briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, September 19, 2019

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, September 19, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Union Theological Seminary Confesses Sin to Plants: If You Do Not Worship the Creator, You Will Worship the Creation

So far as I can imagine, we are the first generation of human beings to describe something we do as tweeting, but tweeting we do. And sometimes all it takes is one tweet in order to indicate the world has changed, and we had better notice. The tweet in this case came to public attention yesterday, even though the tweet was posted by Union Theological Seminary on its institutional feed on Tuesday. The tweet that began to ricochet across the world included these words, “Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. 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.” Then the tweet asked the question, “What do you confess to the plants in your life?”

A photograph was attached and posted with the tweet. It showed an assortment of plants and a few people gathered in what presumably is a worship space at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One person with a microphone is kneeling before the plants and there are a few others scattered in the room seated in chairs, apparently, in this service of confession of sin to plants about plants.

Now, there is an entire collision of worldviews between the biblical worldview and whatever worldview this now represents, in just these few words and that one singular photograph. But Union Theological Seminary offered an entire rationale behind that tweet and a succession of tweets that also appeared in the institution’s own institutional thread. Union Seminary said, “We’ve had many questions about yesterday’s chapel conducted as part of a class,” mentioning the professor, “and the class is known as Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response.” Let me just insert right here. No such class has ever been taught or will ever be taught at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The tweet went on to say, “In worship, our community confessed the harm we’ve done to plants speaking directly in repentance.” The final words of this tweet, “This is a beautiful ritual.” The next tweet, “We are in the throes of a climate emergency, a crisis created by humanity’s arrogance, our disregard for Creation,” capital C, “far too often we see the natural world only as resources to be extracted for our use, not divinely created in their own right, worthy of honor, thanks and care.” The next tweet, “We need to unlearn habits of sin and death and part of that work must be building new bridges to the natural world, and,” said the tweet, “that means creating new spiritual and intellectual frameworks by which we understand and relate to the plants and animals with whom we share the planet.”

Hold on, it gets a lot more bizarre. The next tweet, “Churches have a huge role to play in this endeavor. Theologies that encourage humans to dominate and master the earth have played a deplorable role in degrading God’s creation.” The next sentence, “We must birth new theology, new liturgy to heal and sow, replacing ones that reap and destroy.” Now let me just point out something. Those plants, potted as they are in that worship space at Union Seminary, did not plant themselves in those pots and place themselves potted as they are in that worship space. Some human being had to do that. The next tweet, “When Robin Wall Kimmerer spoke at Union last year, she concluded her lecture by asking us and all faith communities to develop new liturgies by which to mourn, grieve, heal, and change in response to our climate emergency.” But the next tweet basically encapsulated it all, “And here’s the thing: At first, this work will seem weird. It won’t feel normal. It won’t look like how we’re used to worship looking and sounding, and that’s exactly the point,” says the tweet. “We don’t just need new wine. We need new wineskins.”

There are more tweets here that actually do deserve our attention, believe it or not. Later, Union Seminary tweeted, “What’s different and the source of so much derision is that we’re treating plants as fully created beings, divine creation in its own right, not just something to be consumed.” Then the next sentence, and again, I’m not making this up. You can look it up for yourself. “Because plants aren’t capable of verbal response. Does that mean we shouldn’t engage with them?” One final reference to a tweet Union Seminary said, “So, if you’re poking fun, we only ask that you spend a couple of moments asking: Do I treat plants and animals as divinely created beings? What harm do I cause without thinking? How can I enter into new relationship with the natural world?”

Now, before we do exactly what that tweet accuses us of doing, let’s step back for a moment and recognize that the biblical worldview begins with the first most distinctive claim, and that is of the fact that all creation is given to us by the Creator. It was created by his glory. There’s a reason why the very first words of the Bible are: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” As a matter of fact, if you just said, “In the beginning, God created,” you would basically set the stage for everything that would follow in Scripture. The modern secular worldview, out of which all of this has come, doesn’t begin with a divine creation in any biblical sense, but only in a generalized sense, which basically comes down to a new age spirituality read onto a spectacularly secular cosmos.

