Ecology, Indigenous Beliefs, And The Scriptures

In his book The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future Thomas Berry writes, “The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being…”[1] In other words, Berry contends that the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in at the advent of the twenty-first century is due in large part to the failure of human beings to understand and truly appreciate the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life and matter on the Earth. As Berry writes, “In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all it component members whether human or other than human.  In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity.”[2]

Unfortunately, we in the West, particularly those of us in the United States of America, have come to understand the world around us through what could be characterized as a purely utilitarian lens. Again, Berry writes succinctly, “A sense of the continent being here primarily for our use has been developing throughout the past few centuries.”[3] One could argue that one of the strongest indicators and representation of this reality is the consumerism that controls our very culture and economy.  Such consumerism is always in need of something new in order to keep the economy going.  We make products with a planned obsolescence in mind.  They must die and be thrown away so that we might continue to consume products made from the very resources of the earth.  Thus, more wisdom from Berry: “Our more human experience of the world of meaning has been diminished in direct proportion as money and utilitarian values have taken precedence over the numinous, aesthetic, and emotional values.”[4]

One of the more disconcerting aspects of the ‘radical discontinuity’ is that its development can be attributed to aspects of the Western Christian worldview. It’s a bit ironic to note that the first settlers who came to North America came in search of religious freedom having fled persecution.  Those such as the Pilgrims and Puritans came seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit.  Unfortunately, this did not translate into a wholly benevolent spirit towards outsiders whom they encountered such as the Native Americans as well as towards the abundance of natural resources throughout the New World.  What developed was exploitation of the land and the devastation of wildlife.[5] Such behavior found its justification in the often misunderstood passage in Genesis 1:26-30 which states,

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;     male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Words such as “dominion” and “subdue” engendered the belief that creation and its animals were simply there for the benefit of human beings according to the bible. Such an understanding has been communicated by the likes of journalists and political commentators such as Charles Krauthammer who said “Nature is our ward, not our master”[6] and Ann Coulter who infamously said, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.'”[7]

Ironically, I believe that it is the aforementioned understanding of Genesis 1 that can provide the inroad for a religious education that can serve to reform the attitudes of many Christians concerning creation.  The understanding of Genesis 1 that provided the justification for the exploitation and devastation of the Earth is woefully mistaken.  In fact, one could argue that the words of both Charles Krauthammer and Ann Coulter are heretical.  The reason being is that the writer of Genesis was most likely concerned with forming a meaning and worldview that stood in contradistinction to that of the great empires like Babylon and Egypt.[8]  Fascinatingly enough, these empires were known for exploiting the land of its resources and not respecting the dignity of all human beings.  Genesis 1 is a counter-narrative to this way of thinking and being. It asserts that God created everything and that it is good. It also asserts that “all the heavens and earth are filled with God’s creative presence and life.”[9] What’s more, it reveals that human beings are given the task of taking care of and stewarding this creation and its animals. It’s not hard to see a connection between such a worldview and the worldview of many of the indigenous tribes all around the world, particularly the worldview of the Native Americans.

While in the Hebraic worldview human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation this does not mean that they have the right to abuse and exploit. In fact, Genesis reveals a more “naturecentric”[10] worldview than previously thought.  Words like “dominion” and “subdue” are not the best translations that have different connotations in English and other Western languages.  “Manage” “steward” and “take Care of” are far better translations of the Hebrew word “Radah” particularly as they relate to our cultural context.  Highlighting these very things in the context of teaching, preaching and worship life can enable the Holy Spirit to bring about a renewal of thinking (Romans 12:2[11]) concerning the “radical discontinuity” of which Berry speaks.

It’s also important to recall that Genesis 3-11 is actually a commentary on the pitfalls of human exploitation and devastation. In Genesis human beings fall into sin and they end up creating a world of their own making within God’s world.  This world comes to its culmination in the creation of the city (Genesis 4:17) and in the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).  As Wes Howard Brook notes regarding Adam and Eve’s desire to be like God and falling into sin, “It is a condition that generates a “need” for something that God has not provided and they therefore must make for themselves.”[12]  It’s not hard for one to trace the consumerism of our culture all the way back to Genesis 3.  Before we know it fig leaves are used as clothing, animals need to be killed for their skins to provide better clothing, brother murders brother and weapons are made.  This points to the “disjointedness” that comes about in creation because of sin.  In a sense, we witness the first fruits of a radical discontinuity in Genesis and according to the writer it is not a good thing.

