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Progressive seminary students offered a confession to plants. How do we think about sins against nature?

Ice plant flowers bloom along the coast of Bodega Bay, Calif. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

When I was a child, I spoke to trees. I knew my secrets would be safe with these great green friendly things. And I thought the trees spoke back to me. I’d press my ear against their trunks to hear the reverberating, strangely musical sound of branches knocking against one another in the wind, a sound that seems to be traveling to my ear from the decades coded into each tree’s annual growth rings.

I’m comfortable talking to plants, but I’m not sure if I could do so through a microphone in front of a bunch of seminarians, as a student at Union Theological Seminary is doing in a photo tweeted out Tuesday by the seminary’s account:

Union later explained on its website that the service was part of a class titled “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” with liturgical responses to the state of the climate.

“Christian Twitter” is always on fire about something, and today that tweet was its sacrificial fuel. Detractors saw in it everything from idolatry to New Age nonsense to an opportunity for jokes about “VeggieTales” and church plants.

But beneath the very human tendency to jump on the virtual bandwagon, I think there is a pressing question that many Christians and people of no faith are grappling with: What is our moral responsibility to nonhuman life-forms? If we can sin against the natural world, how do we name and atone for that sin?

Confession is the Christian response to guilt. While it takes various forms in different traditions, confession is a private or public acknowledgment of sins as the first step in repentance and reconciliation with God and the church. Confession is a communal matter not only because we can sin as a community (see: racism) but also because individual sin affects a community.

My sin is an offense to God but also to those around me. In my greed, I deprive others of what they need. In my pride, I fail to honor God and those around me. In dishonesty, I break the covenant of trust between myself and others.

Confessing these sins is the first step in mending those relationships and restoring the covenant with God and other people. But plants?

It’s easy to think of environmental harms in terms of a list of losses: so many extinct species, so many disappearing glaciers. More profound, however, is the way species exist in community. In a beautiful essay on prairie grasses, Potawatomi ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “I want to raise a song for all of those beings knit together by the roots of prairie sod. I refuse to write a eulogy for one alone, because the very notion of separability is at the root of the crisis we have created. The life of one is inseparable from the life of another.”

Ecosystems such as forests, prairies or coral reefs are not a collection of living things but, environmentalists argue, living organisms in which a variety of species contribute in an intricate web of environmental interdependence.

We now know that in very literal terms our bodies are made up of more than ourselves. Each human body contains trillions of microorganisms, and of course we are dependent on plants and animals for our food and air. The more we learn about these patterns of intimate interdependence, the harder it is to maintain our illusions of autonomy.

A similar idea, the Gaia hypothesis, has been advanced for the planet as a whole, with its remarkably controlled atmosphere and rare hospitality to life. Because it is named after the Greek goddess of the earth, the Gaia hypothesis smacks of paganism to many Christians. But I hear in it an echo of the Apostle Paul’s conception of the church as a body in his letter to the Romans: “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

Just as the death of one person can rend the fabric of a congregation or family, the death of a species can spell the end of a particular ecosystem. Whole communities, webs of relationships that sometimes took centuries to develop, are destroyed.

But what do these biological and ecological facts have to do with our morality and the expressions of our faith? Does recognizing their moral worth mean that we must treat them as humans? In her excellent essay “Duties concerning islands,” moral philosopher Mary Midgley writes:

To speak of duties to [non-human] things ... is not necessarily to personify them superstitiously, or to indulge in chatter about “the secret life of plants.” It expresses merely that there are suitable and unsuitable ways of behaving in given situations. … it is the business of each not to forget his transitory and dependent position, the rich gifts which he has received, and the tiny part he plays in a vast, irreplaceable and fragile whole.

Midgley goes on to write that the “false atomic notion of human psychology [and, we might add, physiology] — a prejudice above which nobody ever raised Rousseau — is the flaw in all social-contract thinking.”

If we can think of morality only as a contract or transaction, we will never be able to understand our duties to the natural world or, for that matter, to each other or God.

There is intellectual work to be done in considering our place in the world and our duties to it, and in learning from theological traditions, such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, that place environmental care at the center of their theology. There is physical work to be done in healing and restoring debilitated ecosystems. Fumbling our way toward a better environmental ethic will probably involve some awkwardness and false starts, confessing to plants among them, but refusing to admit our ecological guilt is arguably a worse sin than taking our succulents to church.

We get to share this planet with trees and earthworms and mosses and microbes! It is such a strange and undeserved gift, not only to be alive but also to be surrounded by so much beauty. Or so I told a birch, its trunk lightly gilded by the setting sun, its leaves just beginning to turn, on Tuesday evening.

Veery Huleatt is senior editor for Plough Quarterly.