But you’ll notice something else, I mentioned that the word “Creation” here is capitalized. What does that mean? Well, it’s capitalized in the sense of taking on a deserved veneration, becoming an object of worship. Here’s another basic principle that Christians need to see as we encounter worldviews, and that is this: 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. That is what you see already in the book of Genesis, and that means that Christians read the book of Genesis alone, not to mention the entirety of Scripture, understanding that there are two complimentary themes. The first is indeed the theme of domination. That’s condemned here, but it’s actually one of the clearest biblical teachings right there in Genesis chapter one.

It is not, however, the dominion of one who does not care about creation and would dare to desecrate creation, but rather it is the sharing in the governance of the world which God assigns to human beings made in his image, and the other theme is stewardship. That’s also all throughout Scripture. After all, human beings are placed, first of all, in a garden, and human beings are given the gifts of that garden, but they are to respect and they are also to till and to cultivate that garden. That’s a metaphor for how Christians should understand the entire world, and that means that a biblical theology says, “The world is given to us and much of the world has given to us explicitly to eat.” You see that already in the first two chapters of Genesis by Genesis chapter nine it is God himself who through Noah and through the covenant that he makes with Noah, the Noahic Covenant, he gives to human beings the meat of animals also to eat.

In that sense, every single time you sit down to a meal, you are exercising dominion. The meal did not create itself for you. You created the meal. This means that biblically minded Christians understand that there really are ecological issues that should have our concern. We cannot be pleased with the desecration of creation, but we can also not be pleased or ever satisfied with the idea that creation exists unto itself, that human beings are a blight upon creation, and that it is wrong for human beings to exercise dominion over creation. By the way, regardless of where one might be even on the issue of something as contentious as climate change, even those who condemn the idea of domination, they intend to continue it, but only on their terms. Make no mistake. They’re not suggesting that human beings should simply, at least when it comes to themselves and to their children, retreat from the created world or for that matter, give up entirely on food or shelter. That is not what they’re saying. That’s just what they want you to think they are saying.

But this highly secularized worldview does become an anti-human worldview, and that’s why when you look at so many of these issues that go hand-in-hand with the anti-population growth movement, with demands for abortion, with birth control, population, one-child-only policy in China; you go down the list. This has a great deal to do with what has been driving this worldview for a very long time.

But next we have reached a new point of insanity when you see the clear articulation of what is here in these tweets from Union Seminary. For example, the most important thing found here isn’t what I read in the earlier material from this tweet series. It is rather in that last tweet where the questions are asked: Number one, do I treat plants and animals as divinely created beings?

That same claim was embedded in that original tweet, that as I said, ricocheted across the internet yesterday. You have here plants pictured in the photograph and referred to in this service of what’s described as worship, with the words that there were prayers offered to them, “To the beings who sustain us, but whose gift we too often fail to honor.” The keyword here is “beings.” Let’s be really clear. Plants are not beings. In that last tweet, plants and animals were put together. Are animals beings? Well, they are beings of a sort. That is, at least, conscious animals. They have a consciousness. They have a being status of sort. That’s the reason we refer to humans as human beings. That is a distinctively different kind of being.

Furthermore, in the classic sense, being refers to certain capacities and to certain functions. A being is one who has consciousness, and has consciousness of consciousness. Now that means that animals are not beings in that sense at all. They have some form of consciousness, but they do not have consciousness about consciousness. This is what makes human beings made in God’s image distinctive. We are also given the role of being co-rulers in creation over the animals, as Genesis 1 makes abundantly clear. Animals also lack the ability to use language the way human beings use language, but when you’re talking about animals, especially highly developed animals that have some form of consciousness, that’s one thing. You’re not wrong to believe that your dog has a personality. You’re wrong to think that your dog is a human being, but you’d be far more wrong to think that a stalk of wheat is a dog, much less a human being.

