Wendell Berry, the Christian Soul, and Creation Care

Who cares more about protecting the Creation: evangelical Christians, or secular agnostics?

Courtesy Ruth Wheeler

Courtesy Ruth Wheeler

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.

10 thoughts on “Wendell Berry, the Christian Soul, and Creation Care

  1. Christ's Slave

    I am curious as to what behaviors would implicate a person in this sort of blasphemy. It would seem from your writing that fracking, strip mining and cheering on tar sands is a blasphemy. If this is true, would not a person be guilty of blasphemy if they were to use the products of these industry’s? It seems you are particularly concerned with coal use, but what of the other fuels that the me first consumerist use? Is it blasphemous to use these products as well, and if so, as properly reverent followers of Christ, would it not be our first priority to not blaspheme the Holy One and immediately end the behavior that would incur such profound guilt upon us. It would seem that if we tell others that their behavior is blasphemous and yet we participate in it a some other level, we are not only blasphemers but also hypocrites. In other words, cooking or heating, with natural gas, coal or propane, driving, using a lap top, using electricity in any form (as any form of electricity is somehow produced by underground fuel, even solar panels). If we truly take your words to their fullness, it seems it must lead to a preindustrial revolution way of life, and every second we do not embrace this lifestyle or something similar to it, we stand in the very serious sin of ongoing blasphemy. The Bible admonishes Christians in Hebrews 10,
    26 Dear friends, if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins. 27 There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume his enemies. 28 For anyone who refused to obey the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Just think how much worse the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us. 30 For we know the one who said,

    “I will take revenge.
    I will pay them back.”[h]
    He also said,

    “The Lord will judge his own people.”[i]
    31 It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

    Is this a logical and reverent viewpoint?

    1. John Elwood Post author

      Hello “Christ’s Slave.” I have introduced the idea of blasphemy – of dealing improperly with that which is holy – or at least, I have repeated Wendell Berry’s use of the concept. So it falls to me to defend it.
      There are lots of reasons to value the Creation. But only for religious people do those reasons include the honoring or desecration of that which is holy. That is the nub of Berry’s argument. And indeed, the Creation is holy, as Christians of every stripe recognize. And therefore, its destruction, its misuse, its overconsumption to the detriment of other people and creatures – these things are often unjust, unwise, and unsustainable; but to Christians, they are also an affront to the Creator who specifically declares his ownership and love for it, and appointed mankind to act as his agent in tending and keeping it. As such, words like “desecration” or ‘blasphemy” are not simply inflammatory polemics, but an accurate description of how Christians see the abuse of the gifts and possessions of God.
      That is the substance, from beginning to end, of what I have proposed. Now, I have also mentioned evangelical politicians and their curious opposition to environmental protections. I have not specifically stated that every one of the positions I’ve mentioned are, in fact, contrary to God’s command to protect his Creation, but I can see why you might make that leap. But you have employed a debating tactic that I have seen repeatedly in the creation-care debate – a tactic that takes any argument calling for measured improvements in treatment of the Earth, and extends those to their absolute extremes. It goes something like this: You say CO2 is a greenhouse gas; that greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing and heating the Earth; breathing also emits greenhouse gases; therefore you’re a hypocrite if you don’t stop breathing. These tactics have a way of ending serious discourse, which seems to be the intention in most cases.
      I suspect we can agree that the Earth is groaning today under the weight of environmental degradation. Virtually no Christian from the developing world would dispute this assertion. The oceans have become 30 percent more acidic than they were a few decades ago; river systems everywhere are under enormous strain from pollution, drought and seasonal flooding; tropical agriculture systems are reeling from profound climatic challenges; species extinctions are running hundreds of times faster than normal “background” extinction rates; coastal ecosystems and communities are facing threats from rising sea levels and intense storm activity; entire countries have voiced doubts about their viability under the weight of these stresses, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Honduras and much of Micronesia.
      Against this backdrop, people of goodwill will likely ask: What should we do? Some will note that on average, humans emit 4.3 tons of CO2 per capita every year, and will acknowledge that this needs to come down. If they are Americans, they will face the fact that they emit, on average, 17.2 tons, four times the global average. They will likely recognize that serious movement is necessary to mitigate the damage that we are currently inflicting on the Earth, and on others around us.
      But they probably won’t leap to the conclusion that unless they can promptly go all the way to zero, it’s hypocritical to attempt to do anything at all, and simply perpetuate the damage our nation is inflicting on everyone else, now and in the future. If they do, others will be justified in asking if they are simply shutting their eyes to the suffering of people and creatures all over the Earth – people and creatures who are holy, because they possess the breath of God.

  2. Christ's Slave

    Thank you for your reply and not ending the discussion. The mystery remains, either an action is blasphemous or it is not. If an action is not spelled out in law then must be principally derived from law. In order to blaspheme, a law must be broken whether by an action or thought as Jesus reveals. The question seems to be how much c02 can we personally lawfully emit without blaspheming a Holy God? We know for a certainty that breathing is acceptable and it would appear that in the “garden” the first humans emitted co2 in no other way. That being said, if we are not sure of the answer as to how much co2 can we emit , we unknowingly could be trespassing in ignorance which does not invalidate our guilt. If this is logical thought we must ask, is it lawful to mine and use underground fuel knowing that this will profoundly increase co2 emissions? Would you say that underground fuel is a substance that may not be touched, mined and used without offending a Holy God or would you say that it can be done but must be done in a better way? Blasphemy is a very serious charge.

    1. John Elwood Post author

      Christ’s Slave: It seem as though you sincerely want to explore the legal question regarding precisely what constitutes desecration of that which is holy. Not something I do a lot, but I’m willing. But honest conversations call for an introduction. I’m John Elwood, father of three, grandfather of two, owner of a produce farm in New Jersey, and Presbyterian elder. I serve with Evangelical Environmental Network, and write hundreds of times for Beloved Planet. Everyone knows what I think about faith, science, and justice.

      Maybe you could tell us who you are as well?

  3. Christ's Slave

    Living in a world where power gets abused regularly, I respectfully am not inclined to release any further information.

    1. John Elwood Post author

      “Christ’s Slave” — I am so sorry to hear that. Before you go, I should tell you that I believe that, in fact, Christ has no slaves. That reality is very near to the heart of the gospel, as I understand it in the core narratives of Romans 8, Galatians 4 and Hebrews 2. But it does not surprise me to hear that one who gives himself (herself?) that online moniker wants to know the precise regulations regarding the specific thresholds for sins. I wish you well, a spirit of sonship, and God’s peace.

  4. Swoop (@Swoop85)

    The great commission that Christians are to fulfill is to make disciples of all nations – I don’t see why conservation should trump that. The earth, the spectacularly complex beautiful creation of God that it is, has only been around for 6,000 years and it will not be around much longer. Christ promised that he will return and engulf the entire planet in flames (2 Peter 3:10-13). Don’t get me wrong – we should not be polluting our air and water unnecessarily – but if Christ is our example, we should be spending our limited days spreading the gospel instead of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  5. Pingback: Resources on Creation Care - Coracle

Leave a Reply