Whether a person joins a 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program or a social movement, whether they start a family or a nonprofit, whether they speak to people or trees, the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor said that while not everyone believes in a god, it is harder to live without the sacredness found in a group.
Taylor described the spirituality a person can seek in a community in her lecture, “Remember That You Are Stardust, and to Stardust You Shall Return.” The lecture was released on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform at 2 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 10. It was the first in the Interfaith Lecture Series theme for Week Seven, “The Spirituality of Us.”
No Q-and-A followed the lecture due to internet connection issues, since Taylor lives in rural Georgia and could not connect to Skype to speak with Vice President and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson. Robinson ended the session by thanking staff who provide upkeep for the virtual lecture experience.
“It was just a living example of how we’re all in this together,” Robinson said.
This was not Taylor’s first time speaking for the Interfaith Lecture Series. Taylor is an Episcopal priest, religions professor, and New York Times bestselling author who has also served as chaplain of the week five times at Chautauqua, and who in 2014 was a recipient of the President’s Medal. Instead of speaking in the Hall of Philosophy this year, Taylor pre-recorded her lecture in the hall of her ironing room.
Her testimony helped me realize that a spirituality of ‘us’ isn’t a luxury item for people who have all their basic needs handled,” Taylor said. “It’s a lifeline for people whose single-propeller modes of being have sputtered at alarming heights, leaving them with nothing but the sound of wind whistling in their ears.”
An Alcoholics Anonymous meeting gave new meaning to “the story of us” for Taylor, who came to celebrate her student’s first year of sobriety. A woman stood up to talk about navigating Step Two — “We came to be aware that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” — as someone who doesn’t believe in a god.
“You are the power greater than myself that can restore me to sanity,” the woman said to the group.
This moment was what first changed Taylor’s view on the spiritual power of a group.
“Her testimony helped me realize that a spirituality of ‘us’ isn’t a luxury item for people who have all their basic needs handled,” Taylor said. “It’s a lifeline for people whose single-propeller modes of being have sputtered at alarming heights, leaving them with nothing but the sound of wind whistling in their ears.”
While Taylor said “the book” in her religion sometimes comes before the people to a fault, it’s also where she and others like her draw from for strength and lessons. The Bible taught her the idea that everyone is made in the image of God.
But meeting and knowing people expands that image in Taylor’s mind and wrecks her idols.
“Without you, my image of God would be way too small and look too much like me,” Taylor said. “Without you, I might be tempted to believe that a single reading of scripture is adequate, or a single view of history complete. I might go on thinking my view is a normal one, that my skin is a neutral color, that I don’t see race, gender, class, religion.”
In the same sentence that grants humans the image of God, people are also tasked to take care of creation, to “lord” over it.
“Not to do whatever the hell they want with it, but to care for it the way the capital ‘L’ Lord would,” Taylor said, “because that’s the image in which they have been made.”
She said humans have abused what they were supposed to protect. Dominion was about making a home in the garden, naming the animals, eating green things and taking responsibility for living things that also had the living breath of God — which Taylor said means that the spirituality of “us” goes beyond humans to plants.
This became clear to Taylor when she and her husband, Ed, who thrives in a garden, moved from the city to the country 30 years ago. While still living in their city lot, Taylor would find her husband’s pole beans growing up the mailbox, a row of corn growing on the curb, broccoli in the flowerbeds and tomato plants in the window boxes. Once, she yanked trumpet squash vines that had overgrown on the front porch railing without telling him.
“You would have thought I drowned kittens,” Taylor said. “Because all those plants, they were people to Ed. They had a history, destiny, the wish to be fruitful and multiply.”
When they had to build a well before their house was built, she realized that the neighboring trees and other life would have to give up water for their cooking and cleaning. She pledged not to waste it.
“To this day, the water that comes out of my faucet is as sacred as air to me, as sacred as blessed bread and wine,” she said. “It’s my daily communion in a ‘spirituality of us.’”
Now, in the country, Ed has plenty of room. Taylor said people often ask her if she gets lonely in the country. While the question revolves around people rather than other kinds of beings, she’s never felt lonely surrounded by nature — by bird voices, the touch of wet grass on her legs and the crowd of honey bees in petunias, but also by raccoons who have killed 12 of her chickens in one night, the dogs that killed a baby rabbit and the owl that carried away one of her cats.
“I guess you could decide that a spirituality of us ought to rise above that somehow, or try to change it,” Taylor said. “Right now, I’m just trying to see my own predation and keep it in check.”
The Bible also states that God loves the stranger as much as the tribe. Deuteronomy calls for not only the orphan and the widow to be taken in and cared for, but also the able-bodied stranger.
“It’s because the stranger doesn’t have anyone,” Taylor said. “Like the widow and the orphan, the stranger’s kinship bonds are hanging by a thread. … So the divine arm goes out and draws the stranger in, commanding the tribe to see the likeness, not the difference.”
The Bible also calls for people to devote their life to others. Taylor has understood this as life being a relay instead of a marathon, as she realizes she will not finish everything on her to-do list before she passes.
But calls to take care of others are not just found in Taylor’s religion. She said that a spirituality found in taking care of others can be found in the parent who quits everything to care for a disabled child, the poorly paid health aide who continues working in an infected nursing home while people say goodbye to their families on Zoom, and people who have been protesting for months in the face of tear gas.
The spirituality of “us” transcends religions.
“These high calls came to me through my religion, but they stuck with me because they rang bells that were already in me before I ever joined a church or learned the Lord’s Prayer,” Taylor said. “They ring bells … I hear in other places of worship and study, among other people who are so much like me.”
However, Taylor said that religious exclusivity has instilled a fear in some followers and leaders who have sidelined “others” as less than human.
“That’s why I’ve settled for blood and bones as what makes us, ‘us,’” Taylor said.
But to include plants in “us,” she said she settles on “life” as a good definition. While searching years ago for a new creation story that encompassed all others from a scientific view, she found her answer in bone composition. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that the chemical elements of bones and all life came from literal stardust.
“When I take in this 14-billion-year-old history, which has more good guesses in it than facts, one of the more stunning reveals is that in us, the universe has become conscious of itself,” Taylor said.