In a weekday adult education offering at St. Alban’s Church we’ve been reading a new book by theologian Ellen Davis (Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship and Ministry). Chapter 4 begins with a quote from author, poet and conservationist Wendell Berry: There seems to be a law that when creatures have reached the level of consciousness, as men have, they must become conscious of creation; they must learn how they fit into it and what its needs are and what it requires of them, or else they pay a terrible penalty: the spirit of creation will go out of them, and they will become destructive; the very earth will depart from them and go where they cannot follow (“A Native Hill,” in The Long-Legged House).
The chapter outlines six prophetic insights – or theses – written to “challenge the ways we customarily think about the world even as they speak with a terrible directness to our current situation.” The chapter’s title – The Pain of Seeing Clearly – was inspired by Davis’ reading of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s distinction between “conventional seeing, which is often not seeing at all but rather overlooking, ignoring the things that should cause us to change our minds and ways and the often painful and always surprising experience of insight.” Thesis 1 is that there exists an essential three-way relationship among God, humanity and creation. Davis calls this three-way relationship, adapted from the work of other theologians, a “covenantal triangle.”
When teaching on the six theses in chapter 4 a couple of weeks ago I shared with our Wednesday morning group of lay theologians about the time when it occurred to me that God might care as much about the trees of the forest as God cared for me. While carefully tracing the biblical witness in regard to the relationship between God and the created order beginning in Genesis and continuing through the Prophetic books of the bible and simultaneously acknowledging the obvious differences between the agrarian context of the biblical world and the world of industrialized agriculture characteristic of our context, the notion that we must be covenantally and inextricably related to the non-human aspects of creation according to Davis is not “a sentimental throwback to some imagined Arcadia… [but] rather a complex worldview grounded in science, philosophy, history and theology that holds together in a synoptic vision of the health of land and culture.” The “dominion” that humanity is given over the created order in Genesis 1 (26-28) is correctly understood as “skilled mastery” and “there is no suggestion that humans have any ‘special species’ status with respect to the birds of the skies, the field animals, or the ground creepers. More, “God has a genuine relationship with the so-called natural world, which moderns generally conceive as inert, an ‘it’ to be acted upon rather than a ‘thou’ capable of interaction (for more on I and thou see: https://stalbansparish.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/ich-and-du-and-you-you-you/ ).”
While working our way through Davis’ great book, which largely centers on Ellen’s own prophetic utterance to the contemporary church (and goes far beyond the debates about worship styles in articles in The Washington Post about millennials who go or don’t go to church) a couple of Carolina Wrens have moved to my back porch. Twice in the last 24 hours I’ve had to pick up “Icarus” and put her/him? back into the nest that she/he seems determined not to need. This morning I thought Icarus was a goner, hardly moving but whose heart was still beating. As of an hour ago Icarus was back to usual with three siblings… and screaming out… feed me!
The Wrens have been a reminder to me of how out-of-relationship I am with “the birds of the air, the field animals and the ground creepers,” let alone much of the non-human creation I am called to be in covenant with; that my failure to understand what the non-human part of God’s creation requires from me and of me will ultimately lead to my having to pay the great penalty of losing the spirit of creation and I become, ultimately, destructive.
The Wrens, along with our mid-week bible study in the church, have reminded me to consider just how much of the spirit of creation might have already left me; to consider not whether or not I will become destructive but just how destructive I already am. That’s the pain of seeing clearly. But I’ve already noticed a new awareness (insight?) that leads to some simple adjustments, like turning off the water while brushing my teeth and doing some or all of those things that most of us already know, but often forget or, as Abraham Joshua Heschel says, overlook: http://www.50waystohelp.com/
This is beautiful. Actually, there is a covenant between us and the rest of creation that is expressly of God. We sow the seed to grow the flower as God sows the seed of the Word in our hearts. So the beauty of the earth reflects the beauty of God’s love in Jesus for us. When I write a poem about a bird, this bird takes on a real form and spiritual reality in my heart in the sky and it is not a wren only but also Jesus.
Jim, you bring to light two of my favorite of God’s creation, Martin Buber and Carolina Wrens. The latter has had a large influence on me since I first encountered him spiritually in Israel in the mid-80s. Carolina Wrens sing the most beautiful matin and compline praises to the Lord from my garden. If anyone is interested Temple Emanuel in Kensington is celebrating the 50th Yahrzeit of Martin Buber (1878-1965) with a symposium led by well known Buber scholars on May 31.
Rev. Jim, the creation that is “amputated” from us and heaven because of the fall is not equal to you in the eyes of God. But the creation that is of God in your heart, like the wren that you have tended, is equal to you in the Eye of the Almighty.
Thank you, Jim for your very interesting and insightful Daily Cup, The Other Trinity. I have often pondered how to understand the “dominion” view of Geneses 1:28 in modern terms. Viewing the question through your terminology “…acknowledging the obvious differences between the agrarian context of the biblical world and the world of industrialized agriculture characteristic of our context,” goes a long way in explaining for me the conflicts between the biblical view of the world and the visible world of this century.
To your terminology I would add that the agrarian context of the bible was greatly influenced by its semi-desert ecology augmented by limited areas of flood irrigated fields along selected watercourses. It was, and remains, an area of extremely unreliable agricultural productivity and poverty.
In both the biblical and the industrialized world views the then current traditional knowledge of the living peoples describe use and sustainability of local resources. As you describe it, Wendell Berry’s admonition to be conscious of creation has a modern interpretation in the “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” of the day.
In such studies, TEK describes aboriginal, indigenous, or other forms of knowledge gained by peoples living with the earth, the skies and the seas. I usually list Native Americans, farmers and ranchers, hunters and fishermen among the holders of TEK. Such knowledge can be extremely useful in the industrialized world if only it is acknowledged and implemented.
Jim- yesterday I commented on the first two points of your Daily Cup- The Other Trinity. As regards the third point, “…understand[ing] what the non-human part of God’s creation requires from me and of me…,” I offer the following thoughts by Tom Brown: “Society does not place much premium on nature awareness because modern conveniences have taken away its survival value. But we pay an unseen price for our comforts: Our senses, like unused muscles either weaken and atrophy or are never developed to their full potential.” -TATE
Thanks Jim, that’s Wendell Berry’s point, too, and that ultimately nature will leave us behind…