By Dennis Rivers, Editor
The integrity of life on Planet Earth faces threats from many directions.
In the face of all those threats, what kind of person will I become?
How will I open to and develop the awareness, compassion and inner resources
that would allow me to participate in the healing of the world?
These are the questions explored by this website.
The phrase “reverence for life” was made famous in the twentieth century by the theologian and medical doctor Albert Schweitzer, but it points to a feeling of closeness to nature that has been part of human culture for thousands, if not millions, of years. It is part of Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Celtic culture and Hinduism. And it has been expressed in Christianity in such figures as St. Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Berry and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In recent decades it has been rediscovered several times, and given new names such as Eco-spirituality, Deep Ecology, Deep Green Religion, biophilia, Creation Spirituality and Ecosophy (and there are probably more). Most tribal peoples in the world have always celebrated their closeness to nature and to one another, and their lifeways have much to teach us. I honor all the recent rediscoveries of reverence and compassion for all life, because great ideas live by being rediscovered, and our need to respect and reconnect with nature is especially strong at this moment in history. As part of my participation in the rediscovery process, I choose to use the slightly different and Buddhist-inspired phrase “reverence and compassion for all life.” This is because “reverence” by itself can be experienced as quiet and somewhat distant, as when we are inspired by faraway mountain peaks. Schweitzer himself embodied an active compassion as much as reverence, and was deeply engaged in caring for others. So with this slightly new phrase, “reverence and compassion for all life,” we hope to carry forward the spirit of the lovingkindness he and the many other “green” saints and heroes have sought to live.
Reverence and compassion for all life is an open-ended work in progress. The the impact of runaway industrialization on the web of life and people over the last century suggests to me that there is no perfectly explained and lived reverence for life that we can simply go back to and adopt. Ideals cry out to be lived. Reverence for Life is a much a plea for mercy upon the Web of Life as it is a philosophy, and it raises as many questions as it answers. The attitude of reverence and compassion for all life is in deep conflict with many aspects of modern societies: the drive for financial gain above all else, the human desire for unrestrained freedom, and our enchantment with guns, bombs and ever-more-complex machines of war. We also need to consume some life in order to maintain our own. Thus, I see us as needing to learn as much as we can from both the successes and failures of those who have gone before us, and then to invent new versions of reverence and compassion for all life, emergent innovations that will address the desperate needs of our own time. The phrase “all life” is for me a continual reminder that there are no throwaway landscapes, and there are no throwaway people.
Click image for pdf bumper sticker
A path of great joy and great sorrow. In the United States, reverence for life is often associated with John Muir’s ecstatic love of forests and mountains. But John Muir also spent years of his life working to keep the all the trees he loved from being cut down. Along with reverential love comes the desire to protect the object of one’s devotion, and sorrow when that person, animal, river, forest, mountain, etc., is injured or killed. As we resist the destructive forces of global warming and runaway industrialization, our reverential relationship to the world around us will necessarily become a complex mix of celebration and protest, rejoicing in what can be saved and mourning for what has been lost forever.
How reverence for life is changing. Twentieth century expressions of reverence and compassion for all life, such as the work of Albert Schweitzer, and Rachel Carson, helped people to begin going beyond the prevailing cultural idea of what was then called “Man and Nature,” which implied that humans were somehow “over here” and nature was “over there.” This longstanding division of the world into two realms had in the past led some people to try to save the trees, for example, and other people to try to free the slaves or support the politically and economically oppressed. At one time it might have seemed possible to love trees and ignore human suffering, conflicts and unjust social arrangements. (While John Muir concentrated on the trees, the forests that Muir helped to preserve were emptied of their Native American inhabitants by violent campaigns of occupation and genocide.) But in an age of pesticide contamination, chronic war, nuclear weapons and melted-down nuclear power plants, that division of the world no longer makes sense. Humans and nature, the two leggeds and the four leggeds, the winged ones and the finned ones, we are now all equally vulnerable to nuclear war, climate change, and chemical pollution. This shared vulnerability opens the possibility of a new and deeper compassion on the part of humans for the community of life of which we are members. To make sense today, reverence and compassion for all life must necessarily include the wounded families of Flint, MI, Chernobyl, Fukushima and Aleppo.
