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).

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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!

~David

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.

Permaculture ABCs: Apples, Boundaries, and C(K)ings

Permaculture ABCs: Apples, Boundaries, and C(K)ings
David R. Weiss – June 2, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #28 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Eden’s idyllic garden setting (the focus of my last post) doesn’t last long, of course. As the tale continues (Genesis 3:1-24) we encounter apples,[1] boundaries, and—hiding at the edge of this narrative—c(k)ings. Without claiming that this 3000 year-old myth speaks directly to the issues of a changed climate, I do believe it can help us re-root ourselves (and our faith) in a worldview rich in pre-scientific wisdom.

I noted earlier (GIT #26) that permaculture—the DNA for the Transition Movement—began in the 1970’s as a response to a very broken garden. Its own antecedents appeared early in the twentieth century through pioneering thinkers and growers whose holistic views of an interconnected living world shaped their approach to agriculture. But it was the post-WWII boom in the use of petro-chemical fertilizers—and the mechanized machinery that applied them—that permaculture directly responded to.

In particular (although they wouldn’t have phrased it exactly so), permaculture arose as we increasingly traded tending the soil—our kin if you recall my last post—for dominating it. Industrial agriculture represented a tragic dys-tending of the living earth, twisting it asunder from its own natural cycles and pressing it to deliver according to our desires. Genesis warned us of this. And warns us still.

As anyone familiar with the creation account featuring the Garden of Eden will recall, there is a tree in the center of Eden that is off limits to Adam and Eve, those first humus beings.[2] It’s the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It’s the only tree they are forbidden to eat from, but of course they do, and that eating becomes responsible for “the Fall”—the end of that first paradise and the entry of sin and death into the world. Now, this is myth (see GIT #27), which means there is no biblical claim here that there was some time in primal history when humans didn’t die. Myths offer truths not facts.

There was never a time when death itself—mere mortality—was not part of human life in this natural world. But there was a time in our pre-human past when instinct still reigned and our cognitive capacity was poised just at the cusp of self-consciousness. And this story tells the truth of what happened as we moved beyond that cusp into fully self-aware beings. It tells us that (at least, in this Hebraic tradition) only God has sufficient perspective to render final judgments about good and evil. We humans are consigned to live by making our best assessments of moral situations—and maintaining a hefty dose of humility. And when we choose to act as though we are privy to absolute knowledge of good and evil? Inevitably: sin, domination, violence, and death. From Cain’s murder of Abel right on up to the present.

This myth is not about breaking an abstract divine command (as though God simply made one tree off limits to test our uncritical obedience). It was always about more substantial boundaries: that we live best when we make a wise peace with the ambiguity that speaks the final word about our best guesses—and thus allow that ambiguity to usher humility to the forefront of our judgments. More often, however, from Eden onward we transgress that boundary. And our overblown confidence that we—little more than dirt whirling in Wind—can assert absolute value judgments … that kind of thinking has often characterized the worst excesses and atrocities of human history.

Apples and boundaries. And c(k)ings. This creation myth is part of the larger Yahwist narrative, that long strand of the Hebrew Scriptures—myth/legend/history—named for its use of YHWH as the name of God.[3] And it has a couple kings hiding at the edges. The Yahwist narrative as a whole is interested in recounting the accomplishment of King David in uniting Israel’s tribes into a monarchy, which then reaches its apex under King Solomon (and then almost immediately fractures). But this creation myth stands as a subtle critique of both kings and their unwillingness to live within Eden’s boundaries.

David is largely honored within the biblical tradition—his passion for God becomes the measure of future kings, and an entire millennium after he lived, the Gospels view it as an honor to link Jesus to David. But the sin that undoes his kingdom from within is his rape of Bathsheba.[4] When the prophet Nathan confronts him over this, his words evoke Eden’s garden. Basically he tells David, “As king, you could have chosen a wife from any of the trees in Israel—except one: the tree of married women. Yet you took from the one tree forbidden to you.” David’s sin is to presume that boundaries do not apply to him.

Solomon is lauded for his wisdom and wealth (1 Kings 1-12). Less known is that after David’s death Solomon consolidates his rule by violence. And the opulence of his reign rests on plundering his own people and the land.[5] None of his prosperity reached the peasants in Israel. Ultimately, his many wives are blamed for luring his loyalty away from Israel’s God to foreign gods. There may be some truth to this, but the “proof” of Solomon’s disloyalty to YHWH is less that he has multiple marriages than that he turns Israel into a kingdom that, for those at the bottom, echoes the experience of their ancestors who were slaves in Egypt. Solomon’s sin, like David’s, is to presume that whatever he could do, must be good.

Both kings are hiding in this tale—eating the apple, transgressing its boundary, and wreaking havoc as a result. The power of myth is that it exists “outside of time” and tells a tale that can be true again and again.

