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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Hymn that Make Me Gag
distributed 11/04/11 - ©2011

Halfway through the second verse of the opening hymn, my worship experience went sour. I found myself singing words that I didn't believe, words that offended me.

I should have been ready. It happens every time we sing this hymn. But I forget about its hidden theological landmine, and I'm always caught off guard.

The nasty hymn leads me toward two different sorts of reflections -- one a matter of ecological theology, and one an issue of liturgical strategy. Both of them may be controversial, so let me know what you think!

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The hymn in question is #8 in the United Church of Christ's New Century Hymnal. "Praise to the Living God" is a 1966 composition by Curtis Beach, slightly altered for inclusive language. (Lyrics in a PDF document) Apparently, the editors of most other hymnals have had the good sense to leave this one out.

Things start off well, which is why my defenses are always down. Verse one speaks of God's works of cosmic creation, and the second verse includes a long evolutionary perspective when God forms "the first faint seeds of life". But I gag when the lyrics progress:

Who caused them to evolve, unwitting, toward God's goal,
Till humankind stood on the earth, as living, thinking souls.

What conceit about the importance of our species! This entire, vast universe, taking shape through billions of years of evolution and change, is all directed toward the brief flowering (and remarkable sin) of human beings. Can we honestly believe -- and can we sing as an act of holy praise -- that it is all about us? I can't.

Seven years ago, just a few days after the enormous earthquake and tsunami that caused devastation across the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, I grappled with some of the theological questions that were emerging in the media, and in my own soul ("Earthquake, Tsunami and God"). One of my affirmations on that occasion simply said:

The intentions of God, and the workings of nature, are not all about humans. The whole universe is not centered on our experience. The Earth existed long before humans came on the scene, and it will be here long after we're gone. As we ponder the meaning of this event, we must do so in light of the entire history of this planet, and in the context of the entire web of life.

The problem of arrogance takes hold when we see our current situation as the endpoint of a long and winding journey. All of that evolution, and we finally arrive at ... us! But if we dare to look a million years into the future -- which is, I admit, a completely heretical proposition for much of Christian thought! -- I expect that humanity will not play such a significant and glorified role.

I see an unintended danger of self-importance in some expressions of what is variously called "the new cosmology" or "the universe story". As expressed by wise and faithful people like Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme and Miriam MacGillis, this rich theology calls us into a humble awareness of our connection with all of creation, tied to processes of evolution and growth. A superficial reading of this theology, though, can lead us into the idea that repulsed me in the hymn. In an interview, MacGillis said: "When we reflect on that, we can begin to understand our place in that process - which is to be that being in whom the Earth has acquired a self-reflective consciousness."

Participating in that self-reflective consciousness should call us into appropriate ways of living that bind us to all things, and that are just and sustainable. But for those whose beliefs are still shaped by that flawed idea of our unique and honored place in the universe, for those who see the universe story as nearing completion, a superficial sense the new cosmology can reinforce the old idea that it is really all about us.

If God has shaped the entire creation for the purpose of forming and blessing humans, if it is all done so that we can become "thinking souls", then it is not surprising if we see the rest of creation as placed here for our use, our benefit, our profit, and our exploitation. This extremely elevated notion of human exceptionalism is a very dangerous theological stance.

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Hymns are immensely powerful in shaping the theology of "the people in the pew". More than catechism classes, thoughtful sermons, or interesting videos for adult discussion groups, the hymns we sing reinforce deep-seated beliefs and perspectives.

I've written about how a children's hymn long ago planted the seeds of my ecological theology. The seasonal classics of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter give us the language for the most central of our Christian proclamations -- and they may express a clarity of conviction that allows us to sing in celebration despite our theological questions. New hymns such as "God of the Sparrow" or "Touch the Earth Lightly" guide us into more inclusive and confessional ways of seeing our relationship with all of creation.

Hymns are much more than theological documents. The combination of rhyme and meter plant concepts in memorable and evocative ways. Hymn tunes reinforce the words. The words and music enter our consciousness in other-than-rational ways. The act of singing does place words in our mouths, and gets us to say things that we might not think of saying on our own. A good hymn can introduce us to ideas and commitments that stretch and deepen our faith. Or, as I found again a few weeks ago, a hymn might get us to say things that we don't believe.

I encourage you to scour your hymnal, and to share your research with your church's worship leaders. Find the hymns, new and old, that guide us and nurture us in eco-justice and the depths of a new cosmology. (And please let me know of any gems that you discover!) Make note of the ones that lure us into errors, so that your congregation can avoid them. Look for fresh sources (such as Carolyn Winfrey Gillette) who are finding new words that express good eco-justice principles.

Hymns are powerful. They can call us into belief, or they can make us gag. Be attentive to what you sing -- both personally and as a congregation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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