like to see included in the newsletter—a missing event, an editorial on a specific issue, etc. Though we cannot accommodate everything—we just don’t have the time!!—we will seriously consider your suggestions. Thanks so much for participating in the life of the Forum!
2007-2008 Research Associate
Forum on Religion and Ecology
2. Gender Justice at the UN Climate Conference COP13/CMP3 in Bali
Sustainable Energy and Climate Policy
In Bali, you never know how things are going to turn out. The traditional battle between the evil witch Rangda and the monster Barong who is striving for the good, is performed as a dance theatre accompanied by Gamelan music, and its end is always open. In most cases, the Barong prevails, but sometimes it may happen that the evil forces come out on top, at least temporarily.
At UN Climate Conferences, the positive forces have regularly lost to skeptics, procrastinators and impeders. Though it can be anticipated that, eventually, everybody will realize the necessity of drastic climate protection measures, in the meantime, the temporary victory of the evil forces is leading to calamity.
“Gender Issues in a Carbon Calamity World” was the title of the presentation of a member of the women’s group gender-cc in Bali, explaining that not only the impacts of climate change, but also certain activities to mitigate climate change can be a calamity, in particular for women. The presentation referred to market based mechanism such as the Clean Development Mechanism which allows public and private actors from industrialized countries to generate emission credits through climate protection projects in developing countries. The benefit of the projects realized so far for women in developing countries is very limited, since the bulk of investments went to large-scale power generation or industrial projects, rather than into energy efficiency in the domestic sector, small scale renewable energy projects for rural communities or schemes to improve public transport systems. A number of projects are even harmful to local communities, e.g. large-scale monoculture plantations or landfill gas utilization projects which led to continuing the operation the landfills instead of closing them down.
One of the core questions of COP13 was how to halt the rapid destruction of forests in tropical countries, contributing some 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. A broad variety of proposals had been put forward, reaching from funds to support the protection of forests to the linking of reduced emissions from deforestation to the carbon trading schemes. In a position paper and a side event called “Women in the forest – no fairy tale”, gender-cc highlighted that forestry is not only about trees and their carbon content, but also about the ecosystem in a broader sense and the people who live in and from the forest. Since the social issues are, to a large extent, gender issues, gender-cc advocated the inclusion of such considerations into the debate, rather than only focusing on technical and methodological issues. The women demanded to address the real direct and underlying causes of deforestation, such as over-consumption, agro-fuel expansion, fossil fuel extraction, the replacement of natural forests by monoculture tree plantations, and the lack of respect for indigenous peoples’ rights. Moreover, gender-cc is opposed to introduce market based mechanisms into the planned REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) scheme. The women are afraid that this would primarily benefit the companies who are currently pushing deforestation, while forest people would go away empty-handed, particularly the women as the poorest group.
Another issue was the dispute on nuclear power as a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. During the conference, the Japanese government proposed to include nuclear energy in the Clean Development Mechanism. As an eligible technology, nuclear power would then receive financial incentives. Whereas large parts of the NGO community remained silent, the women’s group vehemently protested against this revival of nukes, pointing out that climate change should not be combated with technologies involving uncontrollable risks. After all, in all countries where data are available, women are opposing nuclear energy more strongly than men.
With their activities, the women, though a small group of about ten, which equals one-tenth of a percent of the conference’s participants, received much attention. Gender-cc - Women for Climate Justice—is a new network of women and gender experts from all parts of the world. For several years, women’s organizations played only a marginal role in the negotiations, when finally, at COP9 in Milan 2003, the German based organization genanet/LIFE e.V. and the women’s energy network ENERGIA co-hosted a meeting in order to explore the matter: “Is Gender an issue in Climate Change? And if so, how should it be addressed?” More than 30 participants discussed strategies to enhance cooperation and improve lobbying efforts for a stronger integration of the gender dimension into the negotiations and the implementation of climate policy at all levels. Since then, there have been women’s meetings at the UN Climate Change Conferences and some outreach activities and lobbying efforts.
For COP13 Bali, genanet/LIFE e.V. succeeded in raising money to be able to fund the participation of gender-cc representatives from all parts of the world. Gender-cc prepared several position papers, on future commitments, financing, REDD, biofuels, and nuclear energy which were presented during a press conference and discussed at a high level event with delegations. To improve the meaningful participation of women, the group offered a capacity building workshop for women providing briefings on climate policy for gender experts, and on gender issues for those familiar with climate policy, but lacking and understanding of the gender dimension. An open daily women’s caucus was held during the conference, and a gender-cc exhibition booth provided background information and displayed photos of women and their messages for policy-makers. Some of the tangible outcomes of these efforts were, e.g. text insertions on gender justice in position papers and documents of several organizations, and the opportunity to deliver an intervention in the plenary session during the high-level segment of the conference.
