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Interdependence in Three Parts by Rev. Josh Pawelek

First Part: Interdependence as a Fact of Life

 

            Our ministry theme for April is interdependence. This term has been capturing the spiritual imagination of Unitarian Universalists and grounding our spiritual actions—especially actions related to Earth stewardship and addressing climate change—since it was adopted as the heart of the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle in 1985. That principle is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I note that the proposal to change Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws identifies interdependence as one of the enduring Unitarian Universalist values. The accompanying language says “We honor the interdependent web of all existence. With reverence for the great web of life and with humility, we acknowledge our place in it.” I am not preaching about Article II. I am simply naming that from the last quarter of the 20th century through this first quarter of the 21st century, interdependence has been a central, guiding spiritual idea for Unitarian Universalists. I anticipate it will continue as a central, guiding spiritual idea for us for generations to come.

            As many of you know, when I give the tour of our building during the “Introduction to Unitarian Universalism” class (which I will be doing this afternoon), I show people the mechanical room on the garden level that houses our geo-thermal pumps. In 2008 and 2009, when we succeeded in raising sufficient funds to install our geo-thermal system—so that no fossil fuels would be combusted on our premises, so that we could do our small part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address the negative impacts of climate change—we were demonstrating our commitment to the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. We were faithfully living the principle. I sometimes refer to those geo-thermal pumps as the spiritual crown jewels of our meeting house. This is not hyperbole. That’s really how I experience them. I hope you do too.

            Interdependence is a fact. Not a theory. Not a metaphor. Not a new age book title (Twelve Steps to Living an Interdependent Life). It’s a fact. No individual life exists independently of other life. I did not create the air I breath. I depend on the sun and photosynthesizing plants, algae and bacteria to produce that air. This is a fact. I did not create the food I eat for sustenance. I depend (primarily) on farms to produce it (not to mention soil, sun, rain, rivers, aquifers, pollinators, animals, etc.). This is a fact. Mindful also that our human bodies cannot function as carbon sinks—that is, cannot filter excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequester it—we depend on forests, soils, the deep ocean, tidal marshes and sea grasses to function as carbon sinks, so that the planet doesn’t heat up to the point where its life-supporting systems begin to fail. This is a fact.

            And, all life as we currently know it on Earth depends on human beings living and organizing our societies—especially our systems of energy production and usage—in ways that do not harm all the photosynthesizing, carbon-sinking plants, trees, soil, oceans; living in ways that do not harm the natural systems involved in food production; living in ways that do not pollute, do not release CO2 into the atmosphere beyond the planet’s capacity to sequester it, do not poison natural habitats. In this moment, all life as we currently know it on Earth depends on human beings living as human beings and their precursors have lived for hundreds of thousands of years: in harmony with the Earth and its local environments; in intimate, connected relationship with the Earth and its local environments; as careful, thoughtful, humble stewards of the Earth and its local environments. Not as pillagers, extractors or dominators, but as partners, sustaining a balance that sustains all life.

 

Second Part: Hints from the Quantum World

 

            I am not a scientist, though I do enjoy reading popular science from time to time—an interest which comes from being the child of a micro-biologist. My occasional forays into popular science include explorations of quantum theory. Those explorations suggests to me that I—that we—are not only interdependent with all life, but with all existence—all matter, all substance. Everything. I don’t for a minute pretend to fully understand interdependence at this level. It is murky (Alfred Einstein called it spooky.) I don’t have training in physics and am therefore confident I don’t fully understand the pertinent theories. But I read what I read, and I cannot escape the conclusion that subatomic particles, at least at times, appear to behave in ways that could be described as interdependent.

            One prominent theory is known as quantum entanglement. I’m quoting here from an article on the website Space.com called “What is Quantum Entanglement,” subtitled “Quantum Entanglement is One Seriously Long Relationship.” The writer is Jesse Emspak, a freelance journalist who focuses on physics and what he calls ‘cool technologies.’ (I also read an article titled “Quantum Entanglement for Dummies,” which probably should have been titled “Quantum Entanglement for people who at least hold a bachelor’s degree in physics.”) Here’s the Emspak quote: “Quantum entanglement is a bizarre, counterintuitive phenomenon that explains how two subatomic particles can be intimately linked to each other even if separated by billions of light-years of space. Despite their vast separation, a change induced in one will affect the other. In 1964, physicist John Bell [who was from Northern Ireland] posited that such changes can be induced and occur instantaneously, even if the particles are very far apart.”[1] I understand this is confounding to physicists because, if it is true it means that information is travelling between particles many times faster than the speed of light, which shouldn’t be possible. Einstein actually called it “spooky action at a distance.” Emspak points out that in 2015 “three different research groups were able to perform substantive tests of Bell's Theorem, and all of them found support for the basic idea.”

            I don’t want to overstate the case for interdependence in response to quantum entanglement. I understand that the theory has a lot to do with how physicists measure certain properties of subatomic particles, and with the concept of superposition which is a rabbit hole you will thank me for not going down. The "Quantum Entanglement for Dummies” article cautions against appropriating this phenomenon for spiritual purposes. The quote is, “Worse still, the Deepak Chopras of the world, who clearly do not understand the physics involved, are bastardizing this phenomenon in ridiculous fashion.”[2] I really don’t want to do that. What I note is that, at least in theory, a subatomic particle on one end of the universe has a measureable relationship to a subatomic particle at the other end of the universe, and a variety of different tests have confirmed this relationality. There’s something there worth holding onto. If nothing else, the tiny, individual pieces of stuff that make up the substance of the universe are not isolated from each other. They relate to each other. I know this about me: I prefer a universe full of relationship. I prefer a universe whose essence is interdependence.

