The Living Earth as Teacher
By Jay McDaniel
Listening to leadership from the more than human world helps us to find our place in a way that is more open, more relational, and more than we can ever imagine.
As a young boy, I had many mentors: loving parents, good friends, wise teachers. All taught me something about the open and relational way of living in the world.
But my teachers also included many mentors from the more than human world: hills and rivers, trees and stars. They didn’t force me to appreciate or respect them, but they taught me things I couldn’t really learn from people or from books. It seems wrong to think that leadership comes from people alone or even from God alone. We forget the other ninety-nine percent of creation. They, too, are our elders who can help lead us.
Lessons from a River
One of the most important of my early teachers was the Guadalupe River in the hill country of Texas. She is 87 miles long, flowing smoothly most of the time from Kerrville, Texas, through the Hill Country, into the Gulf of Mexico. My parents would take me to the Guadalupe River when I was a child, and I was mentored by her color, her smell, and by the way she could hold you if you swam in her. You could never clutch her in your hands, because she was made of liquid. But, like God, you could float in her and be supported.
Often, I would swim underneath her surface and look up at the world above, where my parents were having a picnic. Intuitively I realized that that the world beneath the surface is as real in its way as the world above. It is a world of beauty, of silence, of darkness, and dreams. It is different from the surface world, but complementary to it. Often when I look into the eyes of people and animals, I see this river. All people have rivers inside of them. All people have depth dimensions, even if they do not know it. Our hearts always contain more than our minds can ever understand.
I speak of the Guadalupe River as “she” rather than “it” because, after all, she is named after our Lady of Guadalupe, the mother of Jesus; and also because the word “it” can too easily suggest something lifeless and inert: a mere object for the mental imagination. When I am in the presence of the Guadalupe River, I’m not in the presence of something lifeless. I’m in the presence of something very much alive, but in a way different from animals and other human beings.
The Living Earth
Wherever there is vital energy of some sort, with a power of its own, there is something like life, as I understand life. Of course, the same situation applies to trees, soil, rocks, and maybe even the earth as a whole. James Lovelock puts it this way:
Earth may be alive: not as the ancients saw her—a sentient Goddess with a purpose and foresight—but alive like a tree. A tree that quietly persists, never moving except to sway in the wind, yet endlessly conversing with the sunlight and the soil. Using sunlight and water and nutrient minerals to grow and change. But all done so imperceptibly.
So, here’s the point. Maybe the earth is alive in the earth’s way, as are all the creatures who inhabit the earth in their ways. The whole idea that there are two kinds of material reality—living things and dead matter—is wrongheaded. It’s all alive in some way.
Whitehead and Indigenous Traditions
In saying that nature is alive, I am aligning with indigenous traditions the world over: native American, native African, native Asian, native Australian. None of them drew a sharp line between human life and non-human life, as if only human beings were alive. We have so much to learn from them. I am also indebted to the organic philosophy of the late philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who also proposed that nature is alive. Whitehead was influenced by contemporary physics and its idea that all things are energy and that energy carries within it a kind of spontaneity or creativity that is vibrant and enduring. Indeed, he believed that what we call feeling is a form of energy and that energy is a form of feeling, such that there is something like life or sentience all the way down into the depths of matter and all the way out into starry heavens above.
A God for All of Life
Whitehead also believed in God. He thought that God is alive, too, albeit in a way that is still different from animals and trees and rivers and the earth and the stars. For Whitehead, God is the very Mind of the universe, and the universe is the body of this Mind. We are small but included in a Life that is much larger than us and yet intimately present to each of us in a loving way. God is, in Whitehead’s words, a “fellow sufferer who understands.” God’s deep nature, thinks Whitehead, is Love.
If there is wisdom in this idea, the question emerges: How can we—you and I—take our place in the larger community of life and how might we be faithful to this Love? What is our vocation, our calling?
The very idea that we are “called” by this Love says something about divine leadership. Divine leadership is not a leadership of control, of domination, of brute force. Instead, it is a leadership of invitation, of beckoning, or allurement. It is loving leadership. This means, of course, that we humans need to “lead” as God leads as best we can. And it means that our leading must begin with a deep listening, as it does with God.
The questions suggest something about the content of God’s calling. The calling of God to us, and in us, is not to live solely for ourselves, as if our happiness is all that really matters. And it is not to live solely for the sake of the happiness of other human beings, as if the other creatures and the earth itself are mere backdrop for a divine-human drama. The calling of God is that we recognize that we are part of a larger family of life and part of a larger adventure. We are part of a living universe, and our vocation, each in our way, is to play our role in its larger unfolding.
For people like me, and the process tradition in which I stand, response to this calling takes the form of trying to help build and sustain communities of life on our small planet: communities that are good for people, for animals, and for the earth. The building blocks of these civilizations are local communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, culturally and religiously diverse, humane to animals, good for the earth, and spiritually satisfying—with no one left behind.
This building needs to begin for us as it begins with God: that is, with Love. And we need to remember that Love is not simply about doing things for other people, animals, and the Earth; it is also about listening to their many voices, each of which have something to teach us: about silence, creativity, adventure, play, endurance, hope, vitality, imagination, intelligence, wisdom, beauty, diversity, ecstasy, struggle, cooperation and family. I stress family because, after all, we do belong to a larger family of life, and it is a tremendous mistake to say that we don’t. It is time for us to place ourselves humbly in the presence of the larger family of life. Surely it is with this respect and care for the larger community of life that God is leading us, if only we will respond. If we can lead one another into this respect, if we can listen to leadership from the more than human world, I cannot help but think that, in our small way, we are finding our place in a way that is more open, and more relational, than we can ever quite imagine. Almost river-like.
Jay B. McDaniel, Ph.D., is a philosopher and theologian who specializes in Buddhism, Whiteheadian process philosophy and process theology, constructive theology, ecotheology, interfaith dialogue, and spirituality in an age of consumerism. His blog (www.openhorizons.org) aims “to offer ideas that might help people create multi-cultural, interfaith communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, and spiritually enjoyable.” Jay serves as a consultant for the China Project of the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California, and is a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Postmodern Development of China.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.