chris-may2012-sA large screen image of the planet earth rising over the moon's horizon greeted me as I walked into a Southern Illinois University classroom to begin the winter term of 1970. At the time it was still a new image for us; a fresh look at the evidence of a new cosmology. It was the beginning of a new decade, which we greeted with a sense of world changing optimism in the face of a world divided by war, racial and ethnic hatred, and economic inequities. We were part of a design class focused on envisioning new solutions to world problems.

Embarking on the Spaceship

I was at Southern Illinois University as an engineering student with an interest in the social issues dividing my country along with a growing concern for social justice in other countries. During the following weeks Buckminster Fuller engaged us in playing a game he called the world game. Through various simulations he challenged us to recognize the nature of a global system and to explore multiple perspectives from which to view global conditions and issues. The experience of this class was a pivotal moment for me. I came out of that quarter with a new model, a new working metaphor, and my Operating Handbook for Spaceship Earth. I had a new sense of what it meant to be part of a global community, the necessity of working synergistically within globally envisioned systems, and a budding awareness of being part of a larger ecosystem. I also came out of it with reinforced skills for perceiving relationships and imagining new possibilities within an eco-context.

It was a new direction that awakened an ecological concern and engaged me in participating in the first Earth Day Celebration in 1970 and pursuing an academic focus in reading the philosophy of science. It prompted me to develop a systems-oriented worldview, do a senior thesis around the work of Alfred North Whitehead, and move theologically toward the process school of thought being articulated most notably at that time by John B. Cobb.

Over the past three decades, spaceship earth was my grand cosmological metaphor. It was the context within which I have wrestled with the theological and social issues that are central to my sense of being and meaning. It has been my basis for articulating models identifying human beings as divinely called stewards. It has been a context for projecting meaning for our context on this “pale blue dot” (Sagan) out toward the edge of our known universe.earth3-s

An Encounter with Earth Community’s Song of Songs

During one week in March 2002, I encountered a critique of that model that has launched a rethinking of metaphors and scope. The event was a workshop at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in the mountains of Pennsylvania led by Larry Rasmussen from Union Theological Seminary in New York. I was drawn to this gathering by the topic and the reputation of the workshop leader. As part of my preparation I read his book, Earth Community Earth Ethics (1996), and engaged my colleague at the Wayne E. Oates Institute, Vicki Hollon, in dialogue about it during the few days leading up to the workshop. This enabled three streams to converge: the book, the lectures and leadership of Larry Rasmussen during the workshop, and the collective conversation of the group gathered to interact and reflect on this topic.

As an image-oriented individual, a turning point in my own journey occurred as I read through Rasmussen’s exegesis of three images: cowboy economics, spaceship earth, and day care (Rasmussen, 1996, p. 168–171). Rasmussen’s primary critique of the spaceship earth model, a minimal margin of error common to spaceships, did not have the impact that I encountered in a secondary critique. His observation, that the spaceship earth model is constructed around the notion that the earth is a vast machine controlled by and serving the crew (humankind), underscored the breakdown between my theological perception of all of creation as coexisting life created by God, my eco-image of finite systems, and my theological sense of working for the redemption of the whole inclusively.

Rasmussen suggests the image of day care as a more appropriate model. Perhaps so, but it is not working for me. While it does offer greater flexibility and learning adaptability, for me it lacks a sufficient sense of complexity to engage my imagination around critical limits or the notion that this system can reach a point of no longer supporting human life. As I thought about my perception of day care centers, I appreciated the emphasis on discovering new things about the world and learning new ways of relating. Being married to a person that spent some years working in day care, however, I know the role adults play in cleaning up the messes and making things right when they go wrong. My experience of God is as one who is with us in the midst of suffering and failure, sharing the experience with us rather than as one who sweeps in at the proper moment to restore order or to fix the problems.

In working toward a new image, I revisited a couple of books that I regard as old friends. I first went to my old Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Fuller, 1969) in hopes of finding insights to evolve a more inclusively synergistic model for this planetary biosphere. While it was thought provoking to read again 30 years later, it didn’t provide the insight that I was looking for. Then I went to Lewis Thomas’ (1974) book, The Lives of a Cell. It was in reading this book 25 years ago that I first became conscious of the organically interconnected continuum of looking at life macroscopically and microscopically at the same time. Since I need an image that communicates this continuum of self-organizing, decentralized communities of life, my hope was to find a few more clues here. In re-reading it I stumbled again across a passage that had been pivotal:

I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is a no go… It is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible connections.… I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like? Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a single cell. (Thomas, 1974, p. 4)

So, I have an image to continue working with and pondering. Similar to the complex microcosm of a single cell floating within its space, the image of earth as a cell carries both a self-contained complexity that elicits incorporation in metaphor as well as galaxial and universal interconnectedness as part of a larger and larger whole. Yet, I am wondering how I might integrate this with the image of the learning organization with its capacity for trial and error learning, adaptation, and evolution.

