Sacred Nature?

Sharon November 9th, 2009

I had the enormous pleasure this weekend of chairing our synagogues Scholar-in-Residence weekend, and thus hearing three talks by Rabbi Jill Hammer, Midrashist and author of _Sisters at Sinai_ and _The Jewish Book of Days_.  Rabbi Hammer is an extremely fine and thoughtful teacher, and I learned a great deal about the nature and process of Midrash (that is, the stories both ancient and modern Jews tell to answer questions raised by Biblical texts).

Her last talk, building on _The Jewish Book of Days_, focused on reconnecting with the agrarian roots of the Jewish calendar – she argued that we tend to erase the agricultural content and focus on things that seem better connected to our lives.  Thus, she attempts to restore the material and agrarian history of the holiday cycle of the year – seeing Passover, for example, as simultaneously the story of the Exodus and the time of the barley harvest that sustained Jews until Shavuot and the wheat harvest. 

She is a very fine teacher, and it was a deep pleasure to learn from her.  But she did say something, spun off at the very last moment, that struck me as troubling, an idea I hear repeated fairly often.  I should be clear, however, I am describing my train of thought here, and riffing then on an idea that moved me, rather than picking particularly on Rabbi Hammer, who for all I know, may have meant something entirely different. 

Rabbi Hammer ended her talk with the wish that we as Jews recover a reverence for nature that she feels has been absent in our lives.  It is a language that I hear often in religious communities - from Christians and Pagans and in every faith community I have encountered in between, from the purely secular and the deeply religious, and suggests that if we could only come back to revering nature, to treating nature as fully sacred, we would also preserve and protect nature.

I must admit, in some ways, this language of reverence appeals to me too.  I take the idea of “revering” here to mean two things – that is, if we were to treat nature as fully sacred, an expression of G-d (or whatever divinity(s) you are concerned with), we might be careful to preserve it.  And if we viewed it as sacred, we might place ritual limitations and taboos upon our use of it that might be more effective than the limitations we currently have - that is, just as we have rituals that shape how we approach sacred objects, we might invoke or create rituals for how we respond to sacred nature.  Given the rapidity with which we deplete and destroy our ecology, anything that would constrain our use of resources is attractive to me on a purely pragmatic level.  

And yet, as enticing as the possibility of limiting the harm to our ecology through rendering (or rather, re-acknowledging) nature as sacred space worries me.  The reason is this – modern people of the Global North have a very strange idea of what nature actually is.   My concern with the idea of sacred nature is that I think in order for it to be meaningful, for it to be something more than a feel-good concept that allows religious people to praise themselves for their superior experience of the world, we must first change the idea of what and where nature is – and how we view sacred things in general.  Otherwise, we risk the danger of making “sacred nature museums”, much as we make our religious institutions, in many cases into “sacred religion museums.”

What do I mean by this?  Well, ours is a culture of clear lines and strong distinctions, in most cases.  While there are plenty of exceptions, I think many Americans, at least, thinks of religious or sacred acts as taking places in formal sacred spaces.  I can recall this from the days before my conversion – the vast majority of “Christian” acts took place at church, in the space of the church, at formalized times.  While my family made a genuine effort to generalize, the overwhelming impression I received was that church was the place one went to be religious, and reading through polls of American religious opinion, it seems that I’m not the only one who got that impression.

Judaism is not a religion whose primary acts are to take place in the synagogue – the temple is recreated ideally, in the home.  But American liberal Jews at least (and this constitutes a majority of sorts) tend to also to think of religion as something primarily enacted at synagogue. In fact, this is true of almost all American liberal and moderate religious communities, and some Orthodox ones, according to the Pew surveys I’ve been reading – the primary act of religiousness is going to church, synagogue, temple or mosque.  Home-based, daily life integrated acts are a substantial part of religious observation for only a tiny percentage of American religious people.  Moreover, most Americans seem to tend to think of private religious experience, or private acts of religiosity as belonging to the more nebulous category of being “spiritual.” That is, we tend to identify personal experiences of the sacred as somehow separate from religious acts.  This strikes me as a significant fact.  

For me, I think of this division between “ordinary life” and “experience of immanence or sacredness” categorized as ’spiritual’” and “religious institutional life” as having a powerful, if mostly unacknowledge impact on nearly everything in religious life.  Our sense of faith, and/or experience of something greater than ourselves exists, thus, in carefully broken down categories of divison that look like Linnean categories of animal division, or some other territory of modern science.  In this model,  ordinary day to day activities for most people have nothing to do with either religion or spirituality.  One chooses one’s work, does the carpool, fixes the deck, makes dinner, goes to a movie without reference to either religion or spirituality, outside of extremely orthodox minorities in any given community. In fact, reference to one’s faith in, say, choosing one’s profession, dress or deciding where one lives is usually considered archaic in the extreme – those who visibly orient their lives around their faith are generally something of a curiosity.

