This is the last in my year-long sermon series on the principles of Unitarian Universalism. Today we’ll take a look at the 7th principle, in which we covenant to affirm and promote Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Our current statement of principles grew out of earlier versions. This latest version was developed in the early 1980s. As Kenneth Collier, author of Our Seven Principles, says, “Unitarian Universalists went through a study process for four years that culminated at the 1984 General Assembly with the proposal of a new statement of Unitarian Universalist Principles and in 1985 with the adoption of that statement. . . .The 1984 proposal contained versions of each of the first six Principles, but it did not directly mention interdependence. . . . Many of us thought that there was something missing, and some of us were prepared to vote against the proposal unless it were changed.

“As the debate wore on and patience grew thin, the Reverend Paul L’Herrou stood up and proposed this seventh Principle. Some wordcrafting ensued, but because almost everyone agreed with it in substance, the final draft passed with few, if any, dissenting votes.”  (p. 102)

So the seventh principle was an afterthought, in a way, added at GA and not part of the original package the commission had offered. Yet it has become in many ways one of our most important and beloved principles.

The seventh principle is an ecocentric statement

The seventh principle is an ecocentric statement. It does not say “the interdependent web humanity, nor even of life,” nor does it say “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are the stewards,” or “for which we are responsible.” It asserts an ecocentric egalitarianism. If we truly believe this and understand its implications, we need to become aware of the many ways we continue to view ourselves as separate from nature.

I’ve been aware to a certain degree for some time. I now bristle when I hear people refer to people behaving badly as “animals.” I am starting to hear all the ways we talk as if we were alone in a universe of resources. Yet I am still in many ways unaware.

The Giving Tree story I shared earlier is something just discovered in looking for something about interdependence for this service. I thought it was a sweet story of how humans and nonhumans depend on each other to get their needs met. I only yesterday found out that it is, in fact, controversial. (Thank you, Don.) And after reading some articles about it, I realized that the relationship is rather one-sided. The only need the tree gets met is that it makes it happy to give to the boy. The boy takes and takes from the tree to get his material needs to be met until there is nothing left of the tree but a stump he can sit on. The articles point out that the boy doesn’t even express gratitude for all the gifts from the tree. So I’m still learning.

How would the story be different if the boy were a native American? If he, like the author of the reading believed that “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. . . .”

From Aristotle to Descartes

Aristotle first came up with the concept of the great chain of being, that hierarchy that puts humans at the top, and even certain humans above others. In this model, each level serves the next higher level. Everything and everybody except those at the top has instrumental value only. Only those at the top have inherent value.

Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, said only humans have souls, and that animals are merely machines, and so may be used by us. Descartes obviously never had a cat. My little Waldo would tell him that humans were created to serve cats, no doubt about it! Other classical philosophers and theologians pretty much went with Descartes—no matter how different their ethical theories, they all still limited our moral responsibility to creatures endowed with “Reason,” which includes angels but not elephants.

The Age of Reason has denied rights

On this basis, rights have been denied not only to plants and animals, but to women, children, people of other races, the mentally challenged, and more. The ones deciding the criteria have been those in the most privileged position, and they have decided with whom they want to share their privileges. Our social justice efforts, whether feminism, anti-racism, class struggles, or what have you, have taken the approach of seeking to extend the rights of the most privileged group to others. The way we go about it is to show how the group in question is like the privileged group, and so entitled to the same rights.

Since the criteria for assigning both rights and responsibilities was long held to be the faculty of Reason, extending rights to non-privileged groups involved showing that these others had Reason.

But this is backward. We need to start with the whole, not with any part. If we acknowledge that we are only a part of an interdependent web of existence, we need to take existence itself as the criterion. The world does not exist for the sake of humans. Ultimate value inheres in the whole, and each and every being that comprises it has intrinsic worth.

Western Civilization promotes human specialness

David Abram, a visionary author, writes that “European philosophy has consistently occupied itself with the question of human specialness. Ever since Aristotle, philosophers have been concerned to demonstrate, in the most convincing manner possible, that human beings are significantly different from all other forms of life. It was not enough to demonstrate that human beings were unique, for each species is evidently unique in its way; rather, it was necessary to show that the human form was uniquely unique, that our noble gifts set us definitely apart from, and above, the rest of the animate world. Such demonstrations were, we may suspect, needed to justify the increasing manipulation and exploitation of nonhuman nature by, and for, (civilized) humankind. The necessity for such philosophical justification became especially urgent in the wake of the scientific revolution when our capacity to manipulate other organisms increased a hundredfold. Descartes’s radical separation of the immaterial human mind from the wholly mechanical world of nature did much to fill this need. . . .” (The Spell of the Sensuous, p. 77)

Abram goes on to show how Darwin’s theories put into question the claim of human specialness, and the focus shifted to language as that which sets us apart and above. He then challenges the claim of specialness even in our capacity for language, concluding that “at the most primordial level of sensuous, bodily experience, we find ourselves in an expressive, gesturing landscape, in a world that speaks.” (p. 81)

Physics and Ecological Egalitarianism

Ecological egalitarianism entails an ethical imperative. We are to treat all beings as ends in themselves, not to use them for our ends. It entails respect for all of life, and even all that exists. Life is divine and all beings are equal in their divinity. What we have in common with the non-human world is not what is lowest in human beings, as is commonly assumed, but rather what is highest. Respect for the divine principle of life raises us beyond our full humanity to participate in a larger community.

