The Way Home for the Prodigal Species

Column by Rev. Michael Dowd on 19 October 2017 1 Comments


“Human society is inextricably part of a global biotic community, and in that community human dominance has had and is having self-destructive consequences.” ~ William R. Catton, Jr.

“The most difficult transition to make is from an anthropocentric to a bio-centric norm of progress. If there is to be any true progress, then the entire life community must progress. Any progress of the human at the expense of the larger life community must ultimately lead to a diminishment of human life itself.” ~ Thomas Berry

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Here is a short story. The theme: how human-centeredness alienated us from primary reality (Gᴏᴅ) and how ecology — the interdisciplinary study of the way, the truth, and the life of the living biosphere — can lead us home.

We begin by taking stock of our species’ situation. After centuries of profligate living, we have exceeded what ecologists call the carrying capacity of the biosphere. We have extracted more resources and exuded more wastes than Nature can sustainably provide and process. Overshoot is the ecological term for our species’ predicament, and nothing in heaven or on Earth can spare us from the troubles ahead. We know this because Reality has revealed it through evidence. By dishonoring material grace limits, we have made a Great Reckoning inevitable. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “Sooner or later we all sit down to a banquet of consequences.”

The Great Reckoning will be experienced as bad news by most of us alive this century. It is, however, soul nourishing to remember that a roll-back of the human imprint on Earth’s ecologies will be good news for other species — and eventually for ours, too. That turn will be the Great Homecoming. After squandering a multi-billion-year inheritance, the prodigal species will come home to Reality, humbly returning to the community of life of which we are part and upon which we depend.

The vital — indeed, essential — key to this turn is that we will have learned to measure progress and success in bio-centric and eco-centric (Reality/Gᴏᴅ-centered) terms. Our descent into species narcissism will be a harsh memory, a clear warning, while stories of collective repentance and atonement become the bright new myths.

Reality Is GOD

“The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), we will be doomed. But if we live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it.” ~ Loyal Rue

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.~ Philip K. Dick

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Words create worlds and worldviews shape human behavior, individually and collectively. Sometimes a single word or redefinition of an existing one can help usher in a new concept or paradigm that shifts how we see and experience reality. The new way of seeing solves problems the previous paradigm couldn’t because it transcends and includes the older way of seeing. I suggest that Gᴏᴅ (small caps) or perhaps Godde (pronounced God, yet spelled the Old English, gender-neutral way, as some Roman Catholic nuns and others already do) may offer just such a reframe and fresh way of perceiving reality.

Divinity, of course, is the Universe+, Time and Nature+, the Biosphere+. Plus what? Plus, at the very least, an authoritative voice! Plus whatever transcendent beliefs about ultimate reality a person may already hold. After all, any God who merely transcends time and nature is less than a God who includes (i.e., is revealed or incarnate within) time and nature. Worse, a transcendent-only notion of the divine has over the past 500 years resulted in an Earth bereft of respect, bereft of honor, bereft of devotion — and therefore inevitably stripped and assaulted.

Imaging Gᴏᴅ, or primary reality, as unnatural rather than undeniable has led us to overshoot Earth’s carrying capacity, or grace limits, and thereby betray future generations. A limited and ultimately impotent notion of the divine is directly responsible, I suggest, for the demonic, anti-future economic system that now dominates human affairs.

Demonic economic system? Yes, but I’ll say more about that shortly. I first need to emphasize that the issue of what we call, and how we regard, primary reality (i.e., everything that is necessary for our existence and wellbeing) is far from trivial. The name we choose influences, and possibly even determines, whether or not our way of life will be sustainable. The I-It, “Man, Conqueror of Nature,” relationship we have forged in recent centuries clearly is not. In contrast, I-Thou relating to primary reality fosters a mutually enhancing human–Earth relationship. As Thomas Berry was fond of saying, “The environment is not our surroundings, it’s our source.”

Our name (or names) for primary reality — our living creator, sustainer, and end — dictates the health or sickness of our relationship to that which brought us into existence, nourishes and supports us, and receives us when we die. Naming may also determine whether we live in a pro-future or anti-future way, and whether we can even distinguish good and evil.

