Ecological Land Ministry and Unitarian Universalist Values

Delivered by Dr. Jan Garrett

at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY

on June 22, 2014 (rev. July 2, 2014)

Efforts are under way at our church to put ecological land management methods into practice.1 What established UU principles, spiritual resources, and values stand behind this new direction?

My original wording for the topic of this talk was "Theology of Ecological Land Management" but I was pretty sure that this was not the right title since most Unitarian Universalists, like most other people in North America, do not understand "theology" in the special way professional UU ministers do. While pondering this problem late at night and remembering how some of us in our discussions were using E-L-M or "ELM" as an abbreviation for "ecological land management," it occurred to me that "M" could just as well stand for "Ministry." And with that phrase I could express the link with spiritual practice without using the term "theology."

As Rev. [Peter] Connolly pointed out some time ago, everything we do as Unitarian Universalists may be, and perhaps should be, conceived as ministry; thus that it is not only the "minister" who ministers but, at least potentially, every member and friend of the congregation.

The word "ministry" originally means service, and what we serve in a spiritual sense (what we worship, in the Emerson reading2) is what we understand as sacred, that is, of supreme value. From study of ancient philosophy we learn that "ministry" or "care" translates therapeia (the Greek word from which we get the English word "therapy"). In Plato's dialogue on piety or righteousness, ministry is what servants or assistants do for their masters. The most familiar form of ministry in ancient Greece was servants meeting the material needs of masters. But a second kind of ministry occurs in the context of a group project, as in the construction of a public building. Such projects involve workers at different levels, say, architects, on the one hand, and masons or carpenters, on the other. Ministry can refer to what a mason or carpenter does to help fulfill the plan in the mind of the architect. Plato conceives the righteous person's ministry to the gods as similar to the mason's relation to the architect. The gods, in Plato's view, see clearly what is sacred or good; the righteous person (who follows the will of the gods) will try to serve that ideal, even if she does not see it as clearly as the gods do. Thus, like Emerson later, Plato connects spiritual wisdom to ultimate values.

Many of us recognize a spiritual or religious duty to care for the land (or the biosphere, which also includes bodies of water and the air close to the earth's surface). Ecologists often understand land as a complex of ecological communities—ongoing systems involving humans, nonhuman animals, plants, and microorganisms. Human communities are only part of this complex. (See Leopold 1986, which reprints a work of 1949, esp. the section on The Land Ethic.)

Ecological systems have their own needs. We assume this when we notice that human activity degrades those systems. To reverse the degradation of such a system would be to supply it with what it needs to flourish.

If we want to manage wisely the land for which we are responsible, we need to conceive our task as ecological land management, which means ethically responsible land management based on ecological understanding. It is also a ministry—not the only one we as Unitarian Universalists should care about, of course, but a vital one for us.

What established principles, spiritual resources, and values stand behind this ministry? That is the main question I hope to answer today. Besides appealing to our principles and primary spiritual sources, I will draw from two Statements of Conscience endorsed by delegates at recent General Assemblies of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Unitarian Universalist Principles

Let's start by listing a few UU Principles, among them the newest, #7, "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." This expresses much that we have learned from feminist insights, ecology, and environmental movements since the 1950's. Others are more human-focused, for instance, #6: The goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Later we will invoke #5, part of which reads "…the use of democratic process within our congregations." This is key to implementation of new projects by our congregations.

Sources of Insight and Inspiration

Unitarian Universalists traditionally list five spiritual sources. Let's consider a few of them, starting, briefly, with Earth-Centered Traditions. Out of many possible examples, I will mention the Sumerian story about Dilmun, a paradise full of plants and non-meat eating animals, which lies in the background of the Biblical account of creation and Adam and Eve before their expulsion from Eden. Dilmun was without conflict, blessed with abundant fresh water, thick forests, and gardens. There, the god of sweet water mated with the goddess of the sacred mountain, to create the deities of earth and healing (Brock and Parker 2009, 22).

In Judaism, spiritual duty is sometimes understood as tikkun, or doing what we can do to heal creation, understood as broken or fragmented and in need of healing as a result of individual or collective human error. Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, is perhaps the best known proponent of this perspective. The Unitarian Universalist Association itself has used the phrase, "Heal the Planet, Nourish Your Soul" in its advertising. "Heal the Planet" is what the Tikkun tradition especially calls us to do.

