Tag Archives: dualism

Wishing You an Earthy, Genuine, Physical Christmas

Yesterday afternoon was our annual “Messiah Sing” event. Our church’s charming white clapboard sanctuary was festooned with Christmas greenery. Last night’s snow still hung heavily on the Norway spruce trees. The hillside gleamed white through the ancient glass panes. Singers representing every age and talent level squeezed themselves into the creaky pews, designed for a generation of congregants of lesser girth.

As one of only two basses at that particular moment, I had just finished butchering the usually glorious chorus “Let all the angels of God worship Him.” As usual, I muttered my apologies to those nearby who had shown regrettable judgment in their seat selection, and slumped back to recover and take in the lovely alto solo:

“I know that my redeemer liveth…” she sang, “…and that He shall stand on the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God…. For now is Christ risen from the dead … the first-fruits of them that sleep.”

It’s Christmas time.

Community Messiah sing at Knowlton Presbyterian Church

Community Messiah sing at Knowlton Presbyterian Church

Hmm. “For now is Christ risen.” Christmas? Why are we singing about the Resurrection at Christmas time? In fairness, I don’t think that Handel ever claimed that The Messiah was a Christmas cantata. But to 21st century religious ears, it’s the physical nature of everything – whether incarnation, resurrection, or the renewal of all things – that stands out in Handel’s score.

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name EMMANUEL, God with us.”

It’s pretty earthy stuff. Virgins conceiving, the eyes of the blind being opened, valleys being exalted, and mountains made low. Christ is risen bodily from the dead. And yes, worm-eaten bodies are seeing God as they somehow stand in his presence in the flesh.

Something tells me this score wouldn’t have made it in our day. We are spiritual people; or we are material people. Either we inhabit the world of science and earthy matter; or we dwell in the realm of ideas, heaven and spirits. The dualism of our age gives us this awful choice: This world? Or the next?

I think that’s one reason why so few contemporary religious people ever bother to think seriously about stewardship of the Creation – wetlands and forests, amphibians and invertebrates. We tend to run with the “spiritual” types, and really, what does the fate of a species of butterfly or toad matter in “the land to which we’re bound?”

But if you’re prone to this kind of thinking, don’t count Handel and his Reformation contemporaries in your fellowship. For them, the kingdom of Heaven and the created Earth don’t come apart so easily. Handel’s Redeemer is born in a barn, and cradled in a feeding trough; he promises to stand on his feet upon the Earth on the latter day. And what God did in raising Him from the dead on Easter is exactly what He plans to do for the whole Creation: the risen Christ is “the first-fruits of them that sleep.”

And what, then, follows the first-fruits in this harvest? Why, all the rest, of course. “Behold, I am making everything new,” he declares in the Revelation to St. John. And “everything” means just what you think it means: Everything. Things in heaven and on Earth; things that are visible, like soil or birds or spruce trees; or things that are invisible, like ideas, and music, and spirits.

And if that’s His plan for everything at “the latter day,” what do we think He is doing in the meantime? When we pray daily for the coming of his kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven,” does it occur to us that we’re praying now to share in the renewal of everything, which He promises?

And here’s the good news: you’re included in this deal – every aspect of you. Because, as the alto sang, in your flesh, you shall see God. Even though you and I are subject to decay – “though worms destroy this body” – in your physical body, you will join all the renewed Creation in looking upon the glory of the Creator in a renewed Earth.

But in case you’re feeling all cozy at this prospect, please remember: This deal isn’t only for you. The whole Creation is groaning for the same bargain we think we’re getting. In her article “The Dominion of Love” in The Green Bible, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it neatly:

If they are here, God made them, and if God made them, God loves them… We humans do not get to make distinctions…. We are here to preside over the dominion of love. Made in the divine image, we are here to love as God loves. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Wait, wait, wait a minute. How does that work? Well, you know how it feels under the shadow of those wings, right? Perfect. So move over. Make room, because there is a whole Creation seeking refuge, and you, you are the spitting image of the One who gives life to all.

