On Being Frederick

On Being Frederick
David R. Weiss – July 19, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #34 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

No, not that Frederick. (As some of you know, my father is named Frederick, but this post is not about finding myself becoming my dad.) I’m thinking about Frederick, the field mouse, in Leo Lionni’s simple picture book, Frederick.[1] It’s a sweetly told fable that reminds us the value of persons and their work is not always immediately apparent.

In the story a family of field mice are busily preparing for the coming winter: gatherings bits of food and bedding. They are nonstop activity. But Frederick, who spends his days staring across the meadow, seems to be doing nothing. When the other mice scold him for not working, Frederick replies that he is working: gathering sun rays, meadow colors, and words. The other mice, dedicated to more practical preparations, are skeptical.

Winter arrives and so long as the food is plentiful and the bedding plump the new season feels festive despite the barren fields outside. But as the winter drags on, the nuts and seeds grow scarce and the soft straw no longer buffers the cold. Spirits waver. Finally, the mice turn to Frederick and ask, “What about your supplies, Frederick?” And he delivers. Using his words to summon memories of the warm sun and the colorful meadow and the very rhythm of their lives, he weaves meaning back into the long bitter winter. For all of them. The worth of Frederick’s “work,” hard to see during the summer or fall, reveals itself in the moment most needed.

Thank goodness (for the sake of all the mice) that Frederick persisted in his own harvest activity even under the reproachful glances of his fellow mice. That’s a sense of vocation.

So, on being Frederick.

I’ve actually been Frederick for some time. A misfit in both the academy and the church, for decades now I’ve known the questioning glances of those who wonder why I’m not doing more “real” work. I have great respect for college and university professors who do their work well. That might have been my work had things played out differently earlier in my life, but at this point—relegated to the ranks of adjunct faculty—that work cannot be mine any longer. It offers a mere pittance for the knowledge and experience I have. Worse, it directly distracts with the pretense of respect and purpose, from the work that my “inner Frederick” feels called to do.

Similarly, I have great respect for pastors who do their work well. But it isn’t my work. (Although I would welcome a church that offered to “host” me as public theologian, providing a tiny bit of support, measure of collegiality, and the mutual embrace of community. I think my work could find a welcome home in the right parish—where we might make a learning lab for public faith in the face of climate crisis. But I have yet to find a “vocational dating site” for folks like me.)

Today, this year, these weekly essays—plus the background reading, listening, thinking, anguishing and imagining that I do alongside them—are my harvest activity. I’m NOT a climate scientist, but I read widely and deeply enough and take science seriously enough to sense what comes next for us. And even apart from the misplaced temperature reference, that long bitter winter the mice faced is nothing compared to what’s headed our way. No mere season of heat, but generations of disruption and collapse. How will we navigate those days—those decades, maybe centuries—ahead?

We already feel the upsurge in anxiety over extreme weather events—especially those that touch our country directly. Many coastlines—east, west, south—already show signs of sea level rise and erosion. Many farmers already wrestle with the way floods, drought, and a changing climate make farming an even more tenuous affair. And we already see the rise of refugees from famine and unrest around the world—including at our southern border.[2] This is climate crisis unfolding across our lands and our lives already now.

Meanwhile, political leaders in Washington and elsewhere prey on the anxiety creeping into our psyches and use it to fashion every “other” into a threat and an enemy. Before long we’ll be hemmed in by fear and mistrust on all sides. Just waiting for someone with twisted charisma to tell us whom to hate next. The anxiety fraying our social fabric is rooted in a multitude of things, but its taproot runs to the gnawing intuition that the lives we’ve built for ourselves by exploiting both people and planet (and everything in between) are wholly unsustainable. Those lives are starting to collapse—and as they do, they may well take us down with them. That anxiety is real. Something MUCH more challenging than winter is on the horizon.

Stoking xenophobia in response to this anxiety is one navigation strategy. It is utterly unchristian, inhumane, and will prove deadly even to most of those drawn in by it. But it has undeniable appeal because, for many, it is more palatable to raise our hate for others than to acknowledge how far we have travelled in the wrong direction … economically, industrially, ecologically, socially, culturally. Let that sink it: it’s easier to raise the level of hate than to consider correcting our course. This is the story of our politics across much of the world today—especially here at home.

Nonetheless, I’m working daily to harvest supplies for a different strategy. One that can re-tether us to the deepest life-giving roots of our past while responding to the life-altering needs of the present. I’m listening to biblical passages and liturgical seasons for ancient memories that offer fresh wisdom today. And I’m reading the latest news headlines with the Bible, theology, and the church year all percolating in the background, just waiting for touch points to emerge. I’ve “gathered” thirty-three essays of supplies so far, and there is much more yet to do.

Still, by most standards on most days, it looks like I’m not doing much of anything. Truthfully, some days I feel that way. But then I think of Frederick.

I believe my work—my gifts as writer, teacher, theologian, poet—can play an important role in aiding faith communities as they face the climate crisis. Unlike the field mice in the story, we won’t move into our “winter” with the same certainty of a changing season. Climate crisis will lurch across our planet unevenly—it already is. And my gifts are already useful. But in the days ahead they may become even more needed as other sources of meaning and security become strained to the breaking point. I believe there is meaning to be had no matter what. And I’m determined to do my own peculiar work, my unique gathering, even as some people wonder whether I’m doing any “real” work at all.