At the same time, for the vast majority of Americans who do not go to religious instiutions, and probably a majority of those who do, one als has “spiritual” experiences that are private, and largely unshared with others.  Some of these take place in nature, others during personal meditations, or in the course of day to day life, and occasionally, someone even has one at church or shul or mosque or temple ;-).  

When asked about spiritual life, occasionally this is part of practices that they integrate into day to day life, but most people  talk of unusual, rather than day-to-day occurrances – often in unusual conditions, often in what we think of as “nature”.  That is, they say they had profound spiritual experiences not while meditativel doing the laundry, or reading in the yard or praying at church, but while sitting on a mountain top, or at a special retreat, or while in the woods.   In some cases these experiences are religious in nature, but many people who are spiritual don’t claim any particular religious allegience, nor do they necessarily include G-d or Gods among the defining characteristics of those experience, although, of course, many do.

Then one has religious experiences, and for the comparatively small percentage of Americans who frequently visit a religious institutions, these are formalized – you go to church or synagogue or other institution to do your religious thing – and then you go home, and mostly, on average, don’t “do” religion again until the next time you go. 

There are exceptions – there are certainly many people whose lives integrate some or all of these three categories.  There are, of course, people who feel no attraction or need to have either spiritual or religious experiences, and people who have/seek out only one of those.  My standing joke, precisely because it is the exact opposite of the normal American experience is “I’m not spiritual, I’m religious.”  In fact, I don’t think the two are in conflict, but because Americans so strongly identify themselves as spiritual, often without being religious, or while specifically rejecting religion, I find myself tempted to head in the other direction.

I should be clear, I’m not suggesting that those who are spiritual but not religious should become more religious, or that those who aren’t either should become either.  I am merely observing that in the modern world, we tend to draw fairly strong dividing lines between kinds of experience.  And this is what worries me about the language of sacred nature or the language or reverence for nature.   That is, it strikes me as largely not solving the problem of our misuse of nature, because as long as we live in a world where categories of sacred experience are so starkly drawn, and where we do “spiritual” and “religious” at times and in ways very different from the way we live our daily lives, I’m not at all convinced that recovering a reverence for nature will actually do anything to protect it.

Right now, those who report powerful spiritual experiences often report having them “in nature.”  But generally speaking, when they talk about being in nature, they are usually not talking about being in the nature that actually surrounds them every single day – they are speaking of the kind of nature that most Americans have to get in a car and drive to visit.  They speak of retreats and special events in natural settings, of climbing mountains or standing under waterfalls.  And this is, I think, a forceful articulation of how powerful comparatively untouched ecologies are, and how powerfully we are drawn to the woods and the water, the mountains and the sea, where human beings haven’t over-written the world with their hands.  Most faiths include transformative religious moments for their leaders in the wilderness, or in extraordinary places.  This is not a bad thing by any means.

But our focus on the tranformative power of bits of wildness also speaks to the idea that nature exists, not where we are, but in “nature museums” which are “outside over there somewhere” – that is, nature exists in national and state parks, and extraordinarily beautiful natural settings that are unusual to us.  But we don’t speak of nature, generally speaking, as growing out of the cracks of our sidewalk.  We don’t tend to be powerfully moved by nature as it appears in our suburban yard in the form of squirrels at our bird feeders. 

I see this when people email me, speaking of a calling to grow food, a sense that they have an sacred and religious feeling that draws them to the farm.  In many cases, there are barriers to their leaving their present urban or suburban lives, but they speak passionately about how much they need and desire to be in the dirt, and in nature.  When I point out that there is dirt in city lots, and dirt under the pavement, and dirt in suburban yards, they often dismiss this as insufficient – there profound sense that the nature we have overlaid with human landscape is not *real* nature, that one can’t do “real” agriculture where humans are populous, that one does nature out somewhere other than where human beings are, in places with beautiful agrarian landscapes, or with wild scenery.

Now beauty does have a powerful role in bringing us to sacred experience, but this deep division between what we see as an absence of nature here, and a presence of nature “over there” is profoundly problematic if we believe that reverence, or the sense of a sacred will help us preserve our ecology.  Because just as we see “doing religion” as something we do only in certain places, and not as fully integrated into our day to day life, we see “doing nature” as something done only in certain places, and not part of the whole that is our lives. 

