Readings: Genesis 1:28-31, 2:7-9, 15, Psalm 46, True Christianity #46:6 (see below)
Here we are on the week of Thanksgiving, when we as a nation celebrate a holiday dedicated to gratitude. There are many different ways of practicing that gratitude. Some people gather with family and friends for a homemade feast, some order in or go out, some take time alone as self-care. However it is manifested, gratitude is a healthy practice.
Many of us will lift up our blessings during this time of thanksgiving, blessings that are sometimes forgotten or taken for granted in our day to day. We might say thank you for family and friends, health, security, useful work and sturdy shelter. And one might say, most importantly, by virtue of the feast that many of us will sit down to, we say thank you for the harvest. We say thank you for abundance. We say thank you for the fecundity of the earth, and the hard work of those who steward it.
I feel we must note, however, that increasingly, our gratitude for things like abundant food and the generativity of the earth is constantly now held in tension with the knowledge of an earthly crisis that endangers our abundant harvest, our security, our livelihoods. I’m speaking, of course, of climate change. Now, this sermon will not be making an argument for or against its existence, although scientific consensus is very very clear: climate change exists, that the activity of humankind has contributed to it, and we have very little time to reverse its course. Instead, we will talk today about how we might understand our relationship to the earth theologically, through both a Christian and a Swedenborgian lens.
One popular Christian view of the relationship between humankind and the earth on which we reside, was for many centuries based upon a text in Genesis that conferred dominion upon human beings. From Genesis 1:28 we read:
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule (some translations say “have dominion”) over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
To summarize: the earth was given to humankind so that we might use it to our benefit, that we might be ruler of its resources. Ruling and dominion is the language of a monarch, and the Hebrew is pretty darned clear about it, and therefore, to many it has seemed obvious that humankind is to exercise kingship, or ultimate power, over the earth and its resources. At first, when we examine how Swedenborg talks about the natural world, it might seem as if he is supporting this dominion view. We read from his book Divine Love and Wisdom:
The physical world's sun is nothing but fire and is therefore dead; and since nature has its origin in that sun, nature is dead. In no respect whatever can creation itself be attributed to the physical world's sun: it is due entirely to the spiritual world's sun. This is because the physical world's sun is totally lifeless, while the spiritual world's sun is alive, being the first emanation of divine love and wisdom. Anything that is lifeless does not effect anything on its own, but is activated; so to attribute any aspect of creation to a lifeless sun would be to attribute the work of an artisan to the tool in the artisan's hand.
The physical world's sun is nothing but fire, with all its life removed. The spiritual world's sun is a fire that has divine life within it.(1)
So, one way to look at this is that if nature is dead, surely it cannot have any true value, and we may exploit it. If nature is dead, nothing we do to it matters; we can’t hurt something that is already dead, or has no life in it. Surely the tool in the artisan’s hand may be used however the artisan desires? However, I don’t believe that this is what Swedenborg means when we calls the natural world inherently dead. He does so to make a larger point: all life comes from the spiritual sun, the first emanation of Divine Love and Wisdom, all life comes from God. Life cannot arise from anything that is not-God, and to make this point Swedenborg calls that which is not-God “dead,” as in, something within which life cannot arise on its own. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the natural world is therefore worthless, and to be despised or pillaged. It doesn’t follow that humankind has a mandate to abuse it. God is the artisan, not humankind. The natural world might be lifeless on its own, but it functions as a container for the spirit, and its reason for being is that it might be activated by the spirit. Swedenborg also writes as we heard in our reading today:
The universe is something to which God could extend his love and in which he could put his love into action and so find rest.
“…into which he could put his love into action and so find rest.” The natural world, then, is an extremely important container into which God’s love can flow, finding both action and rest.
As an analogy, we might think of this in terms of our own skin. Technically, the outer layer of our skin is entirely dead. It is composed of dead skin cells. When we venture further into our epidermis we will find layers that are connected to our blood stream and our nervous system, but our outer layer is not so. The outer layers of our bodies, the part of us that can be seen by everyone around us, is not actually alive. Honestly, that fact is kind of fascinating and weird.
Now, how do we feel about our skin? Do we despise it because it is dead? Do we exploit it or excavate it for our personal gain? Do we think about it as a lesser part of our body? Do we renounce our skin because we prefer the brain? No, of course not. We understand that it provides an extremely important barrier, it protects us and gives a form, and the ability to be whole and to have agency. Because of our skin, we can be a body in the world, we can exist and do the things we want to do.