However, to really influence the negotiations there needs to be much more work done between session such as attending UNFCCC events and submitting positions on specific items under consideration, expansion of the network, and the means to plan and implement adaptation and mitigation case studies on the ground, demonstrating how gender issues can, and should, be fully taken into consideration.
For more information see www.gendercc.net
UNFCCC COP13 in Bali: www.genanet.de/unfccc.html?&L=1#1577
3. The Humane Society, “Faith in Action for Animals”
From the Website: The HSUS engages religious people and institutions on an array of critical animal protection issues. The HSUS’s mission to protect animals is consistent with the collectively held religious principles of mercy and compassion. For more information about the projects of the Humane society that intersect with “religion and animals,” visit: http://www.hsus.org/religion/.
4. Focus on the Web: Intersecting Disciplines
Most of you are by now, hopefully, familiar with the information on various religious traditions and ecology that can be found on the Forum’s web-site. But, did you know that we also have a whole section on Intersecting Disciplines (http://fore.research.yale.edu/disciplines/). You can find annotated bibliographies, links, and other information on:
Public Policy: http://fore.research.yale.edu/disciplines/policy/index.html
I hope you will visit these sections and that you will find them useful in your research. As always, we are always in the process of updating these sections, so if something is missing that should be there, please send an email to: email@example.com.
5. Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology
Worldviews has taken on a new subtitle, to reflect more clearly the journal’s mission to explore how the world’s religions are responding to the balance between human cultures and ecology. The new title, effective with Volume 12 (2008) is: Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology.
The journal, which has been in publication since 1996, is now edited by Christopher Key Chapple, Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University. Chris has published widely in the field of religion and ecology including co-editing the Hinduism and Ecology volume in the Harvard series and editing the Jainism and Ecology volume. He has also published translations of the Yoga Sutras and has helped to organize two highly successful conferences sponsored by Green Yoga which was founded by Laura Cornell. Whitney Bauman of Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley serves as Book Review Editor. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of Yale University and Heather Eaton of St. Paul’s Seminary in Ottawa serve as Associate Editors. The journal is published by Brill Academic Publishers in the Netherlands, and features an international approach to the interface between religion and ecology. Books for review may be sent to Whitney Bauman (firstname.lastname@example.org) and paper submissions may be electronically dispatched to Chris Chapple (email@example.com).
If your institution does not currently subscribe, please send an order request to your library with the following link: (http://www.brill.nl/wo). You will also find the current table of contents and information on individual subscriptions through that link. We hope that you will take part in the life of this journal!
Here is a link to some other journals in the field of “religion and ecology” and environmental ethics/philosophy: http://fore.research.yale.edu/publications/journals/.
6. News from the World Council of Churches: Summary of Discussions at the World Council of Churches’ Global Consultation on Genetics and New Biotechnologies and the Ministry of the Church
December 2-5, 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa
Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is God who has made us and we are God’s.
(Psalm 100: 1 and 3)
Some 45 participants from all regions of the world sang and danced to a Kenyan song whose refrain repeated “Let us sing to the Lord”. They wanted to remind themselves of the beauty and wonder of creation, even while confronting the stark challenges of new technologies. Only a few kilometers from Soweto and the Apartheid museum, in the opening session they heard the stark rejoinder “Biotechnology in many of its current applications like the apartheid system before it thrives on and leads to the indignity of persons and communities.”
This consultation was hosted by the South African Council of Churches (SACC) acknowledging South Africa’s role as a science and technology centre on the African continent. The initiative for the consultation grew simultaneously from the Canadian Council of Churches and the National Council of the Churches of Christ USA together with the World Council of Churches and the SACC. Envisioned as an opportunity for networking among concerned people, members of advocacy groups, theologians and scientists, representatives of churches and ecumenical partners, the consultation boldly faced the complexity of the issues born of scientific advance and commercial interests. The outcome of the consultation was diversity expressed as solidarity.
Convictions and perspectives
Genetic advances and new biotechnologies force the churches to reaffirm the dignity of human beings and the integrity of the web of life. The creativity of science needs to serve the common good. This note was a shared theme in all theological contributions to the consultation. Where the dignity is violated because human beings are reduced to mere commodities, churches are compelled to speak and act. Where the web of life threatened or disrupted by human intervention, churches will advocate for the restoration of just relationships between human beings and other life. Justice for the poor and the suffering creation is the compelling call to the Biblical witness.
The teachings of the churches need to be further developed in response to the challenges of biotechnology and the impact it has on peoples’ lives. Underlying assumptions about the value and trajectory of life require deeper theological reflection. These are a common task that depends much on the contextual realities and benefits from shared discernment. Those closer to the centers of research and technological advance see the need for dialogue with scientists, wishing to move beyond a reactive mode. They also want to foster the science to serve the common humanity. Those who are closer to peasant communities and other marginalized groups underline their experience that communities can be devastated by the intrusion of genetically modified seeds and bio-piracy. They even conclude: “biotechnology now serves primarily to enhance corporate profit and thereby reduces human beings to mere consumers”.