A stalk of wheat is not a being, nor is a rhododendron, nor is an oak tree, nor even an acorn, nor is an entire forest. Plants are not beings, but what you see here is the confusion that happens when the biblical worldview is abandoned. When the biblical worldview is abandoned, and remember, one of the accusations of the secular left is that the Christian worldview, the biblical worldview, creates a hierarchy of being. Well, is that true? Of course it’s true. That’s exactly what the Bible does. It does so without embarrassment, and by the way, any secular mind that denies that hierarchy of being is actually, in essence, suicidal or dishonest, maybe both. It’s suicidal because if indeed we will allow the animals to rule over us, they will rule over us. They will eventually eat us. But I honestly think that most of the people who say this are not certainly suicidal in any sense when it comes to individuals, but they are when it comes to human beings as a species.

You see some on the left now openly arguing that it would have been better for creation if human beings had never emerged, or according to their worldview, evolved. But then I said the only other alternative is that they’re being dishonest, but that doesn’t require a conscious dishonesty. In many cases, one of the problems we see is that individuals fail to come to terms with the implications of their own worldview. In essence, if they thought about it, they don’t even believe in their own T-shirts and the posters they’re carrying.

We’re going to be looking at a constellation, a very odd constellation of stories on a similar theme that all have appeared in just the last several days and weeks, but before we go on, I have to go back to the fact that the institution behind this controversy is Union Theological Seminary in New York City. That school was established by the Presbyterians of the north in the year 1836. It was established based upon confessional orthodoxy, that is, that was assumed and it was created for the training of Presbyterian ministers there in the Northeast, headquartered in New York City. But trouble came early for Union Theological Seminary and by the end of the 19th century, it had already capitulated to theological liberalism.

In fact, the most famous heresy trial in American history was held concerning a faculty member of that school, Charles Augustus Briggs, who gave his inaugural address in 1891 and in so doing, he brought in the German critical theories of the Bible and presented the Bible as basically a human artifact, to be taken apart by human imagination and what was claimed as historical scholarship. The Presbyterians were outraged. He was put on trial. The trial failed to convict. That’s a pattern that we have seen over and over again, and then Union’s trustees decided to declare that the church had no right whatsoever to influence who would be added to the faculty of Union Theological Seminary. Within just a matter of years, not decades, the institution had veered far to the left, creating alumni such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, the most famous liberal preacher of the 20th century, and becoming the seedbed for all kinds of theologies, including radical liberation theologies.

It was the institutional home of James Cone, who was the creator of black liberation theology in the 1960s and onward. And furthermore, it was also the faculty home even before that, of Paul Tillich, one of the most famous of the liberal theologians who did not even believe in a personal God, but taught theology on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary. If nothing else, and there is so much else; what this story indicates is the trajectory of the school that is not held by the church to a very clear confession of faith. The question under those circumstances is not if that school will abandon Christian orthodoxy, but when and how fast. The history from Union Theological Seminary is fast indeed.

Part II

The Worldview of the ‘Corn Mother’ — A Sign of Cultural Insanity

Then as I was traveling from Nashville back to Louisville, Kentucky on Tuesday, listening to National Public Radio, I heard the program to the best of our knowledge that comes from Wisconsin Public Radio, and it was hard to imagine that I wasn’t listening to some kind of parody or satire. But I wasn’t. I was listening to a straightforward report to be taken from Wisconsin Public Radio, and perhaps it is important to note we’re talking about a program that originates in Wisconsin.

The title of the entire program is: “Ancient Grains, Native Corn, and The Doomsday Seed Vault: How Growing Food Might Survive Disaster.” I want to draw attention, however, to one segment of that program that has to do with botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. The headline then identified that the story would be about the wisdom of the corn mother. Wisconsin Public Radio’s program reported, “Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer believes corn is more than something you eat. It’s also sacred. Corn is life itself, but looking out at her neighbors mono-cropped field of corn makes her sad. As a plant ecologist and Director of the Center For Native Peoples and the Environment at the state university of New York, Syracuse, Kimmerer works with students and tribal elders to research and restore plants of cultural significance to native people, and nothing matters more than corn.”