I’m the first to admit that it can be hard to find nature when it is covered by what Barbara Kingsolver calls “the flat, killing mulch of a sidewalk”, where the only animals you see are starlings, rats and humans.  And yet, I would argue, that if we were to treat nature as sacred, it would be here that we most urgently need to reclaim that sense of sacredness.  But this is the hardest part – because we have two deep divisions to overcome – the sense that sacred nature is something far away in a state park or a farm somewhere, and the sense the work of reverence, of preserving and protecting and ritualizing our relationship to the sacred is done, not constantly, as part of our lives, but in either closed buildings or unusual, preserved spaces for spiritual experience.

If we reclaim a reverence for nature now, as we are, we won’t preserve a damned thing.  I mean that quite seriously – we cannot revere nature in church, as we celebrate an agricultural holiday that means nothing to us, since agriculture is wholly alien from our society, and go out and eat daily cheap industrial food grown without reverence for anything.  We cannot go out into nature once a year and camp in the mountains and then come back and chemlawn our own green space.  We cannot get together once a year for a nature ritual and flatter ourselves that our acts matter, if 364 days a year, we live life as though nature did not matter.  We cannot experience G-d by the sea, praying for rain, and come back and flush our wastes down into that sea.  Reverence might be enough in a world where we lived integrally and integratedly with nature, where we saw ourselves as part of nature.  Without that, it is a kind of idolatry – nature as a substitute for G-d – because, after all, if G-d exists and is anywhere, G-d is in the squirrels, and the lawn, and the water that courses through you sewer system – because that is nature too.

Thousands of years ago, when the texts and rituals that many of us rely on were evolving, we were a different people – the lines our faiths attempted to draw between nature and human made some measure of sense.  We lived, after all, outside, all the time.  For the most part, the strong human lives of cities marked only a tiny landscape, and that surrounded by agriculture.  The largest cities of the Biblical era were tiny, and agrarian.  We small and natural creatures lived by and large by the cycles of nature, we lived daily in nature, and our texts helped us determine how to do so.  We revered nature, to the extent that reverence is the correct word (and whether it is depends on the time and place and experience) because like G-d (because it is like G-d in some faiths) it was bigger than we were, more powerful, encompassing, whole.  One might go to the temple to perform an important religious activity, or to join in community for a holiday, one might go into the wildnerness or to the top of a mountain to commune *particularly* with G-d (or Goddess or both)  – such stories are part of every religious narrative.  But these were the spectacular events in a world where religion and experience of the divine were also part of daily life - needed because we were so vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, because we lived wholly in and through the natural world.  We have shifted from a time in which nature was sacred because it was our world, to a way of seeing nature as sacred because it is scarce – and thus rendering it more scarce.

Yes, I’d like to see us reclaim a sense of the sacredness of nature, if only for purely practical reasons – because we are less likely to kill and destroy what we view as sacred.  But I think that beginning from that project risks the cration of more “nature museums”  and sacred groves surrounded by dead zones.  At this point, I think much of our much-vaunted reverence for nature in most people allows us to feel self-satisfaction that we preserved a small space in which to love nature, while we ignore the continued rape of the natural world, transformed by our presence, but not absent from it. The idea that we chase out nature by living somewhere is partly right – we destroy wild things and we kill other species and we reduce cultures to monocultures.  But we can never excise nature, any more than those of us who are people of faith believe we can excise G-d simply by choosing not to acknowledge or even to believe in G-d. 

The first step to restoring our ecology for people of faith, then, is not developing a sense of the sacredness of nature, but  developing a sense of sacredness *period* that involves the daily integration of our beliefs about the world into our lives.  That is, if we don’t live our faiths at every meal, in every choice, every time we spend money – if we don’t use our conviction to inform our daily lives, why would it matter whether we hold nature sacred or not?  Because our daily lives are just that – they are daily, they are the 95% of our acts that don’t we don’t consider “religious” or “spiritual” and their impact will always overwhelm any special religious or spiritual space we make for nature.

Only when we live our lives with care and restraint as though our daily lives are sacred, can we add in the concept of a sacred nature, one that is part of us, integrated into our bodies, the land on which we walk and sleep, into the small and often unseen lives that surround us.  We start there with sacred nature – with our water table and our dinners, with our yards and the trees that overhang our street.  From there, we can reach out to those special and transformative natural spaces in which have in the past had spiritual experiences, and to our churches and mosques, temples and shuls, where we have the chance in community to teach about and learn about and experience the collective agrarian history of our faiths.  But at the beginning, nature starts where we are – it is literally and materially in us, and if we are to show reverence to it, we must begin at the beginnning.

