Letter to a Southern Baptist Pastor

Animals and Earth as the top of a tree being held up by four humans who form the trunk of the tree

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on January 8, 2017

With hopes and wishes for the New Year fresh on my mind and in my heart, I was perhaps more delighted than surprised to find a visitor in my bathroom last Sunday morning. As I stumbled out of bed and switched on the light in the master bathroom, there, inching slowly across the hardwood floor was a moving, tiny, glossy red bead.

Is that really a ladybug? I wondered, not accustomed to seeing one in my home or in January. I stooped down low to get a closer look. Yep, she sure was, complete with the classic black spots on its exoskeleton (I’m calling my ladybug a “she,” but I really have no idea whether she was a she or a he).

I have fond childhood memories of ladybugs. My sister and I used to look for them in the little urban forest that lay stretched beyond our dead-end street in Washington, DC. We would find them crawling up stems and underneath leaves. We would catch them and put them in a clean baby food jar filled with blades of grass and a twig for climbing. We’d keep the ladybugs from flying away by screwing the jar’s metal lid on tight, which had been punched by my mother with an icepick to create tiny air holes.

After examining our ladybugs in our jar for a few hours, we’d release them back into the wild. It just didn’t seem right to hold a cute little ladybug in captivity for too long.

When I encountered my bathroom ladybug last week, the lines of a nursery rhyme that my grandmother taught me came to mind. You might know it, too:

                             Ladybug, ladybug,
                             Fly away home.
                             Your house is on fire
                             And your children are gone.

Poor ladybug!

And, so, perhaps it was sympathy or perpetual fondness that led me to let that red, round beetle just keep on crawling across my bathroom floor. If she had cleverly found her way in, I figured she would find her way out.

Probably like many of you, I’ve seen plenty of ladybugs over the years. Yet, the common red beetle with a few black spots on its back is just one of many, many different varieties. Entomologists, in fact, have identified over 6,000 different ladybug species, and they include some interesting and odd differences.

For instance, in addition to red ladybugs, there are orange ladybugs, yellow ladybugs, brown ladybugs and cream-colored ladybugs. There are 7-spotted bugs, 10-spotted, 14-spotted, 22-spotted and 24-spotted ladybugs. And, there are ladybugs with no spots at all. There are even striped ladybugs! Most ladybugs are tiny, but some measure up to ¾” in length . . . much larger than our familiar ladybug-size standards.

With so many kinds of ladybugs, it seems that this tiny beetle will be a mainstay of gardens and woods for long time. And, they may be. But what’s also true is that the ladybug population is changing. Environmental changes and foreign invaders are causing some species to decline and others to thrive.

In England, for instance, the population of cream-spotted ladybugs has shrunk, while the orange ladybug population is exploding. That’s because England’s now-warmer and damper weather has resulted in an abundance of mildew in that country, which is a primary food source for the little orange guys.

But does all of this really matter? They’re just ladybugs, right? Does it really matter if the 10-spotted one is in decline in one place (like it is in Ireland) while the 13-spotted one is on the upswing somewhere else (like it is in Cornwall)?

Put another way, E.O. Wilson, the author of this morning’s reading, asks:

With all the troubles that humanity faces, why should we care about the condition of living Nature? What difference will it make if a few or even half of all the species on Earth are exterminated, as projected by scientists for the remainder of this century?1)E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY: 2006), 29.

I mean, why am I talking about ladybugs this morning when there are senseless shootings in airports and nightclubs . . . or when there are merciless wars that are killing men, women and children or leaving them hungry and homeless . . . or when our promise of healthcare for all in this country may be on the verge of being radically altered?

Author E.O. Wilson attempts to put things in perspective. In his book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, he provides astounding information about the important role countless species of fauna and flora play in the world’s stability and in our human existence.

Without a biologically diverse and healthy planet, Wilson might say that all of our other concerns will eventually not matter.

Northwest’s Earth Ministry team leaders Tom and Linda Couch thought that Wilson’s book and its message was so important, that they urged me to read it. I’m hoping you’ll do the same . . . which is why I’ve selected it as the focus of my Second Sunday sermon series, which begins this month and runs until March.

****

For those of you who don’t know about E.O. Wilson, he is an 87-year old American biologist. He was educated at Harvard and later served on its faculty as an instructor and researcher for 41 years. He is the author of many books and academic papers on the topic of biodiversity and conservation. And, he’s the world’s leading expert on ants (not ladybugs).

Wilson’s been called “the father of sociobiology” and “the father of biodiversity”, and he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

E.O. Wilson is also a secular-humanist . . . which means he is someone who embraces human reason, ethics, social justice, and philosophical naturalism as the bases of morality and decision making . . . not religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition. Wilson coined the phrase “scientific humanism” and, in 2003, was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.

E.O. Wilson believes that it’s science – not religion – that will save humanity. And, yet, it’s because Wilson recognizes the power and influence of both science and religion that he advocates a partnership between the two to deal with climate change and its growing negative consequences.

In his book The Creation, his argument for conserving biodiversity and his plea for collaboration to save the Earth are presented in the form of a letter to an imaginary Southern Baptist pastor. Wilson approaches his pretend pastor with an attitude of respect and good will, while laying out the differences between them that might seem to make a collaboration impossible.

“Dear Pastor,” begins the first chapter. “We have not met, yet I feel like I know you well enough to call you friend.”2)E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, 3.