I am, after all, Frederick. (But you can call me David. Thanks.)


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

*                *                *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, 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] Leo Lionni, Frederick (New York: dragonfly Books/Alfred A Knopf, Inc., 1967).

[2] A recent study, analyzing migration data from 198 countries, found that the impacts of climate change are now the leading cause of migration, higher than either economic inequality or conflict. www.scidev.net/global/climate-change/news/climate-now-biggest-driver-of-migration-study-finds.html


Mucking Along in the Great Marsh

Mucking Along in the Great Marsh – Air Thick with Hope
David R. Weiss – July 13, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #33 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

“I swear, if we meet a triceratops around the next bend I won’t be at all surprised!” Of course, I was mostly joking; I would’ve been very much surprised. But the ambience of the marsh was so ancient, it was hard not to feel a little anxious at Margaret’s reply: “Well, if we do, you’re on your own, because I’ll be busy filming it chasing you with my phone, so I can text it to the grandkids and say, ‘Look what Grandpa found on our hike!’”

We were meandering (and melting in the humidity) along the Great Marsh Trail,[1] part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. “Hiking” would be an overstatement because the mile-and-a-half trail is entirely flat and comprised mostly of a mown grassy path. But “walking” or “strolling” would be an understatement. We seemed far from civilization, as the muck that occasionally sucked at our shoes intimated.

And “intimated” itself is an interesting word. It means “suggested,” of course, but perhaps in a more intimate sort of way. And once we’d ventured the first hundred yards into the marsh, it swallowed us … intimately. We were wrapped in a sultry sensory concoction of croaking frogs, flower scents, buzzing insects, swampy smells, bird songs, and a host of verdant hues. The marsh embraced us with the enthusiasm of a dear friend who hasn’t seen us in ages. We felt known.

Setting my imaginary triceratops aside, and making allowance for the infrequent car we could see driving along the road at the far edge of the marsh, the trail did feel like we’d passed through time, back to a terrain unmarked by human activity. But not quite.

There are three levels to the tale, each holding its own measure of wonder.

The Great Marsh once stretched for about fifty miles in a crescent just beyond the first ripple of sand dunes along Lake Michigan’s southern shore.[2] For hundreds of years the marsh was a crucial wetlands habitat and an important layover for migratory birds. Then, many portions of the marsh were “developed,” which, if we’re blunt, is a nice way of saying they were destroyed. Because: humans. Dried out and turned into farmland, industrial sites, or (in our case) residential neighborhoods. Habitat loss was extensive as even the “undeveloped” sections were changed by non-native and invasive species.

About twenty years the Dunes National Lakeshore began a concerted effort to restore a 500-acre strand of the Great Marsh—with great success. Drainage ditches were plugged so that the soil could again saturate itself (and then some!). Plants that didn’t belong were removed, and others, long lost in the marsh, were replanted and thrived. Today this section of the Great Marsh teems with waterfowl again and is an oasis for migrating birds. Parts of its prehistoric feel comes from the dead trees—some still standing, many toppled over—that came in when the land was drier and are now being repurposed by the marsh itself. Hardly lost, they’re being embraced (albeit a bit more aggressively than Margaret and me—thank goodness!) by the ecosystem, becoming infrastructure and food.[3]

As we walked the trail, it was apparent that had we strayed three feet off the trail in either direction we’d have been in ankle-deep muck or knee-deep water at any point. I remarked to Margaret, “I wonder how they even made the path we’re walking on. They must’ve had to fill it in.” When we got back to my parents’ home, I pulled the area up on Google Maps to show them where we had walked. My first surprise came when I clicked it over “satellite” view. Perhaps the image was several years old—and likely taken during early spring or late fall because very little foliage is present—but what is clearly present is the “echo” of old residential roads still visible peaking up through the marsh. You’d never know they were there from ground level; they’ve been reclaimed more thoroughly than the dead trees.

Then I looked closer and the first wave of wonder hit me: the trail we’d walked matched exactly the lines of several of the abandoned roads. We had, in a sense—a very humid, sweaty, sultry sense!—strolled the streets of that planned but never fully built neighborhood from 90-plus years ago. And never knew. Because: marsh.

The second wave of wonder came courtesy my dad. As he looked at the map showing the now marshed-over streets, he shook his head with a smile of recognition. He said, “You know, when my dad [thus, my paternal grandfather] was just eighteen years old, in 1930, he had a job driving a town car for a real estate company. He would pick up the sales agent and together they would drive to the south Shore train station [it still operates, just 600 feet south of where the Great Marsh Trail begins] and pick up well-to-do clients coming in from Chicago. They’d ride the train to Michigan City to consider where they might build a summer home. My dad drove those streets 90 years ago.”