“God,” of course, means different things to different people in different traditions. By offering nuanced spellings — Gᴏᴅ or Godde — the meaning I intend is this: Reality with a personality, not a person outside reality.

What is gained by spelling Gᴏᴅ with small capital letters or by going back to a spelling left behind some 600 years ago? Just this: an opportunity for each of us to nurture a personal relationship to the Nature part of Nature+, not just the + or transcendent aspect. Consider the words of James Hillman, one of the more influential psychologists of the past half-century:

“Loving is a way of knowing and for love to know, it must personify. Personifying is thus the heart’s mode of knowing. It is not a lesser, primitive way of apprehending, but a finer one. To enter myth we must personify. To personify carries us into myth.”

Nothing, I would argue, is more consequential than how we think of primary reality. Why? Because it matters, ultimately, whether our relationship to the biosphere is characterized by humility or hubris! As renowned systems thinker Gregory Bateson warned decades ago:

“If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation, and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you claim all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your people against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate or simply of overpopulation and overgrazing.”

Anthropocentrism Is Idolatry

“The world we live in is an honorable world. To refuse this deepest instinct of our being, to deny honor where honor is due, to withdraw reverence from divine manifestation, is to place ourselves on a head-on collision course with the ultimate forces of the universe. This question of honor must be dealt with before any other question. We miss both the intrinsic nature and the magnitude of the issue if we place our response to the crises of our planet on any other basis. It is not ultimately a political or economic or scientific or psychological issue. It is ultimately a question of honor. Only the sense of the violated honor of Earth and the need to restore this honor can evoke the understanding and energy needed to carry out the renewal of the planet in any effective manner. .” ~ Thomas Berry

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The core of my message is simple and can be expressed in both secular and religious ways. In secular language it sounds like this: Primary reality is primary; human-centeredness is self-terminating. Said religiously: Ecology is the heart of theology; anthropocentrism is idolatry.

Idolatry is nothing so trivial as bowing down to statues or worshipping the wrong god. Idolatry is maintaining an unreal notion of Gᴏᴅ, one not inclusive of — indeed, synonymous with — that which is necessarily and inescapably real. In contrast, an eco-theological or ecosophia perspective encourages lifeways that respect the integrity of the soil, forests, water, and life that in turn give us life. We naturally live as a blessing to posterity.

Human-centeredness is idolatry because it excludes all but a smidgen of reality from matters of ultimate concern. It fosters hubris rather than humility. Anthropocentrism is idolatry because it makes the entire universe little more than a stage upon which the human drama plays out. Therein lies the danger.

Surely, one reason the ancients warned so vociferously against idolatry is because human-centeredness is an insanity our kind cannot survive; it is inherently anti-future. As Edward Goldsmith details in The Way: An Ecological Worldview, every sustainable culture that we know of held three things in common: (1) they related to primary reality in a humble, indeed mythic, I-Thou way; (2) they treated the Biosphere+ as the source of all benefits and thus the source of all real and lasting wealth; and (3) they embraced as a sacred responsibility preservation of the health and wellbeing of the body of life and “critical order of the cosmos.” In other words, Gᴏᴅ first! permeated every aspect of culture.

The way home for the prodigal species is to return to this deep and profound intimacy with the living world+.

Why Good People Engage in Great Evil

“For the present to have meaning, it must see the past as legacy and the future as bequest. What makes societies great is not conquest or consumption but their dedication to something grander then themselves.” ~ William Ophuls

“We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers. We are not listening to the wind and the climate. Most of the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that spiritual autism.” ~ Thomas Berry

When we trivialize primary reality as an otherworldly clockmaker (Creator) outside a clockwork cosmos (Creation), we contribute — albeit unintentionally — to our species’ demise. When Gᴏᴅ is either dead or otherworldly, doing evil is almost guaranteed.

It is not just immoral, it is evil to irreparably harm the future for short-term personal or institutional gain. Yet we have a global economic system, supported by governments on every continent and accepted by adherents of every faith, ensuring that it is not only legal to betray posterity; it’s profitable – highly profitable. This is precisely what history teaches: when religion fails, greed reigns and economics becomes demonic.