She goes on to say, I am reading this verbatim. “Corn is one of our deepest and oldest relatives. We are literally made of it when scientists analyzed the tissues of American bodies.” She’s very opposed to the modern mass farming that she says has created a mono-corn, but then she goes on to say, “There’s a word for forcible injection of unwanted genes.” She’s talking here about the hybridization of corn. She says, “There’s a word for the forcible injection of unwanted genes.” Now remember, this is coming from Wisconsin public Radio. It was broadcast Tuesday. I listened to it on a Nashville National Public Radio Affiliate. The next words are these, “Provocatively, she calls this rape.” Now when you consider the MeToo movement and the fact that the word “rape” has such great moral significance, remember here we are talking about a scientist, at least identified in this case as a botanist, making the argument that injecting genes into corn is rape.

Kimmerer went on to say, “There’s a reason corn is revered in almost every culture of corn growing people. As the corn mother, her kernels are not just stuff. Every one of those seeds is an offspring of baby. Corn is sacred because she gives us her children in return for us protecting and caring for those children by planting them again.” I’m just going to insert a rather, perhaps untimely observation, but I can’t resist. I could take this kind of argument as being at least more serious if it were coming from a context in which human babies were protected in the womb. It’s very hard to take, it’s almost irrational to take, in a society that at the same time will abort millions of human beings in the womb, now declaring — and here you see the confusion again. If you don’t worship the creator, you will worship the creation.

Here you see the confusion. You are talking about corn. You’re talking about words that should never be associated with other than what they mean. You’re talking about kernels of corn referred to here as babies, corn referred to as children of the corn mother. This is not some kind of esoteric new age website out on the fringes of the internet. This is a program that is produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and was broadcast on National Public Radio. So another footnote here, these are your tax dollars at work. Does that make you happy?

Just to bring these two stories together, the common link is Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is the plant ecologist who is the subject of this Wisconsin Public Radio program and also turns out to be named in those tweets from Union Theological Seminary where we are told she had spoken.

Part III

Do Plants Talk to You? One Scientist Insists that They Speak to Her

But then next to that reminded me of an article that recently appeared in the New York Times that I had saved for this kind of comment. It was dated August 26th, 2019. The headline of the article asked the question: “Do plants have something to say?”

The article begins, “Monica Gagliano says that she has received Yoda-like advice from trees and shrubbery. She recalls being rocked like a baby by the spirit of a fern. She has ridden on the back of an invisible bear conjured by an osha root. She once accidentally bent space and time while playing the ocarina, an ancient wind instrument, in a redwood forest. ‘Oryngham,’ she says, means ‘thank you’ in plant language. These interactions have taken place in dreams, visions, songs and telekinetic interactions, sometimes with the help of shamans or ayahuasca.”

Now, what you may ask at this point is ayahuasca? That’s what I asked, and we had to look it up. It turns out that ayahuasca is derived from botanical sources and is considered to be an ancient herbal medicine with mind altering and other odd effects, at least among some, it is claimed that if you trace it back to indigenous peoples, it was used to enhance the spirituality and to bring about a kind of trance.

Intrigued, before I even went further in the story by ayahuasca, of which I had not previously heard, I turned to that source to which we all turn on such things, Wikipedia, that gave me a description of ayahuasca. “It is claimed,” says Wikipedia, “that people may experience profound positive life changes subsequent to consuming ayahuasca,” but then Wikipedia goes on to detail the effects of ayahuasca that I would not describe as profound positive life changes. They immediately include vomiting and nausea and diarrhea, and hot/cold flushes. I’m reading it just like it’s written. Here are the actual words, quote, “Vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion; this is considered by many shamans and experienced users of ayahuasca to be a purging and an essential part of the experience, representing the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one’s life. Others, we are told, report purging in the form of, again, diarrhea and hot/cold flushes.” I’m not sure exactly what those are, but whatever ayahuasca is, it just might help to explain why, if you have intentionally taken it, you might shortly believe that plants are talking to you.

