The Sanctified Landscape

February 03, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

In this series on the environment, we have been laying out some very obese ideas. Think of this as a review session. For the last four centuries or so, we have learned to think about nature instrumentally, there to feed us with its plants and warm us with its wood and its oil. We imagine ourselves as its point and its pinnacle, and we are not. Nature is not human nature so much as nature is nature. This independence of nature was long pre-figured in scriptures. Listen to those we have already heard: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Whose nature? God’s nature, that’s whose nature. When we confuse God’s nature as ours, we go straight for the jugular with God. And going for God’s jugular is the diabolical idolatry of self-obsession. Or hear Ezekiel attacking modern thought about nature’s utility: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep get your leftovers?” God must have been reading Michael Pollan.

Instead of a sanctified landscape, we have lived in a sanctimonious one, placing ourselves so deeply inside it that we can no longer really see the land. Sanctified experience on the land comes when we get ourselves out of the way.

A sanctified experience may come when a mouse crosses the floor in Women of Will, the show downstairs in the gym. Instead of getting out the traps, you might have a renewed appreciation for the rodent. Or come to know that all dogs are not Lassie, or all rabbits, Bugs Bunny, or all deer, Bambi. When we become independently respectful of independent nature, we get our movies and our minds out of its way.

Today I want to extend these big fat ideas about first and second nature, about nature and cities, and about us and nature and cities, and claim just a little new territory. Sanctified landscapes are a sublime form of self-forgetfulness, what we might call spirituality. They get ourselves out of the way, and not with just nature, but with just about everything. This spirituality or self-forgetfulness is more like a diet than anything else. We eat less. We exercise more. We become lighter on the earth. It is the art of subtraction in a world that only knows addition. It is not a make-over so much as a make-under. We recognize the danger and the obesity of enlightenment ideas about nature.

You can approach the art of subtraction, of weight loss, with just as much self-obsession as you had before the program. It is so easy to be instrumental in attacking instrumentality. For example, I could tell you that the best way to save the planet, aka yourself and your grandchildren, is to consume less. Then you would consume less as a way of saving yourself rather than the planet. There is a deep trap in pragmatism and in self-obsession. Each is sneakily self-referential.

I have been mightily impressed with the nature writer, Elizabeth Goodenough. She urges us to live outside the sanctimony of the self into the sanctity of surprise. Her best words: “I am in constant outrageous celebration that any of it happened at all.” That surprise makes space for unsanctimonious sanctity. Or think of another nature writer, also a great urban poet, Walt Whitman who “thinks the body electric” and marvels at the synapses that lets our body digest, urinate, defecate, deliberate. He stands in awe of nature and sees the very leaves of the very grass. Or hear another new nature writer, Elaine Scary, talk about nature as “contact with the beautiful and a covenant with awe.” Hear her definition of beauty: an affective experience, where one is emotionally moved by something larger and other than the self.” Also “The beautiful radically decenters our sense of who we are.” Aldo Leopold called this an “intense consciousness of the land.”

In this series, we have been trying to de-center and re-center ourselves. We have been trying to encourage you to be a John Muir in New York and appreciate the wilderness here or a Henry David Thoreau in Manhattan finding the wildness here. We have been saying that New York is an ocean fronting region instead of a Thoreau fronting pond.

We have already lived in to the apocalypse and know that we now dwell beyond our limits. I remember debating Ed Koch in the eighties when he tried to get rid of the very successful urban gardening movement. He said we couldn’t afford these gardens. The truth was that we couldn’t afford not to build these gardens. I also remember being invited by the Brookings Institution in Miami to write a “utopian” idea of Miami. I wrote that we should get rid of every other road and plant gardens on the ones where we tore up the concrete. The woman from Brookings passed out when she saw the essay. “This,” she said, “will get me fired, it is so stupid and unlikely.” I agreed. She never published the essay – and last year Brookings brought it out and said, “what an interesting idea.”

What difference could all of these big ideas make to your or my small life? We could declare what Stephen Gluckstern calls Eminent domain over our own spirituality. Gluckstern’s ideas about eminent domain as a way to fix the mortgage crisis – that great environmental notion that shows us how deeply we have mortgaged the planet’s future – is well summarized in this week’s New Yorker. I highly recommend you read how he suggests we get the bank’s profits out of the housing muddle by having cities declare eminent domain. You only declare that when you have a crisis so large that you finally recognize it and become aware that you can’t do anything else.

I am going to borrow his economic idea for our personal use. Declaring eminent domain over your own spirit is a confrontation with its grief. How did I come to dwell in such a way as to foul the water and be fat in a world of skinny sheep? Those who can confront the grief of entrapment and understand the way the system is rigged will not just survive, but also learn to get out of their own way. They will sanctify what is rather than try to fix it. They will come to connect to beauty. The grief confronted becomes a way to live differently, not instrumentally, but differently.

This afternoon, imagine that things may not always be the same as they are now. Look at the beauty of this agape feast, here, now, suggesting there and then. Imagine having to do this service in the dark or without microphones or without so much food. Rejoice in what has already happened. Rejoice that it has happened at all. When we release ourselves of the self-centered picture of nature, we move beyond entrapment into a kind of freedom. The kind the dinosaurs knew. The kind we can also know.

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