No wonder the marsh knew us. “We’d” been here two generations earlier. Under very different circumstances. I can’t—and don’t—blame my grandpa for his tiny (and teenage!) role in trying to develop the marsh. But I can’t help but wonder whether that oh-so-warm embrace we felt from the Great Marsh held an offer of forgiveness. Not for my grandpa’s actions, but for humanity’s general hubris in thinking that every corner of creation is just waiting for our imprint. We came to the marsh with our eyes, ears, noses(!)—and hearts—wide open. And she welcomed us back.

Which leads to my third wave of wonder.

If you’ve been following my blog for much of these past 33 weeks you know that my hope for a future in which humans have a healthy relationship with the planet runs thin most days. I often think the planet is just waiting us out. That a century or two from now most of our cities will look like the Great Marsh: reclaimed by Earth for Earth.

But there is a seed of hope here. Because the Great Marsh Trail bears witness to Earth’s eagerness to heal itself if given half a chance. Make no mistake. She will seek to heal herself—with or without our aid. And if necessary, she will rid herself of us in order to make healing possible. BUT that trail is also hint of Earth’s readiness to welcome us as partners in renewal. I suspect though, as I’ve suggested across my past columns hearkening to permaculture, that this time she’d like us to take our places as junior partners—apprenticed to her—in that work.

I’m game for that. Are you?


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

*                *                *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, 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] https://www.nps.gov/indu/planyourvisit/gm16.htm

[2] For a pair of personal blogs (by someone I don’t know at all) that offer appreciative and accessible (non-scientific background on the Great Marsh written six year apart, see: https://terriofthetrails.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-great-marsh-of-indiana-dunes.html and http://terriofthetrails.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-great-marsh-trail-redux.html

[3] Find our photos from the day here: www.facebook.com/davidrweiss/media_set?set=a.10156702212626596&type=3

Dominion: An Unlikely Love Story

Permaculture and Dominion: An Unlikely Love Story
David R. Weiss – July 9, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #32 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

This is my fifth and, for the time being, final essay on the biblical creation narratives (the others are GIT 27, 28, 29, 30). These origin tales from our distant religious roots don’t offer perfect ecological wisdom. They grew out of a culture and worldview already knocked askew by patriarchy. But they harbor wisdom born of a relationship more attuned to both the divine and the mundane than is common today. And the power we often borrow from them to fuel our domination of the planet comes to us only by misreading the terms and ignoring the distance between their context and ours.

So, dominion. The word (in Hebrew rahad) appears in Genesis 1:26-28, where it describes the relationship God sets us in with respect to the rest of creation. But wait. This account—like all Scripture—does NOT objectively record God’s actions or inclinations. To say these verses report “the relationship God sets us in …” is accurate enough of the words themselves, but hardly sound as theology. Truer to say: in these verses an ancient Hebrew storyteller imagines God setting humans in such relationship. Theology is always expressive of decidedly human imagination, and to do theology responsibly always involves a readiness to critique that imagination.

Still, if there there’s a blank check in the biblical creation accounts, whether from God or from that ancient storyteller, it’s “dominion.” Arguably no concept has so fueled our un-ecological relationship with the planet as dominion.[1] But what if these verses never meant that? What if we’ve been raised to misread this text to our own planetary peril?

As I explained earlier (GIT 29) the context for this creation account/liturgy is on the far side of national disaster—and that makes a big difference. We don’t know its exact dating, but scholars agree it was written either for people living as refugees, exiled to a foreign land, or for Israel’s post-Exilic community, former refugees seeking to rebuild after having lost everything. For such people to be told (Gen. 1:26) they were created imago Dei (in the image of God) is far from a prideful assertion. It is the sacred reaffirmation of a dignity by then thoroughly shattered by the world.

Similarly, to be set into a relation of rahad/dominion with the natural world—whatever that might mean—sits differently when you realize the word comes to people who’ve been scattered and whose best technology can only hope to eek out reliable harvests but cannot inflict real damage on the earth. Context matters. But so does original meaning.

Imagine: there are other ways to arrange the stars in the night sky besides the constellations so familiar to us like the Big Dipper. But by now our eyes insist on seeing those patterns. At least since the King James Version (1611CE) the Hebrew word rahad has been rendered as dominion. Against the backdrop of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Age of Discovery,* translating this word as the “politically correct” version of “domination” made a certain sense—because it took (West European) humanity’s burgeoning hubris and dressed it up as God’s own commission.

*More accurately: “The Emerging Scourges of Colonialism, Capitalism, and White Supremacy.” Seriously.

Considering how rahad is used elsewhere in the Bible and how it functions in this text shows that domination has NO relationship to rahad.[2] “Dominion” is, in fact, a very poor choice to translate this word for God’s desired relationship between humanity and the rest of creation. Nowhere in the Bible does rahad carry a sense of domination or oppression. Most significantly, in Psalm 72 rahad describes the rule of the king who ensures that justice is done and that the needs of the vulnerable are cared for. Thus, rahad, minimally, is “righteous reign.” But we can suggest even more.

