Incarnate in all creation
What kind of “better life” can we embody?
Why should I care for the environment? A lot of Christians today are asking that question, either out loud or in their hearts. We know it’s probably the right thing to do, but what’s a Christ-centered perspective on the matter?
Sometimes, modern Christians, in our excitement about Jesus, think the incarnation of God first happened two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. Actually, that is when the human incarnation of God happened, in Jesus, but God has been inhabiting creation since time began.
As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, divine incarnation actually happened first when this amazing universe was created. That’s when God materialized and manifested and decided to expose who God is. That was the beginning of a process through which God brought forth light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, and every kind of animal, and called it all good. We monotheists believe that one good God created everything, and that God’s blessing fills everything around us.
A God-infused world should be enough justification for God-followers to treat creation as holy, and realize we walk on sacred ground. Christians today ask why they should care for the environment, because they’re not seeing a bunch of Bible passages telling them to honour the earth. I get it; after all, that’s what we’re trained to do as Christians – look to the Bible to guide our behaviour. But there are other primary texts we should be reading too: like Jesus did, we should always be reading nature, and reading the signs of the times.
Our current planetary situation is grave. The earth is the miraculous and abundant house that God gave us to enjoy, and we are destroying it. The Greek term oiko – as in economics and ecology – means home, and our ecosystem, our life systems, are being permanently degraded every day by our own actions personally and by industrial society globally.
You might not sense it yet, because your water is still drinkable and your air still smells good and your grocery store still sparkles and your trash disappears and your neighborhood is not submerged under rising sea levels. But millions of other citizens of our earth home– both human and not – are feeling it every day.
Reading nature: the earliest Bible
Disciples have always read the signs of the times, interpreted Scripture and moved when the Spirit says move. Don’t wait until Scripture convinces you to care for God’s precious gift of creation. The time for transition is now. Don’t wait for another Bible study or a worsening headline; God has been calling our culture to earth-honouring repentance for a long time now. And we’re the ones to do it.
We just need to remember to pay attention to what is sacred.
Many Christians feel God’s presence in nature, sometimes more often than in church. How about you? Many of us feel unconditional love when touched by a sunrise, and see resurrection hope when plants emerge in spring. In Romans, Paul shares this same awareness: “What can be known about God is perfectly plain,” for God has made it plain to see in Creation (1:20).
Creation is our first and final cathedral. As the 16th-century “Doctor of the Church” Thomas Aquinas states so well, creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the Divine. Sometimes Christians are so focused on being “Bible-based” that they forget something vital: Jesus and his followers had no New Testament.
Jesus and his disciples did not rely on our Bible; they looked to nature, personal experience and their tradition of Judaism to find God’s good way. Think about how many times Jesus uses natural objects to illustrate his teachings: salt, light, mustard bushes, yeast, fish, foxholes, figs, grapes, lilies, sheep, goats, cedars, palm trees, olives, mountains, rivers, sparrows, sand, stone, sea, wheat, watering holes, ditches, donkeys, camels and more. He was educating people about God and Spirit through nature.
From what we know of Jesus and his posse, they were a gang of transient foragers and fishers and gleaners, at least as comfortable sleeping and eating outside as they were under the roofs of men. This was not new; he was following in the footsteps of his tradition, a people who always found God revealed in untamed spaces.
Camping as communion
As a wilderness trip leader, I’ve spent more than a thousand nights outside, and there I have often felt God’s presence. Most of my life, however, I’ve lived indoors, like most modern people in industrial society.
Dwelling in our insulated houses with weather-clad windows, we need to remember that the ancient Israelites chose to be a tenting people. They knew God was easier to connect with in the wild. It was no accident that Moses found God in a burning bush on the far side of the desert, in uncolonized space.
Since their untamed God was at home in wild lands, you can bet the ancient Israelites took camping seriously. Reading God in nature was at the heart of the Israelite experience of the divine.
Tent travelling was how they experienced life and encountered God, not in metaphor but in fact. Tenting was such a pervasive part of daily living and sacred ceremony in Biblical times that the word tent shows up 333 times in Scripture. They lived in them, slept in them, ate in them, worshiped in them, died in them, gave birth in them. Camping was both covenant and communion. Camp itself was sacred space, holy ground, “for the Lord your God moves about in your camp” (23:14). God traveled with his people as they traveled.
