In September of 2021, I started my first year of English and Philosophy at university. One of my first modules was “An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion”. After two weeks of online lectures, I had a tutorial in the module, and in order to prove my eagerness, I volunteered to make a presentation on the existence of God with two others, Tim and Billy. By coincidence, I had met Tim before, but neither of us knew Billy. He has a fiery red-headed mullet and a broad Northern accent. The first thing he said to us was “You’re in luck, you’ll be making this presentation with a Believer.” We went to get coffees together and it became increasingly clear that Billy was not just any believer – He is a self-described hard-line loyalist Protestant from the Free Presbyterian church, the church of Ian Paisley to be exact, and a fan of Edward Carson. Surprisingly though, it was another aspect of his beliefs that struck me most – He’s a creationist, believing that the earth began 6,000 years ago according to the Book of Genesis. I have nothing but respect for other people’s beliefs, as has been instilled in me by this church, but it did pose a problem when we had to make a secular presentation on the existence of God, together.
          About a week later, my Professor in that same module happened to refer to creationism and the Irish philosopher, Ussher, who managed to pinpoint the exact date of the first day according to the Bible. Ussher believed that the world was made on October 22nd in 4004 B.C. During this lecture, I was sitting in the Ussher library in college, watching the leaves turn, which, to me, was a series of coincidences I couldn’t ignore.
          The beginning of the universe has significance in science and religion as both parties argue that it points to there being or not being a God. The very fact that there is a universe at all has always been a point of deep reflection and contemplation – As English Philosopher J.J.C. Smart said :-

"…my mind often seems to reel under the immense significance this question has for me. That anything exists at all does seem to me a matter for the deepest awe."

Using the universe’s beginning as proof of God is known as a cosmological argument – coming from the Greek words ‘kosmos’ and ‘logia’, directly translated as ‘discourse of the world’. I won’t endeavour to fully discuss cosmological arguments but I will boil down their premises to this – one thing happens after another, one thing moves after it is moved by another, one thing comes into being after it is created by another – but these create a problem, where did it all begin? Therefore, there must be a prime mover, a first cause, a necessary being – God. While studying this, I spent a lot of time cycling in the Phoenix Park, and I began to notice a flaw in all of these arguments. The philosophers we studied say that infinities are impossible, because nothing could ever begin, but they use that argument to prove the existence of a God that is infinitely Good and Just and Powerful. I looked at the park around me and I thought – what if they’re all circles? Why can’t each cause, cause another simultaneously? Since that moment, I’ve noticed that many philosophers and thinkers, in general, don’t show an understanding of the way that the earth works, and how it influences us. I call this understanding my ‘environmental lens’ and it has helped me in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined. The fact is that with this lens, concepts of infinity, goodness, justice, and power don’t seem so difficult. Through this environmental lens, we not only gain a clearer picture of the earth but also the divine.
          This realisation sent me on a journey to look for further sources to back my beliefs, being fully aware that I wasn’t the first person to think this. One day, I bought a book called ‘There is No Point of No Return’ and was introduced to Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess’s idea of the ecological self for the very first time. Simply put, it develops on theories of the self to expand it beyond human horizons. One of the earliest concepts of the self is in the second chapter of Genesis, when God makes Adam and Eve in God’s image. The mistake I think that we’ve made is thinking that being in God’s image makes us singular and distinct from Nature. You don’t have to believe in God to fall victim to this, deep within society remains the idea that humans are extraneous to Nature. However, even in a secular way, Nature can help us to understand and encounter the sublime. Arne Naess describes a form of introspection that allows us to include the earth and everything on it in our idea of the self. Christians often note that looking inwards is a way to understand God, so to me the obvious answer is that these two ideas are not oppositional – but complimentary. It makes more sense that being in God’s image, is inherently to be a part of the earth. To paraphrase Naess:

“The meaning of life, and the joy we experience in living, is enhanced through increased self-realization, which implies a broadening and deepening of the self to include the world at large.”