Rahad is established as the human vocation before humanity is distorted by sin so its later uses (as in Psalm 73) may name those fleeting glimpses when humans manifest the wholeness for which they were intended. And because the Priestly editors chose to place this creation account first, as a sort of prelude to the (earlier) Yahwist account, they likely meant to show the naming of the companion creatures in Eden by the original Humus Being (adam) as original rahad/dominion. Yet this naming creates the conditions NOT for oppression but for relationship—for intimacy. In this regard, rahad, far from what we think of as dominion, is much closer to the Native American notion that sees humans in familial relationship to all other creatures.

I’ll go one step further. When Jeremiah (22:13-16) describes God-pleasing kingship he echoes Psalm 72: doing justice and protecting the vulnerable are defining royal deeds. But then he asks, most evocatively, “‘Is not this what it means to know me?’ says the LORD.” That verb, “to know,” is the same Hebrew word for love-making. It carries the sense of deep authentic intimacy. For Jeremiah, to practice justice and mercy is to know God … intimately. Without being explicitly sexual about it, rahad is God’s commission that we stand in erotic[3] relationship to the world around us. To know creation intimately, to name it well, with a deep mix of wonder, awe, understanding, and care. This is rahad, and it’s a love story.

Given these rich justice-driven, mercy-friendly, eco-sensitive connotations, the challenge isn’t to “redeem” some nuanced version of “dominion,” it’s to find a phrase that actually carries rahad into English. Something like: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind [adam: humus beings, earthlings] in our image, according to our likeness; and let them exercise rahad/dominion [an eco-intimate and just-knowing relationship] with the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and with all the earth and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26) That’s rahad.

Of course, almost right after this (Gen. 1:28), we’re instructed, as one primary expression of rahad, to kabash the earth. For 400 years we’ve read kabash as “subdue,” translating it in tandem with the “dominion” rendering of rahad. But, having reframed rahad, it becomes evident that kabash actually means nothing more—and nothing less!—than to “till and keep” the garden. (Gen. 2:15) In fact, drawing all the richness of rahad into kabash, it’s fair to say that kabash anticipates permaculture as the most practical expression of our human vocation.

Words matter. And translation is no innocent enterprise. The 2016 film Arrival is (among other things) a compelling reflection on the stakes in translation, where humanity’s fate (not unlike our own!) hangs in the balance over how to translate a single word from an alien message. Is it “weapon” … or “tool”? And what leads us to select one over the other?

It is the height of folly to think the biblical creation tales authorized our ecocidal exploitation of the planet, but it’s equally foolish to write them off as fairy tales that ask us to believe in magic. These texts bear deep wisdom. This Priestly account invites us to see our relationship (rahad) to the earth and our companion creatures … as a love story. Doing so won’t solve the climate crisis, but it will offer us a warmer and wiser posture from which to address it, providing us with an unlikely but essential love story as we prepare to meet the tempest coming our way.


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

*                *                *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, 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] For instance, see Lynn White, Jr., “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967), 1203-07.

[2] My thoughts here are indebted to and in conversation with Lloyd H. Steffen, “In Defense of Dominion,” Environmental Ethics 14:1 (Spring 1992), pp. 63-80.

[3] On the “the erotic,” see Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic,” (1978) in Sexuality and the Sacred, eds. Marvin M. Ellison and Kelly Brown Douglass (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), pp. 73-77.

Permaculture and Pride: Queer Gifts in a Time of Climate ChangeD

Permaculture and Pride: Queer Gifts in a Time of Climate ChangeD
David R. Weiss – June 21, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #31 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

I have one more essay on “dominion” in Genesis 1:26 to write, but this week, in honor of LGBTQ Pride, I want to consider how Pride offers some timely gifts that should resonate in faith communities adapting to climate changeD.

Permaculture, as we’ve seen, begins with the presumption, Earth knows Earth best. Because of its capacity to “think” and “problem-solve” across a geological timescale, Earth can patiently tease out the best way to do things. Hence, permaculture encourages us to work with Earth’s “best practices” when interacting with Earth (e.g., farming) and to learn from Earth as we earthlings fashion the physical communities and cultural worlds where we dwell. Permaculture says we’re wise to follow Earth’s lead rather than dictate terms that may be more to our immediate liking but aren’t likely to be sustainable. And permaculture gently, persistently reminds us that because we are Earth first, if it isn’t sustainable for Earth, it isn’t wise for earthlings.

Pride is a celebration of resistance by the LGBTQ community. Sure it has its gaudy, fabulous, festive expressions, but it began—fifty years ago in the Stonewall riots of 1969—as an act of resistance and ultimately a declaration of authentic selfhood. After decades, generations, centuries of being marginalized, ostracized, criminalized, and demonized, through Stonewall the queer community said, ENOUGH!

Now, there is a long complex history here, and I’m not fully competent to tell it. But I can say a few things. While Stonewall became “the” lightning rod event, it was far from the first moment of resistance. And the visible faces, audible voices, and leading figures within the queer community have been contested at length. Although the Stonewall riots were led by drag queens and transwomen, in the wake of the riots it was primarily gay men, whose relative social/economic status gave them more power than others in the queer community, who emerged as most visible vanguard of Pride. But over the past five decades—with plenty of vigorous discussion along the way—many others have emerged, bringing their own particular colorful identities to Pride: lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual, gender fluid, intersex, queer persons of color, and more.

