Some reflections on the Conference
Arjuna Ben-Zion Weiss PhD
This conference was a very inspiring and uplifting event. It was constellated around the recent work of the eco-theologian and activist Matthew Fox and the creation of his Order of the Sacred Earth (OSE), which he outlined in his new book, co-written with 2 young environmentalists, Skylar Wilson, and Jennifer Listug. He has called this work an intergenerational vison of love and action. They write about the need for building a community of the OSE –
What is at stake is not a particular religious or spiritual tradition but something much larger: the future of Mother Earth, and, therefore, the future of countless species including our own. All are endangered. Humans can and must make a difference. The essence of the OSE is a common vow we all will take: “I promise to be the best lover and defender of the Earth that I can be.” (p. XVI-XVII)
Kavisha Mazzella, a wonderful singer, songwriter and musician dreamt the words and music of the song to the words of the vow on the last night of the conference and we performed it as part of the closing ceremony. It was a fitting ending to a very creative conference that included songs, drama, performance poetry and ended with a spiral dance led by Matthew on the extensive green grounds of Newington College, a prestigious inner-city private school in Sydney.
Given that the rest of the conference was all indoors, except for the lunch breaks, it was most appropriate to actually end the conference dancing on Mother Earth under the Father Sky, on a glorious sunny winter’s day.
There were many powerful moments for me in this conference such as the keynote addresses by Matthew Fox and the other presenters. However, one of the most powerful aspects of the conference was to hear that the whole series of Common Dreams Conferences had been inspired by the so-called Cronulla Riots in 2005. That ties into my own doctoral research in social ecology on drama education for anti-racismthat was partly triggered by the racist actions of the Howard Liberal government in 1996 that cut the funding to vital multicultural youth programs like Circuit Breakerthat I was working on. The 2005 so-called riots would have been indirectly affected by these kinds of cuts to multicultural youth programs some 10 years earlier.
This was the 5thCommon Dreams conference and for me it turned out to be a real education in progressive Christianity, something I knew very little about given my orthodox Jewish upbringing. Major exceptions to this result from my involvement in the inspiring interfaith and ecologically conscious work that John Queripel was doing at the local ‘Chapel by the Sea’ (now taken over by the Wayside Chapel). Also, there are the interfaith and other socially conscious services I occasionally attended at the Pitt St Uniting Church. Indeed, it was there that I picked up the flyer for the conference in the first place when attending an Al-Anon meeting. COMMON DREAMS is an alliance of Australian and New Zealand kindred organisations which promote the study, discussion and implementation of Progressive Christian and other progressive religious streams of thought and action.
As soon as I saw the name Matthew Fox, I was attracted to go to the conference as his work has been such a great inspiration in my life. His book Original Blessingand his Creation Spirituality Cycle changed my whole relationship to Christianity. The main message of the book Original Blessing,is that the early Christians did not believe in original sin, any more than the Jews do. Growing up in the Jewish culture, original sin never made any sense to me. When I first read Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the speech made by the Irish priest on hell completely shocked me. I’d never heard such a negative tirade about Hell in the Jewish tradition. It made no sense with the little I knew about Christian theology. The structure of the book follows the four phases of Creation Spirituality – the Via Positiva, which is the process of affirming or blessing creation; the Via Negativa, which is the process of letting go or emptying out; the Via Creativa, which is the creativity that arises from the tension between the two previous phases; the Via Transformativa, which is the process of manifesting the creative process in the social domain. This cycle inspired a Christian dance cycle with dances that relate to each of these four phases, as part of the Dances of Universal Peace repertoire. Then in one of our Spring Renewal Aboriginal Camps with the Australian Dances of Universal Peace a few years ago, we translated this into a dance cycle with indigenous inspired dances.
An important part of the conference was devoted to indigenous issues, especially that of a Treaty. One of the keynote speakers was Dr. Anne Pattel-Gray, an Aboriginal woman who is a descendant of the Bidjara/ Kari Kari people in Queensland and is a recognised Aboriginal leader within Australia – nationally and internationally. She has dedicated her life to the struggle of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and she is a strong campaigner and lobbyist and deeply committed to seeking justice, equity and equal representation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As well there was Norman Habel, who is a Professorial Fellow at Flinders University. He is a biblical scholar who has specialised in the Book of Job, ecology and the Bible, and Wisdom Literature. His initiatives include The Earth Bible Series, The Season of Creation and Ecological Hermeneutics. His latest work entitled Acknowledgement of the Land and Faith of the Indigenous Custodians after following the Abraham Trail is a challenge for the churches of Australia and was the background for his presentation at the Common Dreams conference.