 

Third Part: How Quickly We Forget

 

            The fact of interdependence, the idea of interdependence—the word itself, interdependence—rings true to the members and friends of this congregation, rings true to Unitarian Universalists. I note further how so many religions embrace some notion of interdependence, whether they use the word or not. Often it is the more mystical practitioners of a religion who speak of interdependence, or interconnection, or union with the divine, or the cosmic Christ, or interbeing, or ayn sof[3]; or any pantheistic understanding of God or the divine as the totality of all existence—“The Oneness of Everything,” to quote UU songwriter Jim Scott. All related to all.

What amazes me is how quickly we, for all sorts of reasons, forget our interdependence, how quickly we revert to living more or less as if we are independent agents, completely self-determining, masters of our own destinies. In my April newsletter column, I wrote about the very natural human tendency to put the world and its things into either/or categories: Right/wrong, good/bad, urban/rural, red/blue, conservative/liberal, immigrant/citizen. I said religions are the most adept at drawing rigid, divisive lines: sacred/profane, saved/damned, virtuous/sinful, good/evil, believer/unbeliever, wheat/chaff. There’s a purpose to this. Categorization and either/or thinking help us to understand and navigate our relationships and our surroundings. But they also feed the illusion of our separateness, and thus they ultimately undermine the well-lived spiritual life. Either/or thinking divides people from people, alienates people from nature, even from our own bodies. It erases the gray areas, the middle ground, the commonalities. As such, it leads us to forget our interdependence with the whole of life.

In his Love Letter to the Earth, from which I read at the beginning of our service, the late Vietnamese Zen Master, global spiritual leader, poet, and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, said it more simply: “Sometimes I forget. Lost in the confusions and worries of daily life, I forget that my body is your body, and sometimes even forget that I have a body at all. Unaware of the presence of my body and the beautiful planet around me and within me, I’m unable to cherish and celebrate the precious gift of life you have given me.” [4] And in response to his forgetting, he prays: “Dear Mother, my deep wish is to wake up to the miracle of life.” And then he makes a vow: “I promise to train myself to be present for myself, my life, and for you in every moment. I know that my true presence is the best gift I can offer to you the one I love.”[5]

Just as we naturally break the world up into categories, so we need a natural practice of breaking down the categories, of naming our relationships across the arbitrary divisions we create, naming those relationships to ourselves and out loud to others. We need a practice of naming our connections to people, land, trees, animals, air, water, even the carbon sinks—naming them to ourselves and out loud to others. We need a practice of waking up to the miracle of life, of remembering how all of it is sacred, holy, divine, a practice of remembering our interdependence. 

Such a practice can take many forms, and really needs to take many forms. The exercise we held earlier, inviting the children—and the adults—to name out loud all the different institutions they are a part of—family, school, neighborhood, girls scouts, church, sports, theater, band, orchestra—and then identifying how each of those institutions shapes who they are, and how they shape those institutions in turn—that’s a way of remembering our interdependence.

Another way we remember is through participation in worship here—and in all the other ways we worship, holding up things and matters of ultimate worth to ourselves and others: words, music, art, meditations, prayers, sharing joys and concerns—all of which break down either/or thinking and lift up our interdependence. We need to hear words like those of Thich Nhat Hanh, ““Dear Mother: wherever there is soil, water, rock or air, you are there, nourishing me and giving me life. You are present in every cell of my body. My physical body is your physical body, and just as the sun and stars are present in you, they are also present in me. You are not outside of me and I am not outside of you. You are more than just my environment. You are nothing less than myself.”[6]

We need such words in our lives, waking us up, reminding us, revealing interdependence. In searching for such words this week, I happened upon a poem from the 13th-century Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, entitled “Say I am You.” The translation reads in part:

I am dust particles in sunlight. / I am the round sun…. / I am morning mist, and the breathing of evening. / I am wind in the top of a grove, and surf on the cliff…. / I am a tree with a trained parrot in its branches. / Silence, thought, and voice. / The musical air coming through a flute, / a spark of a stone, a flickering in metal …. / I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy, the evolutionary intelligence, the lift, and the falling away. / What is, and what isn't…. / You the one in all, / say who I am. / Say I am You.[7]

We need the daily, worshipful repetition of such words, such music, such art so that we can remember, so that we can wake up to our interdependence and the knowledge that just as we depend on the earth, so the earth depends on us.

And once awake, then we can make our own vows, our own promises—to be present, to be kind and compassionate, to move gently upon the land, to be good stewards of the planet’s resources, to reduce, reuse, recycle, to engage in the tasks of healing and repair, to be good ancestors to all those who are coming after us.

Let us remember, let us promise. Let us remember, let us promise. Let us remember, let us promise.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Emspak, Jesse, “What is Quantum Entanglement” at Space.com, May 16th, 2023. See: https://www.space.com/31933-quantum-entanglement-action-at-a-distance.html.

[2] ZapperZ, “Quantum Entanglement for Dummies,” Physics and Physicists (website) April 22, 2015. See: https://physicsandphysicists.blogspot.com/2015/04/quantum-entanglement-for-dummies.html

[3] From Jewish mysticism. The name by which Kabbalists refer to God’s essential nature is Ayn Sof, which means boundless, or without end.

[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Love Letter to the Earth,” (Parallax Press, 2013). See: https://www.parallax.org/product/love-letter-to-the-earth/. Also visit Emergence Magazine at https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/ten-love-letters-to-the-earth/.

[7] Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (Jelaluddin Balkhi), Barks, Coleman, tr., “Say I Am You” The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) pp. 275-6.

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