Our skin allows us the fullness of our existence and just as the outer layer of our skin is constantly being renewed from the inside, such it is with the natural world, constantly being renewed by the inflow of spirit. From our reading:
The three essentials of God's love are the reason the universe is maintained as well, because maintaining is an ongoing creation, just as continuing to exist is the same as perpetually coming into being.
So, now then, with this new understanding, how shall we characterize our relationship to the natural world, a world that is perpetually coming into being via the spirit? What does it mean that the world should be a container for this spirit? Often times, I ask rhetorical questions in my sermons, but this time, I will admit, I don’t fully know the answer, or at least, that I think my answer is still developing. What does it mean that the world should be a container for spirit?
Well, to begin with, I believe there are a few implications involved in seeing the world this way:
First, it means there is a purpose to the world that is beyond what we can see. That the world has value not only because of what it is, but because of what flows into it. What follows from this idea is that the world has value then, beyond what we can extract from it on a natural level. It has a value that we cannot see or quantify in earthly natural terms.
Second, it means that the world is connected to spirit. Just as our skin is intimately connected to what goes on inside our bodies, so the natural world is maintained, sustained and affected by what happens in the spirit. And also, this means what we do in the world affects spirit. To continue the analogy, what we eat, or our general health, can affect the quality of our skin, just as how we treat our skin, as in exposure to excessive sunlight or chemicals, can affect the rest of our body. The natural world, and the world of spirit, are in a co-responding relationship.
Third, it means that we, human beings, are not a part of the natural world in a way that is different to the rest of creation. We too, are a container for the spirit, we too are activated by the spirit that flows into us. We are a part of the natural world, we exist in solidarity with it, not apart from it. We participate in God’s perpetual creation of the universe, we too take life from the spirit as the rest of the universe does.
With this last observation, I will mention another Genesis text: 2:15
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
The Hebrew words here meaning “to work” and “to take care” can also mean “to serve” and “to guard.” This is a very different tone and meaning compared to the Genesis text from just a chapter before. Clearly, in this second text, humankind is to steward the earth and its resources rather than subdue them. How are we to understand this difference, how are we to balance them? For it is true, humankind has evolved a consciousness that can see itself, abilities that can allow us as a species to take to the lead, to dominate certain aspects of the trajectory of this planet. And so the question is: should we? Should we dominate and subdue? Or should we take the gift of our abilities, intelligence, technology, and ingenuity, and use them to serve and to guard a world that is is a container for spirit, just as we are? And now I am asking a rhetorical question, for clearly, I believe that we should. That humankind should desist from extracting the earth’s resources for personal gain, and use our ingenuity to figure out how to exist in this world in a way that respects the natural systems and the natural beauty of creation. We have been put in the Garden to Eden to work it, yes, but also to take care of it.
We read in our psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The whole world is a temple to our God, the whole world was created to give glory to the Divine Love and Wisdom that made it, and not to us. May we always be cognizant of that fact, and may we always be worshipful toward God’s universe.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom #157
Genesis 1:28-31, 2:7-9, 15
1:28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
2:7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. 5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. 6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. 7 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. 8 Come and see what the LORD has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. 10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” 11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
True Christianity #46:6
These essentials of divine love were the reason the universe was created, and they are the reason it is maintained. By examining and scrutinizing the three essentials of divine love, one can come to see that they were the reason for creation. The first essential, loving others outside of himself, was a reason for creation in that the universe is outside God (just as the world is outside the sun). The universe is something to which God could extend his love and in which he could put his love into action and so find rest. We read that after God had created heaven and earth he rested; and that he made the Sabbath day for that reason (Genesis 2:23)
You can see that the second essential, God's wanting to be one with others, was also a reason for creation from the fact that people were created in the image and likeness of God. The "image" and the "likeness" mean that we were made as forms that are receptive to love and wisdom from God - forms that God could be one with, and on whose account he could be one with all the other things in the universe, which are all nothing but means. A connection with the final cause is also a connection with the intermediate causes. Genesis, the Book of Creation, makes it clear that all things were created for the sake of humankind (Genesis 1:28-30).
That the third essential, God's blessing others from himself, is a reason for creation you can see from the fact that the angelic heaven was provided for everyone who has let God's love in, a place where the blessings of all come from God alone.
The three essentials of God's love are the reason the universe is maintained as well, because maintaining is an ongoing creation, just as continuing to exist is the same as perpetually coming into being. Divine love is the same from eternity to eternity. The nature God's love has now, and will have in the future, is the same nature it had when creating the world.