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The Cardus Daily

Wendell Berry: Seeing the Earth as Sacrament

Doug Sikkema  |  October 11, 2013  |  Discipline, Environment, Justice, Religion

In the Christian community in which I grew up, the common approach to the environmental movement was to see everyone involved in it as a left-wing, tree-hugging, pot-smoking, nature-worshipping, hippie wannabe. While I’m sure some of these modifiers have been warranted at times, such disingenuous and uncharitable cynicism failed—and fails—to entertain how Christianity might speak to such an important issue as to how we are to best work within a natural world of which we are a part.

Yet it would be years that I was first introduced to a writer who undertook the task of clearly articulating how a love of the creation could inform and be informed by a love of the creation and its Creator. This Kentucky farmer and man of letters, Wendell Berry, made real for me the complex interplay of religion, literature, and agriculture in informing a holistic way of life—in other words, towards shalom.

Of course, the Christian religion has been “at the table” with the environmentalist movement for years, although it has not always been a welcome guest. In his paradigm-shifting essay “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” Lynn White Jr. argued that ecology is “deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion.” Despite the burden of guilt he places upon the Judeo-Christian heresy of progress, White maintained that “since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.” White’s challenge was, and is, to rethink our axioms without abandoning religion, specifically Christianity. But if, as so many believe, Western science and technology have grown out of the Genesis mandate to “have dominion”, “subdue”, and “conquer” the creation, an appeal to Christianity for a remedy might seem both unlikely and absurd.

Instead of starting with Christianity, perhaps we should first ask: what do we mean by religion?

Religion is an elusive term. Bron Taylor, author of The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, has traced the term’s origins to Roman rituals (religio) and sacrifices (sacra), and to the Latin leig, meaning “to bind fast”—definitions which place religion in opposition to mystical beliefs (superstitio). If religion, then, is concerned with unifying actions as well as unifying beliefs, it coincides nicely with Berry’s notion of caritas, a love that extends to creatures and the land. Also, this love is not meant to be abstract, but particularly applied to actual places and creatures within our purview.

The postwar Christian revival, growing alongside the environmental movement, has often focused on humanity’s role as stewards in God’s creation or remained silent when confronted with allegations like White’s. Berry believes “many are guilty of an extremely unintelligent misreading of Genesis 1:28″ in their endorsement that the cultural mandate is simply a license to do what we will with the earth. Berry laments how organized Christianity has made peace with such an economy, often at the expense of honouring the earth.

Yet Berry’s estrangement from the organized church, which is problematic, does not inhibit his belief that the Bible, read deeply and sympathetically, gives powerful support to appreciating the world’s sanctity. One of Berry’s strengths in this regard is to go beyond the conventional discussions of stewardship towards a sacramental vision of the environment. In “The Gift of Good Land” he writes: “[T]o live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully reverently, it is a sacrament.” Berry is not asking us to run from use, but to exercise discretion and self-restraint and to recognize the necessary limitations we face as creatures in a fallen world.

Next week on the blog I hope to unpack this idea of the “sacramental earth” more fully.



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