The context of unjust international relationships often blocks the capacity of people to find common ground. The consultation discovered that one of the most valuable resources to address this challenge can be found through the diverse and wide ranging perspectives. Commonly people from North and South find themselves in conflict because of the different realities they face. The solutions they look for are often seen as mutually exclusive because of the inequitable distribution of economic and political power. Networking and solidarity under these conditions are not just a matter between North and South. Full solidarity is as a much a matter between South and South and North and North as it is between South and North. Hence the consultation’s emphasized on networking and mutual accountability and the co-operation between the different ecumenical partners. The journey ahead will require a strong commitment to mutual accountability and candid encounter by all partners involved.
Valuing peoples’ and cultures
Indigenous Peoples have been guardians of biodiversity and cultivated many of the plants used for agriculture. Their knowledge is essential to future life and survival of humankind. This is not recognized. Instead, Mexico, though the heirs to 12000 years of a corn (maize) culture, come to face the risk of the demise of their culture. Long they told themselves, “The maize made people and people made the maize”. Contamination of their fields through the illegal import and use of genetically modified corn and the dumping of surplus production is seriously undermining the lives and livelihoods of people, and more devastating still, their identity, spirituality and culture. The commodified crop has nothing in common with the sacred plant, the gift of creator God.
These themes were echoed again and again from the canola fields of Canada, to the sugar cane fields in the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific, to those who struggle with the agro-export model of genetically modified soy in Latin America, and to 120,000 Bt cotton farmers who committed suicide in India because of crop failure. Violation of the human rights of farmers often hand in hand with violence against women and children and other groups was reported from many countries. Driven by the global market economy and unjust political systems, biotechnology promised increased production, but in the context of injustice and violence it results in increased dependency and threat to biodiversity. The new emphasis on agro-fuels threatens to further monocultures, expulsion of peasants, land speculation, pollution, and disease while raising food prices.
Urban and rural citizens have the right to access healthy food in keeping with their culture and therefore do not want to be reduced to mere consumers. This must always be at the heart of those among us who are engaged for the labeling of genetically modified products and the enforcement of regulatory frameworks in mobilizing the purchasing power of consumers. Even the exercise of consumer choice in favor of life must be seen as a privilege and operates within a framework that is hostile to these communities. Labeling of genetically modified products is only the second best choice in the absence of more fundamental justice.
Beyond the human species
Poor communities are more at risk during drug development - for example in clinical trials for HIV, reproductive technologies and diabetic research - and lack access to pharmaceutical products that are expensive under patent regimes and other legal, political and social machineries which prevent access to drugs. Perhaps the greatest arrogance to be confronted is any claim to “perfect” all life and in particular the human species. This irreverence denies the sacred relationship between creator and creatures. It ignores the vulnerability and finiteness of life. It opens the door for new divisions in human community that go far beyond the past and present experiences of racism, sexism, ableism and other deeply entrenched denials of human dignity. The commodification of human life in pre-natal diagnostics, some forms of research cloning and stem cell research as well as enhancement techniques must now increasingly be faced by churches and the wider public. Yet, even these are trumped by the dreams of so called trans-humanists. Their vision of constant perfection of human beings beyond the boundaries of the species entails a nightmare not only for people with disabilities, but ultimately for all people.
The prophetic voice of the ecumenical community
There is a great need for global ecumenical literacy on the many dimensions of the new convergent technologies that have been enabled by the digitalization of information in different spheres of life. A central commitment of the consultation was the restoration of the churches’ prophetic voices and public witness in the growing debate regarding the ethical use of genetics and biotechnologies. It was affirmed that theological reflection needs to be contextual and engaged in the transformation of the situation together with those most directly affected. But how to arrive at common voice of the ecumenical family in inter-contextual encounters describes well the task ahead and requires drawing deeply on different Christian traditions of practical wisdom and wisdom traditions in other faith communities. The kind of networking modeled here and to be pursued in the future can enable the churches and ecumenical partners to find their voice and speak their truth within local settings, in national and global advocacy and in a religiously pluralistic world.
The following steps agreed upon by the participants are first steps in fulfillment of these commitments. They are to be carried forward by sub-groups of the consultation:
- Education: Envisioned here is the development of a compendium of educational resources, which can be circulated to colleagues electronically; the development and maintenance of an electronic conversation on ongoing basis; the development of an ongoing network to be expanded as possible.
- Theological Discourse: The group explored the themes of anthropology, inter-contextual approach to doing theology, ecclesiological implications; exploring issues of unequal power distribution also in the ways they affect the discourse through the sharing of written materials and an ongoing consultative process (South-South, North-North, South-North); encouragement of learned societies to work on issues related to genetics and biotechnology in the widest possible sense including environmental issues. Public theology is a promising new avenue to inform the churches public witness.