27 Responses to “Sacred Nature?”

  1. ex consumeron 09 Nov 2009 at 11:44 am

    Thanks for this wonderful perspective.

    I have found the simple act of walking to be a fantastic beginning.

  2. The Momon 09 Nov 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Interesting perspective. I’ve always seen that train of thought as something that I should do daily, such as prayer. Unfortunately, I’m sure most people don’t see their lives as existing in nature, or depending on nature. The harvest celebrations in Judaism certainly seem to encourage thoughts of nature, although it doesn’t seem to make anyone actually venture outside. Christianity seems to have gotten away from that train of thought entirely.

  3. eddeon 09 Nov 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    “Our daily lives are testament to what we believe.”

    In my neighborhood we might start our journey into nature by considering air conditioning. Here in the South, many of us have air conditioning in our homes, motor vehicles, offices, places of work, shopping malls & stores, community buildings, churches & temples and such. Lives include only very short trips between air conditioned spaces.

    By living in human-made environment, we estrange ourselves from natural phenomena, heat, cold, humidity, wind, rain and all the bits of nature riding around on the air around us. And from the “outside.”

    In fact, most fetishize air conditioning so much that to do without AC is a personal affront.

    Since the human species lived (and most now live) without air conditioning, we know AC is hardly a requisite for a satisfactory, even enjoyable life.

    A small step into nature?


  4. agwhon 09 Nov 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Part of the problem, in my area at least, is that so few people actually spend time outside in their daily lives. My husband teaches biology at a local university, and when he takes students out to the little patch of woods on campus to do something like measure the distances between trees, it usually turns out that several students have NEVER been in a woods before (in NW Georgia!), and even more have never seen the numbers and kinds of insects that live under rotting logs. These students are always just a bit nervous about the whole situation. The culture here is very “indoors.”

    My neighborhood has more outdoor children than most in this area, and I am thankful for that. A group of them visits our yard pretty often (my husband refers to them as the “little rascals,” but he really likes that they come over) and keeps tabs on what’s going on in my veggie garden. This group may yet develop an appreciation for the relationship between nature and our survival that I think is important to the “sacredness of nature” idea.

    Getting more people outside, like my neighborhood rascals, growing at least a little of their own food (even one pepper plant in a pot), would be a good start in the direction of getting more people to understand that they live in and rely on the natural world, which makes it definitely worth revering.

    Thanks, Sharon, for the (as usual!) thought-provoking post.

    -Amy, NW of Atlanta

  5. Nettleon 09 Nov 2009 at 2:07 pm

    As a Pagan, this is an important topic for me – my religion is after all explicitly concerned with the sacred nature of the material world, and our holy days are holy not for historical reasons but because they mark ever-recurring seasonal events. And yet even with this as the focal point, and even with our emphasis on personal practice and the recognition of the sacred in everyday life, there are still plenty of us who fall into that same “nature is that thing over there” trap – and I appreciate this post, Sharon, for helping me to understand why that is, because it’s something I find frustrating within my community.

  6. Grandma Mision 09 Nov 2009 at 2:10 pm

    I hope this thought is not considered totally banal…. but just a quick thought… this article reinforced my decision to not fall prey to a single temptation to purchase (albeit 2nd hand, thriftstore style) any plastic play thing for my grandchildren’s Channukah and Christmas presents. Or at ANY time for that matter!

    Right now my “nature” wind is blowing at about 76 mph and I’m keeping an eye on all the forest trees around my cabin with just a shade of worry… so I guess I’m not thinking any deep thoughts today, lol.

  7. hummingbirdon 09 Nov 2009 at 2:13 pm

    It is a source of astonishment to me that “religious” people can somehow manage to completely separate their “God” from the real divine milieu in which we live and breathe and have our being. To me this prsence, this living earth/universe is Goddess and I grieve with her over the continuing loss of her wonderful world and rejoice with her at each small life, each ladybug I manage to rescue from the screen or wildflower I can help to grow.

    I spent 14 years in a convent, but I will never enter a “Church” again.

  8. Theresaon 09 Nov 2009 at 2:28 pm

    “But at the beginning, nature starts where we are – it is literally and materially in us, and if we are to show reverence to it, we must begin at the beginnning.”

    I quote your last sentence here Sharon just to illustrate my view that language constrains us to a great degree to even talk about the connection there is between us and nature. Saying that “it” is in “us” can’t help but set up a distinction between the two. It is us; we are it. My even saying “connection” implies there are two separate things to be connected, but there isn’t. Nature/Environment/Universe is all there is. I know when I realized the profundity of that, the inclusion of what I think of as “me” in that, I was never the same again, nor were my actions.