Regardless of their pathway into Pride, what links these persons together is their resistance to being socially othered: deemed criminal, forced out of view, condemned as sinful, or branded as “queer”—queer as “that-which-fouls-the-normal.”[1] And the positive expression of this resistance, seen in Pride celebrations and even more importantly in the daily dignity with which these persons carry themselves is this permaculture-like assertion: We know our own truth best, and we will live from the truth that is ours.

Over against a dominant patriarchal society that has worked relentlessly to objectify earth, animals, persons of color, women, and LGBTQ persons—pressing them all into the service of foolhardy dreams of domination, Pride becomes one more voice among many saying, ENOUGH. Earth knows Earth best. Animals have intrinsic dignity, “knowing” themselves in way we can only humbly guess at. Persons of color bear witness to an experience of life—especially in white-dominant societies—that is unknown to the rest of us unless we listen in rapt silence. Women know women (across a multitude of particular experiences) best. And queer people (in all their extravagant diversity) know queer people best.

In some ways the Garden of Eden myth of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (in Genesis 3 and discussed in GIT #28) is the story of the primordial “fall” into the arrogant—and often deadly—presumption that I can know you absolutely and without needing to listen to you. It tells of the temptation for those with social power to believe they can map out the world’s morality without reference to the world’s diversity—as though the measure of “good” and “evil” is ours alone. Such efforts are worse than foolish. They inevitably alienate us from Earth, animals, and others, and usually that alienation is costly—even deadly—for those with less power.

Indeed, one might view much of the arc of human history through this lens. Different empires competing for whose version of the world can “map” the rest of the world most to their advantage. It’s a story of human folly and tragedy … and evil and genocide. And as human technology has advanced the stakes have gotten higher for everyone, including Earth herself.

There are at least two fundamental gifts that Pride might bring to conversations about how we live toward Transition in light of our changeD climate. Foremost is this permaculture-like assertion: each community, whether Earth or animal, gender, or sexual identity, knows itself best. And deserves to be met on its own terms. That’s the heart of Pride. It sits at the intersection of resistance, celebration, and wisdom. And it’s a truth we all need today.

The second gift is more sobering but just as essential. Both on account of its enduring across long generations of oppression and more keenly through its searing experience with HIV/AIDS, the queer community has learned—by sheer necessity—to foster community by leveraging inner resources more than outer resources. Even to tend to its dying members with grace without knowing when—or if—its suffering would end. This is NOT a lesson anyone would be eager to learn. But as the disparities in our world deepen and as ecosystems became more strained and as we begin to experience the backlash of having lived so long out of sync with our own Earth home, we may need this “gift” most of all.

I just finished watching HBO’s miniseries, Chernobyl. It’s a piercing look at the factors that led to that nuclear catastrophe and the devastation it wrought. I’ll be haunted for a long time by words spoken by Valery Legasov, one of the lead characters in assessing how this unimaginable disaster could’ve happened: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”

Our consumptive industrialized world, so dismissive of the wisdom of permaculture, has lived a long lie. The rising rate of carbon in the atmosphere is but one indicator of how great our debt to truth has grown. And it is coming due soon. It is no small thing to suggest, as Pride celebrations swirl around us this week, that if we can learn the first lesson of Pride, acknowledging and honoring the integrity of each Earth (and earthling) community we will be better able to transition away from the lie that has claimed most of our lives to date.

And it is no small thing to whisper that if (when?) chaos, uncertainty, and suffering come to define our world it may be the hallowed memory of the queer community that can help show us how to hold onto dignity and joy even then.


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

*                *                *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, 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] True, some persons choose to wear “queer” itself as a term of pride, “turning the symbol” so that its othering power is erased. Such acts may render the symbol itself harmless to certain hearers, but it’s a much bigger project to render the systems that use the term harmless.

Permaculture and Imago Dei: An Ecological Divinity

Permaculture and Imago Dei: An Ecological Divinity
David R. Weiss – June 18, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #30 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

We’re coming back to “dominion,” I promise. But in Genesis 1:26, the conferral of dominion happens like this: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion …” So it makes sense to consider first imago Dei, the Latin phrase that captures this declaration that we are somehow “in the image of God,” as a prerequisite to exploring what it might mean to “have dominion.”

*As in the Yahwist account (Gen. 2:4-25), the Hebrew word behind “humankind” here is also adam—a play on the word for dirt: adamah—so God is effectively saying, “Let us make dirtlings, earthlings, humus beings in our image …”

I want to suggest that imago Dei—to carry an image … reflection … echo … of divinity—evokes an intrinsically ecological notion of divinity. Most of us grew up steeped in a sense of God’s transcendence, although we likely didn’t have the words to say it. We knew God as infinitely distant, infinitely other; certainly in heaven and certainly not on earth. It’s true that both Christian theology and the Hebraic spirituality that came before it, have held distinct strands of both transcendence and immanence (God’s infinite nearness), but Christians in particular have tended for generations to downplay immanence. Seems like it’s easier to ruthlessly exploit the planet if God is elsewhere.

