Alison Wohler, July 13, 2014

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Chautauqua

This, hot off the press (at the Washington Post) just six weeks ago:


In Norfolk (Virginia), evidence of climate change is in the streets at high tide

…And the congregation of the Unitarian Church of Norfolk is looking to
evacuate. “We don’t like being the poster child for climate change,” said
the Rev. Jennifer Slade, who added “I don’t know many churches that have
to put the tide chart on their Web site” so people know whether they can
get to church.”

My biggest regret after not attending the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalists last June is that Wendell Berry was there and I was not.  He is, to read about him, a man of words, and of his word.  Someone I would love to know.


He is about the age of my parents I think, and like them he is still very active.  Just two years ago he spent four days camped out in the governor’s office of the KY State House protesting mountain top removal mining.  He also removed all his personal papers from the library of the University of Kentucky when the school re-named their basketball players’ dormitory the Wildcat Coal Lodge.


From the UUA web site, here are some of Wendell Berry’s inspiring words at General Assembly last spring:


[The problems in our country and our world] are not simple problems that can be solved by what we call problem-solving. They are summary evils, gathered up from innumerable causes in the [economic system] we all depend upon and serve. 

But people of religion have entrusted questions about economy– about how we live– to economists and industrialists. Environmentalists seem to think that problems caused by technology can be solved or controlled by more technology, or alternative technology. Both are mistaken.

Responsibility for a better economy– a better life– belongs to us individually and to our communities. The necessary changes cannot be made on the terms prescribed to us by the industrial economy and its so-called free market. They can be made only on the terms imposed upon us by the nature and the limits of local ecosystems.

If we want to stop the impoverishment of land and people, we, ourselves, must be prepared to become poorer.  If we’re to continue to respect ourselves as human beings, we have got to do all we can to slow and then stop the fossil-fuel economy.

We must do this fully realizing that our success, if it happens, will change our world and our lives more radically than we can now imagine. 

A friend of mine named Ruben Nelson has been described as one of our leading “Futurists.”  He is from Canada, and speaks all over the world.  Here is some of what he said at a conference in Podgorica, Montenegro, this past March.

* The disintegration of the existing order is a pre-requisite for a new order to emerge.

* Given the actual dynamics of human life on this planet, no way of life as either a culture or a form of civilization is non-negotiable and forever.


It’s scary stuff to imagine one’s way of life changing enough for a new order to emerge.  What will happen to Capitalism?  How much are we willing to change our eating habits?  Our quality of living?  What are we going to be brave enough to do about population issues?  These are looming questions that everyone should consider – the scientist, the economist, philosophers, religious leaders, people of all faiths including that of the New York Times Sunday morning crossword.  These are questions for a place like Chautauqua.  Many of the lectures I have attended this summer have touched on the need for drastic changes in the way we live as human beings on this earth and with each other.  This is religious stuff.

Regardless of the many things we might be doing for the environment and sustainability, (I drive a Prius and buy 100% of my electricity from a wind-power source, for example) there are many things we are not doing.  Cannot do, perhaps, as imbedded as we are in a life-style and the economic system in which we have been raised and to which we are all both committed and devoted.  Capitalism is a very large elephant sitting right in the middle of most of our sustainability discussions.

In many ways I, and probably all of us, are as equally committed and vested in our economic system as are the coal and oil barons.  Even if we use less oil and electricity, the rest of the economy is still rampantly using up other resources, including our fresh water.  As Wendell Berry says, the only answer is to slow the entire system down.  I seriously doubt we will see this happen of our own will.  But I am guessing it will happen, nevertheless.  I am fearful of the expected turmoil and tragedy ahead as climate change and other consequences of our overpopulated world evolve.

I, we, have lived our lives in the expectation that life will always be like it is right now.  It was good for our parents, even our grandparents, and it will be the same for our children and their children.  Right?  An object in motion tends to stay in motion.  We forget the caveat at the end of that law of physics: unless acted upon by other forces.

There are other forces in play.  Our world is going to change.  In his amphitheater lecture on July 4th, environmental scientist Jonathan Foley said “[Ours is] not just an environmental problem – it’s a civilization problem – like are we going to have one.”

The only specific action I hear in Wendell Berry’s General Assembly presentation was to do all we can to slow and then stop the fossil-fuel economy.   I understand that this means doing what we can now to decrease our personal use of fossil fuels, but it must also mean bringing about huge changes to the fossil-fuel economy itself.  