In so many ways the story of our modern acquisitive culture is the story of presuming that whatever we could do, must be good. Apples, boundaries, and c(k)ings all over again. More is better. And when the land—our kin—shows its inborn limits, why, we’ll force it to give us what we want, when we want it, and as much as we desire. That’s the story of industrial agriculture, too. And by now it’s done untold damage to the familial earth beneath our feet. It’s played a lead role in threatening the very extinction of insects. It’s fostered structural violence against both farm workers and farm animals. And … insofar as “we are what we eat,” all of us raised on industrial agriculture have been fed not simply the food but the story that somehow earth’s limits don’t apply to us.

When I said industrial agriculture began in the “post-war boom” of petro-chemical fertilizer, that wasn’t colloquial dating. During the war “thriving” industries developed to produce nitrogen-ammonia for weapons: for dealing out death. After the war, there were stockpiles of nitrogen-rich ammonia and the means to make more—that needed a market. So what we couldn’t use for bombs we sold to farmers to “bomb” the soil with chemicals to bend it to our will. When Cain murders Abel (Gen. 4) God says to him, “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” What irony, that we used the overflow of materials no longer needed to kill people to curse the ground instead.

Permaculture believes a better way exists. Transition builds on permaculture. And our future rests upon our ability to hear both the wisdom and the warning in this creation myth. And to hear in permaculture a story about what might be. What must be if we want a future to be at all.

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] While most of us do encounter “apples” in Eden in our popular imagination, the Bible only mentions “fruit.”

[2] There’s A LOT going on in this tale (including an infamous serpent). I’m only scratching the surface.

[3] There’s currently a lively debate over the dating of the Yahwist narrative. For years it was dated around 1000-950 BCE: contemporaneous with King David and/or King Solomon. Recent scholarship cites linguistic clues and allusions to historical/theological motifs to argue for a much later date, perhaps between 600-550 BCE.

[4] 2 Sam. 11:1-12:23. Often described as David committing “adultery” with Bathsheba since she is married, there was ZERO consent in this sex. This is royal rape; any other description erases the very real power dynamics at play.

[5] The forced labor, large army, and high taxes predicted by Samuel (1 Sam. 8:10-18) are fulfilled under Solomon.

Permaculture: Breathing Earth … Finding Home

Permaculture: Breathing Earth … Finding Home
David R. Weiss – May 27, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #27 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

“Then the LORD[1] God formed a man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7) Forget Jesus’ breath in John’s Easter scene (GIT #26), this is the moment when the Judeo-Christian tradition first affirms permaculture.

In my last post, I said Christian communities were “commissioned” as it were to be permaculture communities all along. Of course, that’s a bit of a rhetorical claim—permaculture as an intentional movement appeared nearly 2000 years after the first Christian communities. But my point stands. John’s Gospel links Jesus so clearly with the Biblical figure of Wisdom (who the Bible links with the wisdom inherent within creation) that Christians ought to enthusiastically embrace the core insight of permaculture: that nature itself is a repository of lived wisdom useful in shaping human life as well.

Not that nature dictates how we live, but our capacity for reflection, self-transcendence, and choice doesn’t set us above nature any more than the capacity for flight, parthenogenesis, underwater breathing, or photosynthesis sets any other bit of creation above nature. Permaculture, the infrastructure for the Transition Movement, suggests it’s both wise to learn from nature and ethical to seek to live in harmony with nature because we are nature. We’re simply nature with elevated cognitive, emotional, cultural, spiritual capacities.

That most Christians find this idea quite foreign reflects how far we are from the truth of our own tradition. Worse, given the way scientific-industrial progress has raced forward largely unbridled by ethics in a culture self-identified for generations as “Christian,” the church has been (at least!) complicit in the reckless advances that now threaten to wreck the ecosystem that sustains us. Permaculture argues that other paths were, and perhaps still are, available to us. So does this creation account in Genesis.

As a creation myth it oozes truth (not fact) in a story about how creation came to be and where we fit within it. However, it’s a myth made for people in another time and place. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to say to us, but it does mean we’ll need to listen carefully to hear across cultures, languages, and whole eras of understanding. Still, for those of us who continue to draw meaning and life out of this faith tradition, that extra care is worth it. And as we meet the climate emergency in front of us, there’s an added urgency to pay attention. Because some of the things we’ve often missed just may become lifelines in this moment. I’ll suggest several.

English translations have always told us “God formed a man from the dust of the ground.” The exact words vary, but every translation I’ve seen BURIES the truth of the Hebrew where God fashions an adam from the adamah. Later on, these translations render adam as the man’s name, Adam. But it is Hebrew for “earthling” fashioned from earth, or “dirtling” made from dirt, or “humus being” formed from humus. The truth intended by the original teller of this tale was that we are dirt. Enlivened by divine breath, but nonetheless still—forever and always—kin to the ground beneath our feet. The claim isn’t intended to humiliate us. Rather it tells us, on this ground we are home. No small truth for beings who have evolved our way into existential loneliness.