Ecology is the study of how everything is connected with everything else, and an ever more fruitful search for the many specific connections, some inspiring and some tragic. We know now that trees share nutrients through complex, fungi-mediated intermingling of root systems. We know know that the Agent Orange defoliant the United States dropped on the Vietnamese countryside in the 1960s and 70s is a powerful and very long-lasting cause of catastrophic birth defects. The more we understand the biology of our deep interwovenness with the rest of life, the more our reverence for life cries out to include realms previously considered separate. Through much of the twentieth century, the issues of:
- social justice
- human rights
were championed by organizations and communities that did not talk to one another very much. But most activists today, influenced directly or indirectly by ecological ways of thinking, have come to understand how deeply interwoven these four issues (and four crises) are. The mindless greed that causes some people to cut down entire forests, or to blow up entire mountains to get the coal underneath, is the same mindless greed that causes other people to run dangerous sweatshops, to adulterate baby formula with toxic powdered plastic, or to try to save money by giving lead-poisoned water to the African-American families of Flint Michigan.
In the face of these multiple crises, the special task of this web site is to weave together three elements that are often separated: loving and nurturing the web of life, loving and nurturing one another, and opening in new ways to the spiritual energy of the Universe.
I am convinced that a world being literally consumed by greed and the extreme emotional isolation of one person from another is by that very fact also a world being challenged to evolve toward kindness, generosity and an awareness of our deep interwovenness
Thus, we invite and encourage everyone to explore reverence and compassion for all life more deeply and live it more radiantly. And we invite everyone to explore and create new meditation, prayer, blessing and transformation practices that express and celebrate it. One example of such new explorations is our evolving book of blessings: New Mandalas Exploring Reverence for Life (PDF). We are happy to offer this to everyone free of charge or organizational obligation, as our way of participating in the healing of the world. The affirmations and blessings shown below expresses the five underlying themes of our community-without-walls. (Click image for PDF. To view PDF directly in Google Chrome, installation of a PDF viewer is required.)
We see the cultivation of reverence and compassion for all life as an important part of finding the inner strength that will allow us to nurture the Web of Life and Earth, work strongly and lovingly for a more life-friendly world, and resist the growing current momentum toward perpetual war, addiction to violence and inequality, out-of-control industrialization, and the resulting processes of climate disruption and global species extinction.
In the midst of responding to these various crises, many of which will last far beyond our own lifetimes, we aspire to grow in our ability to nurture and sustain one another in our journeys through the seasons of life. (“Sustainability,” in our vision, includes sustaining our own web of personal relatedness, the life that lives between us as evolving persons.)
We draw inspiration from many of the ecological, psychological and spiritual teachers of the past and present, from Buddha, Jesus, Saint Francis, Hildegarde of Bingen and Meister Eckhart to Albert Schweitzer, Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, Vandana Shiva, the Dalai Lama, Black Elk, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Donella Meadows, Matthew Fox, Rachel Carson, Julia Butterfly Hill, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and Gregory Bateson, to name only a few. The workshops, retreats, books and lectures of eco-philosopher, anti-nuclear activist and grandmother, Joanna Macy, are especially important to us as we seek to extend the spirit of her Work That Reconnects into the world of everyday ecological action, everyday spiritual practice, and ongoing creative partnerships and friendships.
We are also inspired by the Bodhisattva ideal in Buddhism, the Christian Sermon on the Mount, the Native American tradition of Mitakuye Oyasin (Lakota Sioux for “All My Relations”), and the infinite interwovenness explored by living systems theory, among many sources of spiritual inspiration. These are all resources for an eco-spirituality that makes sense in our pluralistic present time. (We invite you to visit our online Interfaith Cathedral.)
Because each person is unique, and because evolution thrives through variety rather than through conformity, we encourage each person to create their own unique mandala (a sort of spiritual back pack) of resources and exemplars in support of their communion with and celebration of the Web of Life and their actions on behalf of the Web of Life. (These two universal aspects of love will be familiar to many as the polarity of Mary and Martha in the New Testament.)
Our primary forms of organization are self-organizing, self-supervising Teams-of-Two (creative partnerships of two people) and self-supervising study/action groups (composed primarily of several Teams-of-Two). “Teams of Two” is an ancient idea, with a long history in Buddhism (kalyana mitra), Judaism (havruta), Christianity and Celtic spirituality, and, of course, in marriage and in the parenting processes of many living species. We hope to renew and extend this way of organizing cooperative effort in the context of serving the Web of Life in Her hour of great need.
more thoughts on next steps…
The “Eight Strands” vision of compassionate activism, Developed by Dennis Rivers and friends. Click image for PDF file.
“Eight Strands” resources available now on this site and sister sites:
- Persons to be inspired and empowered by. (See our Mentors page) Their lives, work, books and talks help us to imagine a different world, and can be the focus of study groups.
- Principles to live by, drawn from ecology, psychology, and reverence for life traditions and exemplars.
- Practices to develop new strengths and awarenesses, including meditation, interfaith prayer, communication skills, and team/resilience building.