We heard Week 2 about several ideas for making our world’s food production more sustainable.

On every front the science is clear.  Our moral mandate is clear.

But our ability to actually carry out that mandate is complicated and can get very personal.

What if we really had to rely on only the foods produced in our local community – and give up all the imported food we love so much?

What if your retirement income, which you have worked hard to save for over the years, is at least in part as good as it is because of stocks you own in the oil and gas industry?  What if divesting your investments of that stock would mean you could not come to Chautauqua any more?  

None of the investments in my retirement accounts are specifically, that I know of, in oil or gas, but I have not yet looked too closely.  I think it is probably hard to divorce one’s self completely of fossil fuels which may be hidden other industry’s clothing.

You may, despite your every intention to remain true to the Chautauqua Promise, agree with this quote from The Progressive Radio Network: “My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”  After several weeks of hard hitting lectures and a frightening glimpse into the future you may be feeling discouraged.

We are bombarded with frightening prospects at every turn.  And yet I believe it is essential to also bring these subjects, and prospects, to church as well. 

Religion is about relationships – our connections to the Universe, the earth, to ourselves, and very importantly, to each other.  What does it mean to be human in this place and in these times?  How are we to be with each other?  What should our responses be to important issues of our times?

Did you see the essay in last week’s Chautauquan Daily, by the Very Rev. Alan Jones?  It was called “Welcome to Las V egas: A faith-based community.”  While there were things in his article with which I did not agree, I do agree with his basic premise, that “we all live in some sort of faith community, which makes assumptions about what the human enterprise is all about.”  In my words, the way we live our lives is a direct product of our own beliefs, assumptions, and understandings, whatever they are.  

In his “Questionnaire,” Wendell Berry is asking us “What is your religion?”  

Let me read it again.  To whom do you think this questionnaire is addressed?  What is he saying about the status quo?

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill. 

I had to stop in the middle of writing this sermon to do a lot of personal soul searching.  Where in all this do I figure?  What is my culpability?  When I first read it I admit that I was hoping to be able to think “Oh, that is for the bad guys.”  But none of us are guiltless of without responsibility in this questionnaire.  

What are the poisons I am willing to eat in order to have grapes from Chile?  

How many children (and men and women) are being killed around the world in the name of Democracy and oil?

How many children have suffered indignities, homelessness and hunger in order that our military take more and more of the national budget?  

What kind of world are my grandchildren facing?

When will we begin to talk about the other elephant in the sustainability discussion, besides Capitalism, named Population?  

I am having a hard time answering the questions that Wendell Berry poses.  How about you?

It’s complicated, isn’t it?  What’s that last phrase in the Chautauqua Promise I read earlier?  “Self interest in balance with the common good.”

What gives me hope?  You may think of more, but here are a few of mine:

When I hear that there are now, in the US, more people working in the solar energy industries than in coal mines, ( this gives me hope.

I agree with the Amphitheater speaker last week (I cannot remember who it was.) for whom it was important to remember that if our problems are caused by us, then it is also possible that the solutions can come from us as well.  This thought gives me hope.

It gives me hope that Unitarian Universalists, and many other religions of all kinds, are taking the matter of our earthly future seriously.  This is religious work.  It is the greening of theology – the bringing of religion down to earth.

It gives me hope when I try, as mother and grandmother and minister, to instill a love of science and nature in all the people around me.  What we love will be what we want to save. 

It gives me hope that there are those who stand up and, despite personal sacrifices, devote their lives to the work of educating and inspiring and lobbying and prophesizing in order that there will continue to be a livable earth.  People like Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben, whose is mobilizing the population.  People like my congregation, and the entire UUA itself, who have voted to divest themselves of their fossil fuel investments.  People like the woman who handed my congregation her Exxon stock certificate, that we might sell her shares and install a solar array on the roof of our meetinghouse that will meet almost our entire need for electricity.  These people give me hope.

This is not insignificant work, for as Wendell Berry so poignantly reminds us, we are called to name, please, the children we are willing to disadvantage, starve, maim, or kill with our actions (and inactions) today.  Children now and children of the future.

In this final Wendell Berry poem, I am reminded of another source of hope: faith.


“For the Future”

Planting trees early in spring,

we make a place for birds to sing

in times to come.  How do we know?

They are singing now.

There is no other guarantee

that singing will ever be.