- The ethics of embryonic stem cell research: the group pledged to follow developments in genetic research and its human applications, carefully reflecting on their theological implications and effects with each development.
- Genetically modified organisms in agriculture: support the proposal of a commercial moratorium on the export and import of agro-fuels; greater emphasis on the alternative framework of sustainable/life-giving agriculture and the need to modify our energy consumption patterns as the main way to address climate change and the water scarcity crisis through networking among participants and other partners; strict standards for the planting and transborder trade of GMO products; protect the human rights of the farmers that are being affected by monoculture GMO crops and also the economic violence they are subjected to and resulting in migration and hunger.
- Converging technologies: exchange of materials on nano-, bio-, information-, cognitive technologies and synthetic biology and sharing of information with the group as a whole.
- Advocacy, locally and globally: intentional efforts to improve the impact of multi-faceted politicalintervention through greater cross-sectoral and cross-regional sharing of information, models and practices; improving the churches capacity for public witness through co-operation with civil society actors and ethical and theological reflection provided by other groups in the network.
Participants of the consultation evoked the theme of the 2006 Assembly of the World Council of Churches in praying together: “Heal us. God in your grace, transform the world.”
For More Information, Visit: http://www.oikoumene.org/.
7. Calls for Papers and Upcoming Events
Due to the growing length of the newsletter, I am only going to insert here the links to calls for papers and other upcoming events. I invite you to visit the Forum web-site for this updated information.
Calls for Papers: http://fore.research.yale.edu/education/professionaldevelopment/call_for_papers/.
Other Professional Organizations: http://fore.research.yale.edu/publications/projects/.
Upcoming Events: http://fore.research.yale.edu/calendar/.
8. From the Field: “Whitehead, Animals and Jazz: Notes Toward an Acoustic Theology of Ecology”
(Author Note: Jay McDaniel is Professor of Religion and Director of the Steel Center for the Study of Religion and Philosophy at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. He is the author of several books, including Living from the Center: Spirituality in the Age of Consumerism (Chalice Press, 2000) and With Roots and Wings: Christianity in an Age of Ecology and Dialogue (Orbis 1995). )
The world needs people who delight in novelty. There are at least two places in human life where this comes naturally: animals and jazz.
Animals are our closest biological and spiritual kin, and yet they delight us in their differences. In these differences they reveal forms of intelligence and creativity that are not reducible to our own projections but that have beauty in their own right. We come to realize that animals are not people in the sense of being human, but that they are indeed persons, because they are subjects of their own lives, each with a unique voice.
Jazz reveals a variety of voices in which life can be expressed. If we listen to it carefully we hear humanly created voices of one sort or another, some vocal and some instrumental. But we also hear the voices of the more-than-human world: the clapping of thunder, the singing of birds, the murmur of wind, the chanting of insects. The sounds of jazz, like the voices of animals, take us remind us that we lie within, not outside of, a larger world of the Ten Thousand Things. Or perhaps better, the Ten Thousand Sounds. Chinese scholars tell us that in Chinese thought the building blocks of the universe are not static things but rather dynamic happenings or events.
The human task today is for us to learn within the larger realm of the Ten Thousand Sounds, adding our voice to the mix in ways that are creatively integrated with the rest of creation. The creative side of this integration requires that we train our ears to listen for differences as well as similarities and to enjoy the novelty. Spending time with animals and listening to jazz can be spiritual disciplines of a sort. We might call them eco-disciplines.
If we are theistic in orientation, we might also speak of them as practices through which we find God and God finds us. Of course it can seem odd to add a word like “God” to the mix. For theists the word is inviting, but for others the word too often suggests a monarch in heaven who is cut off from the world by the boundaries of divine transcendence and who somehow discourages a respect for creation.
As a panentheist in the process or Whiteheadian tradition, I understand God differently. I understand God as an indwelling Lure toward beauty within the whole of the universe and within each creature and also as a Deep Listening who hears all the voices in the universe. This lure toward beauty is found within humans and other animals as an indwelling urge to live with satisfaction – with harmony and intensity – relative to the situation at hand. And the Deep Listening is an encompassing compassion which feels the feelings of all living beings with a tender care, sharing in their joys and sufferings. The Listening is the receptive side and the Lure is the active side. We might call them the Yin and Yang of the universe. Whitehead proposes that the universe as a whole lives and moves and has its being within the larger context of this Lure and Listening, the Yin and the Yang. Christians might call it God’s call and God’s empathy.
If God is understood this way, then an appreciation of animals and jazz can be a way that humans find God and also a way that humans appreciate the diversity of the Ten Thousand Sounds. These two movements – one toward the vertical sacred and one toward the horizontal – go together. We find the world in God and God in the world. In the remainder of this essay I offer some reflections on how this might work out in human life. I begin with a further meditation on listening and its potential role in theology.