From the Christian tradition comes the Benedictine motto, Labora et ora, work and pray, or, in a paradoxical but more interesting formula, laborare est orare, literally, to work is to pray (which I interpret as "to work appropriately is to concretely relate to what is sacred"). The Benedictine monks left the cities of the former Roman world to set up rural communities. They form a contrast to the monks who went off as individuals into the desert to struggle with spiritual demons. They also form a contrast with certain late medieval monks who showed contempt for material things as tools of the devil.

The early Benedictines returned to the land, understood as a divine creation in which the hand of God could be seen everywhere (RB 19), to live in stable communities (RB 58), to revalue labor as a sacred vocation (see RB 48) and to respect the material products of human hands (RB 31).3 Original Benedictine monasticism can be seen as a response to the decaying institutions of formerly Roman society, exhausted by centuries of chattel and debt slavery and internal civil conflicts. The Benedictine orientation toward cooperative labor in the countryside may have helped prepare the way for the eventual revival of the European economy in the High Middle Ages.

Humanist insights are part of our heritage as well. Later I will make use of the ideas of a leading Humanist.

UUA Statements of Conscience

Statements of Conscience are adopted at UUA General Assemblies after four years of discussion of what we call Study/Action Issues in congregations and in workshops and plenary sessions at our annual General Assemblies. I draw on two such statements.

UUA Statement of Conscience on Climate Change (2006) In this Statement, the delegates of UU congregations accept the judgment of climate scientists that climate change is real and an increasingly present danger we are obliged to address; it outlines a plan of recommended action for individuals and congregations.

The 2011 Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating presupposes the 2006 SOC.

A Theology of Gratitude

"Aware of our interdependence," says the 2011 SOC, "we acknowledge that eating ethically requires us to be mindful of the miracle of life we share with all beings. With gratitude for the food we have received, we strive to choose foods that minimize harm and are protective of the environment, consumers, farmers, and all those involved in food production and distribution."

Rev. Galen Guengerich, minister at All Soul's Unitarian Church in NYC, presented a theology of gratitude in a series of talks, now available in book form, as God Revised: How Religions Must Evolve in a Scientific Age (New York, 2014). He maintains that the theology of Judaism— clearly thinking of Orthodox Judaism—focuses on Obedience; the theology of Christianity—thinking of Jesus and Paul—focuses on Love; and that of Islam focuses on Submission, but Unitarian Universalism focuses on Gratitude. Two of Guengerich's chapters are "What We Receive: The Discipline of Gratitude" and "What We Owe: An Ethic of Gratitude."

Whether or not his distinction between Unitarian Universalism and other spiritual traditions is right, a theology of gratitude is attractive because it fits well with process theology, a perspective popular among Unitarian Universalist ministers that Guengerich weaves into his book. (Rev. Connolly recently spoke on process theology from this pulpit.) Process theology is compatible with a vision of reality that takes time seriously, and therefore the contributions of past events to the present. It is also compatible with an up-to-date scientific understanding of physical, biological, and social-historical processes. This perspective is open to the discoveries of evolutionary biology and ecology. Moreover, process theologians, like the Benedictines at their best, see the operation of divinity in the nonhuman creation. Finally, process theology emphasizes humanity's debt to, and possible partnership with, other life forms on the Earth. I will return shortly to this notion of partnership, whose importance became clearer to me as I worked on this talk.

Radical Hospitality and Enlarging Our Circle

As the 2011 SOC puts it, "Unitarian Universalists aspire to radical hospitality and developing the beloved community. Therefore, we affirm that the natural world exists not for the sole benefit of one nation, one race, one gender, one religion, or even one species, but for all. Working in the defense of mutual interests, Unitarian Universalists acknowledge and accept the challenge of enlarging our circle of moral concern to include all living creatures."

Land Management Models

At the heart, I think, of the 2011 SOC is a contrast between two "farming models" or "food production models." On the one hand it calls attention to difficulties posed by conventional high-tech agriculture, or corporate agriculture, which promotes specialization in single crops extended over vast acreage, and intensive, highly capitalized animal feedlot production; and on the other hand, it suggests a model that gets beyond those problems.