In a similar vein it’s important to note that Jesus of Nazareth offers an alternative to the radical discontinuity of our age as well. Given that he is the “New Adam” he has come to make things right between humans, creation and God, he comes to show God’s Way and to liberate human beings and his creation from the sin, death and the evil one.  Some stalwart conservative Christians might vehemently protest against such an understanding and usage of Jesus of Nazareth and the gospels but if one looks closely Jesus’ message has much more in common with indigenous values than much of what we might find in the modern industrial context.  Note what Berry states regarding the indigenous people of Australia,

“[They] were once thought to be totally lacking intellectual or cultural achievements associated with even the most primitive peoples known elsewhere. They had food for the day, no permanent dwellings, no clothes, only a few implements.  Yet we now find amazing achievements in their capacity for understanding and responding to both the physical and the spiritual dynamics of the world about them.”[13]

If one looks one can see a parallel here between indigenous values and the teaching and ways of Jesus as found in the gospels. Jesus teaches his disciples not to worry about tomorrow and to look at the flowers and the birds as an example of God’s continuous provision.[14] They are to live in the moment and to look at the creatures and creation around them for reminders and encouragement.  As Berry writes,

“Only if the human imagination is activated by the flight of the great soaring birds in the heavens, by the blossoming flowers of Earth, by the sight of the sea, by the lightning and thunder of the great storms that break through the heat of summer, only then will the deep inner experiences be evoked within the human soul.”[15]

Moreover, Christians are not to hoard but rather are to give and to serve for the sake of other and the upholding of the community.[16]  Again, one can sense a kindred spirit in the teaching and message of Jesus with that of the Native Americans like the chief of Powhatan confederacy.  This chief said to John Smith in regards to the colonists’ aggressive actions: “Why do you take by force what you may have quietly by love?”[17] Ultimately, their way of life is to be bound up in the belief and understanding of a gracious heavenly father who deeply cares for and loves them and the entire creation.[18]  A religious education that is simply based on the gospels can make inroads into combating the radical discontinuity of our age and its formative influence upon our thinking and approach to life.

This now provides a segue into the last aspects of this project. Given the vein and purpose of Thomas Berry’s writing it would be unthinkable and almost unjust to not reference and use Celtic spirituality.  One of the big problems with “a radical discontinuity” is that it reduces “the earth to an object primarily for human possession and use” which “is unthinkable in most traditional cultures.”[19] Having discussed how both Genesis and the gospels can be used in a religious education that can ward off the influences of a “radical discontinuity” Celtic spirituality can serve to bring this project to its coalescence.

Celtic spirituality reminds us to look for God in creation which also serves to remind us that all life is holy and purposeful. It is believed that Celtic spirituality comes from the Johannine tradition. It was the Apostle John who began his Gospel with the words, “In the beginning was the Word…All things were made through him.”[20]  The Word or Logos has always been understood to be Jesus.  And John’s language is meant to remind the reader of the beginning of Genesis.  Here, in the gospel of John, creation and Jesus meet and it all comes together.  This is why John Philip Newel writes,

“What we need today are insights and spiritual practices that remind us of the Unity of our origins and that further nourish the longing for peace that is stirring among us. The Celtic tradition offers these to us while at the same being deeply aware of the disharmonies within and between us that shake the very foundations of life.  This is not a tradition that is naïve regarding the destructive energies of evil.”[21]

Thus, with a strong understanding and spirituality that Christ is truly “in, with and under” our creation we can be better poised to introduce a “radical continuity” in our own minds and lives and in the minds and lives of others. Amen.

[1] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” New York: Three Rivers, 1999, 4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.,5.

[4] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 60.

[5] Ibid.,44.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Consumpopculture.com, “Ann Coulter,” consumpopculture.com, accessed May 11,2017, http://www.consumepopculture.com/ann-coulter/

[8] Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond,” Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010, 22.

[9] Ibid.,19.

[10] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 45.

[11] Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

[12] Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond,” 30.

[13] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 54.

[14] Luke 12:22-34.

[15] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 55.

[16] Mark 10:17-31.

[17] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 37.

[18] Luke 11: 1-13, 12:4-7.

[19] Thomas Berry, “The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future,” 61.

[20] John1: 1a, 3a.

[21] John Philip Newell, “Christ Of The Celts: The Healing of Creation,” San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2008,  xi.

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