But what if our ancient cosmologies carried a wisdom predating scientific fact that saw animate energy interwoven with cosmic matter from the very start? Recognizing that the deep cosmology of the Bible is a distant but clear cousin to permaculture just might inspire us to get better acquainted with this legacy that might be our lifeline toward Transition.

Even before we take up imago Dei, this verse raises another interesting question. God says, “Let us …” Just who is that creative us? Some scholars view it as a vestige of an ancient sense of multiplicity in the godhead: that even as the ancient Hebrews embraced the radical notion of monotheism (with frequent slips into worshipping other gods), there was still an overwhelming intuition that God’s oneness was somehow also a manyness. Others regard it as an instance of the “royal we” or the “majestic plural,” where the writer shows God speaking like a monarch on behalf of the royal house, perhaps a collective reference to the whole host of heaven: God and all the angels. I’ve even seen arguments that this is a hint at the Trinity—as if we overhear God conversing with godself.

I’ll offer a more evocative reading. Genesis tells us, “God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation …’” creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …’” and “God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …’” (1:11, 20, 24) These aren’t scientific or historical claims, but it seems significant that this account portrays a God who works with creation in creative partnership. Given what we know today of life’s unfolding course, why not read the “us” as God turning to the entire animal kingdom (all brought forth in the immediately preceding verses), and saying to them with a grand evolutionary invitation, “Now, let us—all of you creatures—let us together make human beings in our image … so that they carry within themselves both the seeds of creaturely roots and the aspirations of God.”

Alongside the theological awe in response to God’s absolute otherness, there is an equal awe appropriate to God’s absolute nearness. God’s wisdom is writ upon the natural world. Those who dare, might say God’s wisdom is wholly at home there. And what are we humans, if not earth, able at last—after eons of cosmic patience—to sense the wisdom and beauty that has been waiting to be known all along?[1]

Now, imago Dei. Few biblical notions are so dear to our heart—and so dysunderstood as this one. (Okay, that’s not a real word, but it’s accurate: we don’t merely misunderstand this word, we twist it to suit our desires; we intentionally dysunderstand it.)

The burden of self-consciousness is existential anxiety. We actually know we are … and can anticipate that we might one day not be. Our drive to fashion meaning—through religion, culture, art, work, etc.—is the basic alchemy of humanizing our lives. Done sufficiently well it “treats” our existential anxiety and makes life bearable. Done exceptionally well it renders life meaningful.

This is the inescapable predicament of humanity: this is what it means to carry within ourselves both the seeds of creaturely roots (finitude) and the aspirations of God (imagination). And, too often, we prefer to evade the entire ordeal by pretending as though “we’re not really from around here.” We read imago Dei as lifting us above creation. We take our lesser angels, lust for absolute power and absolute knowledge; we project them upward onto God; and then congratulate ourselves on bearing that image.

In the biblical story, while God certainly exercises power as one might expect, God also and remarkably chooses vulnerability again and again. Look at the company God keeps: second-born sons, enslaved people, slow-tongued leaders, women, Gentiles, and awkwardly outcast prophets. God opens godself to a depth of emotion that we rarely connect with divinity: feeling anguish at the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt; betrayal by their infidelity; sorrow at their exile in Babylon; even compassion for the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah. It would overstate it to call God an emotional wreck, but the God of the Hebrew Bible chooses to be whole not by avoiding vulnerability but by embracing it.

But what if God is in fact unimaginably from around here—far more intimately immanent than we expected? Mechtild of Magdeburg (1210-1280 CE), a Beguine mystic, said, “You ask me where God dwells. I will tell you. There is no lord in the whole world who lives in all their dwellings at once except God alone.” About fifty years later, Meister Eckhart (1260-1329 CE), the famous Rhineland mystic, offered an even more visceral image: “God was pregnant with every creature from all eternity.”[2] In other words, what if being imago Dei means to be intimately interwoven with the natural world? What if being imago Dei means exactly to call the tension between finitude and longing HOME and to do so with grace?

We find ourselves as a society—no, as a species—in the most excruciatingly vulnerable moment of our existence. We have pretended for so long—and with such a vengeance—that we are not from around here, that Here is on the verge of becoming no longer hospitable to our being. If there is a way forward in this moment, permaculture and Transition will be essential companions. Recognizing their essential kinship with our being in the image of an ecological divinity may help us embrace them as the family we need right now.


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

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, 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] Already 35 years ago, Brian Swimme’s dialogical parable The Universe is a Green Dragon (Bear & Company, 1984) blended contemporary physics with sacred reverence to suggest that human beings are (at least one instance of) the universe coming to conscious awareness of itself.

[2] Mechtild was a German Beguine (a lay religious order that was dedicated to serving the poor, but did not take did formal vows). Eckhart was a Dominican theologian and friar (preacher). Both quotes appears in Meditation with Mechtild of Magdeburg (ed. Sue Woodruff, Bear & Company, 1982, pp. 15, 29).