The Need for Acoustic Theology
In the beginning is the listening. Before we are born, when we lie inside our mother’s wombs, we cannot see anything because our eyes our closed. But we hear our mother’s voice and know the voice as part of who we are. In this knowing there is an intimacy of felt connection. The listener is the listening and the listening is the listened to.
Later in life, once we are born, the same situation occurs when we listen to live music. We can close our eyes and listen to the sounds coming from outside us. And yet the sounds are inside us, too. We know that we are different from the music and yet the music is inside us as part of who we are, at least in that moment. Here the voices are not simply those of our mother. They are the voices of the world. Through music we see the truth of what Whitehead’s saying in Modes of Thought: “We are in the world and the world is in us.”
Of course the same situation applies when we listen to the tones of other people’s voices and to the sounds of nature. As we visit with a friend who is suffering, we see the friend with our eyes and listen to what she says. There is a separation of knower and known. But the tone of her voice affects us at a more intimate level, revealing her mood. If we close our eyes just for a moment and simply listen, her mood is within us. Visually she has disappeared from sight. But psychologically she is still inside us.
Given the sense of connection that auditory experience so often brings, it is strange that so much western theology has neglected it. Of course there have been theologies of music and attention to the spoken word, especially in preaching. And in Islam there are profound traditions which highlight Quranic recitation as a means by which God can be directly experienced in human life.
Nevertheless in so much western theology the emphasis has been on visual experience and even more specifically on the visual experience of reading and responding to texts. This emphasis on visual experience has also been prominent in western theories of knowledge. We equate knowing the world with having insight and with having a view of the world: that is, a worldview.
This puts eco-theology in a strange position. On the one hand it wants to help people recover a sense of felt connection with worlds of hills and rivers, plants and animals. It wants to help us come to our senses. But on the other hand it inherits where knowing is reduced to visual knowing and to metaphors that come from vision. Thus eco-theologians typically speak of ecological world-views but not so much of world-sounds or world-touches or world-feelings.
The visual metaphors can indeed provide a sense of felt connection with the world. Images can play a profound role in moral and spiritual training. We can learn a lot about the world and about the divine reality attention to light and colors. But somehow an emphasis on vision must be balanced and enriched by attention to other ways of knowing, including the knowing that comes from listening. The philosophy of Whitehead is especially helpful in this regard in at least three ways.
First, with his notion of experience in the mode of causal efficacy, he offers a way of understanding how sounds embody a transfer of feeling from vocalist to listener. He suggests that when we hear the song of the bird, for example, we are hearing sound-feeling. We are being causally influenced not only by the objective behavior of the bird, but also by the feelings of the bird. The world of sound is an expression of energy and energy is feeling.
Second, with his notion that ideas are not reducible to their linguistic expressions, he opens the door for appreciating how people and other living beings can have forms of wisdom that are valuable in their own right and that are not reducible to “texts” and “discourse.” From Whitehead’s perspective, plants and animals can know things without having (or needing) human language to express it. So can human beings. We can know what is happening in our own bodies, for example, and our understanding need not be mediated by verbal or written language.
Third, with his unique way of understanding God, Whitehead offers a way of understanding how humans and other animals might experience God in non-verbal yet powerful ways and, equally important, how God might experience humans and other animals in such ways. These non-verbal ways can include touch, taste, smell, and movement, imagination, and hearing.
Hearing plays a special role in the western biblical traditions, insofar as the presence of God is so often described as a calling from God. Thus God can be heard but not seen, sometimes as a still small voice within the human heart. Whitehead’s perspective makes strong contact with what we might call the auditory stream of western thinking. For example, Whitehead’s God can easily be described as a Deep Listener who listens to the world moment by moment, calling it into forms of beauty relevant to the situation at hand. The “primordial nature of God” listens to possibilities and the “consequent nature of God” listens to what is happening in the world. The very life of God is an ongoing activity of coordinating these two realities for the sake of the universe.
God is not external to the world in the way, for example, that one body might be external to another. God surrounds or encircles the universe, which means that the unfolding universe is inside God, much in the way that an embryo might be inside a womb. God is the Womb of the universe. Moreover, in Whitehead’s philosophy, this Womb cannot be understood on the analogy of subjects and predicates. In human life we often separate subjects and predicates as if the subjects were one thing and the predicates (their activities) quite another. But Whitehead proposes that the true subjects of our world – living cells, individual animals, individual people, God – are not separable from their activities. Thus the Womb is the act of listening. In the beginning is the Listening.
All of this suggests that a rather unique form of “acoustic eco-theology” might be developed with help from Whitehead. In the following paragraphs I will sound this out in a more practical way. I want to introduce Whitehead’s way of thinking further with help from music and more specifically from jazz. And I want show how jazz can be a source for those of us who seek a more sustainable future.