The 2011 SOC, for instance, speaks of "policy concerns [that] include agricultural subsidies that reward the production of…crops and animal products…less healthful and environmentally friendly than unsubsidized ones and…penalize small to moderate-sized farming operations. Agricultural subsidies of exported crops have driven small farmers in developing countries off their land…. [A]gricultural subsidies and mono-cropping [result in] increased gender disparity where women have been the traditional agricultural producers. We recognize [that] replicating corporate agricultural mode[l]s in our aid to developing countries is not in the best interest of humanity. We support," says the statement adopted in 2011, "the development of farming models that safeguard the environment, produce safe foods, provide economic benefits to all economic levels, and create environmentally and economically sustainable [arrangements]."

I want to step back and think again about this distinction. The notion of partnership between humanity and creation that we find in process theology will be helpful here. The two land management models happen to be polar opposites that reflect a primary distinction between Domination and Partnership thinking. 4

Industrial or highly capitalized agriculture is a variation on the conquest model of humanity's relation to the land; one of its familiar expressions is the prevailing suburban model of lawn cultivation, with a single species of grass on, say, a half acre lawn, with externally applied chemical herbicides used to keep out unwanted species and fertilizers to keep the favored species growing. The prevailing model can also be compared to factory-style mass production. Soil is regarded as raw material whose chemical components must be replaced continually lest the desired output no longer grow.

The 2011 SOC notes that "the mass production of food … has resulted in … overuse of fertilizers and pesticides with crops and the mistreatment of animals and workers in food production." This is clearly a comment on a model of farming inspired by Domination rather than the Partnership thinking.

A contrary model of farming and landscape management introduces diverse species operating as partners to enhance one another while blocking species that would harm the ecological community. A good example of which I recently read is "the mixture of the pigeon pea, the Toor Dal, which grows quite tall, and Ragi, which is a millet (grain)." These humanly desirable species have been "growing as companions [in India] for millennia. The Ragi supplies calcium, iron, and fiber, and the Toor Dal gives the soil the nitrogen, but it also supplies protein." (Vandana Shiva, 2014)

In the partnership model, which inspires Ecological Land Ministry, human beings operate as partners of a partnership that already exists or can be restored among plant (or plant and animal) species. There need be no conquest of nature, just better understanding.

The Indian agroecologist and climate scientist Vandana Shiva, looked into the contribution to climate change from industrialized agriculture and globalized trade made necessary by such agriculture. Both tend to rely on fossil fuels. She did the calculations on the basis of the latest scientific assessments [at the time she was writing her book Soil, Not Oil (published by South End Press in 2008)]. She determined that the total impact coming from these sources was 40 percent of greenhouse gases. "That includes CO2 emissions from mechanizations and food miles [i.e., shipping of food and the material inputs of agriculture], but also nitrogen oxides from synthetic fertilizers. Nitrogen oxide is 300 times more destabilizing [than CO2] for the climate. And [if we add] the methane from all the factory farms [we calculate that] industrial agriculture is contributing [75 percent of the factors behind climate change]." (Shiva 2014).

Oh, defenders of the present agricultural system will say, the world needs industrialized farming to prevent starvation of the multitudes. But surprising facts point in a different direction.

"In fact, [Shiva writes] 70 percent of the food in the world is being produced [even] today, in 2014,…on small farms. [This figure is] the reason the UN had to declare this year…the year of the small farm…. The mainstay for food security is small farms and gardens, [including] urban gardens. 30% comes from industrial agriculture and yet this 30 % is [responsible for 75% of the climate crisis]." (Note: the remaining 25% would come from fossil fuels produced and consumed for purposes other than agriculture and shipping of agricultural inputs and products, such as military posturing and warfare.)

"Farming" is, of course, a kind of land management. The prevailing model of industrialized agriculture expresses one model, as we have seen. ELM is a qualitatively different one. Of course, ELM at our church is a broader than farming because it is about management of church-owned land in relation to what grows upon it even if, or where, we are not growing crops or edible items.

