October 1st – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: Amos 5: 21-24; Romans 12: 3-8; Romans 14: 7-9
The Feeling of Absolute Dependence
On what do you depend? On whom do you depend? What is it within your life that you cannot live without, that you gives you reason to be? What is it that you depend upon for a sense of well being in the world? What do you depend upon in order to stay alive?
Those are questions with an old lineage, extending back to antiquity, and perhaps beyond that as well. But it was in the early 19th century that the question was given its fullest expression in the writing of one of my heroes, a man named Friedrich Schleiermacher. He’s relatively unknown in American churches, but he deserves to be enshrined in every progressive congregation throughout the land, for he is the architect of liberal Christian thought. He was a theologian and philosopher at the University of Berlin, but he was also a pastor of a large and thriving congregation in the city. He was one of the founders of that great university, and he carried on a friendship with some of the most vibrant poets and novelists in the Romantic period. He was a lover of music, a family man, and a dedicated friend to many. When he died in the 1830’s, a parade of some 20,000 people followed in his funeral procession. Schleiermacher was a giant of a man, and he deserves to be known by those of us who navigate the streams he charted. Specifically, he deserves to be known for a formulation embedded in his theology. Religion, he says, springs from the feeling of absolute dependence. He builds everything upon that foundation. Religion begins from the feeling of absolute dependence.
It’s a formulation that still resonates, even after all these years. We need theologies of dependence and absolute dependence – rather than theologies of autonomy or independence. Such a theology resonates with the deepest knowledge of what it is to be human. We come into the world as tiny infants, absolutely dependent upon others for our well being. If we’re not held, if we’re not touched, if we’re not spoken to, let alone fed or clothed, something within us withers and dies. We come into the world as dependent creatures. But it’s also true that we leave this world as dependent creatures, whether that happens in old age or sometime before that. We leave the world much as we enter it, requiring care and support, and a good deal of love. In between, we grow toward greater degrees of freedom and autonomy, something worthy of celebration. Even so, we forget our earlier dependence, and we bury the knowledge that such dependence will, one day, come again. Not only that, too often we ignore the ways we actually are dependent, even in the prime of our adult autonomy.
Schleiermacher would have us become aware of how dependent we are within the world, how each of us is a fragile, delicate, and beautiful node within a complex and systematic web of planetary interdependence. He would have each of us trace and map those webs of dependence, beginning with the most elemental things. We depend upon food. We depend upon water. We depend upon air. We depend upon shelter. But we depend upon far more than those basic elements. We depend upon love and the nurturing care of at least several important individuals throughout our lives. We depend upon those older than us to teach us things. We depend upon our bodies, to do the work we need to do, to remain healthy. But we depend upon more still. We depend upon institutions, governments, universities, businesses, to create a stable framework within which we can live. We depend upon an economy – but not just one economy, but many interconnected economies. We depend upon the knowledge and skills of other people, to grow our food and to build the things we use, and to fix those things when they break. Beyond that, we depend upon culture, to provide expressions of emotional depth that somehow resonate within us – culture is that which keeps us from killing ourselves, Cornel West tells us.
But then we can keep spinning the web of dependence farther and farther out, this complex and organic system of interdependencies that extends past physical and biological dependence and into the very cosmos. It’s here that Schleiermacher leaps, pushing farther still, asking if even that complex system of interdependencies extending into the cosmos is itself dependent. He wonders if even that complex web might be dependent upon a transcendent reality, which we call God, a reality that somehow and in some way holds that delicate web together, even as that transcendence bends back, becoming interlaced within that delicate web. To be confronted not only with one’s dependence, but absolute dependence, is to be humbled, for humans are but small nodes within a complex whole. But it is also to be empowered, for humans thus become integral to the functioning of that whole. It means that everyone and everything plays a part in the cosmic drama.
In the 21st century, I can think of no greater symbol of absolute dependence than that of a simple cup of water. Water is something that most of us in affluent communities in North America take for granted. But water is also that upon which each and every one of us is absolutely dependent. Indeed, water pollution, or water scarcity, is something that will likely affect all of us at some point in the not too distant future. For many, it’s already a dire threat, or an ongoing predicament affecting everything about their lives. And it’s poised to become one of the major drivers of geopolitical conflicts around the planet, as communities compete for water resources and water security. Some years ago, Kofi Annan, then the General Secretary of the United Nations, stated that “fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict.” 85% of the world’s population resides in the driest half of the planet, most especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 1 billion people across the planet do not have reliable access to clean drinking water, and between 6 and 8 million people die every year as a result of water born diseases. Water is that upon which every one of us depends, but it’s also that which exposes the massive inequalities that bedevil our planet.
Nowhere is the disparity of water scarcity and water abundance more clear than in Palestine. If you’ve traveled with us on any of our Tree of Life journeys, you’ll know that many villages in the West Bank receive no more than two hours of flowing water every week. If you want to know whether you’re looking at an Israeli settlement or a Palestinian village, you just look to see if there’s a dark cistern on the roof to collect rainwater. If there is, you can know for certain that it’s a Palestinian village, for every drop of water that falls must be collected and stored. A normal occurrence throughout Palestine is to shower, if you can, with a bucket at your feet, to collect runoff water so that it can be used for other ordinary tasks. Meanwhile, it’s possible to gaze across the walls of Israeli settlements that have full swimming pools, and to see sprinklers keeping plants irrigated. The Negev desert has been made to bloom with agricultural crops, all of which consume immense amounts of water. It’s a microscopic version of a global pattern, by no means limited to Israel and Palestine, where wealthy countries control and consume water supplies with profligacy, while poor or dependent countries suffer the consequences of that profligacy.
The prophet Amos writes that justice will one day flow down like water. But in our time, justice is flowing water. The planetary dependence that we all participate in can be demonstrated by no better symbol than a cup of water. That cup demonstrates how each of us depends upon clean water to survive. It reminds us of the human solidarity we share with others for whom water is scarce. It reminds us of our planetary obligation, of our global interdependence with people and cultures unlike our own. The cup of water that we share in communion today reminds us of the fragile and interconnected web that we participate in. And the cup warns of the consequences of failing to appreciate our interdependence.
When Jesus shared a meal with his disciples, wine became a reminder to look for the risen Jesus in the common elements, the common dependencies of life. Water is such an element today, a reminder of all we share in common on this World Communion Sunday, and of all we stand to lose.
But the wider question, rooted in the engagement of a 19th century theologian, remains: on what do you depend? On whom are you dependent? In what ways are you absolutely dependent? Learning to answer that question well is at the heart of what it means to be human in the world. On what, and on whom, do you depend? May the water we share today guide you in your own reflections on those questions
I conclude with words from Green Grass, words from the Standing Rock Camp, where water became precious: Mini Waconi. Water is Life. Amen.