Wilson continues:

You are a literalist interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture. You reject the conclusion of science that [humankind] evolved from lower forms. You believe that each person’s soul is immortal, making this planet a way station to a second, eternal life. Salvation is assured those who are redeemed in Christ.

I am a secular humanist. I think existence is what we make of it as individuals. There is no guarantee of life after death, and heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves, on this planet. There is no other home.

Humanity originated here by evolution from lower forms over millions of years. Ethics is the code of behavior we share on the basis of reason, law, honor, and an inborn sense of decency, even as some ascribe it to God’s will.3)Ibid, 3 – 4.

When I first read this passage, I was aware that some or all of Wilson’s worldview reflects the beliefs of many people here. Whether we identify as theist, humanist, or atheist . . . or whether or not we believe in life after death . . . I imagine that nearly all of us here might agree that it’s this life that matters most and needs our engagement and care.

And, so Wilson invites us on a journey in his book . . . a journey into the beauty and necessity of biodiversity. And, he issues forth a call for action to save Earth’s astounding complexity. He writes:

Surely we can agree that each species, however inconspicuous and humble it may seem to us at this moment, is a masterpiece of biology and worth saving. Each species possesses a unique combination of genetic traits that fits it more or less precisely to a particular part of the environment. Prudence alone dictates that we act quickly to prevent the pauperization of Earth ecosystems – hence of the Creation.4)5.

While species have been going extinct since before human history, it’s the accelerated human impact on the natural environment (which includes the loss of species) that Wilson and others like him are so concerned about.

For example, Wilson notes the false assumption that a tiny selection of domesticated plants and animals can support human expansion indefinitely . . . and the precariousness of that view. He writes:

Even if the rest of life is counted of no value beyond the satisfaction of human bodily needs, the obliteration of Nature is a dangerous strategy. For one thing, we have become a species specialized to eat the seeds of four kinds of grass – wheat, rice, corn, and millet. If these fail, from disease or climate change, we too shall fail.5)11.

Appreciating Earth’s rich diversity begins, perhaps, with frequently engaging with, learning about, and ultimately protecting our natural environment. These are things that Northwest members seem to do particularly well.  

I’m aware, for instance, that you take good care of our 5-1/2 acres here in Sandy Springs. You conserve our woods, maintain the natural beauty of our grounds, and ensure that our buildings and practices are energy efficient. Recently, Northwest’s leadership made the decision to discontinue its relationship with Georgia Power and, instead, move all of buildings’ electric energy needs to Arcadia Power, which uses renewable energy like wind and solar to provide electricity. I think that’s something to feel really good about!

In addition, you’ve partnered with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance to protect and advocate for a vulnerable area of urban creeks and forests. Through Northwest’s hands-on program called “Seven on the 7th,” you’re teaching Unitarian Universalism’s Seventh Principle to our children and middle schoolers . . . and, hopefully, helping them embrace our holy charge to protect the interdependent web of all existence.

Northwest’s pagan group CUUPS offer members and friends opportunities to nourish their spirit through earth-centered rituals. And, the Earth Ministry Team provides an avenue for education and advocacy.

All of these wonderful activities reflect not only Northwest’s priorities, but your sense of calling and religious identity as an earth-caring and earth-centered congregation. But, of course, there is more that we can do – not just here at Northwest, but also out there in the community.

Wilson’s call for religious and scientific people to come together to help save the Earth is one I believe we must heed. And, perhaps we can begin by pushing back on anything or anyone who tells us that climate change is a hoax. We can support leaders and causes who understand that world stability depends more on biological diversity and conservation than it does on might and munitions. We can speak up when we see decisions being made that will hurt, not help, our planet.

E.O. Wilson writes, “If there is any moral precept shared by people of all beliefs, it is that we owe ourselves and future generations a beautiful, rich, and healthful environment.” In other words, regardless of who or what is our God, no matter whether we think Earth is 6,000 or 4.5 billion years old, we all share the common ground of our common planet.  

So, let’s not stop our good individual efforts and advocacy for environmental sustainability. But, let’s also consider in the days ahead how we might reach out to those with whom we feel so far apart philosophically, religiously, and politically and come together around an environmental concern that is in all of our best interests.

Because common ground exists somewhere. If we can’t find it around the subject of climate change, let’s try talking about clean air. If we can’t find it around clean air, let’s work on clean water. If we can’t find it around clean water, then let’s consider animal rights, ethical eating – something. Our survival as a species depends upon us moving outside of our pews and politics and working together for a healthier Earth.

So, perhaps we can things started with something we can agree upon.

****

Before we end, I want to offer a postscript on my New Year’s Day bathroom floor ladybug.

Luckily for that little red beetle, my spouse Gail also encountered her after I had showered and dressed and left for Northwest. She texted me later that morning, “You’ll never guess what I found in our bathroom. A ladybug!” Gail saw her as a sign of good luck for the New Year. She told me that she gently scooped the ladybug up in her hand and released her outside in the backyard, hoping she might eventually encounter another of her own, small kind.

I say, long live the ladybug! Long live all 6,000 colors, dots, stripes, and sizes!

And, as we care about small insects, animals and plants of all kinds, may we save ourselves and live long, too.

May it be so. Amen.

 

References   [ + ]

1. E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY: 2006), 29.
2. E.O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, 3.
3. Ibid, 3 – 4.
4. 5.
5. 11.