All The World A Thin Place: An Urgent Call for Eco-Theology
An inclusive and pioneering exploration of
Theology, Spirituality, and Current Events.
Essay by Rev. Brandan Robertson
July 11, 2019
The Celtic tradition has a concept called “thin spaces”, geographical locations where the veil between heaven and earth, the world we live in and the realm of the Divine, seems to be remarkably thin. I suspect that all of us have experienced such a place at least once in our lives- maybe it was a place of pilgrimage that we journeyed to over a great distance, longing to lay our eyes on this sacred place. Perhaps we wandered into a thin place without realizing it and we were mesmerized by the power and beauty we found pulsating around us. Whatever the case, when we arrive in a thin space we, like Moses, feel like we must take off our shoes and stand in awe at the glory of the place.
Also, within the Celtic tradition, and most other indigenous spiritual traditions, is a belief that has become known as panentheism, the idea that the Divine impregnates every molecule of the Universe. Every person, every plant, every buzzing bee, and every drop of water is a channel through which the Divine is manifesting its Presence. There is nowhere we can go where our Creator is not. As the Jewish Psalmist wrote, “If I ascend to heavens you are there, if I descend to the depths you are there, if I rise on the wings of the dawn, even there you will find me.” At the heart of every major religious tradition there is a call to humility and wonder at the ordinary world that we live in, because there is a recognition of the Divine in and through all things.
These two concepts, thin spaces and panentheism, which were once so essential to the spiritual understanding of humanity, all but disappeared during the modern era. Those who managed to hold on to religious faith seemed to revert to a mythic belief system that saw the Divine as a personified deity outside of this world, looking down on us with judgement, and occasionally interjecting the affairs of the world at his whim. This image of God caused us to begin to long for an escape from this present world, and a desire to go to whatever physical world that God resided on. It allowed us to begin to see our world as less than sacred, and we developed a posture of consumerism towards the created world- this world was given to us to consume, to use, to dominate, and to decimate, because we would one day be leaving it behind.
Since the emergence of this theistic notion of God, our planet has been assaulted and nearly destroyed, largely by ideologies that have at their core the idea that our life is intended for another world, or that we will have a second chance somewhere else. God isn’t around, but is far away, and is calling us to leave this earth to be in his presence. So, we have exploited and pillaged our planet, we have innovated and found ways to make ourselves more powerful, elevating humanity to a God-like status, able to control, manipulate, and transform the elements for our own hedonistic desires. We desired full dominion over every aspect of planet earth, and by tapping in to our own divine potential, we have done quite well at establishing such dominion.
The problem is the world that we are dominating, exploiting, and pillaging, as Fr. Richard Rohr often says, is the first incarnation of the Divine. Though we have placed blinders over our collective eyes, refusing to acknowledge the Divine presence in every centimeter of the created world, we none the less have been abusing and murdering God. This, of course, is not a new concept. At the heart of the Christian story is the narrative of God appearing in the form of a human being, who is grotesquely murdered at the hands of humanity who believed they knew how to see and be in the world better than the one who created it. And because God has granted us will over our lives and world, God will allow humanity to choose whatever path we desire. If we desire to crucify our Creator, the Creator will tragically allow us that choice.
Since the Industrial Era we have indeed chosen to crucify our Creator. But in doing so, we are crucifying our own ability to survive. There is no life apart from the Source of Life. Every nail that we have pressed into the fragile skin of our Creator, through our unsustainable, human-centered industrial endeavors, has likewise been a nail pressed into our own collective body. Every time we have chosen to dominate and control the planet, rather than living in mutuality with it, we have been tightening the noose around our own neck, threatening to cut off our own ability to live, move, and have our being.
We’ve been dashing towards the line of death with each passing century, ignoring the warnings that our Creator has been giving us through the Book of Nature. And now we’ve finally reached the threshold where we have the option to resist the consequences of our own actions. aWe can begin the long, costly process of repentance to bring healing to the world, or we can step across the finish line, ensuring our own destruction and the destruction of the world as we have known it. The situation is really, truly that dire.