Good and evil is discerned, at the very least, by this: how the actions of an individual or group impact the larger community and how those impacts ripple into the future. At the extremes, that which consistently leads to personal wholeness, social coherence, and ecological integrity is good, and that which harms or endangers personal wholeness, social coherence, and ecological integrity is evil. Granted, shades of gray take up a large swath in between — but if we lose the scale, we lose our bearings. Unsustainable, after all, is just a bland and deceptive word for evil.

Our global, industrial-growth economy rewards the few at the expense of the many, measures progress by how fast resources can be turned into waste, and seduces billions to betray the future just by pursuing ‘the good life’. Is this not collective madness? Is this not, in truth, demonic?

Let us now repent of our human-centeredness and return to Gᴏᴅ. The Great Work of our time is to do whatever it takes to bring forth an economic system that embodies the wisdom of ecology. First and foremost we must shed our addiction to fossil fuels. Rebuilding topsoil, restoring forests, recovering wetlands — returning to balance becomes our sacred duty. The Great Work is a time for letting go of extravagances, for re-localizing, and for rekindling the simple joys of living within the grace limits of this planet.

We are the prodigal species, and this is our way home.

~ The Rev. Michael Dowd



What titles do I use for God when I pray? Does prayer do any good?


Dear Fred,

My son, many years ago, came from school with an assignment he was required to complete. The creative writing project asked for one hundred different ways to say “said” other than, of course, “said.” At first glance, it seemed a daunting task but within minutes, the lines were filled and the list compiled. The truth is that, although mostly oblivious to the fact, those of us who read fiction are exposed to many, many different ways an author indicates that someone has just “said” something. The hours and hours of bedtime story reading his dad had shared with him had embedded those many words in his vocabulary already.

So, when writing my first book With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, I challenged myself to come up with one hundred words that could be used instead of the word “god”. I didn’t want to suggest that the concept of god had any power to act in the world, but included words that could be interpreted by the reader in whatever way was helpful; that is, with or without agency.

I encourage you to do the same. There may be words that are quick to come: “grace”, “courage”, “love”. And there may be words that require more thought. For me, the word “god” lays out a broad terrain that cannot be limited by a single person’s perspective. I understand god to be a concept rather than a being, a word I once used to convey an amalgam of our best and highest ideals. I now no longer use the word as it too readily invites ideas of the supernatural, of blessing or judgment, of a privileged or capricious intervention, depending on whether the hearer’s own life has weighed out on the side of privilege or blight.

My understanding of god necessarily impacts on the concept of prayer, a topic I go into in depth in my second book, Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. Whether the person engaged in the act of prayer believes in a supernatural deity or force or the benevolence of the universe, we are the only answer we’ve got to the challenges facing our world. Some will work toward solutions compelled by the god in whom they believe. Others will work toward solutions compelled by theirs own sense of compassion and responsibility. Goodness comes into the world through our own hands, voices, and actions.

I believe prayer is a very important component to a balanced and engaged life though I do not believe there is a god listening to us. We listen to ourselves. We sort out what is happening in our lives. We honour the beauty we’ve encountered, express gratitude and awe. We trouble ourselves toward making a difference wherever we are able. We sit within the reality of our lives and explore them.

Even believing that no deity exists who cares a whit for us, we can enrich our lives by the daily practice of prayer or, as I prefer to call it – again, to avoid confusion - meditation. Using the four broad categories around which much Christian liturgy is built, we can craft a daily ritual that invites us to perceive awe (adoration), reflect critically on our relationships with our own self, others, and the planet (confession), recognize how fortunate we are even in the midst of adversity (thanksgiving), and lament that we and those we love still suffer want, pain, sorrow (supplication). Traditional prayer grew up around human need, not the other way around. Acknowledging each of these aspects of our lives is an important facet of well-being.

There are many practices that can be powerful additions to one’s life and take the place of meditative prayer. Some prefer to journal, finding their own way to solutions by writing them out. I write poetry and often only understand what I was saying to myself hours or days after getting a poem out onto the page. Some find vocal music, chant, drumming or tonal vibrations help to balance their attentions and calm their minds. Mindfulness has proven to be an incredibly helpful way to tend to one’s mind and well-being. I encourage you to look for what works for you, trying this or that, rejecting what doesn’t “feel” right and leaning in toward what resonates with you.