  9. Laneyon 09 Nov 2009 at 3:06 pm

    This reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which I was so annoyed with that I probably offended at least one of my book club friends who thought it was “beautiful, wonderful, inspiring.” Gilbert has to divorce her husband, quit her job, and leave her home to discover food, spirituality, and love. Isn’t REAL life finding or creating those things in your own life, in the midst of the day-to-day struggle to pay the bills and raise the kids and make a loving life with the one you’ve chosen? Is her experience with food any deeper than mine because she traveled to Europe to find it, while I’m trying to find it more and more in my own backyard and my own kitchen? Is her spiritual experience deeper than mine because she finds it in an ashram in India, but I find mine by offering up my laundry chores? Is the love she finds deeper than mine because she finds it in Bali with a new man and I build mine every day with the same man I’ve been with for 24 years? Bah! Life is ours to find in our own backyard — the food, the spirituality, the love… it’s all within reach if you can just recognize it, nuture it, and appreciate it!

  10. Sarahon 09 Nov 2009 at 4:13 pm

    This is lovely; thank you. Definitely food for thought.

    One additional twist that I’ve noticed with some Jewish environmental thinkers is that the nature we’re “supposed” to revere is that very specific patch of nature slightly to the left of Jordan. Which I find to be missing the point.

  11. Cathon 09 Nov 2009 at 4:22 pm

    I live in the most populated city in my country, on a 6-lane main road. But at night when I leave the curtains open I can see the stars.

  12. ceceliaon 09 Nov 2009 at 6:14 pm

    More great observations Sharon thanks- I find that the use of the word “environment” also reinforces this notion of nature as something separate – as if we were not part of the environment too.

  13. Janeon 09 Nov 2009 at 6:27 pm

    An excellent post. I discovered Panentheism about six years ago, and the idea that God is in all things and all things are in God seems about the best way that I can understand the Universe. I once read a quote, supposedly by Teilhard de Chardin, that ‘God created the world because God wished to behold God’
    The idea that God is something ‘out there’, separate, distant, judging and observing seems to me as ludicrous as the division between the nature on our doorstops and ‘proper’ nature which is an arboretum thirty miles away that I have to burn fossil fuels to visit. I am a tiny piece of nature, and therefore a piece of all that is. So are all my friends, family, all the plants and sky around me. All those things and I are therefore also a tiny and inseparable piece of God.
    I attend church but often find it a place of verbal and ceremonial repetition. I often have a far better chat with God while doing the washing up and looking out into my little garden.
    The cracks in the concrete on my street have Ribwort Plantain growing in them, which is a good expectorant if you have a bad cough. Round the corner on a piece of scrub land near a carpark there is yarrow which is also good to drink if you have a fever. Nature is really close, even in the heart of a city.

  14. Lisa Zon 09 Nov 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Amen, amen, amen to that!

    At Augsburg College, I lived eleven stories up and looking out onto I-94 in Minneapolis. I remember distinctly a moment when I came to realize that even in a “skyscraper” with the noise of the freeway outside my window, I was still “in the country” as long as there was a patch of green outside my door and a state of mind in my head that saw it as so. That was a moment of revelation for me, which is why I remember it so vividly. (I’ve always lived in cities, by the way.)

    A few years later, as a young mom, I had a friend who was a fundamentalist Christian. I would try and try to explain to her how it was my own (Christian) faith that compelled me to eat beef from a local farmer who treated his/her animals well instead of a factory farm, or that it was the words of the Bible that inspired me to want to clean up the river nearby, etc. She had the hardest time figuring me out, though she really did try in earnest.

    I fail at being a good environmentalist all the time, but I can assure you that behind my commitment to being a good steward of the earth are my spiritual/religious beliefs (and I don’t really separate the two).

  15. Mark Non 09 Nov 2009 at 7:51 pm

    A true reverence for nature is hindered by any religion that holds out the reward of an otherworldly heaven and afterlife to its followers. Believers in these religions always betray their secondary-at-best concern for the earth and its living things.

  16. Lindseyon 09 Nov 2009 at 7:53 pm

    I believe a truly religious/spiritual person is not capable of compartmentalizing their God from the rest of their life. Whether you are Jewish, Christian, Pagan, Buddhist, what not, it should ebb and flow through your whole life.

    Not just at church or on Sunday or what have you. If that is how you practice, you really don’t believe what you speak of.

  17. Susanon 09 Nov 2009 at 11:01 pm

    I agree that ‘nature’ as we see it in the US shouldn’t be idolized, set aside to never be touched (as a whole). A museum, as you say. Nature, as the British for example see it, means a whole different thing. It is human influenced countryside, with gardens and hedgerows, and flora and fauna that exist alongside humans and livestock.