Jazz as Sound and Idea
By jazz I mean the kind of music you would hear when you listen to Kind of Blue, the album by Miles Davis sextet. Its songs feature vast streams of improvisational melody played by Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (saxophone), Cannonball Adderley (saxophone), Bill Evans (piano) and Wynton Kelly (piano) and Jimmy Cobb (drums). The songs are exemplary of the kind of sound that is typical of contemporary jazz: various melodies played simultaneously, complex percussions, and dissonant notes. My wife tells me that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who love this kind of music and those who tolerate them.
I am in the first category. In my more extravagant moments I think that everybody in the world should listen to jazz fifteen minutes a day as a kind of spiritual discipline. It would help train our ears to hear the many voices of the world in an open-minded way without reducing them to our own. My wife, however, is in the second category. She teasingly says that whenever she hears an improvisational jazz solo it makes her want to slap somebody. “It goes on and on forever without ever achieving resolution.” I tell her that she should avoid jazz concerts and that it is all right just to think about the idea of jazz.
By jazz, then, I mean two things. I mean the sounds of jazz as enjoyed by some people in the world, and I mean the idea of jazz as it can be reflected upon, even by people who do not like to listen to it. For those who enjoy the sounds, the sounds are like the waters of the Ganges for a Hindu. You can be immersed in them again and again, and feel cleaned out and more alive every time. For others, though, the waters are far too cold to enjoy. My point is that even the others can learn from the idea of jazz.
Consider, for example, the idea of performing jazz. It is a lot like the idea of a sustainable community. It is the idea of people getting together, each with a different voice, sharing in one another’s feelings, and seeing if they can work together to help create something beautiful. They take delight in their different voices; they agree to “hang in there” together even when things may seem to fall apart; and they forgive one another their mistakes. They have respect for the past but are willing to improvise and add new ideas, because they are sensitive to the call of each moment. They trust in the availability of fresh possibilities.
Advocates of Whitehead’s philosophy believe that the world would be a better place if we all imagined ourselves inside this concert. Of course we might not call it a concert. If we are Christians, Jews, or Muslims we might call it “the continuing creation.” If we are evolutionary biologists we might call it “the evolving whole.” If we live in China we might call it the “continuous creativity of ten thousand things.” In any case we would see that the hills, rivers, animals and trees as adding their unique voices to a larger whole. We would know that our lives are our instruments and the decisions we make, moment by moment, are the notes that we play. We would recognize that our calling in life is not to isolate ourselves from the wider world but to add beauty to the whole, each in our own ways. And we would realize that, if we are to respond to this calling, we must be flexible and adaptive, grateful for the past but not stuck in it.
Priesthood of all Listeners
What, then, might it be like to live in this flexible and adaptive way? Process theologians, influenced by Whitehead’s philosophy, have many ways of describing it. Many if not most process theologians identify themselves as Christian; but some are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Daoist, and Confucian. And some are spiritually-interested but not religiously-affiliated. Let me describe a way from a Christian perspective.
Imagine that you are a Christian and that you go to Mary’s Piano Bar in Philadelphia on a Saturday night. A pianist, bass player, and drummer are playing a jazz standard, each improvising during a solo. Mary is the pianist. You are absorbed in their music and also mesmerized by the way they interact with each other. Often they close their eyes but still seem to feel one another’s presence. They hear the notes being played, but also feel the feelings of one another. In feeling one another’s moods they are living examples of what process theologians call “experience in the mode of causal efficacy.” They are individuals, to be sure, but they are also composed of one another. They are a community.
It occurs to you that you would like to live this way, too. Sometimes you lean too heavily in the direction of western individualism. You equate individualism with self-enclosure, forgetting that you yourself feel most alive when you are connected with others. You would like to be composed to the feelings of others and to respond to them in creative yet sympathetic ways. You are reminded of Paul’s idea in the Bible that an authentic gathering of Christians is a society of spiritual friends in which people share in one another’s joys and sufferings. You come to see Mary’s jazz ensemble as a vivid example of what Paul means by “church” and wonder if the spirit of the music isn’t their way of experiencing the living Christ.
As you watch them, you also wonder what the musicians are like as individuals. You know that they bring with them years of training in music and, for that matter, years of life experience. You can see it in their eyes. But somehow, even as they bring the past with them, they live in the present, where the music is. You would like to live in the present, too. Often you find yourself clinging to the past even though it has passed away, or clinging to the future even though it has not yet arrived. Your friends tell you that you are sometimes distracted and unable to listen to them, because you are too often preoccupied with other matters. You want to become a better listener. You want to be more open to the sacrament of the present moment.
