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On Religion: Union Seminary Holds Another Interfaith Rite; Twitter-verse Explodes

When describing the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi, his admirers — environmentalists as well as theologians — usually quote his “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.”

It begins with the Catholic mystic stressing that to God alone belong “all glory, all honor and all blessings.”

Then St. Francis, who died in 1226, proclaims: “Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun. … Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair. Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air.”

This famous hymn teaches that God is Creator and that Francis is thankful for all of creation — rain, wind, fire, plants, humanity and even “Sister Death.”

That wasn’t the doctrinal equation many Twitter users saw in a recent message from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The seminary tweet described a chapel service linked to a class — “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response” — taught by the Rev. Claudio Carvalhaes, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) theologian from Brazil.

“Today in chapel, we confessed to plants,” said the seminary statement. “Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?” The tweet showed a student facing potted ferns, palms, cattails, a lily and other houseplants.

“The prayers were said to the plants,” confirmed Carvalhaes, reached by telephone. “The way we understand this, we are not praying to the plants as God. … We were seeing the plants in a way that the indigenous peoples see them — as living things with lives of their own. …

“We were speaking to the plants as part of the ‘we’ of God. We are all part of God’s creation — both mankind and the rest of creation.”

The Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary heard a different message. “If you do not worship the Creator, you will inevitably worship the creation, in one way or another. That is the primal form of idolatry,” he said, in a podcast from the Louisville campus, which has 1,731 full-time students.

The Union rite created a furor because of this seminary’s fame as a center for progressive theology and its academic association with nearby Columbia University on Manhattan’s West Side. Union currently has 222 full-time students from these traditions: Baptist, pagan, African Methodist Episcopal (Zion), Buddhist, Hindu, Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, Church of Christ, Quaker-Mennonite, Unitarian Universalist, Orthodox, Reformed Church in America and Seventh-day Adventist.

Carvalhaes said the “Temple of Confessions” rite included representatives of Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism, as well as Catholicism, Anglicanism and several Protestant churches. He asked his students to prepare prayers focusing on “what they needed to confess,” in terms of sins against creation and the environment. There was no printed liturgy.

This is an interfaith class and students voiced their own understandings of creation and the divine, he added. “Now we need to go back and analyze what was said and critique it.”

As the chapel service began, Carvalhaes read a statement noting that believers frequently use the term “sacred” to describe churches and temples. “We have a harder time seeing sacredness in plants, seeds, soil, forests, trees, rivers. We learn from indigenous communities that they relate to forests, rivers, animals and trees as subjects, sentient beings and with them they talk, they listen, they relate, they organize their lives. … Today we will try to be thinking and doing a connection by talking to the plants, soil and rocks and confess how we have related with them.”

Once again, Carvalhaes stressed that Union seminary includes seminarians and believers from a variety of Christian traditions and other world religions.

“Still, I would say that we are trying to relate to this earth in a way similar to that of St. Francis of Assisi,” he said. “When we confess, we are trying to heal that brokenness that we see all around us in this world, the brokenness that makes it hard for us to see God’s fullness in the plants, God’s fullness in the animals. … We need to see God in a more expansive way.”

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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