From Beloved Planet, we wish you an earthy, physical, genuine Christmas. A baby is born into poverty. His parents narrowly escape genocide, and become immigrants and exiles. He will return to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, and release to the oppressed. And He will proclaim: “I am making everything new!”

Merry Christmas! And congratulations! You’re part of the plan.

J. Elwood


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.

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American Christianity and the Rape of Creation

It’s the cruelest mystery that evangelical earth-keepers labor to explain.

How can it be that people who have been redeemed by the grace of the Creator have so little quarrel with the forces actively plundering and destroying his Creation? Indeed, how can it be that so much of the American church is firmly allied with those forces, who routinely dismiss the warnings of learned people regarding unprecedented ocean acidification, rapid sea-level rise, runaway species extinction and unjust impacts of manmade climate change?

We ourselves keep asking the question, but we struggle for credible answers as we contemplate the implications for our faith community – both now, and at some future reckoning.

Last week, we walked with the poet Wendell Berry through some surprising teachings of the Bible regarding the nature of the Creation and our place in it as image-bearers of God. We heard, among other things, a narrative about John 3:16, the verse loved by Christians everywhere – that the incarnation and saving work of Christ was made possible only by God’s love for the world, not God’s love for Heaven or for the world as it might be but for the world as it was and is; that the words “God so loved the world” force us to confront the lovability of everything He made, despite its corruption by us; and that our destruction of nature is thus worse than stupidity or poor stewardship – it is “the most horrid blasphemy.”

Now, we also hear Berry echoing our dismay that so few American Christians exhibit meaningful interest in conserving our God’s beloved Creation:

“The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world. We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not. Nobody, of course, knows this all the time. But what keeps it from being far better known than it is? Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible? How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?” (The Art of the Commonplace, pp. 310-311)

Personally, I’ll admit to posing this sort of question myself, mainly as a rant, usually not really looking for an answer. What’s the matter with you people!? How can you embrace and defend the consumerist idolatry that undermines mankind’s first God-given task – to tend and keep the Creation? Or even, how can you look the other way, and offer mere platitudes about “stewardship” while distant populations suffer from failed crops and storm-ravaged communities?

But Berry does not rant, and for now, neither will I. Because there is a heresy at work here that infects most – perhaps all – of us Christians, to varying degrees. And it’s almost certainly at the root of much of the problem. Yes, Christians, more than anyone, have reason to affirm our role as “keepers” in God’s garden, as tenants in His vineyard. Even more, if we looked, we would be amazed at the core gospel narrative – that God loved his world so much that he became physically part of it to reconcile the whole thing to himself. All things. Nothing excluded.

More or less, we Christians do believe this. But it’s clear that we also believe – whatever we profess in our better moments – something deeply corrosive to biblical faith. It’s sometimes called dualism. And dualism shows up all over our hymns, our sermons, and our casual speech.

We sing of Christ coming to “take me home” to a disembodied spirit-world, or of the things of earth growing “strangely dim;” we tell our bereaved friends that their loved ones are “in a better place” as we continue in this material world; we come together from our offices, factories and farms into “the house of the Lord;” our pastors engage in “ministry” while we labor in worldly jobs; and we rise early for our “time with God” before heading off to our secular day’s work. These, and a thousand other hallmarks of our daily living, signal to us how neatly divided our religious minds have become: heaven there v. earth here; God’s house v. our secular workplaces; “kingdom work” v. our daily tasks; and holy souls v. tainted bodies.

Picture1We were supposed to have gotten over this dualism ages ago. The earliest Christians had to deal with the Platonic dualistic notion that the realm of ideas was exalted, but the physical creation was base. It gave rise to the Gnostic heresy that denied the actual incarnation: it was unthinkable that a holy God could become tainted by becoming actual earthy, smelly stuff. Christ may have looked human, but it was actually some clever divine trick.  Continue reading