You worry, though, that if you truly became more open to the present moment, you might lose something important. You do not want to neglect your responsibilities for the past or your responsibilities to the future. The jazz concert reminds you that that present moment is never isolated. It includes the past as remembered and the future as anticipated. How else could the musicians remember the jazz standards? How else could they build upon what was played a minute earlier?
Equally important, how else could they anticipate what to play next? The future is in the moment as a possibility even as it is more than the moment. You are intrigued by the way they anticipate the future in their improvisational solos. They are making it up as they go. They are open to fresh possibilities. You ask Mary how she knows what notes to play. She puts it very simply: “I trust in the Music.”
As she says this, it dawns on you that trusting in Music is a lot like trusting in God. Music can be inside you and outside you at the same time. You cannot grasp it as an object in space but you can feel its presence and be nourished by it. It can inspire you with its comforting melodies but also challenge you to widen your horizons. You can move with it and dance in its presence but you cannot own it as your possession, because it belongs to other people, too. You begin to wonder if Music wouldn’t be a better name for God than “God.”
The Bible offers you support. You know that the Gospel of John speaks of God as a Word that became flesh in Jesus. You know that the word “Word” is an English translation of the word Logos and that some people think it is not a very good one. You have been told that Logos means something like the creative spirit of the divine reality at work in the world. Maybe the Logos is not a sentence uttered in a human language, much less a sentence written in a book. Maybe it is more like live Music. We might call it the Song of the Universe. And maybe we can hear this Song as it is sounds in the voices of others and as it speaks to us in the still small voice of our hearts, but maybe we can also add to it with our own actions. Maybe we are part of the Music even as it is also more than us.
This gives us new eyes for music itself. For many people in the world it functions as a sacrament. Christians speak of being immersed in the waters of baptism once in their lives. The customers in Mary’s Piano Bar are immersed in the waters of live jazz. Jazz is their baptism or, perhaps better, their Eucharist. They experience the real presence of the divine reality through the real presence of rhythm, melody, and harmony. The musicians are their priests, but the customers are also priests to the musicians, because the experience depends on all of them.
Mary puts it this way: “When we are really playing well, our playing is inspired by everyone in the bar. My fingers move to the Music but they are moved by the man sitting on the front row and the woman sitting to my right. I am listening to the other musicians, but I am also aware of their listening, and their listening inspires my playing.” Mary believes in the priesthood of all listeners.
The way of living described above – a way of listening and responding – is grounded in the philosophy of Whitehead. My illustration shows how it might be appropriated by a Christian; but the way can well be described in other religious terms. At this point it may be helpful to give readers a sense of its general tone, which relies on Whitehead’s cosmology.
Put simply, Whitehead pictures the whole of reality on the analogy of an improvisational jazz concert. He imagines the universe as an ongoing act of creative improvisation and he proposes that each actual entity in the universe is a moment in the flow. This means that reality as akin to live music. It is not solid and unchanging like a rock. It is instead flowing like a river.
For Whitehead even rocks are flowing at the microscopic levels. The molecules and atoms that compose rocks are dances of energy never quite the same at any two instants. Thus Whitehead speaks in ways that resemble Buddhism with its doctrine of impermanence. Whenever we look deeply into something, we do not find something solid and unchanging. We find flow.
Of course the flow of the universe is patterned flow. Whitehead was a philosopher of science and he knew that all entities – atoms and molecules, hills and rivers, people and stars – behave in law-like ways that can be understood scientifically. But he did not see the laws of nature as templates imposed on the universe from afar. Instead he saw them as habits of behavior that emerged within nature in the remote past and that now have a power of their own.
The laws of nature were like jazz standards; and every event in the universe plays one or another of these standards. The most general standards are played by all entities and that they have no choice in the matter. But every event plays the standard in its own unique way adding its own voice. All apples may fall from trees but no two apples fall in exactly the same way. We live in a universe that is both structured and creative.
One of our most important tasks as human beings is to listen to the voices of others in an open-minded way and respond with loving-kindness. We see this kind of listening in the pianist as she listens to the voices of the drummer, the bass player, and the saxophonist. She can express her own voice, but she also takes delight in other voices. She enjoys the familiar melodies of the standards they play, but she also enjoys novelty and surprise. She does not hide from dissonant chords but also carries the hope that at least some of those dissonances can be resolved into wider harmonies. The need in our time is for people to learn to listen in this open-minded way. At least this is the kind of listening that is needed if we are to develop sustainable communities. I conclude, then, by offering a Whiteheadian approach to sustainability.
From a Whiteheadian perspective sustainable communities can be households, farms, neighborhoods, workplaces, classrooms, villages, cities, or nations. They are sustainable to the degree that they are creative, compassionate, equitable, participatory, respectful of diversity, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind. In other words, they are sustainable in two senses. They can be sustained into the indefinite future given the limits of the earth to absorb pollution and supply resources. And they provide material and spiritual nourishment – sustenance – for human beings in community with one another and the earth. Spiritual nourishment occurs when people have roots and wings.
