The Earth - A Common Treasury for All

In the Common Lectionary one of the readings appointed for last Sunday was from Acts 2:42–47 (RSV):

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

This, along with Acts 4:32–37 is taken as a foundational text for those who believe that to follow Jesus’ religious insight properly involves adopting some kind of egalitarian co-operative organisation of community. Importantly, though in parenthesis today, it is important to realise that to follow Jesus properly doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a Christian in any conventional sense. I’m a walking example of that!

Anyway, this text – with its emphasis on holding all things in common – profoundly influenced many of those involved in the English Revolution perhaps, most notably, Gerrard Winstanley (1609–1676). In his True Levellers Standard Advanced of 1649 Winstanley argued that the new government should ensure that all the land was to be as it was in the beginning and that, therefore, we should

. . . work in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor, That every one that is born in the land, may be fed by the Earth his Mother that brought him forth, according to the Reason that rules in the Creation.

It was a vision which was concerned with justice in this world. To be sure people like Winstanley had beliefs about what occurred after one died but they were of secondary concern. He really did believe in life before death. On this matter Winstanley also memorably wrote:

[Priests] lay claim to heaven after they are dead, and yet they require their heaven in this world too, and grumble mightily against the people that will not give them a large temporal maintenance. And yet they tell the poor people that they must be content with their poverty, and they shall have their heaven hereafter. But why may we not have our heaven here (that is, a comfortable livelihood in the earth) and heaven hereafter too, as well as you? ... While men are gazing up to heaven, imagining after a happiness or fearing a hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out, that they not see what is their birthrights, and what is to be done by them here on earth while they are living (Sabine, G. H., The Works of Gerrard Winstanely, 1941, pp. 409, 569).

It is well known that the author Philip Pullman (1946– ) in his masterful Dark Materials Trilogy has expressed similar ideas, most notably centred around his wonderfully provocative phrase the republic of heaven. In a recent interview he said:

The kingdom of heaven promised us certain things: it promised us happiness and a sense of purpose and a sense of having a place in the universe, of having a role and a destiny that were noble and splendid; and so we were connected to things. We were not alienated. But now that, for me anyway, the King is dead, I find that I still need these things that heaven promised, and I’m not willing to live without them. I don’t think I will continue to live after I’m dead, so if I am to achieve these things I must try to bring them about – and encourage other people to bring them about – on earth, in a republic in which we are all free and equal – and responsible – citizens.

These hopes and visions of a common earth from the first, seventeenth and twenty-first centuries have been particularly in my mind this week as I have continued to follow the distressing reports of the many food riots that are breaking out across our planet. It is painfully clear that neither the Apostles’, Winstanley’s, nor Pullman’s hopes seems to be coming to pass.

One thing revealed by these riots is that for many people the earth is no way seen by those with real political and economic power as a common treasury at all. No republic of heaven on earth is being envisioned here. Why? Well, it is because the earth is primarily being used to feed and sustain the lifestyles of those of us in the industrialised (or industrialising) world, and the prevalent philosophical and economic paradigm which drives these societies is, as the philosopher Freya Mathews’ notes, a radically materialist (in both this word's philosophical and popular senses) extractive profit-driven ideology that is obsessed with ideas of progress, a certain kind of liberal polity and an ethos of consumerism that is developing into an international regime of colonialism.

We could, of course, try to redress the dreadful imbalances we see around the world wholly within this prevailing ideological paradigm – say through international talks like the present Dohar round – but many of us are concluding that if we are really going to change anything we are going to have to affect a far more radical change that will, that must, turn our world-view upside down – particularly our western consumerist and materialist world-view. This phrase, not coincidentally, also comes once from Acts (17:6): when the enemies of the early Christians hauled some of them before the rulers of the city of Thessalonica they cried “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also.”

And what is this upside-down turning? Here I should state quite clearly that don’t think it is going to come about through a restored and revitalized version of Christianity – though I think we can (and given the very particular journey of faith made by Unitarians we should) maintain a real and loving connection with Jesus’ life and teaching. No, instead what I think is required is nothing less than the deliberate and self-conscious dethronement of humankind and the restoration to sovereign status of Nature so that we can listen to her and let her tell us how better to live with each other and with her – how she can truly become, once more, a common treasury for all – not just humans mind you but everything in the world, animal, vegetable and mineral. Also I do not mean Nature becomes just a treasury of goods but also a treasury of meaning and value. Now, as I say this don’t forget that when I speak of Nature – following my beloved Spinoza – I speak also of God; Deus sive Nature – God-or-Nature. So this revolution I, and others, am calling for is essentially the re-divinisation of nature so as to challenge, at the most fundamental level possible, the brutal extractive profit-driven materialism of our age.

