Christian Earth Stewardship—A Critique: Principle One

June 3, 2016 § 2 Comments

Principle 1: Creation is good . . . so where is the gratitude?


Our goal is Christian community that lives gently on the land and offers pragmatic and prophetic alternatives to the world’s ways. Over the past 60 years, earth stewardship theologians have answered this call from God with increasing maturity and creativity. Our faithfulness to God’s call has included strong commitment to our tradition. Thus, while many tributaries have fed the movement, its main themes of Christian earth stewardship remain in the mainstream of Christian tradition.

However, its influence in real Christian communities and on the wider society has been minimal. In the last chapter, we explored some reasons why this might be so. We entertained some questions and challenges that might open ways toward deeper, more successful engagement with our ecological problems and options. Now I want to answer some of these questions, to move from the descriptive, rhetorical, and exploratory to the prescriptive, critical and provocative.

I’m going to challenge each principle one by one, but many of my questions and observations and criticisms cut through the individual principles to challenge the framework of earth stewardship as a whole. Indeed, many cut through earth stewardship as a niche theology within the tradition to challenge the fundamentals of the tradition itself. This is one of the marks of the severity of the ecological crises we face, that they call even our foundations as a civilization into question.

I am not optimistic, not about the prospects for change I outline in the following pages. Religious communities are inherently conservative, and rightly so. It should be hard to change an ancient yet living tradition. I don’t expect the mainstream of Christian tradition to change. But it has happened in the past. It happened in Judea two thousand years ago.

I do have faith, however, in the Holy Spirit. Something will happen. I may have it all wrong about the details, or even the broad outlines, of the revolution I propose. But I do expect God—the Mystery and Reality behind our religious experience—to reach through our inertia and ignorance and even our sinfulness to activate life-affirming changes in us—in some of us, anyway. In you and in me? What do you think?

Let’s find out . . .

Principle 1: Creation is good—so where is the gratitude?

I am sitting on the porch of a little cabin in the Poconos. Before me the hill slopes steeply down to Lake Wallenpaupack. The grass is lush, bright emerald in the sun, a deeper forest shade where the huge white pine throws its silhouette. The surrounding forest marches down to the lake on the right; on the left, from the water’s edge, the tree line angles up and to the left, framing the prospect of the lake. Across the wind-riffled grey of the water, on the farther shore, the forest climbs back up to the sky.

Robins hunt worms in the greensward. Swallows hunt the air above, zooming in their crazy patterns, flashing their underbellies as they bank, returning occasionally to the boxes on their poles placed around the fenced-in garden. Behind the fence, whose planks are blotched with moss, lie strawberry plants, tomatoes, a huge rhubarb plant—an acre of food. So good! So much to be thankful for!

But when, as a person raised in the Christian tradition, would I join my religious community in concentrated gratitude for all this? Where is the date on the religious calendar for the religious feast of thanksgiving?

These colors, the scent of pine, the song of birds, the brush of the breeze upon my face, the taste of this coffee and those strawberries; the food, the fuel, the building materials and fabrics; the sun, the clement climate, the aluminum for the boat and the refined oil that drove my wife and I here; my body and its senses, my brain and my words, my joy in the moment, my very life itself—all this—creation—all this is the first expression of the Creator’s goodness, unfolding for eons before the Incarnation and the Atonement. And without these first gifts, the Incarnation and Atonement could not have occurred. Yet when in the annual cycle of the Savior Son’s gifts do we remember and celebrate—and give thanks for—the prerequisite gifts of the Creator Father.

Perhaps you will point to Thanksgiving, the holiday. But Thanksgiving is uniquely American, or at least North American, and it is a secular holiday—it takes place on a Thursday. Moreover, Thanksgiving is rooted in history, not in the land. Without the tradition of desperate Pilgrims and generous Wampanoags, would the European settlers have come up with Thanksgiving on their own? By contrast, thanksgiving is the essential religious impulse of Indigenous peoples the world over. My traditional Mohawk friends begin every single gathering with their thanksgiving prayer. I have known that prayer to last 45 minutes. In the praying person’s own words, it reverently catalogs all the things we have to be thankful for, in categories, like a Walt Whitman poem.

Earth stewards raise up the inherent goodness of creation, and God bless them for it! But their tradition gives them precious little support. Why? Why is the Christian tradition so thoughtless, so thankless for all this goodness? Why has the Christian tradition historically ignored the land, its gifts and even their Giver, the Creator, with the attention of its heart, mind and spirit?

First, because Paul and his Gentile churches abandoned Jesus’ peasant roots. Paul spoke in mystical abstractions instead of folksy sayings and parables of the sower. A Roman citizen and an itinerant tradesman, he cared nothing for the land-based economy of Jesus’ first followers; rather, he cared about life in the city. More importantly, he threw over the law. As the exploding demographics of Gentile city-dwelling converts swamped the original Hebrew peasants and fishermen who were the first to hear the Good News, Christianity lost the spirit of thanksgiving. The Greek fear of death and the promise of resurrection replaced the Passover remembrance of Israel’s creation as a people and God’s gift of the Promised Land.