Taking Responsibility for Consequences of Our Actions

"…We acknowledge [says the 2011 SOC] that to …ensur[e] an adequate food supply for the world population; …mitigat[e] climate change; and end …the inhumane treatment of animals [there must be] an evolution of our eating habits to include more locally grown, minimally processed whole foods…. Minimally processed plant-based diets are healthier diets."

Our Opportunity and the Challenge Before Us

As a congregation we have the opportunity to take what the 2011 SOC recognizes as an individual social witness advocacy and reapply the same insights in a cooperative action in which all members and friends of the congregation willing and able can engage. We have the opportunity to engage in ecologically responsible land management, which includes elements of permaculture, an especially earth-friendly form of organic food production, and to serve as a model for other congregations, our city, and region.

This creative action will take us beyond the 2011 UUA Statement of Conscience, because the SOC focused upon individual and family decisions related to the food we consume, though it also addressed policy positions our leaders and politically active members should take up with government. (Those Action Items can be found in the complete SOC itself.)

Congregational Polity expresses our principle regarding democracy. It implies that congregations themselves may decide, on their own responsibility and at their own risk, to undertake projects in which other congregations may or may not engage. Of course, this assumes that such projects do not conflict with our general principles or the well-established laws of the city, state, and nation.

A Duty to Teach

Ministers typically recognize teaching as one of their duties, but this is not limited to paid ministers. I suggested earlier that all UU's are called to minister. We have an opportunity to teach by example with the land management program at the UU church of Bowling Green. What is done on our land can become a model, if successful, to be duplicated (with attention to the specific situation in which one is operating) by others in our community and elsewhere.

Here we can connect with the Humanist source of Unitarian Universalism, specifically with John Dewey, the leading American philosopher who was a signer of the Humanist Manifesto published in the 1920's. Dewey was especially influential in philosophy of education. We should not overstate, he said, the dependence of the child or the independence of the adult (Dewey 1982, 186). A successful adult life will be interdependent in many ways with other [people]. Education, he wrote, should never end, he added that "the test of all the institutions of adult life [including religious institutions] is their effect in furthering continued education" (Ibid.) Now, education is at least partly about truth. As a pragmatist, Dewey held that the truth of any idea or system of ideas is measured by its beneficial consequences— its ability to solve problems—as compared with those of rivals. Here we reconnect with our church mission, which includes "improving society and the environment."


1. Here is an early description.

2. Emerson on Worship. This was read earlier in the program in which the talk was given.

3. "RB" stands for the Rule of [Saint] Benedict, which formed the basis of Benedictine monastic life. The numerals refer to chapter numbers. For more details, see Rule of Saint Benedict.

4. Aldo Leopold already wrote in 1949 of the conqueror model of humanity's relationship to the land and defended his contrary approach, the "land ethic." He wrote, "a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such." He speaks of conservation as a "state of harmony between [humans] and the land." See Leopold 1966, which reprints Leopold 1949. Riane Eisler, however, has more thoroughly developed the contrast between the Domination and Partnership models in general. See Garrett 2010. Leopold tends to avoid explicit "partnership" metaphors.


Brock, Rita Nakashima, and Parker, Rebecca Ann, 2008. Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dewey, John, 1982. The Middle Works 1899-1924, vol. 12: Reconstruction in Philosophy and Essays 1920. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Garrett, Jan, 2001. John Dewey Reconstructs Ethics.

---, 2010. The Chalice and the Blade: The Ideas of Riane Eisler. (Eisler has made explanation of the contrasting Domination and Partnership patterns of thinking central to her life work.)

Guengerich, Galen, 2009. Theology for a Secular Age (pdf outline); see also Theology for a Secular Age (video lectures).

-----, 2013. God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age. Palgrave MacMillan.

Leopold, Aldo, 1966. A Sand County Almanac. With Essays on Conservation from Round River. Oxford University Press. See especially 237-264,"The Land Ethic." A Sand County Almanac was originally published in 1949.

Shiva, Vandana, 2014. Speech at February 2014 "Food Otherwise" Conference.

Unitarian Universalist Association (Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources).

Unitarian Universalist Association, Statements of Conscience.