~ Rev Gretta Vosper


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Bible, Corporal Punishment and Human Guilt - Part 3


In the most deeply patriarchal part of our male-dominant Western history, women were also considered to be fit subjects for corporal punishment at the hands of their husbands. This exercise of power was carried out with the full approval of both State and Church. In that day a husband could beat his wife whenever the husband deemed it necessary. She was, if not his property like a slave, at best his ward with no more status than a dependent child. Physical abuse of one's spouse is not unknown today, but it is now called "domestic violence" and is recognized as a crime for which both arrest and incarceration are deemed appropriate. That, however, has not always been the case.

Reading a book written by Suzannah Fonay Wemple, a medieval historian, was the first time I was made aware that one of the primary functions of nunneries in the early Middle Ages was to be a safe haven to which abused women could retreat. Not even the power of the male in a rigidly patriarchal society could invade the domain of the Mother Superior! Modern people, whose sense of history is rather short, blink in disbelief when reading of the accepted domestic violence during this period of history. Perhaps they need to be reminded that the word 'obey,' as a part of the bride's sacred vows to her husband, was in almost every wedding ceremony in every part of the Christian Church until early in the 20th century. The word 'obey' is a word that implies dependent submission to the authority of the one who requires it, and it carries with it the implicit threat that the failure to obey will bring upon the disobedient one the power of the authority. Society in that day deemed physical discipline the necessary means of enforcement. The word 'obey' was not removed from the wedding ceremony in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer until 1928. It was mandated for the bride alone, since it was inconceivable that the groom would take a vow of obedience. Because the 1662 Prayer Book of the Church of England is still in use in both England and throughout the nations that once constituted the British Empire, the word 'obey' is still, to this day, required of the bride in many English speaking marriage ceremonies. Wherever it is used, wherever obedience is assumed to be appropriate, the subservient person is deemed to be dependent, childlike and by implication an appropriate recipient for discipline. There is no question that the definition of a woman, as a dependent child subject to her husband's authority, is one of those legacies from the Christian past that had to be challenged first and dismantled second before women could be free.

Perhaps that helps to explain why it was that the conservative parts of the Christian Church resisted so deeply the women's liberation movement with its goal of the total emancipation of women. In the Catholic tradition women are still treated as second-class citizens. The embarrassment of this attitude in a world, where consciousness has been raised on this issue, has resulted in some rather convoluted rationalizations that hint at an ecclesiastical version of the old racist slogan "separate but equal" as this Church seeks to defend present anti-female practices. In the evangelical wing of Protestant Christianity Pat Robertson accused "women's lib" movements of being "home breaking, family violating, godless and lesbian assaults on traditional values." At every stage along the way, from the suffrage movement that won for women the right to vote in 1920, to the battle to make birth control and abortion legal, the Christian Church has been a vigorous opponent. Only in an ecclesiastical setting would it ever have been deemed appropriate for an all male group of clerics, mostly in the middle or post-menopausal years of life, to sit in solemn assembly, dressed in vestments called 'frocks,' to pontificate in the name of a God called 'Father,' about what a woman can do that is moral with her own body.

The Women's Liberation Movement has sought to free women and their bodies from such domination by males, a domination that at one stage in our history gave men the right to punish physically the bodies of women. That movement declared that women are not children, that women are not dependent or subservient and that women are not designed to be submissive to men or to anyone else. The power to define oneself as adult, competent and independent became the ticket out of a world where discipline and physical abuse were considered to be appropriate patterns of interpersonal behavior.