Permaculture and Dominion: A Creation Account from a Cliff

Permaculture and Dominion: A Creation Account from a Cliff
David R. Weiss – June 10, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #29 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Dominion. It’s the elephant in the room, I suppose. No matter what I say about Eden and those first “humus beings,” someone is whispering the whole time, “Sure, sure, but dominion.”

Or maybe not even whispering. Almost thirty years ago I spent about thirty inauspicious days as a Greenpeace door-to-door canvasser. The cause was already dear to my heart, but it was hardly work that matched my psychic energy. Read: introvert’s nightmare. I still recall one man who met me at his door, his demeanor dismissive before I even finished my short introduction. He smiled, patronizingly (he was old enough then—maybe early 50’s—to be my father), and said, “I have four words for you: ‘Let. Them. Have. Dominion.’ End of conversation.” And he closed the door in my face, smiling the whole time.

Today’s post is NOT for that man. Would it be great to swing the minds of those most opposite me in their views? Sure. But there are already a host of other people who find themselves increasingly uneasy with their inherited understanding of humanity’s place in creation. You don’t have to be a Greenpeace supporter to worry that we are “dominioning” ourselves and some of our favorite creatures to death. I write for that “moveable middle,” hoping to invite those of you there to re-considerre a cosmology[1] that is in at least as much crisis as our climate is.

Permaculture sets the “cosmology,” as it were, for the Transition Movement. It paints the picture of a world in which mutually beneficial ecological relationships are possible, desirable, and rewarding. I offer my reflections on the Genesis creation narratives to suggest that they (both!) carry a cosmology that resonates far more with permaculture than we’ve been taught. Because our best wisdom—both its Hebraic roots and early Christian expression—has been largely submerged by another story so pervasive that we presume it’s “our story.” But it’s not. That other story glistens with shiny things, but upon a closer examination the pattern in the weave reflects domination, alienation, dualism, and exploitation. Look closer still and you’ll see that the threads are woven strands of insecurity, arrogance, and fear.

“Dominion” first enters our tradition in the Priestly creation account found in Genesis 1:1-2:3. Like the Yahwist account (see GIT #27 & #28), the Priestly account is entirely disinterested in telling us science. But it’s not quite myth either (myth tends to have a richer narrative plot). This “story” is really liturgy. It holds the rhythm, the soothing cadence, of worshipful words: these verses invite a community to rehearse the truth of its world.

When I taught Bible in college I told into my students, “Scripture has nothing to do with nowhere.” By which I meant that every text has context. Yes, some passages speak well across time and place, but the most potent clues to their meaning and message are bound up with their birth. So it matters profoundly that this creation liturgy was born into a shattered world.

This creation account is ascribed to the Priestly Source, one of the major author-editor voices present in the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible. Concerned with ritual and its role in securing the Hebrew people’s identity, most scholars date it to the Exile.[2] That is, this voice (likely a collection of voices with a shared worldview) appeared in Israel’s life after the kingdom united by David (1000 BCE) and expanded by Solomon had been fractured by civil war (930 BCE). It surfaced after the Assyrian empire swept across the Northern Kingdom and forever scattered those ten tribes to the wind (722 BCE). And it arose after the Babylon Empire not only overshadowed Assyria but claimed the tiny Southern Kingdom, comprised of the remnant tribes of Judah and Benjamin as well (597-586 BCE).

In this last national catastrophe, not only did the people see their countryside overrun and the capital city laid waste, they even saw their Temple burned to the ground. They found themselves landless people—exiles. What does it even mean to be a people without a land? To borrow the image from the older Eden tale, what does it mean to be humus beings torn from the humus that you know … and that knows you? It means that among the many forces shaping Israel’s shared identity, the very precariousness of their even being a people at all threatens to be the loudest “rhythm” in their daily life.

But even more than this—with the Temple reduced to dust and ashes—what does it mean to have a “homeless” God? Isn’t that an ontological oxymoron? Perhaps a lesser spirit, perhaps a demon, might be homeless. But to be incapable of protecting one’s temple lay on the wrong side of any ancient litmus test for a god. If to be a landless people stretched the notions of “peoplehood,” to be a God-less landless people snapped those notions of “peoplehood” altogether.

THIS is the context—the precipice on which the Priestly writers crafted their words. These were cliff-dwelling theologians not because of the physical terrain in which they lived but because of the social and theological reality into which they wrote—audaciously. So while there is more to say about this creation account, the first thing to notice—BECAUSE WE READ IT FROM A SUCH A DIFFERENT PLACE—is that the Priestly account is speaking to people whose power political has been brutally broken, whose national identity has been almost entirely erased, and whose personal-communal-religious self-esteem has been completely shattered.

In THIS context, to announce—through liturgy—that people are imago Dei (in the image of God – Gen. 1:26) is no invitation to arrogance; it is the incredible assertion that, contrary to all outward appearances, you carry within yourselves the very echo of the energy that animates the universe. This image is salve for the soul of a people otherwise undone by their history.

Likewise, in THIS context, “dominion” (also in Gen. 1:26) is hardly a summons to dominate. It is more the suggestion of the possibility of life in which one’s place in the natural world does not merely punctuate the chaos of the last military campaign. This sense of dominion, too, stands in stark counterpoint to an experience mostly unknown to us: the cataclysmic erasure of both personal and national power. It comes as a word of comfort, not conquest.