Not only ecology, but even physics has put forth a view of the interconnectedness of all. The discoveries at the micro level have put into question even the notion of matter and energy as separate. Fritjof Capra, the author of The Tao of Physics, promotes the idea that the identity of an individual is indistinguishable from the identity of the whole interrelated cosmos. (Nash, The Rights of Nature, p. 151)

Historically Enlightened Ecocentric proponents

A few people throughout the centuries have expressed an ecocentric view; in particular:  St. Francis of Assisi, Spinoza, Henry David Thoreau, Albert Schweitzer, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. These proponents of an ecocentric world view, however, were scattered and isolated both geographically and temporally until the ecological revolution of the 1960s, which took off in popularity with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  The science of ecology looks at nature as integrated systems as opposed to collections of individuals.

The rise of ecology entails philosophical and religious principles that completely undermine traditional ways of understanding the human-environment relationship. It forces us to reevaluate the dominant paradigm of Western thought regarding nature. It rejects the hierarchy of beings that makes animate higher than inanimate, animal higher than a plant, human higher than other animals, and male higher than female. This new worldview requires us to make a radical paradigm shift. It requires us to give up the hierarchy. At its most radical, the new paradigm insists on ecological egalitarianism, that all creatures are equal. This includes non-animate creatures like rivers and rocks. It’s an interdependent web of all existence.

There is a moral responsibility that comes with accepting, with humility, our place as a mere strand in the web. The ethic that goes along with this is that we have no right to destroy or harm other beings without sufficient reason. This does not mean we cannot eat meat, or cut down trees. It means we must be aware of what we are doing when we do so. If we can relate to the non-human world with reverence and respect, we will take only what we need. If we can relate to the non-human as well as the human world with reverence and respect, we will grow in spiritual depth and realize the divine within ourselves.

Humanity is simply part of a vast interdependent web of existence, and the divine permeates the whole. It is only by realizing that we are not separate, but deeply connected to the whole, that we realize the divine within us. It is by living in harmony with the whole that we realize our greatest potential.

Cultivating ecological consciousness

Cultivating ecological consciousness involves working on ourselves. The process involves becoming more aware of the actuality of rocks, wolves, trees, and rivers—the cultivation of the insight that everything is connected. Cultivating ecological consciousness is a process of learning to appreciate silence and solitude and rediscovering how to listen. It is learning how to be more receptive and trusting of a universe that does provide. It also means coming to terms with the fact that death is a necessary part of life, and indeed, makes life possible.

From an ecocentric perspective, many ethical issues arise that aren’t a problem in an anthropocentric view. For instance, do we have a right to capture wild animals, remove them from their environment and put them in cages in zoos for our entertainment and education? What about using animals to do scientific research to benefit human beings? Should I use those new, no-kill mouse traps? Can I in good conscience kill a spider in my house? How about a mosquito about to bite me?  (Personally, I still kill mosquitos every chance I get – but I’m not saying it’s right.)

Then there are the environmental issues that are especially difficult because it is so hard to know all the consequences of our actions. It is often hard to see that recycling this one aluminum can will make  a difference. We are so far removed, for the most part, from the processes that produce our food, clothing and shelter that we often are not aware of the practices those producers engage in, and even when aware we may find it hard to imagine how to change the system. I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I know that they become issues we need to wrestle with when we adopt an ecocentric view.

To affirm our seventh principle leads to a humble recognition that we are not the center and opens us up to the awe and wonder that is the essence of a religious point of view.

Humans impact the interdependent web

At the same time, affirming this principle leads to a recognition of the magnitude of our influence as part of an interdependent web. “The Unitarian novelist Herman Melville wrote, ‘We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us. . . . And among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects. On a daily basis, we affect the web of all existence, just as we are affected by it.” (quoted by Barbara Merritt in With Purpose and Principle, Edward Frost, ed., p. 100)

We are at the same time extremely significant and extremely insignificant. We are no longer at the top of the heap, separate and special, but on the other hand, our actions and choices matter more than ever. As a part of an interdependent web of all existence, we have an effect on the whole greater than we ever imagined, and we are also more dependent than we have ever wanted to admit. The worldview expressed in our seventh principle presents an awesome responsibility, at the same time that it liberates us from our role as overseers.

Let me leave you with the words of the poet, Denise Levertov:

“But we have only begun to love the earth.

We have only begun to imagine the fullness of life
How could we tire of hope? — So much is in bud.
How can desire fail? We have only begun
to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower, not as oppressors.
Surely our river cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?
Surely it cannot drag, in the silt, all that is innocent?
Not yet, not yet –
There is too much broken that must be mended,
Too much hurt that we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.
We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.
So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture,
so much in bud.”

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