Paul delivered the second blow to the spirit of thanksgiving, also: Christ-centeredness. Where Jesus put the Father at the center of his life and teaching, Paul put Christ at the center of his—and ours. Jesus redefined God as Father; Paul redefined God as Son. Thus was the Creator downgraded to a second-tier godship.

And speaking of downgrades, the third blow was the Christian obsession with the Fall and the notion that creation was suffused with sin. Creation may have started out good, as we earth stewards claim, but no more. And the root of all that sin?: An animal, a vegetable (okay, a fruit), and a woman. And following the Fall?—God’s curse, of creation, fertility, and work. Add to this Paul’s Greek disgust with “the flesh”—it’s temptations, its corruption and eventual death—and you have a radical denial of the goodness of the Creator’s gifts in all its essential forms, a series of stumbling stones on the path to thanksgiving.

As a result, the first principle of creation’s goodness looks to me like a loser. Reestablishing the inherent goodness of creation against a deeply entrenched urban and Christo-centric tradition with its ancient bias against the flesh and a terminally corrupted world is nigh on hopeless. So far (and especially these days), apocalypse seems the winner instead—the expectation that God will destroy a fallen creation as one of His (sic) last saving acts—not some thankful return to a belief in its inherent goodness. No matter how sweet the taste of a strawberry or the dip and sweep of a tree swallow, the plagues and flames and death of Revelation seem more attractive, at least to some Christians. No, I fear that the hopeful enthusiasm for creation’s inherent goodness is a noble cause as a principle of earth stewardship, but a lost cause. Sin will win the war for the Christian imagination as it always has.

On the other hand, the earth stewardship writers (and also the apostle Paul) who insist that, while creation may be good, God does not dwell in creation in any way that would invite worship are only half right. God does dwell in creation, and that should invite worship, not of creation, but in creation, of its Creator.

So I say drop this principle. Or deal more realistically with our alienation from the natural gifts and processes of creation, gifts and processes upon which all civilizations depend—the fact that almost no one knows how to grow their own food anymore, or slaughter their own meat, gather their own fuel . . . It makes more sense to us to give thanks for Wal-Mart’s “low prices every day” and HD TV.

And we should deal more creatively with creation’s alleged fallenness and its detractors. Do we really believe in the Fall, as some species-defining moment of disobedience that infected all the human race and, indeed, all of creation, with sinfulness and corruption for all subsequent time until the End? Do we really believe that nature (animal, vegetable, woman) is the cause? Do we really believe, as I was taught, that there were no poison ivy or mosquitoes until Adam ate that apple? Is creation really utterly corrupt, not utterly good?

All this rests, of course, on the power of stories, as the fundamentalists and literalists rightly perceive—evolution as the story of creation versus Genesis 1-3. Where do we as earth stewards stand on this matter of creation’s true story? For Genesis 1–3 is not the true story of creation; it is a myth that nevertheless forms the foundation of our earth stewardship theology. Why should it? We will return again to the problem of sin when we look at principles eight and nine, that bad earth stewardship is a sin and that salvation in Christ is the cure. Maybe then we can decide whether we believe in creation’s goodness.

§ 2 Responses to Christian Earth Stewardship—A Critique: Principle One

  • Joyce Holwerda says:

    Hi Steven,
    Have you had the chance to participate in a native prayer of thanksgiving? It varies from speaker to speaker, but includes being thankful to the Creator for the trees, the shade it gives, the homes it provides, the roots of the trees and how this stabilises the trees, the soil, the plants, and all of creation is acknowledged. The prayer can take a long time, but it is truly a homage to the Creator. It also amplifies the reason First Nations people are so connected to the earth. Hope you get a chance to experience this sometime.

    • Yes, I have. I think I mentioned that in the post. My experience has mostly been among Mohawk and, as I said in the entry, I have known it to take more than a half hour sometimes, and to be quite detailed and very poetic, and ending in “stanzas” with “in our minds, so be it”. The poet Gary Snyder has made a poem from the basic frame, much shortened:

      Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day—
      and to her soil: rich, rare and sweet
      in our minds so be it.

      Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing, light-changing leaf
      and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
      and rain; their dance is in the flowering spiral grain
      in our minds so be it.

      Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and silent
      Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
      clear spirit breeze
      in our minds so be it.

      Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers, teaching secrets,
      freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
      self-complete, brave and aware
      in our minds so be it.

      Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
      holding or releasing; streaming through all
      our bodies salty seas
      in our minds so be it.

      Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
      trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
      bears and snakes sleep— he who wakes us—
      in our minds so be it.

      Gratitude to the Great Sky
      who holds billions of stars— and goes yet beyond that—
      beyond all powers, and thoughts
      and yet is within us—
      Grandfather Space.
      The Mind is his Wife.
      so be it.

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