“Roots” is a metaphor for the security, stability, and balance that people experience when they belong to healthy communities and places. The communities can be families, villages, regions, ethnic groups, religions, or nations – or some combination. Most of us are rooted in several communities simultaneously. We can be rooted in the mutuality of family life, in the customs of our culture, in the workplace, in the ideals of our nation, and in the teachings of a religious tradition or spiritual practice. Even as we might be anchored in relations with people, we can also be anchored in places: that is, the natural and built landscapes of our environments. These can be the mountains and rivers of a village where we live, or the parks and neighborhood stores of our urban neighborhood, or the comfort of our apartment with its seating arrangements and décor. When these communities and places are combined they form what people call home. Home is a place where a person lives; it is a community to which one belongs; and it is a place in the heart.
“Wings” is a metaphor for adventure, creativity, exploration, and hope. Even as we might benefit from stable relations with others, we also need to enjoy a sense of novelty, a sense of hope, a sense that the future can be different from the past. Even healthy relations can grow stale if they do not have novelty. At a personal level the need for novelty is felt as an indwelling lure to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. There lies within each person an inner desire to become more wise and more compassionate, and thus more complete or whole as a human being. At a social level the need for novelty can take the form of working with others to help create healthier and more just communities: communities where people have adequate health care and sanitation, where the poor are no longer poor.
It is difficult to know which is more powerful in human life: the need for roots or wings. Certainly the need for adventure does not replace the need for home. Particularly in times of trial, people turn to what is familiar and predictable. But there is also a need for newness, for variety, for differences. Healthy relationships can grow stale if change does not occur. Humans need familiarity, but we also need surprise. We need order, but they need a little chaos, too.
One thing is clear, though. In modern times many people feel frustrated by two undesirable options, one of which offers wings without roots and the other of which offers roots without wings. The first option is a rootless consumerism in which the purpose of life is reduced to acquiring more and more material possessions and the prestige they offer. The second is wingless fundamentalism in which the purpose of life is reduced to repeating the customs and values of the past, at the expense of being open to new ideas and experiences. The need for sustainability originates with need to find a way past these two undesirable options: a way with roots and wings.
As humans find their way with roots and wings, it is important to remember that the other living beings, too, need and deserve the benefits of a sustainable future. We live in a world of Ten Thousand Sounds. This takes me back to where this essay started, with a word about animals. Not only does the earth need us to live within its own limits to absorb pollution and supply resources, other animals need respect and kindly treatment. Indeed, they, too, need for us to help enjoy the fruits of sustenance. From a Whiteheadian perspective, animals, too, have their relationship with the Listening and the Lure, with the Yin and Yang of the universe, with the Calling and Empathy of God. God is within each animal as a lure to live with satisfaction and God shares in, and is widened by, the beauty of animals’ lives and voices. God would be less “God” were it not for the animals.
In relation to wild animals, our task is to listen to their needs with help from science and aesthetics, and then to make sure that there is space for them to flourish in the habitats appropriate to their natures. This means the provision of wild spaces in rural and urban settings. In relation to animals upon whose lives we intervene in more direct ways – companion animals and farm animals, for example – this means kindly treatment and respect. It also means recognizing that they are means of grace in human life: that is, places where our own sense of companionship and beauty is widened to include what is more than human and thus more than us. Animals become a place where we discover transcendence: the transcendence of the universe and the transcendence of the divine Listening. In the beginning is this Listening, but in the end as well. And in the Listening the voices of animals have a prominent role. A sustainable future is one in which we hear those voices as part of a larger music in which we, too, participate. One way in which our ears can be trained for this hearing – but not the only way – is through fifteen minutes of Miles Davis every morning.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Modes of Thought. Macmillan Free Press, 1969. Page 165.
Of course not all homes are healthy. We can live in a village but not be at home in it. We can spend our waking hours in a workplace but feel alienated from the work we are doing. We can go home at night to our apartment but be in tension with the other members of our family. We can be born into a culture that is filled with violence and arrogance that seeps into our souls. We can be citizens of nations that have imperialistic ambitions on others. We can belong to religions that stifle creativity and try to dominate others. In short, we can be alienated.
This alienation is itself a teaching. Like physical pain, it can tell us that that we are in the presence of something that is hazardous to our health and the health of the communities in which we live. Thus a distinction can be drawn between healthy homes in which we truly feel at home because they are hospitable and compassionate, and other kinds of homes which are inhospitable or even oppressive. A healthy home – whether it is a family or a culture or a nation – has two qualities. It is a home amid which there is some degree of mutuality, a sharing in a common destiny, such that its participants feel bonded in a community that makes the whole of their lives richer. And it is a home in which the wing side of life – the creative and free side of life – is encouraged and nourished. In such a home, the community is a context for creativity. The roots give rise to wings.