    The idea that if something is sacred it should be reserved for special occasions is ludricous, and I have never understood that idea. Sacred is what you make of something. Really. Puking can be considered sacred if you take into consideration the miracle that goes into making a body work, and how it can protect itself from bad food or whatever. I realize that may be a stretch for some, but I really don’t recall the acts of producing body fluid ever being condemned (except for sex outside of sanctioned relationships), just the byproducts being called unclean. For good, sound, logical reasons, I might add.

    I also agree with a previous poster that nature isn’t separate from us. We are part of nature, not separate, not different, not special. We’re bipedal mammals, that don’t grow a fur coat, and who manipulate our surroundings to a greater degree than probably any other species on earth ever has. That’s all.

    Religion means relinking — human with God. (or Gods as the case may be). It is the vehicle, not the be all and end all. And if you’re only getting an experience in your religious surroundings, you’re not getting it at all. That’s an illegitimate religion, one might even call it a false religion. If you believe in the idea of God(s) then you should understand that it is desired for you to acknowledge, praise, worship, offer sacrifice, and live your life as a testament to that. And since nature was created by Deity, it follows that we should honor it as the gift and blessing it is, and acknowledge we are a part of it — as part of Deity’s design.

  18. Susanon 09 Nov 2009 at 11:02 pm

    that’s ludicrous. Sorry. dyslexia strikes again….

  19. Brad K.on 10 Nov 2009 at 3:09 am


    A couple of responses.

    I wonder whether Christianity, at least that derived from Roman Catholicism and the Reformation, didn’t begin to rediscover the sacredness of nature with the Anabaptists, and those faiths derived from them, the Mennonites and the Amish. In between the founding of Christianity in the West, and the time of the Anabaptists, my recollection is that nature received short shrift; in fact much of the history of the early church was very venal. While many recall that the stories of Robin Hood pitted outlaw against Sheriff of Nottingham, recall that the church was often the target as hoarding wealth and embracing mainly wealthy city-dwellers. It was often the church, and high officials, that drove the Sheriff and hated losing power and money.

    I grew up on a hog farm in Iowa. Dad raised pastured hogs, and did fairly well. I recall a needlpoint piece hanging on the Kitchen wall for several years, “Who plants a seed and waits, believes in God.” (This is what I recall, some 30 years later.)

    Tonight I googled that phrase. I found a forum post on favorite garden quotes.
    “Who plants a seed beneath the sod, and waits to see, believes in God” — Author unknown

    Then there is a passage on, apparently from a Los Angeles collection,
    scanned and not proofread (there are several convert-scan-to-text errors).
    Based on the Book, “What Can a Man Believe,” by Bruce Barton.
    . “There is no unbelief
    . Whoever plants a seed beneath the sod
    . And waits to see it push away the clod
    . He trusts in God.”

    Actually, I think I like Rabbi Zielonka’s criticism on Bruce Barton’s defense of Christianity better than I might appreciate the chosen slant of Barton’s book.

    Thanks for the glancing reference that recalled that memory, and that phrase, to my mind.

    Where is reverence, when we gather wheat, and potatoes, and Pecans – and then store it in such a manner that the squirrels and the mice of the field can’t get at it? When we build ourselves a house, should we build in such a way as to encourage mice to dwell with us, should we keep a cat to prey on mice where we deem them unwanted? Should we set traps for mice and rats to protect our family, our shelter, our food? I don’t mean this in a snide way.

    When we change the nature of that patch of grass that would be covering the land we occupy, or the trees or whatever natural balance would have placed there at various times, if not for the presence and interference of man, we change the ecology of the animals living there as well. I had a neighbor, now deceased, that refused to fertilize with liquid ammonia fertilizer – a common agribusiness farming practice – because it kills the earth worms in the field. Joe’s objection was pragmatic; he thought the earth worm had an important role in field fertility.

    When we bale the hay, or otherwise harvest the crop, we interfere with the birds, bugs, and other life that would have subsisted on those acres or thousands of acres.

    My own feeling is that having raised the crop, gathered the harvest, we are then bound to protect that harvest from depredation by vermin, by fungus, mold, and other neglect. Anything else yields less from our labor – and wastes the way we denied that resource to the other life it might have sustained. Similarly with other constructions, like home and barn. Once built, the resources that were consumed in the materials and the construction should be preserved, to the extent that preserving doesn’t waste other resources inordinately. I set my mouse traps not because the mice don’t deserve to live, but to preserve what has already been done. I do my part to block up access to the house, to better preserve and also to place fewer mice at risk. (And I don’t want to think of my house as “Mouse Bait”.)