What was interesting to me was the way that Norman Habel framed the Abraham story as one where the patriarch integrated with the Cana’anite people rather than colonising them. As a Biblical Scholar he argued that it was a pity that when the Christian missionaries and British colonists invaded Australia, they had not followed his model which showed such depth and respect for the indigenous people of the country. Instead this led to a cultural and physical genocide and the current ecological crisis that we face after over 200 years of imposing an inappropriate cultural ecology. The British invaders imposed their own British cultural ecology that emerged in a completely different hemisphere and climate. They largely ignored the depth of wisdom of the people, who we now know have the oldest surviving continuous culture on the planet. Instead they created the colony as a gaol, brought in cloven-hoofed animals that break up the fragile topsoil of an arid landscape and completely ignored the successful and ancient agricultural practices of the Aboriginal people.
The Sunday before the conference I was invited to give a talk on Jewish Ecology to a group of Jewish people from the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. (Below is the flyer for this talk) There was a progressive Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black Rabbi, Leo Baeck Centre, East Kew, Melbourne at the conference who also spoke about the confluence of Jewish and ecological thinking. Jonathan has been heavily involved in environmental work, constructing an underground home in London and running a car on compressed natural gas, charged up every night from the mains. In Australia he built a ‘Seven Star Energy- and Water-Efficient show home’, and established JECO, the Jewish Ecological Coalition. Jonathan was instrumental in establishing the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia, which runs residential conferences, schools’ programs and other events. In 2007, Jonathan spoke at an interfaith seminar in Canberra with the Dalai Lama on ‘Paths to Peace’, and also gave his first keynote lecture for the Common Dreams conference in Sydney.
As the only other Jewish person at the conference that I could identify, it was interesting to connect with him as his presentation affirmed some of the material I presented in my talk on Jewish Ecology. Overall by focusing on the sacredness of the Earth, the conference was an affirmation of the Jewish Tradition, because the ancient Hebrew tribes considered the Earth as sacred. It was from the Earth that we humans were created through the Divine Breath of YHWH. When this name is spoken without any vowels it is the sound of the breath.
When God created Adam, he showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: See my works, how lovely they are, how fine they are. All I have created, I created for you. Take care not to corrupt and destroy my universe, for if you destroy it, no one will come after you to put it right. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7) (from Faiths & Ecology website: http://www.arcworld.org/faiths.asp?pageID=81)
The Jewish Perspective is rooted in the relationship between Adam and Adamah, as between Earth and earthling:
The “birth” of the human race is told by the Bible as a tale of earth and breath: A lump of reddish clay (Adamah) loses the final “hei” from its name — the sound of a breath — and receives the “ruach elohim” — the Breath of God — to become Adam (Human/ Earthling). Perhaps we can see the lost “hei” as the unconscious breathing through the placenta that is lost in birthing, and the ruach as the conscious, independent breath that comes soon after. (see https://www.faithecology .net.au/jewish for more on this)
At the basis of the story is that the whole of creation is sacred and that the Earth herself breathes. So, by establishing the Order of the Sacred Earth, Matthew Fox and his associates are returning to the ‘original blessing’ that is the Creation in the Jewish Tradition. Ellen Bernstein illustrates this in great detail in her book on the creation story as told in the Torah, The Splendor of Creation, A Biblical Ecology. Her insight as she began to research this link between ecology and the Bible is that, if the Bible is one of the most widely read books on the planet, then it could be a great way to promote the ecological message that can be read at its core – if the reader is aware of the real meaning of the original words, rather than the ones that have been so distorted by multiple translations from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to the various vernaculars, as well as Roman colonisation of the Holy Land and Christian replacement theology.
Overall the conference ratified the Uluru Statement from the Heartand created a statement to support Aboriginal Sovereignty and a Treaty with the First Nations people of this land. The conference made me aware of many positive initiatives already being undertaken by so many community groups and in some cases even government, like some local governments and the Victorian Government. This led me leaving with a sense of hope, that while on a Federal level things may look bleak, at a grass roots level there are many people working for positive change in these progressive Christian and other communities.
Bernstein, E., (2005)The Splendor of Creation, A Biblical Ecology, Cleveland, USA: Pilgrim Press
Fox, M., Wilson, S., Listug, J.B., (2018) Order of the Sacred Earth, An Intergenerational Vision of Love and Action, New York: Monkfish Books
Fox, M., (2000)Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality, New York: Tarcher/Putnam
Waskow, A., (2000) Torah of the Earth, Exploring 4000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought, Volume 1, Woodstock: Jewish Lights
See web link to my doctoral thesis:
see my chapter in Radical Human Ecology – https://books.google.com.au/books?id=YALtCwAAQBAJ&pg=PA275&lpg=PA275&dq=Circuit+Breaker++youth+programs+1996&source=bl&ots=yv5MXMr2ca&sig=ACfU3U1Fsegmual_rbvIWtiuCwlKcDFKFQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjzg-vn5szjAhVSWH0KHdijBmAQ6AEwAnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Circuit%20Breaker%20%20youth%20programs%201996&f=false