Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Seventh Principle

This originally appeared in Outwords, June 2010.

The seventh of the seven principles that we UUs espouse is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Generally, this is taken to mean that we are expected to practice some kind of ecological ethic, that we must respect and care for the environment which sustains us.  The seventh principle is the UU answer to the traditional Judeo-Christian concept that humanity has been given dominion over the rest of creation.  It is a recognition that the world is not a hierarchy with humanity at the top and the rest of the cosmos and nature at the bottom, but rather a net of interconnections which support our individual beings and to which all beings owe their existence. 

To better understand this concept, we might start somewhere a little closer to our everyday experience than the “web of all existence.”  Let us begin with our own bodies.  First, we note that our bodies, while having a definite unity, are composed of various organs and tissues which are themselves composed of various types of cells.  Within the body we find blood cells and cells for creating new blood, we find nerve cells and lung cells, kidney cells and colon cells.  Each type of cell is distinct in its composition and action within the body and all cells are needed for the proper functioning of the body. 

It is not the case that some cells are superior to other cells.  It is not correct to say that brain cells are superior to colon cells, or lung cells to heart cells.  Each is but one aspect of the larger organism and none could exist without the others.  Each is necessary to maintain the life of the organism, just as the existence of the organism is necessary for the maintenance of the different types of cell.  If it happened that one type of cell tried to co-opt the place or nutriment of the others, declaring itself greater than the rest, the body along with all of its cells would soon perish.

Looking outside the body, in the milieu of society, we see that things are similarly arranged.  Many tasks are necessary for the functioning of a society and we see that different people take on these tasks, becoming, as it were, different cells in the body of society.   And just as it is incorrect to say that one type of cell in the body is superior to another, so too is it incorrect to say that one occupation or task in the life of a society is superior to any other.  The doctor and the construction worker, the teacher and the garbage man (or woman); all are necessary to the functioning of society.  And as it is the body that gives life to its cells, so too does the larger society provide sustenance to each of its members.  And as the body is dependent upon the functioning of its cells for the maintenance of its own life, so too is the life of society dependent on the life of its members. 

And this pattern is repeated as well in nature, in the world around us.  Humanity is but one type of cell in the body of the Earth; a body composed of billions of organisms, all interacting and each fulfilling its own particular task.  Humanity, one might say, is simply the thinking portion of the Earth.  And just as it would be disastrous for the brain cells of the body to attempt to co-opt the place of the lung or liver cells, so too does disaster ensue when humanity attempts to remold all of nature into its own countenance. 

Recognition of and respect for the “interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part,” represents at once a diminishment of egotism and an enlargement of being.  At first this recognition is humbling, since it requires us to admit that we are not privileged entities, that we are dependent beings, incapable of independently upholding our own existence.  But at the same time we are enlarged, for when we realize that we are not independent, but connected to everything else in the cosmos, we also realize that all things are connected to us.  We therefore share in the larger being of the cosmos, expanding beyond our own limited egoistic consciousness. The cosmos is in us just as we are in the cosmos.  We are but one current in the cosmic tide, one expression of cosmic being which expresses itself in an infinite variety of ways.  When we think ourselves separate, independent of others, of nature, of the cosmos, we deny our very being, our inmost nature.  When we realize and respect our interconnected nature, we affirm at one and the same time both ourselves and nature, the cosmos and humanity.

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