    Is there a fundamental difference between a squirrel eating acorns, between a deer grazing grass, and my razing and planting a garden? Each consumes resources, diverts something from a “natural” course. Should I lament choosing an area of ground and building a house or barn, a garage, a field – or a game preserve (what the neighbors call my back yard where I seldom mow; I like watching the grass grow).

    A video I watched of a TED speech by architect William McDonough mentions his book _Cradle to Cradle_ is written on polymer. He describes the majesty of the tree, and asks if he should knock it down and write on it. The video was very compelling. (slash) talks (slash) william_mcdonough_on_cradle_to_cradle_design.html Me? I care for my books, I seldom buy one I don’t intend to read and re-read, often many times. I tend to donate or gift the books I discover I don’t like.

    Sharon, I guess I have talked myself into feeling that reverence for nature must spill over into frugality with natural and worked resources, and husbandry of nature and humankind’s works, as well as the eco-system as affected by humans and eco-systems unaffected, largely, by humans.

    Of course, the flip side might be that the vagaries of nature are concomitant with the divine gift of free will to humankind. That is, the mountain top, the waterfall, the glories of the sunset are no more sacred or providential than the comment box on a blog, at 2 AM. All deserve, when noticed, due reverence, respect, and meditation on meaning. Each can lead to a broadening and brightening of the spirit and the soul, and (re)connection to the divine. Now, the mouse trap, that might be troubling, but then so would be sweeping out a spider web, washing germs from the hands, etc.

  20. Sharonon 10 Nov 2009 at 7:38 am

    Mark, I don’t think I agree with you. I don’t come from one of those faiths, personally (Judaism doesn’t really answer the question of what happens after you die – or perhaps it answers it a dozen different ways), but I think it is a matter of perspective. It is possible to believe that after death, you go to a positive experience and still think that you should attend well to the one you are having here. I think extreme focus on the afterlife, however, does perhaps make things harder.


  21. gerald spezioon 10 Nov 2009 at 8:45 am

    Did the wise Rabbi mention the monstrous carnage of Gaza by the cultured Zionist Israelis?

    Those cavalier murdering Zionists have such a sure sense of their own “sacredness” that they can murder defenseless women & children with complete impunity.

  22. Sharonon 10 Nov 2009 at 9:39 am

    You know, I give my fellow Jews a good bit of a hard time about both Zionism and treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza. I’m neither a Zionist nor do I particularly defend Israel’s action. I have no idea what Rabbi Hammer’s position on either subject is – she was teaching Midrash, not modern politics.

    The language of “murdering Zionists” and the assumption that all Jews at all moments are equally complicit with the acts of the Israeli government suggest to me, however, that I’m not dealing with someone who wants to make a case for a relevant and particular analysis of Israeli acts, but someone who simply wants to incite hostility against Jews. I won’t put up with that on my blog – so if you wish to discuss this or any related subject, moderate your language to the appropriate, or be banned. You are entitled to your opinion. I, however, am entitled not to have anti-semitic ravings on my website.


  23. Grant Canterburyon 10 Nov 2009 at 9:45 am

    In this connection I would recommend looking at a couple of Gary Snyder’s excellent essays: “Good, Wild, Sacred” and “The Etiquette of Freedom”. In discussing Shinto in Japan:
    “…Long before the rise of any state, the islands of Japan were studded with little shrines –jinja and omiya — that were part of neolithic village culture. Even in the midst of the onrushing industrial energy of the current system, shrine lands remain untouchable. It would make your hair stand up to see how a Japanese developer will take bulldozers to a nice stand of old pines and level it for a new town. When the New Island was created in Kobe harbor… it was raised from the bay bottom with dirt obtained by shaving down a whole range of hills ten miles south of the city. This was barged to the site for twelve years – a steady stream of barges carrying dirt off giant conveyer belts that totally removed soil two rows of hills back from the coast. The newly leveled area became a housing development. In industrial Japan it’s not that ‘nothing is sacred’, it’s that the _sacred_ is sacred and that’s _all_ that is sacred.
    “We are grateful for these microscopic traces of salvaged land in Japan because the rule in shrines is that (away from the buildings and paths) you never cut anything, never maintain anything, never clear or thin anything. No hunting, no fishing, no thinning, no burning, no stopping of burning: leaving us a very few stands of ancient forests right inside the cities. One can walk into a little jinja and be in the presence of an 800-year-old Cryptomeria (sugi) tree. Without the shrines we wouldn’t know so well what the original Japanese forest might have been. But such compartmentalization is not healthy: in this patriarchal model some land is saved, like a virgin priestess; some is overworked endlessly, like a wife; and some is brutally publicly reshaped, like an exuberant girl declared promiscuous and punished. Good, wild, and sacred couldn’t be further apart.”