But again, in this case, the big story is that this is not coming from some kind of fringe site on the internet. This is the New York Times. Interestingly, the Times placed this article in the style section, not in its weekly science section, which tells you something significant. The newspaper thinks this story is interesting, but it really doesn’t think it’s science, but it doesn’t tell its readers that.

The article continues, “This has all gone on around the time as Dr. Gagliano’s scientific research,” notice it’s called scientific research, “Which has broken boundaries in the field of plant behavior and signaling. Currently at the University of Sydney in Australia, she’s published a number of studies that support the view that plants are, to some extent, intelligent. Her experiments suggest that they can learn behaviors and remember them.” The New York Times tells us that back in 1973 an explosively popular book that was entitled The Secret Life of Plants made what the paper calls, “pseudo-scientific claims about plants, including that they enjoy classical music and can read human minds.”

Listen to the next sentence. “The book was firmly discredited, but the maelstrom made many institutions and researchers reasonably weary of bold statements about botanical aptitude.” Well, if we’re supposed to understand that reasonable people would be wary, why is the New York Times giving this story so much space? It is because it knows that this reflects so much of the current zeitgeist, the spirit of the age.

I’m going to have to summarize this massively long article, but it comes down to the fact that even as the New York Times describes her as a research scientist, it turns out that many other scientists, if not most other scientists don’t believe that she’s actually doing science when she claims that she can hear plants.

A group of biologists responded to Dr. Gagliano and others with a scientific report this past summer entitled, “Plants Neither Possess Nor Require Consciousness.” The Times then tells us, “The authors warned against anthropomorphism and urge that proponents of plant consciousness have consistently glossed over the unique capacities of the brain,” that means the human brain, by the way. “Though her book went unremarked upon, Dr. Gagliano’s experiments and statements, ascribing feelings and subjectivity to plants were among those critiqued and she was categorized witheringly within a new wave of romantic biology.”

Now, what’s romantic biology? Well, it’s basically not biology. Remember all the people who want to say, “Trust the science. You need to know the science. Science says,” you’ll notice that they also encourage the use of the word “science” in a very subjective, new age-y way. If you’re talking about romantic biology, you’re really talking about you. You’re not talking about plants.

Another very important worldview point was made tangentially by Michael Pollan, who has written a good deal about food, has become a bestselling author in the United States. Speaking of this controversy, he said, “I think it’s important to separate out what you can prove and what might be true in a more subjective way.” He continued saying, “And I don’t know where you draw the line exactly.”

The worldview analysis is this: When in the world does it mean that something, “Might be true in a more subjective way”? It means that truth is being redefined. This is basically an entirely constructivist understanding of truth, in which he’s insinuating that something can be true for you and not true for me. This might not meet the standards of science, as we know of science and the scientific method, but it might be true in the sense that this scientist really does believe that plants are speaking to her and who has the right to tell her that they’re not?

So here we are in a Thursday, in the month of September, in the year 2019, talking about whether or not plants talk to this scientist, or to any of us for that matter, and refuting the understanding that plants are beings, a claim that the Bible explicitly says is not so. We’re looking at the confusion within creation of failing to understand that there is a hierarchy, and that means that human beings are distinctive and at the top of creation, as Genesis makes clear and human experience and rational thinking also affirms. We’re looking at the fact that animals and plants have different statuses within creation, all made by God, all to his glory, all a part of our stewardship, all a part of our dominion. But there’s a reason why we do not repent when we eat a vegetable, and there’s a reason why we certainly do not confess our sins to the vegetable. That gets to the ultimate and the deadliest of the confusions, which is that confusion of the Creator and the creation.

You will worship one of them. You will not worship both of them. Inevitably, you will choose how and who you worship, but then again, that in itself is a sentence that doesn’t make total sense because creation isn’t a who. But God is, and that’s the point.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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