Who cares more about protecting the Creation: evangelical Christians, or secular agnostics?
To most of my friends engaged in conservation or environmental justice, the answer seems obvious. “Don’t you know,” they ask me, “that evangelicals are the main supporters of those working to muzzle the EPA and gut the rules governing the most toxic power plants? Aren’t they the ones always questioning the global consensus on climate change, and cheering on the tar sands, strip miners and frackers?”
Well, I wish I had a better answer, because it’s not so easy to dispute the charges. And yet, I’ve noticed something perplexing. Even though my secular friends are much more likely to accept the findings of environmental science, precious few of them show much interest in the hard lifestyle choices that will be necessary to prevent the collapse of global ecosystems. Granted, they know that exploitation and abuse of the Creation is stupid. But stupid isn’t enough. Sure, stupid will win debates. But knowing what’s stupid hasn’t done much to transform a global culture built upon me-first consumerism.
And it’s here that the gospel offers hope that’s almost certainly beyond the capacity of secular thought. That’s because the Creation desperately needs a community of people who know that abuse of the Creation is much worse than stupid. This is the time for a community with a deep awareness that abuse of what God has made is actual blasphemy – a desecration of the holy gifts of a just and sovereign God, hurling the work of the Creator back into his glorious face. Those are the people with the compelling passion – fueled by numinous awe – to restore the possessions and inheritance of their Redeemer.
But where are they, you ask? Well, unfortunately, you won’t find many in American evangelical churches. Not that this makes much sense. The Bible that we evangelicals presume to embrace affirms God’s love for all of his Creation; it declares that all of it is good; that it belongs to God, not mankind; that God linked himself forever to it by taking on the dust of Earth in the incarnation; and that now, the purpose of his kingdom is the renewal and reconciliation of every single thing.
You’d think that people who embraced that Book would be all over Creation care. But it’s taking us some time to exorcise a particularly corrosive heresy that undermines much of what scripture commands regarding the physical world and the common good. Once again, it’s the corrupting influence of dualism – that insidious notion that we humans are some uncomfortable marriage of “body” and “soul,” each one vying for supremacy, each one offering us a choice between lofty “things above” and contemptible “things on Earth.”
The Christian poet Wendell Berry speaks persuasively into the culture of dualism, in both its religious and secular varieties. In recent weeks, we’ve given you samplings (here, and here) from his collection of essays, The Art of the Commonplace. There’s plenty here for people of every persuasion. But from my perspective, as a devoted member of this particular tribe, it’s evangelicals who have the most to gain from his prophetic voice. And once they do, I suspect the world will never be the same.
Wendell Berry on Dualism v. Love of the Creation
We can see how easy it is to fall into the dualism of body and soul when talking about the inescapable worldly dualities of good and evil or time and eternity. And we can see how easy it is when Jesus asks – “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – to assume that he is condemning the world and appreciating the disembodied soul.
But if we give to “soul” here the sense that it has in Genesis 2:7 (i.e. that the human soul is a singular unification of the “dust” of the Earth and the “breath” of God), we see that he is doing no such thing. He is warning that in pursuit of so-called material possessions, we can lose our understanding of ourselves as “living souls” – that is, as creatures of God, members of the holy communion of Creation. We can lose the possibility of the atonement of that membership. For we are free, if we choose, to make a duality of our one living soul by disowning the breath of God that is our fundamental bond with one another and with other creatures.
But we can make the same duality by disowning the dust. The breath of God is only one of the divine gifts that make us living souls; the other is the dust. Most of our modern troubles come from our misunderstanding and misvaluation of this dust. Forgetting that the dust, too, is a creature of the Creator, made by the sending forth of His spirit, we have presumed to decide that the dust is “low.” We have presumed to say that we are made of two parts: a body and a soul, the body being “low” because made of dust, and the soul “high.” By thus valuing these two supposed-to-be parts, we inevitably throw them into competition with each other, like two corporations.
The “spiritual” view of course, has been that the body, in Yeats’ phrase, must be “bruised to pleasure soul.” And the “secular” version of the same dualism has been that the body, along with the rest of the “material” world, must give way before the advance of the human mind.
The dominant religious view for a long time, has been that the body is a kind of a scrip issued by the Great Company Store in the Sky, which can be cashed in to redeem the soul but is otherwise worthless. And the predictable result has been a human creature able to appreciate or tolerate only the “spiritual” (or mental) part of Creation and full of semiconscious hatred of the “physical” or “natural” part, which it is ready and willing to destroy for “salvation,” for profit, for “victory,” or for fun. This madness constitutes the norm of modern humanity and of modern Christianity.
But to despise the body or mistreat it for the sake of the “soul” is not just to burn one’s house for the insurance, nor is it just self-hatred of the most deep and dangerous sort. It is yet another blasphemy. It is to make nothing – and worse than nothing – of the great Something in which we live and move and have our being.
When we hate and abuse the body and its earthly life and joy for Heaven’s sake, what do we expect? That out of this life that we have presumed to despise and the world that we have presumed to destroy, we would somehow salvage a soul capable of eternal bliss? And what do we expect when with equal and opposite ingratitude, we try to make the finite body an infinite reservoir of dispirited and meaningless pleasures?
Times may come, of course, when the life of the body must be denied or sacrificed; times when the whole world must literally be lost for the sake of one’s life as a “living soul.” But such sacrifice, by people who truly respect and revere the life of the earth and its Creator, does not denounce or degrade the body but rather exalts it and acknowledges its holiness. Such sacrifice is a refusal to allow the body to serve what is unworthy of it.