In this tale, God’s breath brings one particular bit of humus to life by breathing into it. We become humus beings—living soil. Later on the Hebraic Wisdom tradition begins to intuit what both science and permaculture confirm: we aren’t the only soil that is alive. Whether you call it the breath of God or the ferment of microbes, the black dirt under our feet is fairly crowded with animate energy. Permaculture begs us to honor it; this Genesis creation tale says no less.

This creation account goes on to describe Eden, the garden planted by God into which the humus being (adam/Adam) is placed. We do an injustice to the peoples who first heard this tale when we presume they regarded it as a divinely-relayed newspaper account of an anthropomorphized God, who acted like a supernatural botanist in setting up Eden. AND—we do an injustice to ourselves when we presume we’re either beholden to read the verses that way today—or entitled to be embarrassed by verses so unembarrassed about narrating divine activity. Ancient peoples were “fluent” in myth. They felt no need to decide between fact and fiction. Myth told truth—and it moved freely across these less important distinctions in telling its truth.

With the garden in place, we learn that God set the adam [that is, “the humus being”—as yet single and ungendered] in the garden of Eden “to till it and keep it.” (Gen. 2:15) This, then, is the paradigmatic human vocation according to this account: to work the land and sustain its abundance—in other words: to practice permaculture. There is no talk of being imago Dei (“in the image of God”) or “having dominion” in this account—I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Almost as soon as the humus being begins tending the humus, God observes, “It is not good for the adam [the single “humus being”] to be alone.” (Gen 2:18) So God fashions all manner of animals, none of whom provide quite sufficient companionship, until God splits the adam itself into two: man and woman. (Gen. 2:19-23) One might consider a host of (worthwhile) gender issues here, but today I simply want to note that in this story God invites the humus being to name each creature. The invitation and the act are significant because throughout the biblical text names are not used to establish the power of ownership or exploitation, but to carry the truth of relationship.[2]

In Eden, naming is a vocational act alongside tending the garden. It is a prototype of ecology. Indeed, once we see the purpose of naming as placing ourselves and our companion creatures into appropriate relationship, then naming and tending become essentially one interwoven vocation. We cannot tend the humus well if we do not attend as well to the ways that all life is humus-borne.

From creation to Christianity, authentic biblical faith anticipates permaculture (and Transition). To understand ourselves as humus beings—“breathing earth”—places us firmly within this natural world. And not as punishment or burden, but as home and calling. We were not made to be masters of this material world. Rather, we were intended for intimacy with it. Facing a climate crisis of apocalyptic scope, that intimacy will mean allowing ourselves to feel unfathomable grief. But it will also mean catching glimpses of revelatory joy. Perhaps most of all, it will mean holding earth in our hands and feeling the goodness of home.

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] In many English translations of the Old Testament you’ll often see the word LORD printed in upper case letters. When you do, it indicates that behind this word lies the Hebrew word often viewed as the name of God: YHWH. Jews consider it too sacred to speak aloud, so when reading their scriptures they replace it, by saying the word Adonai, which means “Lord.” (It actually means “Lords”—plural—which is itself a fascinating detail, as though in the midst of Judaism’s strict monotheism, a bit of the God’s ineffable “moreness” leaks through here.)

[2] Just a few examples: “Eve” means “the mother of all living”; “Isaac” means “laughter”—the child whose unexpected birth brought laughter; “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God.” There are a number of ways to convey the sense of YHWH: “I am what I am”; “I am who I am”; or “I will be who I will be.” Because the most vivid account of God’s self-revelation comes in the scene with Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15), linked to a series of future promises, I find it evocative to hear the name as “I will be who I must be for your liberation.”

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

*          *          *

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.

Threatened with Resurrection

Threatened with Resurrection
David R. Weiss – May 16, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #25 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

“They have threatened us with resurrection.” The words come from a poem written in 1980 by Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalan poet-theologian and peace activist.[1] Penned in a time of fierce persecution of peasants, human rights activists, and church workers, the image evokes a holy irony: for Christians, to live under near constant threat of death is to be … threatened with resurrection.

This wasn’t glib optimism. During Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996) some 200,000 persons were killed. Death squads were common, as were torture, assassination, mutilation, rape, and ‘disappearances.’ To suggest that living under such conditions was, in fact, to be “threatened with resurrection,” was an act of revolutionary inward defiance. It declared: Because we do not regard death as the end of our story—for it was not the end of Jesus’ story—therefore, even in times like these, “we go on loving life” (the last five words are drawn from the poem itself).