It’s possible that yet in our lifetimes (or our grandchildren’s) we will ourselves be people undone by our own history, experiencing the cataclysmic erasure of both personal and national power. In that case, we might learn first hand the original power of this creation account. Though perhaps we can still turn away (one might say “repent”) from that future.

In my couple of posts I’ll explore these notions—imago Dei and dominion—further. They’re actually rich with promise for a cosmology that would’ve served us much better than the one that’s given us a changeD climate. And, if we reclaim them quickly enough, they might indeed serve us well as we move toward communities of faith that can embrace Transition and be resilient in the midst of uncertainty.


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

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, 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] Cosmology can be either scientific or religious-cultural. A scientific cosmology is the best picture science can offer of how the universe came to be and how/why it unfolds as it does. A religious-cultural cosmology is the picture offered by religion (often through origin myths) or, more often today, submerged in a whole set of explicit and implicit cultural assumptions that speak to the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the universe and our place in it. In many ways our current climate crisis is a symptom of a crisis in our religious-cultural cosmology.

[2] Some date it to the post-Exilic period; for my purposes the exact dating isn’t significant. It’s likely the Priestly material took its final form over several generations, and even post-Exile, Israel’s life and theology was indelibly shaped by the impact of the Exile itself.

Pride, Stonewall, and Hearts on Fire

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which gave birth to annual Pride celebrations each June. In light of the significance of THIS June’s Pride celebrations (June 22-23 in the Twin Cities and June 29-30 in NYC), I’m posting this hymn as a potential worship resource for Pride services.

Written for the 2008 Lutherans Concerned/North America (now ReconcilingWorks) Assembly–its chosen theme was “Hearts on Fire”–the hymn sets the journey of LGBTQ Christians within the story of Emmaus and LGBTQ Pride today, from its secular expression in Stonewall to its ecclesial expression in welcoming worship communities, same-sex marriage and ordinations. Christian denominations (indeed, individual congregations) are in widely varied places in this journey, but these issues remain critical in many of them and in our society a a whole. Being public in our solidarity for them remains as important as ever. Additionally, “Heart on Fire” is surely among the very small handful of hymn texts using a recognizable and very singable hymn tune that actually honors the Stonewall riots.

The hymn text is a rich journey through LGBTQ experience.
  • vv 1-2: Honor the sacredness of the stories—both coming out and faith stories—that weave the sense of family/kinship no less than Pentecost itself.
  • vv. 3-4: Acknowledge the context of oppression into which the Stonewall riots burst like a “Pentecostal choir”—and the way it helped push forward the welcoming church movement from sanctuaried gatherings into more publicly reclaiming a place in the Body of Christ.
  • vv. 5-6: Name two of the key shapes that this outpouring of Spirit longs to take in the church.

It seems to me the hymn text could be a powerful addition to any June Pride service, especially those that want to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Stonewall.

Here’s a link to a Word doc with text only and links to a pdf file and a jpg file w/melody line included. BUT NOTE: I don’t hold the copyright to the tune. If you print the words with the melody you need to report that usage through your regular copyright subscription service. Very easily done, but essential to do! I also have the words w/melody on a png file, but can’t get that to display on the web for some reason. If you’d prefer a png file, zip me an email and I’ll provide it. Reach me at drw59mn(at)gmail.com.

I hope these words fill many a sanctuary with “hearts on fire” yet this month!


Hearts on Fire

As if in the upper room, as if in God’s holy womb
As we celebrate this meal, as God’s welcome we reveal,
Hearts on fire, Christ’s desire, that our faith be born anew,
And the kin-dom of our God be ever true, ever true.

Here we gather, glad we say, Christ is with us here today.
In the stories that we tell, hear the Holy Wind now swell.
Hearts on fire, soaring higher, comes the Dove on flaming tongue,
Dreams and visions for our old and for our young, for our young,

Once our people lived in fear, once our hope was hard to hear,
Once our lives were framed by fright, ’til that Pentecostal night.
Hearts on fire, holy choir, of a most surprising tune
In the Stonewall cries of pride that distant June, distant June.

From the alleys running scared, from the brutal hate laid bare,
To a sanctuaried space, to the claiming of our place.
Hearts on fire, we aspire, find our missing Body parts
And re-member – every member – whose we are, whose we are.

From the moment that we dare, ask another’s life to share,
Mid the people gathered round, as our lives in love are bound.
Hearts on fire, steepled spires, tolling loud for life-long love,
Witnessed by the church below and God above, God above.

Now the One who knows all needs, on good soil sows good seed,
From the ground some grain is lured, to the Table and the Word.
Hearts on fire, Christ’s desire that this Body be made whole,
In the calling and the placing of the stole, of the stole.

Text: David R. Weiss, b. 1959 (© 2006 David R. Weiss)
Tune: Carl Schalk, b. 1929, THINE (Thine the Amen, Thine the Praise, With One Voice 801 – © 1983 Augsburg Publishing House)

Permission is given to photocopy Hearts on Fire for use in worship.