God, it turns out, is a big tent camper. God’s vision of ideal human society, from ancient times, has been camping communion with his people on this blessed earth. “I will pitch my tent among you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12). This ancient vision in the Torah is later invoked at the opposite end of the Bible in Revelation, written centuries later, when the author paints a future picture of creation redeemed. The writer is describing a band of God’s people who have suffered and journeyed, and he says God “will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst.” The Lord will be their shepherd, their trip leader, and bring them to springs of fresh living water (Revelation 7:15–16).
Today’s Christians are the spiritual descendants of these wilderness-dwelling people.
But we modern folks, in our race to upgrade our lives, have lost our wild, vital connection to the natural world. Richard Rohr observes that, with the invention of the printing press nearly six centuries ago, people started reading books far more than reading nature itself. We have substituted ideas and words for direct appreciation of and participation in the world immediately around us.
In my view, the more we progressed in written literacy, the more we lost in eco-literacy. These days, we rarely know where our food originates, what native species dwell where in our places, what original people once lived there, where our water comes from, or where our waste goes.
By becoming so dis-placed and de-natured, we lose our participation within God’s miraculous world and instead turn “nature” into the other, an external commodity to manipulate that is inert, non-enchanted, marketable and far from holy. This, bluntly, is not the way of God’s people. God’s people always pay attention to the wild world around them and seek right relation with creation.
Nature gets down
Clearly it was a good year. Lush fields, good grain, great harvest. About 2,500 years ago, the author of Psalm 65 was loving his watershed, and he decided to write about it. “You have crowned the year with your bounty,” he proclaims. The grasslands are providing rich pasture; the fields are so amazing that they “drip with fatness.” The author extols the bounty around him, and in response gives bounteous thanks to God.
If someone from our current culture was the author, the Psalm might continue: “The Lord is good. Let the cash roll in! This is going to feed my family and make us a ton of profit. We can store and hoard this bounteous harvest for years, and be more secure than all of our neighbours. Hallelujah!”
The real Psalm, however, is very different. Instead of choosing to commodify nature, the author chooses to personify nature. Responding to the bounty laid out before him, the author proclaims “the hills wrap themselves with joy” and the valleys “shout for joy, yes, they sing!”
He’s saying the earth itself is happy.
This is not the only time a Scripture writer portrays the earth having feelings. Rather, personifying nature is a deep part of the cultural consciousness. In Isaiah the mountains and forests burst into happy song in one chapter; later, the mountains are joyfully singing again, but also the author envisions all the trees clapping their hands. In another place in the Psalms, we find it’s the rivers that are clapping their hands and the mountains are singing together for joy because God is coming to make things right for the earth.
In short: creation is psyched and showing it. It’s undeniable: our sacred Scripture says nature has feelings, and the earth is happy under certain conditions.
Let the gravity of this sink in: the earth is happy under certain conditions. If this is true, then – as partners in a covenanted bond – wouldn’t we as God’s people want to do our part and be in right relationship, just like we would with anyone we love?
Right relationship – with God, with people, and with the earth. The ancient Hebrew word for this is hesed, best translated as covenanted loving-kindness. This is what the ancient Israelites were striving for, and it’s what followers of Jesus strive for today.
Millions of Christians today are waking up to realize the modern dream of success – ensuring personal privilege by raiding the commonwealth of the planet – is not nearly as satisfying or significant as God’s dream of covenanted loving-kindness. Millions of folks seeking to follow the way of Jesus in the shadow of dominant culture are – in ways both small and large – defecting from business as usual.
We’re beginning to ask: what kind of a better “good life” can we embody in today’s times – one that is better for us and our world?
Lucky for us, lucky for you, lucky for this incredible Earth that is our home, we follow a God of mercy who ever invites us to take another step deeper into the Way, even if we have failed before, even if lifeways are far from earth-honouring. We are already forgiven by Jesus, already blessed to start anew today in seeking right relation with God’s creation.
Todd Wynward is a public school founder, wilderness educator and Mennonite organizer for watershed discipleship who lives with his family in Taos, NM. His new book, Rewilding the Way: Break Free to Follow an Untamed God, will be published in Fall 2015 by Herald Press. More of his writings and doings can be found at leavenrising.com.
This article was commissioned for Meetinghouse, an association of Anabaptist editors.