Astonishingly, we seem to be choosing death. The warning flares continued to be shot into the air, but instead of heeding them and making changes for our survival, we are sitting in our skyscrapers watching them as if they are fireworks, toasting to our own destruction. The most powerful and destructive nations in the world continue to choose their own pleasure and self-interest, rather than scaling back the practices and commodities they enjoy, thus saving the world. Most of us continue to walk through our days living as if destruction is just a far-off fantasy that could never actually come upon us. If there was ever a time for anxiety and panic among the masses, this is it. The Creation is breathing its last breath, it’s crying out from the cross of our own making, asking us, “Why have you forsaken me?” And we, like the centurions of old, are turning our heads and covering our ears.
Many people will read this and desire to jump to the hope of resurrection. We want to grab onto an optimistic perspective that humanity will eventually wake up, or that God will somehow step in and reverse our course. But that isn’t the way the world works. I do believe that our planet will eventually heal itself and return to its full health and glory, but I believe that may very well come after humanity has become extinct. Humans have only been on the planet for a brief moment- the earth existed for billions of years before we appeared on the scene. And millions of species of living organisms have come and gone over the history of our planet. We must not allow our humanistic ideology blind us to the fact that we are but one more organism that can easily come and go in the history of this beautiful blue planet.
God will be resurrected. The planet will heal. Our choice to kill and destroy the incarnation of God will only harm ourselves. Our Creator will overcome. Life will continue. But it may well continue without human involvement. That seems to be the trajectory that we are heading.
How can we change course? How can we ensure our survival? I believe we must first start by returning to the wisdom of our ancestors who lived in worshipful relationship to the Created World. We must begin to acknowledge the presence of the Divine in every leaf, every ant, and every person. We must begin to live in loving, sacrificial relationship with God in Creation, allowing the world to sustain us as we seek to sustain it. We need to return to a synergistic relationship to God, giving back to the Divine Life as much as we receive. We need to begin to see all the world as a thin place, realizing that the realm of the Divine isn’t somewhere off in the cosmos, but is here on the ball of dirt and glory.
The subconscious spiritual beliefs of any and every culture are an indicator of the likely actions that such a people will take. In our consumeristic, capitalistic Western culture, our subconscious beliefs tell us that we are the center and pinnacle of Creation, that our innovative capacities will continue to enable us to survive regardless of circumstances. But in the words of Jesus, these beliefs lead us down the wide road to destruction and many are walking upon it. The narrow road that leads to life calls us to challenge these subconscious beliefs, challenge the systems that we have created that pillage and exploit Creation, and be willing to point our innovative capacities towards devolving technologically and returning to simpler, more natural ways of being in the world.
But again- in order for any significant change to occur, our beliefs must be changed. And it is one of the primary roles of institutions of religion to call society out of its position of complacency and into a posture of true repentance- that is, metanoia, the expanding of our minds. We must call humanity out of mythic consciousness that sees God as some Being out in the cosmos who will at last step in and save the day, and into an integrated view of Reality that sees God in our midst, around us, through us, and as us. We must, with urgency, call our communities to tear off our blinders and take a hard look at the destruction that is looming over our species, and then act in accordance to our spiritual traditions to enter into a right relationship with the Divine once again.
“The End is Near” was once a catchphrase of right-wing fundamentalist preachers. Today, it must become a rallying cry for all who care about the future of humanity and the future of our planet. The end is in fact near, but we still have the opportunity to reverse our course. The end isin fact near, but a new beginning is still within the realm of possibility for humanity. One of the primary keys towards changing course and saving our world is going to come when we once again begin to locate the Divine in the midst of all that is, seen and unseen. Salvation will come when we embrace the wisdom of our Celtic spiritual forerunners who saw all the world as a thin place, who located heaven in the midst of here and now, and who saw this world and everything in it as pierced through with the Divine.
May all people of faith heed these warnings, turn from our arrogance, and open our souls and lives towards a renewed kind of relationship with the Divine, in and through this sacred ball of blue and green.
~ Rev. Brandan Robertson
About the Author
Rev. Brandan Robertson is a noted spiritual thought-leader, contemplative activist, and commentator, working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal and the author of Nomad: A Spirituality For Travelling Light and writes regularly for Patheos, Beliefnet, and The Huffington Post. He has published countless articles in respected outlets such as TIME, NBC, The Washington Post, Religion News Service, and Dallas Morning News.