  24. Lisa Zon 10 Nov 2009 at 9:47 am

    “Where is reverence, when we gather wheat, and potatoes, and Pecans – and then store it in such a manner that the squirrels and the mice of the field can’t get at it? When we build ourselves a house, should we build in such a way as to encourage mice to dwell with us, should we keep a cat to prey on mice where we deem them unwanted? Should we set traps for mice and rats to protect our family, our shelter, our food? I don’t mean this in a snide way.”

    ~quote from Brad K.

    @Brad, your words remind me of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew:

    “Therefore, I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they?
    “Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan? Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith?
    “Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient.”

    Matthew 6:25-34

    I think this also tells us not to worry or even think much about the afterlife! Such focus, in the extreme or even moderately extreme, seems to me just an excuse to not focus on the here and now and the work to be done. However, it is also a comfort that when we fail, as we usually do, to live up to our own or others’ standards, forgiveness and mercy will prevail.

  25. Mark Non 10 Nov 2009 at 10:54 am

    “(Judaism doesn’t really answer the question of what happens after you die – or perhaps it answers it a dozen different ways).”

    I happen to like some of the beliefs of one of the ancient sects of Judaism, the Sadducees. If I am not mistaken, they believed in the here and now. They did not believe in an afterlife, heaven, hell. So, if they believed in G_d, it must have been for reasons other than eternal reward or punishment.

    OK, somewhat off topic perhaps, but I think these guys were on to something.

  26. Debon 10 Nov 2009 at 11:37 am

    Personally, I find God when I see the sunlight in the morning, when the yeast in the bread makes is rise, when a flock of migrating indigo buntings spend a day at my feeder, when I go to the store and the cashier asks me how my husband is doing knowing he’s had the flu, when I taught my “dyslexic” daughter how to read, when my car starts in the dead of winter, when I look at my son and see the image of his father, when I look at my daughter and see the image of my father, when the tomato I’ve been watching for a month is sliced and eaten………God is all around us. You just have to wake up and pay attention. I think that’s the problem….we as a society arent awake to what is going on around us because we live too much inside our intellect. We stop seeing.

  27. Josephon 10 Nov 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Sssooo much misunderstanding could be avoided if we make a distinction between *nature* – the biosphere – with a small “n”, and Nature – the entire multidimensional Cosmos – with a large “N”.

    What we have in fact lost touch with – and which is the source of human problems – is direct experience – not faith in something intangible! – of the Absolute as simultaneously the transcendental source of all and the Absolute immanently manifesting as the multidimensional Cosmos.

    The idea that the human being can spiritually evolve light-years beyond conventional ego-identity – and thus answer ALL the great questions about existence via direct Realization – is NOT a *new age* idea, but is in fact the age-old testimony from all the esoteric spiritual traditions. And all of our problems on this planet stem from the fact that we refuse to acknowledge this openly. In fact, talking about this is THE greatest taboo around.

    The idea that humanity was heading for catastrophe if we did not spiritually evolve has been “in the air” and fairly well known in esoteric spiritual circles in the West for at least 50 years. Our destruction of the biosphere is caused by our aberrated condition, by the fact that we seek ego-fulfillment instead of ego-transcendence because we have forgotten that the purpose of existence is spiritual Realization, not satisfying the human ego.

    If spiritual Realization were the foundation of civilization – as it should be – we would not be in the position we are in today. Seeking some kind of absolute fulfillment or happiness on earth via wealth and offspring and ego-fulfilling experiences is at the root of all of our problems, a truth, no matter how “inconvenient” the human ego finds it.

    “nature” – with a small “n”, is but one teeny tiny slice of the spectrum of phenomenal reality, and the fact that we are almost completely unconscious of the full spectrum of reality is at the root of all of our problems.

    And Sharon, tikkun olam and similar ideas in other traditions, has to do with the restoration of the entire cosmos. In other words, the fallen condition of the cosmos occured in the cosmogonic process long before humanity even existed, and thus the solution is spiritual regeneration and anamnesia, remembering who we really are and acting as instruments of the Divine in the restoration process, but this process goes way beyond “nature” – the biosphere – with a small “n.”

    In this sense, the problems we are struggling with on the material plane – such as ecological exploitation – are byproducts of an aberration that occurred in the cosmogonic process on much higher levels, and if we do not become aware of these levels and work from there, we will not be able to understand what is happening. (excerpt from a longer essay) Regards, Joseph

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