Ultimately, my reason for pondering the image at all is because it serves as a vehicle for communicating and energizing the real concern that I share with Rasmussen, which is the pursuit of sustainable community. While cells are incredibly adaptive and resilient, they are not impervious to death or mutation. What constitutes healthy and sustainable community is a question I will have to continue to work with in my own search for good community, but the guidelines provided by Rasmussen provide a good starting point.

My tendency in the past with my spaceship earth image has been to look primarily for more globalized solutions. I was reminded through both dialogue and presentation that nature’s global solutions are interconnected local communities acting in self-organizing and decentralized fashion as an integral part of the whole. This also reminded me that evolving my working model also calls for developing various solutions along the macroscopic/microscopic continuum of communities ranging from next-door neighbors to global neighbors.

A big rub came in encountering Rasmussen’s reflection on Earth's economy and the degree of humankind’s appropriate of Net Primary Product. One the one hand, there is the reminder of the critical and global nature of the problem, which evokes my desire to implement global actions controlled by those of us who agree with my solutions. On the other, are the principles of Earth economy affirming diversity and difference. Once again, the cellular image is helpful.

The image is also helpful to me in hearing the reminder that these values are deep values, better communicated and expressed in spiritual contexts and language than the economic terms and measures with which we are so infatuated. The convergence of our retreat's focus on Earth Community’s “Song of Songs” with my recognition of the value in examining the pre-modern traditions of asceticism, sacramentalism, and the prophetic-liberative perspective identifies branches to be grafted into my theological tree. My own spiritual journey has recently taken me into Celtic traditions and practices, and this reinforcement continues to feel good to me, resonating with my own earth story, as Howard Clinebell refers to it, and my theological pilgrimage.

Integrating Earth-honoring Community and the Healing of Whole Persons

Ultimately, this revisiting of image and model leads to the question of how to take the ideas discussed into the realm of my day-to-day community and ministry. The interaction with other participants at the retreat enabled me to come home with new ideas and inspiration for ways to practice earth-honoring faith on a personal level; including the incorporation of ascetic and sacramental practices, eating locally, and working with the consciousness that all of life is a coexisting, interdependent creation. The primary challenge I seek to address within the context of my ministry, however, is the integration of theology, science, ecology, and pastoral care in caring for whole persons and a whole planet. This involves working on several levels throughout the macroscopic-microscopic continuum. That is a challenge that I will be continuing to explore in my own theological writing, in a series of interviews around the search for good community, and through the educational programs offered by the Wayne E. Oates Institute.

Rasmussen’s sharing of Wendell Berry’s 17 steps as a good starting point prompted me to go find a copy of Another Turn of the Crank (1995), which I found helpful in developing a fuller understanding of Berry’s vision of community. It also prompted me to reflect on those 17 steps in light of my own involvements in ministry and community, especially in working to integrate concerns for individual health and well-being with earth-honoring perspective. Interestingly, the final chapter in Berry’s book was one of the presentations at the very first conference hosted by the Oates Institute and one of the first articles published in the Oates Journal. The circles of life just keep spiraling around and around.

Reflecting on these interconnections of persons, places, and communities; I found myself reflecting on a conversation I shared with a friend as we were hiking in the woods near here. Our conversation touched on the work he has been doing in ecotherapy and its parallel with the work of Wayne Oates, the spiritual influence that hiking through the Grand Canyon had had upon each of us, and the connection we each felt to the land as part of our well-being. As I thought of our conversation, I remembered some of what he wrote as part of his presentation during our first online conference:

The crucial missing piece in Western developmental theory is that our entire being as humans is deeply rooted in the earth… We human beings are organically related to the whole biosphere in all facets of our complex personhood… Earth alienation is a diagnosable and treatable form of human alienation that should be part of evaluation and diagnosis in healing. … One can begin the diagnosis and also the healing of earth-alienation in a simple way by inviting people to tell their earth story. (Clinebell, 1998)

As a storyteller, this offers a significant avenue for integration by sharing stories and enabling the sharing of stories. Stories tell us who we are and bond us in relationships. Anton Boisen and Charles Gerkin taught us the importance and value of living human documents, and this engagement with Larry Rasmussen and others gathered in the mountains of Pennsylvania has left me with a sense of seeing this cell we call earth as composed of the collected stories of living being documents that determine our well-being as a whole. Further, that this collection of interconnected stories provides the collaborative matrix for working out a future of hope or despair.


Berry, W. (1995). Another turn of the crank. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint.

Clinebell, H. (1998). Reality-based hope: An essential dynamic in healing persons by healing the earth and vice versa, in Hope as a Dynamic for Healing, eds. A. Christopher Hammon and Vicki L. Hollon. Louisville: Wayne E. Oates Institute. [Online conference presentation]

Fuller, R.B. (1969). Operating manual for spaceship earth. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press.

Rasmussen, L.L. (1996). Earth community earth ethics. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Thomas, L. (1974). The lives of a cell: Notes of a biology watcher. New York: Bantam Books, Inc.

This column is made possible by the contributions to the Oates Institute through the Two Lattes Club. Join the Two Lattes Club or Make a Donation to the Oates Institute.

Please login to leave comments.{jcomments on}