Other adults who were subjected to corporal punishment during the days of Christian history were members of religious orders. Once again, the justification for that violence was found in the vows of the religious life in which obedience joined poverty and chastity as sacred obligations. Obedience lends itself to the creation of a childlike and dependent person, who is subject to the discipline of his or her superiors. That understanding of human life has led to the abuse of the bodies of those in religious orders in some form of corporal punishment. When that understanding is combined with the religious sense of universal human sinfulness, then physical discipline offers a 'therapy' for an evil situation. If God's revealed word in the Bible called for such discipline to be administered to children and to those under authority as an act of love, and if this discipline was regarded both as a virtue and a sacred obligation owed to one's religious superior, then all arguments against it were stifled. So corporal punishment has often marked the relationship of the religious superior to the monk, nun or penitent. Sometimes this punishment of the body was ordered by the superior, but was self-inflicted by the penitent. It made the penitent feel more noble, more virtuous.

In the 14th century in response to the bubonic plague, known popularly as 'the Black Death,' a movement arose among Christians who called themselves 'the Flagellants." They walked through the streets of the cities of Europe sometimes in numbers 10,000 strong, lashing themselves with whips in an act of public penitence. It was an age in which people knew nothing about viruses, germs or bacteria that might bring sickness. They only knew that they were living through a fearful period of history in which up to one fourth of the adult population of Europe was to die in this epidemic. The common explanation for this devastation was that God was angry with the people for some real or imagined sin. The hope of the Flagellants was that by brutally lashing their own bodies with whips they could punish themselves so severely that God would withdraw the divine punishment of the plague from their families. It was a strange practice based on a faulty, but deeply believed, premise; namely, that punishing their bodies would somehow win for them divine approval. The idea was that if they punished themselves, God would not have to do it. Yet this practice grew out of and reflected that belief so deeply in the Western Christian world, that God was a punishing deity and those who were disciplined by God deserved it because of their sinfulness.

That was long ago we tend to say, until we read a more contemporary writer like Karen Armstrong. This brilliant woman who has authored such best selling titles as A History of God, and The Battle for God spent the first years of her adulthood in a convent in England, leaving as recently as the late 1960s. In her autobiography she described her experience as a Sister going to confession. On occasions, as her penance, she would be given a small whip and told to go to a private place and there to lash herself for her sins, if she deemed that appropriate. There is ample reason to suggest that corporal punishment was practiced in the religious life and that disciplining the body physically was taught by the Church to be an act pleasing to God, since the body was normally judged in religious circles to be sinful.

The path followed in our own religious history started with a definition of human life as fallen or sinful. Step two would involve developing the practice of combining that definition with the appropriateness of punishing the sinful body physically. Step three was to validate the practice by pointing to a text in a book called the "word of God," that would demonstrate God's approval of these tactics. Step four was to expand the definition of the child to include all the powerless and thus child-like adults: prisoners whose behavior had caused society to strip from them adult rights and to relate to them as those in need of punishment; slaves who had no rights at all and who by law and custom were required to be obedient to their masters; women, regarded as inferior, not fully human adults, who were childlike and dependent and incapable of maturity so they had to pledge to be obedient to their husbands; and finally religious figures who lived under the authority of their superiors and who believed themselves deserving of physical discipline because of their own sins or in order to force God to withdraw the divine wrath which was believed to be causing their suffering.

Next week I will seek to lift that portrait of God into full consciousness so that it might be banished along with the terrible texts from the "Word of God" that have been used to justify abusive behavior for far too long.

-- John Shelby Spong

Originally published June 30, 2004




One thought on “The Way Home for the Prodigal Species

  1. TMI– too much information, albeit most true! A personal saying of mine is, “too many irons in the fire make the fire go out!” Ineloquent as I may be, occasionally I make a bit of sense. The ecologic/ ethical/ economic and other human factors show increasingly that either we must be accountable unto a higher power than our selfish behaviors, or succumb to the ignorance we are collectively encumbered in. The convenience of electricity has become just a part of an insidious dependency- mindset and, while we’re contemplating the interrelatedness of material living, consider the total failure of people’s having a clue if required to gravitate to an un-anthropomorphic G-d! Regarding world resources and demands, there was a mathematics professor from Boulder, Colorado, which provided a you-tube primer course about one theme: “EXPONENTIAL”. Readily on, he clearly shows how, both in decreasing resource and increasing demands, we’re being totally blind to Reality/ G-d/ and Necessity. Hope you check that out. But in the mean time, government of all kinds needs to answer to a higher power– than money.

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