Freya Mathews – and you are going to be hearing more of her thinking for a while because she really does hit nail after nail upon the head with such clarity, grace and love – begins her book For the Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism (SUNY Press NY, 2003) with the following expression of this:

It is sometimes said of those individuals in modern societies who are supremely well-placed to achieve personal fulfillment that they have “the world at their feet.” They stand like a sovereign in command of the entire order of things, and all things are ready to do their bidding. Their desires will be gratified, their will done. The banner of their fame will light up the sky. This book is about and entirely different form of fulfillment, one which finds us not in command of the world, but kneeling tenderly at its feet, awaiting its command, trying to divine its will. From this point of view, the world is our sovereign, our solace, our beloved, and we are its people. Our desire is for it, and this desire is, for us, the banner that fills the sky. It is also the banner under which we march, for love of the world is not the only raison d’etre that sustains us, but a cause that will unite us against the contemporary economic invasion of this sacred ground (p.1).

If we want to begin – and I mean really begin – to set right the injustices we are seeing in our world over food and resources then we need radically to change our attitude towards the world and move from one of exploitation and extraction to that of deep devotion and intimate involvement.

We have to begin to affect this revolution with a change in our daily lives in all their ordinariness. We must begin by giving prayerful thanks, at every opportunity for everything; our food and water; the sunlight and the rain; the winds and the snow. We should say grace at table, give thanks when we take a bath or drink some water. We must connect with the people and places that have grown our food and understand that the purchase of goods is not merely to engage in a financial exchange but also – and primarily I think – an exchange of meaning, an profound encounter with reality itself; an experience that is the meaning of life itself. Layman P’ang (740–808) memorably wrote of what this feels like (quoted in Stephen Mitchell’s excellent The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, New York: Harper Perennial, 1989):

My daily affairs are quite ordinary;
but I’m in total harmony with them.
I don’t hold onto anything, don’t reject anything;
Nowhere an obstacle or conflict.
Who cares about wealth and honour?
Even the poorest thing shines.
My miraculous power and spiritual activity:
Drawing water and carrying wood.

It means, as I explored in a sermon during October 2007 entitled The Trouble with Surfaces (drawing on the work of the anthropologist Tim Ingold) that we begin to understand that we move through the world not across it; that we do not ‘simply occupy the world’ but ‘inhabit it’; and, lastly that it is as ‘lines of movement’ that as beings we ‘are instantiated in the world’ – in other words we are not discreet individuals but woven into the warp and weft of Nature-or-God.

The future of our planet – this common treasury (of goods and ultimate meaning) for all (ALL remember!) – will only be ensured if, as Mathew’s hopes, we can ensure that all of our activities are “laced with love of world” and when every activity “care[s] about itself as an expression of the unfolding of world.”

I can do no better than to conclude with Mathew’s own words (Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a recovery of Culture, SUNY Press NY, 2005 pp. 20–21):

. . . when each activity is no longer simply utilitarian in intent, daily activities will be transformed into a gift of celebration and thanks, intimately attuned in their form to the particularities of the situations in which they are performed. As a result the whole of life will assume an aspect that has in modern societies become the exclusive province of “art”: the practical and the functional will incorporate a dimension of address expressed through poetic, decorative, musical, performative and ritual elements. Although cultures premised on panpsychism may not be affluent in material terms, they will be affectively rich, votary in tenor and abundant in graces.


Amanda and Tim said…
Hi. I just wanted to leave a comment to say thanks for posting so many wonderful things on your blog. I stumbled upon it a few months back when considering moving to Cambridge and looking around for a church or spiritual group my partner and I could visit. We refound your blog recently and have thoroughly enjoyed reading your recent posts. They speak to us quite deeply. I had heard of Unitarians previously, but found myself moving too far away from Christianity as my time in Christian communities did not resonate with the spirituality I felt in my heart - reading your posts has helped me see a conection I didn't see before. So again, thank you. It is a pleasure to pop by and have a read and follow some of the links to other writers.