Climate change is NOT state-sponsored terrorism. But it will (in some places it already does) mean living in the face of daily unpredictability, chaos, suffering, and grief. And it will require a posture of revolutionary inward defiance (one aspect of the Inner Transition that is central to the Transition Movement goal of resilience) to cultivate both the inner and outer resources to embrace life in this new world. Which is why, especially after my last post summoning us to embrace ecological grief, it seems a good time to remind us that as Christians, climate change threatens us with resurrection. Which in turn invites … compels us to live in the holy irony of meeting the prospect of radical uncertainty with an undaunted love for life.

This, too, is not glib optimism. The science around climate change is too unforgiving for that. The media spin is often shaped alternately by a foolhardy thirst for one more round of profits, or a fear-laden denial convinced it can’t be that bad, or the naïve belief we’ll invent our way out of this without needing to deeply(!) re-work the misshapen appetites and assumptions that got us here. But once you push through the spin, BLEAK is what stares back at you. And bleak doesn’t blink.

Part of our problem, however, is that unlike in Guatemala, where Esquivel’s poem was read against the lived experience of brutality (no one doubted they lived under immediate threat)—today both society and church remain largely in denial of the peril still mostly unseen in front of us. Even as anxiety over climate change creeps into the background of our daily lives, the immediacy of the threat is seldom felt. Not here. Not yet. But it is inexorably on the way. So I tend to shout. Sorry. (Not sorry.)

I get it. ‘Bleak’ isn’t good for the market, for one’s career path, or for our widespread consumptive addictions, so we find ways to push it to the side. But ‘bleak’ is what science tells us today, so my task is to be unrelentingly imaginative in making that bleakness real.[2]

For some it already is. The Agenda, a Canadian public television current affairs show recently hosted a 30-minute segment on the emotional impact of climate change on those directly involved in the research.[3] Scientists, whose work places them before any spin, are increasingly wrestling with deep grief as they see an Earth unmade by human folly—sometimes first hand in habitats they’ve come to love, sometimes in climate models made by math they’ve learned to trust. While objectivity is crucial in collecting and assessing the data, when that objectivity announces existential crises for habitats and for humans even scientists are given pause.

It’s what comes after the pause that counts. Rob Law, a longtime Australian climate activist, writes, “to truly tackle the climate and extinction crisis we also need to give ourselves permission to grieve, personally and collectively.”[4] Why? Not as an exercise in self-defeat, but as a means to clear the way for action. Acknowledging our grief, Low continues, allows us “to create new ways of connecting to one another, to mourn for what we all love and are losing day by day … and to galvanize what is most important.” Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist, agrees, commenting in the Agenda segment, “It’s not a matter of are we ‘effed’ or not [as though it’s a simple binary either/or], it’s a matter of how ‘effed,’ and that is left for us to determine—and that requires us to become active participants in reducing whatever carbon burn we can.”

We don’t gain anything by denying the bleakness of our present situation. In fact, denial—as well as a too-easy optimism—only heightens the risk for all of us … for all of Earth. But we need not be paralyzed by it either. As Christians, the more we dare to really hear the science, such as the IPCC report from last fall or the IPBES report from last week,[5] the more we will find ourselves threatened with resurrection.

Our response should be to manifest an undaunted love for life. The Transition Movement offers us uncanny (even providential) insight into the shape of that response, and I’ll explore Christian adaptions of Transition in a series of posts over the summer. But fundamentally, to be threatened with resurrection—as those living in Guatemala in the 1970’s and 1980’s knew firsthand—is to begin from grief. It is to recognize that the wellspring of our action (which must be manifold) is the grief we dare to feel for the whole of creation.

Moving into this grief, making it part of our faith and witness in the twenty-first century, is our foremost calling as Christian communities today. (And there is more that must be written about, too.) But calling for grief is, in a sense, good news. Biblical faith has never been afraid of grief. It is the ground out of which resurrection comes. And if there is hope for a restored future on the far side of calamity that is yet to be weathered, it will be because we dared to grieve.

If we believe in a God who works miracles with mustard seeds, then grief is the mustard seed we must sow today. We, who are threatened with resurrection.

 

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 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] Julia Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan (Brethren Press, 1982). You can find the whole poem here: www.how-matters.org/2012/08/31/julia-esquivel/

[2] Walter Brueggemann considers the primary task of the Hebrew prophets as poetic. Initially (pre-Exile), that meant finding images—sometimes spoken, sometimes embodied—sufficient to carry the grief of God and visceral enough to break through the numbness of God’s people. Later (mid-Exile) it meant finding images able to awaken hope in God’s people in moments when their capacity to hope was all but extinguished by the circumstances of their lives. See The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 1978) and Hopeful Imagination (Fortress Press, 1986).

[3] www.tvo.org/video/burnout-and-despair-studying-the-climate.

[4] www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/09/i-have-felt-hopelessness-over-climate-change-here-is-how-we-move-past-the-immense-grief.

[5] IPPC report: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report; IPBES report: www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment.