Permaculture: Becoming Friends with God

Permaculture: Becoming Friends with God
David R. Weiss – May 25, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #26 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:21-22). This is the moment of “Pentecost” (the sending of the Holy Spirit) in John’s Gospel.

Luke’s much more vivid Pentecost narrative (rushing wind, tongues of flames, and speaking in other languages—in Acts 2) happens on the fiftieth day after Passover. (Hence, the name Pentecost: Greek for “fiftieth” and the Greek name for the Jewish harvest festival of first fruits celebrated on this fiftieth day. In John’s Gospel “Pentecost” happens about fifty seconds after Jesus makes his first resurrection appearance to the disciples on Easter evening.[1] Seriously, he appears in the room—seemingly moving through walls and locked doors—announces himself by saying, “Peace be with you,” shows the disciples his wounds, and then we go immediately into verse 20 as quoted above. Breath, Spirit, Pentecost. Bam.

I propose, though, that we call John’s version of Pentecost, the Permaculture Moment of Easter, because John shows Jesus establishing the post-Easter community of believers as a permaculture community. I can’t say whether those first Christians fully appreciated that, but I will say that the very meaning and purpose of the church today hinges on recognizing its call to be a permaculture community today as we meet the climate emergency on our doorstep.

Permaculture? You won’t find it in your catechism or creed; it’s not exactly a theological term (though I’d argue it ought to be). Permaculture is a design philosophy for thinking about agriculture … and human culture.[2] It emerged in the late 1970’s as a way of critically rethinking (and rejecting) the steady growth of industrialized agriculture. Seeing a multitude of problems connected with an agricultural model that was increasingly determined to enslave the soil by means of machinery and chemicals, permaculture, in essence, chose to listen to the land instead.

Permaculture begins with the presumption that most (if not all) of the challenges we face in producing food (or, ultimately, in the other aspects of our lives) have already been faced—at least analogously—by nature. And, having the benefit of a timescale far beyond us, nature has found solutions to these problems. Nature may think slowly, but it is utterly undaunted, and it holds within it, quite literally, the wisdom of eons. So permaculture developed twelve design principles—drawn from how nature approaches problem-solving—as a framework for our own way of being in relative harmony with nature.

Besides the twelve principles (which are more complex than we need to know for this column), permaculture has three core tenets: (1) Care for Earth—treating the soil (and really all ecosystems) in ways that promote flourishing for all creatures in the Earth community; (2) Care for People—that the necessities of life (both material and social) be available to all; (3) Return of Surplus—that we take not more than our fair share and reinvest the surplus back into the system or within our community.

Permaculture began as an agricultural movement (it was first known as “permanent agriculture”), but rather quickly became a way of thinking about the whole of human culture since all agriculture sits within a broader social-cultural context. I’m thinking about permaculture today because it’s the philosophical infrastructure for the Transition Movement. Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Movement, was himself a permaculture instructor, and, in many ways, he imagined Transition Towns as adaptations of permaculture principles to a more urban (or at least a village-neighborhood) context.

But where does Jesus fit in? We begin with the Hebrew Scriptures where Wisdom is acknowledged as a divine attribute (at times even a divine feminine person) present at creation. In Proverbs (8:22-31) and Sirach[3] (ch. 24), Wisdom is the presence of God that patterns Itself/Herself into creation. In other words, Hebrew Scripture affirms that Wisdom is at work in the patterns seen in nature. The language is far more spiritual than permaculture uses, but the intuition is the same. Moreover, the Hebrew notion of Sabbath rest for people-animals-land anticipates the holistic ethic of permaculture core tenets.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is deliberately likened to Wisdom. Described as “the Word” (Greek: logos) in John’s prologue, Jesus is linked both to God’s creative word at creation, and also to Wisdom present with God during creation. In Greek, logos means not simply “word,” but also the “wise principle” or pattern behind something. John 1:1-3 clearly aims to evoke Proverbs and Sirach in the ears of its Jewish audience. And when John writes (1:14), “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” his readers likely heard Baruch 3:37, “Afterward she [Wisdom] appeared upon earth and lived among men.”

Elsewhere Wisdom invites her followers to feast (Proverbs 9:1-5, Sirach 24:9-21); promising that she alone provides bread and drink that satisfies. When John has Jesus offer living water (Jn 4:13-14) and the bread of life (Jn 6:31-35), he is again telling his community that Jesus is God’s Wisdom in their midst. Finally, in his long Last Supper discourse, John has Jesus announce a new relationship with his disciples: no longer servants, he calls them “friends” (Jn 15:15). Which brings us back—almost, to the Easter-breath scene. In the book of Wisdom (likely written in the century immediately before Jesus lived) we read, “Wisdom is a breath of the power of God and … In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God” (Wisdom 7:25-27).

Throughout John’s densely symbolic Gospel, he is convinced that one way to understand Jesus is as the embodiment of the Wisdom of God. And in his “Pentecost” moment, John shows Jesus passing the breath of that Wisdom on to his followers and through this Holy Spirit making them friends with God.

Today’s climate crisis is the direct result of humans (many of them “Christian”) failing to discern the wisdom present in creation and instead choosing to treat nature as devoid of wisdom: mere raw material for meeting human desire. But—like permaculture—the Wisdom tradition in Hebrew Scripture sees nature as bearing Wisdom’s imprint. And, by linking Jesus to that tradition again and again, John’s Gospel tells us: to be a follower of Jesus is to become a friend of God, to recognize the echo of Wisdom in Jesus’ life, … and to discern the pattern of that same Wisdom in the natural world around us.

In John’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus does in meeting his disciples on Easter evening is breathe on them—stepping directly into the Wisdom tradition and breathing his followers into friendship with God and God’s world (seeing God’s Wisdom writ within nature is inescapably part of friendship with God).

It would be our moral duty to embrace permaculture principles (and become Transition communities) in response to the climate crisis, if only because these things best position us to preserve what we can and to grieve for what we cannot preserve. But John’s Gospel makes clear that, for those who follow Jesus, something more than “mere” morality at stake. Permaculture is how we befriend God.

I cannot imagine a greater act of joy. So take a deep … breath, and let’s get started.

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com

[1] John describes an encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the garden outside the empty tomb on Easter morning, but the evening scene is the first time John describes and encounter with the rest of the disciples.

[2] Rob Hopkins, a permaculture instructor himself, admits the concept is “notoriously difficult to explain in a single sentence.” My portrait here is drawn from Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook (Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008, pp. 60-61, 136-141), and augmented by www.permacultureprinciples.com/principles/.

[3] Sirach, Baruch, and Wisdom (both mentioned below) are apocryphal books: among a handful of ancient Jewish texts that are pre-Christian but are not considered part of the Hebrew Scriptures. Though not regarded as sacred by Jews, these writings helped form the context against which John was interpreting Jesus.

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