If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably be confused by such a vague idea. To be honest, initially it was Naess’s attitudes around love that actually caught my attention. Naess believes that when we love ourselves it broadens our sense of self to include other people. We can be aware that to love others properly you must love yourself first, but achieving that, is much harder than it sounds. It is so important that we understand that the root of community is the extension of love, and according to Naess – the extension of ourselves. We as a Church hold a doctrine of love, showing that we already have a fundamental understanding of its importance in service and worship. There’s this false idea that you have to be a morally mature person to be a good environmentalist. This is because we have been led to believe that a selfless love must be a self-sacrificing love. ‘Jesus was a martyr, we must give up meat for the planet, we cannot make funny jokes because they’re not politically correct.’ We are incapable of seeing this supposed sacrifice as a part of love and not as a by-product of it. We assume we must suffer, but that will only ever lead to bitterness. Let’s not forget that sustainability by definition is about preservation and longevity.
          The right decisions will be an extension of love, not a diminishing of the self.
          This brings me back to the ecological self. It may be easy to understand how other people can become integral to your sense of self – but how could a tree or a badger? But not only that but how could every tree, and every badger, and every person? Well, I contextualise this by asking about your childhood home. Or your favourite spot in the city, or the country. How do you feel when the flower you planted grows again in the springtime? Or when you wake up to a beautiful sunrise and a fresh cup of tea. Do you feel a sense of something you can’t hold? Maybe it’s not that you find nature beautiful from a distance, but you actually find yourself in nature, which makes it beautiful.
          Plato proposed that the physical world we lived in paled in comparison to the world of forms – where the ideal representations of all things lived. Our souls belong to the world of the forms and return there after our bodies decay. Many have heard of this, especially because of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. But what fewer people might realise is that Plato, through the dialogues of Socrates while he was on his deathbed, uses this idea to propose a theory of reincarnation. In ‘Phaedo’, Socrates states that our souls return to the world of forms, only to be reborn into a new body. Our awareness of the existence of the forms is a vague recollection of this experience. Most beautifully, he tells his companions that if they took one look around them they’d notice that everything in the world moves in circles – so why would you think that life and death are any different? When asked in the same dialogue, why he has reserved such a startling revelation for a moment so close to his death Socrates replies:

“Though they do sing during their lifetime as well, swans reserve their longest and most beautiful song for when they realise it’s time for them to die. Mankind’s own fear of death causes them to say it’s a song of grief and lament the swans are singing on their departure. They ignore the fact that no bird sings when it’s hungry, or cold, or in any other kind of pain. They sing because they foresee the good things which await them, and they are happier that day than they have ever been before.”

This consolation in the belief in reincarnation, allows memory to become the key to unlocking the reality of the world. Much as Naess believes introspection to be the gateway to expanding ourselves. One of my favourite figures in Classical Greek Mythology is the Goddess of Memory, Mnemosyne (nimohsinee). She is the daughter of heaven and earth and the mother of the Nine Muses. Which, I think, was particularly apt of the Greeks – because what is memory if not the tool of love and creation? Think back to what that childhood home and sunrise have in common. They not only fill you with joy at their beauty but, wonder at what they remind you of.
          We constitute our love for things, by remembering them.
          Similarly, when we continually interact with nature, we instil a memory of ourselves within it, so if you remove that interaction, if you isolate yourself from that reality, you lose that part of yourself. Possibly our souls do not belong to the Platonic Ideal but our bodies do belong to the earth. Even if our reincarnation is only into fertile soil, we are still a part of that unified community we have built. We have the power to make and remake new worlds all the time, but that does not make us Gods – it makes us human.
          This is all very important, but it lacks an element of practicality necessary for climate action. The number one question that people ask concerning climate change, is what can I do as an individual to help? It can seem daunting and let’s face it, a bit useless. As comedian Sean Locke once said ‘tackling climate change on an individual level, is like showing up to the aftermath of an earthquake with a dustpan and brush.’
          And yet, I have an answer. You draw three overlapping circles in a Venn Diagram and title them “What I love”, “What I’m good at”, and, “How I want to help”. Where these three circles overlap – that is what you do. One of the biggest problems in climate action is that so far, it has asked everyone to do the same things. The better thing would be to take advantage of our individual strengths and skills, collectively. But the far more important question is not what you should do, but what we as a congregation should. What do we love? What are we good at? How do we want to help?
          At my first proper introduction to this church, Bill Darlison poured a cup of water over my head and handed me the world. You, as a congregation promised to help raise me. And you have, but I’m giving the world back, and asking you what we should do with it.
          If the world began 6,000 or 4 billion years ago, it doesn’t matter, because life as we know it could end. And for what? Those were the thoughts rolling around my brain as I sat in the Phoenix Park at the end of October, mulling the world over and off my shoulders. And I thought that Love is too small a word to describe how I feel about the park, it is now a part of my heart. Each branch on each tree not only mirrors each other but my veins and lungs. To understand me, you’d have to understand the park. On that average October day, I finally realized that I was only one tiny manifestation of the earth, and I loved myself. And so, I loved the world.
          After all this study, I found that I held common ground with Billy the Creationist. I have come to experience that the world was made on a crisp October morning, and ends when love is lost.

Éle Ní Chonbhuí                               January 2022
Dublin Unitarian Church

Comment from Rev.Bill Darlison

Morag and I watched Éle's service on Sunday and we were mightily impressed! How could one so young be so confident, so competent, and so articulate? She seems to have grown up so fast. I can remember her baptism and I can remember the incident that Bridget referred to when, during the children's story, a four-or-five-year old Éle told us all the ending of the story of the tortoise and the hare. The last time I saw her, just a few years ago, she was upbraiding the famous actor Frank Langella for his comment that the youth of today are only interested in their mobile phones. She gave him such a hard time that he retracted his comment and told her that she had convinced him to change his opinion! I think Éle is destined to change a lot of minds in the future.